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Rebecca Bedford: Serving Immigrants In Prenatal Classes

rebecca-bedfordThis is an interview with Rebecca Bedford, whose first yoga teacher training was at The Integral Yoga Institute NYC in 1995. She now teaches prenatal yoga in Toronto for immigrant newcomer women in a program called Parents For Better Beginnings. Many of the women are Muslim, Chinese, Somalian, and South East Asian, in the diverse neighborhood of Regent Park. Rebecca grew up in England, studied child development and had jobs in a multi-cultural community on the outskirts of London, which were her first introduction to working in diverse and underserved populations. She is a registered prenatal yoga teacher, and certified by the Integral Yoga Institute in New York.

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

The teacher of my first Integral prenatal yoga training at Satchitananda Ashram shared with us her stories of teaching yoga in a men’s prison. I was in awe listening to her; I felt so much respect for her courage and skill to be able to do that work. I’ve never forgotten her dedication.

More recently, I’m motivated to teach new immigrant moms-to-be prenatal yoga for this reason: I’ve become frustrated with yoga, and in particular the structure of the yoga studio environment, and how it can alienate and out-price certain populations who’d benefit from yoga the most. I wanted to turn that self-serving ideal around and put yoga for underserved diverse populations at the forefront, making that the priority in my teaching. And it’s been wonderful!

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I’ve become more motivated. I understand myself better, know my strengths, and know the populations I have most to offer to. I feel even more strongly that yoga is for everyone. In particular prenatal yoga can be very elitist — available to a certain demographic, and only in yoga studios. In my opinion, all pregnant women should be able to experience the wonderful benefits of prenatal yoga, regardless of income and socio-economic circumstances.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Parents For Better Beginnings?

There are many beautiful moments; one that stands out is perhaps the first time I taught there. I learned the power of simply closing the eyes. For those in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, simple things we take for granted — like closing the eyes, breathing calmly, and feeling safe — are very important. The guided meditations for bonding with the baby are really special also. It is lovely to see the women really connect to the baby developing inside them, and feel a sense of peace.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The feeling I get is hard to put into words; just to be able to share knowledge that can support these women through pregnancy, labor, and birth is incredibly rewarding. To gather with these women and to witness how yoga transcends social, cultural, and religious differences is a spiritual insight I would rarely experience elsewhere in the yoga world.

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

This is a great question because whenever I go to Parents for Better Beginnings, I ask myself “What will I learn today?” The women have taught me how to modify and adapt yoga for their community, and how the ability to hold the space in a deeper mindful way is more beneficial than teaching a sequence of asanas that they may be too scared to attempt, and may never do again.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the diverse neighborhood you work in?

When yoga is at its true essence, when it is inclusive, accepting, when it is joyful and loving — when it is a circle, not a line — then it can be of benefit in a diverse neighborhood such as Regent Park. When it meets people where they are and adapts to their uniqueness, it touches them and they feel it and know it, whether for a moment, a day, or longer, this can have a positive ripple effect on a community. Individuals in a neighborhood like this one may then begin to know what ‘safe’ means, and understand what even a minute of peace actually feels like for the first time in their lives.

In what ways does yoga not address these societal factors?

One perception of yoga may lead to anxiety, because of the prevalent ideal of perfection that is often associated with yoga, partly driven by the media. This can be a block to teaching (and learning) in a diverse community, as anxiety increases about “getting it wrong.” People may also give up before they start for fear of not being able to do yoga “because it looks hard.” The first thing I share is other aspects of yoga, in particular pranayama; and the benefits in birth and labor. My students are relieved, the pressure is off. This alleviates their worry, and then they begin to enjoy it.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I think it is really important to have some training or understanding of how trauma can present itself when teaching in this population. Make time for self-inquiry and reflection, meet people where they are, and become familiar with some cultural and/or religious understanding of the population.

Teaching women prenatal yoga in this community will obviously differ from teaching teenagers in the same community. I also think it is important to observe and/or meet with those you will be teaching ahead of your first class. It helps both you and them to feel prepared, and develops an initial connection.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in Canada in the next decade?

I hope that “Service Yoga” will continue to grow in Canada in the next decade, and that more teachers will reach out to many underserved populations to offer yoga and mindfulness. I’d like to see more teacher trainings include “service yoga” as a component, with an opportunity to gain Continuing Education Units.

I think when people admire someone else for the work that person is doing in underserved communities, they are being inspired, and it is a call to discover their own way to do the same.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

Lisa Gabriella Mehos: How We Serve Those in Homeless Shelters

LGMThis is an interview with Lisa Gabriella Mehos, a certified yoga instructor and nutritional coach. Lisa began her yoga outreach work volunteering in shelters during college. For the past three years, she has been teaching yoga to inner-city children and survivors of domestic violence in shelters and schools in New York City.

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

I have seen how yoga service can help people transcend barriers of race, gender, and economic status. My motivation stems from my deep belief that everyone deserves compassion, kindness, equal opportunity, education and security.

While we cannot eliminate the hardships people face in life, we can help empower those in need to overcome obstacles and trauma. Offering yoga in underserved communities provides people with tools to help build confidence, resilience, and a mindset to conquer difficulties and disadvantages, despite the many hurdles they face.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Watching transformation in an individual, which might then carry over into the community, is the most rewarding aspect of yoga service. The greatest gift we can offer is sharing the tools and techniques enabling a person to overcome fear, anxiety, depression or other negative reactions to traumatic situations.

By offering an affirmative practice and various exercises promoting virtues, we may help people develop hope, confidence, strength, and gratitude. A foundation built on these virtues can empower them to achieve their fullest potential. For example, one of the major issues facing us and our children today is bullying – not only in schools, but also in the adult world. By adopting a mindful practice, we realize we have the power to control our reaction and our response. Although we cannot control many things that happen in life, we can decide how to react in the face of adversity. We can choose to let cruelty, abuse, and hardship break us down, or we can take each obstacle and use it as a learning experience to make us stronger.

