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State of the Art Yoga Service

BY ROB SCHWARE, PhD
Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation
President Ex-Officio, Yoga Service Council

Originally published in CO YOGA + Life Magazine, Summer/Fall 2017.

Yoga Service 2017: Catalyzing Large Scale Change

State of the Art Yoga ServiceWhen Beryl Bender Birch and I co-founded The Give Back Yoga Foundation in 2007, there were around a dozen non-profit yoga service organizations in the US. We wanted to support and fund certified yoga teachers in all traditions to offer the teachings of yoga to under-served and under-resourced people and communities, and inspire grassroots social change.

Teacher trainees at Beryl’s The Hard and the Soft Yoga Institute wrote up their project ideas for increasing access to yoga, either through community service or yoga classes in communities living with poverty and trauma. “Yoga Service” is now a much larger movement, with hundreds of organizations and thousands of teachers offering their yoga therapy skills and knowledge outside of the traditional studio setting.

We are now at a moment when the course of yoga service is significantly changing – a turning point, if you will – for three reasons.

INSTITUTIONAL ADOPTION

Social agencies, including prisons and juvenile detention centers, treatment centers for addictions and eating disorders, and VA hospitals, among others, are now adopting, and in many cases funding, yoga programs.

For instance, in Cincinnati, OH the Hamilton County Veterans’ Court is treatment-based and creates a comfortable and safe environment where supports (employment, transportation, wellness activities, and others) are the foundation of sobriety and treatment. Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) is mandatory for veterans appearing in this courtroom.

Attendance is considered one of the three self-help meetings required each week.

Says yoga teacher Jennifer Wright, “it is unlike anything I’ve experienced or seen in a traditional courtroom. We hold Mindful Yoga Therapy prior to the docket. Feedback suggests that the pre-docket practice brings calm to the individuals and reduces anxiety. I observe it and I receive the feedback that we create a visibly calmer courtroom. It is worth mentioning that the national Veterans’ Court recidivism rate is 22 percent, and in Hamilton County the rate is 7 percent.”

And in the middle of America, Omaha, Nebraska’s Correctional Youth Facility (NCYF) recently started the first-ever weekly yoga class for incarcerated young men ages 16-21. NCYF is the only adult correctional facility for young male offenders in Nebraska. And the progressive warden, Ryan Mahr, understands that “hurt people hurt people.” So this year he hired Phileena Heuertz of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, to launch the yoga program at NCYF. This is just one restorative justice program in the local prison to help young men heal, stay out of the criminal justice system, and recover their best self.

There are two success stories here: the people being helped, and the data being collected. Because of the track records of these cutting-edge programs, and because of the research that has proven the benefits to the populations served, in the future there will be opportunities to replicate these programs in other states.

CORPORATE INVOLVEMENT

Gaiam, a consumer products and media company, has for several years donated thousands of yoga mats to kick-start yoga programs in schools, and for first responders, veterans, at-risk youth, the homeless, and people with mental and physical disabilities.

Gaiam is now sending Yoga Readiness Kits, including yoga products and video content featuring yoga and mindfulness, to military bases around the world, including, among others: Fort Campbell, Ft. Stewart, Fort Bragg, Shaw Air Force Base, the Southern Command, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Recently it launched a free video series for active duty service men and women.

In October 2016, lululemon committed to a new community-based social impact program to create access to the healing benefits of yoga in at-risk and underserved communities, the Here to Be program. Its initial partners include the United Nations Foundation, Africa Yoga Project, Yoga Foster, LoveYourBrain, Give Back Yoga Foundation, and the Yoga Service Council.

Here to Be will fund initiatives that make yoga service programs more accessible. Over the next five years, it aims to help to build the community of yoga service practitioners among nonprofits, academics, and public sector institutions that are developing and applying yoga service programming. CEO Laurent Potdevin is making social impact investing a corporate priority. He made a commitment on behalf of lululemon at the Clinton Global Initiative of $25 million over the next five years “to bring the benefits of yoga and meditation to underserved communities around the world.”

