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Jeff Finlin: Yoga and Transcending the Effects of Trauma

This is an interview with Jeff Finlin, who reached out to me after reading a few of the blogs in this series, “Yoga, How We Serve.”

Jeff’s yoga service career started basically in AA back in the early 2000s. Yogic philosophy and action started to weave its way into his own recovery in the form of working with others. He found a direct correlation in the steps of AA and how they related and intertwined with eastern spiritual thought. The connection deepened and found its way into his yoga practice and action around recovery, sobriety, and the spiritual connection of the program.

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

This work is a calling of my own predicament and experience as a recovering alcoholic, adult child of an alcoholic, and a trauma survivor. In the AA program we find that we must give away what we have in order to keep it. There is a tradition of service and giving that enables us to eventually transcend suffering. My journey started in AA, but in the end AA was not enough when it came to my trauma responses and conditioning. Yoga was ultimately the experiential answer.

Sober since 1997, I had done everything that the program of AA required, but after 12 years sober I was still wracked with PTSD. I would wake up every morning so terrified that I would almost have to vomit. The fear was poisoning my family and my work. Although I was able to move forward and manage the trauma response, I was trapped in this seemingly self-protecting bubble that kept me from experiencing a sense of ease, love from others, and a healthy, happy, and whole life. I could not pray it away, serve it away, or program it away.

Having been initiated into a kriya practice I finally got serious about yoga. I integrated the practices into my system over a 90-day period and then partook in a profound program that enabled me to access and experience the dimension of myself that lay beyond that traumatic conditioning. My trauma response has never returned. I am now able to live the life of freedom that is always talked about in AA.

It seems the only complete escape and pathway to freedom was to experience myself completely outside of the conditioning itself. Upon doing so the system re-remembers itself and resets, enabling transcendence of the conditioning. Having had this experience, it has become my mission to share it with others. I see so many people in recovery suffering from the effects of untreated trauma response and PTSD. I want people to know that freedom from it is possible.

As a result, I have founded recover.yoga, developed an online course, and offer workshops and private lessons to try and give people hope and start them on the path to recovery and transcendence. I also wrote a book integrating the practice of yoga and traditional 12-step recovery dynamics called “365 days of Recovery Yoga.”

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The most rewarding aspect of teaching is always the connection established between two people. Something happens when two minds come together in relationship to recovery and spiritual practice. We cannot do it alone, and that connection is the beginning of a highway toward freedom.

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

The student-teacher relationship is always a two-way street. My students remind me how much I’ve grown, learned, and how far I’ve come. They remind me and teach me over and over again that it’s impossible to recover and grow alone. They teach me that it always takes at least two to grow. The mirror of relationship is required. They teach me that service or Karma yoga is essential to moving forward. In essence, they always teach me that I am still a beginner. They teach me that I’m always a newcomer.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from addictions?

Yoga can offer unity through the sangha (Sanskrit term meaning “association” or “community”), and service to it. In sharing and engaging in service and community with others we learn to take that unity out into the world and embrace connection with society on a deeper level.

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?

Ultimately, change in society can only happen through change in the heart and consciousness of the individual. Our outside world always has the quality of our inside world. I believe that society’s collective consciousness is the result of society’s collective inner consciousness, that we create our reality from the inside out—our exterior world is created on the inside—so we must always start with ourselves. So let’s start with the individual doing a yoga practice, one at a time. Only then can we have an effect on the world.

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

My hope lies in my willingness to continuously engage in my own practice, and in my own willingness to respond and be of service to others. All I have control over is my opportunity to give yoga and the practice of service. In doing so, I respond to life at its fullest and most profound levels.

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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.

Judith Sekler: Not Just A Pose(r)

This is an interview with Judith Sekler, who works with an organization called A Thousand Joys in Los Angeles. It partners with schools in high-crime impoverished neighborhoods with high-risk children and families who are suffering the effects of trauma-related stress and violence, referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). ATJ’s school-based program Transform uses healing modalities including yoga, meditation and mindfulness to help students build confidence and control over their bodies and minds. Transform has been shown to help students better regulate their emotions, foster positive social relationships, focus on their studies, and set and meet goals.

