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Kate Rice: How We Serve Our Communities

Kate RiceThis is an interview with Kate Rice, a Chicago-based yoga teacher who offers trauma-informed community classes in two public library locations and recently started teaching yoga at Cook County Jail through Yoga for Recovery. Kate started working administratively in yoga service through Yoga Activist in Washington, DC, before becoming a yoga teacher. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Communication and, among a variety of other jobs, has taught English as a foreign language in Bosnia, Slovakia, and Hungary. You can read more about her work and find resources and articles on trauma-informed yoga at shareyourpractice.org.

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?

Practicing yoga in my low-cost Washington, DC, gym during grad school was transformational for me. I was dealing with a lot of stuff, and yoga just made me feel better. As a child I was very overweight, I had a difficult relationship with my family, I struggled with body and food issues for many years. It took me a long time to feel comfortable wearing yoga clothes and going to a yoga studio.

I started volunteering a few hours a week of admin help for Yoga Activist in exchange for free yoga at Yoga District. This essentially turned into a full-time gig for some time—Jasmine Chehrazi’s dedication to this organization and work has proven to be an incredible influence on my path.

Fast forward to 2014, I had moved back to Chicago, and somewhat spontaneously enrolled in yoga teacher training with Core Power Yoga. I now teach yoga full-time and love it. I believe yoga has a tremendous capacity to heal, whether it’s in one’s own home, in a gym, on the beach, or in a studio. But if I only teach in paid positions at gyms or studios, the yoga I offer is likely only reaching the small segment of people who can afford to pay a lot. Lots more people can benefit. There are so many problems in the world, most of which I am not otherwise equipped to address, so making yoga available at low cost or no cost is something I can actually do.

My motivation has shifted to helping connect yoga teachers to the resources already out there to get formal training in trauma-informed yoga.

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 avoid hands-on assists outside the main studio I teach in, for a number of reasons. But otherwise, I actually bring a lot of my trauma-informed perspective into my public classes. Molly Boeder Harris framed it most memorably for me in her training on yoga for survivors of sexual violence: trauma survivors are definitely present in public classes too!

Ideally any class is level-appropriate for the people in it, and most of my public studio classes are in fact more vigorous than my community classes. But wherever I teach, I offer options, as much as I can, without ranking the options [as easier/more advanced]. I invite students to observe their own experience of the postures, the pace of their own breath. I consistently ask if students would like to opt out of hands-on assists. I offer alignment cues—a lot! But ultimately I let my students decide what to do with their own bodies and their own practice.

There are strong views that teachers should do this work only as service, and equally strong views that teachers should not work for free because it undervalues the work. I think it is more complicated than coming to one “right” answer—and also that yoga service shouldn’t be practiced only by people with disposable income and with lots of spare time on their hands.

It can be disheartening, though, when in certain contexts I have to fight for the opportunity to offer a free yoga class that incorporates my professional skills and supplementary training in trauma-informed yoga. My tools are persistence, recognizing how rewarding it is to offer yoga in a setting where it wouldn’t otherwise be available, and picking my battles. I may have my heart set on a specific venue, but if management isn’t interested in yoga—even a free class—someone else will be, somewhere else.

Coffee helps, too, especially with the persistence part.

What advice would you give to teachers newer to the field of teaching trauma- informed yoga?

Get formal training in trauma-informed yoga because it matters. There are teachers with lots of experience in trauma-informed yoga, and they will bring up topics you haven’t even thought to consider. You’ll learn a lot by attending their trainings, and your enrollment fees will help financially support yoga service as a whole.

Also, as important as it is to learn and do your best, be kind to yourself, rather than judgmental. You will make mistakes, you will say and do things that later you look back on and wish you had done differently.  Trauma survivors have survived a lot; your yoga class will not break them.

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 teachers and the public will define “yoga service” more broadly, and incorporate trauma-informed yoga training in standard yoga teacher trainings.

For-profit public classes will continue to reach the segment of the population who can pay. In this group, there are bound to be trauma survivors, both people who identify as such but wouldn’t call themselves that publicly, and people who for most intents and purposes are trauma survivors, but haven’t thought to categorize themselves as such. For this reason, I hope that more yoga teacher trainings will incorporate information on trauma-informed practices, and direct teachers on how and why to get additional training.

Low-cost yoga for the public at large matters, too. Teaching yoga in prisons, to documented domestic violence survivors, to people diagnosed with eating disorders—these are all incredibly important. I hope that teaching yoga in less dramatic but equally worthwhile settings like community centers or libraries will be recognized as valuable forms of yoga service too. It would be tremendous to reach people with yoga before they wind up in more extreme situations of experiencing an eating disorder, becoming incarcerated, or experiencing domestic violence. So even if yoga isn’t what prevents the situation totally, they have those tools at their disposal.

