Annie Buckley: Tools for Transformation

This is an interview with Annie Buckley, an artist, writer, and award-winning educator who focuses on art and social justice. She has taught yoga fused with visual art and creative writing to children, teens, and adults in settings including schools, shelters, and prisons and has been a mentor teacher since 2000, specializing in supporting others to conduct learner-centered creative classes for diverse participants. Her work has been dedicated to expanding access to the transformative practices of art and yoga for the past 25 years.

Annie is the author of numerous essays and articles on contemporary art and dozens of books, including the popular Kids Yoga Deck (Chronicle Books, 2003). Recently, she wrote about mindfulness and her experience as a cancer patient for The Huffington Post.

Annie is currently an Associate Professor at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), where she oversees the Visual Studies major and founded and directs Community-based Art and the Prison Arts Collective, for which she was recently awarded an NEA grant.

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

What motivates me most is a love of art, and a passion for social justice. Since I began teaching in the early ‘90s, I’ve chosen to teach in public schools in predominantly underserved areas. This has taken me down many paths, including teaching art at Hoover Street School and yoga at Dolores Mission Alternative School. Most recently, I’m serving as a professor at CSUSB, where 80% of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and I’m bringing an arts program to four prisons in Southern CA.

I try to balance what I’m interested in— art, yoga, meditation, writing— with what is needed, and I have been fortunate to find avenues to grow these practices in areas that would not otherwise have access to them.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

What I love about teaching is the opportunity to do interesting things— discuss art theory, create a mandala, practice a group meditation— with a diverse group of people. Like most teachers, I learn as well as teach; I’m fortunate to have been able to teach people of all ages and from many different backgrounds, and to create hybrid classes in art, yoga, and writing. I love seeing people’s eyes light up when they realize their creative capacity.

Seeing my former students follow their dreams and flourish is most rewarding to me. For example, a single mother in my teen yoga class became my assistant in a teacher training; a student from my Yoga for Kids Teacher Training opened a yoga studio in Oregon; my former research assistants are currently in graduate school at USC and ASU; and several former students at CSUSB now teach with me in the Prison Arts Collective.

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

My students daily teach by example: they have patience, perseverance, kindness, humility, curiosity, and hope for the future. For those who are incarcerated, I am humbled by their positivity, collaboration, and willingness to be open and vulnerable in the creative process despite their difficult circumstances; their care for one another, courage to change their lives, and desire to ‘give back’ to their communities are profound.

My students on campus inspire me with their strength, diligence, and willingness to create change in their lives and communities. After our recent presidential election, one of our students, also a Teaching Artist in the Prison Arts Collective, Rebecca Crisler, wrote a post that pulled me out of the doldrums and gave me hope for change. It ended with the words, “This is a scary time, but we cannot be afraid, we are powerful because we are many and we have love, compassion and intelligence. WE have the power, let’s use it!”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with incarcerated men and women?

As the issue of mass incarceration becomes widely known, people are more willing to consider that those in prison have multifaceted lives and stories; also, I know a lot of people, inside the system and out, that are working for improved rehabilitative programs. But as a society, we have a long way to go before we are able to untangle and mitigate all the factors that go into the racial and economic disparities inherent in our criminal justice system.

To me, it’s an honor and a privilege to share a positive and transformative creative space with those who are incarcerated. The Prison Arts Collective grows each day because our teaching artists and participants are all empowered by this experience. We grow organically, based on the needs and interests of our members. We started out teaching visual art but have added creative writing, music, and yoga as participants requested them. But all of our class involve historical knowledge, creative practice, and reflection.

The practice of asana is newer to our program but mindfulness and the philosophy of lovingkindness permeate everything we do. We aim to value everyone’s contribution and co-create creative space together. In a more practical example, I developed an exercise for our program called 3X5; in this practice, you take five conscious breaths, make five thumbnail sketches, and write five words. Each time I lead this practice in a prison, I can feel a palpable shift in the group from breath one to breath five, as if tensions were gently eased from the space.

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

I believe that yoga— asana, meditation, and a philosophy of integration and ahimsa (non-violence)— is a means to personal and universal transformation. I have experienced this, and it informs my creative process and life choices. That said, I don’t think that yoga, or anything, really, is the one and only path to change; I think—I hope—that there are multiple diverse paths to generate positive social transformation, and that all of them together have the potential to result in a more equitable distribution of resources and more expansive and pervasive peace. It takes all of this to achieve real change.

