This is an interview with Lauren Rubenstein, who has been "sharing the yoga love" around the Washington, D.C., area since 2009. She has taught at a preschool for homeless children, a summer camp for at-risk kids, tween empowerment programs, a public charter high school, and structured playtime for kids in emergency family shelters. Called into another kind of service by her son, she has been teaching yoga to his high school football team, which lead to sessions with the cheerleaders and pom squad, and students in a neighboring high school's "Every Fifteen Minutes" program on drunk driving.
When she read about YogaKids Bridge of Diamonds' first trip to Haiti in March 2011 and their search for volunteers, she responded immediately. Her first of three trips was in July 2011. Her Haiti host, Partners in Development, runs a child sponsorship program, and she came home sponsoring a 4-year-old girl she taught; she and her family had been living in a tent city since the earthquake.
Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
This work was a natural outgrowth of my training in clinical psychology, and I have come to believe in the power of yoga to change lives. The practice teaches us so many life skills: a sense of self-worth, how to regulate emotions and direct attention, non-judgmental awareness of self and others. People who practice yoga learn to be less reactive, more open to what life throws at them. Cultivating this attitude early is a gift every child can use.
Is there a standout moment from your work with YogaKids Bridge of Diamonds?
My first trip, I had been concerned about this tiny little girl who came to several classes and never cracked a smile. My concern grew when I saw her inability to lie down in savasana (rest pose); she was the only one. So I just held her, unable to communicate any other way. A few days later our team stopped at the tent city and we were immediately swarmed by boisterous kids who had enjoyed themselves in yoga class. I had been trying to choose a child to sponsor from photos and descriptions in a book; at that moment I knew I had found my girl, Michelda.
During the second trip lots of medical volunteers were in the bunkhouse with us. At meal times they shared horrifically graphic tales from their work, and I began to feel some misgivings: were we "just playing" while they were "really working"? Mr. Genois, the Haitian social worker, joined the team meeting on our last night. He said he had been watching us interact with the children all week, and saw that ours was "no small work." He witnessed the connections we made and explained how little adult attention these kids get, with their parents out all day looking for work or a meal. He felt that the kids were benefiting "in their mind, their bodies and their hearts." r. Genois erased the doubts I was having about the relative merits of giving yoga (as opposed to food, shelter, and medical care) to those in such desperate need. He had no previous exposure to yoga, yet expressed a deep understanding of how engaging it is for the kids.
My second trip in January 2012 coincided with the two-year anniversary of the earthquake. When I realized that 4-year-old Michelda had been living in a tent for half of her life, I went home intent on raising enough money to build a house for her family. The highlight of my third trip was showing Michelda and her parents the walls of their new home. I look forward to returning with a housewarming gift!
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?
I knew nothing about Haitian culture. I assumed that teaching kids who had been traumatized and displaced by the earthquake would feel emotionally devastating. I even watched videos of the earthquake to try to prepare myself. It turned out that it takes more than extreme poverty and a natural disaster to dampen children's spirits. I found their sense of hope and capacity for joy very much alive. The only time I choked back tears was when we gave the kids crayons, and they all drew houses to depict their losses, their hopes and dreams...
To make our program sustainable, we wanted to train Haitian teachers and orphanage staff how to integrate yoga into their work -- but we didn't know whether the adults would embrace yoga as enthusiastically as the children. Last summer we were witness to more than 150 educators discovering yoga as we taught them how to use it in their work. It's not surprising that we have been invited back for more teacher trainings; Haitian culture embraces a sense of ease in the physical body. That being said, we steer clear of the "spirit" piece of yoga, as that's a loaded term in Haiti.
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?
Teaching kids anywhere requires lots of spontaneity and flexibility -- being able to abandon your plan and go with the flow, and in Haiti this very much applies. We might be expecting a group of teens, and a group of preschool-age children show up. Or the ages in a class span from 4 to 17, with a few toddler siblings along for the ride. We try to cap the classes at 20 but don't always have the heart to turn away the 10 or 15 additional kids who show up. Then there's the language barrier; working with a translator causes a time lapse. So we have to be prepared for anything, rely more on gesture, and keep it simple.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
Our "studio" in Haiti is a gravel floor covered by a tarp and mats, so we're teaching 'hot yoga' by default. Adjusting to the climate requires you to hydrate as if your life depends on it. (In three trips the only volunteer I've seen become dehydrated was a nurse; yogis tend to take care of themselves.) The kids were coming to class hungry and thirsty, asking for water mid-asana. We quickly realized that we needed to begin class with a drink and a snack. We settled on power bars and beef or turkey jerky -- both high-protein snacks. After savasana and before arts and crafts, we fed them something more substantial. The timing had to work out so they had the energy to participate in yoga, but weren't trying to do asana on a full stomach.
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in a developing country?
The poverty in the communities we serve is astounding; there is simply no way to prepare for it. At the same time, the gratitude the Haitians express to us for being there is deep and genuine. All the volunteers felt like they received so much more than they gave; simply go with an open heart.
We have compiled a great reading list for volunteers who want to know more about Haiti. Learning a little bit about the culture goes a long way. And if you know some French, you're on your way to understanding Haitian Kreyol.
What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
I am heartened by yoga's spread into so many at-risk communities, and also into schools. Research documents the benefits of these activities. I would love to see every schoolteacher trained in yoga and mindfulness-based activities for the classroom.
How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?
The greatest gift of service is to those who serve. I have met so many wonderful people through this work. The support from my communities -- friends, family, and neighbors -- has been deeply moving. Yoga teachers donated teaching supplies and taught donation-based classes to help me raise money -- including teachers I had never met. Local studios hosted classes, circulated information, and donated money. Asking for money is never easy. Being witness to peoples' open hearts has buoyed my faith in humanity. Doing the work has shown me my own best self.
What other organizations do you admire?
Partners in Development, for being open to introducing yoga to the children they serve in Haiti (www.pidonline.org); Haitian American Caucus for their commitment to teaching school teachers and children (www.hac-haiti.org); YoKid (www.yokid.org); Holistic Life Foundation (www.hlfinc.org); and Life is good Playmakers, particularly their work in Haiti (www.lifeisgood.com/playmakers/). Other phenomenal organizations sharing yoga in Haiti include YogaHope (www.yogahope.org), and AMURT (www.amurthaiti.org). If Sean Penn wants to add yoga to his outstanding work in Haiti (www.jphro.org) we will be there! And, last but not least, Yoga Activist http://www.yogaactivist.org.
Editor: Alice Trembour
Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email email@example.com if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!
Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.
The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.
Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9th http://yogaservicecouncil.org/?page_id=5