The Living Yoga Blog

My Journey to Giving Back Through Yoga

served with love through seva selfless serviceOur volunteer teachers come from numerous walks of life and find Living Yoga at different sections of their journey. This diversity is what gives purpose and authenticity to our classes and our students. We value these differences. Here, one volunteer teacher shares her journey and how she came to volunteer with Living Yoga.

When I decided to get my RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) in 2016, after only five years of regular yoga practice, it was with the intention of somehow "giving back"--of bringing some of what I had gained, to others who might not otherwise have the chance. Yoga in the United States is deceptively simple: we say it's for anyone and everyone, but I would venture to guess that most folks practice in a gym or studio, on expensive mats, wearing cool outfits, cooler jewelry, and the coolest tattoos. There are yoga retreats in Bali, yoga performed on paddle-boards, yoga with goats, cats, or cannabis.

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Yoga, Addiction, and the Road to Recovery

 

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One of the first exercises I did during my first 200-hour yoga teacher training was to look for the beauty in the movement or yoga practice of another student. That exercise really stuck with me because I had to learn to look, really look, at another human being to identify not what their pose or alignment looked like, but what their humanness looked like. I could see vulnerability, determination, courage, grace, struggle, quietude, effort and ease. I was a devoted witness to that student for those few, short minutes and it is my belief that in the trauma-informed setting, this is the most valuable gift we can offer.”

That is a quote from Living Yoga volunteer, Jill, on her experience teaching trauma-informed yoga for students in recovery. Jill is one of 150 Living Yoga volunteer teachers offering trauma-informed yoga throughout the Portland metro region. While Living Yoga offers trauma-informed classes for a variety of populations, it is a particularly effective practice for students in recovery.

We know that those who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction often have a history of trauma. And, due to modern advances in neuroscience, we can better understand how that trauma affects the brain, and how it can sometimes lead to addictive behavior. Trauma can cause the amygdala (our brain’s threat detection center) to become overactive as it constantly looks for and assesses threatening situations. It can also affect the hippocampus (our brain’s center for processing memories), resulting in the re-experience of intrusive and uncomfortable recollections. It can even cause the cortex (our brain’s center for executive control) to become interrupted by survival-oriented, fight or flight instincts that ultimately disrupt cognitive processing and decision making.  

For a person who has experienced trauma, addictions are often formed in an attempt to reduce these post-traumatic sensations of overwhelm, anxiety, and disconnect. This is where yoga comes in. The theoretical basis for trauma-informed yoga as a treatment methodology is grounded in the idea that people who have undergone trauma often feel disconnected and unsafe in their own bodies. Yoga is a means of reconnecting with the body. The goal of a trauma-informed yoga practice is to create a safe environment in which the practitioner can learn to befriend bodily sensations, increase self-knowledge, improve self-regulation, and create a place of refuge within oneself.

Living Yoga volunteers teach three donation-based classes every week for those working through addiction and recovery. These classes are both recovery-informed and trauma-informed, and are specifically designed to help students reconnect with their body and gain self confidence with community support.  

We asked some of our Living Yoga teachers to share with us about their experience in the recovery classroom, and specifically how yoga addresses the negative effects of trauma and addiction that some of their students experience. Here are some of their responses:

“Yoga gives the students a positive way to use their body and mind together to support their recovery. A key to recovery is learning to work through difficult moments without drinking. Yoga teaches us to breathe through challenging poses and gives us permission to take a pause and give ourselves a break” - Rhonnda, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class

“I would say that yoga gives recovery students an opportunity to pause. When we pause we give ourselves the chance to build awareness. And through awareness, we empower ourselves to make more informed choices. I don’t mean to make it seem all neat and tidy. It’s not. But each time a student who has experienced trauma in any form comes to the mat, they give themselves the gift of pause. They sit, they breathe in and out, and in some way or another, they try to connect--with their body, their breath, their thoughts, their emotions, the words the teacher is speaking, the movement, other students. We can’t connect or grow our awareness if we don’t take that pause, I think” - Jill, Unfold Studio, recovery-informed class

