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Annie Buckley: Tools for Transformation

This is an interview with Annie Buckley, an artist, writer, and award-winning educator who focuses on art and social justice. She has taught yoga fused with visual art and creative writing to children, teens, and adults in settings including schools, shelters, and prisons and has been a mentor teacher since 2000, specializing in supporting others to conduct learner-centered creative classes for diverse participants. Her work has been dedicated to expanding access to the transformative practices of art and yoga for the past 25 years.

Annie is the author of numerous essays and articles on contemporary art and dozens of books, including the popular Kids Yoga Deck (Chronicle Books, 2003). Recently, she wrote about mindfulness and her experience as a cancer patient for The Huffington Post.

Annie is currently an Associate Professor at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), where she oversees the Visual Studies major and founded and directs Community-based Art and the Prison Arts Collective, for which she was recently awarded an NEA grant.

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

What motivates me most is a love of art, and a passion for social justice. Since I began teaching in the early ‘90s, I’ve chosen to teach in public schools in predominantly underserved areas. This has taken me down many paths, including teaching art at Hoover Street School and yoga at Dolores Mission Alternative School. Most recently, I’m serving as a professor at CSUSB, where 80% of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and I’m bringing an arts program to four prisons in Southern CA.

I try to balance what I’m interested in— art, yoga, meditation, writing— with what is needed, and I have been fortunate to find avenues to grow these practices in areas that would not otherwise have access to them.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

What I love about teaching is the opportunity to do interesting things— discuss art theory, create a mandala, practice a group meditation— with a diverse group of people. Like most teachers, I learn as well as teach; I’m fortunate to have been able to teach people of all ages and from many different backgrounds, and to create hybrid classes in art, yoga, and writing. I love seeing people’s eyes light up when they realize their creative capacity.

Seeing my former students follow their dreams and flourish is most rewarding to me. For example, a single mother in my teen yoga class became my assistant in a teacher training; a student from my Yoga for Kids Teacher Training opened a yoga studio in Oregon; my former research assistants are currently in graduate school at USC and ASU; and several former students at CSUSB now teach with me in the Prison Arts Collective.

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

My students daily teach by example: they have patience, perseverance, kindness, humility, curiosity, and hope for the future. For those who are incarcerated, I am humbled by their positivity, collaboration, and willingness to be open and vulnerable in the creative process despite their difficult circumstances; their care for one another, courage to change their lives, and desire to ‘give back’ to their communities are profound.

My students on campus inspire me with their strength, diligence, and willingness to create change in their lives and communities. After our recent presidential election, one of our students, also a Teaching Artist in the Prison Arts Collective, Rebecca Crisler, wrote a post that pulled me out of the doldrums and gave me hope for change. It ended with the words, “This is a scary time, but we cannot be afraid, we are powerful because we are many and we have love, compassion and intelligence. WE have the power, let’s use it!”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with incarcerated men and women?

As the issue of mass incarceration becomes widely known, people are more willing to consider that those in prison have multifaceted lives and stories; also, I know a lot of people, inside the system and out, that are working for improved rehabilitative programs. But as a society, we have a long way to go before we are able to untangle and mitigate all the factors that go into the racial and economic disparities inherent in our criminal justice system.

To me, it’s an honor and a privilege to share a positive and transformative creative space with those who are incarcerated. The Prison Arts Collective grows each day because our teaching artists and participants are all empowered by this experience. We grow organically, based on the needs and interests of our members. We started out teaching visual art but have added creative writing, music, and yoga as participants requested them. But all of our class involve historical knowledge, creative practice, and reflection.

The practice of asana is newer to our program but mindfulness and the philosophy of lovingkindness permeate everything we do. We aim to value everyone’s contribution and co-create creative space together. In a more practical example, I developed an exercise for our program called 3X5; in this practice, you take five conscious breaths, make five thumbnail sketches, and write five words. Each time I lead this practice in a prison, I can feel a palpable shift in the group from breath one to breath five, as if tensions were gently eased from the space.

