Feature Article first published in Spring 2019 Yoga Therapy Today, a publication of the International Association of Yoga Therapists IAYT.org
(contact info found at the end of the article — trusting the wisdom of your heart)
Currents of Community Healing and Social Activism:
The Transformative Path of Yoga as a Sacred Leadership Journey
Stories from the field curated by Allie Middleton
As individuals, the yogic path of transformation, burning off our ancient and abiding wounds, samskaras, is like meeting an edge in our own personal leadership journey. It can be scary as well as healing. With the increased awareness and sense of connection we obtain though the practice of yoga, we may sense an emerging desire to serve a wider community.
The stories and practices collected here are written by yogis who describe their particular path of union, alignment, and attunement through a cultivated yoga practice. They each describe how they responded to their calling or sacred duty with unique levels of interest, motivation, and capacity to inspire more people to act for the benefit of others.
You will encounter here intimate and creative testimonies of courage and compassion that nourish the collective wisdom now emerging in the growing yoga therapy profession.
It’s been an amazing and humbling journey to travel with each of these yoga innovators as they revealed the healing passions behind their projects, which they shared as part of the Common Interest Community on Social Activism/Community Healing at the 2018 Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research.
These yoga innovators formulated inspiring practices to create the conditions for peace, healing, and harmony in diverse community settings. I asked each of the selected practitioners, “What is evolving as your true dharma or sacred gift? What did you try, and who helped you? What did you learn, and where is your potential leading you now?”
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“Whenever I feel imbalanced, I ask myself: How can I use my yoga tools for healing and transformation?”
Nya Patrinos — People of Color Yoga for Resilience and Well-Being
As an African-American woman I have encountered racism throughout my entire life. At various times these experi- ences of racism have left me angry, scared, dis- oriented, hopeless, and/or depressed. Whenever I feel imbalanced, I ask myself: How can I use my yoga tools for healing and transformation? People of Color (POC) Yoga has developed out of my personal quest to find yogic solutions to the stress and trauma of being a person of color in America.
My inspiration to teach POC Yoga developed from my participation in a half day intensive for people of color in mindfulness meditation led by Larry Yang. Through this experience, I recognized
the healing power of being in a POC specialty group. I left the workshop feeling rejuvenated and optimistic and knew I had to somehow continue this work.
We people of color need yoga. We experience higher risks for physical, behavioral, and mental health issues. Studies cite racial discrimination as a major predictor of illness.
Many of us at the workshop were so inspired that we decided to form a bi-monthly POC sitting group. Because of my passion to make a difference in my life and the lives of others, I started teaching POC Yoga as gentle stretching between periods of meditation at the POC sit. Eventually, the class became its own offering.
I have held POC Yoga at a meditation center, college rec room, various yoga studios, the park, and on the beach. The venue has changed many times depending on what was available. Sometimes I have rented the space. Sometimes the space was donated. But my intention to continue with the class has remained steadfast, and the feedback has been wonderful.
We people of color need yoga. We experience higher risks for physical health issues (cardiovascular disease, diabetes), behavioral health issues (substance abuse, cigarette smoking), and mental health issues (depression, post-traumatic stress disorder). Numerous studies cite racial discrimination as a major predictor of illness. Communities of color can be very different ethnically and culturally, but what we share is a history of prejudice, violence, racism, colonization, and/or genocide. I believe these experiences of historical, race-based, vicarious, and transgenerational trauma can be addressed in a trauma-sensitive yoga program for self-identified people of color where they can feel acknowledged, validated, safe, and supported.
“Self-identified” is my key concept. In the early days of the POC sitting group there were differing opinions as to who should be allowed to participate. I made a few mistakes myself by questioning someone’s race. Then I took on the model of self-identified. If someone was in the class, everyone was to assume they should be. No questions were ever to be asked.
I strive to create a safe container where people of color don’t have to worry about being hypervigilant, perfect, threatened, shamed, or exoticized. The space must feel safe for healing to occur. Participants are welcome to stop, alter, or modify any yoga poses, and even leave if they wish. I teach with a sense of welcome and gratitude. I realize people are sharing their most precious commodity — their time. In addition, they are trusting me and themselves with their bodies. POC Yoga is taught with empathy, genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and “wisdom-enhancing” techniques from all traditions.
