May 24, 2012

Yoga Beyond Asana: Launching a Mindfulness Revolution at the Yoga Service Council Conference.

If 2012 hasn’t brought the end of the world as many had feared, it has upset the equilibrium of the North American yoga community in ways no one expected.

Divisions fueled by tabloid-worthy scandals, sex-saturated commercialism, and charges of rampant asana-induced injuries have rocked the yoga world—and the year isn’t even half over yet.

Even as the forces fueling these troubles were escalating, however, a counter-movement has been quieting brewing. Across North America, men and women whose lives were transformed by yoga have been working to create new methods and organizations capable of sharing the practice with others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it. Last weekend, many of the leaders of this new movement came together for the first-ever Yoga Service Council (YSC) Conference at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.

The primary purpose of the YSC Conference was to forge connections, and exchange ideas and information among practitioners committed to bringing yoga to under-served populations including abused women, prisoners, at-risk children and youth, veterans, cancer patients, and the homeless. Beyond these very pragmatic ends, however, was a more ambitious vision: one of harnessing yoga to a mindfulness revolution capable of transforming our dysfunctional society.

As such, the import of the YSC conference extends beyond those called to teach under-served communities. Many practitioners have become disillusioned with the excessively commercial, body-centric, individualistic, celebrity-driven culture that’s come to dominate contemporary yoga. There’s a growing hunger for greater meaning, authenticity and community. The Yoga Service Council represents the most important institutional vehicle capable of driving a new movement that speaks to these values forward. As such, it’s relevant to anyone who cares about the future of American yoga.

Authenticity and Connection

“What’s the single most important thing we need when we’re born?”

Dr. Gabor Mate

One of the Conference’s featured speakers, Dr. Gabor Maté, is a Hungarian-born doctor who works with addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Skid Row, described in one newspaper account as “15 square blocks of despair, squalid rooming houses and alleys populated by thousands of addicts, the homeless, the mentally ill and the drug dealers who prey on them.”

(Other speakers included Beryl Bender Birch, Sue Jones, B. K. Bose, Seane Corn and Kelly McGonigal; still other YSC leaders participated in several panel discussions.) Gaunt, weathered, and striking, Maté possessed a strangely magnetic presence.

A few in the audience called back answers to his question. What is the most important thing that we need? Food? No. Shelter? No. Love? Essentially, yes. But life being what it is, we’ll work with what developmental psychologists call “attachment”: that is, a sense of personal connection to at least one primary caregiver. Such interpersonal connection is vital: if babies are given adequate food and shelter, but left alone and disconnected, they will develop severe developmental dysfunction or even die.

“And what’s our second more important need?” This time, no one could guess. Maté’s anwer? “Authenticity.”

“Being seen for who we really are,” he explained, is not just a nice fluffy notion—it’s actually crucial to healthy human development. But what happens when parents are too stressed, depressed, blocked or otherwise unable to recognize their children’s authentic selves? Put differently, how do children respond when being authentic threatens their primary attachments?

Because attachment is primary for the child’s survival—after all, no baby can feed him or herself—the authentic self will be suppressed as necessary to maintain the attachment. Consequently, the child will develop compensatory and defensive structures that solidify into the “personality” that he or she presents to the world. As a physician, Maté believes that this suppression of authenticity creates endemic stress, which eventually manifests as illness or seeks outlets such as addiction. Conversely, connecting to the authentic self releases stress and supports wellness.

While Maté is by his own admission not much of a “yoga person,” his presentation nonetheless encapsulated a central theme informing the YSC conference, one that can be summed up in a simple equation:

Connection + Authenticity = Transformation.

More than Asana

“What’s the commonality that connects all the different methods of yoga we’re doing—the single most important element that makes it work?”

B. K. Bose

B. K. Bose, founder and Executive Director of the Niroga Institute, was another intense, captivating, and inspiring speaker. His presence conveyed a deep sense of urgency about the need to share the transformative power of yoga with the socially marginalized and dis-empowered. This urgency, however, was notably tempered by an equally deep commitment to maintaining the patience and trust necessary to pursue this work in a mindful and holistic way.

Tellingly, it only took a few moments for B.K., his fellow panelists, and the rest of the audience to come to agreement: the key method of yoga is connecting body and mind through breath. “The breath is the crown jewel of this practice,” Bose insisted. Why? Working the breath mindfully, and synching breath with movement, sparks a process of self-integration. And as we integrate our selves, we find authenticity. And as we connect to the truth of our being, we transform.

“We Are One”

Talk of transformation is common in the yoga community. Too often, however, “transformation” is taken to mean that life has magically shifted into a state where you can stay safe, shiny, happy and bubbly all the time. But that’s not real. It can’t be, because that’s not how life is.