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

I’m inspired by the movement of service yoga and only hope it continues to grow! If every person who was fortunate to be able to practice yoga shared it with an individual or group who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, we’d go a long way to making yoga and mindfulness accessible to all.

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

Jared Seibert: Trading Mutual Funds for Yoga Mats

This is an interview with Jered Seibert, founder of Warrior Wear LLC, who last year left his mutual fund sales work to become a full-time entrepreneur, creating yoga products for men. Drawing upon inspiration from yoga service, and frustrated at the lack of products for male practitioners, he was inspired to start his own company. He has been practicing yoga since 2008.

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

I’m inspired and motivated to build a brand that men see themselves in, not judge themselves against. I often feel uncomfortable comparing myself to yoga models who are more built, more flexible, and living a life unrelated to mine. Since men are typically less represented in yoga, I quickly start to question where I fit in. My practice and my corporate experience have inspired and empowered me with a sense of responsibility to give back in a way that I know how: communicate a vision, build a team, and work to alleviate insecurity rather than increase anxiety. There’s a difference between inspiration and aspiration. I’ve been inspired by yoga to become part of something bigger than myself, rather than aspiring to become a version of someone else. That’s what keeps me going.

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

This relationship is critical: the most important part of my practice is how it transcends into my life. If we can reach men who have a ‘push harder, move faster, try harder’ mentality, we can make an impact against anger, addiction, and anxiety. In addition, yoga can level the gender biases and highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Many households are still patriarchies, many cultures are still misogynistic, and yoga can be the great equalizer. The more I practice, the more unity I experience across all of humanity. My goal is to spread the message and promote a relatable brand that people can identify with.

How is yoga evolving in contemporary culture? What’s happening to the demographics, and to the teachings? How has your own practice evolved?

I think in terms of possible change, it’s exciting that men are the fastest growing demographic in yoga practice. When I think of the initial image of yoga in contemporary culture, I remember Lilias Yoga and You on public television. Culturally, it was presented to us in a way that women responded and gravitated towards. After several decades in the West, the image is changing and appealing to a broader demographic. People are uncovering more cultural benefits and sharing their experience. It’s become a tool that kids use to manage emotions, a practice that athletes use to sharpen their skills, and a shared experience couples use to bring them closer together.

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

I believe that brands play an indirect role in shaping the future and can contribute to the integrity of the practice. One of my driving motivations is to create a company that can inspire a broader demographic. If we can build a masculine brand that people identify with based on their own self-experience, we can create a connection. And that is, ultimately, what this is all about. The goal is to create a lasting connection with people across the world who have a common interest in living well. We live in a capitalist culture, and we tend to turn to the market to mitigate our insecurity.

We’re indoctrinated to understand that products exist for the consumer. It’s likely men haven’t responded to yoga because there aren’t any brand identities for them to respond to. There isn’t any connection. As far as the integrity of the practice is concerned, teachers and practitioners really hold the key. They are, in essence, the consumer who dictates whether the brand survives and maintains a level of integrity they support.

One of my favorite teachers, Dan Peppiatt, says that everything we do in yoga should come from within. Does this increase the spiritual authenticity because of its originality, or pull yoga further away from tradition? The fact is that people are going to gravitate to a practice they can relate to or gain something from. If “party-city yoga” doesn’t seem spiritually authentic to me, who am I to say that it doesn’t seem authentic to someone else? A boisterous music-filled muscle toning class might be exactly what someone needs for an authentic yoga experience, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

This idea of spiritual authenticity speaks to the individual and comes in many shapes, forms, practices, and styles. I believe that practitioners will decide the level of spirituality they want from yoga by gravitating to the practice they respond to internally. I feel that a commitment to honesty, integrity, and being non-judgmental of someone’s practice is our responsibility. As long as we are doing that, we are doing a good job, and maintaining a level of spiritual authenticity.

What is your role and your brand’s role in making the practice accessible to more people to facilitate greater social change?

My aspiration is to break the stereotypical image of yoga by making it more accessible. I want to create a brand and a voice for male practitioners that as of yet doesn’t exist. We’ll do that by creating a product that’s ideal for men, and grow as an organization that continues to give back. The more people see themselves addressed in the yoga products market with a greater offering of products tailored for them, the more willing they’ll be to try yoga. The more people we can persuade to try, the bigger the impact will be. Once that happens, I trust that we’ll start to see greater social change, particularly in the way we consume products, food, and content.

