What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
At the age of seventeen, I was in a car accident that broke my pelvis (among many other injuries), and while I recovered quite quickly and well initially, the long-term effects of this accident would ultimately change the course of my life.
I started to feel the first real impact in my early twenties while I was working on my master’s degree in social work. By the time I completed my program, I was 100% dependent on opiates for long-term pain management. By the time I was twenty-nine, I required a spinal fusion of my L5-S1. I remained on opiates for another year post-op, a total of five years. Finding the courage to wean off of these drugs was terrifying, as chronic pain had become my everyday reality. I saw absolutely no hope for my future.
Just when I thought life couldn’t get any harder, I developed pelvic floor muscle spasms and had an entirely new health crisis on my hands. An often untold piece of my story, which also deeply motivates me to do this work, is my battle with bulimia that also began when I was seventeen. These two experiences are both separate and inseparable from each other.
I found yoga in my early thirties as a desperate attempt to manage all of the above. However, the physical benefits I experienced are only a small representation of how yoga ultimately changed my life. It is true that I began to experience relief from pain—and indeed, I am living pain- and medication-free today. Further, through the practice of yoga, I also started to really get to know my true self and take charge of my life.
By this time, I had obtained my LCSW and was working full time as a mental health clinician. When I realized how yoga was changing my life, I knew I wanted to shift gears in the way I was working with others. I wanted to merge the gap between yoga and mental health, and I wanted to bring the healing benefits of yoga to populations who had little to no access to the practice.
Soon after completing a 200-hour RYT, I connected with Yoga 4 Change (Y4C) and began teaching in the organization’s carceral program. I feel so honored to be doing this work full time now, and I continue to be motivated by the gift of witnessing yoga change lives, over and over again. Through my work with Y4C, I am inspired daily by the many ways in which yoga helps individuals create new lives and outcomes for themselves.
I love seeing how people are taking yoga into service and therapeutic realms. I am also wary of the pitfalls of hierarchies and assumptions that come with a desire to “help” or “serve.” Those of us who choose to serve must commit ourselves to work deeply on ourselves before and during our service. Could you say something based on your experience about the dangers if you don’t do this inner work?
This question brings to mind the age old saying, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” In order to do this work effectively, and to remain in this field for any length of time, it is necessary to first ensure that one’s own cup is full. Doing so allows us to show up for others as the best versions of ourselves. This involves both the self-care work to rest and recharge, as well as setting and maintaining clear boundaries (so as not to “take on” the problems or stressors of others as our own). Because we are all unique individuals, this self-care looks different for all of us.
Perhaps more importantly, another phrase that comes to mind in response to this question is, “You cannot sit with the suffering of others if you cannot sit with your own suffering.” This lesson comes from one of my most influential teachers, Matthew Sanford. Each of us has experienced trauma in some way, as suffering is part of the human experience. The best way we can learn to sit with others who are in the midst of suffering is to first learn how to make peace with our own. I understand that I cannot show up for others (for my students, or for members of the Yoga 4 Change team) without constantly doing my own work first.
Lastly, through doing our own inner work and learning how to sit with others as they do their own inner work, it becomes clear that we cannot take responsibility (as a yoga teacher or human being in general) for “fixing” another person. The inner work when being called to “help” or “serve,” I believe, is to come from a place of simply wanting to sit with and witness, vs. wanting to “fix.” I’ve learned that I cannot take responsibility for working through other people’s traumas or hardships. Equally so, I must not take responsibility for others’ successes or triumphs. To do so would be to minimize their life experiences, as well as their own inner strength and resiliency. Approaching this work from the mindset of “fixing” is also just not helpful; in fact, I believe it can cause great harm.
I’m also constantly inspired by the ever-changing application of yogic practices driven by the needs of students and clients. In what ways is your work an art and a science?
Since the inception of Yoga 4 Change, our Founder and Executive Director, Kathryn Thomas, knew intuitively that we would need scientific data to back our work and stay active in the field of yoga service work for the long-term. We collect data from our students before and after every class, and we are fortunate to have a partnership with Boston University, which has allowed us to formally study our program. This research allows us to constantly assess the ways in which our programs are effective, as well as ways in which we can shift to create more reach and impact.
I also love the idea of viewing yoga service through the lens of art, because yoga really is an individual and unique practice for all of us. At Yoga 4 Change, we teach from an organized and structured curriculum, and we practice as a group. However, the physical asanas we teach vary from class to class, based on the group of students we are teaching that day. Furthermore, even within one class, we offer variations to address each student’s individual needs. Within the populations Y4C serves, there requires a great amount of flexibility and adaptability on the part of the teacher to make each class impactful. Showing up with a set agenda or sequence simply would not work. Rather, it is necessary that we show up prepared with all the tools in our toolboxes, so to speak. This enables us to pull from all the knowledge we have to deliver the best class possible to that unique group of individuals. In this way, teaching yoga becomes an art form.