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Jennifer Fremion: Healing the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Jennifer Fremion OriginaljpgThis is an interview with Jennifer Fremion, who works as a chemotherapy infusion nurse as well as a certified yoga teacher in yoga for cancer, Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, and Yoga Psychology. She and Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology have developed the first medically supported yoga for cancer program in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area that offers free classes to all cancer patients and survivors.

Says Jennifer so powerfully: “Cancer doesn’t only take over the body. Trauma resides in the body and mind of a person with cancer. Therefore, yoga is an integral component of the treatment of cancer because it addresses not just the physical body, but also the emotional and mental bodies, as well as the spiritual health of the individual.”

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

Our patients are what motivate me. As a chemotherapy nurse I get to know them throughout the course of their treatment. They are the strongest people I know. I see their fear and sadness, and I also see their hope and joy for life. It helps to keep me present within the moments of my own life. Throughout my work as a nurse, I’ve seen how the practice of yoga fits so beautifully as a complementary part of medical treatment. Where medicine falls short, yoga offers support. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it seems to be the missing piece of the big picture of cancer treatment.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I’m most rewarded by being told by those who attend yoga for cancer classes how much they love the classes, and that they feel so good afterward. I recently had a student stay after class. She was new to the class and newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She began to cry as she introduced herself to the class and shared her fears of her diagnosis. The entire group supported her in sharing their own stories and extending an offering of hope. After class this student thanked me and said, “I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life, but now that I’ve got cancer it’s become even worse. This class helped me with that and immediately gave me relief.”

We share our stories, we laugh and we cry in these classes. They go far beyond physical exercise; yoga taps into something so much deeper than that. These teachings work to the deepest level of our human capacity, beyond the traditional treatment regimen and protocol. This is where deep healing occurs.

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

They teach me by just being and showing up. These students represent the epitome of strength and courage. They show up in their own lives fully every day. Whether they are nauseated, fatigued, depressed or scared, they show up. They give insight into what it is to live with cancer and to go through treatment. Quite a few of the students in the yoga for cancer classes have stage 4 cancers, and know that there isn’t a “cure” for their disease. And yet they live each moment of their lives to the fullest, because their diagnosis gives them the understanding that there is an end to life. I learn that we don’t know how long we have in this life, and so to make the most of each moment.

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

Yoga is an inclusive practice. Our yoga for cancer classes are free and open to all students who are going through cancer treatment or are beyond treatment. Societal factors such as economic status, religion, ethnicity, physical status and education don’t prevent students from experiencing the benefits of practicing yoga. We live, breathe and practice as a collective. We celebrate each other and our unique life’s journey and it is each student’s cancer journey that has brought us all together in the first place. Yoga addresses societal factors by bridging diversity and extending acceptance. Creating union, which is the definition of yoga; union within our own body and mind and in community with each other.

In working with cancer patients, what changes have you noticed in yourself, your thinking or feeling about cancer?

Cancer has become a part of all of our lives. It is something that will touch us all whether it is a friend, family member, or our own personal cancer journey. Working with people going through cancer treatment and cancer recovery, I’ve learned the importance of pausing in life to breathe, even if it is just for a short moment. This offers a sense of peace no matter what it is we are facing. Yoga gives us this very tool, one that teaches us that we can truly be well even in the midst of disease or chaos. My teacher Tari Prinster says it best, “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.”

I am so grateful to be working alongside oncologists who understand the immense healing capacity of yoga and cancer. Through our program we are not just focusing on the illness itself. We are able to move beyond that and focus on the overall wellness of each patient and survivor. We can create the space and understanding that we can be well no matter what stage or progression of the disease we face. The practice of yoga teaches us this.

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

My hope for the future of yoga for cancer is that the yoga and medical fields can increasingly work together to offer tools to our patients to live life better both during and beyond traditional treatment. I hope yoga will be used more and more as a therapeutically-oriented practice to offer great relief beyond the physical realm. Yoga can fully support our patients’ needs, body, mind, and spirit.

Cited Resources

(1) Yoga For Cancer: A Gude to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors, Healing Arts Press, 2014, p. 278.

(2) Yoga For Cancer, Tari Prinster p. 277.

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Damaris Maria Grossmann: From Battle Warrior To Peaceful Warrior

Damaris-Maria-Grossmann-Social-image

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.