Susanna Barkataki: So tell us a bit about your role in Yoga Service. What motivated the yoga service work that you do and the creation of the retreat for Alzheimer’s caregivers?
Melissa Smith: My father has been the caregiver of my step mother for more than 10 years. She was diagnosed in her late 50’s and her mother also had the disease. She’s been a friend and confidant for the more than 25 years that she and my father have been married. Watching my father care for her while I have lived mainly overseas- prompted me to do what I know I can— offering wellness to other caregiver’s in her and my father’s honor. I’d been fund raising for a local Alzheimer’s Chapter for a few years when we moved to SE Asia. (more of my story on my website… melissasmithyoga.com)
This disease needs awareness- it will affect almost everyone you know within the next 10 years. If you don’t have a loved one with Alzheimer’s – you will soon know someone who does, if you don’t already. It is the biggest aging crisis of our country and no one wants to talk about it. Every 66 seconds someone is diagnosed with the disease. I’m anxious to create awareness. But, also offer some sort of respite for those who are dealing with this day in and day out with no relief in site. Right now it affects more than 5 million Americans and the number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050.
Susanna Barkataki: Wow. So tell us a little background. Where did the organization come from? What communities does it serve?
Melissa Smith: We began last year— and it’s become an annual event- with our second retreat coming up April 17th. We will serve any caregiver even though our focus is for those who care for Alzheimer’s and dementia loved ones. We’ve even hosted caregiver’s of cancer or children with autism. The focus is on learning tools for self-care through yoga, meditation and mindfulness- we have brought together more than 40 volunteers so that the care is almost one to one volunteers to caregivers that day. Everyone will be shepherded throughout the day feeling nurtured, cared for and heard.
Susanna Barkataki: What a beautiful practice. So tell me about the influences you’ve had in creating this retreat. What people, communities, and groups inform your Karma yoga practice, service or activism?
Melissa Smith: I started love and service retreats more than 5 years ago- bringing together the yoga community of Houston through a group called the breakfast yoga club. We bring together yoga teachers from all over Houston – any lineage and do a round robin class- and feature a charity that one of the teachers are especially passionate about. We host it in a neutral and beautiful location— and usually have more than 100-200 people show up each time- I have always believed in bringing together the yoga community — no matter what style you practice, as long as you move your body- that’s what matters— and living yoga beyond the mat. If we can simply get along- off the mat— we show that the awareness we create on the mat is effective for change in the world beyond just asana. I hope that no matter where I live in the world- we can continue to cultivate trust, healing and unity through our differences. And, with that we can serve— Serving has been my biggest teacher— it’s present as a mother, daughter and even an ex-wife. When I can sit back and realize that there is God in all of us— then there is no separation — we truly can love without walls, without judgement. It’s a powerful thing I hope to teach my sons.
Susanna Barkataki: When you reflect how has your life been changed by sharing yoga in this way?
Melissa Smith: I currently work with Expedition Balance in Houston, TX to lead retreats for Military Veterans with PTSD— watching the transformation of veterans with trauma was and is impactful- you don’t walk away from that unchanged. Working with caregiver’s is very different… where with trauma — there is a certain way to approach – with sensitivity to their trauma- and to work with them to find interoception again. With caregiver’s, they are fatigued beyond words and starved for touch and loving care- in a different way. The first caregiver’s retreat is by far the most thing I am proud of in my life to date (besides my 2 boys—) — I cannot even explain the joy I felt in seeing how in just one day— lives can be transformed through the power of touch and attention and with tools for self care.
Susanna Barkataki: The path you have chosen isn’t always easy – if or when you feel hopeless, depleted, stressed, or down what are your go to ways to deal with that feeling? Any consistent daily activities or rituals you do?
Melissa Smith: Sleep! when I don’t have enough sleep, I am not myself. I’ve really had a challenging year, moving countries and some culture shock and a set back with an idiopathic shoulder injury— I’ve really had to sit down take stock of everything that is important to me and get serious about my own self care. Not being able to have the same kind of yoga practice that I’ve enjoyed for years, as taught me the more gentle side of yoga with restorative, simple somatic movements and a new appreciation for other movement like walking my dog and swimming.
I’ve declared that my health is my job this year (and for the rest of my life, for that matter). I simply cannot take care of others unless I take care of myself. My mission is to eat real, clean food; sleep well; move my body and breathe well; practice mindful meditation as a way to reduce stress; play (with my dog, kids, etc.); and to love through serving others and taking care of myself every single day. The other thing I do and have learned to do well is ask for help. I delegate when I can (which is why we have over 40 volunteers!) and I let go of control. When you delegate, you cannot expect perfection- you simply have to realize people will do things their own way and that when you let go, they will surprise you and do it even better than you imagined! I am grateful for the support I have and couldn’t do what I do without the support of my ex-huband, family, my loving partner and kids. By acknowledging their support for me — we create a circle of giving and trust. It’s a powerful thing.
Susanna Barkataki: What is your vision for the Alzheimer’s retreat, yoga and/or Yoga Service?
Melissa Smith: Right now, since I live in Calgary, the retreat will remain an annual event. Next year, we’ve already set the date tentatively for November 2017, which is now the national caregiver’s month. I would love to expand the concept of service retreats to more than caregiver’s of Alzheimer’s. I would also love to have sponsorship. Right now we work completely on volunteers and donations — we have some incredible sponsorship— from respite with the Agency on Aging to a lawyer offering free legal advise and notary. We even have someone coming in to give haircuts/ styles and body workers offering free massage. None of this could be possible without an incredible network and community that we have in Houston. I am so proud of what we’ve put together and the dedication of so many.
I have a huge vision for the future— I can only imagine how we could grow if we had funds for marketing or even the ability to expand the retreat to 2 days! It would be a blessing~
I’m happy to offer advise to anyone wanting to start something like this in their city— I firmly believe in paying it forward— I will freely give happily when the other person agrees to share the knowledge and give the next person a leg up. We all grow and stand stronger when we help and uplift one another. I would love to see this grow into more and more cities— it’s so needed.
Thanks to Melissa for mentioning Expedition Balance. We are the greatest little nonprofit org you’ve never heard of! We’ve practiced yoga service since 2010, providing yoga, mindfulness, and outdoor programming for Veterans who have mental health challenges (Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, and other conditions). We’ve had nice media coverage in northern California, New Mexico, and Houston, TX. We would love it if this author or another at YSC would conduct an in-depth interview to talk about the work we’ve been doing for years. Thanks for your writing!
Melissa, your Caregivers Retreat is so important. My mother died this year after over a dozen years battling early onset frontal temporal dementia. Though she lived in a memory community, I was her offsite caregiver and advocate. Now that she’s gone and I’ve completed my RYT-200, there are so many yoga-related tools that I wish I’d known to give her a little bit of comfort. Your retreat is what caregivers truly need. I am so glad there is such a loving and comforting resting place for them.