NEW REALITIES

In recent days, a growing number of teachers have reached out to yoga service organizations, such as Hands to Heart Center in Boston, to volunteer their services providing free and accessible yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma. Other organizations, such as the Newark Yoga Movement, are developing teachers with language skills from low-income communities and minority cultural backgrounds that reflect the diverse populations they serve.

Our organization, The Give Back Yoga Foundation, continues offering free resources to thousands of prisoners, veterans, and active duty service members. Alongside these resources, in September 2017 we will be launching with lululemon/Here to Be a free online course for yoga teachers around the world called How Can I Serve? and a 200-hr teacher training focused strongly on yoga service led by Beryl Bender Birch.

As uncertain as today’s reality is, the newly-sown seeds that I’ve described make clear that transformative change is sprouting and growing in the yoga service world, presenting us with inspiring opportunities for positive direction. Our work as yoga service organizations has never been more needed than it is today.

We can all make a difference. Help us to bring yoga to those who need it most. Find ways to get involved today.

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.

John Gillard: Combat Veterans Giving Back

2016-04-11-1460375770-2976121-JohnGillardBanner-thumb

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.

Jennifer Wright: Bringing Yoga to Veterans Treatment Court

2016-02-02-1454416098-7814319-JenniferWrightSchneemanPhotoCourtesyofPaulDirkPhotography-thumbThis is an interview with Jennifer Wright, who offers Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) training to Veterans and their families. She started with eight Veterans, ranging from OEF/OIF to Vietnam War Vets. One of those Vets introduced her to The Joseph House, a treatment-based shelter for Veterans in transition where she has worked the last two years. Around the same time, she received an invitation from the much-loved local judge to work with the Veterans of the Hamilton County Municipal-Veterans Treatment Court. She offers the MYT practices in the courtroom, prior to the docket. Attendance is now mandatory, and is considered one of the three self-help meetings required each week.

Since then, Interact for Health expanded the program through grant funds to capture data that supports the benefits of MYT when combined with behavioral treatment. MYT in Cincinnati has evolved to a mandatory complementary alternative medicine (CAM) intervention in both the Men’s and Women’s residential treatment programs at Veterans Administration Medical Center.

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?

Jennifer: My sister-in-law and both of my brothers are Marines. I’m motivated to support the people that committed to our country and constitution; yet I have Jennie, Mark, Mike, other family members and friends in my heart as I interact with active duty and Veterans of all ages.

My yoga journey started long ago, when I started practicing in a post-9/11 environment while living in the DC area. I share the practices that helped and continue to help me process and manage my own stress.

My 12-year DOD career was spent working at DARPA, the science arm for the Pentagon; and also at military laboratories. I have my own experience, and although never active duty, I can relate to transitioning out of a lifestyle (not just a career) and redefining the self: figuring out what is next. I worked Human Performance Optimization programs for a long time, and I still do. I do so now using a trauma-informed protocol that is designed to enable the individual to practice coping skills and complement the hard work of treatment, transition & recovery. I still take my job very seriously – just now I wear comfier clothes and the work is more immediate and directly impactful!

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

There are several notable moments, and a few stand out to me for their beautiful simplicity.

One of the men I worked with ended up at VA hospital where he had all day to monitor his BP and HR. He put his yoga practice to the test and had the added benefit of immediate feedback through the physiological monitoring. He used his breath practices to impact his outcome – to manage his pain, anxiety and anger during the whole process. He shared how he had a chance to discuss his coping skills with the medical staff. As he shared his real-world experience, I felt privileged to observe a proud and empowered man.