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

I believe that yoga— asana, meditation, and a philosophy of integration and ahimsa (non-violence)— is a means to personal and universal transformation. I have experienced this, and it informs my creative process and life choices. That said, I don’t think that yoga, or anything, really, is the one and only path to change; I think—I hope—that there are multiple diverse paths to generate positive social transformation, and that all of them together have the potential to result in a more equitable distribution of resources and more expansive and pervasive peace. It takes all of this to achieve real change.

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

I’m inspired by the movement of service yoga and only hope it continues to grow! If every person who was fortunate to be able to practice yoga shared it with an individual or group who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, we’d go a long way to making yoga and mindfulness accessible to all.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Jared Seibert: Trading Mutual Funds for Yoga Mats

This is an interview with Jered Seibert, founder of Warrior Wear LLC, who last year left his mutual fund sales work to become a full-time entrepreneur, creating yoga products for men. Drawing upon inspiration from yoga service, and frustrated at the lack of products for male practitioners, he was inspired to start his own company. He has been practicing yoga since 2008.

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

I’m inspired and motivated to build a brand that men see themselves in, not judge themselves against. I often feel uncomfortable comparing myself to yoga models who are more built, more flexible, and living a life unrelated to mine. Since men are typically less represented in yoga, I quickly start to question where I fit in. My practice and my corporate experience have inspired and empowered me with a sense of responsibility to give back in a way that I know how: communicate a vision, build a team, and work to alleviate insecurity rather than increase anxiety. There’s a difference between inspiration and aspiration. I’ve been inspired by yoga to become part of something bigger than myself, rather than aspiring to become a version of someone else. That’s what keeps me going.

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

This relationship is critical: the most important part of my practice is how it transcends into my life. If we can reach men who have a ‘push harder, move faster, try harder’ mentality, we can make an impact against anger, addiction, and anxiety. In addition, yoga can level the gender biases and highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Many households are still patriarchies, many cultures are still misogynistic, and yoga can be the great equalizer. The more I practice, the more unity I experience across all of humanity. My goal is to spread the message and promote a relatable brand that people can identify with.

How is yoga evolving in contemporary culture? What’s happening to the demographics, and to the teachings? How has your own practice evolved?

I think in terms of possible change, it’s exciting that men are the fastest growing demographic in yoga practice. When I think of the initial image of yoga in contemporary culture, I remember Lilias Yoga and You on public television. Culturally, it was presented to us in a way that women responded and gravitated towards. After several decades in the West, the image is changing and appealing to a broader demographic. People are uncovering more cultural benefits and sharing their experience. It’s become a tool that kids use to manage emotions, a practice that athletes use to sharpen their skills, and a shared experience couples use to bring them closer together.

What do you think the role of brands is in shaping of the future of yoga and mindfulness? Can brands play a role in maintaining the integrity of the practice, and how are you contributing?

I believe that brands play an indirect role in shaping the future and can contribute to the integrity of the practice. One of my driving motivations is to create a company that can inspire a broader demographic. If we can build a masculine brand that people identify with based on their own self-experience, we can create a connection. And that is, ultimately, what this is all about. The goal is to create a lasting connection with people across the world who have a common interest in living well. We live in a capitalist culture, and we tend to turn to the market to mitigate our insecurity.

We’re indoctrinated to understand that products exist for the consumer. It’s likely men haven’t responded to yoga because there aren’t any brand identities for them to respond to. There isn’t any connection. As far as the integrity of the practice is concerned, teachers and practitioners really hold the key. They are, in essence, the consumer who dictates whether the brand survives and maintains a level of integrity they support.

One of my favorite teachers, Dan Peppiatt, says that everything we do in yoga should come from within. Does this increase the spiritual authenticity because of its originality, or pull yoga further away from tradition? The fact is that people are going to gravitate to a practice they can relate to or gain something from. If “party-city yoga” doesn’t seem spiritually authentic to me, who am I to say that it doesn’t seem authentic to someone else? A boisterous music-filled muscle toning class might be exactly what someone needs for an authentic yoga experience, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

This idea of spiritual authenticity speaks to the individual and comes in many shapes, forms, practices, and styles. I believe that practitioners will decide the level of spirituality they want from yoga by gravitating to the practice they respond to internally. I feel that a commitment to honesty, integrity, and being non-judgmental of someone’s practice is our responsibility. As long as we are doing that, we are doing a good job, and maintaining a level of spiritual authenticity.

