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Trina Wyatt: Striving Towards A Healthier Planet

Trina Wyatt---Conscious-Good

This is an interview with Trina Wyatt, founder of an online media streaming service called Conscious Good. When I first met Trina I told her that I felt overwhelmed by the billions of things I could watch or listen to on the Internet, much of it cluttered by advertisements I wasn’t interested in. Now that I’ve been introduced to Conscious Good, I have easy access to videos and podcasts that entertain, inspire, and inform my life.

Rob: I’m interested in the background of your yoga service career. Could you share this with us?

I’m a “Slow Growth” yogi: in my early 20s, over a period of years, well-meaning friends “dragged” me to their yoga classes. I found it pure torture and swore I would never go back. Later I noticed how healthy and happy yogis were, and I thought, “I probably hate yoga because my body so badly needs it.” That realization prompted me to give it another chance and, luckily, I found a wonderful teacher at my health club. Within a few months I was hooked and attending three classes a week. I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for over 20 years now.

My early practice was mostly Ashtanga and Hatha, but while pregnant with my first child, I pulled a back muscle. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and a friend suggested I attend Gurmukh’s prenatal Kundalini yoga class. Its benefits were huge for my daughter’s birth; however, it didn’t occur to me to continue with the practice.

Then, about four years ago, I was struggling to do yoga or meditate regularly at all. Between two kids in private schools and other financial pressures, I took a job only for the salary, and I was miserable. My office at the time just happened to be near a Kundalini yoga studio called Golden Bridge. Though I hadn’t been attending class, the studio had a little café that I frequented for lunch.

One day I noticed a five-day yoga and cleanse program and I signed up. Eventually I found a way, with my husband and children cheering me on, to take the full Kundalini teacher training. Part of the training required meditating for 11 minutes a day 40 days in a row. This was how I discovered the power of a daily practice to overcome unhealthy habits. Two months into the yoga teacher training program, I told my husband that I was going to leave my miserable job. I recall saying that I wasn’t going to be unhappy in a job ever again and that we may have to sell the house and move. Always the adventurer, he said, “Great! Where shall we go?” This is what prompted our move to Boulder, Colorado, and my eventually launching Conscious Good.

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

One of the motivators in launching Conscious Good has been to use media and technology to help and support people in being the change they would like to see in the world. I’ve always loved going to the movies. While I was in high school my father sat me down one day and asked, “What do you think you’d like to do when you grow up?” I had just spent the summer working at a retail shop owned by two women, so I said, “I’d like to run my own business one day.” He encouraged me, and urged me to study accounting, because it’s important to know the numbers when running your own business. So I combined the two and pursued a career in finance in the motion picture industry.

In 2003, after wrapping up the first Tribeca Film Festival and completing my MBA, I thought it was time to try something new. The only thing I could think of that I loved as much as film was yoga. Since then, I’ve tried many times to move my career toward combining the two—from collaborating to create content to advising organizations that are involved in conscious media. You could say that Conscious Good has been brewing for over 13 years.

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

In my experience, adopting a daily practice—be it yoga, meditation, gratitude, or prayer—and supporting that practice throughout the day with thoughts, experiences, and media that support it, helps you be the change you want to see in the world. A daily practice has the power to replace unhealthy habits or addictions with healthy habits, and by putting kindness above personal gratification, we create a ripple effect through society, thus impacting greater social change.

Conscious Good is helping people to “be the change” also through our programming. This summer, we held our first Humanitarian Film Festival. We put a call out for short films that exemplified compassion and empathy for those less fortunate. The results were extraordinary and, I believe, have real impact. As written in Psychology Today, “watching TV shows and video clips with pro-social themes (like people helping others, problem solving, cooperating and being generous) can lead to more cooperation, more positive attitudes, less aggression, and more altruism”.*

What do you think the role of brands plays in the shaping of the future of yoga? Can brands play a role in maintaining the integrity of the practice, and how are you contributing?

People vote daily with their dollars, and technology is forcing more transparency in brands. More and more people are interested in where goods come from, how they’re made and their sustainability, and how the people making them are treated. Any brand in the yoga and mindfulness space will need transparency, integrity, and authenticity to thrive. I think true yoga and authenticity are synonymous. I am contributing to maintaining the integrity by continuing to walk the talk – practicing daily, encouraging my team to do the same, bringing mindfulness to staff meetings, and giving back to conscious causes. At least to start, our plan is to donate 10% of our net profits to non-profit organizations.

Does yoga help your consumers address problems that afflict so many in society, such as body image, etc.?

Yes. My belief is that practicing yoga with spiritual authenticity creates a union with the divine; and, as we are all divine, yoga deepens the connection with ourselves. Through practice we can develop a self-love that will help us embrace our body’s imperfections and heal ourselves. At Conscious Good, we intend to offer yoga practices for every age, every body type, and every level. We need more!

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 in 10 years more than 50% of the population is practicing some form of yoga and/or meditation. I hope that every person in the U.S. adopts a form of service to others – whether through yoga or other means, and realizes that being of service is a key component to health and happiness and to bringing about the greatest social change.

*Psychology Today January 19, 2013.

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Join us in making yoga more accessible to all. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Mary Sims: Yoga Supports Self Advocacy

This is an interview with Mary Sims, who started taking a community yoga class in 2005 motivated by a major life transition. The class showed her that she is open to discovering new things about herself; she found she was extremely flexible, which allowed her to quickly gain confidence in most yoga poses. After each class, she experienced a great sense of peace, contentment, and well-being, and the classes supported her through a tumultuous and painful period in her life.

She is currently an adult advocate for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities at AdvocacyDenver, and founder of the Yoga 4All Abilities Program to support people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD).

