June 2, 2011

Yoga for the Mass(es)

As yoga continues to grow in popularity in the United States, with over roughly 16 million practitioners who generate more than 6 billion dollars a year in revenue, the accessibility of yoga classes continues to be out of reach for too many Americans, many of whom would derive great benefit from it. Yet yoga classes grow, attendance grows, teacher training programs flourish from nearly every urban studio. Yoga Alliance, the unregulated and unofficial authority on the requirements for becoming a “certified yoga teacher” in the U.S. lists everything from anatomy and observation to practicum as its guidelines for teaching, and while it mentions a standard of “ethics” for yoga instructors it does not specifically list pro bono or karma yoga as one of its components.

Add to this scenario the average wage of a studio yoga instructor roughly at $30 per class, newer teachers or those with less established reputations might be struggling too hard to even consider donating their time and knowledge. But isn’t a certain amount of selflessness intrinsic to the practice of teaching yoga, of living what we preach? What of aparigraha? Here is how one young, Massachusetts-based teacher resolves this contradiction for herself and, with the help of a progressive organization and the link between yoga and holistic wellness, throws her asana into karma yoga.

Yoga for the Mass(es): An Interview with Elizabeth Gudrais, emissary of yogaHOPE

Esther: Hi Elizabeth, thank you for talking to me and for all the work you are doing for this organization. You and I knew one another in our “past lives” before becoming yoga instructors, so catch me up a little. Where do you live?

Elizabeth: Hi Esther. Some things have certainly changed. When we saw each other last, you were a comparative literature grad student at Harvard, advising me on my thesis! Now I live in Somerville, MA and work for Harvard Magazine, writing about all the great research that’s taking place at Harvard, as well as covering University administration and the alumni. And of course I teach yoga too.

How long have you been practicing yoga?

I started dabbling in classes in 2003, but have been a serious student with an active home practice since 2005.

Where and with whom have you practiced regularly?

My first teacher was Linda diCarlo, of Iyengar Yoga Source in Rhode Island. I started studying with her while I was living in Providence. Then in 2008 when I moved to Boston, I started taking weekly classes with Patricia Walden. I also assist for Jarvis Chen, who is an Iyengar teacher affiliated with Patricia.

What were your impressions of the demographic that attends these classes in your area?

While these classes tend to skew female and the demographics definitely do not mirror the diversity of Boston, what really concerns me is that at an average price of $15-$17 per class, yoga is out of reach for people at the low end of the income scale. Many teachers (including Patricia) are very understanding of their students’ financial situations and are willing to make special arrangements, but this problem can’t be solved by reducing prices on an individual basis. Teachers need to make a living. What’s more, I don’t think yoga really has a social and cultural foothold in low-income communities.

I think it’s still seen by some as an activity for wealthy white women, or as a hippie-dippy thing that people don’t quite understand. That’s really a shame, because actually, chronic stress and ill health often go hand in hand with poverty. I wrote an article about Harvard researchers’ work on this. Scientists are still investigating how this might work on a physiological level, but I firmly believe–and studies are beginning to show, piece by piece–that yoga and other mindfulness-based practices are crucial tools in coping with stress and keeping it from having long-term effects on your health.

I understand you are working with a non-profit organization called yogaHOPE, could you tell me a little bit about what they do?

From its founding in 2006 until last year, yogaHOPE focused on placing volunteers to teach free weekly classes in facilities around Boston, such as domestic violence safe houses, homeless shelters, and substance abuse treatment facilities. (The acronym stands for Healing Ourselves through Personal Empowerment.)

yogaHOPE in action

Over the last couple of years, yogaHOPE founder Suzanne Jones (who also writes for Elephant) and some of the board members had started to notice the abundance of research that’s taking place regarding the physiological effects of chronic stress and emotional trauma: How does witnessing domestic abuse affect the brain? How does *being the victim* of abuse affect the brain? What does PTSD look like in the brain? What happens in the heart, the digestive system, the circulatory system when chronic stress is present?

Yoga teachers have known for a long time that yoga works to counteract these effects. Students of yoga (including Sue Jones herself, who will tell you that yoga saved her life) have reported that yoga helped them recover from anxiety and depression. But this knowledge was anecdotal and intuitive. But just in the last few years have we really had the scientific capacity to start to discover the physiological effects of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-based practices in general, and precisely how they work to improve mental health.

yogaHOPE founder Suzanne Jones

yogaHOPE has developed a 16-week program that incorporates yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises, integrating the scientific evidence just mentioned. A pilot version of the program is being tested in a facility for drug-addicted new moms. We also just were formally approved to run the next pilot in a women’s prison near Boston. The program will be revised over the summer based on feedback from the first pilot and based on integrating the most current research findings. Much of this research is happening right here in Boston, so yogaHOPE is ideally situated to be plugged into this vibrant medical and scientific community. I was thrilled to join the board a few months ago and get to work with this inspiring organization at such an exciting time.

Since you straddle the worlds of yoga and academia, could give the basic scientific background for the use of yoga as therapy for trauma?