Another Veteran was pretty banged up. Some of his injuries were visible, although mostly not. The first session, he arrived to class with a stern face and dark glasses to protect his sensitive eyes from any light. He is a tall and solid man. Due to multiple traumas, sitting, standing and moving with comfort was rarely accessible to him on any given day. Although he had difficulty getting to the ground, he was determined to relax on the floor during the resting practices along with everyone else and he wanted to get there with minimal assistance. Communication was challenged so I used an analogy to land like a C-130 rather than a Harrier. Grace and safety was communicated; I was able to assist him to the ground. Once settled in with yoga props, he would give a big thumbs up and release a big smile or sigh. It was especially amazing to watch him over the eight weeks throughout the hard work with his speech therapist, clinical psychologists and of course, MYT. He would arrive to MYT with a grin, his arms spread out and make the noise of a large, cargo plane – ready to land and to relax.

What did you know about veterans 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 went into working with Veterans feeling comfortable and in my element. Now, working Mindful Yoga Therapy with such a wide range of individuals reinforced how hard-headed some people can be…after all, people are people. Working with and witnessing people work their MYT program along side their recovery, therapy, or behavioral treatment has reinforced my understanding of humans, and especially military members as supremely resilient.

I went in thinking that damage to the brain was permanent. My VA mentors, colleagues, education and new discoveries prove otherwise.

What is unique about the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program as applied to Veterans Court?2016-02-02-1454416666-687449-unspecified-thumb

After getting over the initial chuckle of yoga mats in the courtroom, Hamilton County Vet Court is a unique and interactive environment. It starts with the motivating and compassionate judge, coupled with the well trained, kindhearted VA Veterans Justice Outreach, Court Clinic, Prosecutors and Public Defenders. Combine that with fun and relatable peer mentors, it is unlike anything I’ve experienced or seen in a traditional courtroom. Hamilton County Vet Court is treatment-based, and creates a comfortable and safe environment where supports (employment, transportation, wellness activities and others) are the foundation to sobriety and treatment.

We hold MYT prior to the docket. Feedback suggests that the pre-docket practice brings calm to the individuals and reduces anxiety. I observe it, and I receive the feedback that we create a visibly calmer courtroom.

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

To me, the greatest challenge is working with men and women carrying sexual trauma. I lean on the advanced MYT trauma-informed protocol, my training and my experience. Trauma is held in the nervous system, and survival is sometimes rooted in living outside of the self. Since yoga is an invitation back into the body through self-awareness and self-acceptance, it is crucial to create a safe environment with the use of supportive language, postures and practices.

It is my observation that some people are not ready to come back into the body. The reminder to me is to stay positive and to be a ray of light for if and when the individual is ready. The more effective way is to invite the individual to show up and breathe, as the breath is the foundation for everything that we do. In MYT we offer many variations and a goal is to empower people to work to his or her appropriate level.

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

Trauma is trauma, and whether it is combat or non-combat related, a trauma-informed approach is necessary; and when implemented correctly, it works.

If there is interest in working with Veterans, especially in a clinical setting, embrace the beginner;s mind, empty your cup and get smart by training-up on a trauma-informed protocol like MYT. Stay healthy personally by staying grounded and use other self-care techniques to not take on “stuff.” Work your own practice!

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

There is a real need to support more Veterans and their families. Offering MYT practices (breath work, meditation, yoga postures, Yoga Nidra and gratitude) to active duty service members supports the research that shows how people armed with resiliency skills can experience and process trauma with self-soothing techniques and thus decrease the conversion to chronic stress and/or re-experiencing.

I am committed to continuing the MYT protocol in the clinical setting so that we can better understand the positive outcomes, especially when implemented in conjunction with Cognitive Processing Therapy. With the support of the Interact for Health grant funds, we are gaining traction towards the recognition as an evidenced-based intervention. It is my hope that we are moving towards full adoption within the DOD and VA.

War is not black and white. As the military and its agents return from war, there is a lot of “gray” to process. We owe it to the men and women to provide a whole range of skills to aid in the transition.

Headshot courtesy of Paul Dirk Photography.

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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.