Rob: What was your entry into yoga?

I was a poser: backbends, arm balances, leg-behind-head pose, all day long. Yoga was a gymnastic event, a battle of ego and endurance that I never won. Believing that pain was a by-product of my success, I pounded my body into my first hip replacement surgery at age forty-two.

Depressed and angry, I never imagined that time away from the mat would lead me to a true yogic path, one that has nothing to do with pose marathons. My primary practice became mindfulness meditation, where “doing yoga” meant cultivating nonjudgmental qualities like patience and compassion. To my amazement, a flexible mind and heart, not hamstrings, finally brought me a better quality of life. I felt more balance, and the simple (but not easy) meditation of living daily life came into focus. With it came a desire to help others, along with a newfound awareness of a community that I had paid the least attention to: those different than myself.

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

Social justice motivates me. At a time when racism, hatred, and the persecution of “other-ness” affects poor communities exponentially, healing practices like yoga and mindfulness cannot be reserved for certain people or zip codes. They are portable tools of self-care that can change one’s life. Children don’t choose to live with violence, or have citizenship status affect their families. “A Thousand Joys has found that there are gaps in providing the skills that individuals and families need to manage the effects of trauma and regain personal power and a sense of wellbeing.” Part of my yoga is dedicated to helping fill that gap.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Definitely when kids share that they practice on their own! They say they do deep breathing when they’re upset, or mindful walking to focus. One shy student told me he likes standing forward bend because it just makes him feel better. Teachers and staff appreciate a meditation pause in their day – kids call it a reset button.

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

My students opened my eyes to my position of privilege and judgment. I used to think that learning was an act of will or a gift of innate ability, and if neither was present then the student lacked drive. I had no idea what Adverse Childhood Experiences were, and that they flourished across town in communities I had driven past but rarely thought about.

Before I worked in underserved schools I had never seen kids who were dependent on subsidized meal programs to eat, or whose living situations were insecure and even dangerous. A student told me that she sleeps at her Auntie’s now since her parents work nights and she only sees them on weekends. She left her homework at her “other” home. While discussing conflict resolution in a 5th grade classroom a student offered that she would just “go get a weapon.” Another boy said the roof in his house has holes in it so he’s cold and has trouble sleeping. He wanted to lay his head down on his desk and take a nap. I’ve had to open the classroom door during a rain because a boy’s clothes were so dirty that his classmates complained it smelled too bad to concentrate.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye toward what we don’t know. I found true yoga just around the metaphorical corner and it’s permanently shaken me out of my neighborhood of white privilege.

What societal factors are at play for the population ATJ works with?

The societal factors of racism, toxic stress, poverty and violence level damage on children who did nothing to deserve them other than being born. When President of the United States announced that he’d build a wall and deport undocumented citizens one elementary school that I work with created a “worry tree” that students pinned leaves on. The leaves carried messages like “I don’t feel safe,” “I’m scared my Mother will go to jail” and “I hope my teacher will be here tomorrow.” When government policies mandate the identification and persecution of non-white people, children in our most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations who are already impacted by adverse childhood experiences cannot thrive.

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

Yoga and mindfulness need to extend beyond the mat and the cushion and into everyday life. Physical yoga is wonderful, but it’s not the whole practice. Spreading the tolerance and understanding we learn on the mat into the messy moments that divide us and create separation is where yoga makes a wider impact. From workplaces to social media, from dinner tables to how we drive, yogis need to embody openness and inclusion, and help bridge the gap.

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

Yoga is not a one-way trip; it flows out as well as in. Yet modern life and digital living come with a large dose of self-obsession, leading us away from an awareness of others’ suffering. I would love to see yoga and meditation studios become less about different “styles” of practice and more about being centers for Town Hall meetings, community meditation sits, and speakers from universities and organizations devoted to diversity and socio-political shift. What better use for a pretty yoga space than practicing the mandate of social change?

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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.

