THE BLOG
01/02/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Yoga: Connecting Community and Caring

This is an interview with Paula Soto, who had worked since 2002 as an outpatient therapist in Pennsylvania. In 2010 she organized an afternoon of yoga, massage, dance and nutrition for clients at the Women's Center of Beaver County, a domestic violence shelter and counseling center. After talking with yoga teachers and students, this afternoon event inspired her to find ways to make yoga more accessible to her community. In 2012 she founded Intersections Wellness (IW). IW is establishing yoga classes for adults and children in a public housing project and offers donation-based classes to relieve stress taught by trauma-sensitive and trained yoga teachers.

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'm a survivor of domestic violence. My tools for transitioning from victim to survivor have been traditional therapy, peer support, creative pursuits, and yoga. Yoga has been vital in managing my PTSD symptoms and in moving internally from surviving to living. As a therapist, I know that therapy does work. But therapy is only one leg on the body-mind-spirit stool; for me, yoga has been the seat that holds it all together. I am motivated by the opportunity of bringing to others what literally saved my life. Something so essential should not be restricted to those on a socio-economic level who can afford it.

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 at all, have those assumptions changed?

My social work background prepared me to work with many populations, but I had no idea what to expect when asked to teach Becket, an adult with Down syndrome. I thought that I was the type of person to not make assumptions about others. I realized, over the course of a year, that I had. I'd assumed that due to our differences that we would not connect on a personal level. But we have. Becket's become a friend. We care deeply about each other, each in our own way. We connect by sharing the joy in our eyes, hugs and hair ruffling, talking before or after our practice, and by trading good-natured sarcasm, Becket's specialty. I had also not assumed that Becket would be so dedicated to her practice that she would independently decide to work on her favorite poses daily, but she has!

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

My greatest challenge has been to remember to put on my oxygen mask first. As my teacher often reminds us, when on an airplane, the flight attendants tell us that if there is a drop in cabin pressure we are to put on our own masks before helping others, so that we have enough air to breathe. I can only succeed in my professional and volunteer efforts if I practice responsible self-care. My friends, my daughter, my pets and my teachers keep me balanced and grounded. I also carve out time just to relax by myself.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

Connect with others who share your goal. Even a single person can make yoga accessible to people in your community who have great need of yoga's healing benefits. The teamwork, connections and support of others, however, can work to multiply your efforts and create sustainable access to yoga for the population you care about. The encouragement and wisdom of others will keep you motivated through challenges and supported when you're beyond your comfort zone. People are looking for viable paths to put their compassion to action.

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

I hope that as the benefits of yoga are being recognized as valid by Western science, there will be increased partnerships between the traditional medical community and complementary wellness practitioners such as yoga teachers, and that insurance coverage will increasingly reward or pay for wellness practices such as yoga. I would like to see more organized efforts at sustainable yoga service programs. The cooperation of studios, teachers, and members of the community is needed if we are to bring about real change in our communities -- and we can! I would like to see more corporate foundations investing in yoga service. As citizens -- no matter what our vocation -- we need to realize that the responsibility for healing our communities lies with each of us. I see more and more people taking action from this place of awareness, so I have a great deal of hope.

How has this work changed your definition of service?

It's changed from being something I do in my spare time to being a way of life. In order for that to be possible for me, and for many other people who have the potential to become effective yoga teachers, we need to be able to make a decent living at teaching yoga. I no longer think that yoga service should be limited to teachers who are able to teach for free, although I think that we all should volunteer as much as we are able. I believe that when we work together, we can find ways to fund yoga classes for underserved populations, so that the teachers can get paid and the classes can therefore be sustainable. I also see yoga teaching as a vocational opportunity for many of the people who are in these populations that we serve.

Your definition of yoga?

My definition of yoga is always deepening. It certainly moved beyond being a means to de-stress and stay fit and became a commitment to living life from an aware and compassionate frame of being.

Your practice?

My practice has deepened as well. I find I'm motivated to do my best each day, whether it's practicing asanas or remembering to take a moment to breathe, because I am not just doing this for me anymore; to be able to help others, I have to be the best I can be.

What other organizations do you admire?

Too many for the length of this interview! I do particularly admire YogaHope, for its commitment to trauma-informed yoga teaching and training, and for empowering the women it serves to become yoga teachers. I admire the organizations who work to equip others to succeed in yoga service, such as Yoga Activist and Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Off the Mat and Into the World for taking yoga off the mat.

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Editor: Alice Trembour

This holiday break I have the pleasure to be reading books by two authors who have been interviewed for this series:

Lisa Wimberger, New Beliefs, New Brain
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVaXRSG4oj8

and

Sarah Plummer, Just Roll With It
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOH7RYOqnWM

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.

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!

The Give Back Yoga Foundation http://givbackyoga.org is committed to offering free yoga and meditation resources to veterans nationwide. With the help of sponsors and individual supporters, they have helped create and distribute empirically-tested multimedia resources to over thirty VA hospital facilities, various Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, and wellness programs for wounded warriors. Their goal is to reach 10,000 veterans across the country.

Demand Continues!

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from 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.

Help our heroes transition back to a civilian lifestyle by giving them easy access to mindfulness meditation. Veterans who take the class at the Washington, D.C. VA say mindfulness meditation helps them sleep better! Access is easy and anonymous. http://ow.ly/eAj77

Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9th http://yogaservicecouncil.org/?page_id=5

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