Although the focus is people of color, I hope that the program is equally useful as a model for trauma-informed group yoga. POC Yoga offers an integrative therapeutic model to address collective trauma by applying yoga therapy techniques to increase resilience and well-being.
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“The fact that we segregate large sectors of our society in a government- sanctioned ’timeout’ has always fasci- nated me.”
Irene Hauzinger — Compromising Polarities: Unifying the Inside with the Outside, Prison Yoga Style
As the daughter of a police officer, I was raised in a household that emphasized dichotomies: black and white, good and bad, all or nothing, overachiever or loser. Carl Jung teaches us that polarities are the root of much human suffering, emotional distress, and anxiety. While it is human nature to label and
organize, our collective consciousness can create completion where ambiguity lies. The fact that we segregate large sectors of our socie- ty in a government-sanctioned “timeout” has always fascinated me. This was a polarity that I had difficulty reconciling for years, until I discovered yoga.
Ironically, it was my father the police officer who introduced yoga to me when I was 13. We attended classes at the local college and YMCA until a studio opened in our town. At 17, I became a Hatha Yoga teacher and actively taught until a car accident derailed me at age 18. Being too young to have the kind of surgery I need- ed, my body and mind grew accustomed to chronic pain and limitation. When I was 21, 50 pounds heavier, and barely able to take care of myself, I was finally approved for surgery. I remember feeling imprisoned in my body and wondering if I would ever be able to practice again. That first yoga class, post-fusion, was agonizingly painful, but steadily, my body regained its flexibility and strength, and I was back to practicing and teaching. Through this experience, I discovered that there are many types of prisons: injuries, addic- tions, social constraints, and of course physical buildings, all of which segregate many of the most vulnerable people in our society who are most in need of compassion and wholeness.
Upon recovering from surgery, I began my career in social services, specializing in addiction. One cannot work with addicted clients without encountering the criminal justice system. Wanting to combine my passion for yoga and social justice with my path in social work, I decided that I would create an interdisciplinary PhD program where I could study the intersection of these three vocations; this led me to embarking on the PhD path of researching yoga for women inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. I had been volunteering with Seattle-based Yoga Behind Bars since 2010, and when it was time to begin research in 2014, I found this organization to be an amazing collaborative partner in furthering our mutual mission of bringing hope to those on the inside.
Most prison yoga programming begins with individual volun- teer yoga instructors providing weekly classes through the prison and jail volunteer coordinators. While navigating bureaucracy can seem daunting, it can be as simple as contacting your local jail or prison volunteer outreach coordinator and offering to start a class. A doctoral research project, on the other hand, is a different beast. After 2 years of negotiating with the Department of Corrections, and redesigning my study no fewer than three times, my prison research study was approved. The biggest challenge to research is ensuring that the interests of all parties are fully acknowledged and accounted for. This can be quite time consuming; flexibility and patience must be practiced.
Research, like yoga, is a practice fueled by passion and curiosity. Collaborative research is a gift, as the researcher is able to bring the voices of the agencies, systems, and participants to life. In my study, the most encouraging finding of all was the incredible out- pouring of student gratitude for the instructors, Yoga Behind Bars, and the gift of yoga practice. We have all experienced some form of restriction, whether it is an injury, limiting thoughts, mental illness, or incarceration. Through yoga, we may find liberation and community.
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“In the past 5 years, my students have directed their compassion and care toward efforts to help Syrian refugee families arriving in our communities.”
Mona Flynn — Supporting Syrian Refugees in American Communities
As a first-generation Syrian-American woman, the immensity of the Syrian crisis that affects our world stays in the front of my mind and in my heart daily. In the first few years, the heaviness came from worry over how our extended family was surviving on a daily basis. As the millions of Syrian refugees
became a global concern, I became the face of the Syrian crisis to those around me, especially to my students.
My family did not come to America as refugees, however. My father came as a college student. My grandfather, a self-made man, grew up in an orphanage. His mission was to provide his children with the best possible education, to encourage a strong work ethic, and to give them the example of being a philanthropist. When his family moved out of their traditional Moorish-style home in Dam- ascus, it was donated to become the first public school.