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

Both of my passions for yoga and for working with people with I/DD motivate me to offer this program. I want to give back to a community of individuals for whom I care so deeply. This community, for a multitude of reasons, lacks accessibility to mainstream yoga studios. Yoga 4All Abilities will hopefully propel my participants to go to a community class, to have the confidence to step into a community studio. I also hope that with this program the yoga community will become more inclusive.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

During a recent class, one of my new students came in asking “what is yoga?” and “how do I do yoga?” As we were in “table top” position, twisting with our right arm to the sky, I instructed the class to touch a star. The student who asked those questions said “I got one. I got a star. I’m doing it. I’m doing yoga!” This student’s comment continuously resonates with me. He was, in fact, doing yoga, and he was confident about doing it. As my heart soared, I realized that my class had built his self-confidence and contributed to his overall success in life.

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

I’ve definitely learned to not take myself too seriously. This group of individuals values the present moment. So now I don’t so much focus on my instruction expertise during classes, because my students are teaching me to be able to laugh at myself.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities?

Health and well-being are important for everyone regardless of their social or economic status. Sadly, for the most part, the I/DD population does not have access to yoga. There are many causes for this, including lack of transportation, education, financial stability, and confidence. They often lack the confidence to advocate for themselves, and they are mostly dependent on guidance from their care providers for making good choices in lifestyle and healthy practices. Yoga 4All Abilities helps my students become more aware of the mind-body connection while building self-advocacy skills to make their own health and well-being choices.

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

When you come to the mat, relax your thoughts, and become aware of the mind-body connection, you enter a state of mindfulness. This state of mindfulness allows you to pause within the struggles of daily life, and gain a wider perspective. This new perspective can strengthen our sense of compassion for others and for ourselves. I believe that if an individual becomes more compassionate, this can affect many others because it has a ripple effect.

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

My vision is for yoga to be accessible and inclusive of all populations, regardless of age, gender, shape, or ability. I believe yoga accessibility has the possibility of creating a culture of compassion. If we can create a culture of compassion within all communities, our society can be more mindful of the fact that even with all our differences we are all the same.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with underserved populations. Learn more about our nationwide initiatives.

Kyla Pearce: Traumatic Brain Injury Healing Through Yoga

kyla-pearce-b-1-featuredThis is an interview with Kyla Pearce, who has been teaching yoga for people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) since May 2014 as part of the LoveYourBrain Foundation’s Yoga Program.

“This program grew out of the need my now husband, Adam Pearce, saw for supporting his brother, Kevin Pearce, and others affected by TBI in their healing process. I vividly remember being at the end of my 200-hour teacher training in Dharamsala, India, and receiving an excited call from Adam—he described how Kevin was increasingly drawn to yoga and meditation, and that he was finding a sense of peace, accomplishment, and vitality that were unavailable elsewhere. He said, “Let’s bring this feeling to everyone with a TBI! Can we? Should we?” Ever since that phone call, we have been working to do just that.”

Some of the common consequences of TBI (e.g., poor balance, memory, concentration, and information processing) are being addressed by a TBI-focused gentle yoga and meditation curriculum based on the key factors that promote resilience. LoveYourBrain programs are now in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Colorado in an effort to take them nationwide.

Rob: What are the scope and costs of TBI that you are trying to address through your yoga program?

Each year in the US, over 2.5 million people experience a TBI. TBI accounts for 30% of all injury-related deaths, and leads to $76.5 billion in medical costs (CDC, 2016). Tragically, the incidence is growing—the World Health Organization predicts TBI will become the third leading cause of death and disability in the world by 2020 (Popescu, 2015). TBI can lead to a cascade of physical, cognitive, and psychosocial challenges, including impaired coordination, attention, and memory, and heightened anxiety and depression. These challenges predispose people to unemployment, relationship strain, and social isolation that undermine quality of life (CDC, 2015). Despite the variety of poor outcomes, best practices for rehabilitation that effectively support people to meaningfully participate in their community are limited (CDC, 2015).

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

Initially, my motivation stemmed from the transformation I saw in Kevin from his own practice. After a yoga class, Kev would share that, for the first time in a while, his mind felt calm and he was able to take a break from the race of trying to keep up. I also noticed that he thrived from the agency he felt from engaging with what he deemed was a fitting challenge (be it focusing the mind in meditation or holding a strength-building asana), instead of measuring his progress based on some external benchmark. When he practiced yoga, he no longer felt defined by his injury.

My motivation is reignited each time I witness similar transformations among students in my classes: such as feeling sensations in areas once numb, being able to sleep through the night, connecting with other TBI survivors for the first time since their injury. I am also continuously moved by the energy and enthusiasm of the yoga teachers who participate in our workshops to be able to bring our program to their own communities.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

To counteract the disempowering and isolating nature of TBI, we include three components in our curriculum: asana, meditation, and group discussion. I love the story-sharing and cross-learning in the group discussion, which is where I see relationships being built that will last far longer than our time together on the mat. It is a privilege to be a part of the creation of community. Ultimately, for me, holding space in a way that enables people to find agency, feel accepted and understood, and experience the possibility—instead of the limitations—of their body and mind, is meaningful.

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

I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the human potential for resilience. TBI often leads to a lifelong process of adjustments, unlike when you break a bone where you can expect function to eventually return to its original level. TBI requires immense resilience, which my students reflect in myriad ways both in and out of the studio—from showing up to class with a positive attitude despite weakness or light sensitivity that makes movement challenging, to being willing to trust a new teacher when everything else in life feels uncertain, to letting go of resentment about their relationship failing because their partner didn’t understand why they act differently, to finding acceptance for what is, when faced with tumultuous change. I have learned that struggle is our greatest teacher and that strength comes not from how little we feel, but instead from how much we feel.