“Yoga is a safe space to explore with curiosity what it feels like to live in your body. Many times with trauma, people dissociate. They leave their body because at some point it was not safe to experience life in the moment. In my classes, I use a lot of ownership words. Their mats and their yoga is their own safe space to explore their life experience. I remind them that we can explore how things feel without judgement. We can practice letting go of judgement, even just for the hour we have together. Creating a safe, non-judgemental space for students to breathe, stretch and build strength creates a powerful healing experience.” Kelli - The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class

When asked what pose or series of poses are most beneficial for their students in recovery, Living Yoga teachers said:

“I always feel like my students really connect to the standing series. I invite them to ground down through the earth, get firm in their legs and open up into their Warrior II. It’s a very empowering moment. I invite them to feel the strength of the pose. In Five-Pointed Star, I invite them to get big and take up as much space as possible. I let them know that this space is their birthright. Many times, people come from backgrounds where there is abuse, where they have had to apologize for taking up space. In yoga, we acknowledge the beauty of our being, the fact that there is no one like us, and we can take up a very special place in the world that is interconnected to all other beings.” - Kelli, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class

I really like legs up the wall. Many people in recovery have trouble sleeping. I always share with them that legs up the wall, or legs up the headboard when they can’t sleep, can help with insomnia.” - Rhonnda, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class

As the experience of Living Yoga teachers and students proves, yoga and other mindfulness practices can help to heal trauma and other underlying causes of addiction. They can be immensely helpful on the road to recovery as students learn to feel safe in their bodies, reduce anxiety and fear, and better manage their impulses and emotions.

For a full list of Living Yoga’s free and low cost trauma-informed yoga classes, including the recovery classes offered at Unfold Studio, The People’s Yoga, and The Portland Alano Club, click here.

For more information on Living Yoga’s programs, partner sites, yoga teacher training, or how you can support trauma-informed yoga throughout Portland, visit www.living-yoga.org.

 

Grounded In Care and Love For Our Students


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One of our amazing volunteer teachers, Rita, shares her experience of Radical Acceptance, and what it means to her!
 
“Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what we call Radical Acceptance.”  Tara Brach
 
My starting point for sharing my experience of radical acceptance is offering a solid definition, which comes from one of my favorite teachers, Tara Brach, who wrote an entire book on the subject. Learning about the concept of radical acceptance has been a paradigm shift for me. I offer one example of what that looks like in the context of my Living Yoga teaching.  
 
I have been teaching yoga monthly to teen girls who have survived sex trafficking and are now living in a residential program. When I started teaching there I was taken aback by the way the girls interacted with each other, the staff and us during the yoga class. I observed an environment that felt frequently chaotic and sometimes mean. There was swearing, throwing props and sometimes unkind words, the kind that only teen girls know how to dish out. Raised in a strict Catholic home full of rules (and love), along with sometimes harsh enforcement of rules, my initial reaction was to recoil with judgement and a desire to impose order. I got to sit with these feelings and reflect with compassion on my upbringing, as well as the lives that these girls have experienced. I thought about how I could offer ground rules to these girls in a way that is both loving and empowering. To model that the words we speak and the way we use our bodies can embody kindness, and to shift away from my own early experience of rules.  
 
So I offer ground rules framed with that intention of creating kindness and spelling out what it looks like for me (as their teacher) and asking them for their thoughts and ideas. This is how it goes at the start of each class: “our class is a time for kindness. To ourselves and one another. What that looks like for me is: no touching one another, no throwing, no swearing or yelling. These ground rules also apply to those who are not practicing yoga, but in the room. Are there other ground rules you would like to have for our yoga class?” These ground rules help set the tone of each class, which has shifted to a more respectful and kind energy, grounded in my own care and love for them.  For me holding this space for my students is what Living Yoga is all about.   

When we realize how closely we are all connected...

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It's easy to believe that the men and women in jail are somehow very different from the rest of us. After all, they are confined to institutions that few people wish to visit, much less inhabit. The very word "inmate" suggests a world apart, a world clearly defined by who is kept in and who is allowed out.