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

One of my favorite quotes is “Never look down on someone unless you are helping him up.” My students have taught me that helping someone up has endless possibilities. Each of my students has a gift inside that cannot be bought or taken by anyone. To find it and nurture it, we all need someone to believe in us, stand by our side, and remind us of our intrinsic attributes and abilities.

During one of my classes in a homeless shelter for children, we were sharing something for which we are grateful. One seven-year-old girl said, “I’m grateful that God made us…and I think the reason he made us is he knew we would be nice to each other and help each other.”

Another eight-year-old girl, who was in the hospital for a year and a half with cancer, taught me an unforgettable lesson about resilience in the face of fear and suffering. During our discussion on gratitude, this child shared; “My mommy taught me that even when I’m scared that I’ll never see my baby sister again, I can never give up. I was living in a hospital with a needle in my back and every day I was so scared that I would never walk or see my mom and sister anymore. But I knew that no matter how much it hurt, I had to be strong, keep fighting, and never give up.”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Yoga can address some critical factors for the homeless and those who face trauma and struggle. My classes incorporate affirmations – encouraging people to acknowledge, treasure, and reflect on their own self-worth and attributes. We focus on instilling confidence, compassion, and love, which emanate a powerful force that impacts entire families and communities. One eight-year-old boy living in a homeless shelter said he was grateful he got to go to school every day because he knew he would be so smart he’d be able to take care of his mom and baby brother. By reminding people they are strong, smart, kind, and capable of accomplishing their dreams, we can help our population flourish.

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

Practicing mindfulness brings an element of compassion, gratitude, confidence, and kindness towards oneself. Once a person is mindful of his/her own intrinsic attributes, he/she is able to carry them over to others.

When a yoga practice is presented with the intention to empower individuals, it can result in a transformation of attitude and values. Simply by following the most basic mindfulness practice of gratitude, we can reduce bullying, depression, violence, hopelessness.

One of the most powerful factors of a mindfulness practice in the inner-city communities where I work is that we provide communities with a gift that is already in them. Only they can cultivate it and tap into it to accomplish any of their dreams. Wealth and power cannot buy this gift, or take it from anyone.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters in which you work? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

Carry an open heart, an open mind…and a box of tissues!

I’m so full of gratitude it often brings tears. Until someone spends time in these communities, that person may not realize what an honor it is to witness the resilience and love that exists, even in the face of the most egregious experiences and dire living conditions.

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

I hope we can expand this amazing yoga service movement to reach far more individuals and communities. With every life we touch, we build strength in the right direction.

 


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.

Josefin Wikstrom: Yoga And Dance Programs For Incarcerated Women And Refugees In Sweden

JosefinThis is an interview with Josefin Wikstrom, who has been practicing yoga for the past 24 years. She has been dancing since she was a teenager, and teaching yoga the past 10 years in Sweden and internationally. She is studying dance and creative movement therapy with Tripura Kashyap in India, and has been a part of the Swedish Prison Yoga Team since 2010. Currently, she is developing a collaboration between the Swedish Prison Yoga Project and the one established in San Quentin State Prison in CA by James Fox. She has spent part of the each past nine years supporting dance and yoga programs in Mumbai for underprivileged children, youth, and women, where she works with Indian dance therapists and yoga teachers. 

Last year Sweden took in over 160,000 asylum seekers, the most per capita in Europe. Josefin is also working with some of the refugees fleeing increasing conflict and deprivation in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Learn more and contact Josefin through Kaivalya Yoga Project.

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?

My motivation comes from my own experiences. I went through a childhood trauma being sexually abused and threatened by a person I looked up to. My whole world was turned upside down. I was not able to trust others; I had anxiety attacks and generally chaotic behavior. Finding a yoga practice and dance was my way to freedom from these feelings and memories. The yoga healed me from the inside out and the dance from the outside and in. I felt if I could experience relief, this needs to be shared with others.

Now my motivation has changed in the way that I am sharing these moments with both the refugees and the women; experiencing stillness together, I feel a strong connection with them. My inspiration is being a part of this process, and also in being present for them.

Is there a standout moment from your work with these groups?

Every time I see the women dance, encouraging each other not to give up, and see women who normally fight with each other laugh and have fun together, these are big moments. Also moments in meditation where the women are completely still, closing their eyes breathing together, that always brings tears to my eyes, as it is so rare in this chaotic environment.

With the refugees, a stand-out moment is a man opening his eyes after relaxation saying,
“For the first time in my life I am truly in the moment, I have found peace here inside myself, and it was here all the time while I was running away from my self. Now I might be a refugee in the eyes of the government, but for myself I have reached home.” This man is now a great inspiration to the other refugees.

What did you know about these groups before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them, and how have those assumptions changed?

Before entering the prison for the first time I was prepared to enter the storm, I expected it to be a huge challenge. I was expecting the women to be tough, and some were! I already knew about some of the women from headlines in the news. It was a challenge having 20 hyperactive women in front of me in a situation that is anything but positive.

But as we started to move together it all fell away, and the tough masks melted. The practice allowed us to meet on neutral ground.

My assumptions have changed as I hear their life stories and understand even more where they are coming from. The yoga and the dance makes me forget about the past when I am with them.

With the refugees I was approached by them asking if they could join my classes. I was happy for their interest. Before getting to know them I felt that maybe I was in over my head as I am not a therapist, and they all suffer from severe traumatic experiences. The gratefulness in the group is healing on its own; for them just entering a room filled with stillness and connection with other Swedish people, without communicating with words, is a big experience.