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 we start to see our similarities rather than our differences. My hope is that people come to realize for themselves what my practice has taught me, which is that we have choices in how we conduct ourselves. I envision an era in which we take the time to respond rather than react, we let go rather than suppress, and we try to understand, rather than immediately defend. I believe these small ideals can make a big difference in a more compassionate, connected, and communal America. I believe that yoga is the best-positioned platform to lead the way into this change, and I look forward to doing my part.

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Warrior Wear is a supporting friend to our Yoga Readiness Initiative. Donate to the YRI and help sponsor free yoga kits for warriors who serve.

Rebecca Weisman: Adapting Iyengar Yoga For Trans And Gender Non-conforming Students

Rebecca WeismanThis is an interview with Rebecca Weisman, a Certified Iyengar yoga teacher at the Junior Intermediate II level and the Director of the Iyengar Yoga Center of Vermont (IYCVT). She’s been teaching yoga for 10 years. For the past two years IYCVT has offered a free yoga series for Trans and Gender Non-Conforming students in partnership with the Pride Center of Vermont and generously funded by the Iyengar Yoga Association of New England. The series combines practices that can help deal with physical and mental conditions unique to trans experiences with a co-created space for group sharing and support. Some of the topics in the series are dealing with stress/anxiety, hormonal and body changes, self-love, body image, self-care, empowerment through vulnerability, and reclaiming embodiment.

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

For many years I’ve been invested in issues of gender and am sensitive to the perception of yoga as being only for thin, affluent, white women. It’s interesting because I do identify as a white woman but I’m not comfortable in many yoga studios, how homogenous they are, so if I don’t feel like I belong I can only image how others might feel. I also have a deep love for the method of yoga that BKS Iyengar has given us and how he was one of the first to say “yoga is for everybody”. However, this is easier said than done, and I wanted my center to figure out how to live this, how to make yoga more inclusive, and break down barriers and perceptions to get to this universal quality of yoga. Working on gender issues through yoga is particularly interesting because of the body, which can be a source of liberation but also a source of pain, anxiety, and fear. If taught safely, yoga can be a potent practice for metabolizing very deep challenges.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I’m deeply touched when a student can inhabit their body with all the baggage that comes along with really feeling one’s feelings and embodiment.

To be fearless in doing the work even if I don’t have all the answers. I think of one student in particular, who is now a co-facilitator in the trans classes, who has helped me be myself and speak to my own experience when I’m out of my comfort zone. We are all just fumbling our way through these issues together.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal hurdles for transgenders?

There’s a lot of anxiety and discomfort about being in the body, and also being in a group and being seen by the teacher and by others. So, yoga is not exactly a comforting thing at first, but it is a useful experience for bringing up these issues in a safe way. Yoga isn’t about just feeling blissful or peaceful but about seeing ourselves clearly, with all that that entails.

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

If we can see ourselves clearly we can also become present for others. This means that we are willing and able to be in an inter-subjective space with others. By seeing and knowing ourselves, we also crystallize our intentions and actions, we are more effective, and more compassionate.

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

I’d love to explode the mainstream, commercialized, narcissistic view of yoga and work with others in the yoga community to confront our own issues of gender, race, and privilege. I’d like to see more partnership with local community organizations, more outreach. I’d like to see a deeper commitment to not just teach people who are like ourselves but to create learning environments that feel safe and accessible for all.

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

Candace Martin: Serving Many Faiths

This is an interview with Candace Martin, founder of the Young Yogi Advocate Program and the Interfaith Yoga Project. Like many of us, Candace’s yoga journey began by taking a class, liking how she felt, but not being sure why. Because she suffered from severe anxiety, yoga soon became a rare respite for Candace, and she felt drawn to explore more. She has studied with yoga master Rod Stryker since 2003, as well as Hala Khouri.

Rob: What draws you to work with interfaith groups?

Yoga unites. Through svadyaya (a Sanskrit term that means “self-study”), we come to know ourselves and humbly come to see one another. Rotating classes hosted by yoga teachers at their different places of worship creates an opportunity for positive interfaith experiences. There’s something about yoga that transforms the fear we have of hearing something from a different faith perspective during a yoga practice. We might even connect to it, broadening our personal perspectives and enhancing our own beliefs.