But teaching Yoga to men at the Washington County Community Corrections Center has taught me that the inmates usually face the same problems and challenges as the rest of us. For one thing, the WCCCC students’ most common physical complaints—tight shoulders, sore backs, stiff necks—are the same ailments I encounter in my drop-in studio classes. Like many men I see in my studio classes, the students at WCCCC tend to focus their exercise time on their upper bodies and abs, paying too little attention to their pelvises and backs.

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Yoga for Every Body

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Rita, one of our dedicated volunteer teachers describes a recent class at one of our partner sites:

"I taught the SAGE class solo for the first time, and it went really well. Our class has been moved to the cafeteria, which has a really positive impact on the class participation and energy. Before, we taught the class in their living space with the TV, which gets turned off when class starts. That instantly creates some resistance to practicing, and by being in a new TV-less space, the girls are there to practice yoga and did! Five girls and one staff participated in class. One girl came in late and one left sick. With the exception of one girl who tended to lay on her mat until the end of class, everyone participated fully.

I start off each class with introductions, what they like or think about yoga, and what is going on with bodies that I should know about. All girls have some experience with yoga; many outside of their Living Yoga experience. One girl shared that since she’s gotten fat she cannot do yoga, and I pointed out that I’m proof that yoga is for every body. I am a fat middle-aged Latina. I shared that people of all sizes, ages and abilities do yoga and that it is not just for skinny, young, white women. One girl who has been doing yoga since she was 11 talked about knowing a man who is paralyzed and has a yoga practice that has helped him regain some movement in his feet. I told them about an inspiring yogi Jessamyn who I follow on Instagram. She’s fat and African-American, just like the girl who said she can’t do yoga. It was a great discussion.

There was essential oils, laughing (involving a fart, gotta love teaching teens!), goddess pose (told them it's because we are goddesses) and a savasana with chimes I brought. At the end, everyone was relaxed, eyes closed, as I moved the chimes and guided them in relaxation. It was so beautiful to hold the space for these girls to rest and be cherished."

Rita, thank you for your dedication to these girls and to Living Yoga. You are inspiring!

Yoga At Old Town Clinic

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As part of National Recovery Month in September, we are taking the time to highlight some of our great recovery sites! Today we are thanking Central City Concern: Old Town Clinic. A member of Old Town Clinic wrote this beautiful passage on Living Yogas' classes.

Starting any movement or exercise practice can be so intimidating, especially for folks dealing with limited mobility, social anxiety, chronic pain, body shame, or an institutionalized mind-set. Walking into a practice like yoga can be even more stressful – “I don’t know the right words, I’ve seen yogis on TV and I know I can’t do yoga the right way,” etc.  One of the many things that I love about Living Yoga (LY) instructors is their gentle encouragement. The teachers don’t single folks out or shame modifications, but instead take the temperature of the room and offer safe options for every body. Just as important, LY teachers don’t assume that people in wheelchairs can’t test themselves, and don’t fragilize folks out of trying new postures. This mix of gentleness and encouragement allows my clients to feel they have permission to try as well as permission to let themselves guide their practice. Having permission to practice being yourself in this way, and in a room full of people, is so important.

After Gentle Yoga groups, people report feeling stronger, clearer, and better about themselves.  Some leave frustrated with themselves, but many come back to try again. I’ve seen one client practice twice a week for the last year move gradually out of her wheelchair and onto the mat. She uses a chair when she needs one, and more and more, she doesn’t. Two months ago, she successfully worked her body into a beautiful Downward Dog and held that pose for over a minute. She was so happy, and so pleased with herself. When new people come in and talk about “not doing it right,” she often interrupts the instructor to let the new person know that that’s ok: “We do what we can. And we’re doing it. You’re doing great.” 

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Thank You, Lifeline Connections!