In Sweden, 8-12 refugees can sometimes live in one room far out in the countryside. They are isolated from society, but they never have private quiet space. This, combined with their traumatic experiences, is a recipe for anxiety and chaos.

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

To keep it real! To teach only what I have felt and experienced myself. I feel that they have made me more humble. Working with them has given me some insight into peoples’ ability to adapt, no matter how hard the situation might be. They teach me so much, and I feel that, thanks to them, I am growing as a human.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with? In what ways does it not?

Yoga includes ethical guides for life called Yamas and Niyamas. I believe that these principles, especially notions of self-respect and how to treat others, are relevant to the women in prison. Also, simple things, like being able to take a few extra breaths before reacting, make a huge difference in their social interaction.

In the Swedish Prison Yoga Project we also educate the guards and prisoners to become yoga instructors, which has created a more friendly atmosphere.

The refugee program especially benefits from the concepts of Prathyahara and Dharana, that is to be able to be at peace and to keep focus. This creates a more peaceful atmosphere in a place where many different ethnic groups are living together. And acceptance of each other is creating better communication.

We have a small group of both Christian and Muslim extremists in the area I live and teach, so in that way the yoga practice can sometimes be controversial.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach women in prisons and refugees?

Be honest with who you are and the knowledge that you have, and if you feel nervous or insecure, just tell them. Keep it simple and real. When teaching these classes both for refugees and the women, I am following trauma-sensitive guidelines. This means giving freedom, using simple instructions, and inviting language.

I am careful not to call anything therapy. I just teach open yoga classes but with this understanding. If you feel that a person in class is disturbing the others or showing signs of panic attacks or other major issues, advise them to seek professional help. Make sure to inform the students that the yoga practice can release strong emotions.

There are great books by David Emmerson, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and also resources on James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project web site regarding trauma-sensitive yoga.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in Sweden in the next decade?

Sweden is the one country in Europe that has welcomed the most refugees per capita; the need for yoga service is greater than ever before. We need to open our yoga studio doors and welcome these people. My hope is that more people will find the interest to study the benefits of a trauma-sensitive approach, and offer classes at least once a week to these groups.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Image: Courtesy of Linda Stenmark


Are you interested in sharing yoga with men and women behind bars? Join the Prison Yoga Project for an upcoming training in your area. 

Lynne Boucher: Yoga Service within a College Community

Yoga at Nazareth College Center for Spirituality

I first met Lynne Boucher in 2014 at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute. She had a flock of Nazareth College (Rochester, NY) students who were doing inspiring things both on campus and in the community. Lynne shepherds the award-winning “Yoga Revolution” on Nazareth’s campus, coordinating the service of eight yoga teachers and dozens of student leaders in offering extensive yoga programs to hundreds of faculty, staff, students, and alumni in the campus community. Along with a team of justice-minded yoga teachers, Lynne founded the Rochester Yoga Service Network (RYSN) whose mission is to share the practice of yoga with underserved populations in the Rochester community. In a spirit of cooperation and community engagement, RYSN provides a supportive network for local yoga service providers, including training, reflection, and resourcing. Lynne’s off-campus yoga service work is primarily with urban youth – particularly through two local organizations: Teen Empowerment and Young Women’s College Prep.

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?

Once I experienced my own transformation through yoga in 2011, it was natural to share it with the students in my care as an interfaith chaplain and director of the Center for Spirituality at Nazareth College. My motivation to learn and teach yoga was deeply rooted in my desire to care for the college community’s spiritual needs. While I initially focused on students, I’ve been increasingly motivated to help foster the “overflow” of yoga love from our campus family to those in need in our surrounding community.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Nazareth College students?

One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had with yoga service took place at the last session of a summer program in which several Nazareth students assisted in a daily yoga class for 7th grade inner-city girls from Young Women’s College Prep. Our closing affirmation was followed by a gift for the girls: their own yoga mats, which made the girls shriek with delight. It was breathtaking to see our Nazareth students pass on the love they had themselves discovered. This scene continues to inspire me: sharing yoga love with a group of students on campus, so they in turn can share that love with others.

What did you know about the college population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

During my years in higher education, I’ve learned about the mental health struggles of many college students. Statistics from Nazareth match national trends: over 20 percent of incoming students arrive on campus already medicated for various mental health issues. While this college population was familiar to me by the time I started teaching yoga, many off-campus populations we serve were not. Yoga Service Conferences have helped our yoga service leaders become more aware and sensitive to issues of cultural difference, power, inclusion, and trauma. In addition, RYSN offered trainings for yoga teachers led by mental health professionals with expertise in trauma and healing.

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’m grateful that yoga programs at Nazareth are explicitly and unapologetically spiritual. We understand that yoga is a spiritual practice that helps individuals tune in to the sacred within themselves, their everyday lives, and the world at large. Yoga classes at Nazareth are coordinated through the Center for Spirituality, and include spiritual themes and meditations uncommon in more secular or gym-based yoga settings.

The teaching style of Nazareth yoga teachers is also characterized by a trauma-informed approach. We know from research and years of pastoral care that many yogis in our classes have suffered trauma in their bodies (sexual assault, cutting, eating disorders) and benefit from a high degree of sensitivity and care. We have learned that empowering students to make choices about their own bodies is a powerful way for yoga to be a healing force in their lives.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

As yoga teachers, we recognize our critical role in giving students tools to foster healthy habits and choices. However, we’ve had to acknowledge that our students’ spiritual, emotional, and physical needs far exceed our capacity to serve them, and many students need additional support. To meet this challenge, we collaborate with other campus departments to provide complementary services, such as the Health and Counseling Center, Women’s Health Club, athletics department, and PT clinic, among others. We listen to students who develop creative programming ideas, such as an annual yoga retreat, and specialized yoga workshops.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach college students?

