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Judith Sekler: Not Just A Pose(r)

This is an interview with Judith Sekler, who works with an organization called A Thousand Joys in Los Angeles. It partners with schools in high-crime impoverished neighborhoods with high-risk children and families who are suffering the effects of trauma-related stress and violence, referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). ATJ’s school-based program Transform uses healing modalities including yoga, meditation and mindfulness to help students build confidence and control over their bodies and minds. Transform has been shown to help students better regulate their emotions, foster positive social relationships, focus on their studies, and set and meet goals.

Rob: What was your entry into yoga?

I was a poser: backbends, arm balances, leg-behind-head pose, all day long. Yoga was a gymnastic event, a battle of ego and endurance that I never won. Believing that pain was a by-product of my success, I pounded my body into my first hip replacement surgery at age forty-two.

Depressed and angry, I never imagined that time away from the mat would lead me to a true yogic path, one that has nothing to do with pose marathons. My primary practice became mindfulness meditation, where “doing yoga” meant cultivating nonjudgmental qualities like patience and compassion. To my amazement, a flexible mind and heart, not hamstrings, finally brought me a better quality of life. I felt more balance, and the simple (but not easy) meditation of living daily life came into focus. With it came a desire to help others, along with a newfound awareness of a community that I had paid the least attention to: those different than myself.

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

Social justice motivates me. At a time when racism, hatred, and the persecution of “other-ness” affects poor communities exponentially, healing practices like yoga and mindfulness cannot be reserved for certain people or zip codes. They are portable tools of self-care that can change one’s life. Children don’t choose to live with violence, or have citizenship status affect their families. “A Thousand Joys has found that there are gaps in providing the skills that individuals and families need to manage the effects of trauma and regain personal power and a sense of wellbeing.” Part of my yoga is dedicated to helping fill that gap.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Definitely when kids share that they practice on their own! They say they do deep breathing when they’re upset, or mindful walking to focus. One shy student told me he likes standing forward bend because it just makes him feel better. Teachers and staff appreciate a meditation pause in their day – kids call it a reset button.

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

My students opened my eyes to my position of privilege and judgment. I used to think that learning was an act of will or a gift of innate ability, and if neither was present then the student lacked drive. I had no idea what Adverse Childhood Experiences were, and that they flourished across town in communities I had driven past but rarely thought about.

Before I worked in underserved schools I had never seen kids who were dependent on subsidized meal programs to eat, or whose living situations were insecure and even dangerous. A student told me that she sleeps at her Auntie’s now since her parents work nights and she only sees them on weekends. She left her homework at her “other” home. While discussing conflict resolution in a 5th grade classroom a student offered that she would just “go get a weapon.” Another boy said the roof in his house has holes in it so he’s cold and has trouble sleeping. He wanted to lay his head down on his desk and take a nap. I’ve had to open the classroom door during a rain because a boy’s clothes were so dirty that his classmates complained it smelled too bad to concentrate.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye toward what we don’t know. I found true yoga just around the metaphorical corner and it’s permanently shaken me out of my neighborhood of white privilege.

What societal factors are at play for the population ATJ works with?

The societal factors of racism, toxic stress, poverty and violence level damage on children who did nothing to deserve them other than being born. When President of the United States announced that he’d build a wall and deport undocumented citizens one elementary school that I work with created a “worry tree” that students pinned leaves on. The leaves carried messages like “I don’t feel safe,” “I’m scared my Mother will go to jail” and “I hope my teacher will be here tomorrow.” When government policies mandate the identification and persecution of non-white people, children in our most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations who are already impacted by adverse childhood experiences cannot thrive.

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 yoga and mindfulness and greater social change?

Yoga and mindfulness need to extend beyond the mat and the cushion and into everyday life. Physical yoga is wonderful, but it’s not the whole practice. Spreading the tolerance and understanding we learn on the mat into the messy moments that divide us and create separation is where yoga makes a wider impact. From workplaces to social media, from dinner tables to how we drive, yogis need to embody openness and inclusion, and help bridge the gap.

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

Yoga is not a one-way trip; it flows out as well as in. Yet modern life and digital living come with a large dose of self-obsession, leading us away from an awareness of others’ suffering. I would love to see yoga and meditation studios become less about different “styles” of practice and more about being centers for Town Hall meetings, community meditation sits, and speakers from universities and organizations devoted to diversity and socio-political shift. What better use for a pretty yoga space than practicing the mandate of social change?

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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.

Lara Land: Bringing At-Risk Youth and Law Enforcement Together

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.

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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.

Madeleine La Ferla: Yoga Service Grows in Australia

This is an interview with Madeleine La Ferla, Founder and Director of Yogahood Australia. Madeleine found yoga in her late teens at local community center. It helped her deal better with stress and anxiety she experienced due to an eating disorder. “Saying yoga saved my life at various points is pretty strong, but it certainly has changed my life and been that one tool that has helped me deal with life’s challenges. Over time, my mat became a safe place where I knew if I breathed and moved for awhile, I could find peace, a sense of belonging, a connection with myself, an internal strength, unlike anything else.”

Madeleine’s yoga service career started when she was visiting family in Hong Kong and began to notice the imbalance between those that had access to yoga and those that did not. “While I was very fortunate to have a tool that was helping me deal with life’s challenges, there were so many people around me that simply did not. After class, I would head out into the streets and hear stories about widespread abuse and exploitation, including restrictions on freedom of movement, physical and sexual violence, lack of food and long working hours. I realized then and there this would be the next step in my yoga journey—to share the benefits of yoga with those that don’t have access to it, but could highly benefit from it.

In 2015, she launched Yogahood Australia, a non-profit set up to serve the wider community whose mission is to provide free yoga programs to at-risk and underserved women and youth.

Rob: What continues to motivate you?

Sharing yoga with the wider community just keeps making sense to me. After experiencing the physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga myself and learning the science behind why it can help, I kept asking why it wasn’t more accessible to those who could benefit from it. It’s a practice that can improve your health and wellbeing yet you don’t really need anything other than yourself to do it. So through our work, we are trying to help break down some of the barriers the industry and media have created that prevents people from accessing yoga. Our volunteers purposely teach without music, candles, incense, special lighting or clothes, equipment, or a specific room set up. We really want to show people that it’s a practice that you can take anywhere and that you really don’t need anything other than yourself to participate in it.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Seeing volunteers who were once nervous about teaching in the wider community step out of their comfort zone to experience such fulfillment, joy and satisfaction from doing this work. Also hearing volunteers share positive stories of change—even small—is also very uplifting.

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

That we are all just human at the end of the day trying to get through life and our situations in the best way we can.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at risk and underserved communities?

Yoga shows us that we are so much more capable, strong, and wise then the labels that others may give us because of our personal struggles. We hope that those we serve not only get to experience the many physical benefits of the practice, but also the emotional and mental benefits of the practice such as peace, hope, self-respect, and self-empowerment.

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?

I believe that when you give someone the tools to change their own world like we do in yoga, the world around them can begin to change. Not only because they begin to see the world in a different light, but because they have gained the tools and understanding to know that positive change is even possible.

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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.