I have found that the word “yoga” evokes images that do not serve the populations I work with. At an AIDS clinic in New York City, few clients are interested in what they consider to be a practice for people with money and time on their hands. Yet I would argue that my clients need yoga. Their bodies are under constant attack. The spirit is most divorced from the body when the body is attacking itself; the mind and body are at odds. What better way to unite these forces than to practice yoga, literally translated to mean unity? My challenge has been to translate the language of yoga as I am familiar with it; to make it accessible to those whose walls are even thicker than my own.
There is no lack of information about the vital connection between yoga and mental health (check out Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, or the books “Yoga For Depression” by Amy Weintraub or “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga” by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper). There are projects that bring yoga to communities that would otherwise not have access, such as The Prison Yoga Project, The Lineage Project, and Street Yoga. These organizations are just the beginning. As instructors we can challenge ourselves to move yoga from its theoretical pedestal to a visceral reality for people from all walks of life.
So how do I bridge the gap between theory and reality for myself and my students? I use different words. I offer the use of “scientifically proven de-stressing exercises” for the person who intellectualizes or “moving prayer” for the person who sees religious ritual as a form of coping. I may offer yoga techniques as a means of grounding the client, and I always practice alongside. We can bridge the gap between where we come from and where our students are coming from, based on our approach.
For anyone dealing with physical or mental illness, trauma recovery, and/or addiction, what matters most is not that the yoga class is traditional or unique, soothing or invigorating. What matters most is that the instructor is truly his or her self, acting out of a place of genuine interest for the well being of the students. Let’s share our inner light in a way that is conscious of its presence and transformative in its power.