It all started by co-creating multi-faith Ramadans and seders. These programs sometimes took place just as our world seemed to be plunging into greater violence and wars. Together we were dissolving away the anxiety and separation of our belief systems. At first we weren’t doing physical yoga, but we were certainly in what I would call a “yogic” environment—taking the courage of stepping into a room together when the news seemed to be generating fear-based information. The idea of routinely meeting for yoga at different houses of faith followed.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience with these groups?

People are now carpooling, getting baby sitters, and making time for our classes; this is rewarding! Many people who have never done yoga are showing up! Our intentions unite us despite our diverse spiritual backgrounds: in Judaism it’s Tikkun Olam (“heal the world”); the Qu’ran emphasizes being in continual service of humankind; in the Unitarian church it shows up as “standing on the side of love”; and in Catholicism it’s about ritual bringing us closer to God, encouraging us to be “the feet, the brains, the heart of God on this earth.”

Yoga provides tools to help us physically embody the concepts that we wish to internalize, allowing for the veil of daily life to drop. We become vulnerable, peeling off the rhetoric, the judgments, the well-intended ideas we may have or the less-than-loving concepts we didn’t even know we were carrying. We work in the classes to create a loving space, giving up shame around misconceptions or misguided ideas. We not only have an opportunity to unpack our thoughts about one another, but we can investigate our own relationship to Spirit. It’s a safe space to explore, educate, and be together. Another rewarding revelation has been that no matter how we pray, we all meet at Ishvara Prahnidahna (a Sanskrit term for “surrender and duty to something greater”).

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

I’ve learned a great deal about the similarities of some of the faiths that have historically been at odds. As we rotate through faith communities, we’re learning to honor the differences in prayer styles and observances. We are connecting elements of science and vedic knowledge to respective faith themes as a way to deepen an understanding of a religious concept. We may speak about Shabbat, taking pause, or getting quiet, and we may also connect this to how the nervous system moves into a more restful, less reactive state during these times. Stillness is valuable, but challenging to arrive at without breath and movement. We can absorb Shabbat through our bodies more effectively with the infusion of breath and movement.

As we take turns hosting the project with our faith neighbors, we all get a chance to be seen, heard, and accepted. We all have to be willing to play and pray in each other’s yards. This is what melts the separation, and, I believe, creates change for our future. It’s been so moving to be warmly welcomed into different churches, synagogues, and community centers.

Here’s something my teacher taught me: I remember Rod Stryker saying many years ago that meditating on a cross, or a Star of David, or a passage from the Qu’ran, is “a way in” or another tool to “taste” the infinite. The ability to rest even a bit in the divine while navigating through our differences in the material world is an invaluable tool. We meditate or go to church or mosque, and we hope we can remember that sweetness when as we return to our scheduled lives.

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

There is no separation. We get quiet, we hear the call and then it’s up to us to move into action and answer that call. Whether it’s the story of Arjuna and Lord Shiva or the words and actions of Hannah Senesh or the unwavering bravery and inner intelligence of Malala Yousafzai. The goal is the same. Practice brings us closer to sva dharma (Sanskrit term for one’s own role in the social and cosmic order) and collective dharma. Yoga is the path to self-realization, the road to waking up.

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

Yoga studios are but a small slice of where people could have access to this ancient knowledge. Bringing this rich tradition and the skills of self-awareness to less traditional venues helps the all of us function and thrive. Many faith traditions agree that none of us are free until all of us are free, so my hope is that more loving spaces will come about for people to feel free to be who they truly are. And with that sense of freedom, we can all continue to cultivate compassion toward one another.

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

Robyn Tiger: The Medicine Needed for Cancer Recovery

Robyn TigerThis is an interview with Robyn Tiger, MD, C-IAYT, RYT-500, Physician and Certified Yoga Therapist, founder of Yoga Heals 4 Life, a yoga therapy practice in South Jersey that serves those touched by cancer, anxiety, and stress related disorders. Robyn offers free yoga and meditation for cancer recovery classes, lectures, and workshops. She is currently working to develop trauma informed offerings for returning veterans. Robyn completed her 1000-hour yoga therapy training with Integrative Yoga Therapy and is a certified Yoga 4 Cancer and Breast Cancer Recovery and Beyond practitioner. She is on the faculty of Trauma Informed Yoga Therapy as well as their Medical Advisory Board for research. She also serves on the Medical Resource Committee for Gilda’s Club of South Jersey, a nonprofit organization aiding all individuals touched by cancer.