As a yogi, I recognize the beauty and relevance of being connected, and deepening practices guide me to look from the micro- cosm to the macrocosm, noting the myriad ways in which yoga can lead us to diminish suffering and promote peace. The way I see it, our own healing is affected by our capacity to help others heal. Life Fit, Inc., my yoga and yoga therapy business, is run with the intention to build community and to help students connect with a sense of purpose as to why it might be that they invest the time and energy to learn and practice yoga. Life Fit is not a brick-and-mortar business, so I teach around town, in the local hospital system, for my city of Greensboro, in schools, in corporate groups, as well as in my own classes. Across all of these classes/groups, we have great discussions on the effects of our intertwined yogic and life journeys and on the importance of seva (service). Over the last 20 years, we collectively do an annual community project. In the past 5 years, my students have directed their compassion and care toward efforts to help Syrian refugee families arriving in our communities.
If we are to extend ourselves as best we can to the people who are suffering who cross our paths, we must do what we as yoga
therapists are taught to do. We react to the person in front of us, not to the diagnosis. Deep healing happens when we recognize and honor the individual as we attend to her or his needs. If “the care and keeping of me” in my yoga practice is effective, it allows me to live my dharma, which includes seva, the care and keeping of others. This is yoga therapy in action, a powerful and effective means for transformative community healing.
What have I learned? When you cannot help the people you want to help, you can focus on the people who arrive on the path alongside you and in front of you. We are here to be human together.
What happened along the way? We have collaborated with organizations like Church World Services, The Newcomers School, Every Campus a Refuge, the local mosque, and churches in the area. For over 5 years now, Life Fit Yoga students have helped to meet the needs of Syrian refugee families, from an initial fundraiser (please see the Soup for Syria Greensboro Facebook page) and using that as a platform to connect area yogis and friends to offering goods, financial support, time, and services to relocated families as they adjust to their new American lives. Steps toward creating a group yoga class for refugee women and children are in process as more organizations (e.g., the Center for New North Carolinians) come into the picture. We recognize together that our needs and rights are reflected in the world community that drives yoga into action. There is beauty in how we are all connected. There is also responsibility and humility. Om shanti!
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“[I]t became my life’s work to bridge my public health background with yoga therapy to improve the health outcomes of all communities, regardless of their ability to afford such services.”
Katie Allen — Yoga Therapy as a Health Promotion Strategy for Under-served Communities
Many of us in the field of yoga share a genuine desire to bring these life- changing practices out of the studios and into the larger community. This is one of the core values of our studio, Be The Change Yoga, as well as our yoga therapist training program, AlcheMe Yoga Therapy, and this has resulted in the development of numerous community partnerships for bringing yoga therapy initiatives into underserved communities. My inspiration for this type of work stems from a social justice lens acquired during college and graduate school. With regard to health disparities, the research clearly demonstrates how lower- income communities lack access to health education and vital resources compared with more affluent communities; this, in turn, results in disproportionately higher rates of chronic diseases and less means for effectively managing them.
While in graduate school, I experienced another powerful real-ization, one in which I saw that the underlying behavioral risk fac- tors associated with the chronic-disease epidemic can largely be prevented and treated with correct adaptations of yoga practices. From this point on, it became my life’s work to bridge my public health
background with yoga therapy to improve the health outcomes of all communities, regardless of their ability to afford such services.
While establishing Be The Change Yoga and AlcheMe Yoga Therapy as Orange County’s center for yoga therapy and higher education, we’ve gained a high level of visibility that has enabled us to develop collaborative community-based relationships and to implement yoga therapy programs throughout various hospitals and health systems. These strategic initiatives also serve as practicum sites for our yoga therapy interns, with the intention of developing future employment opportunities for our program graduates.
As yoga therapy is an emerging field, it is challenging to get one’s foot in the door of health clinics and create buy-in among sys- tem administrators. To do this, we utilize a public health lens to explain how yoga therapy is a low-cost intervention that empowers the individual to create and sustain healthier behaviors. We utilize public health tools, such as logic models, coupled with evidence- based research to educate clinicians on how yoga therapy practices increase physical activity in a safe way, decrease stress, and support better choices that can change the trajectory of disease.
