07/09/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Yoga: How We Can Use Yoga Retreats to Serve

This is an interview with Peter Sterios, an internationally-recognized yoga instructor, architect, writer, entrepreneur, and former contributing editor for Yoga Journal magazine. He's probably most known as the founder and former CEO of Manduka, and he's also a nationally-published architect specializing in green retreat centers and yoga studios.

In 2011, Peter co-founded with Adrienne Ward karmaNICA, a charitable organization to help build classrooms and playgrounds for impoverished kids in western Nicaragua. In April 2011 he was one of 12 instructors invited to teach yoga at the White House for Michelle Obama's "Get Up and Go Initiative" to fight childhood obesity.

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?

When we travelled to Nicaragua, it became obvious to us that we needed to reach out and see if we could help in some way. As it turned out, the community in Nicaragua seemed to be waiting for us to offer, and was more than happy to have our support. What continues to motivate us is the people, specifically the kids, who have such bright spirits, even with the lack of some of the most basic things kids here in the U.S. take for granted. Our motivation has only gotten stronger over time, as we uncover more opportunities to get involved.

Is there a standout moment from your work with these children?

We visited a rural community near the city of Granada, which became the impetus to create karmaNICA, our organization that works with local community leaders and organizations to identify projects. We initiated our work with the community of Costa Sur, on the slopes of Mombacho Volcano, and the Cedric Martin School there. Our first contribution was raising enough funds to buy all the kids school uniforms, since their families were too poor to afford the mandatory uniforms required by the Nicaraguan Education Department. To see the pride these kids had in their new clothes is one such moment.

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?

I knew nothing, but I knew I was travelling to a developing country, and through Adrienne's previous experiences there, I had a feeling that something magical might happen. And it did... I assumed that Nicaragua was a war-torn, unsafe country with a poverty level that was high by world standards, with a people that were guarded, especially around "gringos." However, what I discovered was such a pleasant surprise. Although the average person there is living on a fraction of what most Americans or Europeans live on, their outlook and warmth for their families and friends, not to mention their openness to visitors that venture to their country, was remarkable. Although there are subtle reminders of the politics of Nicaragua, the people of the country seemed removed from the past conflicts with the American government.

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?

In a retreat setting, I have the luxury of time, and often also little contact with the digital world, which forces people to be more relational, face-to-face. In that environment, I learn so much from just listening to people, and seeing some amazing changes in their lives over the short time we are together. Also, there is the setting, like the one where I teach in Nicaragua, which is surrounded by nature: the jungle, the water, the wildlife, the quiet, and the night sky, which all have calming effects to complement the experience.

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

The biggest challenge for me in teaching is to get out of the way of the students' own personal journey. I strive to be more of a guide, to help create an authentic learning environment for their individual journey of self-awareness and discovery. I've developed a teaching style that avoids many of the common techniques for creating shapes and movement in the body, and relies more on the individual's own experience of themselves and their existing patterns of posture and movement. I do this in two ways: First, I encourage students to use gravity as a catalyst for movement. Second, I want them to use their own intuitive sense of balance and breath to assist the release of limitations -- unnecessary contractions in their physiology and their psychology.

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

In a retreat population, often I am meeting people for the first time without any experience of their yoga practice. It's challenging and difficult to get to know a person in five days, let alone a group of 15-20. For those drawn to this type of teaching, I suggest developing good relational skills and an approachable teaching manner to get students at ease as quickly as possible. Good (or bad!) humor works really well...

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

I feel the place of yoga teachers in many communities across the U.S., and the world for that matter, is best described as a "Community Service Health Coach and Facilitator." They would provide a regular opportunity for people to come together, and, through their own experiences of movement and breath together, learn how to create a healthy life for themselves. This typically generates within each student a natural call to give back or share these experiences with others who take notice of their yoga-induced radiance.

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

I'm not sure it has changed my definition of service, but it has made it more clear to me that this is what I was brought here to do. I've had many careers in this life: being a yoga teacher in service to my students and receiving their support, which allows me to give back to others in need, brings the most satisfaction and joy.

My definition of yoga has not changed much... I still believe the definition of yoga is simply the awareness of a life well lived. What I like most about yoga is the way it makes me feel -- I like that I am more sensitive to feel everything what comes and goes in my life, the pain and the joy, and it motivates me to engage life more fully.

What other organizations do you admire?

I admire any organization that is making a difference in people whose lives are less fortunate. The ones that come to mind are Habitat for Humanity;; Off The Mat, Into the World; and 1 Percent for the Planet.

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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For more by Rob Schware, click here.

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