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

One day at school in the 3rd grade, my teacher rolled out a life-sized skeleton on a pole. It was my first major aha! moment. I realized for the very first time that skeletons were not just for Halloween decorations, but also the infrastructure that supports our bodies. But what makes up the rest of us? I knew that there was so much more, and at that very moment, I knew I wanted to become a doctor.

As a physician, I spent 15 years in Diagnostic Radiology with a focus on Women’s Imaging. Throughout that process, I saw the amazing technological advancements of Western medicine, enabling us to more readily detect and treat cancer. Although I was so very grateful for all of this technology, I realized that there was a large portion of patient care that was missing. How do we help patients heal? I felt like I was only working with a framework, or skeleton, of health. It was not until my yoga therapy training that I began to fill in these gaps and approach healing in a more holistic, comprehensive and integrative manner.

State of the art cancer treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are wonderful for treating the cancer, but they can result in physical limitations, emotional distress, and dampened spirit. For years, other than giving patients a hug and a smile, I was completely lost as to how to help them heal. I knew that my job as a doctor was not nearly complete.

I felt so strongly about the importance of using yoga therapy to provide healing that I gave up practicing traditional medicine and fully dedicated myself to yoga therapy. My yoga therapy practice focuses on seeing each individual as the sum of their parts at all layers of their being, and strives for the optimal healing of body, mind and spirit beyond the “skeleton.”

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Individuals, through their own experiences, have the power within to heal themselves.

I frequently receive emails, texts and calls telling of my students’ success stories using tools I have taught in sessions. They then are paying it forward by sharing what they have learned with their friends, family, and colleagues.

I’ve repeatedly watched the transformation of a slow moving, lethargic, frightened individual with a hunched stance, shuffled gait, and lack of eye contact use the tools of yoga and meditation to transform into a confident, strong, enthusiastic, and empowered being.

Together, both on and off the mat, we create meaningful relationships and a supportive community.

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

My students have taught me the importance of maintaining a safe space and really hearing with my whole being what an individual wants and needs in order to tailor a class to fulfill those needs.

My students have also given me the gift of time—deeply appreciating the time we share with each other. I am honored each and every day that my students choose to spend their time with me on their journey of self-healing.

 

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors (e.g., misunderstandings, misinformation) at play in working with people recovering from cancer?  

One of my mentors, Tari Prinster, has said, “Our bodies were made to move.” Cancer patients as well as many yoga teachers are fearful that yoga is dangerous to an individual who has cancer. Sitting on the couch or lying in bed just waiting for the next doctor’s appointment, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment is hurtful to the body, mind and spirit. Specialized Yoga and Meditation for Cancer Recovery classes help an individual become physically, emotionally and spiritually strong. Participants are empowered to take on whatever comes their way.

My students have told me that when their bodies are stronger they make better decisions because they trust themselves more. They are more involved in their treatment plans and recovery, and thus heal faster. When our bodies are strong, our emotions, minds, and spirits are stronger and more engaged in the healing process. This where the true power of healing lies.

In working with people recovering from cancer, what changes have you noticed in yourself, your thinking, or feelings about ‘cancer’?

I have repeatedly observed my students with cancer experiencing a “wake up call.” They want to know how to choose a healthier lifestyle (work, diet, exercise), spend more time with loved ones, leave stressful jobs, and tend to items on their bucket list. I have learned through the eyes of my students to see each morning of my life as my own “wake up call” to find presence whether it be within myself or with others. I am constantly thinking how I can make the healthiest decisions possible with regard to my own personal lifestyle. I am empowered by my students to be the best version of myself that I can be.

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

My dream is that the medical community will see patients as I do—as more than just their cancer. Patients are individuals composed of many layers in need of healing. Yoga for cancer recovery is a necessary component in every single patient’s treatment plan that should be accessible to every individual throughout the world.

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Support more healing: learn more about our partner program yoga4cancer, and help bring yoga classes to more survivors by donating today.

