01/28/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Yoga: How We Serve Native American Communities

This is an interview with Christy Burnette, founder and Executive Director of Conscious Community Yoga Association, Inc. ("CCYoga"). CCYoga was established as an Arizona non-profit corporation in 2011 in order to be a vehicle for yoga teachers to provide volunteer teaching. Christy provides training that prepares volunteer teachers to help the unique demographic groups that CCYYoga reaches.

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?

My first inspiration came from my parents. My yoga career began 30 years ago as part of caring for my father, who was wounded in the Vietnam War. Wheelchairs, amputations, and dealing with a life consumed by hospitals offered lessons not available in traditional yoga classes and books. Then I used yoga to help my mother after my father's death. Treating her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, one of the most common lung diseases, took more than just oxygen. The condition affected her mobility and quality of life. I learned in a powerfully personal way the therapeutic and rehabilitative power of yoga, and now use it to benefit under-served communities that cannot get access to yoga programs.

What is the scope of CCYoga's outreach programs?

There are two approaches to CCYoga's outreach: CCYoga either sends a teacher into an underserved part of the community, or a student is placed in a learning environment within a studio. Each approach has its own benefits and challenges.

In the first approach, CCYoga sends teachers into Native American communities. We teach classes at urban rehabilitation and housing facilities in the greater Phoenix area and on Native American reservations close to Phoenix, Ariz. One is a women's rehab facility that allows women to keep their children while recovering from addictions. It combines native natural healing practices with modern clinical medicine. CCYoga's weekly classes have become part of their healing process. CCYoga helps the residents achieve inner strength to solidify their recovery, and to connect with their children and become more mindful in their parenting. Classes are also taught to inmates who are incarcerated in a tribal department of corrections system, and to residents at the tribal Local Alcohol Reception Center.

The second approach: CCYoga brings disabled adults to yoga studios in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas for chair yoga classes. Students are transported by a Medicaid-funded medical transportation company. Because average class size is 12-15 students, students can socialize and make friends outside the limits of their housing situations. Many yoga studios support CCYoga's outreach by allowing us to use their space when they have no scheduled classes.

What are two distinct ways that CCYoga's approach differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

First, the students are generally unfamiliar with yoga. Clothes are typically not "movement friendly," and English is often a second language or not used at all in the home setting. A typical class presents a variety of health concerns and mobility issues with two or more participants using wheelchairs or walkers. The students have to be taught yoga principles in a way that is consistent with the challenges of their circumstances, rehabilitation, or health issues. Once students are exposed to yoga, they become enthusiastic and begin personal practices that enhance their recoveries. I teach CCYoga's teachers to provide a chair class that disabled persons can do, or to provide a class that fits those who are detoxing or facing the emotional challenges of being incarcerated.

Second, the students have to be taught in a way that supports their cultural belief system. Yoga fits well with the Native American approach to natural healing -- a holistic approach to body, mind, and spirit.

Is there a standout moment from your work with CCYoga programs?

I have been impressed with how quickly native people are attracted to yoga and express an interest in becoming instructors. In the programs for disabled persons, there has been a very interesting development. Through their HMO, the participants are encouraged to engage in two activities per month. Since CCYoga began teaching, more have been choosing yoga. At the same time, those requesting support groups for depression and anxiety have declined. It is a trend that we'd like to continue.

What did you know about the native population before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

I'd been involved with the people of the Havasupai tribe for some time before CCYoga was founded. I was also familiar with people from various tribes in the Phoenix area. One of the CCYoga directors is an attorney who has done work with Native Americans for more than 25 years. In spite of this background, none of us knew how yoga would actually be received when brought into the native communities. We assumed that there might be some cultural resistance to yoga. That's not been the case. We purposely avoid using Sanskrit words during the classes and substitute images that are common in native culture in Arizona; yoga seems to be a natural fit.

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

A big challenge is getting and moving yoga mats and yoga props from location to location. On any given day, CCYoga supports a class in a Native Urban Rehab house, a reservation class, two to three yoga studio locations, and one senior center. Logistics make it challenging to ensure all locations have ample supplies to support the class needs. Our calendar is organized by parts of the valley and regions. We want our teachers focused on the class, not worried about getting supplies. Staging areas and host houses help to reduce excessive driving, which takes time and wastes funds on fuel costs.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach where you teach?

Whether we are teaching on the reservation or a group of mobility-challenged adults, this class is very emotionally charged. Our offering becomes a social outlet and a coping tool, in addition to teaching yoga. Many are dependent on medical transportation to arrive on site. They come into a studio and do not know the unwritten rules of a class. Teachers need to take time to share expectations and be flexible, and recognize that it takes time to build trust. No matter how much you prepare, the unexpected will occur. Be flexible enough to adapt, and willing to learn from the moment.

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

My hope is that yoga will be more readily received by unique communities such as Native Americans and more recognized by health care organizations as a complementary healing modality to modern medicine.

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

When my children were younger, we often donated time to various charities, recorded the hours, and kept a log for the organization we participated in. It was good training to be observant and mindful, but somehow missed the mark with respect to purpose. Service isn't about who knows you do the work, or even recording the hours... It's about the depth behind the practice, which asks not for recognition, but asks for change.

Similarly, labeling yoga or styles of yoga once used to define how and what I practiced. Now, I practice yoga -- simply yoga and all its variety and diversity.

What other organizations do you admire?

Native American Connections, Inc., St. Luke's Health Initiatives (which, through its Technical Assistance Partnership of Arizona, is CCYoga's fiscal sponsor,) VanGo Active Steps and Street Yoga.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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

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