- · What emotionally connects you to give back the gift of yoga?
Sharing the boundless gifts of yoga and meditation not only pays respect to the generosity of those who have diligently practiced and cared enough to teach others, but is also a beautifully valuable way of life through which we can help others help themselves.
Giving back is an organic and natural development of practice. As compassion blossoms, the pollination is action. The action aspect of compassion is what compels many of us, and those of us who are here to rise to assess where and how we might help others and make a difference.
Sharing what we love, what has made a difference in our own lives is a skillful way to live. It’s what is called right livelihood: compassionate, selfless, and something about which we can have no doubt makes a positive difference, no matter how large or small.
Giving back is food for the heart. When we give back our heart softens. When we give back our heart expands. When we give back our heart is at peace.
- What changes occur during our asana, pranayama, or meditation practice that helps us to get off our mats and “give back” to our communities the benefits we’ve received through the practice of yoga?
By practicing asana, pranayama and meditation we open ourselves to becoming more humble, joyful, and present. These multi dimensional components naturally nourish compassion and its partner action. Compassion is not a concept or an inert mantra, but a living, breathing manifestation of a deep and sustained practice. When we are more present, more humble, more joyful and more open, the illusory walls of separation crumble and we see the interdependent nature of life. Taking care of our selves is in truth also taking care of others because at the heart of it, it’s caring for all sentient beings, of which we are an organic part. When we take care of each other, we are simultaneously helping ourselves – it is a win win situation.
Empathy is a natural emotion that we all possess. Empathy can be the precursor and also integral component of compassion. It’s like the kick- start that contributes to action – we see someone in pain and we want to help that person. If we have benefited from a technique or tools ourselves, we naturally wish to share it.
How did you begin to serve?
I began this work once I had physically and emotionally healed from an illness. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to help as many people as I possibly could to mitigate the pain, loneliness, isolation, anger and depression that I went through when I was ill, and before I discovered the transformational aspects of yoga and meditation.
There was no doubt in my mind that I could offer practical, accessible and sane ways to help others help themselves from my years of experience helping myself. If they helped me heal, they could of course help others. It started with that conviction and continues with that same conviction – but now I have the additional benefit of 27 years of witnessing the beautiful results of helping someone help themselves.
How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?
This is an excellent question and one that I think is important to consistently reflect on and consider as we start and continue to teach. Reflecting on why we are doing what we are doing is imperative so that we aren’t caught in the guise of “saving” or “healing” others or that we are responsible for the benefits someone might receive from what we might share with them. If we get caught in feeling that we are responsible for a positive result, we not only get tangled in unskillfully caring about outcomes, but also in believing that we are responsible for what the technique or tool does and we loose the valuable perspective fact that we are merely passing things on – and that it is how or if something is utilized that will make the difference. Of course, some are more skilled at presenting or sharing than others, but at the end of the day we are practicing and passing on what someone else passed on to us. We are an integral part of that rich continuum.
Being free of outcome allows each person that we meet to pick up a tool or let it be. It is making an offering from a pure place of giving without needing to receive applause or recognition. It is the truest meaning of a gift – it is given with no expectation. We cannot control anyone or anything except our own mind and keeping this simple mantra in the forefront of our awareness helps loosen the grip of the trip that can sometimes contribute to a feeling of power or control, and its subsequent disappointment over results.
Meditation practice can be a simple and elegant way to keep our ego in check. Watching our mind is educating our selves about our own mental and emotional habits of like and dislikes, attachments and repulsions. We become familiar with our minds rascally behavior, child-like and childish behavior, emotional behavior as well as the wisdom aspects of our mind. This self- knowledge gives us the power to skillfully work with our thought and emotional patterns. This in turn keeps us more on a mindful, intentional path and less from wandering away from it unconsciously. When we are clear about our own thoughts and motivations, we are much better equip to help others.
This checking in with our selves helps to keep us current with our insidious patterns before they are fully formed and established; because once established they are much trickier and stickier to let go of. Mindful vigilance therefore is one way to stay more humble, grounded, self aware and emotionally level.
- How do you deal with compassion fatigue?
Actually, through trial and error from experiencing it! I think it comes down to simple self- care – I cannot overstate its importance or the importance of having a personal practice. The nourishing support and revitalization of meditation retreats, of having a good teacher, spiritual friends and colleagues are additional and important ways to stave off burn out. Each of us must find the ways to keep our spiritual nutrition high and constant, and not discount that walks in nature, trips to museums, reading poetry, having dinner with friends are also a part of a spiritual practice.
- How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?
By encouraging each student to think and feel for themselves; to follow the insights of their own direct experiences rather than the hearsay of others, or from pressures from a group.
When a student begins to be affected by yoga or meditation, as teachers, we can tell – there are signs of deep peace, even if momentary, or we might see someone more joyful as they walk out of class, or see smiles where there were previously none. If we take a little more care with this student, give them more responsibility, more creative freedom, ask them to assist etc. it can empower that person and give them confidence.
~~~What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?
I hope that we as a community will continue to share our strengths, as we will be doing during this conference. It is so important to learn from each other, and practice together.
I feel strongly that we need to be well trained to do this work; mentally informed about the population we are seeking to serve so that we understand their needs, their handicaps, stressors, burdens and strengths. It’s also imperative to understand the emotional ramifications of the community we wish to work with – how we can be sensitive to their emotional needs – knowing what not to do or say as well as the options that have been proven to work well. We need to be versed in the physiological and physical aspects that each population presents so that we might keep them safe and facilitate health and balance rather than stress and injury.
Learning from contemporary psychology, contemplative psychology (such as Buddhism) and experienced yogi’s are imperative for this information. We are threading somatic sciences together and this is not purely conceptual, therefor it is so important to take the time to integrate, gestate and embody the materials in our own lives and practice. The better educated and practiced we become as a whole, the more respect we will garner as professionals. There is no reason that somatic therapy; yoga therapy and yoga service in general cannot become an integral and standard form of care that compliments allopathic interventions.
I recommend and hope that it will become common to have a support group, a mentor, be in supervision, and have someone to assist and intern with. This helps keep us in check, on the path, and accountable.
I would like to see more retreats that support both yoga and meditation practices for caregivers, not to learn new skills necessarily, but to provide a respite and reprieve, turning the attention inward for self -care and reflection. This is not emotionally easy work, which makes it all the more necessary to take time to refill our own internal well.
I think retreats could become a requirement for all caregivers to prevent compassion fatigue and burnout – it could be a way to gain Continuing Ed. Credits. If we encourage and support reflection, insight and self –compassion all of which can be more profound when away from home and busy lives and on a retreat, it could eventually become standard for future teachers and care givers to look forward to and include in their training.
Lastly, I sincerely hope that we as a professional, well-trained group will become mainstream – no longer fringe, but a well-paid and integral part of health care and mental health care in the US and the world. If we continue to share our strengths, research and ideas we will continue to grow as a community that can echo our credo of compassion in action – we will be mirroring this compassionate action not only in the communities we wish to serve but in our very own community as well.
Interviewed by Rob Schware