Climate Change & Yoga: Resist & Regulate

Rob Schware - Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob Schware,

PhD Executive Director and Co-Founder,
The Give Back Yoga Foundation

President Ex-Officio and Advisor,
Yoga Service Council

 

In an earlier career, I was a social scientist working with a distinguished group of well-known climatologists and policy makers on the socio-economic impacts of climate change. It was the consensus of the international climatological community back then—in 1980—that if worldwide use of fossil fuels continued to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, humans would likely cause a significant average warming of the Earth’s surface within the next fifty years. We made best guess estimates of the costs of say, Miami, or even for that matter, New York, after 80 feet sea-level rise, or the consequences of waves of refugees moving across continents.

We could not imagine in our book, Climate Change and Society, that the Department of Defense would ever be involved in climate change policies and state with confidence that climate change will “threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.” Now, according to Untied Nation’s data, nearly 64 million people face climate turmoil (e.g., sudden-onset disasters like floods and storms, and low-onset disasters like drought). These events can lead to “environmental migrants” or “climate refugees.”

We can’t wait any longer to act. We are running enormous risks. As a leader of the ever-growing yoga service movement, I feel obliged to speak out publicly against Trump climate-change policies, and remind yogis within the service community that they can both resist these policies and change behavior in the fight against climate change. Cutting our own carbon emissions is a personal transformation itself, and is the subject of an excellent book I recommend, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

Resistance Matters

I’m encouraged by the increasing number of groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby, which is focused on non-partisan and community-based approaches to climate education. Other savvy grass-roots organizations with excellent online resources include EmergeAmerica.org and RunforSomething.net. While students at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University have organized “Resistance School”—an online course designed to sharpen the tools activists need and sustain long-term resistance. As uncertain as today’s reality is, many yogis are finding a salve for their frustrations and shock following the election: exuberant service and just taking action! Our work as yoga service organizations has never been more needed than it is today, and here is how it relates to climate change and how you can get involved:

Self-Regulation & Global Sustainability

We often rush to blame greedy corporations and self-centered nations for climate change, forgetting that it is individuals who design systems, build organizations, and constitute nations. We are the corporations and self-centered nations. We are equally quick to look outside ourselves for solutions to climate change, but we often forget that our efforts to change our external environment need to be balanced by our efforts to change our internal environment, ourselves.

Policy makers and planners have learned a lot by asking how humans contribute to climate change, but we rarely ask why we leave a larger-than-necessary carbon footprint. Why do we confuse what is a “want” with a “need”? Why do we choose what is pleasant in the short term and not what is good in the long term? If we are serious about avoiding the worst effects of climate change, we must question economic growth itself. In addition to economic changes, we need personal as well as social changes that shift our emphasis away from materialistic values—the cause of global warming and ecological collapse.

It is a practice, however, and I’m still working on it. I ride a bike most places, eat mostly locally grown food. I waste food. I buy products that are part of the problem rather than the solution. I often confuse “need to have” with “nice to have.” And I haven’t entirely quit flying places—one of the most important changes we can make. But I’m also on a yogic path that helps me in becoming aware of these habits and patterns. As my yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch says, “All ‘yoga’ practices are about learning to pay attention… as we become more aware, the veils of advidya (ignorance) begin to get fainter and fall away as we get closer to the true experience of yoga, which is recognition of boundlessness.”

The eight steps of Raja Yoga, which are an optimal approach for personal transformation, can create these shifts. The first step is the practice of 10 powerful and interrelated moral and ethical principles (yamas and niyamas), such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-coveting, discipline, and self-surrender.

Acting in accordance with these principles affects our carbon footprint as a species because they represent ethical guidelines for living that also happen to be sustainable, such as developing a sense of inner abundance, voluntarily embracing simplicity, letting go of what is not essential, and making choices for long-term good.

The next two steps are yoga postures (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Asana provides us control of our bodies, through stress resilience and the healing of trauma, while pranayama creates connection between breath and emotion. These transformative skills literally rewire our brains.

