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.


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.

Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman: How We Serve Survivors of Sexual Assault

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

Jocelyn: When I heard Exhale to Inhale’s mission to empower women who have experienced intimate partner violence and sexual assault to heal and reclaim their lives, I had a visceral experience of relief for women survivors. It made sense that conscious movement with breath in a safe environment would help survivors to feel ease and strength in their body, which is an important step towards healing.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

It’s good to hear a student report having a positive experience in her body, such as “feeling lighter,” after class. The moment someone finds repose and stability in a posture, and her expression softens, is beautiful.

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

They’ve taught me to trust the resilience of the human spirit during dark and difficult times. They remind me to never lose hope.

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?

In a trauma-sensitive class, we create a safe space in which survivors can step back into their personal power and practice, and make decisions without fear. We offer choices between which posture to practice next and how long to stay in a posture. With time, this can be a step towards the survivor strengthening her self-confidence and agency. They may or may not have such a space and opportunity at home.

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

I think the more we search inside ourselves, observe our thoughts, beliefs, and habits, the greater the chance of healing the psyche’s wounds and cultivating a healthy, peaceful relationship with ourselves and the world. This requires vulnerability, compassion, and patience. It means loving and listening deeply to all the parts of oneself as they rise into consciousness, making self-care and reflection priorities, being open to change, and maintaining hope for harmony.

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

Be deeply compassionate with yourself. The people I’ve met who teach or work in domestic violence shelters are extremely compassionate, giving individuals, but they are not always so generous with themselves. It’s important to check in with yourself, and to refill your well when you feel drained.

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

I hope service yoga continues to thrive and is taught wherever there’s a need. I hope yoga organizations receive funding to fully realize their mission of fostering wellbeing in the communities they serve. Since I believe everyone can benefit from yoga and mindfulness, I hope yoga is added to more and more school curriculums, so mindfulness can start early.

Originally published on The Huffington Post


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

Caitlin Lanier: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga for Survivors of Sexual Assault

caitlin lanierThis is an interview with Caitlin Lanier, who has pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho area — including one at a domestic violence shelter, and two at local universities for survivors of sexual assault (Boise State and College of Idaho). She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma, and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

Rob: How has the awareness gained practicing yoga guided you to seek deeper healing?

Caitlin: During my freshman year of college, I was sexually assaulted. Those assaults led to issues with anorexia, cutting, and trying to numb my uncomfortable feelings. And those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.

Eventually, I found my way to yoga, and the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) started to take hold. I vowed to try to stop hurting my body, to stop seeing my body as the enemy, and to take small steps toward health. I started trying to eat healthily and take care of myself in the best way possible, and then I started trail running. I started to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions, like sadness and despair. I learned that it’s normal to feel those things, and I explored various yoga forms and learned breathing techniques to help care for myself.

Later on, while working a high-stress job as a technical writer, I kept coming back to the nourishing effects of yoga. When that job was eliminated, I decided to complete a yoga teacher training and then a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training. As a grad student, I’ve started a yoga program at Boise State University called “Healing Breath Trauma-Sensitive Yoga” for survivors of sexual assault. Since I personally know the transformative effects of yoga, and how it helped me befriend my body, I’m eager to share and help others.

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

Following my experience with trauma in 2004, I joined a support group for fellow survivors of sexual assault, and went to a counselor. This counselor forced me to tell him exact details of what had happened during my experiences of sexual assault. I noticed that instead of feeling better, I felt worse — it was re-traumatizing.

The reason I started with this work was because of my experience with trauma, and feeling a lack of options for healing, given my experience with the counselor. I understand the trauma experience and aim to hold safe, healthy spaces for individuals to start or continue the healing process.

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 started working with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, I believed that trauma survivors are extremely vulnerable and I was scared to death of unintentionally triggering someone. What I’ve found is that, yes, some survivors are extremely vulnerable and can be triggered easily, but they are also extremely resilient, and their very act of stepping into a yoga class is very brave.

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?

Two distinctions are in language, and respect for participants’ physical space.

I utilize invitational language, such as “I invite you, if you’d like, etc.” My use of language is intentional, as I want to convey the idea that the participants are in control of their bodies, and it is their choice to move however and whenever they want. I also use interoceptive language, such as “notice, investigate,” etc., intended for participants to experience what’s happening in their bodies in the present moment.

