Posts

Kelly Boys: Bringing Yoga & Mindfulness to Incarcerated Veterans

This is an interview with Kelly Boys, who’s been practicing yoga for most of her adult life, and is a certified hatha yoga instructor. In 2006, she learned of the practice of yoga nidra, and immediately recognized it as a powerful healing tool. That led her to Dr. Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist, who trains teachers in a special form of yoga nidra called Integrative Restoration (iRest). Kelly began training with him, became a certified iRest instructor, and eventually moved to California to help run the Integrative Restoration Institute and work with Richard to train teachers. Along the way,  she taught yoga nidra at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, as part of its Wounded Warriors program, in a residential PTSD and TBI program through the Cincinnati VA, with cancer survivors, those with substance abuse, and in the prisons, teaching both men and women. Currently, she partners with James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project to bring a combined yoga and yoga nidra program into San Quentin State Prison for incarcerated veterans.

Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director: What is iRest Yoga Nidra, and what originally motivated you to bring it to veterans incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison? 

Kelly Boys: iRest is a meditative practice that is deeply relaxing and restorative, and it provides tools for working with trauma, stress, and chronic pain, among other things. It’s typically taught in savasana, the lying-down pose at the end of the yoga class. It is simultaneously simple and profound, addressing our basic human needs for connection, belonging, and safety; using it, we can gently check in with ourselves. It can be a way for those of us who resist what life brings us to turn and face the truth about ourselves in any given situation.

I wanted to help people who have been wounded by war, by their families, and who have in turn wounded others to stop and face themselves, and to give them another way out instead of this punitive system which doesn’t tend to focus on restoration and healing. Having been on the receiving end of domestic violence, it is particularly poignant for me to bring the spirit of forgiveness and healing, along with the ‘sword of truth’ into that setting. This is the sword that cuts through all illusions that we hold about ourselves, and about the world around us. iRest provides such a neat way to get control of our lives by paradoxically letting go of control, and allowing this sword of truth to slice away everything that does not serve us.

What is the importance of mindfulness for developing impulse control? How does this help life inside a prison?

Mindfulness is a foundational element for impulse control; it allows anyone, anytime, to stop in any given moment and take stock of their own situation, to harness the power of attention and intention in order to see clearly. This moment gives a space for choice and response rather than reaction and violence. One of the vets in our program told us that this class has changed his life by providing him a way to deal with the chaos of life behind bars, leading to a feeling of confidence about going before the boards (which is when they decide if/when he will be released). Otherwise, he would have been reactive and victimized; now he feels calm, and has an inner resource to return to no matter what the board decides about his release. Another vet from the Korean War who is 77 years old said that this class has helped him deal with his lifelong racism toward Asian people, and that his tough, violent shell is getting cracked open.

I’m interested in knowing why we should be spending money on providing yoga and meditation to prisoners?

This is an investment that must be made; the transformative effect of yoga and meditation on the prison population is inspiring lasting change. We are beginning to see programs where we connect with the guys on the outside as well, and they are becoming change agents in their own communities. Most of these men will reoffend if we do not offer them another way.  Investing in these programs means to invest in the health and safety of our communities.The classes are waitlisted right now because there aren’t enough funds to run programs for everyone seeking to learn yoga and meditation in prison.

Let me be clear, though – this is selfish for me! I receive the most benefit from going into San Quentin. It is humbling and fulfilling beyond what I can say to sit with this group of men and get real, speak the truth, guide meditation, and hear the gems of wisdom coming from that circle of folks. Astounding, really. James and I often just shake our heads at how neat it is to teach there together. A complete blessing.

What is the greatest challenge for mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature in prisons?

As I said, the greatest challenge is funding. I currently donate my time to teach at San Quentin. The CEO at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, where I work training teachers in a science-based emotional intelligence and mindfulness course, has allowed me to rearrange my schedule so that I volunteer time every Thursday. If we had funding, we definitely have the teachers who want to teach, and we also have a way to train those teachers. That is the number-one need; otherwise, it won’t be sustainable.

What advice would you give to anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class to incarcerated veterans? 