What is your role and your brand’s role in making the practice accessible to more people to facilitate greater social change?

My aspiration is to break the stereotypical image of yoga by making it more accessible. I want to create a brand and a voice for male practitioners that as of yet doesn’t exist. We’ll do that by creating a product that’s ideal for men, and grow as an organization that continues to give back. The more people see themselves addressed in the yoga products market with a greater offering of products tailored for them, the more willing they’ll be to try yoga. The more people we can persuade to try, the bigger the impact will be. Once that happens, I trust that we’ll start to see greater social change, particularly in the way we consume products, food, and content.

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

My hope is that we start to see our similarities rather than our differences. My hope is that people come to realize for themselves what my practice has taught me, which is that we have choices in how we conduct ourselves. I envision an era in which we take the time to respond rather than react, we let go rather than suppress, and we try to understand, rather than immediately defend. I believe these small ideals can make a big difference in a more compassionate, connected, and communal America. I believe that yoga is the best-positioned platform to lead the way into this change, and I look forward to doing my part.

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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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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.

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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Support more healing: learn more about our partner program yoga4cancer, and help bring yoga classes to more survivors by donating today.

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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Damaris Maria Grossmann: From Battle Warrior To Peaceful Warrior

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This is an interview with Damaris Maria Grossmann, a Registered Nurse, yoga therapist, and wellness educator. I met her at the 2016 World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado, where she was invited to speak because she was “blessed to find yoga in 2006 when struggling with transitioning from the military of over 5 years in the US Navy during Global War on Terrorism.” She has vowed a life of nonviolence and to make the transition from battle warrior to peaceful warrior of the heart. She teaches veterans with the non-profit organization Team Red White and Blue, and has taught children in lower- income schools in Newark and Paterson, NJ, as well as at the Hackensack Cancer Center with the non-profit organization Kula for Karma. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers University, working on integrative health care for health professionals who want to lessen stress and burnout, and a Certified YogaNurse®.

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

I injured my back when I was in the Navy. The injury was the result of a traumatic and emotional situation that was out of my control. I found myself alone, depressed, and living my life in pain, anger, and full of post-traumatic stress. I was introduced to yoga as movement therapy, and I was so surprised it helped. Yoga helped save my life. In my darkest moments, I learned to see the light. My motivation is to teach yoga and integrative health practices to help facilitate others’ healing, now that yoga has helped me. Yoga is whole-body medicine, and should be a part of all medicine.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I feel rewarded when I see the way my students are able to relax and reset. I’m so thankful to see someone be successful who has struggled to relax. The mat is an opportunity for them to be in present time, and to let go in ways that help them find space to forgive themselves and others. The best part of teaching is watching the moment when a person learns the power of their breath as a way of healing and as a source of unconditional love.

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

I’ve learned to be patient, and to listen to the answers within. My students also have helped me to understand the opportunity in the struggles we all face, and that we can find the best part of ourselves.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors facing the veterans you work with? In what ways does it not?

Most of the yoga classes offered in studios across the country may be inaccessible for veterans, either because the approach may be based on assumptions about the clientele that don’t apply to veterans, or simply because they are too expensive. I’m thankful to studios and non-profit organizations like Mindful Yoga Therapy and Kula for Karma that offer free classes for veterans.

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

To me, the practice of mindfulness is not just about being aware of the present moment. We can use those moments to make a change in the world, because we become more mindful of the direction in which we would like our action to lead. Connecting with ourselves through mindfulness will bring both calm into our lives, and allows us to make positive change in the world.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach the veterans that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

When you teach veterans, take time to pause and observe your judgments about what they may have done in their work. Try to accept them where they are, and believe they are our best teachers. I suggest being mindful of your words, and of the transition poses. Be open and genuine, expressing any emotion, or none at all. The breath and quietness of yoga and meditation may be scary moments for veterans. Always reiterate they are here on the mat, in their breath and safe. Take the time to be aware of options and modifications of poses. Always let a group know that any amount or any pose is a beautiful pose; it’s about the time for them to listen within.

