Yoga teacher and somatic counselor Hala Khouri explains why, if you want to heal the world, you have start by healing yourself.
This is the first in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, founder of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work. Everyone profiled here will join Corn in teaching a workshop on yoga for social change at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, Colorado, September 14–21. This month, Corn interviews her Off the Mat collaborator Hala Khouri, a Los Angeles–based yoga teacher and somatic counselor, who trains people working in service professions to use yoga as a tool to heal emotional wounds.
SEANE CORN: We’ve worked together for seven years. Tell me about the work you’re doing on your own with service providers.
HALA KHOURI: I’ve been giving trauma-informed yoga workshops to direct-service providers such as mental-health clinicians, social workers, and staff at domestic violence agencies. Helping the helpers has been really profound. All day they are dealing with people in trauma and survival mode, so they can’t attend to their own feelings. To watch them get into their bodies, tap into their emotions, and let go has been priceless.
It’s beautiful knowing that these people can deal with their clients a little differently now that they’re taking care of themselves. Yesterday, I was teaching the staff at a residential treatment center, including security guards who help when kids lose control. I went into a hip opener, and one of them, this big, tough guy, asked afterward, “Why did I start to cry in that?” I said, “All day long, you have to take care of everybody. When you slow down, you feel all the feelings you had to set aside.”
SC: What is trauma-informed yoga, and how can we use our yoga practice as a way to identify our traumas and let them go?
HK: I see yoga as a tool for self-regulation, self-investigation, and self-awareness so that we can engage in the world in a truly authentic way. So the first inquiry is to get really honest with ourselves about how we use our yoga practice: Are we using it to punish ourselves, to further our perfectionism? I did yoga for years with these goals of doing certain postures; it was not an investigation of what I was actually feeling. Instead, we should ask how can we use yoga as an opportunity to tap into sensations in the body without judgment? This allows us to get in touch with unexpressed emotions and impulses, and we can move those through our body. And, by staying connected to your breath or your sense of grounding, you can keep from getting overwhelmed.
SC: Why are you so passionate about getting people to heal their wounds?
HK: I’m from Beirut, Lebanon, and we came to America because people were killing each other over their differences. My roots are steeped in a dynamic where people’s rage and unexpressed emotions had gotten so strong that they were killing each other. I want people to address their trauma so they don’t hurt each other.
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SC: How can healing personally help heal the social and political sphere?
HK: The first course of action is to recognize the way trauma lands in our body and the impact it’s going to have on the way we communicate and on our relationships. As we change what’s happening in our own being, we start to shift the collective narrative.
SC: Has yoga influenced how you engage
with social-justice issues?
HK: Talking about social justice is a deeply uncomfortable conversation. In order for there to be justice for all, we have to hold every single person in our hearts—not just the oppressed, but the oppressor. Until we do that, things can’t change because we get stuck in separation and blame. Yoga is all about union. If we’re truly interested in union we must be interested in social justice; otherwise we’re in complete denial.
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SC: Some people don’t see what yoga has to do with social justice. Why do you get involved?
HK: Some people are overwhelmed by their personal trauma, and they need a space to let go and connect to themselves. That’s an important part of the practice. But if we stop there, yoga becomes a form of denial. And it’s our privilege that allows us to be in denial. Folks who are starving and don’t have health care or jobs can’t get away from social-justice issues. I used to be one of those people in denial. I thought listening to the news was bad energy and I didn’t want to be engaged—I didn’t know what I could do about it. People get apathetic because they feel helpless. For me, once my privilege got revealed, there was no turning back. I can’t help but want to take action.
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SC: For anyone who does service or social-justice work, it’s easy to get burnt out. How can they make their work sustainable?
HK: If [service] is what you’re called to, ask yourself why. Look at how helping others might somehow be connected to your own survival, and if that’s true, [you may notice how] there’s no space for self-care, and that can provoke anxiety. So give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Start trying to do daily yoga even if it’s only lying on your floor for 20 minutes doing hip stretches. Sometimes my practice is just taking a bath. Cultivate a relationship with stillness that can be sprinkled throughout the day. Find moments when you can pause, take a breath, listen to music, meditate—they can be very small moments but they interrupt the pattern of a perpetual stress state.