Do it! Take a course preparing you to work in the prison environment as a way to make sure you are ready for the challenges of that particular venue. Jacques Verduin at Insight-Out and James Fox at Prison Yoga Project both offer trainings for teaching in prison. I would also say, to the extent that you are willing to welcome ALL of yourself, your hopes and joys along with your fear, hate, and the violence you do to yourself, is the extent to which you will be able to teach from a place of equanimity, heart, and truth. This path is a radical one; it asks everything of us. Yoga asks us to take a second look at the idea that we are separate, above, better than, different from, and to let in the thought that just perhaps, underneath all the surface differences, we share the same essence. This is quite inspiring when you really think about it.

What organizations do you admire?

I love what James is doing at the Prison Yoga Project. He tirelessly travels all over the world training teachers to teach yoga on the ‘inside.’ The Integrative Restoration Institute is doing amazing things bringing iRest out into many underserved populations. Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, where I work, is bringing this same work into Google, LinkedIn, Genentech, and many more places. Any organization that practices what it preaches, I admire.

For instance, where I work we meditate at the beginning of our meetings, we practice mindful eating, we do the hard job of telling the truth even when it is more convenient to gloss over it, for the sake of finding out what is really real, what wants to emerge in any given moment. There is a trust that happens when a whole organization of people do this. Whether it’s Google or behind prison walls, people are people with the same needs and desires. They are just dressed up differently! Instead of the new Google Glasses, I’d love to give the gift of x-ray vision to anyone that can’t fathom those two worlds being similar. It’s a trip to be able to have a foot in both worlds! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

:::

Would you like to support the transformational work of the Prison Yoga Project? Make a direct donation to support their outreach work, or purchase a copy of James Fox’s book, Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing and Recovery, from our online store.

 

Helen Lynch: MediYoga As A Viable Alternative To Existing Medical Treatments & Programs

This is an interview with Helen Miller Lynch, a certified X-ray Technician/Nurse Practitioner specializing in cardiovascular intervention. She has broad experience in cardiovascular disease from the University Hospital in Örebro, Sweden, and the heart clinic Feiringklinikken, Norway. She became curious about MediYoga after some colleagues attended sessions during stress-related sick leave, and returned to work with a whole new vitality. She is now a certified MediYoga Therapist and MediYoga International teacher.

Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director: I’m interested in the origin and growth of MediYoga in Scandinavia. What is it?

Helen Lynch: MediYoga was established and developed by Göran Boll at the Institute for Medical Yoga in Stockholm, Sweden. MediYoga has its origin in classic Kundalini yoga and started to take shape as early as 1998, when an initial partnership project was launched with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This consisted of a study of what yoga could offer patients with chronic back pain. Many different studies have been undertaken since then involving MediYoga and its effects on various patient groups, and on medical disorders in general. These include studies performed at large companies, such as the Post Giro Stress project in 1999, and the Swedish Enforcement Authority Stress project in 2009.

Read more: MediYoga can save society millions of dollars each year.

Since 2004, MediYoga has been one of the most popular rehabilitation options for employees on long-term sick leave at AstraZeneca Corp. MediYoga is now recommended by healthcare professionals throughout Sweden and Norway as a simple and therapeutic form of yoga that anyone can do, whatever their physical or psychological limitations.

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

Scientific research shows that stress in various forms is the underlying cause of most of what we call illness, and that powerful tools are needed to re-establish and maintain balance in our lives. MediYoga is a practical tool that has shown measurable effects on back and sleeping problems, high blood pressure, ventricular fibrillation, various emotional problems, and other medical disorders.

There’s nothing better to hear after a class than, for instance, that someone with high blood pressure who’s been on medication for years is able to cut down on their prescription medication intake, or to eventually completely stop. That’s motivation for me. Just to see their faces after a yoga class, quiet and peaceful with eyes that radiate, it goes straight to my heart.

Is there a standout moment from your work with MediYoga, or with heart patients?

A personal memorable moment was when I received my Gold MediYoga teacher/therapist pin, and realized all the hard work and hours and hours of time had elevated me into a dedicated group of individuals striving to help others.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in hospitals, and with patients?