State of the Art Yoga Service

BY ROB SCHWARE, PhD
Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation
President Ex-Officio, Yoga Service Council

Originally published in CO YOGA + Life Magazine, Summer/Fall 2017.

Yoga Service 2017: Catalyzing Large Scale Change

State of the Art Yoga ServiceWhen Beryl Bender Birch and I co-founded The Give Back Yoga Foundation in 2007, there were around a dozen non-profit yoga service organizations in the US. We wanted to support and fund certified yoga teachers in all traditions to offer the teachings of yoga to under-served and under-resourced people and communities, and inspire grassroots social change.

Teacher trainees at Beryl’s The Hard and the Soft Yoga Institute wrote up their project ideas for increasing access to yoga, either through community service or yoga classes in communities living with poverty and trauma. “Yoga Service” is now a much larger movement, with hundreds of organizations and thousands of teachers offering their yoga therapy skills and knowledge outside of the traditional studio setting.

We are now at a moment when the course of yoga service is significantly changing – a turning point, if you will – for three reasons.

INSTITUTIONAL ADOPTION

Social agencies, including prisons and juvenile detention centers, treatment centers for addictions and eating disorders, and VA hospitals, among others, are now adopting, and in many cases funding, yoga programs.

For instance, in Cincinnati, OH the Hamilton County Veterans’ Court is treatment-based and creates a comfortable and safe environment where supports (employment, transportation, wellness activities, and others) are the foundation of sobriety and treatment. Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) is mandatory for veterans appearing in this courtroom.

Attendance is considered one of the three self-help meetings required each week.

Says yoga teacher Jennifer Wright, “it is unlike anything I’ve experienced or seen in a traditional courtroom. We hold Mindful Yoga Therapy 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. It is worth mentioning that the national Veterans’ Court recidivism rate is 22 percent, and in Hamilton County the rate is 7 percent.”

And in the middle of America, Omaha, Nebraska’s Correctional Youth Facility (NCYF) recently started the first-ever weekly yoga class for incarcerated young men ages 16-21. NCYF is the only adult correctional facility for young male offenders in Nebraska. And the progressive warden, Ryan Mahr, understands that “hurt people hurt people.” So this year he hired Phileena Heuertz of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, to launch the yoga program at NCYF. This is just one restorative justice program in the local prison to help young men heal, stay out of the criminal justice system, and recover their best self.

There are two success stories here: the people being helped, and the data being collected. Because of the track records of these cutting-edge programs, and because of the research that has proven the benefits to the populations served, in the future there will be opportunities to replicate these programs in other states.

CORPORATE INVOLVEMENT

Gaiam, a consumer products and media company, has for several years donated thousands of yoga mats to kick-start yoga programs in schools, and for first responders, veterans, at-risk youth, the homeless, and people with mental and physical disabilities.

Gaiam is now sending Yoga Readiness Kits, including yoga products and video content featuring yoga and mindfulness, to military bases around the world, including, among others: Fort Campbell, Ft. Stewart, Fort Bragg, Shaw Air Force Base, the Southern Command, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Recently it launched a free video series for active duty service men and women.

In October 2016, lululemon committed to a new community-based social impact program to create access to the healing benefits of yoga in at-risk and underserved communities, the Here to Be program. Its initial partners include the United Nations Foundation, Africa Yoga Project, Yoga Foster, LoveYourBrain, Give Back Yoga Foundation, and the Yoga Service Council.

Here to Be will fund initiatives that make yoga service programs more accessible. Over the next five years, it aims to help to build the community of yoga service practitioners among nonprofits, academics, and public sector institutions that are developing and applying yoga service programming. CEO Laurent Potdevin is making social impact investing a corporate priority. He made a commitment on behalf of lululemon at the Clinton Global Initiative of $25 million over the next five years “to bring the benefits of yoga and meditation to underserved communities around the world.”

NEW REALITIES

In recent days, a growing number of teachers have reached out to yoga service organizations, such as Hands to Heart Center in Boston, to volunteer their services providing free and accessible yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma. Other organizations, such as the Newark Yoga Movement, are developing teachers with language skills from low-income communities and minority cultural backgrounds that reflect the diverse populations they serve.

