"I FEEL CENTERED," Donna Giddings said.
"It was tear-jerking," she said.
For once, the tears were not from grief, but from relief: The muscle tension that has been steadily building in Giddings' neck and shoulders since her mother and son were killed during a triple slaying inside her mother's home in February 2005 suddenly softened.
It felt so good, so liberating to let go of that tension, that Giddings began to cry.
"My neck was so tight until I got here," she said.
Giddings and seven other members of the anti-violence group Mothers in Charge experienced that emotional and physical release Saturday, during a special yoga class, "Stretching Beyond the Pain of Grief," held in their honor at Yoga Schelter, in East Falls.
The class was a Mother's Day gift to them from Yoga Unites, a nonprofit organization that uses yoga for healing.
I am the co-founder and president of Yoga Unites. I also was their yoga teacher.
It was quite a role reversal: For nearly six years I had been sitting in front of them - not cross-legged on a mat, leading them through "Ujjayi" breath - but stiffly perched above a notebook, reporting on the agonizing details of their children's murder trials.
As the Daily News' city court reporter, I covered the first-degree murder conviction of the man who killed Giddings' mother, Willie Mae Alston, 67; her son Andre Giddings, 20; and Andre's friend, Kenneth Best, 17. During that trial, I heard Giddings say, in a brilliant and moving speech, how much those murders had rocked her world.
"When I saw the [crime-scene] photos . . . I thought, how could somebody be that cruel to kill an old lady?" Giddings asked in court in October 2006.
"Then I looked at my son, and I never experienced anything like it," she said. "When I saw that bullet hole in the back of his head, I saw my life rewind. I saw myself carrying him, delivering him, the joy I had the day he was born."
During that case I had a long talk with Giddings. I didn't take any notes, didn't cache quotes away for a future story. Didn't even try to pry information out of her.
This talk was not about journalism - it was about grief. And about yoga.
I confessed to Giddings that my secret desire was to stop writing about the stifling sadness of mothers like her and start helping. I told her that I wanted to retire from the newspaper business to become a full-time yoga teacher to help people overcome physical and emotional pain.
She told me that if I ever taught a class for mothers of murder victims, she'd come.
So did Renee McDonald, whose nephew was killed; and Michelle Kerr Spry, whose son, an innocent bystander, was slain in a drive-by; and Esther Speight, whose pregnant daughter was murdered.
Also rolling out a mat was Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the founder of Mothers in Charge. Johnson-Speight formed the activist group of mothers after her 24-year-old son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, was shot to death over a parking space in 2001.
In addition to creating anti-violence programs and organizing demonstrations, Mothers in Charge also provides support and counseling to those whose lives have been impacted by violence.
In this city, that's a lot of people. Carrying the weight of all that grief has burdened Johnson-Speight's own neck, shoulders, back and spirit.
She said Saturday's class helped ease much of that tension and sadness. She's committed to keeping up with a yoga practice.
"It always makes me feel so much better," she said.
In addition to its physical benefits, a regular yoga practice can ease anxiety, lift depression, quiet the mind and battle the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, scientific studies have shown.
Armed with this knowledge and the personal benefits we've felt in our own lives, my yoga partner and I are trying to bring this healing practice to a wider audience than we regularly reach at our East Falls studio.
Jennifer Schelter, founder and creative director of Yoga Schelter, actually began that work years ago, in December 2001, when she organized a Yoga Unites class to benefit the Anti-Violence Partnership. She then brought the idea of activist yoga to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a national education and support organization, to create and teach the annual large-group class on the Art Museum steps.
This year's Yoga Unites for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, on May 20, is expected to draw more than 500 participants.
Just before I left the Daily News in January, I formalized Schelter's idea by turning Yoga Unites into an official nonprofit corporation designed to teach yoga for healing and to raise awareness of health, social and environmental causes.
Teaching the Mothers in Charge group was at the top of my list.
Finally, here I was, leading them through strengthening "warrior poses" and calming forward bends, helping them lean into lunges, wind into spinal twists and release into the final rest pose.
A few of them seemed a bit skeptical - either of yoga or of the hope that anything could ease their pain. But by the end of class, their faces - the same faces I used to see in court, contorted with pain and tormented by nightmares - stared back at me with easy, soft smiles.
Their shoulders had relaxed. The furrows between their brows had softened. A darkness had lifted.
"I even felt so at peace," Giddings said. *
For information on Yoga Unites, write to Theresa@TheresaConroy.com.