Invite the Board of Directors at the hospital for an experience in MediYoga. They have to experience the effects of yoga themselves to be able to better understand them.

Be humble: you are meeting people with various medical conditions who mostly have never tried yoga before. Demystify the experience, and make the participants feel safe and relaxed. Build up a trust between you and your clients–let them know you are there for them.You also always have a solid foundation to build on with all the scientific research that is done on MediYoga.

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

A great challenge has been introducing yoga into the medical community that is so accustomed to scientific means and results. When I started to implement my ideas here at the Feiringklinikken heart clinic for open heart surgery, cardiovascular intervention, and heart rehabilitation, there were many questions: what is MediYoga, how does it work?

I developed a research presentation on specific heart patients and heart diseases that involved MediYoga and presented it to the Board of Directors of Feiringklinniken. The President of the clinic is a very open-minded leader; he saw and believed in my passion for MediYoga and the way it works. We developed a six-month trial project for MediYoga in the Rehabilitation Department.

Patient and staff feedback and reviews indicated the trial was a great success. Now for the second year, Feiringklinikken includes MediYoga as a rehabilitation option twice a week for heart patients. Feiringklinikken was the first hospital in Norway to offer MediYoga to its patients; many other major medical institutions have begun to offer programs similar to our clinic’s.

We talked about your plans to introduce MediYoga to the US. What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My hope is that MediYoga will become a standard part of medical treatment offered throughout society.  I hope educating MediYoga instructors in California in February 2014 will be the start to integrating MediYoga in the U.S., as it was in Sweden and Norway.  MediYoga is now a treatment and rehabilitation option offered in over 120 hospitals and primary care units in Scandinavia.

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?

What makes us unique and differentiates us from all other forms of yoga is that everyone who works with MediYoga–instructors and yoga therapists–has health profession qualifications and understands the effects of yoga from a medical perspective. From our health education we are able to understand possible side effects, the emotional impact of a diagnosis, and how to offer safe yoga practices. Most patients have never participated in a yoga class before, so this is something completely new to them.

For example, here at the heart clinic I have 20 participants in each class between the ages of 20 and 80. They all have some kind of cardiovascular disease, so my approach is to use MediYoga programs with breathing exercises, postures, and meditation that targets heart diseases. No matter what group you are targeting, you have to approach them with the right set of tools that you know works on just that specific disorder.

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

Instead of it being an individual practice on the yoga mat at home, I now have the possibility to share with others. When applying my service in the MediYoga programs I am not affecting only a single person, but everyone around them and connected to them when they leave the room.

What other organizations do you admire?

There are too many to list! Nothing but good comes from supporting them. I’m particularly impressed with the vision of the following organizations:

~Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus’s inspiration for the Grameen Foundation, which helps the world’s poorest people reach their full potential, connecting their determination and skills with the resources they need.

~The Give Back Yoga Foundation, for its commitment to helping to bring yoga to diverse segments of society that have limited or no access to yoga in their communities.

~The Inner City Garden projects, bringing a healthy alternative of self-sustaining local neighborhood/community garden areas.

Editor: Alice Trembour

:::

Dharma. Service in Action. SYF Gives Back: Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans. Join us at this two-day pre-conference teacher training hosted by the Sedona Yoga Festival in partnership with the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts, and learn techniques and practices that are clinically proven to offer relief to veterans affected by PTSD, TBI, and other trauma and emotional stress. February 6-10, 2014 in beautiful Sedona, Arizona.

 

Marc Titus: Festival Owners Making a Difference By Bringing Yoga to Veterans

This is an interview with Marc Titus, Founder & Director of the Sedona Yoga Festival in Arizona. I first met Marc when he approached the Give Back Yoga Foundation with an offer to host a training for hundreds of professional yoga teachers, to help them share yoga with our nation’s veterans. With the suicide rate among veterans at an all-time high, Marc and his wife, Festival Producer Heather Shereé Titus, believe that sharing yoga with these men and women is a gift for everyone.

