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Candace Martin: Serving Many Faiths

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

Rob: What draws you to work with interfaith groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robyn Tiger: The Medicine Needed for Cancer Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kate Rice: How We Serve Our Communities

Kate RiceThis is an interview with Kate Rice, a Chicago-based yoga teacher who offers trauma-informed community classes in two public library locations and recently started teaching yoga at Cook County Jail through Yoga for Recovery. Kate started working administratively in yoga service through Yoga Activist in Washington, DC, before becoming a yoga teacher. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Communication and, among a variety of other jobs, has taught English as a foreign language in Bosnia, Slovakia, and Hungary. You can read more about her work and find resources and articles on trauma-informed yoga at shareyourpractice.org.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Practicing yoga in my low-cost Washington, DC, gym during grad school was transformational for me. I was dealing with a lot of stuff, and yoga just made me feel better. As a child I was very overweight, I had a difficult relationship with my family, I struggled with body and food issues for many years. It took me a long time to feel comfortable wearing yoga clothes and going to a yoga studio.

I started volunteering a few hours a week of admin help for Yoga Activist in exchange for free yoga at Yoga District. This essentially turned into a full-time gig for some time—Jasmine Chehrazi’s dedication to this organization and work has proven to be an incredible influence on my path.

Fast forward to 2014, I had moved back to Chicago, and somewhat spontaneously enrolled in yoga teacher training with Core Power Yoga. I now teach yoga full-time and love it. I believe yoga has a tremendous capacity to heal, whether it’s in one’s own home, in a gym, on the beach, or in a studio. But if I only teach in paid positions at gyms or studios, the yoga I offer is likely only reaching the small segment of people who can afford to pay a lot. Lots more people can benefit. There are so many problems in the world, most of which I am not otherwise equipped to address, so making yoga available at low cost or no cost is something I can actually do.

My motivation has shifted to helping connect yoga teachers to the resources already out there to get formal training in trauma-informed yoga.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

I avoid hands-on assists outside the main studio I teach in, for a number of reasons. But otherwise, I actually bring a lot of my trauma-informed perspective into my public classes. Molly Boeder Harris framed it most memorably for me in her training on yoga for survivors of sexual violence: trauma survivors are definitely present in public classes too!

Ideally any class is level-appropriate for the people in it, and most of my public studio classes are in fact more vigorous than my community classes. But wherever I teach, I offer options, as much as I can, without ranking the options [as easier/more advanced]. I invite students to observe their own experience of the postures, the pace of their own breath. I consistently ask if students would like to opt out of hands-on assists. I offer alignment cues—a lot! But ultimately I let my students decide what to do with their own bodies and their own practice.

There are strong views that teachers should do this work only as service, and equally strong views that teachers should not work for free because it undervalues the work. I think it is more complicated than coming to one “right” answer—and also that yoga service shouldn’t be practiced only by people with disposable income and with lots of spare time on their hands.

It can be disheartening, though, when in certain contexts I have to fight for the opportunity to offer a free yoga class that incorporates my professional skills and supplementary training in trauma-informed yoga. My tools are persistence, recognizing how rewarding it is to offer yoga in a setting where it wouldn’t otherwise be available, and picking my battles. I may have my heart set on a specific venue, but if management isn’t interested in yoga—even a free class—someone else will be, somewhere else.

Coffee helps, too, especially with the persistence part.

What advice would you give to teachers newer to the field of teaching trauma- informed yoga?

Get formal training in trauma-informed yoga because it matters. There are teachers with lots of experience in trauma-informed yoga, and they will bring up topics you haven’t even thought to consider. You’ll learn a lot by attending their trainings, and your enrollment fees will help financially support yoga service as a whole.

Also, as important as it is to learn and do your best, be kind to yourself, rather than judgmental. You will make mistakes, you will say and do things that later you look back on and wish you had done differently.  Trauma survivors have survived a lot; your yoga class will not break them.

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

I hope that yoga teachers and the public will define “yoga service” more broadly, and incorporate trauma-informed yoga training in standard yoga teacher trainings.

For-profit public classes will continue to reach the segment of the population who can pay. In this group, there are bound to be trauma survivors, both people who identify as such but wouldn’t call themselves that publicly, and people who for most intents and purposes are trauma survivors, but haven’t thought to categorize themselves as such. For this reason, I hope that more yoga teacher trainings will incorporate information on trauma-informed practices, and direct teachers on how and why to get additional training.

Low-cost yoga for the public at large matters, too. Teaching yoga in prisons, to documented domestic violence survivors, to people diagnosed with eating disorders—these are all incredibly important. I hope that teaching yoga in less dramatic but equally worthwhile settings like community centers or libraries will be recognized as valuable forms of yoga service too. It would be tremendous to reach people with yoga before they wind up in more extreme situations of experiencing an eating disorder, becoming incarcerated, or experiencing domestic violence. So even if yoga isn’t what prevents the situation totally, they have those tools at their disposal.

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