As a yoga teacher, my students have taught me the true spirit of namaste—that our true selves are all the same, they transcend any injury or trauma, and deserve to be appreciated and acknowledged with compassion. I have learned that all of us, in one way or another, want to feel safe, satisfied, and connected (as coined by Rick Hanson), which is what we are trying to foster in our program.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury?

One of the major issues for the TBI community is the gap in ongoing care following inpatient and rehabilitation services. Great care exists upfront, and then people fall through the cracks when they return home. Because TBI is often an invisible injury, many people are also unaware that someone has TBI, and thus are not as accommodating as they might be. Yoga teachers can therefore offer important community-based rehabilitation, in particular because they support holistic—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—healing. At its core, yoga is a practice of deep listening to—and honoring of—our inner experience without resisting or grasping. I believe this leads to authentic and compassionate self-expression and to regaining a sense of purpose, which are critical to any healing process.

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

In my view, social change originates from a personal experience that reveals something unjust that you can’t sit with. For me, this experience was Kevin’s TBI and, since then, the thousands of stories of others affected by TBI who struggle to regain a sense of wellbeing and wholeness. Mindfulness enables us to become attuned to the reality of our own and others’ challenges, and to act from a place of love and openness. Without mindfulness, it is easier to ignore the facts and maintain the status quo.

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 yoga service organizations will pursue more rigorous research to evaluate the impact of their programs. If the yoga community can develop evidence-based practices, the medical establishment will be able to acknowledge yoga as a viable healing modality, and increasingly integrate it into the healthcare system. This way, people affected by TBI will experience a more seamless continuum of care, in which they can access ongoing support and actively participate in their community. In the meantime, I hope more yoga studios take on leadership roles in community service, and commit to partnering with LoveYourBrain and other yoga service organizations to make yoga more broadly accessible.

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Join us in the season of giving to share the gift of yoga. Learn about ways to help those who can benefit most with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Ann Marie Johnston: One Yogi’s Attempt to Make Yoga Accessible to All

in-blog-anne-marie-johnston-photo-courtesy-of-donatella-parisiniThis is an interview with Ann Marie Johnston. When I first arranged to talk with Ann Marie, I didn’t realize she lived in Melbourne, Australia, so we needed to adjust to the 18-hour time difference. Ann Marie is the founder of YogaMate, a global digital platform (website and app) connecting yoga professionals to their students and communities by providing them with tools and resources.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do service work?

When I reflect on how privileged my life is, I feel immense responsibility to give back in a meaningful way. You see, I grew up in a family where ‘giving back’ was simply considered a way of life. My school, Presbyterian College, had the motto, ‘While you live, you serve,’ which further instilled the expectation that we are meant to give back of our time and money.

Over the years, dabbling in varying roles, I never found a way through my professional career to make the difference I hoped to. When yoga entered my life, I knew I had finally found something I believed in that could make a real difference to others. Wanting to align my work and purpose, I began the mental and energetic shift away from a career as a marketing consultant, and towards a career sharing yoga.

Once I finished my yoga teacher training, I wanted to give time teaching as part of my contribution to society, yet I found it a real struggle to find local yogic charities to work with.

So with YogaMate, it was not only imperative that I give profits back to yogic charities, but it was a natural decision to create a free directory for yogic charities to better connect with teachers wanting to give their time.

How has yoga impacted your life?

For nearly 20 years, I lived with Persistent Depressive Disorder. My everyday life was permeated with a general low-grade depression, melancholy, and futile sense of “what’s the point of it all?” Despite taking medication for many years, I still felt a general sense of hopelessness about life.

In late 2008, I took a course that introduced the concept of being in the present moment. It was the first time in my life that I had been encouraged to stop the incessant chatter of the mind, and ‘just be.’ With this newfound tool under my belt, and an introduction to breath work, I launched into a study of yoga. Self-directed, I read books, began practicing asana, and introduced meditation into my life.

Over the years, a shift took place and my melancholy dissolved. One day it occurred to me that I no longer felt hopeless, and yet I was still mindlessly taking pills. I stopped cold turkey and never looked back. (NB: I do not advocate this approach—going off medication should be discussed and managed with your doctor.) I began to reflect on other ways in which my health and well-being had improved. My chronic headaches were gone, my allergies nearly non-existent, nor did I still experience symptoms of IBS. My relationships improved; I was less competitive, more compassionate and less judgmental.

logo_with_yogamate-1Why yoga?

Because of my experience, I wanted to better understand this question better, so I enrolled in a 500-hour teacher training. Though I had no intention of teaching when I began the course, mid-way through I realized: ‘how can I not share this with others?’

Before my teaching career could really take off, I sustained a significant (non-yoga related) back injury that ruled out my physical practice. My focus returned to breath work and I committed to a consistent meditation practice. In fact, it was during a meditation in May of 2014 that I conceived the idea of creating a digital platform to help spread awareness around the depth, breadth, and healing application of yoga.

Once the initial seed had been sown, I threw myself into creating YogaMate, a platform that enhances credibility for the therapeutic benefits of yoga, and helps ensure yogic tools are accessible to everyone. I honestly didn’t realize the mountain of a project I was about to launch into!

With a deep sense of purpose and commitment, and amazing support of the broader yogic community, I have since poured two years and significant savings into developing a platform that helps share the healing power of yoga with everyone.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Much of my ‘teaching’ (sharing) is done through YogaMakesLifeBetter – a blog/vlog I started when I was recovering from back surgery. Having readers and viewers share their challenges and successes both strengthens by commitment and inspires my own practice, and encourages me to be fully open and present.