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

I believe yoga is a very important part of American healing! Most all of us suffer in some manner with pain or illness. My hope is that yoga will be available to all populations. Actually, one of my greatest passions is complete integrative health within hospitals, communities, and health clinics. Yoga is a way of facilitating healing for the mind-body and spirit. As a nurse veteran and yogi I have seen the impact it has had on my own health and well-being. I intend to promote yoga and wellness as a necessary part of healing in health care communities worldwide.

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Interested in helping veterans to find a calm body/mind? Learn more about Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans and join a teacher training near you.

Terri Cooper: Connection is the Cure

Terri-Cooper-Featured

TERRI COOPER IMAGE COURTESY OF DEREK KEARNEY PHOTOGRAPHY

This is an interview with Terri Cooper, who told me that in 2003, “yoga saved my life. It had such a profound impact on me. I knew immediately that I needed to share this healing practice, so I jumped into teacher training. I felt called to bring this healing practice to those would wouldn’t normally have access to it, so just three months later I started my first outreach class, and have been doing it ever since.  What started out as just a personal passion soon became Yoga Gangsters a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, and after 13 years and 15,000 kids served we matured into Connection Coalition (that’s CoCo for short), with trainings in 25 states.  We address the symptoms of trauma and poverty through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and train our teachers to create connection with youth in schools, jails, shelters, rehabs, and more.” 

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

I’ve always been motivated by the lack of access to necessary resources for communities in crisis.  We know that trauma can be healed, and we know how. Yet, there is still an enormous gap between those who need these tools and those who can easily access them. And, for me—that’s just not ok. Unfortunately, racism and classism continue to perpetuate the cycle of trauma through mass incarceration, under-resourced schools, and lack of opportunities, just to name a few.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The connection is the most rewarding. It’s what we’re all about. Through yoga, people get to cultivate a connection between their movement and the breath. That enables them to connect to themselves in a loving and healing way.  And we all know that when we are in a challenging experience, our crazy human minds start to rip ourselves apart with “not enough-ness.”  The stretching and breathing begin to release tension, and people naturally develop mindfulness around their thoughts, and how these thoughts affect them. In this space we make the connection that ultimately, we’re all very similar and want the same things—to be happy and feel safe.  Yet our access and privilege can be wildly different, causing a major gap between those who have resources and those who don’t.

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

They’ve taught me not to judge so quickly. I always ask their name and a bonus question during our sessions. One of the questions I ask is what would be your superpower? At a juvenile detention center, one student responded with shooting bullets from his finger. In that moment I could’ve judged him, but my work has taught me not to react quickly, instead to stay in an inquiry. So, I asked the child why and he responded that he wanted to stop his mom’s boyfriend from raping his little sister.  See how this illustrates that there is a relationship between trauma and violence. This is why our motto is “No blame, No shame, No judgment.”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers?    

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are proven to regulate the nervous system, and thus lead to practitioners being less reactive and more responsive. These are necessary tools when you’re caught up in a system that is flawed, biased, and sometimes even corrupt. There is an inequality that exists in this system that has created a school-to-prison pipeline, thus continuing the cycle of trauma and poverty.

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

Greater social change is only possible when people with privilege and power begin to take steps to create this change.  Today, the yoga community is still overwhelmingly white and privileged.  We at CoCo encourage this community to think about how their access and privilege has allowed them to move through life, and how not having those privileges would be devastating – access to quality education, healthy food, safe environments, and the list goes on.

Through yoga, more and more leaders and decision makers are cultivating empathy. They see the systemic separation and inequality that is persistent in this country.  Our CoCo trainings facilitate a conversation around race, privilege, and power, and we weave this delicate conversation into our yoga experiences.  I look forward to the day that this dialogue and awareness will eventually lead to policy change.

