This is an interview with Ravi Singh, who moved to NYC in 1974 with the intention of being a poet. He quickly came to realize that his desire to inspire people and raise consciousness could be better served as a teacher of Kundalini Yoga. Over the last four decades, in addition to public classes, Ravi has offered his services to many populations in need. Venues have included drug rehab facilities, prisons, psychiatric institutions, nursing homes, and community centers for runaway teens. Photo: Ravi Singh and teaching partner Ana Brett.
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 motivation is the desire to help ease suffering. I've always been inspired by the concept of the Boddhisatva, who takes a vow not to enter into Paradise until "even the grass is enlightened," and by extension, that no love be unanswered, or pain unhealed.
On one level it seems presumptuous: How can one person, offering yoga classes, in some seemingly obscure place, make the world a better place? The answer is that by me showing up and presenting these timeless teachings, the students have the choice to begin to change -- and then the world changes. It's a gift of to be part of that high drama.
All forms of yoga give people the tools to reverse engineer circumstance. By that I mean, by sparking awareness, we come to realize that even though the situations we find ourselves in may not be our "fault," they become our responsibility, and that we have the ability through our choices, breath by breath, to self-determine. Most people don't realize that they have a say in the matter of what becomes of them. When I work with people who exist in the most intolerable circumstances, it becomes obvious that the "lowest" rung also contains the potential for the highest. The only way to truly understand life as we know it is to start with the understanding that everything does contain its opposite.
Is there a standout moment from your work with runaways at the L.A. Community Center?
The standout moment from my work with runaways in L.A. was an ongoing one. Despite everything that those kids were going through, they showed up each week. These young yogis were dealing with intolerable pressures and uncertainty, and found a way to come to a yoga class.
What did you know about the population you were working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?
When I volunteered to work at a community center for runaway teens in Los Angeles I had no idea what to expect. I was witness to an interesting duality. On one level these kids were just normal teens who would fit right in in your typical suburban setting. On another level, as I came to find out, they had to go into survival mode every day/night, whether that entailed dealing drugs, prostitution, or stealing food. There was an invisible clock ticking which dictated that if these kids didn't return to a more stable environment within a certain time frame, they would probably be fated to remain "street people."
What tangible results did you see from your service work?
I could see, over time, that the same benefits people experienced in my regular yoga classes were magnified in "at risk" populations. These include an increased ability to be non-reactive. These students reported having more energy and increased control over self-destructive patterns. I would say they had more ability to navigate to a better life.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
In some settings (halfway houses, drug rehab facilities, and psych wards) the yoga seemed to get too popular, and work too well, and I experienced some push-back from clinical staff. My advice about dealing with people who seem to want to uphold the status quo at all costs, is to try to find a way to let them get some credit for successes.
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach runaways and the homeless you worked with?
Have no expectations. Prepare to have your heart blasted wide open. Make it a sacred commitment to show up for them.
What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
What we are seeing now is only the beginning. Yoga as a way of life, and viable technology for personal and collective change, are becoming part of the fabric of American life. I would like to see full-time yoga staff in retirement homes.
Editor: Alice Trembour
Image: Michael Gill
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