THE BLOG
07/17/2013 02:37 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Bringing Yoga to Public Libraries

This is an interview with Christa Avampato, who started a yoga program in 2005 at the Darden School at UVA (where she received an MBA degree). Not surprisingly, many of her classmates were under a lot of stress, so she began teaching a free weekly class at the school. In 2009 her apartment building caught fire; she lost nearly all of her belongings, and almost lost her life. Her yoga practice, coupled with therapy, helped her to heal from the resulting PTSD. She wanted to share that with others who need healing.

Living in New York City, she saw so many people who need the healing power of yoga and can't attend studio classes for a variety of reasons, teachers who want to teach and don't know how to get started, and spaces such as the New York Public Library that are under-utilized. Christa started Compass Yoga to create a bridge between the people who need yoga and don't have a means to access it, teachers who want to give their time and talents, and spaces that might house these connections.

Her one weekly class at the local New York Public Library branch two years ago has expanded to 12 weekly classes at five different NYPL branches and two senior centers. All of these classes are free and open to the public; they draw an average of 25 students to every class.

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 found yoga in 2000, and it became a way to heal my body and mind after years of trauma, insomnia, extreme stress, and anxiety. Seeing the toll these conditions took on me, a friend who was an Iyengar yoga instructor offered me free classes. He even bought me a mat! His only request was that I pay it forward if I found yoga useful. That request was the seed that bloomed into Compass Yoga 11 years later. I still think of my friend every time I teach and the profound effect his generosity has had on my life.

What's a standout moment for you?

I taught a class at New York Methodist Hospital's geriatric psychiatry unit. One of the women had advanced dementia. She was no longer verbal, but she would do seated postures. At the end of class, she went to the piano in the back of the room and began to play a church hymn. The recreational therapist told me that this woman never went near that piano. "Your yoga class must have triggered some long-lost memories," she told me.

The woman passed away the following week. The power of that moment was profound. It made me realize this practice is powerful in ways that I never imagined.

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 have those assumptions changed?

My teaching is an aid to the healing process -- physical, mental, and emotional.

Physical. I was an athlete when I was in school, and after being badly injured during a racing accident, I began to gain an understanding of the psychology and physiology of the body's healing process.

Mental. My father was a clinical psychologist. I spent my undergraduate years as a work-study student at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and at Children's Seashore House. I guess I've always been drawn to the mental health field.

Emotional. I've had personal experience with emotional trauma at several different points in my life. When I started to practice yoga, I realized our capacity to heal these invisible wounds.

I assumed that the ones who really needed healing were people who had been harmed in some way during a specific incident. Then I took a therapeutic yoga course with Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal. They believe that everyone is in a process of healing from something. With that knowledge, I realized that there would never be an end to my work teaching yoga as a service to my community.

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 feel more authentic and relaxed. Many of my Compass students tell me they need these classes to get through their week. These classes are the only time they get to focus on their needs. They motivate me to be the best teacher I can be. It elevates my mood to be with them because I know I've made a difference in their lives.

My creativity also seems to peak in a Compass class. Many of my students need modifications so I have to be laser-focused on their needs. In every class I learn something new about the practice and teaching. It is a tremendously intellectual exercise for me.

What has been the greatest challenge in expanding Compass Yoga and working in more public libraries and senior citizen centers?

Our library classes are truly open-level, so our teachers have to be ready for anything. It's not uncommon to have a 15-year-old dancer practicing on a mat next to a senior who hasn't exercised in many years. Everyone needs to feel welcome. Our talented teachers have to be creative with modifications to make that happen -- it's not easy.

Both of our senior classes are chair-based and have a guided meditation component. Now that we have that expertise, we're actively working on expanding our reach to seniors.

What advice would you give to anyone who is interested in utilizing public libraries to teach yoga?

Be persistent. Two years ago, I emailed every New York Public Library librarian. I got one positive reply! Rebecca Donsky, the head librarian at Bloomingdale, got us started. She then told other librarians about our class, which helped us to expand.

Libraries are cornerstones of the community. They have wonderful space. They're approachable and need a variety of programs. Libraries are the keepers of knowledge, so why shouldn't that knowledge base include yoga and wellness?

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

Approximately nine percent of [American adults] practice yoga, and many more could benefit from it. There is so much opportunity to get yoga to people who need it and don't have access to it. I'd love to see more teachers spend some of their time teaching service yoga.

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

My mother always encouraged us to give back to our communities, and she showed us that everyone has something to give. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to use my teaching as part of my service to my community.

My teacher, Douglass Stewart, taught me that this practice both serves and sustains us through every circumstance and that it is always possible to navigate toward peace. Whether I'm on my mat or off, I can practice. I can breathe. I can stand tall. I can release tension from my mind, body, and spirit. My practice is with me everywhere.

What other organizations do you admire?

I work with Sesame Workshop and I respect and admire Joan Ganz Cooney for her focus on underserved children.

That kind of focus and purity of mission at organizations like Sesame and Room to Read started by John Wood inspire my work with Compass, as we continue to build our reach and commitment to getting more yoga to more people in more places.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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