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

My hope is that there will no longer be a separation of yoga and service yoga. I would love to see yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as part of the normal school curriculum that all students have access to.  I also dream that one day our policy makers will have a mindfulness practice and that self-regulation will be as habitual as brushing our teeth in the morning.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Cat Lauer: How We Serve Those In Recovery

Cat-Lauer

CAT LAUER IMAGE COURTESY OF JOSLYN GRIFFIN OF GATHER IN KIN

I recently met Cat Lauer at the Hanuman Yoga Festival in Boulder, CO. She volunteer teaches free yoga classes to support recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness, and she is paid to teach studio classes at Old Town Yoga Studio in the historic downtown of Fort Collins, CO. Her “Yoga For Recovery” classes are designed to complement on-going therapy with physicians and mental-health therapists. Visit: catleaslauer.com/yoga-for-recovery

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work?

During the summer of 2002, I was a seva student at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. There I was exposed to yogic practices and meditation. Years later I sought help for an eating disorder; I pledged that whatever modality best served my recovery, I would work to provide the same opportunity to others. That turned out to be yoga. I began to expand on my home practice with individual sessions with a yoga therapist, then studio classes and workshops, and on to a teacher training program.

Yoga for Recovery is offered to those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness. While my recovery was from an eating disorder, the class teaches skills that address issues relevant to many recovery paths. I’ve witnessed commonalities among people in recovery, clients I met while working as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and in my current work at a mental health and substance abuse facility.

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

The most rewarding aspect of this work is to see the change in body language during practice. So far, the lesson I learn week after week in class is that all the gifts I’ve experienced while practicing yoga in recovery are also received by others. Yoga may not be the core of everybody’s recovery, but they still benefit from a simple yoga practice. Then they in turn go on to create safer, healthier communities for people who may not otherwise be able to afford a trauma-informed, inclusive studio class.

When I entered my initial yoga teacher training, I was unsure as to whether the program was to deepen my practice and further my recovery, or the first step towards teaching others in recovery. At my first practicum, I felt so very sure that I would continue on to teach others in recovery – but I had a plan consisting of years of training and fundraising to make it happen. Over time my students have taught me that grand plans might not be as important or effective as these: a clear idea of the population I wanted to serve (those in recovery seeking a yoga and/or meditation practice, who may not be able to afford a regular studio class), and how helpful free access to yoga practice is. In essence we are all practicing breathing, and movement, and moments of peace on our mats that will lead to greater compassion towards ourselves and others. In short – recovery!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from mental illness/trauma/addiction?

There are a number of brave souls in the world advocating for the end of the social stigmas associated with mental illness, trauma, and addiction. By holding a safe place for any and all to sign in and say, yes – me, I am in recovery, I hope to support acceptance and counteract the isolation and shame surrounding these issues. Recovery is time-consuming and emotionally draining, yet few of us in recovery chat freely about such things, so we bear this burden alone .

Each class I teach is designed to be trauma-informed, includes breath-work and meditation to confront the anxiety, depression, and overwhelm that may be a part of recovery, as well as responses to society’s judgments of people in recovery. These techniques encourage us to listen to our own wise mind, practice acceptance, and move through discomfort and change to forgiveness.

Finally, there is the great healing force of connection; in class together we can celebrate practicing in community.

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

My hope is that more yoga teachers will discover that they have gifts to give to others who need free access to the healing power of yoga, so I hope yoga practitioners see their own potential to give back in small ways. All it takes is noticing a need and finding one small part of one’s self that fits that need. And acting on it before one starts to question one’s ability! We all have an ability to serve, and incorporating service into our practice and our work is … exciting! Hopeful! Empowering! Fun! … And important for our communities.

As I’ve said, recovery is time-intensive and expensive. I am so grateful for donations from individuals, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Gaiam. My hope is that in the future more organizations—non-profit and for-profit—will continue to donate beautiful mats and props, music, and a clean, safe space easily accessed by bike, foot, public transportation or car.

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Are you interested in adding mindfulness techniques to your teaching toolkit? Explore the ways our yoga therapy and yoga service trainings can prepare you to support people in recovery.

Jodi Weiner: Showing Up For At-Risk Youth

jodi-weiner-3This is an interview with Jodi Weiner, Executive Director for the South Florida-based non-profit organization CoCo, which stands for Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). It provides free yoga to youth in jails, foster homes, and homeless shelters. You can learn more about CoCo yoga instructors and yoga programs here. CoCo was founded by Terri Cooper, who some folks call “the original yoga gangster.”