The next three steps are a progressive inward journey consisting of introspection (pratyahara), deepening into concentration (dharana), and deepening into meditation (dhyana). Meditation enables our minds to become a little more calm and still, and less frenetic. As we build our capability to regulate our emotions, it affects everything we do—what and how much we eat and drink; what we read and watch; who we hang out with and what we discuss; what/when/why we buy; and how we work, live, and play—in short, it determines our carbon footprint!

Based on article with B.K. Bose, Matthew King, Rob Schware, How Yoga can Reverse Climate Change. Really!

The Yoga Wheel

We can think of the yoga practice as a wheel, where yoga starts out providing us with optimal tools for stress management. As we develop stress resilience, we develop self-awareness. As we develop self-awareness, we gain greater ability to regulate emotion and the ability to act rather than react. And we develop the self-control to resist an impulse to acquire something that we may want but do not need.

As we continue to traverse this wheel, we spiral toward an evolution of our consciousness. This spiral leads us toward the eighth step of yoga, self-realization (samadhi), which is the awareness that we are all intimately interconnected and interdependent. As we move around the wheel aligning our thoughts with actions, we can adaptively reduce our individual carbon footprint and even curtail desires that lead to larger carbon footprints.

Yoga Can Contribute To A Slowing Of The Earth’s Warming

We need to extract the essence of yoga, distilling the practice down to a few minutes that can be done regularly by anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Imagine the possibilities if most of the one billion people in the developed world, where consumption is most rampant, were acting through emotional regulation and self-mastery most of the time, with each striving to be mindful of future generations. Humanity would make great strides toward leaving the smallest possible carbon footprint. And imagine the possibilities if every child in the world could learn these transformative life skills from childhood.

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Read more: download our white paper, Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability.

Lara Land: Bringing At-Risk Youth and Law Enforcement Together

I had interviewed Lara Land back in 2014 about her time in Rwanda doing yoga service with HIV-positive genocide survivors and their children. That influenced so many of her decisions after, from opening her yoga studio, Land Yoga, to doing yoga service work in her Harlem community, and to eventually forming a non-profit, Three and a Half Acres. In subsequent conversations, I discovered that there are other catalysts she hadn’t spoken enough about that have led her to work with law enforcement and youth in NYC. It’s worth a second interview.

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

I was in India in 2014 when a man was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I felt paralyzed by my distance from home, but also grateful for the time and space to think and plan. I felt a responsibility, which was and remains part of my motivation. There are few people with the extensive yoga training I’ve received who also have their eye on the issues that their deaths shone light on, and who have the access and ability to move between seemingly separated disharmonious communities the way I can and do. These are the at-risk youth and law enforcement communities. I’m very lucky to have the access and skills that I do, and I feel a responsibility because of them. We’re serving a lot of people; I can’t fail them!

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I love working with the NYPD! The main thing is that they are really deeply grateful. They have a lot of pressure from their superiors and from the communities they serve; they take that stress on, and you can clearly see it in their bodies. Most have never had anyone ask to help with that, so they are shocked and thankful, and sometimes not even sure how to respond when we do. When I watch them let go and relax in class I can see that I’ve really made a difference.

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

My students keep teaching me how to hear better. So much of serving them is about consistently refusing to make assumptions. As the “yoga expert” the inclination is to come in with answers and experience, but really the students are showing you what you can give them, which is never predictable. It is always new.

Tensions continue to run high across the country between law enforcement and black Americans living in racially segregated and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. In what ways do you think yoga addresses the current racial landscape in the US?

There is an obvious divide there, that is valid, even if it is being aggravated further by those who perceive they have something to gain from division. What I know is, stories we are told we play out. When we hear constantly of our divide, it deepens the “us verses them” phenomenon, and keeps us in this loop of labeling and separating. Because yoga teaches and models unity, it has the capacity to address this divide.

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 social change?

Yoga is the practice of reducing the chatter in our heads, and becoming highly aware of the present moment and how it feels. This does many things: it allows us to know ourselves and our true feelings, which may well be untouched by the stories around us. It brings a certain amount of calm and centering, which allows us to see the other as they are, without putting those dramas, those role expectations on them. Yoga is at the core a very solitary process, a journey to the self, so it has the ability to release us of group-think as we learn direct experience and self discovery. And of course through yoga we come to experience the oneness of existence.

