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Damaris Maria Grossmann: From Battle Warrior To Peaceful Warrior

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This is an interview with Damaris Maria Grossmann, a Registered Nurse, yoga therapist, and wellness educator. I met her at the 2016 World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado, where she was invited to speak because she was “blessed to find yoga in 2006 when struggling with transitioning from the military of over 5 years in the US Navy during Global War on Terrorism.” She has vowed a life of nonviolence and to make the transition from battle warrior to peaceful warrior of the heart. She teaches veterans with the non-profit organization Team Red White and Blue, and has taught children in lower- income schools in Newark and Paterson, NJ, as well as at the Hackensack Cancer Center with the non-profit organization Kula for Karma. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers University, working on integrative health care for health professionals who want to lessen stress and burnout, and a Certified YogaNurse®.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I injured my back when I was in the Navy. The injury was the result of a traumatic and emotional situation that was out of my control. I found myself alone, depressed, and living my life in pain, anger, and full of post-traumatic stress. I was introduced to yoga as movement therapy, and I was so surprised it helped. Yoga helped save my life. In my darkest moments, I learned to see the light. My motivation is to teach yoga and integrative health practices to help facilitate others’ healing, now that yoga has helped me. Yoga is whole-body medicine, and should be a part of all medicine.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I feel rewarded when I see the way my students are able to relax and reset. I’m so thankful to see someone be successful who has struggled to relax. The mat is an opportunity for them to be in present time, and to let go in ways that help them find space to forgive themselves and others. The best part of teaching is watching the moment when a person learns the power of their breath as a way of healing and as a source of unconditional love.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

I’ve learned to be patient, and to listen to the answers within. My students also have helped me to understand the opportunity in the struggles we all face, and that we can find the best part of ourselves.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors facing the veterans you work with? In what ways does it not?

Most of the yoga classes offered in studios across the country may be inaccessible for veterans, either because the approach may be based on assumptions about the clientele that don’t apply to veterans, or simply because they are too expensive. I’m thankful to studios and non-profit organizations like Mindful Yoga Therapy and Kula for Karma that offer free classes for veterans.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

To me, the practice of mindfulness is not just about being aware of the present moment. We can use those moments to make a change in the world, because we become more mindful of the direction in which we would like our action to lead. Connecting with ourselves through mindfulness will bring both calm into our lives, and allows us to make positive change in the world.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach the veterans that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

When you teach veterans, take time to pause and observe your judgments about what they may have done in their work. Try to accept them where they are, and believe they are our best teachers. I suggest being mindful of your words, and of the transition poses. Be open and genuine, expressing any emotion, or none at all. The breath and quietness of yoga and meditation may be scary moments for veterans. Always reiterate they are here on the mat, in their breath and safe. Take the time to be aware of options and modifications of poses. Always let a group know that any amount or any pose is a beautiful pose; it’s about the time for them to listen within.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I believe yoga is a very important part of American healing! Most all of us suffer in some manner with pain or illness. My hope is that yoga will be available to all populations. Actually, one of my greatest passions is complete integrative health within hospitals, communities, and health clinics. Yoga is a way of facilitating healing for the mind-body and spirit. As a nurse veteran and yogi I have seen the impact it has had on my own health and well-being. I intend to promote yoga and wellness as a necessary part of healing in health care communities worldwide.

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Interested in helping veterans to find a calm body/mind? Learn more about Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans and join a teacher training near you.

Terri Cooper: Connection is the Cure

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TERRI COOPER IMAGE COURTESY OF DEREK KEARNEY PHOTOGRAPHY

This is an interview with Terri Cooper, who told me that in 2003, “yoga saved my life. It had such a profound impact on me. I knew immediately that I needed to share this healing practice, so I jumped into teacher training. I felt called to bring this healing practice to those would wouldn’t normally have access to it, so just three months later I started my first outreach class, and have been doing it ever since.  What started out as just a personal passion soon became Yoga Gangsters a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, and after 13 years and 15,000 kids served we matured into Connection Coalition (that’s CoCo for short), with trainings in 25 states.  We address the symptoms of trauma and poverty through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and train our teachers to create connection with youth in schools, jails, shelters, rehabs, and more.” 

