Hands to Heart: A Yoga Service Interview with Susan Lovett
At Yoga Service Council one of our core tenets is supporting and celebrating the work of great Yoga Service Organizations. One of our Board members of Yoga Service Council, Susanna Barkataki, sat down with Susan Lovett , the founder and director of Hands to Heart Center – Yoga for the People to hear about the transformative work in yoga service they are doing.
Susanna Barkataki: Can you tell us a specific story sharing yoga with an individual or group and how it was impactful to yourself or others?
Susan Lovett: One of Hands to Heart Center’s very first classes was for mothers of homicide victims. I was the teacher, brand new at teaching yoga and I felt the stakes were really high for this class – I so wanted it to go well for these women. This was their first experience with yoga and I really wanted it to be a positive experience for them.
For the vast majority of Hands to Heart Center students, our classes are their first exposure to yoga. I’ve heard many stories of people going to their first yoga class and not liking the teacher or being turned off by some aspect of the class. I really want people to have yoga be part of their life if it works for them and so I felt the pressure of leading a “perfect class”. I had a room full of women in front of me and I was nervous. As a very recent graduate of a 200-hour teacher training program, I had memorized one flow and that’s the one I started teaching. As I led the students into Sun Salutations, right away one of them said “Mmm – no. I don’t want to go up and down like that.” So, I’m slightly panicking but and I start improvising. I brought and everyone down to their mats and created a more restorative class.
I quickly realized that what was important was the feeling in the room, not what poses we did or the sequence we followed. What was important was that we were together and for that hour we were safe. Outside there were sirens but inside this room there was peace and silence. There was some rest for these women who were carrying the weight of the world. During the final resting pose, I offered forehead massage, eye pillows and blankets. As I was kneeling at the heads of these women, I noticed that MY heart rate had come down. We got through the class together and at the end, I was able to take that in. It was a sacred moment – I was holding someone’s head and sending love through my hands. I could transfer the love in my heart to the person in front of me.
When it was time to sit up, people’s faces looked softer, shoulders were a little lower. We were in a moment of grace – all of us together in this moment of peace and safety. That feeling exists in all the HTHC classes that I’ve been in for the last two years. That is a compelling feeling and it’s one of the main reasons yoga teachers volunteer with us.
Barkataki: That sounds amazing. So tell us a little bit about Hands to Heart Center, how you formed and the work you do.
Lovett: My belief is that yoga is free and literally anyone can do it. As a social worker with a 20 year careering focusing on low-income youth and families with trauma, I am always looking for resources and interventions for my clients. In the past five years and almost on a weekly basis now, we have access to more and more emerging science that shows how effective yoga is at alleviating depression, stress, anxiety and trauma and so many physical health conditions. Yoga is free and to do it, we just need our breath. One doesn’t need any particular ability or equipment.
So, finally I found it – here’s this powerful resource I’ve been looking for my whole career. It’s free, it’s effective and it can be done anywhere by anyone. But, in general yoga is only taught in middle and upper-income areas. It can be intimidating to go into a yoga studio, not to mention cost-prohibitive. We know that yoga studios are not always inclusive and supportive of diverse populations. So Hands To Heart Center brings yoga to people living with poverty and trauma in community centers, branch libraries, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters, and residential treatment programs. Our classes are no cost- always free. In addition, we customize class to clients and locations. We also avoid posting images of young, slender, white women in advanced yoga poses. This is the same image we all see over and over again. HTHC shares images of people of color, people with different body types, people of all ages – all doing yoga.
Barkataki: So what motivated you to start your path of yoga service?
Lovett: For over 20 years, I’ve worked directly with survivors of trauma in low-income neighborhoods with high incidences of community violence and mass incarceration, among other stressors. I’m passionate about my anti-poverty, anti-racism work and committed to supporting youth and families with trauma. But over time, I began to experience symptoms of trauma exposure response, or vicarious trauma. I had so much tension and soreness in my upper back, shoulders and neck. It was persistent and painful and I was worried about it becoming a chronic issue that would affect me even more significantly later in life.
You may notice that I have a soft voice. The middle school students I work with say to me “You never yell” but I think, “My shoulders and neck are yelling.” I don’t outwardly show stress. But what I do every day is high-stress work; fast paced, challenging and heartbreaking at times. All of that goes directly into my body. Also, I‘m a cancer survivor – I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. In the years that I was sick, my body was the enemy in some ways. Since cancer cells are mutations of our own cells, I had the strange feeling of my body attacking itself. I was lucky that I had health insurance and access to effective treatment but I still have post-cancer side effects and I’m considered at-risk for secondary cancers caused by the treatment. One of my side effects is insomnia, which results in fatigue. As soon as I started yoga I knew it was the right fit for me – it addressed my physical issues, gave me more energy and even helped me feel more patient and resilient.