I do not offer physical assists. My intention when teaching is to simply offer options, not to command poses and correct supposed imperfections. I view all yoga poses in the class as optional; perfection is not the goal, but rather each pose is an opportunity to explore the body.

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

One piece of teaching yoga that I find to be especially challenging is the one-size-fits-all model that is the West’s interpretation of group yoga classes. Yoga was originally taught one-on-one with a student reporting to the teacher various ailments that he/she was experiencing, and the teacher/guru working with that individual to design a yoga practice that would specifically benefit him/her. So, add that into work with trauma survivors, and it’s all really tricky. Two especially helpful things are built into the trauma-sensitive protocol: from the beginning I let students know that they are free and welcome to do any pose they want at any time, and also that they are in control and the experts of their own bodies.

I have many friends and family who have given me support, whether monetarily to pay for yoga mats, or through verbal encouragement; and I hope anyone teaching this population can find the same. By the same token, my students are supported by their friends/family, who volunteer to babysit their kids or make them dinner so that they can take the class and continue their healing process.

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

Get the appropriate training (i.e., Dave Emerson’s 40-hour trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training at Kripalu), partner with licensed mental health practitioners, put yourself in the shoes of your participants, be mindful and open to feedback, and trust yourself.

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 more studios will offer free classes to make yoga accessible to the whole community. I also hope that NIMH will fund more research studies on yoga for trauma treatment, as well as other disorders (i.e., depression and anxiety). We are increasingly aware that yoga and mindfulness work an as ancillary treatment for these disorders, but my hope is we can gain more understanding as to how and precisely which of these yoga exercises works most effectively. I hope for more randomized control trials with large sample sizes to empirically show what works best, and what doesn’t.

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

I used to think of service as a one-way road — one person giving, and another person receiving. Now I see it as a round-about where I’m giving my yoga teaching and also learning from my students.

My definition and practice of yoga has changed, too. I used to be into a physically active practice and strove to do everything the teacher instructed. Now I see yoga as a scientific wellness system for mind, body, and spirit, and I listen to my body and heed its messages. If I’m feeling worn down, I’ll aim for a practice with slow movements and more restorative postures. Additionally, when I attend classes, I often “disobey” the teacher and do what pose feels best to me.


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 overcoming trauma.

Beth Daugherty: How We Serve Cancer Patients

Beth Daugherty

Beth Daugherty

This is an interview with Beth Daugherty, Executive Director of the Christina Phipps Foundation. This foundation was founded in 2010 in memory of Christina Phipps, a Jacksonville yoga instructor who found great physical and emotional comfort from her yoga community. After her first round of chemotherapy and a clean report, Christina wanted to give back to her community. She developed a unique form of gentle yoga specifically for cancer patients. She offered these yoga classes for free to people living with cancer. She received much acclaim from the community and a large following. Shortly before her death in 2010, she was still leading as many as 12 yoga classes a week.

Today, the foundation continues to carry out the work begun by Christina — recruiting qualified yoga teachers, organizing trainings for them, coaching these teachers through the certification process, and assisting in locating appropriate volunteer placement so that each yoga teacher can serve the cancer community.

Rob: How did you become a yoga teacher, and what motivated you to work with cancer patients?

Beth: I have a confession to make: I began taking yoga classes in the early 1980s hoping to get easy PE credits in college. Throughout college, the Peace Corps, and graduate school in my 20s, I continued learning yoga. I was never the thin, flexible yogi you see in the ads, but it definitely cleared my head. Later, in my 30s, still plugging away at learning yoga and meditation, I was shocked to be asked to serve as President of the Board of the local yoga society. It seemed a job for a yoga teacher or certainly someone more advanced than I, but I happily accepted, jumped into it and enjoyed the challenge.

This volunteerism inspired me to enroll in a full-time residential seva program. Karma yoga, seva, volunteerism, and yoga service are used interchangeably, but I think it is important to recognize the difference between them. Karma Yoga (outlined in the Bhagavad-Gita) is focused action with detachment from the result. Seva, also called selfless service, refers to action for a higher purpose other than just meeting your own needs. Volunteerism is more “secular,” recognizing that selfish motives, like padding your ego or resume, can be part of the package. Yoga service programs may include one or all of these.