Getting in touch with our bodies is good for all of us, but it’s especially helpful for the trauma survivors yogaHOPE serves. Extreme stress affects the brain such that memories are not laid down in the usual way; for survivors of certain kinds of trauma (such as sexual assault), conscious memory of the traumatic event may be incomplete or missing altogether, but sensory triggers may still remind the victim of the event, setting a stress response in motion and pulling the person into an unconscious cycle of hypervigilance and constant fear.

Traumatic stress changes the brain physically: for example, one study showed that people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms have smaller hippocampi—a crucial part of the brain for encoding memories. So we know that stress has concrete effects on the body and the brain, but the body can also be part of the solution. Through becoming aware of physical sensations and noticing what triggers fear or anxiety, a person can start to break the cycle, to heal, to live from a place of relaxed awareness. The classes in our new program, which involve yoga poses, meditation, and guided visualization, give the students tools. Moving the body, using the breath in a specific way, engaging in purposeful visualization—these are strategies the students can use later, outside of class, when faced with difficult and overwhelming emotions. These activities also “touch” different parts of the brain than talk therapy, so they can help people heal from events that are too painful to talk about, or help them get to the point where they can talk about them.

Being in touch with our bodies is the key to being in touch with our emotions, period. Think about what happens when you feel angry: a tightening of the stomach, clenched jaw, wide eyes, shortness of breath. Paying attention to what is happening in the body an provide clues to what we are feeling. For a trauma survivor, because her fear and anxiety keep getting triggered and retriggered, she feels that she is overreacting, experiencing more fear and anxiety than the current situation warrants. Through learning to notice without judgment, she can deal with what she IS feeling instead of getting hung up on what she thinks she SHOULD BE feeling—and this is a major focus of the new yogaHOPE program.

I also believe that the people yogaHOPE serves are not fundamentally different from the rest of us, but rather, that many of us suffer from different gradations of the same thing. First of all, traumatic stress is more common than we might think, and it can happen in the wake of all manner of events: not just being assaulted or serving in combat, but also getting in a car accident or witnessing a natural disaster. Getting in touch with our bodies makes us all more effective because we can be more present and disconnect reflexive responses; when we get angry or defensive, we lose the ability to listen and the interaction goes downhill from there.

Another way that I think all of us can relate to yogaHOPE’s beneficiaries is that these women are trapped by the tyranny of negative thinking. In many cases, these women have internalized abuse leveled at them by a parent or a partner, or simply come to believe that they are not capable of succeeding (staying sober, finding a job, etc.) But this doesn’t just apply to people who are homeless or addicted—many of us who are “successful” by the conventional definition have gotten there through a mindset of beating ourselves up and whipping ourselves into shape. Here’s the problem with that: when your internal monologue consists of telling yourself constantly that you have to keep working harder and doing more because you’re not doing enough, you can only keep that up for so long. It’s a hamster wheel, and it’s completely different from working in a way that is efficient and effective because it comes from the heart and because the work you are doing is in line with your deepest dreams and desires.

Many of us are driven by a fear of failure, but in some cases that fear and the accompanying self-doubt are so intense that they are paralyzing. Or, we achieve success after success but wonder why we are not happy. Stopping the self-doubt becomes the key to feeling fulfilled in your life, just as it can be the key to breaking out of addiction or an abusive relationship. So while I think it’s tremendously important to bring these classes to people who would not otherwise have access, I also think they are not the only ones who can benefit from this approach. As I have learned more about this, I have brought it into my own teaching: the idea that we are our own worst critics and we could all stand to be a little kinder to ourselves.

How does the fundraiser you’re currently working on fit into this project?

Saluting the Spirit is a four-hour yogathon, taking place on Sunday, June 5 in Boston, to benefit three organizations: yogaHOPE; the Healthworks Foundation, which runs affordably priced (subsidized) gyms in low-income neighborhoods in Boston; and Pathways to Wellness, which offers free and low-cost acupuncture and other holistic therapies to people living with HIV and military veterans with PTSD, among others. The three organizations split all proceeds of the event equally.

Speaking for yogaHOPE, the proceeds from this event provide a significant portion of our annual budget. Our expenses include salaries for our interim managing director and our program director; fundraising and marketing costs (the cost of direct mailings, maintaining our website, printing brochures, etc.); the cost of materials (e.g., workbooks for the women participating in the pilot of the new program); and very, very minimal event-related costs (at a recent thank-you event for our volunteer teachers, who are not paid, the food budget was $40). The organization is VERY leanly run and we will use every penny wisely!

Thank you for speaking with us today and best of luck on Saluting the Spirit!

Elizabeth Gudrais is a yoga instructor and writer who believes in yoga as a way of life. She is currently in the process of completing the lengthy and rigorous training to become a certified Iyengar teacher. She practices lovingly, teaches in and around Boston, and volunteers for yogaHOPE, raising funds for its upcoming event Saluting the Spirit. To contribute to this worthy cause, visit Elizabeth’s page: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/elizabeth-gudrais/saluting-the-spirit-2011

Read 3 Comments and Reply

Read 3 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Esther Liberman  |  Contribution: 1,000