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

I’ve always been motivated by the lack of access to necessary resources for communities in crisis.  We know that trauma can be healed, and we know how. Yet, there is still an enormous gap between those who need these tools and those who can easily access them. And, for me—that’s just not ok. Unfortunately, racism and classism continue to perpetuate the cycle of trauma through mass incarceration, under-resourced schools, and lack of opportunities, just to name a few.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The connection is the most rewarding. It’s what we’re all about. Through yoga, people get to cultivate a connection between their movement and the breath. That enables them to connect to themselves in a loving and healing way.  And we all know that when we are in a challenging experience, our crazy human minds start to rip ourselves apart with “not enough-ness.”  The stretching and breathing begin to release tension, and people naturally develop mindfulness around their thoughts, and how these thoughts affect them. In this space we make the connection that ultimately, we’re all very similar and want the same things—to be happy and feel safe.  Yet our access and privilege can be wildly different, causing a major gap between those who have resources and those who don’t.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They’ve taught me not to judge so quickly. I always ask their name and a bonus question during our sessions. One of the questions I ask is what would be your superpower? At a juvenile detention center, one student responded with shooting bullets from his finger. In that moment I could’ve judged him, but my work has taught me not to react quickly, instead to stay in an inquiry. So, I asked the child why and he responded that he wanted to stop his mom’s boyfriend from raping his little sister.  See how this illustrates that there is a relationship between trauma and violence. This is why our motto is “No blame, No shame, No judgment.”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers?    

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are proven to regulate the nervous system, and thus lead to practitioners being less reactive and more responsive. These are necessary tools when you’re caught up in a system that is flawed, biased, and sometimes even corrupt. There is an inequality that exists in this system that has created a school-to-prison pipeline, thus continuing the cycle of trauma and poverty.

Often we hear claims of yoga as a means to positively change the world. What in your mind is the relationship between a yoga practice and greater social change?

Greater social change is only possible when people with privilege and power begin to take steps to create this change.  Today, the yoga community is still overwhelmingly white and privileged.  We at CoCo encourage this community to think about how their access and privilege has allowed them to move through life, and how not having those privileges would be devastating – access to quality education, healthy food, safe environments, and the list goes on.

Through yoga, more and more leaders and decision makers are cultivating empathy. They see the systemic separation and inequality that is persistent in this country.  Our CoCo trainings facilitate a conversation around race, privilege, and power, and we weave this delicate conversation into our yoga experiences.  I look forward to the day that this dialogue and awareness will eventually lead to policy change.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that there will no longer be a separation of yoga and service yoga. I would love to see yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as part of the normal school curriculum that all students have access to.  I also dream that one day our policy makers will have a mindfulness practice and that self-regulation will be as habitual as brushing our teeth in the morning.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Cat Lauer: How We Serve Those In Recovery

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CAT LAUER IMAGE COURTESY OF JOSLYN GRIFFIN OF GATHER IN KIN

I recently met Cat Lauer at the Hanuman Yoga Festival in Boulder, CO. She volunteer teaches free yoga classes to support recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness, and she is paid to teach studio classes at Old Town Yoga Studio in the historic downtown of Fort Collins, CO. Her “Yoga For Recovery” classes are designed to complement on-going therapy with physicians and mental-health therapists. Visit: catleaslauer.com/yoga-for-recovery

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work?

During the summer of 2002, I was a seva student at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. There I was exposed to yogic practices and meditation. Years later I sought help for an eating disorder; I pledged that whatever modality best served my recovery, I would work to provide the same opportunity to others. That turned out to be yoga. I began to expand on my home practice with individual sessions with a yoga therapist, then studio classes and workshops, and on to a teacher training program.

