I had interviewed Lara Land back in 2014 about her time in Rwanda doing yoga service with HIV-positive genocide survivors and their children. That influenced so many of her decisions after, from opening her yoga studio, Land Yoga, to doing yoga service work in her Harlem community, and to eventually forming a non-profit, Three and a Half Acres. In subsequent conversations, I discovered that there are other catalysts she hadn’t spoken enough about that have led her to work with law enforcement and youth in NYC. It’s worth a second interview.
Rob: What originally motivated you to do this particular work, and what continues to motivate you?
I was in India in 2014 when a man was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I felt paralyzed by my distance from home, but also grateful for the time and space to think and plan. I felt a responsibility, which was and remains part of my motivation. There are few people with the extensive yoga training I’ve received who also have their eye on the issues that their deaths shone light on, and who have the access and ability to move between seemingly separated disharmonious communities the way I can and do. These are the at-risk youth and law enforcement communities. I’m very lucky to have the access and skills that I do, and I feel a responsibility because of them. We’re serving a lot of people; I can’t fail them!
What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?
I love working with the NYPD! The main thing is that they are really deeply grateful. They have a lot of pressure from their superiors and from the communities they serve; they take that stress on, and you can clearly see it in their bodies. Most have never had anyone ask to help with that, so they are shocked and thankful, and sometimes not even sure how to respond when we do. When I watch them let go and relax in class I can see that I’ve really made a difference.
What are some of the things your students have taught you?
My students keep teaching me how to hear better. So much of serving them is about consistently refusing to make assumptions. As the “yoga expert” the inclination is to come in with answers and experience, but really the students are showing you what you can give them, which is never predictable. It is always new.
Tensions continue to run high across the country between law enforcement and black Americans living in racially segregated and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. In what ways do you think yoga addresses the current racial landscape in the US?
There is an obvious divide there, that is valid, even if it is being aggravated further by those who perceive they have something to gain from division. What I know is, stories we are told we play out. When we hear constantly of our divide, it deepens the “us verses them” phenomenon, and keeps us in this loop of labeling and separating. Because yoga teaches and models unity, it has the capacity to address this divide.
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 social change?
Yoga is the practice of reducing the chatter in our heads, and becoming highly aware of the present moment and how it feels. This does many things: it allows us to know ourselves and our true feelings, which may well be untouched by the stories around us. It brings a certain amount of calm and centering, which allows us to see the other as they are, without putting those dramas, those role expectations on them. Yoga is at the core a very solitary process, a journey to the self, so it has the ability to release us of group-think as we learn direct experience and self discovery. And of course through yoga we come to experience the oneness of existence.
Building on these gifts of yoga, yoga practice can bring great social change in NY, and beyond. One of the greatest lessons of yoga is it actually changes the nervous system and the habitual response to stress. In a class, you put yourself in a challenging position on your mat, and you learn how to remain still and breathe and watch. Inevitably the stress feeling passes, and so does the instinct to react. Once this is ingrained as a new habit it will show up in similar neurological situations off the mat. Obviously this can be crucial in de-escalating a situation.
Yoga is not all “kumbaya,” but teaches artfulness of action, knowing just how much effort to use in a given situation. It changes our body language, which changes how we are seen by others, to appear more open, making others more receptive to us. It changes our beliefs in ourselves and therefore in the possibilities we see in others. It invites us to question in the pose and then again in life; it strengthens our observer mind that watches without judgment. It slows us down; it releases old patterns and hurts that we’ve stored in our bodies, and which cause us to get triggered by others who may be innocent but remind us of past hurts. It frees us up to experience the world and each other without prior prejudice. It invites direct experience and instead of group speak. It helps our digestion, sleep patterns, and overall health, which tends to make us happier and more gentle and forgiving to others. I believe, because of these reasons and more, that it is an answer, a means to a better world.
What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?
I hope that what we are doing in Harlem—bringing our young adults and law enforcement together through yoga—can become a model and be replicated in other similar communities. I would also like to see yoga (all eight limbs of it) become a mandatory part of police training at the academy level and thereafter.
As for yoga service, it would be my dream that it wouldn’t need to be a category of yoga, but that all those teaching yoga would be trained for, and show up, in service all the time as an ordinary fact of what we do.