I would encourage campus communities to lay the groundwork for a positive understanding of the connection between spirituality and yoga. Also, teachers must become aware of their own attitudes to power, privilege, diversity, and inclusion when working with populations of diverse cultures, races, gender identities, sexual preferences, body sizes, etc.

Anyone working with college students should assume that a majority of them are dealing with extraordinary amounts of stress, anxiety, depression, and angst. On a positive note, national studies reveal that these emerging adults are eager to explore their spiritual life in non-traditional and unconventional ways. Yoga has attracted students from “all faiths and none,” who want to explore the connections between mind, body, and spirit.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

The evolution of yoga at Nazareth has broadened my sense of service. I now see service to our students as a stepping-stone to service in the wider community; I understand yoga as a lifestyle, a way of being in the world. And I believe yoga is affecting our campus culture as hundreds of yogis learn, both individually and collectively, to forge a more peaceful, centered, and healthy way to live.

My own practice has ultimately become necessary to my ministry at Nazareth, an antidote to the burnout plaguing myself and my dedicated and exhausted colleagues. My yoga practice has also led me to greater connectedness with other people, through acro yoga and group yoga, as well as deeper connectedness with nature through outdoor yoga and paddleboard yoga. With every passing year, I realize my ability to serve others is dependent upon my commitment to centering and nourishing myself through meditation and yoga.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My commitment to social justice makes me deeply concerned about the accessibility and affordability of yoga. My hopes for yoga service lead me to speak out actively against a popular approach to yoga that is high-priced, image-focused, and profit-driven. I see yoga service as fostering an alternative to this consumeristic culture, by emphasizing cooperation over competition, inclusivity over privilege, spirituality over consumption, and social transformation over privatized gains.

During a time when people feel increasingly disconnected from themselves, their bodies, their spirits, each other, and the earth itself, the yoga service movement can be a spiritual revolution! At the national level, the Yoga Service Conference will continue to foster awareness, and regional networks will begin to form in the coming decade. I hope that college campuses – always hotbeds for spiritual growth and community engagement – will join Nazareth in guiding the next generation of yogis to foster a lifelong commitment to their own spiritual development, and that of others.

Image: Courtesy of James Schnepf Photography


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.

Aidee Chavez Frescas Douglas: Community Yoga for Positive Change

Aidee Chaves Fescas Douglas

This is an interview with Aidee Chavez Frescas Douglas, whom I met at the fourth annual Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute. Aidee, now the Public Affairs & Development Coordinator for Community Connections of Jacksonville – a nonprofit dedicated to healing homelessness, and fighting poverty – previously served as a marketing director for the nonprofit Yoga 4 Change. She teaches yoga at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pre-Trial Detention Facility in Jacksonville, FL.

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?

My own story of change is my number-one motivator. I had several hard years suffering from depression, eating disorders, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, and it really got to a point in my life that I didn’t want to be alive. Therapy never worked for me. I never took medication, because frankly I was always afraid to take it. Sometimes I wish I had, and maybe I would not have had so many gray years in my past. But instead, I found that yoga could put me in a place of well-being and peace. I’ve changed, and because of yoga I live a relatively stress-free life.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Yoga 4 Change or specific population?

The first time I taught at the jail was very hard for me. I actually finished the class feeling frustrated and mad – at the government, at society, mad about the lack of kindness I felt, and how nobody was doing anything to fix what seemed to me to be obvious problems. I was crying so hard from all the pain I saw in the eyes of the women I taught that I had to stop on the side of the road on my way back home. But then I started reading some of the note cards that the students always write after the class as part of our yoga class structure. And the ladies had written things like “Please come back, this class gives me hope.” “Thank you so much, you made me feel like a person again.” “I pray for you, I prayed every night to God to send me hope, and you are here.” So I stopped crying right there in the car, and decided to commit to this with my entire heart.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I’m really not one to have assumptions. I guess that part comes from being a yoga teacher. I go in with an open heart. It does not matter who I teach. I see the person as who they are for that one hour.

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?

Yoga 4 Change has a strict code of conduct; for example, we don’t adjust any of our students when we teach at the jail, or to veterans. And for the veterans I always do the same thing. Mostly being new to yoga, they like that certainty. We also stay away from using Sanskrit. (I was actually the worst in my yoga training in Sanskrit pronunciation. It was ridiculous. My teacher in India told me to stay away from Sanskrit.) To me this was another sign that I am meant to teach for Yoga 4 Change. But we can teach whatever style of yoga we think is right for the students. I’m Ashtanga trained, but my style changes from class to class depending on what is needed by those students on that day. And sometimes that might be sitting for a full hour and breathing.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge has been raising funds to support our outreach work in the community. I’ve learned a lot about fundraising; how to increase our capacity to raise money in innovative ways in the interest of expanding our organization, and to satisfy the growing demand for our classes. But we can always do more.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I believe that to do this work, to be able to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself first. If teachers are not giving themselves the space that they deserve to process life experiences with their own meditation and yoga practice, their teaching is not going to be sustainable.

I often see teachers stressed out and running from one place to another, overwhelming themselves with life situations. Being a yoga teacher is hard work. That is why it is a must to give yourself small bites of space in between classes. I sometimes sit in my car and ground myself for 10 minutes. I know the importance of being present and vulnerable for another human being, and for myself, and there is no cost for that. We need to be where we are. We need to cultivate mindfulness right here, right now, in this perfect moment, and from this moment take incremental steps in the direction we are heading. We need to enjoy our lives!