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September is National Recovery Month and to give thanks to our amazing recovery partner sites, we want to highlight their unique work. Our first spotlight is on Lifeline Conections who helps treats substance abuse and mental illness. We asked Lifeline a few questions about yoga and recovery and here is what they said:

  • How do you see yoga helping on the path to recovery? The lives of individual who struggle with substance use are usually out of balance in many areas. Yoga allows the individual to stop and be in the moment. Yoga provides another tool that the patient can add to their tool box to help bring life into balance. Yoga increases the oxygen flow, allows the individual to stop and connect with the world around them, join with others in a positive social environment, and set specific goals.
  • What do your students like most about Living Yoga's classes? They like how they feel after the class. Some comments include peaceful, calm, happy.
  • Is there anything you would want to say to our volunteers/donors/supporters?  THANK YOU!  Living Yoga provides a valuable service to our patients. Our focus at Lifeline Connections is wellness. Our wellness initiative includes being a tobacco free facility, providing pet-therapy, quality nutritious meals and snacks, a structured day including 8 hours of sleep, once a week faith-based services (optional), and physical activity along with the medical and clinical services provided. Thus, bringing the physical, emotional, and spiritual being into balance. 

Interested in volunteering at Lifeline Connections or one of our other partner sites? Click here for info!

Life Is A Cycle- A Class Story

cycleOne of our long time, dedicated volunteers, Ivy Katz, shares a heart-warming story about one of her classes last week at Trillium Family Services, Edwards School:

Great class this morning at Trillium Edwards School, there were 5 kids and one staff member. Two of the kids sat out for most of the class, but were still very present and following along in their own way. The other 3 and the staff member were very engaged throughout the whole class. Each kid went around sharing any requests they had for class, which included, "doing more active stuff, big stretches, and a guided meditation". I began the class talking about how everything happens in cycles, seasons, and our experiences are also like this. First we might have an awareness or something we notice in the present which could be a body sensation, thought, feeling etc. and then we take an action. Then comes satisfaction and then comes completion or rest. I explained how we sometimes get "stuck" along the way when we struggle with some part of the cycle. And for each of us it might be very different.

For some of us we might struggle with noticing something in the present, which then might lead to the "wrong " action, and we don't feel satisfied and therefore never complete. I weaved this idea through the class which seemed to make a lot of sense to them. I noticed everyone really paying attention to their own experience and then making the "right" choice. I also weaved in how our bodies can remind us that we are all different as well as similar and that is a good thing. Even in our own bodies we feel this, noticing differences on both sides during the same pose. We did some seated shapes to start, and then quite a few standing poses, lunges, warrior two, triangle, dancer's pose, and even crow. A pretty full spectrum class, and ended with a nice guided shavasana.

At the end, everyone thanked me before leaving the class. The kids who sat our for a lot of it participated in the breathing and the meditation. They stayed engaged in their own way. One of the kids who participated the whole time moving, for many weeks would not participate. It's nice to have kids for a long time and see these shifts. It was a sweet morning!

Thank you for your service to our community, Ivy!

A Look Into Living Yoga's Teacher Training

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A couple of our newest volunteer teachers who completed Living Yoga's teacher training in June 2016,  shared their thoughts on what it's like to experience the training first hand:
 
"Living Yoga trains teachers to meet diverse students with patience and friendliness exactly where they are. And the trainers teach by example as they meet the trainees exactly where THEY are. Positive affirmations and encouragement reverberate through the training. The goodness burbles to the top and becomes the dominant message--"don't and shouldn't" lose power and fall away without being called out. One phrase spoken during the training that has become a mantra for me is, "If you are breathing and paying attention, you are practicing yoga." I have always believed that yoga is for every body, and now I have some wonderful additional tools for helping others to more deeply believe and understand the truth of that. Since this training, I've found that in all of my classes I have more compassion for everyone present doing the best they can with the tools, energy and information available to them. My understanding of a felt sense of compassion has deepened. Even if I wasn't planning to teach within Living Yoga's special populations I would recommend this training as a beautiful place to learn to "live yoga."" -Jerri Clarke
 
"I really appreciated the focus on working with group dynamics. Through the training staffs role-plays, watching current Living Yoga volunteers co-teach, practicing co-teaching, and taking quick turns teaching in groups, I felt a clear, spacious, quality relationship being upheld." -Anonymous
 
Interested in completing our training? Learn more HERE
 

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