Building on these gifts of yoga, yoga practice can bring great social change in NY, and beyond. One of the greatest lessons of yoga is it actually changes the nervous system and the habitual response to stress. In a class, you put yourself in a challenging position on your mat, and you learn how to remain still and breathe and watch. Inevitably the stress feeling passes, and so does the instinct to react. Once this is ingrained as a new habit it will show up in similar neurological situations off the mat. Obviously this can be crucial in de-escalating a situation.

Yoga is not all “kumbaya,” but teaches artfulness of action, knowing just how much effort to use in a given situation. It changes our body language, which changes how we are seen by others, to appear more open, making others more receptive to us. It changes our beliefs in ourselves and therefore in the possibilities we see in others. It invites us to question in the pose and then again in life; it strengthens our observer mind that watches without judgment. It slows us down; it releases old patterns and hurts that we’ve stored in our bodies, and which cause us to get triggered by others who may be innocent but remind us of past hurts. It frees us up to experience the world and each other without prior prejudice. It invites direct experience and instead of group speak. It helps our digestion, sleep patterns, and overall health, which tends to make us happier and more gentle and forgiving to others. I believe, because of these reasons and more, that it is an answer, a means to a better world.

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 what we are doing in Harlem—bringing our young adults and law enforcement together through yoga—can become a model and be replicated in other similar communities. I would also like to see yoga (all eight limbs of it) become a mandatory part of police training at the academy level and thereafter.

As for yoga service, it would be my dream that it wouldn’t need to be a category of yoga, but that all those teaching yoga would be trained for, and show up, in service all the time as an ordinary fact of what we do.

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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.

Madeleine La Ferla: Yoga Service Grows in Australia

This is an interview with Madeleine La Ferla, Founder and Director of Yogahood Australia. Madeleine found yoga in her late teens at local community center. It helped her deal better with stress and anxiety she experienced due to an eating disorder. “Saying yoga saved my life at various points is pretty strong, but it certainly has changed my life and been that one tool that has helped me deal with life’s challenges. Over time, my mat became a safe place where I knew if I breathed and moved for awhile, I could find peace, a sense of belonging, a connection with myself, an internal strength, unlike anything else.”

Madeleine’s yoga service career started when she was visiting family in Hong Kong and began to notice the imbalance between those that had access to yoga and those that did not. “While I was very fortunate to have a tool that was helping me deal with life’s challenges, there were so many people around me that simply did not. After class, I would head out into the streets and hear stories about widespread abuse and exploitation, including restrictions on freedom of movement, physical and sexual violence, lack of food and long working hours. I realized then and there this would be the next step in my yoga journey—to share the benefits of yoga with those that don’t have access to it, but could highly benefit from it.

In 2015, she launched Yogahood Australia, a non-profit set up to serve the wider community whose mission is to provide free yoga programs to at-risk and underserved women and youth.

Rob: What continues to motivate you?

Sharing yoga with the wider community just keeps making sense to me. After experiencing the physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga myself and learning the science behind why it can help, I kept asking why it wasn’t more accessible to those who could benefit from it. It’s a practice that can improve your health and wellbeing yet you don’t really need anything other than yourself to do it. So through our work, we are trying to help break down some of the barriers the industry and media have created that prevents people from accessing yoga. Our volunteers purposely teach without music, candles, incense, special lighting or clothes, equipment, or a specific room set up. We really want to show people that it’s a practice that you can take anywhere and that you really don’t need anything other than yourself to participate in it.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Seeing volunteers who were once nervous about teaching in the wider community step out of their comfort zone to experience such fulfillment, joy and satisfaction from doing this work. Also hearing volunteers share positive stories of change—even small—is also very uplifting.

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

That we are all just human at the end of the day trying to get through life and our situations in the best way we can.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at risk and underserved communities?

