This is an interview with Michael Lear, whom I met at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute last May. I learned that we both had former lives in international development. Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in finance, Michael had some serious health issues, and discovered The Trager Approach, which had a dramatic impact on both his approach to life and to back pain. Eventually Trager led him to biofeedback, floatation tank therapy, yoga, and Vipassana meditation. He has been a certified Trager Practitioner (therapeutic movement education and mindfulness practitioner/bodyworker) for 24 years, a yoga practitioner for 23 years and a yoga teacher for 15 years, with a primary focus of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore style. In addition, Michael is active with Shanthi Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit which offers trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes to many underserved and at-risk populations suffering from trauma, as well as classes at area schools. Michael works primarily in the Northampton County Prison and Juvenile Justice Center in Easton, PA.
Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
A serendipitous trip to Cambodian rehabilitation centers while backpacking in 1998 stirred in me an intention to give back via relief work. My original idea was to introduce Trager for addressing phantom limb pain of land mine victims, and to treat children with polio. After the 2004 tsunami I let go of my yoga studio, and went to Sri Lanka where I found Navajeevna Rehabilitation Center (an NGO that works to rehabilitate people with disabilities). Through 2008, I visited each year to conduct trainings for its physical therapists in Trager essentials, to enhance their treatment protocols. Eventually I was offered a position with the nonprofit Real Medicine Foundation (RMF), becoming its Director of International Relations until early 2010. With RMF, in addition to being country Director for Sri Lanka and Sudan, I was involved in a number of primary health care projects in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Armenia, and was first on the ground after the Haiti earthquake. The schedule was demanding, and Ashtanga Yoga and Vipassana meditation were vital practices that kept me on point, and helped to diffuse the vicarious trauma you can experience in such circumstances.
The motivation to serve is an extension of gratitude for my teachers and the desire to help others experience similar benefits. In the context of teaching, not a class goes by that I’m not learning/ growing. If I’m saying it aloud to anyone, it is still for me to hear. Students show up in very earnestly (especially those in prison), and with a courage that is admirable. At the end of class I take inventory of what was said and this becomes my ‘to do’ list. Needless to say, the list is always meaningful.
Is there a standout moment from your work with Shanthi Project, or specific population?
At this juncture, for Shanthi Project every class has standout moments. The classes are deeply transformative and rewarding across the board. In terms of having my envelope pushed, being on the ground in Dominican Republic and Haiti just after the earthquake, and working in South Sudan to establish the Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery towards the end of its peace agreement are quite memorable.
What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?
Before I began teaching those who are incarcerated, I knew little about what was unique to them. I had worked with traumatized populations through relief work (refugees, disaster victims, etc.), and in my bodywork practice I had worked with a few survivors of incest and rape. I was to learn that they all share a trauma experience. In the prison classes, I have met only genuinely kind, considerate participants. They show up in earnest, with a sincere desire to find a way to improve their lives.
What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?
In a studio setting, I teach primarily Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, which affords an opportunity for more one-on-one dialogue with each student; and this minimizes assumptions.
In a trauma-informed yoga setting, using language that invites participation, and giving students a choice on how they would like to participate, are essential to facilitating a therapeutic experience. Nothing is assumed — the class is on their terms. The environments are not always conducive to relaxation. Modeling equanimity in often-uncontrollable circumstances becomes the main tool for guiding students towards a relaxed and peaceful state.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
The greatest challenge in all teaching experiences, I believe, is for the teacher to motivate the student to learn, and to assure the student that all efforts represent progress; and to make every effort to adapt to the students’ learning styles. Using mindfulness to remain free of trigger references and leveraging Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication protocols have been invaluable tools.
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?
My advice is that they go forth with enthusiasm to help those whom society so often deems unworthy of such assistance. The safety and success of the students is priority number one, so the flexibility and equanimity of the teacher is of prime importance in the often-complex circumstances within a prison. Anyone who is going to teach would do well to become informed of the psychological underpinnings of PTSD, and to become acquainted with communication approaches such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication method.
Additionally, teachers should have well-established self-care practices (strong personal practices), have a sound support system, and know his or her boundaries.
Trust in your volition to serve — be authentic. If you’re true to your practices and commitment, your presence will speak volumes to the populations you serve. They’ll know you are there to help them the minute you walk into the room.
What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?
I hope that yoga service as a separate and distinct practice becomes our collective social way of being — how we treat one another — under all circumstances. This means treating others with compassion, understanding, respect, love, and dignity. I hope that that future generations are taught from the start how to live well in a human body, cultivate a focused and discerning mind. And a compassionate heart.
Are you interested in sharing trauma-informed practices with at-risk populations? Join an upcoming Prison Yoga Project training to learn how you can effectively share tools for transformation.