Community Yoga for Positive Change

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This is an interview with Aidee Chavez Frescas Douglas, whom I met at the fourth annual Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute. A yoga teacher and marketing director for the nonprofit Yoga 4 Change, a 501c3 supported in partnership with Meriden's Women and Families Center, Aidee teaches yoga at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pre-Trial Detention Facility in Jacksonville, FL.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My own story of change is my number-one motivator. I had several hard years suffering from depression, eating disorders, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, and it really got to a point in my life that I didn't want to be alive. Therapy never worked for me. I never took medication, because frankly I was always afraid to take it. Sometimes I wish I had, and maybe I would not have had so many gray years in my past. But instead, I found that yoga could put me in a place of well-being and peace. I've changed, and because of yoga I live a relatively stress-free life.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Yoga 4 Change or specific population?

The first time I taught at the jail was very hard for me. I actually finished the class feeling frustrated and mad - at the government, at society, mad about the lack of kindness I felt, and how nobody was doing anything to fix what seemed to me to be obvious problems. I was crying so hard from all the pain I saw in the eyes of the women I taught that I had to stop on the side of the road on my way back home. But then I started reading some of the note cards that the students always write after the class as part of our yoga class structure. And the ladies had written things like "Please come back, this class gives me hope." "Thank you so much, you made me feel like a person again." "I pray for you, I prayed every night to God to send me hope, and you are here." So I stopped crying right there in the car, and decided to commit to this with my entire heart.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I'm really not one to have assumptions. I guess that part comes from being a yoga teacher. I go in with an open heart. It does not matter who I teach. I see the person as who they are for that one hour.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

Yoga 4 Change has a strict code of conduct; for example, we don't adjust any of our students when we teach at the jail, or to veterans. And for the veterans I always do the same thing. Mostly being new to yoga, they like that certainty. We also stay away from using Sanskrit. (I was actually the worst in my yoga training in Sanskrit pronunciation. It was ridiculous. My teacher in India told me to stay away from Sanskrit.) To me this was another sign that I am meant to teach for Yoga 4 Change. But we can teach whatever style of yoga we think is right for the students. I'm Ashtanga trained, but my style changes from class to class depending on what is needed by those students on that day. And sometimes that might be sitting for a full hour and breathing.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge has been raising funds to support our outreach work in the community. I've learned a lot about fundraising; how to increase our capacity to raise money in innovative ways in the interest of expanding our organization, and to satisfy the growing demand for our classes. But we can always do more.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I believe that to do this work, to be able to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself first. If teachers are not giving themselves the space that they deserve to process life experiences with their own meditation and yoga practice, their teaching is not going to be sustainable.

I often see teachers stressed out and running from one place to another, overwhelming themselves with life situations. Being a yoga teacher is hard work. That is why it is a must to give yourself small bites of space in between classes. I sometimes sit in my car and ground myself for 10 minutes. I know the importance of being present and vulnerable for another human being, and for myself, and there is no cost for that. We need to be where we are. We need to cultivate mindfulness right here, right now, in this perfect moment, and from this moment take incremental steps in the direction we are heading. We need to enjoy our lives!

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

My dream is that one day yoga is taught in every single school, correctional facility, and rehabilitation facility, not only to veterans but to those who are in active duty. The same wish is true for first responders. Can you imagine if everybody in America had equal access to yoga? I hope for a kinder America, and for me the only way for that to happen is through the practices of yoga. I believe this with all of my being.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Service has brought a different kind of success to my life. I see a lot of successes in my classes, a lot of "aha" moments happen right there on the mat. My students' negative life perception changes to a positive one right in front of my eyes. The server becomes the served. This is a magnificent moment, and when it happens, when we work together to serve one another, we are all changed. I am the one who is grateful for the opportunity to witness this over and over again - brave people using the tools of their yoga practice to move forward in their lives to access positive change.

Editor: Alice Trembour
Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany Manning Photography

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Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in being interviewed for this series.