Yoga Service within a College Community

Yoga Service within a College Community
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I first met Lynne Boucher in 2014 at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute. She had a flock of Nazareth College (Rochester, NY) students who were doing inspiring things both on campus and in the community. Lynne shepherds the award-winning "Yoga Revolution" on Nazareth's campus, coordinating the service of eight yoga teachers and dozens of student leaders in offering extensive yoga programs to hundreds of faculty, staff, students, and alumni in the campus community. Along with a team of justice-minded yoga teachers, Lynne founded the Rochester Yoga Service Network (RYSN) whose mission is to share the practice of yoga with underserved populations in the Rochester community. In a spirit of cooperation and community engagement, RYSN provides a supportive network for local yoga service providers, including training, reflection, and resourcing. Lynne's off-campus yoga service work is primarily with urban youth - particularly through two local organizations: Teen Empowerment and Young Women's College Prep.

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?

Once I experienced my own transformation through yoga in 2011, it was natural to share it with the students in my care as an interfaith chaplain and director of the Center for Spirituality at Nazareth College. My motivation to learn and teach yoga was deeply rooted in my desire to care for the college community's spiritual needs. While I initially focused on students, I've been increasingly motivated to help foster the "overflow" of yoga love from our campus family to those in need in our surrounding community.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Nazareth College students?

One of the most powerful experiences I've had with yoga service took place at the last session of a summer program in which several Nazareth students assisted in a daily yoga class for 7th grade inner-city girls from Young Women's College Prep. Our closing affirmation was followed by a gift for the girls: their own yoga mats, which made the girls shriek with delight. It was breathtaking to see our Nazareth students pass on the love they had themselves discovered. This scene continues to inspire me: sharing yoga love with a group of students on campus, so they in turn can share that love with others.

What did you know about the college 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?

During my years in higher education, I've learned about the mental health struggles of many college students. Statistics from Nazareth match national trends: over 20 percent of incoming students arrive on campus already medicated for various mental health issues. While this college population was familiar to me by the time I started teaching yoga, many off-campus populations we serve were not. Yoga Service Conferences have helped our yoga service leaders become more aware and sensitive to issues of cultural difference, power, inclusion, and trauma. In addition, RYSN offered trainings for yoga teachers led by mental health professionals with expertise in trauma and healing.

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?

I'm grateful that yoga programs at Nazareth are explicitly and unapologetically spiritual. We understand that yoga is a spiritual practice that helps individuals tune in to the sacred within themselves, their everyday lives, and the world at large. Yoga classes at Nazareth are coordinated through the Center for Spirituality, and include spiritual themes and meditations uncommon in more secular or gym-based yoga settings.

The teaching style of Nazareth yoga teachers is also characterized by a trauma-informed approach. We know from research and years of pastoral care that many yogis in our classes have suffered trauma in their bodies (sexual assault, cutting, eating disorders) and benefit from a high degree of sensitivity and care. We have learned that empowering students to make choices about their own bodies is a powerful way for yoga to be a healing force in their lives.

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

As yoga teachers, we recognize our critical role in giving students tools to foster healthy habits and choices. However, we've had to acknowledge that our students' spiritual, emotional, and physical needs far exceed our capacity to serve them, and many students need additional support. To meet this challenge, we collaborate with other campus departments to provide complementary services, such as the Health and Counseling Center, Women's Health Club, athletics department, and PT clinic, among others. We listen to students who develop creative programming ideas, such as an annual yoga retreat, and specialized yoga workshops.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach college students?

I would encourage campus communities to lay the groundwork for a positive understanding of the connection between spirituality and yoga. Also, teachers must become aware of their own attitudes to power, privilege, diversity, and inclusion when working with populations of diverse cultures, races, gender identities, sexual preferences, body sizes, etc.

Anyone working with college students should assume that a majority of them are dealing with extraordinary amounts of stress, anxiety, depression, and angst. On a positive note, national studies reveal that these emerging adults are eager to explore their spiritual life in non-traditional and unconventional ways. Yoga has attracted students from "all faiths and none," who want to explore the connections between mind, body, and spirit.

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

The evolution of yoga at Nazareth has broadened my sense of service. I now see service to our students as a stepping-stone to service in the wider community; I understand yoga as a lifestyle, a way of being in the world. And I believe yoga is affecting our campus culture as hundreds of yogis learn, both individually and collectively, to forge a more peaceful, centered, and healthy way to live.

My own practice has ultimately become necessary to my ministry at Nazareth, an antidote to the burnout plaguing myself and my dedicated and exhausted colleagues. My yoga practice has also led me to greater connectedness with other people, through acro yoga and group yoga, as well as deeper connectedness with nature through outdoor yoga and paddleboard yoga. With every passing year, I realize my ability to serve others is dependent upon my commitment to centering and nourishing myself through meditation and yoga.

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

My commitment to social justice makes me deeply concerned about the accessibility and affordability of yoga. My hopes for yoga service lead me to speak out actively against a popular approach to yoga that is high-priced, image-focused, and profit-driven. I see yoga service as fostering an alternative to this consumeristic culture, by emphasizing cooperation over competition, inclusivity over privilege, spirituality over consumption, and social transformation over privatized gains.

During a time when people feel increasingly disconnected from themselves, their bodies, their spirits, each other, and the earth itself, the yoga service movement can be a spiritual revolution! At the national level, the Yoga Service Conference will continue to foster awareness, and regional networks will begin to form in the coming decade. I hope that college campuses - always hotbeds for spiritual growth and community engagement - will join Nazareth in guiding the next generation of yogis to foster a lifelong commitment to their own spiritual development, and that of others.

Editor: Alice Trembour
Image: Courtesy of James Schnepf Photography

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