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

My children motivated me; I wanted to be an example my kids would be proud of. I wanted to show them that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to step in and support those who have no community, support future leaders and innovators, and, I hope, to leave a legacy of love and giving.

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

I’m motivated now by the children who have no voice, who are forgotten, judged, abused, or disempowered by the systems once thought to serve them. It is for the kids who crave the love they need to thrive, for the kids who have not heard the whispers of love, empowerment, and strength.

Is there a standout moment from your work with CoCo?

It was my first volunteer gig. I was kicking off our first six-week program with SOS Foster Village, and I was teaching my first class. The awakening in the eyes of the kids, the trust and opening I saw in their body language and the freedom that touched my heart after just one class, sticks with me, and drives me forward to share that awakening, that confirmation of Oneness. When you finally make eye contact with the kid who walked in with shut-down hunched shoulders too fearful to look up, it’s that moment, that awareness that these kids see you as safe. It’s truly an inspiring sensation that I hope to support others to find. Serving kids is a gift that needs to be felt to fully understand how much joy there can be in service.

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?

The only thing I knew about the kids was they were in some form of crisis and needed the space to just be kids, to be silly, free to be who they are. There were no assumptions. Our certification program teaches that if we assume anything about the population, we are creating disconnect. This is the very opposite of the essence of yoga! Our training teaches how to create the connection and see past the story, to see the soul.

That said, I had assumptions about my own abilities and limitations. Midway through that first class, I realized the effortless flow of connection when we give from the heart with no expectations. I recall stopping and watching the kids smile, trust, laugh and feel genuine joy in that moment, and doing my best to not fully let go into the tears of gratitude. I embodied connection so easily and I won’t ever forget that visceral experience. I was plugged in deep and it was a beautiful confirmation I was on the right path.

What stood out for me ultimately is I felt an immediate connection, not a hierarchy. I knew I had the education of trauma and the “aha” of how to serve, but I was not prepared for the fearlessness and comfort I felt.

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?

When working with kids, I keep it playful, loose, and open to what is needed in the moment. I meet them where they are. I tap into the energy of the room and allow the messages and teaching to come through me. What comes out is exactly what the kids’ need, unscripted and from the heart. I stay mindful of what may trigger a reactive moment for the kids. It’s a delicate balance that requires a grounded awareness. Our teacher certification teaches the volunteers to provide empowering messages while playing with the asanas and breath of yoga.

When I teach adults, I teach to balance the chakras as opposed to controlled chaos with the kids. Empowerment is always part of my teachings regardless of the population. The “studio” version is a vibrant class and I always bring a little “gangster.” My yogi chatter is more about our energy body, and also about awareness of how we show up off the mat and into the lives we live in community.

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

I experience such fulfillment through service and the development of CoCo that I don’t always tend my “playtime.” To address that challenge I get down on the floor with my own kids and play with them, and spend time in nature! My kids remind me to be incredibly silly and laugh as much as I can. It keeps me motivated, for sure!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at-risk youth?

Have resources and a community to support you. Regardless of the population you are going to serve, prepare your own grounding energy first. When moments of challenge pop up during service you’re better equipped to move through them instead of avoiding them. Service-minded support is vital in situations like that.

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

My vision for the next decade of service is to watch it grow. Once that flame of service is lit in many of us, it’s hard to ignore. I will continue to ignite and stoke those fires with the awareness of the abundance service work brings to the community, and the world as a whole. I am incredibly grateful to Off the Mat Into the World for its vision of social activism.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Susan Lovett: Yoga for Those Living With Poverty & Trauma

Susan LovettThis is an interview with Susan Lovett, a licensed social worker, K-8 teacher, and a registered yoga teacher who has worked with urban low-income youth and families in the greater Boston area for over 25 years. During her yoga teacher training in 2013 she offered yoga classes and workshops for students at the high-poverty urban school where she works as a clinical social worker, providing therapeutic interventions and programs for youth with trauma. The students enjoyed their yoga and mindfulness practices, and Susan began receiving many requests from teachers and other social workers to provide yoga for their students. Through word of mouth, staff members at local community-based social service agencies heard about her yoga teaching, and requests for classes came in from those sites too. 