Once I started yoga, I wanted to develop a regular practice right away because I just felt better on the days I made it to class. I noticed that the yoga teachers who I was learning from seemed very kind and positive. It was an environment I wanted to be in. So, in addition to doing something positive for my health, I found community as well. Because yoga worked for me, I introduced it to the clients and students I was working with at the time. The kids would say, “I don’t want to do it” or “White people do that. We don’t do yoga.” I understood why they felt that way but I continued offering it from time to time so the kids knew that it was an option.
After being a yoga student for several years, I decided to deepen own practice so I enrolled in a yoga teacher training program – without intending to teach. During the program, I had to lead some practice classes, so I did them at the school. This time, I found that, since yoga had become so much more mainstream, the students were more open to it. I also found that many of the middle school classroom teachers wanted me to teach yoga to their students. I was hearing, “I have a lot of kids with ADHD and they have a hard time settling down. Can you do some yoga with us” and “I teach students with special needs and they’re in the same classroom all day. Can you come up and do yoga with them?” Teachers also said, “Can you come up before standardized testing and do some breathing exercises with my students?” and the school social workers said, “We’re running support groups for students with trauma. Would you join us to teach yoga?”
I said yes and soon found that my schedule had become unmanageable AND that I needed more training to provide the many different types of classes I was being asked to teach. Then I began receiving requests for yoga classes from non-profit organizations outside of the school. I’m a known ally in these low-income neighborhoods because of my community activism and social work services. When I received a request to teach yoga every Friday in July and August for Teen Nights at the local Y, I decided that I needed to ask for help. I talked to yoga teachers I knew and when I described the requests, every one of the teachers said yes. There was so much enthusiasm on the part of yoga teachers in Boston to serve and to reach people outside of yoga studios.
Barkataki: What are some ways that you meet the needs of the communities you serve?
Lovett: There are many unmet needs in the low-income communities of color where I work. There are significant health disparities, lack of access to health and wellness resources, pervasive violence in some neighborhoods, high rates of unemployment and a deficit of affordable housing. While yoga can’t affect all of those issues, it can certainly impact some of them – along with strengthening communities.
Hands to Heart Center always considers the specific communities we are serving. We work directly with our community partners’ staff to learn about the populations they work with and to design classes that meet their needs. We offer chair yoga classes for adults with intellectual disabilities at a local branch library and yoga for recovery classes at a residential treatment program for substance abuse disorder. We have classes in detention units, community health centers, homeless shelters and public housing developments. At Hands to Heart Center, we make it easy for a volunteer to show up on site and teach the best class for the students in front of them.
We arrange for mat donations and purchase lavender eye pillows, blocks and blankets. Our HTHC Class Kits always include physical assist consent cards and copies of yoga sequences for students to keep. We pay attention to transforming a space- bringing new or gently-used mats, LED candles and essential oils. With low lighting, soft music and appealing scents, we transform an institutional space into a yoga studio. The lavender eye pillows are always a class favorite. Since we can’t afford to continue buying them, my mother has been sewing them for us. So, we can say that HTHC classes have one of a kind, hand-made lavender eye pillows – made with love!
Barkataki: What are some of the benefits you have seen to sharing yoga In this way?
Lovett: We think of what we’re doing as a yoga revolution. Hands to Heart Center is taking the healing resource of yoga and sharing it with people who don’t have access. We are sharing it with people who are oppressed and marginalized. We want our students to know that yoga is for them. It’s not a product. It is a practice that belongs to everyone and we want to make sure that people living with poverty and trauma have the opportunity to learn and practice yoga. We do this in solidarity, in support, in the revolutionary action of teaching yoga for free. This is bridging the wellness divide and it’s also racial, social and economic justice.
Think of yourself in a jail cell – you may have nothing but your breath but you can still do yoga. Some of the youth I work with live with their abusers but they can stand in a closet or a hallway and breathe to regulate their nervous systems. A woman who’s living in a domestic shelter can be on her bed and do gentle stretching to feel sensation in her body. The practices of yoga are lifelong skills that are useful for coping, for building capacity, maintaining sobriety, and increasing resiliency.
Students have shared the following comments with us, “I know that when I go to yoga I’ll feel safe when I get on my mat”, “I didn’t think I would like yoga but I’m so glad I tried it because I found out that I love it.” Classroom teachers have told us that even their most academically disengaged students never miss “yoga day” and many students have told us that they never imagined doing yoga before but now find themselves looking forward to their next yoga classes and wanting to know about other free and low-cost yoga opportunities. As a result, we’ve developed a database of free and community classes in Boston that we share with our students.
We also hear from our volunteers about how much they love sharing their practice with others who don’t have the same privilege and resources they do. One of our teachers who taught an HTHC series at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center recently told me, “I’ve found my calling – this is the kind of yoga I want to teach.” The volunteers often become so passionate about their HTHC classes that they pursue additional research and training on their own to be able to offer exactly what their students need.