In my local classes, it’s particularly rewarding when I see people connect to their breath, come into the present moment and find their inherent peace. Even if it’s only initially temporary and fleeting, I’m rewarded knowing that I’m sharing tips and tools that are always freely accessible. It’s like handing someone the blueprint to a happier life.

What have your students taught you?

My students help reinforce that I have the choice of how I meet my own challenges and that the only thing any of us can control is our thoughts. I’m constantly reminded that no one’s life is perfect and that every one of us has what can seem like insurmountable challenges. Seeing how some people move through life graciously, despite their challenges reminds me to stay grounded and be mindful of my own thought patterns. By choosing my thoughts, and where I place my energy, I am proactive about how I approach and engage with life, rather than passively allowing it to happen to me.

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

Being mindful – particularly of your own thoughts – is the game changer. When we work on auto-pilot, it’s nearly impossible to think about the greater context.

When we are mindful – when we are aware – we see the inequalities, the injustices of life , and we can no longer just sit on the sidelines and pretend it’s not happening. Being mindful—awake—creates the impetus for action.

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

Though yoga is certainly not a quick-fix, I believe it truly has the power to transform lives and change the world in both subtle and significant micro and macro ways. I further know that if you can breathe, you can practice yoga—though not every teacher is right for every student. So with this sincere belief, my hopes are to help make yoga accessible to everyone, by connecting the community to the right teachers.

Beyond YogaMate, I personally aspire to help get yogic tools recognized as a crucial addition to national school curricula of the world.

I wonder how my own life would have been different had I been introduced to these freely accessible yogic tools when I was in my early teens, when my depression started. I consider everything I was taught in school, some of it immensely beneficial (some not!) and I can’t help but think that the current system lets us down. To reach 30 years of age without ever being encouraged to stop the monkey mind is a tragedy.

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Help make yoga more accessible to those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Tari Prinster: Cultivating Hope, Strength and Community For Those Touched By Cancer

Tari Prinster is a cancer survivor and yoga teacher since 2003. She is also the founder and director of our yoga4cancer program; and the founder of a nonprofit, The Retreat Project, that helps to bring specialized yoga classes and retreats to cancer survivors. Here, she talks with us for our Huffington Post Blog series on yoga service.

Rob: What emotionally motivates you to give back the gift of yoga?

Tari: Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer; it literally took my breath away. I was caught off guard by how this made me feel like an invalid. It stole control away from my life. How could I go from being healthy to being sick, weak, and powerless? And this was not the most surprising part of it. Then came the treatments, which weakened my health, strength, and happiness more than the cancer. Everyone said, “Go home and take it easy,” but I needed help to stay strong. At the time, I was already a yoga practitioner, but it was largely in the name of vanity. My own practice immediately took on a greater importance. I tried to stay normal by walking, biking and, increasingly, doing more yoga.

I learned not to live in fear of losing my life, but rather to embrace what I have. By getting so close to losing it all, I was liberated to focus on the things and people that really mean the most to me. The lessons from my cancer have been the most powerful of my life, and actually I am often thankful for my cancer. It has made me a better version of myself. Yoga also helps me be a better version of myself, as it did the whole way through my cancer treatments and recovery. I feel strongly about sharing this healing tool with others, as I know others are feeling that same lack of support in staying strong. Yoga can be their remedy, too.

What changes occur during our asana, pranayama, or meditation practices that help us get off our mats and “give back” to our communities the benefits we’ve received through the practice of yoga?

The transformative nature of yoga, like cancer, changes your life forever. Through it we learn balance, harmony, goodness, and how to be peaceful, strong, and flexible. As a yoga teacher, when I see people who are suffering from the lack of these qualities in their lives, such as cancer patients, it ignites feelings of compassion in me to help them also find this transformative path to health and healing.

How did you begin to serve?

While I was in treatment my doctors commented on how quickly I recovered compared to others, and I began to ask if it had anything to do with the yoga. I came to a new relationship with my yoga practice through cancer, and I began to wonder why and how I was recovering so quickly and thoroughly, emotionally and physically. Because the doctors couldn’t understand why I was recovering better than others given the treatments that I was undergoing, and because the yoga community at that time had no answers, I began to research on my own and build a program around it. Once I had an understanding of the biological and physical relationship between practicing yoga and undergoing cancer treatments, I began to share a specialized practice with other cancer patients and survivors in need.

How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?

I don’t. I am attached to the outcomes. I’m attached to helping others find a way to deal with their anxieties, to get stronger, to avoid a recurrence, and to learn how to walk through their fears.

But I do serve without attachment in some ways. I have let go of fear of death. I’ve had to let go of my attachment to many students who have been lost to cancer or other disease. At any point a student may not come back to class, not because they don’t like me or the yoga, but because the cancer has taken control of them, and they have either entered terminal stage, or died.

There is no predicting where anyone is going to go in their cancer journey. The biggest lesson that yoga can teach, and that I can provide to my students, is to learn to take one day at a time. This means to not become attached to the outcome of that day, other than to be an opportunity to experience what is happening right now. I need to practice this in my teaching as much as they do in their experience of yoga.

How do you deal with compassion fatigue?

Feeling compassion is different from showing compassion. There are many ways of showing compassion, and some are less fatiguing than others. There is nothing wrong with finding approaches that are less stressful for you — one doesn’t have to give completely and constantly to everybody. Compassion is a broad term, and the expression of it comes in many forms.

Compassion is an emotional and physical action that requires energy, effort, and selflessness, by putting one’s needs aside, which can lead to stress and loss of emotional balance. We cannot really give contentment, ease, and compassion. As we seek to help those we serve balance suffering and contentment, illness and well-being, we can only model that in our own lives. We can give witness to the suffering of others, but we must first give witness to our own suffering. Take care not to deny yours.