Yoga for Recovery is offered to those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness. While my recovery was from an eating disorder, the class teaches skills that address issues relevant to many recovery paths. I’ve witnessed commonalities among people in recovery, clients I met while working as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and in my current work at a mental health and substance abuse facility.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

The most rewarding aspect of this work is to see the change in body language during practice. So far, the lesson I learn week after week in class is that all the gifts I’ve experienced while practicing yoga in recovery are also received by others. Yoga may not be the core of everybody’s recovery, but they still benefit from a simple yoga practice. Then they in turn go on to create safer, healthier communities for people who may not otherwise be able to afford a trauma-informed, inclusive studio class.

When I entered my initial yoga teacher training, I was unsure as to whether the program was to deepen my practice and further my recovery, or the first step towards teaching others in recovery. At my first practicum, I felt so very sure that I would continue on to teach others in recovery – but I had a plan consisting of years of training and fundraising to make it happen. Over time my students have taught me that grand plans might not be as important or effective as these: a clear idea of the population I wanted to serve (those in recovery seeking a yoga and/or meditation practice, who may not be able to afford a regular studio class), and how helpful free access to yoga practice is. In essence we are all practicing breathing, and movement, and moments of peace on our mats that will lead to greater compassion towards ourselves and others. In short – recovery!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from mental illness/trauma/addiction?

There are a number of brave souls in the world advocating for the end of the social stigmas associated with mental illness, trauma, and addiction. By holding a safe place for any and all to sign in and say, yes – me, I am in recovery, I hope to support acceptance and counteract the isolation and shame surrounding these issues. Recovery is time-consuming and emotionally draining, yet few of us in recovery chat freely about such things, so we bear this burden alone .

Each class I teach is designed to be trauma-informed, includes breath-work and meditation to confront the anxiety, depression, and overwhelm that may be a part of recovery, as well as responses to society’s judgments of people in recovery. These techniques encourage us to listen to our own wise mind, practice acceptance, and move through discomfort and change to forgiveness.

Finally, there is the great healing force of connection; in class together we can celebrate practicing in community.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that more yoga teachers will discover that they have gifts to give to others who need free access to the healing power of yoga, so I hope yoga practitioners see their own potential to give back in small ways. All it takes is noticing a need and finding one small part of one’s self that fits that need. And acting on it before one starts to question one’s ability! We all have an ability to serve, and incorporating service into our practice and our work is … exciting! Hopeful! Empowering! Fun! … And important for our communities.

As I’ve said, recovery is time-intensive and expensive. I am so grateful for donations from individuals, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Gaiam. My hope is that in the future more organizations—non-profit and for-profit—will continue to donate beautiful mats and props, music, and a clean, safe space easily accessed by bike, foot, public transportation or car.

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Are you interested in adding mindfulness techniques to your teaching toolkit? Explore the ways our yoga therapy and yoga service trainings can prepare you to support people in recovery.

Jodi Weiner: Showing Up For At-Risk Youth

jodi-weiner-3This is an interview with Jodi Weiner, Executive Director for the South Florida-based non-profit organization CoCo, which stands for Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). It provides free yoga to youth in jails, foster homes, and homeless shelters. You can learn more about CoCo yoga instructors and yoga programs here. CoCo was founded by Terri Cooper, who some folks call “the original yoga gangster.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

My children motivated me; I wanted to be an example my kids would be proud of. I wanted to show them that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to step in and support those who have no community, support future leaders and innovators, and, I hope, to leave a legacy of love and giving.

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I’m motivated now by the children who have no voice, who are forgotten, judged, abused, or disempowered by the systems once thought to serve them. It is for the kids who crave the love they need to thrive, for the kids who have not heard the whispers of love, empowerment, and strength.

Is there a standout moment from your work with CoCo?

