August 1, 2012

Off the Mat, Into the World: Learning to Listen to What’s Already in Our Hearts. ~ Carmela Caruso

High overhead in the lakeside studio on the Omega Institute’s wooded campus, ceiling fans spun encouragingly in the mid-summer heat.

Sixty participants sat in a circle bordering the studio’s walls. We introduced our names, places we had traveled from, inspirations and “growing edges.” We were a community of yogis from around the world coming together to share and hone our interest in activism.

Introductions took an hour and a half. As a gesture of intention and awareness, Seane Corn, one of three presenters and founder of Off the Mat and Into the World, repeated all of our names back to us. Corn, along with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri, led us fearlessly on a five-day intensive from the shaky uncertainty of the opening circle to the confident, purposeful final hours of the intensive.

Corn, Sterling, and Khouri founded Off the Mat and Into the World five years ago to help yogis identify and develop their purpose and ability to positively impact the world.

Each brings something different to the workshop. Corn pairs her knowledge of mysticism, spirituality and the chakra system with Vinyasa flow yoga. Sterling brings bold energy into the room through singing, drumming and dancing. Khouri offers concrete, scientific explanations and tools for trauma and recovery. The three complement each other perfectly.

We began by discussing and defining conscious activism—activism that is goal-oriented, compassionate and unified. Corn explained, “It is arrogant to believe we can help others before we help ourselves.” And so we embarked on the painful, but necessary journey of self-exploration.

Day two began with an intense Vinyasa class led by Corn. We bent, twisted, and held poses to the point of muscle failure while Corn discussed the seven chakras. Demonstrating that there is no separation between mind and body, Corn showed us where we hold tension and how our emotions and experiences are embedded deep within our physical bodies. Corn said:

“Yoga is the process by which we release the tension that affects the seven chakras and in turn affects who we are and how we show up in the world.”

Many of us collapsed in tears on our mats as we were forced to confront our physical and emotional pain. After practice, we paired up to share our “limited beliefs” (thoughts that we hold on to that do not serve us well) and with the help of classmates created statements to reverse our limitations.

In the afternoon, Khouri discussed trauma and tools to confront and process difficult times. “Trauma,” Khouri explains, “is a fact of life, so is resilience.” She taught us how to ground, center and orient ourselves when triggered toward anger, fear, grief and shock. That evening we role-played and put our new skills to work.


Day three began with yoga practice, and then Sterling led us into a dance with the strong beats of her hourglass-shaped drum. The dancing ended with us finding a spot to lie on the floor and Sterling asking us to look within and discover what breaks our hearts. Although our reasons for heartbreak may be different, pain and loss is something we have all experienced.

We formed three smaller circles with Corn, Sterling and Khouri leading each. Within the circle we shared with each other our heartbreaks. We cried together, pressed our hands into the ground and on our centers and took many deep breaths. The pain was raw, real and necessary.

That afternoon we acknowledged each other’s past traumas. We formed a large circle and Corn, Sterling and Khouri took turns reading statements. If the statement applied, we walked to the center of the circle. “Notice who’s with you, notice who’s not,” they called out after each statement.

Who knew that a room filled with Lululemon and mala bead wearing yogis wishing to change the world had experienced mental illness, death, heartache, racism, bias, abuse, alcoholism and personal tragedy? It was a powerful lesson in the old cliché, “There’s more than meets the eye.”

Day four began with Sterling helping us find our voices. “You’re all going to get up and sing a song,” she joked and laughed at our mortified faces. When she asked how many of us had been told we couldn’t sing, nearly every hand in the room went up. She assured us that we could sing with practice and reasoned,

“You wouldn’t give up the violin if you couldn’t play Stravinsky the first day.”

We spent an hour singing, chanting, dancing and surprising ourselves with how beautiful we sounded together. Corn then led us through the same yoga sequence from day two, only this time we were encouraged to make as much noise as we liked—something anyone who has ever taken a yoga class would recognize as forbidden. Instead of discussing the chakras, Corn played an eclectic playlist including Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam. We sang, yelled, sighed and groaned in pain, but we made it through.

We proved what Sterling said—there is a link between sound vibrations and the physical body.

In the final day and a half, we learned about using non-violent communication to express ourselves and, more importantly, to be heard. We also learned that sometimes it’s best not to speak at all, but instead to mirror and actively listen to someone. Sterling told us a story of how Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience had inspired Mahatma Gandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. She said,

“Activism doesn’t have to be huge to have a great impact.”

We meditated to uncover what was in our hearts and developed a statement explaining what our form of activism would look like. We read the statements aloud, solidifying our purpose, releasing our intentions into the world.

In our last hours together, we talked about our goals in terms of four categories: personal, collaboration, sustainability and action. Corn, Sterling and Khouri led us through prayer, asana, dancing and singing until we bowed in gratitude to the universe and each other.

Off the Mat and Into the World isn’t about telling you what to do to be of service, it’s about showing you how to listen to what you have known in your heart all along.


Carmela Caruso is a yogini, writer, and high school English teacher who lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts. She is inspired by her students, friends and teachers, nature, long aimless walks, and anyone who has refused to give up in the face of adversity. For more information about Off the Mat and Into the World visit http://www.offthematintotheworld.org/


Editor: Cassandra Smith

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