It is my responsibility to respond well to my students — to recognize the symptoms in myself. Think, am I being-self absorbed, detached or preoccupied? Being honest with everyone, not just students, and being able to say “I can’t respond to this right now,” is important for all of who try to give back.

How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?

By doing what I do: providing access to safe yoga classes at a reasonable cost with teachers who have been thoroughly trained. Also by providing scholarships to retreats and ways for people to discover yoga for the first time.

Taking responsibility for one’s health and future is the most important part of one’s own healing process. I practice this myself, and encourage students to do the same. It’s not something the medical profession can give to us; it is something we have to create and maintain for ourselves. Owning that process changes everything. Staying healthy isn’t going to happen easily; it’s an ongoing challenge with daily choices. Without effort, change won’t happen. No effort is a loss.

I teach students to walk through their fears. It is most beneficial to walk through fear of change, of pain, of lack of control, by doing things that are challenging. What students need and want is to be treated normally. In the process of being treated normally, they are going to get stronger. If the practice is just restorative, and not an effort to be normal and gain strength and stability, it’s much less effective.

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

My dream is that Western medical professionals and hospitals recognize that yoga taught by specially-trained and specifically-certified yoga teachers is the final prescription a cancer patient/survivor needs in his or her healing process. They can prescribe yoga for life, yoga for all the life-long side effects that will be there, regardless if the cancer is not.

Editor: Alice Trembour


Learn how to safely and effectively adapt yoga to cancer patients and survivors through yoga4cancer’s teacher training programs.

Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on Gaia.com

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:

 

“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”

YOGA FOR RECOVERY

The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

COMBAT-RELATED PTS

People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.

YOGA FOR PRISONERS

Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.

YOGA & EATING DISORDERS

Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.

HEALTH CARE COSTS

What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.

 


FURTHER READING

The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton

Samara Andrade: How We Serve UN Workers And International Aid Communities

2016-04-04-1459768738-1632386-SamaraAndradeCourtesyofErinElizabethPhotography7-thumbThis is an interview with Samara Andrade, who recently returned to the U.S. from Afghanistan, where she was working for the United Nations and teaching yoga classes in the compound where she lived for UN staff, military reservists/military contractors, private sector aid contractors, and European Union civilian and police staff. She found yoga was a useful tool to support and help the community cope with crises. Samara has been working in international development, crisis and post-conflict contexts for nearly 10 years. She has worked in Zambia, the Sudan, Libya, Nepal, and Afghanistan, among other countries. She told me “yoga speaks across cultures and continents, and it never fails that there is a yoga community in every country where I have worked.”

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?

I started teaching in Sudan, where I was working with communities recovering from conflict, doing so mainly because I wanted to give back to my yoga community, filling in for my teacher who was away on leave. Our class was held on a rooftop enclosed by a bamboo fence and felt like an oasis in the desert. As we lay in Shivasana (corpse pose) at dusk, the birds started chirping as the call to prayer faintly started, often creating an rare and inspiring moment of contentment and connection.

My commitment to teaching yoga while working in conflict and post-conflict zones has only grown since Sudan. I recognize the amazing gift yoga has given me, a way to ground and center myself in the midst of extreme circumstances. Sometimes these conditions are incredibly rewarding and other times they are disenchanting and heartbreaking. Yoga gives me a way to reconnect with myself on the mat, be part of a mindful community, work through what I feel in constructive ways, and challenge myself to grow.

Another reason is that for many years I struggled with the duality of two lives: of working in extreme situations which change you as a human being, and being the person everyone at home expects to see when you got off the plane. Sometimes that was easy and sometimes it was challenging, particularly figuring out how best to communicate my experience to those at home. Remembering who you are in the middle of this can be hard, particularly when you move from one duty station to another. I found yoga was a bridge that helped me deal with that, bring all the pieces of myself back together, and re-center. Experiencing the benefits that yoga has brought to me in learning how to cope and manage these changes in a better way has motivated me to support a yoga community wherever I live. Yoga is a container for others to learn, explore and grow, and above all to connect with themselves.

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?

I started teaching yoga abroad in post-conflict, conflict, and crisis countries, so I developed as a teacher in that environment. However, I focus on the same things I would in a US studio setting: finding that inner calm, practicing yoga with integrity, honoring where you are that day, cultivating mindfulness, mind-body-breath connection. They’re universal because they are life skills that can help you navigate the inevitable peaks and valleys in life anywhere.

A lot of people are working far away from family and friends, so I make a specific effort to cultivate that feeling of community in the way we start and end class. This feeling is then there to tap into when and if someone wants to.

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

One of the biggest challenges for me is finding the balance between being available to support students and the yoga community, and also holding healthy boundaries and remembering to take time for myself. I balance working full-time in a demanding job with teaching yoga, and sometimes I forget that I need down time to re-charge so that I can show up to class and be the best teacher possible.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I think it’s important to approach working with people who have been exposed to conflict with an understanding that everything is not black and white; they may have mixed feelings regarding what they experienced, and about what they were able to achieve (or not) in their job. Try not to make assumptions about people based on your own perceptions of what they may have experienced. It’s also important to keep in mind that people have different experiences dealing with the transition to life at home; for some it’s easier and for others it’s more challenging.

If you are teaching in conflict or crisis zones, be mindful of your own exposure to trauma and how you deal with it. Knowing when to take time and work through your own feelings and emotions before stepping into a class to teach is as important as your commitment to supporting service yoga.