It was my first volunteer gig. I was kicking off our first six-week program with SOS Foster Village, and I was teaching my first class. The awakening in the eyes of the kids, the trust and opening I saw in their body language and the freedom that touched my heart after just one class, sticks with me, and drives me forward to share that awakening, that confirmation of Oneness. When you finally make eye contact with the kid who walked in with shut-down hunched shoulders too fearful to look up, it’s that moment, that awareness that these kids see you as safe. It’s truly an inspiring sensation that I hope to support others to find. Serving kids is a gift that needs to be felt to fully understand how much joy there can be in service.

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?

The only thing I knew about the kids was they were in some form of crisis and needed the space to just be kids, to be silly, free to be who they are. There were no assumptions. Our certification program teaches that if we assume anything about the population, we are creating disconnect. This is the very opposite of the essence of yoga! Our training teaches how to create the connection and see past the story, to see the soul.

That said, I had assumptions about my own abilities and limitations. Midway through that first class, I realized the effortless flow of connection when we give from the heart with no expectations. I recall stopping and watching the kids smile, trust, laugh and feel genuine joy in that moment, and doing my best to not fully let go into the tears of gratitude. I embodied connection so easily and I won’t ever forget that visceral experience. I was plugged in deep and it was a beautiful confirmation I was on the right path.

What stood out for me ultimately is I felt an immediate connection, not a hierarchy. I knew I had the education of trauma and the “aha” of how to serve, but I was not prepared for the fearlessness and comfort I felt.

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?

When working with kids, I keep it playful, loose, and open to what is needed in the moment. I meet them where they are. I tap into the energy of the room and allow the messages and teaching to come through me. What comes out is exactly what the kids’ need, unscripted and from the heart. I stay mindful of what may trigger a reactive moment for the kids. It’s a delicate balance that requires a grounded awareness. Our teacher certification teaches the volunteers to provide empowering messages while playing with the asanas and breath of yoga.

When I teach adults, I teach to balance the chakras as opposed to controlled chaos with the kids. Empowerment is always part of my teachings regardless of the population. The “studio” version is a vibrant class and I always bring a little “gangster.” My yogi chatter is more about our energy body, and also about awareness of how we show up off the mat and into the lives we live in community.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I experience such fulfillment through service and the development of CoCo that I don’t always tend my “playtime.” To address that challenge I get down on the floor with my own kids and play with them, and spend time in nature! My kids remind me to be incredibly silly and laugh as much as I can. It keeps me motivated, for sure!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at-risk youth?

Have resources and a community to support you. Regardless of the population you are going to serve, prepare your own grounding energy first. When moments of challenge pop up during service you’re better equipped to move through them instead of avoiding them. Service-minded support is vital in situations like that.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My vision for the next decade of service is to watch it grow. Once that flame of service is lit in many of us, it’s hard to ignore. I will continue to ignite and stoke those fires with the awareness of the abundance service work brings to the community, and the world as a whole. I am incredibly grateful to Off the Mat Into the World for its vision of social activism.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Susan Lovett: Yoga for Those Living With Poverty & Trauma

Susan LovettThis is an interview with Susan Lovett, a licensed social worker, K-8 teacher, and a registered yoga teacher who has worked with urban low-income youth and families in the greater Boston area for over 25 years. During her yoga teacher training in 2013 she offered yoga classes and workshops for students at the high-poverty urban school where she works as a clinical social worker, providing therapeutic interventions and programs for youth with trauma. The students enjoyed their yoga and mindfulness practices, and Susan began receiving many requests from teachers and other social workers to provide yoga for their students. Through word of mouth, staff members at local community-based social service agencies heard about her yoga teaching, and requests for classes came in from those sites too. 