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My dream is that one day yoga is taught in every single school, correctional facility, and rehabilitation facility, not only to veterans but to those who are in active duty. The same wish is true for first responders. Can you imagine if everybody in America had equal access to yoga? I hope for a kinder America, and for me the only way for that to happen is through the practices of yoga. I believe this with all of my being.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Service has brought a different kind of success to my life. I see a lot of successes in my classes, a lot of “aha” moments happen right there on the mat. My students’ negative life perception changes to a positive one right in front of my eyes. The server becomes the served. This is a magnificent moment, and when it happens, when we work together to serve one another, we are all changed. I am the one who is grateful for the opportunity to witness this over and over again – brave people using the tools of their yoga practice to move forward in their lives to access positive change.


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.

Samara Andrade: How We Serve UN Workers And International Aid Communities

2016-04-04-1459768738-1632386-SamaraAndradeCourtesyofErinElizabethPhotography7-thumbThis is an interview with Samara Andrade, who recently returned to the U.S. from Afghanistan, where she was working for the United Nations and teaching yoga classes in the compound where she lived for UN staff, military reservists/military contractors, private sector aid contractors, and European Union civilian and police staff. She found yoga was a useful tool to support and help the community cope with crises. Samara has been working in international development, crisis and post-conflict contexts for nearly 10 years. She has worked in Zambia, the Sudan, Libya, Nepal, and Afghanistan, among other countries. She told me “yoga speaks across cultures and continents, and it never fails that there is a yoga community in every country where I have worked.”

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?

I started teaching in Sudan, where I was working with communities recovering from conflict, doing so mainly because I wanted to give back to my yoga community, filling in for my teacher who was away on leave. Our class was held on a rooftop enclosed by a bamboo fence and felt like an oasis in the desert. As we lay in Shivasana (corpse pose) at dusk, the birds started chirping as the call to prayer faintly started, often creating an rare and inspiring moment of contentment and connection.

My commitment to teaching yoga while working in conflict and post-conflict zones has only grown since Sudan. I recognize the amazing gift yoga has given me, a way to ground and center myself in the midst of extreme circumstances. Sometimes these conditions are incredibly rewarding and other times they are disenchanting and heartbreaking. Yoga gives me a way to reconnect with myself on the mat, be part of a mindful community, work through what I feel in constructive ways, and challenge myself to grow.

Another reason is that for many years I struggled with the duality of two lives: of working in extreme situations which change you as a human being, and being the person everyone at home expects to see when you got off the plane. Sometimes that was easy and sometimes it was challenging, particularly figuring out how best to communicate my experience to those at home. Remembering who you are in the middle of this can be hard, particularly when you move from one duty station to another. I found yoga was a bridge that helped me deal with that, bring all the pieces of myself back together, and re-center. Experiencing the benefits that yoga has brought to me in learning how to cope and manage these changes in a better way has motivated me to support a yoga community wherever I live. Yoga is a container for others to learn, explore and grow, and above all to connect with themselves.

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 started teaching yoga abroad in post-conflict, conflict, and crisis countries, so I developed as a teacher in that environment. However, I focus on the same things I would in a US studio setting: finding that inner calm, practicing yoga with integrity, honoring where you are that day, cultivating mindfulness, mind-body-breath connection. They’re universal because they are life skills that can help you navigate the inevitable peaks and valleys in life anywhere.

A lot of people are working far away from family and friends, so I make a specific effort to cultivate that feeling of community in the way we start and end class. This feeling is then there to tap into when and if someone wants to.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

One of the biggest challenges for me is finding the balance between being available to support students and the yoga community, and also holding healthy boundaries and remembering to take time for myself. I balance working full-time in a demanding job with teaching yoga, and sometimes I forget that I need down time to re-charge so that I can show up to class and be the best teacher possible.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I think it’s important to approach working with people who have been exposed to conflict with an understanding that everything is not black and white; they may have mixed feelings regarding what they experienced, and about what they were able to achieve (or not) in their job. Try not to make assumptions about people based on your own perceptions of what they may have experienced. It’s also important to keep in mind that people have different experiences dealing with the transition to life at home; for some it’s easier and for others it’s more challenging.

If you are teaching in conflict or crisis zones, be mindful of your own exposure to trauma and how you deal with it. Knowing when to take time and work through your own feelings and emotions before stepping into a class to teach is as important as your commitment to supporting service yoga.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

I believe that yoga is a beneficial and effective, yet extremely under-used tool for healing. There are some exciting programs out there using yoga as a complementary therapy, both in the US and in countries affected by conflict and disaster. I hope that yoga becomes an integral part of recovery programs for communities in conflict, as well as for active duty staff in the military and in aid organizations. I would like to see more systematic investment in providing access to yoga and mindfulness programs for those who work in such contexts.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

As a yoga teacher, I’ve become more committed to supporting service-oriented yoga, in addition to regular classes for the public. After returning to the US, I took a training course in Mindful Yoga Therapy with Suzanne Manafort and Give Back Yoga Foundation, and now teach a female veterans’ class through Connected Warriors in New York, where I now live, as well as continue supporting access to mindful yoga classes for UN staff, as well as the general public.

I have gained new appreciation for the military community and for the importance of supporting veterans, as well as other humanitarian and aid workers. The latter often have no centralized support like the VA.

This country has one of the largest veteran populations in history, and we all have a responsibility, as a nation and as a community, to support veterans’ and their families’ transition back to life at home. Equally we have a responsibility to the international aid community to support those who work abroad and don’t have access to the same type of support when they come home. #BeWellServeWell

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Would you like to be part of this support network for those who serve? Explore our Mindful Yoga Therapy training page to learn how you can help veterans and others impacted by trauma to find a calm and steady body/mind.

John Gillard: Combat Veterans Giving Back

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This is an interview with John Gillard, who explored yoga for several years while he was active duty military. He now teaches at a studio in Warren, RI. “There is no separation between yoga and service for me,” says John. “I receive so much from my practice; it is only sensible to give back, at least a fraction.”

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?

