Onto the Mat and Into the World: Yoga for Positive Change
by our teachers
That's the title of the 2007 KYTA Conference, August 24-27. In keeping with that theme, we've invited workshop presenters who focus on bringing yoga to specific populations. Here are their stories of yoga's transformative power.
It has been my privilege to work with recovering addicts from all walks of life. For many years, I have felt that recovery from addictive behavior is supported by a yogic lifestyle. To maintain long-term abstinence from addiction using spiritual and mental therapies, it is essential to have a strong, body-centered practice.
For two years now I've been teaching a yoga class for women recovering from substance abuse. Many of them have little or no body awareness, while others hold so much pain and abuse repressed in their bodies that releasing it is a challenging process. We do moderate asanas in class, with lots of modification.
But what has been surprising and delightful is how incredibly open these women are to the spiritual practice of yoga. Through their experiences and their work in 12-step programs, they have gained a deep understanding of spirituality. I can teach them advanced kriyas and chant with them. And I see them gradually taking these mind-spirit practices into their bodies as well.
One woman who was morbidly obese has lost weight and is reading nutrition books. A recovering heroin addict told me that yoga has been her touchstone throughout her long term sobriety. She brings her eight-year-old daughter to class, and I observe how her parenting skills improve as her life becomes more stable. Another woman, who is recovering from addictions to alcohol and marijuana, missed only two or three classes in two years. She recently received a full scholarship to study to become a yoga teacher. Yoga provides far-reaching solutions for this strong, spiritually-minded group of women, as well as for their communities and societies.
Editor's Note: Sherry's work with this population is funded in part by a grant from Kripalu's Teaching for Diversity program. For more information, visit www.kyta.org.
One of my favorite stories is from the isolation wing in the Swedish prison where I've been teaching yoga for the last two years, in combination with ART (Aggression Replacement Training). It's had very good resultssome of the inmates have changed their lives entirely and gone from being very aggressive and difficult to being calm, peaceful, cooperative, and deeply committed to doing something useful with their lives.
This particular incident happened last summer when the staff forgot to lock some of the inmates into their cells. The prisoners realized the mistake but instead of killing each other or smashing the whole place to pieces and trying to escapewhich would have been the case before yoga and ART transformed their livesthey decided to have a nice evening together. They made brownies and watched a funny movie, and before they went to bed they made tents in the kitchen like small boys. In the morning, they were hiding so they could see the looks on the the faces of the staff as they came in and saw the kitchen turned into a kids' playroom!
In an article in one of the daily papers that covered this sensational story, the inmates were quoted as saying that this never would have happened a couple of years ago, before they had their training. Now they've learned to smile at circumstances and seize the opportunity to give, serve, and love.
So many women struggle with food, eating, and body shame. The struggle often focuses on the body's center, the belly. Yet our bellies shelter our connection to Source Energy. The body's center is the site of our soul-powerwhat the Japanese call hara. As I bring hara-energizing movement, breath, and body awareness to women with food and body image issues, I witness miracles. Again and again, I'm in awe. I see women beginning to experience their bellies as sacred, not shameful. They discover the validation they've been craving. They deepen into the creativity, wisdom, and guidance of their inner source.
I recently led a workshop as part of an eating disorders awareness week. One woman reflected, "I experienced a delightful and delicious sense that I was completely filled with my Self. The effort I continually put into 'connecting' to myself was gone. The gap I imagine to be present as I journey through daily living vanished. The energy released from my belly filled me upit filled in the gapeffortlessly." Another commented, "I grew up with women's lib and the knowledge I could go to college and, just like the boys, I could become anything I wanted. From that I grew up thinking that any real power is what I store in my brainin my head. So it was very hard to grasp that power is in my belly, where I stored all the shame and self-doubt I earned during a traumatic childhood. However, now my idea of the word 'belly' and what it stands for has completely changed."
Equipping women to value and act upon the life-affirming power concentrated in our body's center is one way to promote humankind's survival in these challenging times.
In March of 2005, I developed and launched a yoga program at Worcester Massachusetts Veterans Center that has shown great promise for combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The program now serves more than 50 veterans of wars in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, and Korea, as well as World War II. "These are real men, combat-weary guys, who have discovered that yoga really helps them," says Tom Boyle, a Vietnam veteran and counselor at the Worcester Veterans Center who attends the veterans yoga class. "The message to be present and mindful is the solution to many of their problems."
