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Yoga: The Hard Work of Building Community

This is an interview with Molly Lannon Kenny, who credits her "service" endeavors to the original value system in which she was raised -- "that no human being is greater than any other and all deserve a chance to be seen, acknowledged, and cared for."
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This is an interview with Molly Lannon Kenny, founder and director of the Samarya Center. Molly developed Integrated Movement Therapy, an innovative approach for students of all ages with exceptional challenges. Molly credits her "service" endeavors to the original value system in which she was raised -- "that no human being is greater than any other and all deserve a chance to be seen, acknowledged, and cared for."

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

As therapists working in a clinic or hospital, we don't see it as "service," or have any special population that we work with. Certainly one can specialize in a particular area, but we see whoever comes through our doors. And because my personal mandate is to create a sense of partnership and worthiness in all people, I've never had any real preference for who I'm serving. I've had the honor to work with so many different people with so many different life challenges, and delight in counting among my friends people from such incredibly diverse backgrounds.

My original motivation most certainly came from my family experience. I am continually motivated by the endless need, as well as by the intellectual and spiritual aspects of healing through changing and healing myself first.

I love seeing how people are taking yoga into service and therapeutic realms. I am also wary of the pitfalls of hierarchies and assumptions that come with a desire to "help" or "serve." Those of us who choose to serve must commit ourselves to work deeply on ourselves before and during our service.

Is there a standout moment from your work?

One of the most instructive moments was with a young veteran who returned from Iraq paralyzed at C2 from a sniper shot. C2 means he could not move or breathe on his own. It was one of my biggest challenges to remember that I am not "doing" yoga with him, or "teaching" yoga, but witnessing his struggle with acceptance, which he was free to do, or not. He ultimately chose to be removed from his ventilator, and we practiced dying for several weeks before he actually did. The last time I saw him he said, "Peace. See you around. But not too soon." I suppose my work with end-of-life care comes with the most frequent transformational experiences -- you don't "do," you have to learn to just "be."

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?

My work has never been "population" driven, so I don't have one I can point to and say I did or didn't know about it. The thing that has changed the most, or been reinforced the most for me, as both a clinician and a yogi, is that people are people. The more we make assumptions at all about how they are experiencing themselves, their lives, or their situations, the further we get from real authentic connection. I will be saying that, and advocating that, until the day I die.

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?

In some ways, honestly, nothing changes! I show up, and respond to who is in the room. Even in "regular" yoga classes, I don't have a particular agenda and generally want people to just have a positive experience of their own inherent worth and self-knowledge.

That said, my studio classes tend to be quite vigorous and physically challenging and playful. That is not what happens in end-of-life care or in the in-patient mental health unit of the VA, or in a school for children with autism. I wear street clothes unless I am teaching a hot, sweaty yoga class, because it helps to do everything we possibly can to bring a sense of equality and inclusion. Yoga clothes can be one of those subtle things that separate us.

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

My greatest challenge has always been getting myself, my ego, and my agenda out of the way. In many yoga programs, I see a certain level of hubris in teachers' attachment to some specific change they are working toward. I try to remind myself and my students that we can only set conditions for change, we can't force change. There is wonder and beauty in letting a process unfold and seeing what happens, while remaining a light and loving presence.

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

I work with everything and everyone from infancy to end of life, from autism to recovery from sexual abuse and addiction and everything in between. My advice will always be the same: Get right and super-real with yourself first. Drop your agenda. Drop your assumptions. Just be. Trust that. Trust yourself. Your gift is your presence. If you really cultivate that, you will not only be giving that gift to the people with whom you share your yoga, but also to yourself, which is really ultimately all that matters, and all we can ever really control or change. Trust that.

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

I hope that the people "doing" service will first become dedicated to themselves, and fearlessly dredge up their own biases and assumptions and limitations and shadows, as well as their gifts, to offer that presence to others without ego or agenda. I hope that people will have different levels of training so that there is street-level service yoga -- meaning lots of people out there sharing their practice -- and also greater levels of training and maturity to offer even more profound healing.

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

All of these things go together for me. I'm really not about "service," per se, but about sharing a sense of inherent worthiness, perfection, and divinity exactly as we are. There is nothing to change or fix.

In yoga the "poses" are not making the real change. For me, it is about connection to the other, and that is my practice and my life. I don't even know anymore if it's yoga; I believe I could be I could be teaching people guitar, or basket weaving, or yoga, and it wouldn't matter. "Yoga," as we generally define it when we "teach," is nothing more than the delivery mechanism for an expression of kinship. The yoga is in me, not in what I need someone else to do.

What other organizations do you admire?

Above all and with unending admiration, love, and devotion -- the work of Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries. I have never been formally trained in yoga and have long sought "the teacher." When I came across this work, I knew I was home, this is my teacher.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

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