Hands to Heart Center (HTHC) – Yoga for the People —is a non-profit yoga service organization Susan founded in 2014 that provides free yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma in Boston. It orchestrates a pool of over 140 yoga teacher volunteers, who have taught more than 700 free yoga classes in branch libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters, public housing developments, and residential treatment programs in Boston.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

In my social work career, I’ve always served low-income youth and families with trauma and am constantly seeking effective resources for my clients. When I read Damien Echols’ book Life After Death, I learned that he believes his yoga and mindfulness practice saved his life when he was wrongly imprisoned on death row. I realized that yoga was the resource I was looking for. It requires no equipment, no specific skills or physical abilities, and can be practiced by anyone, in any condition, in any location. Yoga can be practiced by a prisoner on death row, by a young person who lives with their abuser, by a student in a challenging school environment. and by a client in a residential treatment program for substance abuse disorder.

I continue to be motivated by the gratitude consistently expressed by HTHC’s yoga teacher volunteers and students, and by the large numbers of people living with poverty and trauma in Boston who don’t have access to yoga.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Being allowed into people’s lives for moments of grace while we’re all on our mats. I love the peaceful silence of savasana, especially in settings that are rarely associated with serenity and softness. When we’re all breathing together in those spaces, I feel more connected to the other people in the room, regardless of all of our lived experiences, and the external conditions that separate us from each other.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

That yoga practice doesn’t have to be so serious! That we can laugh and talk to each other on our mats. They’ve also taught me to expect the unexpected, and to go with the flow!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play for people living in poverty?

Yoga is effective in alleviating anxiety, depression, and stress and trauma, but yoga classes are expensive. There are no yoga studios in low-income neighborhoods. Regular yoga practice promotes health and wellness, increases capacity and builds resilience. Hands to Heart Center exists to share this powerful and effective resource with those who need it most.

For people living with the chronic stress of poverty, yoga provides many benefits, including an hour to 75 minutes with no demands, other than to breathe. Yoga class is a time when people with overwhelming stress can be nourished and supported. HTHC yoga classes provide community and connection among a wide range of people, connections that may not happen outside of yoga class. The message of HTHC is that yoga is effective and practical, and needs to be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status. HTHC calls on yoga teachers, many of whom benefit from great privilege, to leverage their privilege, their education, and their skills on behalf of others.

In order to address the inequities in access to yoga, HTHC has implemented a Yoga Coach program, a 20-hour free training for HTHC students and staff of our community partners. Upon completion of the program, HTHC Yoga Coaches will be able to teach a safe, one-hour class with eight simple postures. To participate in the HTHC Yoga Coach program, students commit to providing a minimum of six free HTHC yoga classes in their communities. Thus the HTHC Yoga Coach program fosters a larger, more culturally, racially, and socioeconomically diverse group of people who can lead yoga classes. Graduates of the HTHC Yoga Coach program are connected with scholarships to local 200-hour yoga teacher training programs if they’re interested in continuing their yoga teaching education.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

I believe that individuals who cultivate a practice of mindfulness have increased capacity to actively participate in social change efforts. I don’t think mindfulness alone positively affects income inequality, health disparities, racism, and violence in society, but I do think that people who develop mindfulness practice often seek out others who do the same. Collectively, the organized actions of mindfulness practitioners who focus on social justice can be powerful.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that yoga service organizations will become commonplace in the next 10 years, and that the concept of yoga service will be integrated into more yoga teacher training programs. I believe that the scientific evidence about how a regular yoga practice can decrease anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma, and increase resilience will be more well-known, and that yoga will be part of the organizational culture in detention units, health centers, and schools.

I’d definitely like to see more federal and state funding available for yoga service organizations so that trauma-informed yoga teachers can be appropriately compensated for their skills. I believe that more and more yoga teachers are becoming interested in, and excited about, yoga service, and that the general public is becoming more informed about the many benefits of yoga, along with the important and effective work that’s being done in the yoga service field.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman: How We Serve Survivors of Sexual Assault

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Jocelyn: When I heard Exhale to Inhale’s mission to empower women who have experienced intimate partner violence and sexual assault to heal and reclaim their lives, I had a visceral experience of relief for women survivors. It made sense that conscious movement with breath in a safe environment would help survivors to feel ease and strength in their body, which is an important step towards healing.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

It’s good to hear a student report having a positive experience in her body, such as “feeling lighter,” after class. The moment someone finds repose and stability in a posture, and her expression softens, is beautiful.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They’ve taught me to trust the resilience of the human spirit during dark and difficult times. They remind me to never lose hope.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with? In what ways does it not?