Our organization, The Give Back Yoga Foundation, continues offering free resources to thousands of prisoners, veterans, and active duty service members. Alongside these resources, in September 2017 we will be launching with lululemon/Here to Be a free online course for yoga teachers around the world called How Can I Serve? and a 200-hr teacher training focused strongly on yoga service led by Beryl Bender Birch.

As uncertain as today’s reality is, the newly-sown seeds that I’ve described make clear that transformative change is sprouting and growing in the yoga service world, presenting us with inspiring opportunities for positive direction. Our work as yoga service organizations has never been more needed than it is today.

We can all make a difference. Help us to bring yoga to those who need it most. Find ways to get involved today.

Studio Partner Spotlight: OUTLAW Yoga shifts the paradigm to serve those in need

Introducing: the Warrior Yoga Video Series

Originally published on the Gaiam blog

This yoga practice is tailored for military personnel or any yoga practitioner looking to build strength, flexibility, resilience and mindfulness into their daily life. Featuring military Special Forces Service Members led by Liz Corwin, a 13-year military Officer and former Navy F-18 pilot, this sequence was produced by Gaiam as part of the Give Back Yoga Foundation’s Yoga Readiness Initiative. This project brings free yoga field kits to active duty military personnel, offering those who serve powerful practices to develop strength, resilience and inner peace.

Liz Corwin practiced yoga and meditation to decompress throughout flight school and while deployed aboard the aircraft carrier. In her spare time, she began teaching other service members, including Special Operations Units, which eventually led to her new career as a world traveling yoga instructor. She has taught countless yoga classes throughout Europe and the United States, including tailored classes for service members previously deployed throughout the Middle East at the Warrior Transition Program in Germany.

Liz’s Story: How I Got Started Teaching Yoga to Active Duty Service Members

“Four years ago while on deployment aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Truman, I began sharing my yoga practice with fellow service members. A year later I began co-teaching classes with my teacher Ann Richardson to larger military units. One morning as a team of Navy Seals were lying out their mats, a fellow ‘Frogman’ walked past. When asked by his teammates if he wanted to join, he sarcastically gave the typical response of… “Yoga? Yeah right”. Now usually I wouldn’t recommend trying to call out a Navy Seal after he is über hyped up for his morning workout. But as he walked away, my smart-mouth got away from me and I asked “What are you afraid of big guy?” No answer.

For a moment I wished I could retract my words and zip them back into my lips. “That wasn’t very yogic Liz.” I thought to myself. But then I realized it WAS the question to be asked, but that it was not solely his question to answer. I had to ask myself, what was he afraid of, and could I possibly find a way to absolve this fear? Now I am no Navy Seal, but as a fellow service member, I understood his fear of slowing down. I understood his fear of letting go of the stress and intensity, it was his protection. It kept his nervous system on high alert. The element of fight or flight strongly in the fight category where it needed to be for him to perform his job safely. But maybe, just maybe, I could guide him to an hour of slowing down, breathing softly, moving with a different kind of intention. A place of balance.

In that moment I realized my calling was to continue finding ways to share the transformation benefits of yoga to this community. We as yogis are called to serve others. In whatever way we can connect to most. Giving our time, our energy, our understanding, and our love unconditionally. But to do this, we must continue to foster our own warrior spirit. Discipline. Reverence. Love. These will keep us ready as warriors, strong and spiritually tough, so that we can fan our own flame in order to give to our own higher purpose.


SHARE WARRIOR YOGA WITH A SERVICE MEMBER

Our Yoga Readiness Initiative brings free yoga field kits to active duty service members, offering tools for developing lifesaving skills and coping with the traumas of deployment. Want to help? Share this practice with someone who can benefit…and, if you enjoyed this sequence, pay it forward by donating what you can. For every $75 donated, we can bring one free yoga kit to a service member. Sponsor a free yoga field kit for an active duty service member.

Partners in Service: Sharing Yoga With the World

As a nonprofit partner, Give Back Yoga is honored to help Gaiam carry out its corporate mission of making yoga accessible to everyone. This video shows how a service-driven partnership is helping tens of thousands of people get on the mat for the first time – from veterans and service members, to first responders and elementary students.

Find more mat grant stories on our blog, and by following our #MatMonday posts on social media.

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Ready to be a change maker? Talk with us about becoming a corporate sponsor of Give Back Yoga. 

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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Bring yoga to those who can benefit most. Get trained to share yoga with underserved populations.