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

I believe that yoga is a beneficial and effective, yet extremely under-used tool for healing. There are some exciting programs out there using yoga as a complementary therapy, both in the US and in countries affected by conflict and disaster. I hope that yoga becomes an integral part of recovery programs for communities in conflict, as well as for active duty staff in the military and in aid organizations. I would like to see more systematic investment in providing access to yoga and mindfulness programs for those who work in such contexts.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

As a yoga teacher, I’ve become more committed to supporting service-oriented yoga, in addition to regular classes for the public. After returning to the US, I took a training course in Mindful Yoga Therapy with Suzanne Manafort and Give Back Yoga Foundation, and now teach a female veterans’ class through Connected Warriors in New York, where I now live, as well as continue supporting access to mindful yoga classes for UN staff, as well as the general public.

I have gained new appreciation for the military community and for the importance of supporting veterans, as well as other humanitarian and aid workers. The latter often have no centralized support like the VA.

This country has one of the largest veteran populations in history, and we all have a responsibility, as a nation and as a community, to support veterans’ and their families’ transition back to life at home. Equally we have a responsibility to the international aid community to support those who work abroad and don’t have access to the same type of support when they come home. #BeWellServeWell

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Would you like to be part of this support network for those who serve? Explore our Mindful Yoga Therapy training page to learn how you can help veterans and others impacted by trauma to find a calm and steady body/mind.

Jennifer Wright: Bringing Yoga to Veterans Treatment Court

2016-02-02-1454416098-7814319-JenniferWrightSchneemanPhotoCourtesyofPaulDirkPhotography-thumbThis is an interview with Jennifer Wright, who offers Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) training to Veterans and their families. She started with eight Veterans, ranging from OEF/OIF to Vietnam War Vets. One of those Vets introduced her to The Joseph House, a treatment-based shelter for Veterans in transition where she has worked the last two years. Around the same time, she received an invitation from the much-loved local judge to work with the Veterans of the Hamilton County Municipal-Veterans Treatment Court. She offers the MYT practices in the courtroom, prior to the docket. Attendance is now mandatory, and is considered one of the three self-help meetings required each week.

Since then, Interact for Health expanded the program through grant funds to capture data that supports the benefits of MYT when combined with behavioral treatment. MYT in Cincinnati has evolved to a mandatory complementary alternative medicine (CAM) intervention in both the Men’s and Women’s residential treatment programs at Veterans Administration Medical Center.

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?

Jennifer: My sister-in-law and both of my brothers are Marines. I’m motivated to support the people that committed to our country and constitution; yet I have Jennie, Mark, Mike, other family members and friends in my heart as I interact with active duty and Veterans of all ages.

My yoga journey started long ago, when I started practicing in a post-9/11 environment while living in the DC area. I share the practices that helped and continue to help me process and manage my own stress.

My 12-year DOD career was spent working at DARPA, the science arm for the Pentagon; and also at military laboratories. I have my own experience, and although never active duty, I can relate to transitioning out of a lifestyle (not just a career) and redefining the self: figuring out what is next. I worked Human Performance Optimization programs for a long time, and I still do. I do so now using a trauma-informed protocol that is designed to enable the individual to practice coping skills and complement the hard work of treatment, transition & recovery. I still take my job very seriously – just now I wear comfier clothes and the work is more immediate and directly impactful!

Is there a standout moment from your work with the veteran population?

There are several notable moments, and a few stand out to me for their beautiful simplicity.

One of the men I worked with ended up at VA hospital where he had all day to monitor his BP and HR. He put his yoga practice to the test and had the added benefit of immediate feedback through the physiological monitoring. He used his breath practices to impact his outcome – to manage his pain, anxiety and anger during the whole process. He shared how he had a chance to discuss his coping skills with the medical staff. As he shared his real-world experience, I felt privileged to observe a proud and empowered man.

Another Veteran was pretty banged up. Some of his injuries were visible, although mostly not. The first session, he arrived to class with a stern face and dark glasses to protect his sensitive eyes from any light. He is a tall and solid man. Due to multiple traumas, sitting, standing and moving with comfort was rarely accessible to him on any given day. Although he had difficulty getting to the ground, he was determined to relax on the floor during the resting practices along with everyone else and he wanted to get there with minimal assistance. Communication was challenged so I used an analogy to land like a C-130 rather than a Harrier. Grace and safety was communicated; I was able to assist him to the ground. Once settled in with yoga props, he would give a big thumbs up and release a big smile or sigh. It was especially amazing to watch him over the eight weeks throughout the hard work with his speech therapist, clinical psychologists and of course, MYT. He would arrive to MYT with a grin, his arms spread out and make the noise of a large, cargo plane – ready to land and to relax.

What did you know about veterans 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?

I went into working with Veterans feeling comfortable and in my element. Now, working Mindful Yoga Therapy with such a wide range of individuals reinforced how hard-headed some people can be…after all, people are people. Working with and witnessing people work their MYT program along side their recovery, therapy, or behavioral treatment has reinforced my understanding of humans, and especially military members as supremely resilient.

I went in thinking that damage to the brain was permanent. My VA mentors, colleagues, education and new discoveries prove otherwise.

What is unique about the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program as applied to Veterans Court?2016-02-02-1454416666-687449-unspecified-thumb

After getting over the initial chuckle of yoga mats in the courtroom, Hamilton County Vet Court is a unique and interactive environment. It starts with the motivating and compassionate judge, coupled with the well trained, kindhearted VA Veterans Justice Outreach, Court Clinic, Prosecutors and Public Defenders. Combine that with fun and relatable peer mentors, it is unlike anything I’ve experienced or seen in a traditional courtroom. Hamilton County Vet Court is treatment-based, and creates a comfortable and safe environment where supports (employment, transportation, wellness activities and others) are the foundation to sobriety and treatment.

We hold MYT prior to the docket. Feedback suggests that the pre-docket practice brings calm to the individuals and reduces anxiety. I observe it, and I receive the feedback that we create a visibly calmer courtroom.