In a trauma-sensitive class, we create a safe space in which survivors can step back into their personal power and practice, and make decisions without fear. We offer choices between which posture to practice next and how long to stay in a posture. With time, this can be a step towards the survivor strengthening her self-confidence and agency. They may or may not have such a space and opportunity at home.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

I think the more we search inside ourselves, observe our thoughts, beliefs, and habits, the greater the chance of healing the psyche’s wounds and cultivating a healthy, peaceful relationship with ourselves and the world. This requires vulnerability, compassion, and patience. It means loving and listening deeply to all the parts of oneself as they rise into consciousness, making self-care and reflection priorities, being open to change, and maintaining hope for harmony.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

Be deeply compassionate with yourself. The people I’ve met who teach or work in domestic violence shelters are extremely compassionate, giving individuals, but they are not always so generous with themselves. It’s important to check in with yourself, and to refill your well when you feel drained.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope service yoga continues to thrive and is taught wherever there’s a need. I hope yoga organizations receive funding to fully realize their mission of fostering wellbeing in the communities they serve. Since I believe everyone can benefit from yoga and mindfulness, I hope yoga is added to more and more school curriculums, so mindfulness can start early.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

Julie Fernandez: How We Serve Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Julie FernandezThis is an interview with Julie Fernandez, who knew before her yoga teacher training was over that she wanted to bring healing to young people through yoga. Through a few non-profit organizations in New York City, she started working with at-risk teenage girls and youth in trauma. Julie went on to work with the nonprofit Exhale to Inhale (ETI), teaching yoga at domestic violence shelters to empower women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Last year she moved to California and began working with a psychiatrist, helping to bring healing to his patients through breath work and yoga. She serves as ETI’s Program Manager for Southern California.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I was initially motivated to do this work when I saw the impact it had on me, a survivor of sexual assault, and I could no longer bear the idea of children and youth suffering in the ways that I did. I spent my entire adolescence suffering from depression, complex trauma, abuse, and eating disorders, as well as the accompaniments, including shame, self-loathing, and feeling stuck in a body that I felt could not ever serve me. I decided I certainly had to try to relieve some of the pain of hurting children and youth, and provide a small piece of hope.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

To see a sense of peace and calm on the student’s faces and body language. To see them believe in themselves again and find hope for their own recovery and healing. When students return, that’s a clear sign that things are shifting for them.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

My students have taught me resiliency. When they walk through the door, they exhibit courage, strength, and willingness. They are a constant reminder of our capacity to overcome our challenges.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Unfortunately, domestic violence survivors are not only left with physical and emotional damage, but are also faced with a plethora of societal challenges. These include socio-economic disadvantages, poor housing, discrimination, and a lack of social support, which often leads to more mental and physical health issues. Yoga has been proven to reduce many of the symptoms of trauma, including anxiety and depression, and to help people become healthier and stronger.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness, and greater social change?

Mindfulness allows us to be fully present and bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as to what is happening outside our bodies all around us. So much about yoga is learning how to respond, rather than react; it teaches us to pause and bring awareness to any situation. Mindfulness increases our capacity to empathize and connect with others; this connection is the foundation of social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters in which you work? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

My advice for anyone who is going to teach in shelters or communities of trauma survivors is self-care first. It is so important to take care of yourself, so that you are fully equipped to help others, and give them the 100% that they deserve. And for those of us who are survivors ourselves, I urge them to get the support they need—whether through a community or therapist —so that they work on their own healing to avoid being triggered themselves. Finally, we must be mindful, and open to feedback.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that it continues to be more accepted as a tool for healing, and that there will be more access to free yoga for those who cannot afford it.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

