Solutions: A nonprofit’s teaching yoga to help HIV-positive people stay healthier

Program uses exercise-based therapy and classes to increase self-esteem and reduce stress.

Credit: Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News

Credit: Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News

What you need to know

A nonprofit in Dallas uses yoga as part of its efforts to holistically treat the “whole” person. While not a replacement for traditional medical care and medications, therapies like yoga and fitness classes can reduce stress and promote heart health, among other things. They can also help people to feel less “sick” and more in control of their lives. The overall goal is to have a positive effect on the health of participants.

Aileene Williams had seen yoga on TV and heard her friends sing its praises. But when she attended her first class at Abounding Prosperity, she didn’t know what to expect.

When she lay back on the mat, breathing in and out, she felt relief.

“It was like a whole load lifted up off of me,” said Williams, 64.

Williams, who lives with HIV, takes medication daily that keeps the virus from multiplying and reduces viral levels in the body to such small amounts that they become undetectable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This medication, called antiretroviral therapy, can also prevent transmission of the virus during sexual activity.

Daily medication and regular doctors’ visits can make people living with HIV feel stuck in a “sick” mindset, said Dr. Steven Klemow, medical director of the Kind Clinic in Dallas. Dallas nonprofit Abounding Prosperity wants to change that by treating the whole person, not just the diagnosis.

While not a replacement for medication, therapies like yoga and fitness classes can reduce stress and promote heart health, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. They also provide community for people living with HIV. Just ask Williams, who attends the free classes twice a week.

“[I] let my hair down, and feel the tension relieve,” she said.

In Dallas County in 2020, 962 out of every 100,000 people reported living with HIV, almost triple the national rate of 382 out of every 100,000, according to online mapping tool AidsVu.

Black people made up 13% of the United States population in 2019, but constituted 42% of new HIV diagnoses, according to the CDC.

Fighting ‘HIV fatigue’

Abounding Prosperity was founded in 2005 to address social and health disparities affecting Black people in Dallas County. Like many HIV-advocacy groups in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, it offers free screening for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, access to antiretroviral therapy and access to PrEP, a drug that can reduce the chance of getting HIV from sex by about 99%, according to the CDC.

The organization also offers job training, makeup tutorials and exercise classes with the goal of combating “HIV fatigue.” This was a priority for the organization’s founder and former CEO, Kirk Myers-Hill, who died in April.

“If you’re a gay man, you’ve been hearing about HIV for 30 years, if you’ve been around that long,” Myers-Hill said in an interview before his passing. “Constantly being bombarded about testing and that sort of thing can help continue [the] stigma as well, because that’s reducing people to just a disease state.”

Most of Abounding Prosperity’s clients are underinsured or live below the poverty line, said the organization’s current CEO Tamara Stephney. She said the free yoga classes allow participants to feel empowerment and stress relief that they may not otherwise be able to afford.

The classes at Abounding Prosperity target both mind and body. A long stretch to release muscle tension becomes a release of anger and resentment.

“When people know that their body is connected to their thoughts, they take more responsibility for their outcome, their situation,” said Sandy Young. Young is the owner of Choose Again Yoga and teaches classes at Abounding Prosperity.

Williams said the classes create a safe space for community members like her to relax and connect with one another. Young agreed.

“The way that I teach, it kind of makes them feel comfortable being here, because this group is not welcomed everywhere,” Young said. “So I want them to feel welcome, that yoga is for you.”

Feeling in control

When Klemow began working in HIV care in 2005, effective treatments for the virus had been around for less than a decade, and those treatments were more toxic and difficult to take than current medical therapies. Patients often turned to alternative treatments like herbs, massages, yoga and acupuncture to cope with the side effects and to supplement their prescribed medications.

Today, these alternative treatments serve another role: giving people with HIV the strength to feel in control of their lives.

“Things like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga classes, mindfulness … can redefine a person who’s living with HIV from living in a sick role, to living in one in which they do have self-efficacy,” Klemow said. “They are in charge of their own bodies and their own treatment plans.”

There is not much data to show how yoga and fitness classes benefit people living with HIV, Klemow said. To determine the success of these therapies, would scientists measure how long patients live, whether they keep taking their medication or something else?

The only way to measure success, Klemow said, would be to survey patients about their quality of life. A 2018 review of seven research papers, several of which measured quality of life, found that yoga decreased stress and anxiety for people living with HIV, but did not affect the progression of the disease.

Patients have told Klemow that therapies like yoga improve their self-esteem.

Such therapies, Klemow said, can reduce trauma associated with body image and shame, helping people living with HIV feel more comfortable with their bodies.

Antiretroviral therapy is the best way to treat HIV, Klemow emphasized. But he often asks patients if they are pursuing alternative therapies in addition to their medication. As long as the therapy isn’t harmful and doesn’t interfere with the medication, he allows them to continue doing it.

Williams has felt the benefits of alternative therapies first hand. The yoga classes at Abounding Prosperity, she said, have even helped her grow spiritually. She looks forward to attending each week.

“[I’m] able to lay down on the mat and just let everything go,” she said, “and just relax.”

Adithi Ramakrishnan is a science reporting fellow at The Dallas Morning News. This story is part of The News’ focus on solutions put forward to tackle big and small social problems. This evidence-based reporting explores challenges in Texas and looks for examples set by people trying to find answers that help.

About the Solutions Journalism Network

This story is republished through our partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.