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The Yoga Service Movement Matures: Stepping Up & Out at the 4th Annual YSC Conference
I’ve attended the annual Yoga Service Council (YSC) conference every year since it first started in 2012, and have always loved it. This year’s conference, however, easily ranked as the best yet. Held May 14-17 at the Omega Institute in leafy, green Upstate New York, the 4th annual YSC conference hit the ball out of the park, offering exceptional programming along with ample opportunities for self-care, interpersonal connection, and community building.
The field of yoga service is dedicated to making yoga and mindfulness practices equally accessible to all. Consequently, a lot of the YSC’s work focuses on developing best practices for teaching yoga to particular populations such as veterans, prisoners, and low-income students, as well as offering classes in non-traditional settings such as hospitals, shelters, and jails. Over the past two years, the YSC has further deepened its exploration of the meaning of yoga service, with founding members Traci Childress and Jennifer Cohen Harper most recently characterizing it as “the intentional sharing of yoga practices within a context of conscious relationship, supported by regular reflection and self-inquiry” (see graphic).
From this perspective, yoga service means more than simply teaching asana outside a standard studio or gym setting. It also involves engaging in an ongoing process of self-study supported by a commitment to trauma-informed teaching, empowering relationships, and embodying social justice. This perspective informed the conference offerings and permeated its culture, creating a strong sense of camaraderie among the 115 or so attendees. The beautiful campus of the Omega Institute, which feels like a cross between an old-school summer camp and modern-day spiritual retreat center, provided an ideal container for this work, enabling us to relax, re-energize, and engage more deeply with ourselves, each other, and the work at hand.
Jennifer Cohen Harper, YSC board member and founder of Little Flower Yoga, introduced the conference theme, “The Heart-Practice of Mindful Yoga,” in a warm Thursday evening welcome. This phrase, she explained, was selected to signal an intention “to work with both heart and mind, and strive for a careful balance.” This integration of feeling and thinking, she continued, was critical because the YSC “is committed to having the hard conversations.” For example, the social justice perspective that informed the conference emphasized recognizing the importance of often-divisive social categories such as race, gender, religion, and class, while still recognizing our essential oneness as human beings.
To create a safe space to explore such challenging issues, the first session on Friday morning was devoted to a discussion of “community agreements.” Co-facilitators Nikki Myers, founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, and Traci Childress, co-director of the Children’s Community School in West Philadelphia, explained that the purpose of community agreements is “to provide a sense of safety and belonging, encourage full participation and engagement, promote honest inquiry and exploration, define and honor boundaries, and establish a foundation for growth rooted in connection, understanding, and respect.”
The following community agreements were presented by Nikki and Traci, and discussed and approved collectively:
Recognize that we cannot know everything and are apt to see only what is familiar.
Honor everyone’s right to personal expression and commit to exploring a greater understanding.
Before responding, stop and breathe. Recognize your feelings as your own.
Assume that we all have the best intentions and are doing the best we can.
Recognize that all things are interconnected. Acknowledge where things came from.
Recognize that relationships are a practice: bring reverence, compassion, and a willingness to forgive.
Be an ally.
After discussing these agreements, we had opportunity to practice them with a partner, taking turns asking each other, “what do you need to feel safe?,” and listening carefully to the response. This simple exercise yielded important results in my case, as my partner revealed that she’s struggling with body image issues, and felt triggered by the “Mindful Eating” placards displayed in the Omega dining room. Being able to voice her discomfort and feel heard provided an important source of emotional support, and enabled us to share important feedback with conference organizers.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Social Justice
Next up was David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga and Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy. David led a fascinating discussion of yoga and trauma that covered the history of PTSD as a psychological diagnosis, current state of scientific research on trauma, significance of yoga in trauma therapy, and basics of teaching trauma-sensitive yoga.
After a restorative two-and-a-half-hour lunch break, we reconvened for the “Yoga and Social Justice” panel. This session explored the significance of yoga and mindfulness in the context of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a set of social problems that has channeled millions of low-income youth (particularly males of color) directly from failing schools into the criminal justice system. Panelists included Marshawn Feltus, who served 18 years in Illinois prison before founding ACT Yoga; Argos Gonzalez, an English teacher at an alternative high school in the Bronx; Leslie Booker, a senior teacher and teacher trainer with the Lineage Project in New York; and Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn, who works in Delaware’s juvenile justice system and founded Empowered Community, a nonprofit that offers yoga to incarcerated youth in juvenile detention centers.
Following the panel, conference participants could engage in one-on-one mentoring sessions with YSC Board members and faculty, or participate in 10 different small group discussion options. Discussion topics included “Starting and Sustaining a Yoga-Based Nonprofit,” “Yoga in Psychotherapy and Social Work,” “Working with Court-Involved Youth,” “Yoga and Body Image,” “Yoga for First Responders,” “Engaging Female Veterans Through Yoga,” teaching yoga in schools or prisons, and developing yoga service networks in cities or colleges.
After dinner, we reconvened for a two-hour asana class led by the renowned Rolf Gates, author of Meditations from the Mat, and former social worker and U.S. Airborne Ranger. Although I’d been skeptical of such a long practice after a full day of learning and discussion, Rolf’s expert ability to gauge and direct the energy of the group left me feeling physically refreshed, emotionally balanced, and spiritually inspired, providing the perfect capstone to an exceptional day.
Deepening the Field
Saturday morning and afternoon each featured a choice of three-hour “Breakout Workshops,” bookended by yoga or meditation classes in the early morning and late afternoon. Workshop topics included creating a mindful organizational culture, teaching trauma-sensitive yoga to children and teens, practicing sustainable self-care in the helping professions, sensitizing yoga teachers to diversity issues, and more.
That evening, various organizations represented at the conference set up tables in Omega’s Main Hall offering information about their work. This informal evening session provided a special opportunity for conference participants to network with and learn more about each other, both as individuals and, in many cases, organizational representatives.
Sunday morning began with a choice of hour long yoga or meditation classes taught by conference faculty. After breakfast, we reconvened for a power-packed set of three back-to-back presentations. First, Professor Sat Bir Khalsa of Harvard Medical School provided an overview of the state of yoga research, explaining both what’s happening and why it’s important. Subsequently, best-selling author and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., shared a synopsis of the research on the science and practice of strengthening compassion she’s involved with at Stanford. Finally, Chelsea Roff, founder of Eat Breathe Thrive, which provides therapeutic yoga to people with eating disorders, discussed how storytelling can play a critical role in communicating yoga service work with the world.
The YSC conference closed at midday with Jenn Harper once again inspiring us with her lovingly feminine, yet fiercely energetic presence. “This is a room full of love, but it’s not just that,” she affirmed. “There is a lot of power in this room. Personal power, collective power—the people who are here this year are really doing the work.” I agreed with her assessment, and believe that others did too.
To be at the Yoga Service Council conference this year felt like more than a personally meaningful experience—although it was certainly that. It felt like being part of a new movement that has succeeded in establishing a strong footing, and is stepping more powerfully out into the world.
To learn more about the Yoga Service Council, visit yogaservicecouncil.org. To attend next year’s conference, mark your calendar for May 13-15, 2016.
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of “Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body,” and co-editor of “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice.” She serves as a Board member with the Yoga Service Council, Adviser to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and teacher with Yoga for Recovery. For more information, visit her website, carolhortonphd.com.