Hannah Fazio: Empowering Women Who Have Experienced Trauma

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I first sought the practice in college after I experienced trauma. Back then, I did not know what trauma was, or rather, I did not know that someone who had not gone to war could experience trauma. Yoga brought me back into my body; it allowed me to experience my body as a safe place again. Now I am inspired to share the practice with others, so that I can help people become more aware of their bodies and their behavioral patterns.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

When I see others experience the transformational power of yoga and meditation, that is rewarding to me. Time and again, when I taught at the women’s shelter, the class would go into savasana (final resting pose), and afterwards an outpouring of information would flow from one of the students. The practice allows the person to slow down and be quiet. In doing so, people become more aware of their situations; they become more aware of what they have been going through, and how they feel about it. Then perhaps change can come. It is a powerful practice.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They have taught me that yoga exists in me. I do not need fancy props and fancy clothes to practice. Nor do I need to post pictures of myself in my underwear on instagram to be a yogini; I need to practice and show up only for myself, and be more in tune for my students. My students have also shown me that I do not need to teach at a fancy/prestigious yoga studio to be a yoga teacher; by sharing the practice with others, I am a teacher.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with? In what ways does it not?

Trauma-informed yoga addresses trauma in the body. Many individuals in the shelter system have been traumatized by unsafe living situations, and they are further traumatized by over-extended institutional systems. Yoga allows individuals to address their own trauma, to practice interoception (the sense of the physiological condition of the body), and examine emotions and belief systems that may perpetuate certain behavior patterns.

Yoga does not do this difficult work for anyone; it is up to the individual to become aware, and then act on information as it arises. Yoga also does not directly fix the systems of socio-economic oppression, but it does encourage people to wake up to their own power. Through yoga, we wake up one by one.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness, and greater social change?

Through mindfulness, we learn to act in an intentional way. Social change comes when large groups of individuals begin to act intentionally.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

I would carry lavender essential oil. It is nice to have a ritual where everyone receives something tangible. Lavender helps relieve anxiety; not having a solid place to be can be stressful.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I believe that governmental and philanthropic organizations will begin to honor yoga as a powerful preventive tool for a multitude of physical and mental health issues. In my opinion, it is not up to yoga teachers to serve more (most yoga teachers I know are generous with their time and talent). It is up to institutions to acknowledge yoga teachers and create programs in which yogis and yoginis can share their skills with others, and be appropriately compensated.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

Michael Lear: Expanding the Practice of Yoga and Mindfulness to Prisons

2016-03-21-1458572450-1684106-MichaelLear-thumbThis 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.

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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.

Elizabeth Carling: Why Teach Yoga and Mindfulness in Prison?

elizabethThis is an interview with Elizabeth Carling, who offers a free community-based yoga program with the support of her employer, Patricia McKeen, owner of A New Awakening counseling agency in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Elizabeth started a free class at A New Awakening as a way to offer the mindfulness-based tools of yoga to clients who struggle with the challenges of addiction, mental health imbalances, domestic violence, and reintegration following incarceration.

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga to the New Mexico prison?

Elizabeth:I’ve worked in the field of forensic therapy as an addictions counselor and Doctor of Oriental medicine for the past twelve years, and have witnessed the struggles of returning citizens. Inmates are released from prison with inadequate preparation for the acute stress of finding employment, rebuilding relationships, and cultivating social competency, not to mention the avalanche of triggers to drug and alcohol use. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from my community yoga students that participation in asana practice, pranayama, meditation, and the other limbs of yoga, were invaluable assets in decreasing reactivity to stress, increasing impulse control, and alleviating emotional dissonance. Most of all, I came to see yoga as a vehicle for transformation through reclaiming an intimate, healthy relationship with self. Upon reflection, it seemed like a natural evolution to offer these tools to inmates prior to release from prison in anticipation of the challenges of reintegration, and the potential for recidivism. A little research brought me to James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project (PYP) training, an invaluable aid in how to design a prison yoga program, and how to introduce it to the N.M. Department of Corrections.