The community partner staff often let us know that they observe improvements in mood and behavior among their clients, residents and students after yoga classes. Since we encourage community partner staff to participate in the classes as well, they also tell us how much they appreciate the classes, as well. We know that along with helping individuals to feel better, we’re also strengthening communities.
Barkataki: So how does all of this work at Hands to Heart Center?
Lovett: On of the most exciting aspects of HTHC is that we have over 150 yoga teacher volunteers. They are among the best, most talented yoga teachers in Boston who consistently deliver high quality, excellent classes and develop meaningful connections with their students. I am inspired by them every day.
When I meet new HTHC volunteers, I always thank them and give them one of our cool t-shirts. They always, always thank me back- because they feel gratified in sharing their practice with people who they otherwise might not have met. Some of our volunteers are only teaching with us and some are studio teachers who love what they do but who also want to share their teaching with the people who aren’t walking into a yoga studio and paying for a class.
Since there are so many yoga teacher training programs in Boston, we have a surplus of yoga teachers or of people with the skills to teach yoga. Hands to Heart Center is a connector for people who aren’t trying to make a living by teaching yoga but who want to share their practice and help others experience the benefits of yoga. Hands to Heart Center yoga teachers are compassionate, professional, engaged people who are living their yoga and my job is to make it easy for them to do so.
We receive yoga class requests from nonprofit programs and high-poverty schools. We learn from our partners about the populations they serve and how we can meet their needs with customized yoga classes. When a partner completes our Class Information Form, we share all of the details with the volunteer who has registered to teach the class. We answer any questions the volunteer or partner may have and we connect them through email. We support the volunteers throughout their experience and learn from them how we can enhance our support.
Barkataki: How are they trauma informed and culturally competent?
Lovett: One of the first things I did after founding Hands to Heart Center was to attend the Yoga Service Council Conference. I connected with people there that had developed their own programs and were happy to share their expertise. I was able to learn from their experiences and adapt their resources for HTHC. At the conference, I also learned about the organization Yoga Activist. I visited the YA website and it blew my mind. There are really great yoga outreach resources, tips and useful tools that I direct HTHC volunteers to. I especially love the “10 Commandments of Yoga Outreach” resource on the YA site.
I’ve learned that yoga teachers usually find Hands to Heart Center by doing an internet search for the terms “Boston” “yoga” and “volunteer”. I’m absolutely delighted to know
how many yoga teachers are looking for ways to volunteer and to share their practice.
Teachers can complete the application to become a volunteer on our website and once I receive their application, I reach out to welcome them and our coordinator then conducts an orientation with each volunteer. During the orientation, volunteers learn more about yoga service or yoga outreach. We review best practices with them and teach them about our policies and procedures that are designed to ensure that both our teachers and students have high-quality, supportive experiences with us.
When yoga teachers become active volunteers with Hands to Heart Center, they are invited to our free trainings taught by our 500-hour lead teachers. These highly skilled teachers provide trainings on topics including Trauma-Informed Yoga, Yoga for Beginners, Chair Yoga and Yoga for Youth and Families. The HTHC volunteers appreciate the professional development opportunities and the lead teachers appreciate being recognized for their expertise and being well-compensated for the trainings. At the same time, we’re improving the quality of the classes for our students.
I’m one of the co-founders of Boston’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network (BSEYN) which is modeled after Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN). I was lucky enough to meet Carol Horton and members of SEYN at the most recent Yoga Service Council Conference and with their blessings, I initiated a Boston alliance of diverse yoga practitioners who focus on issues of access, diversity, inclusion and social justice as they relate to yoga. I share BSEYN resources as well as other culturally affirming resources with Hands to Heart Center volunteers through our monthly newsletters.
Finally, through Hands to Heart Center’s Yoga Coach program, we’ve developed a way to increase the cultural, economic and racial diversity of yoga teachers. Hands to Heart Center students and community partner staff will be able to participate in our Yoga Coach program that will match them with a yoga teacher mentor and provide them with the training to be able to safely deliver a 60-minute beginner yoga class in their communities.
Barkataki: What is your vision for yoga and/or Yoga Service?
Lovett: I’m excited about the work of the Yoga Service Council and look forward to their future development and programming. I’d love to see more yoga teachers and people who are interested in becoming yoga teachers be more conscious about yoga service and how they can increase access to yoga for all. I envision a future where there is more cultural, economic and racial diversity and inclusion among the yoga service leaders. As we learn more and more about the science of yoga and how it affects health and wellness, I hope that yoga will be prescribed by physicians and covered by insurance and available in every community. I guess I want what almost every yogi wants – for others to experience and have access to the powerful healing resource of yoga.
Susan Lovett is a licensed clinical social worker, a licensed K-12 teacher and a registered yoga teacher. She works full time as a social worker in a high-poverty urban school, teaches part time in the Boston University School of Social Work and is the Founding Director of Hands to Heart Center. Susan is also a cofounder of Boston’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network and is a member of the Boston Public School’s District Wellness Committee.
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