Connecting to our authentic selves requires connecting to our own suffering. This, in turn, opens our hearts in ways that connect us to the suffering of others. This would be unbearable except for the fact that as our hearts open, they become bigger, fuller, and stronger. Transformation fueled by authentic connection creates the heart capacity necessary to hold the suffering of our selves and our world.

Seane Corn

The YSC Conference was filled with people doing this work. Some shared dramatic stories of how yoga saved them from depression, domestic violence, drug addiction, or prostitution, testifying that connecting to their authentic selves through yoga saved their lives. Others simply felt called to serve. But whatever the individual story, there was a shared sense that meaningful transformation is never simply “all about me.”

“I laugh when people tell me that they admire me for doing selfless service,” confessed Seane Corn, co-founder of Off the Mat and Into the World. “Because I never experience Seva, or yoga service work, as ‘selfless.’ On the contrary, the gifts that I receive through service are infinitely richer than anything that I could possibly give.”

Seane led an asana class filled with impromptu prayers. As we moved, breathed, and connected with our selves and each other, voices called out to include those that their hearts had broken open to love. From the shattered woman prostituting herself for drugs on the street corner, to those of us blessed to have the time and space to practice yoga together, to the “one percent” that we may protest against for misusing their societal power—“We Are One,” Seane reminded us.

The sun streamed in through the windows and the green beauty of the Omega campus was watered with joy and tears.

Broken Systems

“The U.S. can’t afford to keep having one in three adults under correctional supervision. The ‘prison-industrial complex’ will change, I believe, not for humanitarian reasons, but out of economic necessity.”

James Fox, founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project, teaches yoga full-time at California’s San Quentin prison. Fox is straightforward in pointing out the profound dysfunction of some of our most important social institutions. “We’re wasting $63 billion a year on a broken prison system, $10 billion of that in California alone,” he reports. Sixty percent of released prisoners return within three years.

Mary Lynn Fitton

And because the system is dedicated to “retribution, not rehabilitation,” most of the men caught up in it wind up having their destructive patterns of violence, addiction and emotional disassociation reinforced, rather than addressed.

Meanwhile, the women generally stayed trapped in what Mary Lynn Fitton, founder and Director of the Art of Yoga Project, describes as “a cycle of victimization.” Endemic problems including childhood abuse, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation produce epidemics of anxiety, depression, prostitution, and addiction.

And given that 75 percent of women in prison are parents (two-thirds with children under 18), their skyrocketing rates of incarceration are immediately impacting the next generation, separating over a quarter-million children from their mothers.

Without intervention, these destructive cycles will continue to multiply exponentially—just as they have been doing for the past several decades. (Nationally, there are now nearly seven times as many women in prison as there were in 1980.) While yoga can’t save the world, it can serve as a crucial element of a larger “mindfulness revolution” that combines forces with other modalities of positive social engagement to heal our people and reshape our society.

A Mindfulness Revolution

“We saw that a lot of leading yoga teachers were unhappy about how shallowly commercial the field was becoming. But because they were so busy and isolated—rushing in and out to teach their workshops—they didn’t know what to do about it.” 

The Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY

The story of how the Yoga Service Council came to be is instructive. As Traci Childress, Yoga Program Coordinator at the Omega Institute, explained, the Institute recognized that more and more of the teachers they were bringing in felt disturbed by the current direction of American yoga. Omega leaders decided to respond by literally providing a core group of these teachers with time and space to connect—a free week together at Omega’s Rhinebeck campus.

The first meeting occurred in 2009, and resulted in YSC’s formation. An annual retreat has occurred every year since. Last weekend’s inaugural YSC Conference was the direct result of this process of open-ended, but dedicated and creative connection.

What would happen if everyone who’d like to see American yoga move in a more socially engaged direction did the same? Being of service doesn’t necessarily mean teaching yoga in prison—or even teaching yoga at all.

There are as many meaningful ways to be of service as there are individuals. Finding what’s right for each of us, however, requires connecting to our authentic selves—and realizing that as we connect to our selves, we open up to the interconnectedness of the entire world.

A mindfulness revolution requires waking up to the beauty and pain of what is, and having the strength of heart and mind to embrace it all with compassion. Yoga is not the only tool that can help with this—but it is one important modality with huge, and still largely untapped potential. As our planet heats up, and streets around the world throb with protest, it’s time to step up our practice. Through connecting to our selves and each other authentically, we put our shoulders to the karmic wheel and contribute to the positive transformation of our troubled world.


The next Yoga Service Council Conference will be held at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, June 7-9, 2013. To see last weekend’s program, click here. To join the Yoga Service Council, click here. To get on the Omega Institute’s e-mail list, click here.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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