In the basement of an apartment building in the Dixon and Islington neighbourhood, 30 young Somali girls are standing on yoga mats, arms spread out in a warrior stance, looking determined, if a little bit shaky.
“Chattarangah, Upward dog, downward dog!” they say in unison as their Yogi, Corporate Communications Constable Jeniffer Sidhu, leads them. On either side of Sidhu are Constables Ramandeep Sandhu and Sylwia Swider – both part of 23 Division’s Somali Liaison Unit.
The power-yoga Vinyasa classes are an effort by the Somali Liaison Unit to interact with girls from the community and help them gain confidence as well gets some exercise.
The free classes are funded by a grant by ProAction Cops and Kids, started in November of 2014 and will go on for a year. Only six girls turned up for the first class. Four months into the program and the classes are at full capacity with 35 people – children and often their mothers and grandmothers, too.
The girls come from all areas of the Dixon community with their friends, neighbours and mothers. They run down the stairs of a dimly lit basement and into a storage room full of yoga mats. Some bicker over which yoga mat they used in the last class, while others nudge their mats closer to Sidhu so they can be in front of the class.
“Can you play Sam Smith today?” asks one young girl, “my hijab is the wrong colour,” says another “I don’t want to sit next to her,” says another one – but pre-teen tensions are soon cast aside as Sidhu lights some candles and claps her hands to bring the class to attention.
“Ignite the fire within,” calls out Sidhu, as she begins the warm-up. Soon the class is silent, engrossed in their poses, the only sound is of the Yogi’s instructions. Occasionally there are interruptions, mostly of protest at being unable to get a pose right and asking an officer for assistance.
“It’s great…to teach young girls the power of connecting mind, body and breath,” says Sidhu, who says every week the classes get better and better. “The girls, their enthusiasm grows every week as they see themselves getting stronger,” she says.
“I like it a lot, it makes you feel fresh and you start thinking about your body,” says 15-year-old Fama, who has only missed one class since the program started. “It’s kind of odd working with police officers but now it’s nice.”
Exercise and positive interactions are two ways to make inroads with the Somali community and the yoga program has done just that. While the classes were meant for young girls, the large numbers of mothers and grandmothers showing up is a reflection of the growing trust between the three female officers and the women from the community.
“For some of them, it is the only physical exercise they get…and it is great for officers to interact with them by working out while mentoring at the same time,” says Sidhu.
“This is awesome for the community, bringing younger girls and older women involved… it makes us active,” says Buchra Moustavih, who attends the classes with her two daughters, her sister and her mother. She says it is nice to see the police officers around because it gives a sense of safety in the community too.
For 10-year-old Marwa, the classes are nice, if a little tough on the body.
“The first time my stomach hurt for days,” says the young girl as she gets ready to start the class.
The classes are held every Wednesday and will continue till November 2015.