– Rob Schware, Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob: What originally motivated you to start a yoga festival?

Marc: I moved to Sedona in 2007 to become a yoga teacher, after 7 years of practice. Even after that, though, I had to go down a personally torturous road, involving finding a way to transcend and heal from a very materialistically-lived life; it was during this transformation that I became a certified yoga instructor. Finally, while I was living in Los Angeles in the winter of 2011/12, on an especially hard day, with literally the last dollar to my name in my pocket, the spirit of Sedona appeared to me, and said, “It’s time to return to Sedona…it’s time to bring consciousness to humanity; and thus Sedona Yoga Festival was born.” I didn’t know how I would get back, how I would pay for it, or how it would unfold, but I said YES! Within two weeks, I was sleeping in Sedona in a beautiful house under a full moon, with money in my pocket, all my ‘stuff’ with me, and a new and profound sense of purpose.

What motivated you to partner with a non-profit organization for this year’s yoga festival, and to focus on introducing therapeutic yoga for veterans?

I’d been reflecting on my relationship with my father, who was a Vietnam War veteran affected by PTSD. It was like a lightning bolt that came to me: we can use the energy of the yoga festival to bring awareness to an ever-growing problem in our country.  We can help returning veterans with mental health recovery and rehabilitation tools that are inexpensive, and can help relieve the symptoms of stress-related physical and non-physical injuries. This approach would also promote community collaboration. As you know, Rob, the situation is very real, with several thousands of veterans returning with PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. I feel one solution our community can offer is simple: yoga, right now, brings about and supports inner peace.

I’m interested to know, what do you see as outcomes?

My friend Chris Courtney, an Iraq War combat veteran and yoga teacher, once said to me, “heal our veterans, heal our communities.” We are all affected by the return of so many veterans with trauma, and part of the solution is where and how we direct our attention. Therefore, at the 2014 Sedona Yoga Festival we envision over 200 teachers receiving the Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans training. We hope to support them with Yoga For Veterans Toolkits, in collaboration with the Give Back Yoga Foundation. And we hope these teachers will return to their communities prepared to serve our veterans and their spouses. If every teacher we train aims to serve 50 veterans in his or her local community, together we would provide 10,000+ veterans with useful tools. These will help them overcome the debilitating and often severe symptoms PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and the other myriad experiences that are making life incredibly difficult for returning veterans, their families, and their communities. Those are possibly real outcomes. We simply cannot solve the problem in the same way it was created. We need to step out of the energy of old, into a model of Giving Back–Dharma, Service in Action.

How do you maintain a mindful corporation, and emphasize “compassionate action” in dealing with festival partners?

I think it’s hard to run a “conscious business” with all that is going on in the world today. The accoutrements of our modern world, while purporting to be “helpful,” have actually created a situation in which we are always doing something, always needing to do more, always striving.  There is a lot of pressure to keep moving, to grow, etc. As an antidote, I try to be present to what’s happening right now, to life itself flowing through me, to you, to all of us right now.  The more I embodied this, the easier things got, and the more mindful, awake, and aware I’ve become.  As a result of a consistent and dedicated asana practice that completely stilled my overactive “monkey mind,” I’ve come to see that it all unfolds without my effort, and that if I am “to be” compassionate in collaborations with business partners, then I must learn to be compassionate with myself first.

What advice would you give other festival owners?

Maintain your connection to, and listen only to your inner voice, to your visions and dreams. Through your practice cultivate an intimacy with yourself that allows you to trust this voice, and follow it wherever it takes you: walk your own path. Be an advocate for Dharma, Service in Action.

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

I see yoga “doing” what it has always done, assisting humanity in letting go of all the trappings that prevent the inevitable; consciousness expanding infinitely. I believe yoga will continue to evolve, back to its own roots, right here in the west, as the masses of Western yogis realize what traditional yoga is all about. I believe we will see an expansion of “giving back” in the very near future, as we realize that we are all the same. In that individuated sameness, will come over 7 billion solutions to the one “problem” of separation. When that happens, the world will be a totally different place.