Yoga shows us that we are so much more capable, strong, and wise then the labels that others may give us because of our personal struggles. We hope that those we serve not only get to experience the many physical benefits of the practice, but also the emotional and mental benefits of the practice such as peace, hope, self-respect, and self-empowerment.

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?

I believe that when you give someone the tools to change their own world like we do in yoga, the world around them can begin to change. Not only because they begin to see the world in a different light, but because they have gained the tools and understanding to know that positive change is even possible.

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Join us in making yoga more accessible to all. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Bob Tenbarge: Serving the Vanderburgh County Correctional Center, Indiana

This is an interview with Bob Tenbarge, a home improvement contractor who, after an unsuccessful back surgery in 2007, began his yoga practice. Immediately after the first class, he experienced the benefits, and, as he told me, “I was hooked.” Five years into his practice, he started his first yoga teacher training, simultaneously teaching at several local studios. In 2015 he began a more in-depth training “Transforming Health with Yoga,” with Kay Corpus, M.D., one of the requirements for which was teaching a six-week seva (“service”) project to benefit the community.

Rob: What originally motivated you to teach yoga at the Vanderburgh County Correctional Center (VCCC)?

My goal has always been to introduce yoga to more men! Most of the time I’m the only male in the classes I attend. My niece is employed at the VCCC and informed me they had been discussing yoga and mindfulness programs for work-release inmates. After a meeting with the program director, it was less than a week before I was teaching on a weekly basis. What began as my six-week seva project is going strong nine months later. The inmates won’t let me stop, and I don’t know if I could. I teach at two yoga studios as well, but the class at VCCC is my favorite. The men tell me how they feel, how the yoga helps, and how much they appreciate me showing up for them. I can seriously say I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me.

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

People who practice mindfulness have greater control of their impulses, which leads to making better choices. That to me is the most beneficial aspect for a prisoner. Mindfulness slows us down and gives us the time to observe our emotions before we act on them. It also helps us to act without judgement. We can use meditation or grounding techniques to keep our focus on the present moment; this prevents us from disassociating ourselves—going back to the past or looking to the future—from what is happening here and now.

The yoga-practicing men at the VCCC have noticed that after starting their practice, they feel better about themselves, sleep better, have better communication and interaction with others, and have less anxiety. They have shared their breathing and meditation practices with their loved ones on the outside to help them deal with their responses to a family member’s incarceration.

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

As a taxpayer I am already paying for our prison system in federal, state, and local taxes. The cost to keep a prisoner behind bars varies widely from state to state. According to a 2012 study from the Vera Institute of Justice the cost to the taxpayer was $39 billion in 2012. Most taxpayer money goes toward building more prisons, employee salaries and benefits, retiree health care contributions, and legal claims. Very little money is left for the prisoner. I strongly believe that we should be spending money on rehabilitative practices that include yoga and mindfulness, as well as continuing education.

The benefits of a yoga program would come to fruition when prisoners are released with the tools to succeed and continue to use the mindfulness and yoga upon release. It will take time, but rehabilitative programs will lower the prison population, which in the end will save taxpayer money.

What is the greatest obstacle to yoga classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

I would say it is both the availability of yoga teachers and the attitudes of many wardens.

Every state, city, and county is looking for ways to cut costs from programs to balance their budgets. Funding for yoga programs is starting to grow in some states, but most teachers are still volunteers. The volunteer teacher in most cases meets the superintendent or program director at the corrections center to explain the benefits and results of a prison yoga program either from research or personal experience. If it’s agreed, it is typically a 6 to 12-week trial run.

The volunteer teacher may teach alone or with a partner. If the class is an hour long, it could take two hours with checking in and out of the facility. It could be a three- or four-hour time commitment, depending on how much travel is involved.

Ideally, the prisoners would have the option to be educated on how to teach other prisoners, so the yoga practice would be a regular feature they can depend on. I strongly believe they would respect a teacher they could relate to, and see on a daily basis.

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Donate to Prison Yoga Project to help fund free practice guides for prisoners. Or find a Prison Yoga Project training near you, and get involved in sharing the transformational tools of yoga and mindfulness with men and women behind bars.

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.

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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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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