All of this leads to improved health outcomes.
Along the way, we experienced much prejudice and many misperceptions about yoga. Some communities view yoga as culturally foreign, making people apprehensive to try it. In looking for the best way to translate the methodology of our work to community members, we focus on health-related goals and assist individuals in identifying their personal health goals. The intention is to support their specific wellness aims by offering the correct practices, developing heart-to-heart relationships, and infusing our clients with sraddha (faith/confidence) and virya (strength) to increase self-effi- cacy and follow-through.
In this way, we developed an effective yoga therapy internship model that offers a low-cost program to clinics while translating our methodology into a program that empowers the individual to create and sustain healthier behaviors while making yoga therapy accessible to all members of the community and advancing the frontiers of the field of yoga therapy.
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“Many people suffer from generational and historical trauma that is ongoing. There are daily reminders of the tenuous nature of life for people classified as Black in America.”
Jana Long — Yoga as a Peace Practice: Creating Resilience in Our Communities
as a response to an epidemic of race-based violence in U.S. communities.
YPP is a curriculum designed to train yoga teachers, community members, and civic and social workers to facilitate, create, and introduce contemplative practices rooted in the philosophical tenets of the niyamas (duties to ourselves), Restorative and Kriya Yoga, and culturally relevant themes and then offer them in ways that are accessible to individual.
Yoga as a Peace Practice (YPP) was conceived as the first national initiative of the
Black Yoga Teachers Alliance in response
to the needs of individuals and communities where trauma from violence exists. YPP elevates contemplative practice to equal importance with asana.
The deleterious effects of race-based violence impact all people; however, YPP acknowledges the acute impact it has on African- Americans and other people of color.
I discovered my own deep-seated trauma — the fear of being shot while Black in America — on my way to facilitate the YPP training at Yogaville in 2018. Here’s how this particular incident tran- spired:
My partner and I headed for Buckingham, Virginia, from Bal- timore. Once off the main interstate heading southwest, we were awestruck by the pastoral landscape of rolling hills, endless fields of summer crops, and grazing farm animals. Coming into Charlottesville, the ominous appearance of confederate flags became more frequent. “Let’s find a place to stop to eat our lunch,” I suggested around noon. We searched for a spot, but so much was private property. And there were those scattered reminders that we were in the Confederacy! We joked, “Don’t stop here, we could get shot. . . Keep going, we might get shot.” So it went on for miles, until it hit me like a thunderbolt: This is a deep trauma I live with as an African-American. We had lunch on a strip-mall parking lot where we felt relatively safe.
After pages and pages of self-help books, I shared this insight with participants at the beginning of the YPP training. It unleashed a powerful dialogue and sharing of indi- vidual experiences. The release of trauma was made evident by the symphony of snores and snorts that followed in response to the rest and relaxation of our nervous systems. Many people suffer from generational and historical trauma that is ongoing. There are daily reminders of the tenuous nature of life for people classified as Black in America. Although we repress this trauma, it dwells just beneath the surface. It is the way we cope from day to day. YPP offers us strategies for thriving and creating resilience.
Our 2018 YPP ended in a circle of prayer, dance, and drum- ming. A sacred ritual was created organically and in the moment that felt guided by the presence of our ancestral spirits. We rejoiced in a space of peace and safety.
2019 YPP trainings will be held in May at Yogaville and in August in St Louis.
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“I never imagined that the experiences of abuse I endured throughout my child- hood would provide the opportunity to be a part of something so big and so impactful.”
Amina Naru — Universally Inclusive Yoga: Best Practices for Yoga with Survivors of Sexual Trauma
After long experiences with
metaphysics, prayer, and introspection, I thought I was healed. Along the way, I was introduced to yoga and realized there was more work to be done. Emotional pain and the debris from my traumas were being released. My organs, cells, and tissues were being purged and detoxified through the asana practices, and the vessel that houses my soul began to feel clean, free, and open. It felt good to feel my true essence again without guilt or shame, although in yoga teacher trainings and in studio classes, I would be triggered again and again.
I was changing. I was healing. I became determined to bring this ancient art form to others like me: those who were survivors of the traumas of life; those who had exhausted all their tools, medications, detours, and distractions; those who had seen their darkest hours and lived to tell about it. The survivors.