Paul Malboeuf fought overseas for 13 months and returned home only to find more battles raging, this time inside himself. He was intensely angry and overwhelmed with anxiety. "Sometimes after a yoga class, for a few hours, I am absolutely free of anguish in my mind and free of physical pain," Malboeuf told me. "There is this realization that I can do something about my problems, and I can do it through yoga. I look forward to coming to class because it's a place where I can deposit my anxiety and the stress of the week. I have never walked away from yoga class more stressed. I always walk away with a recharged battery."
There are thousands of veterans yet to come home from the Iraq war. Yoga can help them heal.
I have been teaching a yoga class for moms and babies for six years now, and it's my favorite class of the week. For some of the moms, it's their first concrete experience of listening to the wisdom of their bodies. As I watch them beginning to trust their intuition in caring for their babies, I know they are learning to accept the way things are in each precious moment. When they watch their babies explore their world and delight in the freedom of their movements, they discover that when they care for their babies from the place of peace that always lies within them, they feel calmer and their babies are more relaxed.
The mechanics of lifting and carrying their babies is a perfect place for them to become aware of how they hold their bodies. When they remember good alignment and posture, they have more energy and feel more relaxed.
I always tell them that their children are their greatest teachers, so we honor them by bowing and Jai-ing to them at the end of class. As the babies grow older and the moms continue their yoga practice, they bond with their classmates, and yoga becomes a way of life.
For more than two years now, I have been providing bedside yoga to people in residential care who are seriously ill or dyingand I have learned more from this experience than from all my yoga classes put together. Our volunteer bedside yoga program has been a powerful reminder that yoga is not what we do but how we do it. Yoga is something that happens inside, a practice of the heart.
You know how at the end of the story, the grinch's heart is three sizes too big? That's how I feel every week when I leave The Bailey-Boushay House. I have had the amazing opportunity to help people feel better, to create some peace and happiness. I see people in pain, people feeling depressed or anxious, people feeling pretty good, some not so lucid, some recovering, some dying. Sometimes I stretch someone's legs or back; sometimes I rub their feet or hands; sometimes we talk and laugh; sometimes we are just quiet together.
No matter what the situation, the healing begins with my ability to simply be present with each person. With no need to make anything happen, I can allow our time together to unfold. By cultivating the witness in myself, I am open to seeing the limits of the human condition and the limitlessness of the human spirit. For me, this is yoga in action. I am able to see how beautiful these students are, how beautiful I am, how beautiful life is, and how death is an inevitable part of the incredible process of being alive. I truly experience yoga in these moments of service. Recently, as I was rubbing one man's feet, he asked me, "It's all going to be okay now, isn't it?" And I could respond without doubt, "Yes, everything's okay."
From September 1996 until this past July, I worked as a staff psychotherapist at Structure House, a treatment center for obesity and overeating. In addition to providing individual and group therapy, I taught psychoeducational workshops focusing on the body-mind-emotion-spirit connection. Around the same time that I began Phoenix Rising yoga therapy training, Structure House increased its offerings of yoga classes, and I was asked to teach.
The majority of the students in my weekly gentle yoga class were quite large, many morbidly obese, and unused to the kind of movement that yoga involves. They had difficulty understanding alignment and learning basic poses. Their distribution of weight made modifications and props essential, and joint problems were the rule rather than the exception. Child pose, for example, was problematic in that bellies and breasts collided with thighs, putting pressure on already burdened knees, preventing buttocks from meeting heels and foreheads from reaching the mat. My entire class often consisted of what would be the warm-up portion of the beginner's class I taught at a yoga studio.
I believe it's fair to say that the vast majority of my students lived in their heads, disconnected from their bodies. They viewed their bodies as shameful and did their best to ignore them, as awareness brought the pain of what they considered to be evidence of their failure. Experiencing pleasure and relaxation via the body through yoga was a foreign and intimidating experience. Connecting awareness to body and breath was new and challenging. I found that the simplicity of the poses themselves gave me the opportunity to break down the nuances of alignment and, in turn, allowed my students to inhabit and experience their bodies rather than assess or judge them.