I’m interested in knowing why we should be spending money on providing yoga to prisoners?

I firmly believe that prisons that allocate funds for yoga and mindfulness programs are investing in harm reduction both inside the prison walls, and potentially within the families and communities that an inmate will eventually be returning to. I’m frequently asked why we should want to help “those people” who committed crimes and acts of violence, and deserve to be where they are. My answer is simply that “those people” are going to be released one day, and may be our neighbor, or the person next to us on the bus.

We say we want things to change in our society, but if we don’t offer inmates any tools for change we are setting them (and us) up for failure. I would say that recidivism rates are a reflection of that old definition of insanity: “to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.” I also feel that mindfulness programs would aid in reducing medication costs for prisoners, and would save the system money. This is yet to be researched, but is certainly an area worthy of investigation. Last but not least, we have heard from corrections staff that prisoners who participate regularly in the yoga group are more cooperative and exhibit fewer behavioral issues, making staff’s job easier and more effective.

What is the greatest obstacle in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

The greatest obstacle in mindfulness-based programing becoming commonplace in prison curriculum is the perception that it is non-pragmatic because it does not fit the model of education that administration is familiar with. Certainly a GED, or learning automotive skills, are practical investments; but if we don’t help inmates to address cognitive distortions, limiting patterns of behaviors, complex trauma, and often a history of addiction, then they are not going to function optimally upon release, let alone be contributing, successful members of society.

What is not fully understood by the prison system is that yoga and mindfulness techniques are a form of somatic therapy that aid in improving and restoring the body-mind connection so that a person can contact inner resources to self-regulate and enhance well being. Inmates who are taught how to become sensitive to the self through present-moment awareness will recognize the pain and suffering they cause themselves and others as a result of their own maladaptive behavior. Offering mindfulness education is not frivolous; it gives inmates the opportunity to expand their capacity for compassion, and make conscious choices that result in pro-social change.

What advice would you give anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class at a prison?

The best advice I can offer is to cultivate a unified approach to all that transpires inside the gates. I’m often reminded of the value of the yogic philosophy of “samatavam,” or “sameness,” and the benefit of sitting in the middle and serving, seeing, and acting from a place of oneness. I also wholeheartedly agree with James Fox’s suggestion to co-teach the class, rather than go it alone. Since day one I have been fully supported by my dear yogi friend and colleague Patricia McKeen, who is invaluable in holding a safe space for teaching to unfold.

We can also affirm the importance of consistency in working with this population. Showing up at the same time, week in and week out, builds trust and positive regard. I’ve also found that the PYP model of sandwiching asanas between a beginning and an ending centering technique to be a necessity in encouraging inmates to be fully present and grounded while practicing in a turbulent environment.

What should prison administrators know about the Prison Yoga Project?

They should know that PYP instructors offering yoga classes are fully aligned with respecting and abiding by the correctional facility’s rules and regulations. We are aware of the effort prison officials and staff put forth to ensure our safety, and are more than willing to cooperate with anything that makes their job easier. PYP instructors are also open to designing classes for special populations such as vets, mental health inmates, or using body-centered skills for conflict resolution.

Administrators should also know that our mission is to offer tools for stress reduction and mental and physical well-being, for staff as well as my inmates. My highest vision for our New Mexico PYP is to have parallel programs of yoga and mindfulness tools for self-care for corrections officers and prison officials. In fact, the highlight of our yoga program was what we refer to as the “Christmas miracle,” when three guards spontaneously joined our class, and practiced yoga alongside of inmates. One of our “regulars” was uncomfortable at first with what he perceived as an invasion of his territory, but in the true spirit of namaste quipped, “maybe the cops need healing too!”

Originally published on the Huffington Post Blog on November 24, 2015.

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Are you interested in helping to empower incarcerated women? Learn how you can support a historic yoga teacher training that will take place behind bars by donating to the Prison Yoga Project’s Women Prisoners Scholarship Fund