During my third year with the Yoga Service Council (YSC), I was asked to take over the project management for our fourth edition in the Best Practices book series — Best Practices for Yoga with Survivors of Sexual Trauma, in partnership with the Omega Institute and lululemon’s Here to Be program. I never imagined that the experiences of abuse I endured throughout my childhood would provide the opportunity to be a part of something so big and so impactful.
The project grew from 18 contributors to 36. We held a second symposium at Omega in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to collect more voices from the groups that we lacked in the first symposium. We extended the project beyond the normal 12 months of the other manuals in the series. We had our own internal wounds opened in the most loving, supported space possible as we told our truth, became vulnerable, and wept. We all experienced an intense and profound con- nectivity at this unique event. We were fueled by the #MeToo move- ment and the increasing number of reports and allegations around the world of people who have abused positions of power by causing sexual harm to others. We knew that what we were writing was needed and extremely timely. We felt the weight of the world and every tear that had been shed by the people who had been harmed, taken advantage of, and deprived of their dignity. The project was bigger than us, and the sheer magnitude of it would be overwhelming at times, but it had to be done.
The project has gained the attention of Yoga Journal, Yoga Alliance, IAYT, Yoga International, and many other organizations and yoga studios. We have launched #ThePledge, a pilot program for studios around the country that are committed to providing uni- versally inclusive yoga. Through this pilot, YSC works directly with studio staff to provide tools, support, and assistance in education and awareness about how to hold a space for yoga and mindfulness practices with the skills and intention of not harming people (ahimsa), regardless of whether or not they have been traumatized.
I see universally inclusive yoga and #ThePledge being adopted by spaces and yoga schools around the world as we all move forward in brilliance and healing.
Being a survivor of sexual trauma has deeply affected my world and how I perceive life.
— — — — — -Trusting the Wisdom of Your Heart — Allie Middleton
We see in these powerful stories of personal healing how yoga therapy continues to grow as a profession. Moving from a ME focus to a WE focus is demonstrated by shifting the benefits of personal trans- formation toward engaged social action with others in community.
It’s important to capture the collective narrative while this transfor- mation emerges, as this will seed further inspiration and mark a path for positive change. Collaborating with others from a shared experience can set the stage for social and systems transformation. As we listen to the expanding wisdom of our hearts, the question now is this: How might you find ways to collaborate with others and engage in something new together, responding to a sacred call to commit to a practical larger project, however challenging the process might feel?
You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny. —Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV, 4.5
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Please contact the individual authors directly for further information.
Nya Patrinos, MFA, C-IAYT, ArtYogaFusion: email@example.com. Nya has a diploma of merit in yoga ther- apy from The Ghosh College of India and a certificate in yoga therapy from Integrative Yoga Therapy.
Irene Hauzinger, PhD, CDP, RYT-200, St. Martin’s University: firstname.lastname@example.org. Irene is a sociologist and chemical dependency professional. Irene fronts a folk-metal band and enjoys knitting, writing, tea, and heavy-metal music.
Mona Flynn, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, Life Fit Yoga: email@example.com. Mona, owner of Life Fit, Inc., has over 30 years of experience in the wellness and fitness industries. She enjoys building community by leading students into collective seva projects.
Katie Allen, MPH, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, Be The Change Yoga: firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie co-founded Be The Change Yoga studio and is school director for the IAYT-accredited AlcheMe Yoga Therapy. Her passion is bringing yoga into clinical settings.
Jana Long, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, Inc.: email@example.com. Jana specializes in yoga therapy for older people and for acute and chronic disease management. She serves as executive director of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance.
Amina Naru, E-RYT 200, Yoga Service Council: firstname.lastname@example.org. Amina is executive director of the Yoga Service Council and owner of Posh Yoga. She is the first Black woman to implement curriculum-based yoga programs for juvenile detention centers in Delaware.
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Allie Middleton, JD, LCSW, C-IAYT, is a life-long student of the wisdom traditions. She has served as a successful innovation leader in business, nonprofit, and government teams. Allie currently teaches and coaches individuals and groups globally using Social Presencing Theatre and other mindful movement practices.