I went from a management job with a beautiful office to cleaning toilets in a yoga center in another state. I moved from a lovely, private city apartment to a bunk bed in a drafty dorm room with 50 other women. We cleaned full-time, and then had the opportunity to do all the yoga we could fit in our schedule, learning from gifted teachers. I completed this seva program and was invited to do similar residential seva programs in two other yoga centers. This was a rare immersion experience in seva and karma yoga.

Lessons I learned about karma yoga in the 1990s became part of my life and yoga practice. I never really thought I would be a yoga teacher but nearly three decades after my first yoga class I completed teacher training, and with great trepidation opened Lifespan Yoga®. I did not plan on doing volunteer work, and promoting karma yoga (now that I had commercial rent to pay), but that all changed, too.

I was in business less than a year in 2010 when a friend asked me to attend a free Christina Phipps Foundation training to learn how to teach yoga to cancer patients. After the training the foundation asked each person to teach free yoga classes to patients. I immediately said no because I did not know very much about cancer. Then a board member from the foundation called and told me all about Christina and the classes she taught until her death from breast cancer. I was impressed, but declined again. A few days later, the wife of a board member called me at home to again invite me to the training. Three times is a charm; I told her I would be happy to attend the training and commit to teaching cancer patients.

Christina Phipps

Christina Phipps

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?

My first training session with the Mayo Clinic doctors was a sweeping medical overview. The presentations blew my mind; the information presented about cancer diagnosis, new treatments, and recovery was all new to me. Everyone there was volunteering their time: surgeons, oncologists, physical therapists, social workers, cancer survivors, and a little band of yoga teachers ready to translate all this information into gentle yoga classes in a safe and healing way. I went back to my tiny yoga studio, made a flyer for the free cancer class and posted it in a coffee shop.

I thought cancer patients coming to my yoga class would be very weak and may not be able to get up and down from the floor, so I immediately signed up for Chair Yoga certification. What really happened was quite different. A woman I knew from church walked in first and I had no idea she was in treatment — she looked fabulous and fit. She brought great energy, and helped grow the class to become part-cancer support group and part-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?

Cancer classes with Foundation (CPF) students have a social and support group element, whereas studio classes can often be anonymous. My teaching style is pretty much the same whether I am in the studio or medical facility, but yoga studios have a range of props that are especially helpful. Most hospitals do not have this advantage, so there is some creativity needed in teaching without props. Also, in our CPF classes we do not touch or adjust students. This is quite a change for yoga teachers who were trained in styles with a lot of adjustments. We train teachers to use their speech to guide and adjust.

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

I hope the future of service yoga is based on the ideal of “selfless service,” and karma yoga. All of the roles we embody are opportunities for service or selfishness. This is the challenge of our age, and yogis have a history, structure, and practice to address this.

I hope yogis who want to practice (or lead) service yoga will learn about karma yoga and seva. Find a mentor who has a personal karma yoga practice. Coaching and mentoring by yogis with seva experience can reduce attrition. Nothing happens overnight, and a good mentor will help when it gets hard. Just like any yoga program, some people quit and the opportunity is lost; some do just the bare minimum and move on; then the rare gems continue on year after year, and reap the benefits. Strong, ethical leadership for service programs is always needed. If you are a leader, get karma yogis together to share experiences and advance learning. This elevates the practice.

Christina Phipps Foundation Training

Yoga instructors working with the Christina Phipps Foundation

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on June 3, 2015


If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.



Maggie Cohen: Serving Survivors of Violence and Toxic Stress

By integrating her two passions, activism and yoga, Maggie Cohen, a 500-hour advanced vinyasa yoga instructor and member of The Breathe Network, found that she could help her students on heal on a deeper level. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Maggie about her work of teaching trauma-sensitive yoga classes to survivors of childhood abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.

“I’ve worked with survivors of violence for many years as an advocate and counselor, but I knew that offering yoga would be a different dynamic. I was surprised that my students’ trauma does not define our classes… My students are survivors and, more, thrivers.” – Maggie Cohen, yoga instructor and member of The Breathe Network

To read more about what Maggie has learned from her students and her thoughts on the future of service yoga, read her full interview on The Huffington Post.


A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart is an invitation for any woman to engage in self-healing through a personal yoga practice. And when you purchase this book through the Give Back Yoga store, we can fund the printing of three additional books that will be made available at no cost to women behind bars.