Editor: Alice Trembour

:::

Dharma. Service in Action. SYF Gives Back: Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans. This 2-day pre-conference training at the Sedona Yoga Festival provides yoga teachers with certification in techniques and practices that are clinically proven to offer relief to veterans returning home affected by post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and other trauma and emotional stress. Join us February 6-10, 2014 in beautiful Sedona, Arizona.

 

Veteran Matt McDonald: Finding A “Diamond In The Rough” In Give Back Yoga

The personal stories of students who have found peace in their practice continue to provide inspiration for Give Back Yoga’s work of bringing yoga and meditation to the thousands of veterans who are battling post-traumatic stress. So we were thrilled to find this letter from veteran Matt (“Mack”) McDonald in our mailbag this week:

Although I had dabbled in “mindful practices” like yoga for several years, the first time that I became of aware of specific programs tailored to the specific needs of veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI was in October 2012. Having signed up for a three-day conference called Veterans, Trauma, and Treatment at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, I happened to find myself seated across from Give Back Yoga founder Rob Schware during breakfast on the first morning. Mind you, there were hundreds of people in the dining hall, but – as these things go – it was “meant to be.” When I asked him about his sweatshirt, which had something to do with “Yoga for Veterans,” he said, “You’ll have to talk to Suzanne.” As the story goes, I never did get to meet this amazing woman – at least not at the conference – but I certainly would have plenty of opportunity to do so in the months to come: after all, her studio (Newington Yoga Center) is but a mere 5-minute drive from my house in central Connecticut!

To be sure, it took me some time to follow through with reaching out – as they say, you have to “be ready.” When I finally did, it still didn’t lead me directly to the yoga mat, or, for that matter, the seated lotus position. Rather, it was to invite her to yet another conference, also on veterans and treatment options for those with traumatic injuries. After accepting my invite via e-mail, we met up at last, and at that point there was no way I could turn down her offer to “do some yoga.”

When I finally fulfilled my end of the bargain and showed up outside Newington Yoga on a cold, dark night in late February, I’ll be the first to admit: I was definitely…Nervous? Anxious? Apprehensive? Perhaps a little bit of all three. Am I going to be the only veteran here? (I wasn’t.) Are they going to “get it”—that I’ve got to be “facing the exit”… that I need to “see my out”… that I might end up bawling my eyes out? (They did.) Not to mention, either, that I didn’t even have a proper mat to use, nor money to buy one. As generous as she is, Suzanne not only lent me a mat, but promised me one of my own as long as I “came back.” Beyond that, she also gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text I’d read years before but had since lost track of. Interestingly enough, it is the chronicle of an “epic battle” in which Lord Krishna instructs Prince Arjuna on all things related to human nature and spiritual development.

Little did I know it that night, but that book – along with the undeniable “call” I was having to “do yoga” – would stick with me through some darker times indeed. You see, not even a week after my first session at Newington Yoga, I found myself in a month-long residential treatment program for veterans who suffer with “co-occurring disorders” (i.e. PTSD, TBI, and substance abuse.) Not only did my copy of Bhagavad Gita keep me company on the difficult journey that followed, it also reminded me to remain “mindful” of, and open to, the profound lessons that Krishna taught Arjuna. But this wasn’t all: come to find out from a clinician a few days into the program, one of our “required classes” was yoga – and who was there to teach it? The folks from “Give Back Yoga!”

So do I feel indebted to Rob, Suzanne, and all the other teachers who are “giving back” to veterans like me? Surely I do. But it is also goes well beyond being generous and opening their doors to me – although there is much to be said for all that as well. The fact remains, though, as I’ve already said… they “get it.” And as a veteran who has struggled for over eight years to not only find, but to trust, others who do, all I can say is that it’s like finding the diamond in the rough. Or, to use an analogy based on my renewed interest in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s like finding “peace” on field of Kurukshetra. And, whether the “war” we are referring to is “epic” or modern, finding peace… for a combat veteran…is worth more than diamonds. I, for one, should know.

                                                                                               –SPC (ret.) Matt McDonald (“Mack”)  OIF III/IV