Hands to Heart Center (HTHC) – Yoga for the People —is a non-profit yoga service organization Susan founded in 2014 that provides free yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma in Boston. It orchestrates a pool of over 140 yoga teacher volunteers, who have taught more than 700 free yoga classes in branch libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters, public housing developments, and residential treatment programs in Boston.

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

In my social work career, I’ve always served low-income youth and families with trauma and am constantly seeking effective resources for my clients. When I read Damien Echols’ book Life After Death, I learned that he believes his yoga and mindfulness practice saved his life when he was wrongly imprisoned on death row. I realized that yoga was the resource I was looking for. It requires no equipment, no specific skills or physical abilities, and can be practiced by anyone, in any condition, in any location. Yoga can be practiced by a prisoner on death row, by a young person who lives with their abuser, by a student in a challenging school environment. and by a client in a residential treatment program for substance abuse disorder.

I continue to be motivated by the gratitude consistently expressed by HTHC’s yoga teacher volunteers and students, and by the large numbers of people living with poverty and trauma in Boston who don’t have access to yoga.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Being allowed into people’s lives for moments of grace while we’re all on our mats. I love the peaceful silence of savasana, especially in settings that are rarely associated with serenity and softness. When we’re all breathing together in those spaces, I feel more connected to the other people in the room, regardless of all of our lived experiences, and the external conditions that separate us from each other.

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

That yoga practice doesn’t have to be so serious! That we can laugh and talk to each other on our mats. They’ve also taught me to expect the unexpected, and to go with the flow!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play for people living in poverty?

Yoga is effective in alleviating anxiety, depression, and stress and trauma, but yoga classes are expensive. There are no yoga studios in low-income neighborhoods. Regular yoga practice promotes health and wellness, increases capacity and builds resilience. Hands to Heart Center exists to share this powerful and effective resource with those who need it most.

For people living with the chronic stress of poverty, yoga provides many benefits, including an hour to 75 minutes with no demands, other than to breathe. Yoga class is a time when people with overwhelming stress can be nourished and supported. HTHC yoga classes provide community and connection among a wide range of people, connections that may not happen outside of yoga class. The message of HTHC is that yoga is effective and practical, and needs to be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status. HTHC calls on yoga teachers, many of whom benefit from great privilege, to leverage their privilege, their education, and their skills on behalf of others.

In order to address the inequities in access to yoga, HTHC has implemented a Yoga Coach program, a 20-hour free training for HTHC students and staff of our community partners. Upon completion of the program, HTHC Yoga Coaches will be able to teach a safe, one-hour class with eight simple postures. To participate in the HTHC Yoga Coach program, students commit to providing a minimum of six free HTHC yoga classes in their communities. Thus the HTHC Yoga Coach program fosters a larger, more culturally, racially, and socioeconomically diverse group of people who can lead yoga classes. Graduates of the HTHC Yoga Coach program are connected with scholarships to local 200-hour yoga teacher training programs if they’re interested in continuing their yoga teaching education.

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

I believe that individuals who cultivate a practice of mindfulness have increased capacity to actively participate in social change efforts. I don’t think mindfulness alone positively affects income inequality, health disparities, racism, and violence in society, but I do think that people who develop mindfulness practice often seek out others who do the same. Collectively, the organized actions of mindfulness practitioners who focus on social justice can be powerful.

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

I hope that yoga service organizations will become commonplace in the next 10 years, and that the concept of yoga service will be integrated into more yoga teacher training programs. I believe that the scientific evidence about how a regular yoga practice can decrease anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma, and increase resilience will be more well-known, and that yoga will be part of the organizational culture in detention units, health centers, and schools.

I’d definitely like to see more federal and state funding available for yoga service organizations so that trauma-informed yoga teachers can be appropriately compensated for their skills. I believe that more and more yoga teachers are becoming interested in, and excited about, yoga service, and that the general public is becoming more informed about the many benefits of yoga, along with the important and effective work that’s being done in the yoga service field.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.