The definition of yoga is “the union of opposites.” Although my late mother never taught a single posture, she modeled uniting opposites by gracefully balancing her triumphs and challenges. This is what motivates me to teach. As a man of color from an urban setting, the messages about violence are extremely ambiguous. Yoga provides a practice that clarifies this ambiguity by centering me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This motivates me to continue to practice; that motivation has become more intimate as time has passed.

2016-04-11-1460375680-2521050-JohnGillard.jpgIs there a standout moment from your work with the Veteran population?

Every time I interact with a Veteran who is coping with military sexual trauma (MST), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or a combination of mental illnesses, I see that relaxation and sleep are very difficult for them. So to hear from a Veteran, for example, that “this is the most relaxed I’ve felt in 20 years,” or to have someone simply fall asleep during yoga class after sharing that they’ve been awake for 72 hours; those are standout moments for me.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I’m a combat Veteran who has actually experienced more trauma here, at home, than I ever experienced abroad, despite engaging in firefights. I have first-hand experience of what violence and trauma do to individuals. I’ve also worked in human services and that experience has allowed for sound insight into the practical reality of this population. My assumption was that not all Veterans would be receptive to yoga practice, but I’ve found that many more than I expected are, and that number is only growing. I now realize that Veterans will use the tools available as long as those tools are presented respectfully.

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?

My style actually remains the same. This is because the studios that I’ve taught and/or currently teach in share a passion for the practice, not simply the presentation. This is important because it allows me to remain true to my heartfelt and committed service orientation.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

My greatest challenge is also my greatest strength. I look more like a football player than a yoga instructor! Many students view me as a fitness instructor. Although, soon they recognize that I’m not interested in pretentious posturing, but rather in heartfelt, soulful, and noncompetitive yoga practice. I remain authentic in who I am — a humble, loving man who seeks opportunities to serve others. So rewarding!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to Veterans?

The same advice I received from Tom Gillette, an experienced yoga teacher and mentor: “Teach from your core. There are amazing instructors everywhere; be yourself.”

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

I’d like for yoga to become more accessible and better received in urban settings, as well as in society in general. It’s become normal for us to engage in mindless living. Yoga provides the information for us to either challenge this truth or remain mindless. Over the next decade, I’d like to see it offered widely as a complementary treatment to traditional therapies such as mental health counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. I’d also like to see more teachers allow the common thread of holding sacred space and cultivating our interconnectedness rather than focusing solely on branding or trademarking, especially in trauma-sensitive yoga.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Serving such deserving populations as Veterans — whether incarcerated, coping with MST, PTSD, and/or physical or mental illness — has deepened my understanding of service. I realize that no matter how much I give, I’m always receiving far more than what I’m giving. Yoga is the union of opposites, embracing ALL aspects of who I am without guilt or shame, but with a warm parental love. Service has made my practice more intimate, recognizing my practice in all aspects of my life. Yoga is not simply a posture or series of postures; yoga is every breath and interaction…yoga is the symbol of our interconnectedness.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Even the best yoga teachers need to acquire specific skills and considerations to work in trauma recovery programs. Our goal is to help create the most qualified, supportive teachers possible to work with victims of trauma. Visit our Trainings page to explore trainings for teachers, and to experience Mindful Yoga Therapy practices – originally developed for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress – through the new Yoga for Stress online course.

Michael Lear: Expanding the Practice of Yoga and Mindfulness to Prisons

2016-03-21-1458572450-1684106-MichaelLear-thumbThis is an interview with Michael Lear, whom I met at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute last May. I learned that we both had former lives in international development. Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in finance, Michael had some serious health issues, and discovered The Trager Approach, which had a dramatic impact on both his approach to life and to back pain. Eventually Trager led him to biofeedback, floatation tank therapy, yoga, and Vipassana meditation. He has been a certified Trager Practitioner (therapeutic movement education and mindfulness practitioner/bodyworker) for 24 years, a yoga practitioner for 23 years and a yoga teacher for 15 years, with a primary focus of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore style. In addition, Michael is active with Shanthi Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit which offers trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes to many underserved and at-risk populations suffering from trauma, as well as classes at area schools. Michael works primarily in the Northampton County Prison and Juvenile Justice Center in Easton, PA.

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?

A serendipitous trip to Cambodian rehabilitation centers while backpacking in 1998 stirred in me an intention to give back via relief work. My original idea was to introduce Trager for addressing phantom limb pain of land mine victims, and to treat children with polio. After the 2004 tsunami I let go of my yoga studio, and went to Sri Lanka where I found Navajeevna Rehabilitation Center (an NGO that works to rehabilitate people with disabilities). Through 2008, I visited each year to conduct trainings for its physical therapists in Trager essentials, to enhance their treatment protocols. Eventually I was offered a position with the nonprofit Real Medicine Foundation (RMF), becoming its Director of International Relations until early 2010. With RMF, in addition to being country Director for Sri Lanka and Sudan, I was involved in a number of primary health care projects in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Armenia, and was first on the ground after the Haiti earthquake. The schedule was demanding, and Ashtanga Yoga and Vipassana meditation were vital practices that kept me on point, and helped to diffuse the vicarious trauma you can experience in such circumstances.

The motivation to serve is an extension of gratitude for my teachers and the desire to help others experience similar benefits. In the context of teaching, not a class goes by that I’m not learning/ growing. If I’m saying it aloud to anyone, it is still for me to hear. Students show up in very earnestly (especially those in prison), and with a courage that is admirable. At the end of class I take inventory of what was said and this becomes my ‘to do’ list. Needless to say, the list is always meaningful.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Shanthi Project, or specific population?

