Yoga: How We Serve Diverse Populations

By Rob Schware for the Huffington Post, October 17, 2012

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?

I moved to Boulder so my girls could go to school on the mainland. By that time (2007) I’d taught about 4,000 yoga classes, mostly to privileged American white women (like me). I started to wonder if there was more to teaching. I read a book, No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and realized I wanted to work with women in domestic violence shelters. So I became a certified yoga therapist and set up Yoga Impact to empower volunteers, yoga studios, and local organizations to reach marginalized populations. We seek to encourage people to embrace yoga practice as part of a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, healthy eating habits, relaxation, and a positive attitude.

Is there a standout moment from your work with abused or incarcerated women?

In 2009, I was working at the SPAN women’s shelter with a woman who was coming down from an alcohol addiction. Trembling badly, she was quite distraught. I remember feeling scared that I might not be able to help her. I led her through some breath work and assisted her in a few stretches. Within a half hour the trembling had stopped.

That same year I was teaching yoga at the Boulder County jail. One of the women, Tracy, was in my program for nine months. Upon her release, she looked me up. She told me she wanted to become a yoga teacher. Now she’s in charge of the jail program, and is creating a transition program for inmates.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if any, have those assumptions changed?

Yoga has helped me work through my own experiences with addiction and domestic violence. In my youth I used drugs and food addictions to deal with the tough emotions of growing up in a family where physical and emotional abuse were a norm and, well — that is the easier stuff to talk about. I also experienced some domestic violence in my adult life, and it feels like my yoga practice literally carried me at a time when I needed great courage to make changes in our lives. That has inspired me to do the outreach work that I do.

I quickly experienced the satisfaction that comes from doing seva; and I’m continually inspired by a section from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna that some are born enlightened, some meditate to find enlightenment, but if neither of these is your path, then do selfless service. I know I wasn’t born enlightened, I try to meditate, but I find the deepest satisfaction in my work as a karma yoga (a yoga of selfless, altruistic service.

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’m not as detail-oriented in alignment when I teach under-served populations. Also, I focus on the science of yoga, and introduce the more poetic aspects as new clients get to know me.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Finding the time to do all the work that my passion for expanding yoga’s outreach fires up in me, while making time for my family. In my practice I just do more balance poses and breathe — 4 counts in and 4 counts out.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

Learn how to teach beginning-level classes, and develop a deep understanding of where that population is coming from. In training the teachers at Yoga Impact I focus them on teaching people who aren’t already in shape and don’t have an interest in doing what I call the “playground yoga poses.” In the advanced-level yoga trainings I teach, we spend a portion of the training developing sincere empathy for the outreach populations that we focus on. For example, working in the jail, I remember being affected hearing how the women in the jail are so lonely for their families. Some of the women give birth while in jail, then have to give their baby over to relatives. Often these women have addiction issues, and usually also trauma from an early age. So I found it effective to teach them a metta (cultivation of loving-kindness) meditation.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My hope is that more yoga studios will open their studios to diverse populations in their communities. I’d like to see studios encourage and support their yoga teachers in volunteering in the community. And I’d like to see the yoga community make sure we’re serving all the homeless in the back yards of our communities with the yoga techniques that have enriched our own lives.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My practice is becoming more simple, more streamlined, as I am always searching in myself and on my mat for better ways to explain this practice of yoga and make it more accessible to more people. I find that serving these populations through yoga demands the best possible “me.” I try my best just to show up.

What other organizations do you admire?

Besides directing Yoga Impact, I work for Kula for Karma, which is doing incredible outreach in northern NJ. I worked for Prison Dharma while I was living in Boulder (it is now based in Boston, MA). Sensei Fleet Maul and Kate Crisp are doing amazing work with meditation and some yoga in jails and prisons.

Click here for The Huffington Post

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? if you’re interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

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