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

To me, the greatest challenge is working with men and women carrying sexual trauma. I lean on the advanced MYT trauma-informed protocol, my training and my experience. Trauma is held in the nervous system, and survival is sometimes rooted in living outside of the self. Since yoga is an invitation back into the body through self-awareness and self-acceptance, it is crucial to create a safe environment with the use of supportive language, postures and practices.

It is my observation that some people are not ready to come back into the body. The reminder to me is to stay positive and to be a ray of light for if and when the individual is ready. The more effective way is to invite the individual to show up and breathe, as the breath is the foundation for everything that we do. In MYT we offer many variations and a goal is to empower people to work to his or her appropriate level.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Trauma is trauma, and whether it is combat or non-combat related, a trauma-informed approach is necessary; and when implemented correctly, it works.

If there is interest in working with Veterans, especially in a clinical setting, embrace the beginner;s mind, empty your cup and get smart by training-up on a trauma-informed protocol like MYT. Stay healthy personally by staying grounded and use other self-care techniques to not take on “stuff.” Work your own practice!

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

There is a real need to support more Veterans and their families. Offering MYT practices (breath work, meditation, yoga postures, Yoga Nidra and gratitude) to active duty service members supports the research that shows how people armed with resiliency skills can experience and process trauma with self-soothing techniques and thus decrease the conversion to chronic stress and/or re-experiencing.

I am committed to continuing the MYT protocol in the clinical setting so that we can better understand the positive outcomes, especially when implemented in conjunction with Cognitive Processing Therapy. With the support of the Interact for Health grant funds, we are gaining traction towards the recognition as an evidenced-based intervention. It is my hope that we are moving towards full adoption within the DOD and VA.

War is not black and white. As the military and its agents return from war, there is a lot of “gray” to process. We owe it to the men and women to provide a whole range of skills to aid in the transition.

Headshot courtesy of Paul Dirk Photography.

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Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s 100-hour certification program can lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Find an upcoming training near you.

 

Dr. Robert Scott: Yoga for First Responders

dr robert scottThis is an interview with Dr. Robert Scott, a licensed psychologist as well as a nationally recognized teacher, trainer, and consultant in the field of trauma/disaster psychology. I first met Bob at the “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Resiliency Training to Benefit First Responders” held at the Sedona Yoga Festival in February 2015. For over 30 years Dr. Scott has provided crisis response interventions and support to first responder populations, including fire, police, medical, aviation, military, and Red Cross personnel.

In 1998, he was appointed Department Psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Program for the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD). In addition to his regular duties and activities of critical incident response and training, Dr. Scott directed and supervised the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team deployment to the World Trade Center attack in the aftermath of 9/11. During the team’s two-week deployment, Dr. Scott provided CISM intervention and support to the Fire Department of New York. Dr. Scott also provided similar support with his CISM team to Louisiana Firefighters during a one-week deployment to the hurricane-impacted Gulf states during hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Rob: What originally motivated you to start a yoga program at the Los Angeles Fire Department?

To be honest, I was not really thinking about a yoga program for first responders until I met Olivia Kvitne, a local yoga teacher. When she suggested it, I was skeptical because I was aware of the biases that most people have about yoga, especially folks in the fire service. However, my wife has practiced yoga for over 20 years, and I was already aware of its powerful health-promoting benefits. I knew that it would be a good thing for the population, but how was I going to get around breaking the stigma attached to it?

Once I met with Olivia and heard her about her unique way of implementing yoga for first responders, I knew we had a chance of seeing it applied in this setting. Olivia had a unique blend of knowledge, positive attitude and energy, and with her approach I felt we had a good chance of making it work with the first responder personality.

I also decided that I would participate in the class myself! My wife had been wanting me to start yoga for the longest time, so I thought this would be a great way to join in with the members of the department, and test the program out personally. From the moment we started the program at LAFD, I began to see the benefits on a personal level as well.

What is the importance of mindfulness for allowing first responders, like firefighters, to thrive in high-intensity, high-adrenaline environments, while at the same time helping build strength and resiliency?

Mindfulness and yoga allow for a “stress break” and present a valuable tool to add to the stress management package that first responders need to survive in a profession that has a long trajectory in terms of its career span (usually 20-30 years). First responder work also happens to be rated the most stressful job in the nation. (The Most Stressful Jobs of 2015, CareerCast.com; Most (and Least) Stressful Jobs for 2015, Business News Daily.)

In one segment — about three shifts over a week — firefighters may witness and experience more trauma, loss, death, and destruction than the average person might see in a lifetime. It is for this reason that yoga and mindfulness become a critical factor in allowing this population to “vent off” excess stress, reduce hyper-vigilant response patterns, and build positive resistance to the harsh and negative effects of stress. We call that process of building resistance and psychological strength “resiliency.” Resiliency is an essential component to dealing effectively with a career in the fire service.

Has the application and effectiveness of your program been evaluated? Is there an evidence base for the benefits of yoga for this population?

Yes, we’ve done some preliminary pencil and paper survey questionnaires and found that the participants rated the program’s effectiveness very highly! However, the sample size was small. We need larger groups to study, utilizing a controlled scientific method. What we can do, however, is extrapolate from the current statistics available for military populations, which suggest very positive reductions in PTSD and other stress-related symptoms. A recent study published in The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology has very encouraging things to say about yoga’s cardiovascular and stress-reducing effectiveness, which can likely be applied to this population as well (Chu, Gotink, Yeh, Goldie, & Hunink, 2015).

What is the greatest obstacle in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature in fire departments?