At this juncture, for Shanthi Project every class has standout moments. The classes are deeply transformative and rewarding across the board. In terms of having my envelope pushed, being on the ground in Dominican Republic and Haiti just after the earthquake, and working in South Sudan to establish the Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery towards the end of its peace agreement are quite memorable.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

Before I began teaching those who are incarcerated, I knew little about what was unique to them. I had worked with traumatized populations through relief work (refugees, disaster victims, etc.), and in my bodywork practice I had worked with a few survivors of incest and rape. I was to learn that they all share a trauma experience. In the prison classes, I have met only genuinely kind, considerate participants. They show up in earnest, with a sincere desire to find a way to improve their lives.

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?

In a studio setting, I teach primarily Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, which affords an opportunity for more one-on-one dialogue with each student; and this minimizes assumptions.

In a trauma-informed yoga setting, using language that invites participation, and giving students a choice on how they would like to participate, are essential to facilitating a therapeutic experience. Nothing is assumed — the class is on their terms. The environments are not always conducive to relaxation. Modeling equanimity in often-uncontrollable circumstances becomes the main tool for guiding students towards a relaxed and peaceful state.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge in all teaching experiences, I believe, is for the teacher to motivate the student to learn, and to assure the student that all efforts represent progress; and to make every effort to adapt to the students’ learning styles. Using mindfulness to remain free of trigger references and leveraging Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication protocols have been invaluable tools.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

My advice is that they go forth with enthusiasm to help those whom society so often deems unworthy of such assistance. The safety and success of the students is priority number one, so the flexibility and equanimity of the teacher is of prime importance in the often-complex circumstances within a prison. Anyone who is going to teach would do well to become informed of the psychological underpinnings of PTSD, and to become acquainted with communication approaches such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication method.

Additionally, teachers should have well-established self-care practices (strong personal practices), have a sound support system, and know his or her boundaries.

Trust in your volition to serve — be authentic. If you’re true to your practices and commitment, your presence will speak volumes to the populations you serve. They’ll know you are there to help them the minute you walk into the room.

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 service as a separate and distinct practice becomes our collective social way of being — how we treat one another — under all circumstances. This means treating others with compassion, understanding, respect, love, and dignity. I hope that that future generations are taught from the start how to live well in a human body, cultivate a focused and discerning mind. And a compassionate heart.

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Are you interested in sharing trauma-informed practices with at-risk populations? Join an upcoming Prison Yoga Project training to learn how you can effectively share tools for transformation.

Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas: Witnessing The Positive Impact Of Yoga For Veterans

2016-02-10-1455110783-921279-KateHendricksThomasYoga-thumbThis is an interview with Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran and public health researcher who is interested in finding ways to promote mental health for military-connected personnel. She believes passionately in behavioral health solutions beyond the clinical realm. Kate is a college professor and trained yoga instructor. In 2013, she completed levels I & II of the Warriors at Ease Trauma-Sensitive Teacher Training for Military Veterans. She writes a monthly column for the digital magazine “Grow” about the importance of yoga for veterans’ health, and her articles about her research in this area have been published in scientific journals. Her first book, “Brave, Strong, & True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance” was released by Innovo Publishing Group last fall. Connect with her at http://katehendricksthomas.com.

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?

2016-02-10-1455111662-7842012-KateHendricksThomas-thumb Dr. Thomas: I joined the Marine Corps in college to test myself, to see whether I could do 20-mile hikes or back-breaking obstacle courses. I quickly learned that I could. In those early years as a Marine, I got very good at presenting a veneer of stoic professionalism at all times. Presenting the certain, effective façade required some incredibly useful skills – skills that become very destructive when you don’t know how to turn them off.

The above description fits most Marines. We tend to be a driven, dysfunctional lot. When I left the Marine Corps, I had a hard time carving a new identity for myself. I was terribly invested in what others thought of me. My public story was of crisp uniforms, physical fitness metrics, and successes. I always looked good on paper. My private story involved destructive choices, broken doors and holes in the walls, hiding weapons in the house, and getting dragged across the living room floor by my hair. I share this not because any of it is particularly interesting, but because it’s particularly common and normal in the military community I call home.

I was floundering through my own transition of Marine-to-civilian. It was at this critical juncture that I came to yoga as an athlete looking for something fun to try, something new to master, and something to help me bend my unyielding muscles a bit more easily. What I found on the mat changed my life entirely. I found a practice that was about more than my body, my training, and was something I could practice and study while joyously never “mastering” it.

I teach yoga today because it saved my life, because it asks the practitioner to work at creating mental fitness and resilience. I know no other way to reach my peers with such effect.

Is there a standout moment from your work with the veteran population?

I love teaching meditation for VA patients on the inpatient mental health ward. They are often so open and curious. Time commitments and distractions are completely eliminated by the confined surroundings, and we have the chance to truly breathe together.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

I am a member of that population. The idiosyncratic messages of warrior subculture make sense to me; I grew up in a military family where “civilian” was pejorative, so I’m very familiar with military life. My own mistakes almost leveled me: I had no words to explain the disaster that had become my personal life, and felt crippling shame about being one of “those people,” with disordered drinking behavior going through a violent divorce. I would have fit right in on the Jerry Springer show. I knew the military intimately and I think I imagined that if I shared any of this with other veterans, they would dislike the authentic me that was full of flaws. In actuality, those flaws are my greatest offering as a teacher.

What is the role of “warrior-ness” in the healing process for veterans?

Marines and soldiers are competitive people who respond much better to notions of challenge than to victim or patient identities. We veterans won’t ask for help. The answer has to lie outside the contemporary standard of care. Yoga can address that. When we discuss the sorts of trauma and injuries our veterans have experienced, we need to bring mindfulness into the conversation around treatment and prevention. Pills and therapy are not enough to return this active, passionate community to full health after trauma.

