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
When 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Ready to be a change maker? Talk with us about becoming a corporate sponsor of Give Back Yoga.
This 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.
Bring yoga to those who can benefit most. Get trained to share yoga with underserved populations.
This 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.
(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.