It’s simply getting over and beyond the stigma of yoga, and the misunderstandings that have been created by “silly” stereotypes that have been used in the media and in films and television. Once a department or an administrator looks at the program either in a video or in an actual class, they will see the effectiveness and power of it immediately. As mentioned in the recent cardiology study, yoga has a distinct advantage over traditional exercise programs utilized in the fire service. With budgets stretched to their limits,”Yoga has the potential to be a cost-effective treatment and prevention strategy given its low cost, lack of expensive equipment or technology, potential greater adherence, health-related quality of life improvements, and possible accessibility to larger segments of the population.” (Chu, et. al. 2015)

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

You need to be prepared for some resistance, and you need to be very professional and “down to earth.” Don’t use yogic jargon. You need to be familiar with fire department culture. If you don’t understand it or know it, get someone who is familiar with it to sit down with you to explain it. Then take time to get to know the culture before you step into it. Take a class that prepares you to work with this population.

What should fire department administrators know about the Yoga for First Responders program?

They will be getting a cost-effective, comprehensive program of stress reduction and cardio-fitness that will outdo most standard fitness programs for reducing job injuries and increasing physical and psychological resiliency among their employees.

It will be effective for both their civilian as well as uniformed members. In our test program at LAFD, we mixed our program and allowed civilian members to join our uniform members. It worked beautifully, and added to the cooperative understanding between the two groups.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Blog on August 25, 2015.

Paige Reeves: How We Bridge Linguistic and Socio-Economic Borders

paige reevesThis is an interview with Paige Reeves, who launched YogaVida in October 2013 as a non-profit initiative to bring the mental and physical benefits of yoga to the Latino immigrant community in Phoenix, Arizona. She teaches a free weekly general class in Spanish at a partnering non-profit health care clinic (Phoenix Allies for Community Health), and is also sharing relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and moderate asana techniques with a Spanish-speaking HIV-positive support group. YogaVida is starting to grow; recently, several enthusiastic teachers have responded to calls for Spanish-speaking teachers.

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?

When family reasons brought me back to the US after almost two decades in Spain and Peru, I noticed that while yoga is incredibly popular and available in Phoenix, and Phoenix is home to a huge Latino population, the two have barely met. I saw an opportunity to bridge that gap and, at the same time, to support immigrants — a group whose particular obstacles have always concerned me, especially against the backdrop of Arizona’s hard line on immigration. I saw a chance to meet people in a new city and to keep my Spanish-speaking, South American-living side alive.

What continues to motive me is interacting with the students, building relationships, being a part of their lives, and hearing their responses to the changes they have felt along the way. I like that they truly want to be there. We enrich one another.

Is there a standout moment from your work with YogaVida and the Latino community in Phoenix?

That moment would be the openness and willingness of the HIV-positive support group during our first class. I was a complete stranger to them, an outsider to their close-knit community, yet they sat patiently and attentively while I talked (a bit nervously at first — I still get nervous speaking in front of groups!) about mind/body medicine, and stress reduction. Then they were brave enough to take off their shoes and lie down on the carpeted conference room floor, some with visible trepidation, close their eyes (most of them anyway), and follow the instructions of someone they didn’t know at all, to do something they’d never seen before. I relaxed, they relaxed. The class started to be peppered with jokes and good-natured grunts. By the end of our two hours together, there was a palpable feeling of trust and mutual appreciation, of connection.

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?

I had recently moved to Phoenix, so honestly, I didn’t know much about this particular population. I’m getting to know the community with each interaction. But in any case I did feel that I wouldn’t be able to truly know how the project would be until it actually came into being. I had a general idea of the “how” and the “what” I wanted to offer, but I needed to allow the actual experiences and the actual people to shape YogaVida.

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 YogaVida classes, we don’t follow what I think of as standard studio protocol or etiquette. For example, students might interrupt with a question in the middle of class; we might get off-topic if there is something interesting to talk about. We laugh quite a lot, and the whole thing is a lot less formal. Sometimes, one mom needs to bring her 2-year-old because she can’t find childcare. We simply set the little girl up on a folded mat and have her play along, copying our movements. Yes, it distracts from the class in the strictest sense, but we make it work, and everyone gets to do their yoga.

Secondly, I focus less on refinements, not to water it down or because the students can’t do them, but in order to make our classes fun, light-hearted, and accessible. If the pose a student is making is more or less as intended, and everything is safe, I know the pose is being effective.

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

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I struggle to keep up my motivation to do the project, to go out and build up a student base, find new spaces to hold classes, seek material donations. In other words, sometimes it is easy to fall back into my own comfortable little life. The “fix”, though, is pretty easy: I simply keep doing it. Each time I do a class and see my students, my motivation and enthusiasm are renewed.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

As with almost anything in life: suspend your expectations, opinions, and assumptions. Be mindful and open to who, and how, your students actually are. Be informed. Keep it fun and accessible. But more than anything, just go out and do it — the rest will fall into place.

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

What about a future where there is less of a distinction between “yoga” and “service yoga?” Every single one of us already knows how good it feels to help out a friend, a family member, or a stranger. As yoga continues to infiltrate well-being efforts across the board (schools, offices, prisons, hospitals, neighborhoods of all types and incomes, etc.) and as we keep gaining awareness of how truly interconnected every living being on this planet is, I can envision more and more people becoming inspired to pay forward the emotional and physical changes yoga has sparked in their own lives.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

So far, I haven’t experienced a shift in my definition of yoga or of service. Perhaps that is because my definitions are pretty simple: I believe that yoga meets you where you are, and gives you what you need. I believe that service is a mutually-enriching exchange that can be big or small, subtle or groundbreaking. My practice has changed only in that I have been given one more opportunity to feel the healing power of coupling my own self-study with loving, giving interactions with others.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on July 31, 2015

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If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.