Right now we are losing more veterans to suicide than to combat. I’m a pretty decisive person with limited ability to ask for help and zero trouble taking risks; I’m motivated in part because there was a time when I could have become one of those statistics. While there are clinical health services for soldiers and Marines with existing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress, these services are not stemming the rising tide of service suicides. Framing mindfulness training as a way to “bulletproof your brain” renders the practices palatable within the confines of warrior culture.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Teaching from a place of flawed authenticity was a skill set I never used to possess, and I have to work hard to overcome my ego. A great example is my lifelong struggle with demonstrating balance poses. I’ve always had trouble in balance poses. To be honest, I’m not terribly balanced in general – I have been accused of displaying control-freak tendencies many a time. To learn to embrace my imperfect pose, laugh about it, and then share that in public has been tremendously liberating. I think our veteran students need approachable yoga.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to veterans?

Learn the language, take some trauma-sensitive training, be willing to listen and learn, and focus outward. When we teach, it is not about us.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

The yoga community has a real opportunity now to move into the mainstream health and wellness realm in a balanced, authentic, healing manner. Sometimes I think we focus too much on sexy poses or yoga pants, but when I spend time with fellow Yoga Service Council members who care so deeply about using this practice to make a difference in the world, I have confidence in the potential of our little subculture to bring about change.

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 Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s 100-hour certification program can lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Find an upcoming training near you.

Jill Weiss Ippolito: How We Serve Incarcerated Youth

Jill Weiss IppolitoThis is an interview with Jill Weiss Ippolito, who is the founder/director of UpRising Yoga in Los Angeles, a nonprofit program that brings yoga to incarcerated youth and communities that can benefit from yoga. Her organization holds weekly yoga classes for boys and girls incarcerated in Central Juvenile Hall, as well as group homes, mental health facilities, and schools across Los Angeles County. Jill is helping to change policy and culture by bringing UpRising Yoga Life Skills training to probation staff, mental health, and social workers, teachers, and the general public. Like others interviewed for this series, Jill says, “Yoga saved my life from a past of jails and institutions, addiction and medications, depression and hopelessness.”

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?

Jill: What originally motivated me was hearing about the conditions of the minors in juvenile hall. Incarceration leaves a deep scar on a young person. I felt that yoga could be a powerful tool to help young people cope with a bad situation, and that it could bring more peace to an environment that is continually stressful; so I asked the LA County Probation Department, “Can I teach yoga?”

These kids continue to motivate me, especially the ones who are truly motivated to do this on their own because “it feels good.” They light up; they want this yoga. They’re sponges, soaking up this gift that can never be taken away from them.

I want to mention something funny around your “motivation” question. It took about three or four months teaching at juvenile hall before I remembered that I was once arrested and brought there myself when I was a teenager. My mother reminded me, and I realized why this work resonates in me so deeply. Would things have been different for me if yoga had been placed in my path earlier in life? The answer to that question doesn’t matter for me now, but it might for one of the kids we share yoga with!

Is there a standout moment from your work with juveniles in LA County Juvenile Hall?

A lot of work goes into these classes, and I have a lot of wonderful people helping me. But for me, the best experience I have had is actually practicing with the kids: for instance, a boy next to me asking, “Miss, how can I do this on the outside?” It makes me happy to see the kids eager to get in postures they like (for some reason, Crow is by far the most popular asana we do). It’s rewarding to watch them help each other, like one boy telling the guy next to him to be quiet, so he can “get this.” During a meditation, one girl said she had the vision of a beautiful pond, a place where, in her mind, she can always go.

What did you know about the population you are working with, before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

As I mentioned, my mother reminded me that I was brought to juvenile hall when I was a teenager. So I guess you could say that my empathy for a young person in that situation went from this more general idea of “Oh, those poor kids” to “I’ve been there, I can relate.” Also, the idea of kids in foster care was hard to imagine. I knew of foster homes, and how many kids run away from them, but the idea of having no one to come pick you up and care for you really started to sink in.

Another big assumption I carried was that the kids would be really tough. I thought they would be hardened and threatening, and I imagined seeing them throw gang signs at each other and fight all the time. I also worried about racial issues: what would happen if the rival gangs were placed next to each other? Would I be breaking up fights all the time? And I thought they would resist the idea of yoga from a white lady: that the boys would think it’s “stupid” and the girls would think it’s useless. But I was pretty much wrong on all counts. They are sweet kids for the hour we get them. They light up and smile, laugh and share. They ask a lot of questions and are starving for attention, to be seen and to be cared about.

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?

UpRising Yoga classes are one hour, and involve education with trauma-informed healing as the focus. This requires relationship-building and understanding cultural diversity. Another fundamental difference is that I am not teaching adults who are there by choice. I’m teaching kids in lockup.

We try to allow a lot of room for the kids to approach yoga in a way that makes them feel safe. We also look for every opportunity to praise and encourage. For some of them, just coming to the mat and lying down is a victory. The next time we come back they may try a posture or two. The time after that, they may do the whole sequence.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I’ve worked at letting go of what I think a student needs to be doing. Teaching these kids has helped me with that, especially when I see them trying new things in class. My intention is to let each student have his/her own experience.

Compassion is my best tool. Before I start each class, I take a moment to share loving energy to each person there. It’s up to me to stay focused in order to offer something grounding.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach juveniles in detention centers?

Make sure you are available, physically and emotionally. What I mean by physically is having the dedication and commitment to show up and be a consistent reliable person in the juvenile department. You have to build trust. Make sure you have time and patience to devote to a program.

Emotionally, make sure you can take care of yourself in a healthy manner while you offer to be of service. We emphasize “being of service” rather than “helping” anyone. Knowing the difference is vital.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

We have to find a way to offer yoga to kids BEFORE they get in trouble, BEFORE they commit a crime, BEFORE they get arrested.

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Are you interested in learning how to do this type of work? Join Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox for a unique weekend training, where you will learn how to bring yoga to underserved or at-risk populations. Visit the PYP training page for more information.