Empowered by the Heart
"Service" is a buzzword in the yoga world, and many teacher training programs require a certain number of hours of community service, so students are literally schooled to serve. But yoga leaders suggest they're not motivated by an abstract ideal of service. Instead, most have experienced a profound and genuine calling to share the gifts of yoga and to make a difference in the lives of others.
Corn describes her personal experience, and surely that of many, when she says, "For years, doing yoga was 'How can it change my body? my life? my attitude? How can it give me tools to help me?'" As the gifts of the practice revealed themselves, however, Corn began to feel stronger, more at peace, and more certain of her ability to deal with whatever life handed her. She came to see that the power she found in yoga could be directed toward something far greater than her personal desires. Her line of questioning became "How can I use the practice to recognize that we really are all one? How can I, through this practice, begin to change the world?"
Faith Hunter, a popular Washington, DC, teacher trainer, has experienced this shift as well. Hunter, 40, first felt the call to make a difference as a teenager, when she became a sex educator to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in her native Louisiana, after her two hemophiliac brothers were diagnosed with the disease. Though she was doing her all to help others from experiencing the pain of the disease, she carried a heavy burden in her own heart.
"I definitely struggled with issues of spirituality and God—why is this happening to our family?" she recalls. Then, through chanting, breathing, moving, she began to peel away some of the pain and find her heart again, even after her older brother died. "Yoga gave me that connection again to my own spirituality," she says. She stopped asking "Why us?" and began to look for beauty where she could find it. Hunter's early experiences led to a lifelong commitment to nonprofit work, social advocacy, and leadership. Eventually, she became a teacher and opened a studio. "I needed to be able to share this gift yoga had given to me."
Over time, she felt drawn to share her gifts, not just with yoga students but also with the hemophilia community. She passed her studio on to her business partner in 2010, and today she serves as a consultant to the Hemophilia Federation of America, creating wellness programs for people with bleeding disorders. She's helping to develop breathing and movement routines for adult patients who often deal with the stresses of hepatitis C and HIV diagnoses, and she's creating fun but safe activities for kids who crave an athletic life but can't risk injuries from contact sports.
A carrier of hemophilia herself, Hunter knows that any child of hers would have a 50 percent chance of developing the disease. She says yoga has given her the strength to accept that reality and to stay focused for now on how she can help others in similar situations. "If it happens," she says, "I have the tools and resources to be able to handle it. I can rely on my meditation practice and my yoga practice."
Meanwhile, she is focused on service. "Being a leader requires you to give back," Hunter says. "You can't make it to the top without being able to reach back and bring someone else up, to give back and share what's brought you to that place." To that end, she continues to offer teacher trainings and her unique take on practice in a few local classes. She was invited to lead Lululemon Athletica's annual yoga on the National Mall project in April, where some 3,000 people were expected to roll out their mats.
Hunter suggests that devoting yourself to the needs of others can give you a strength that doesn't arise when serving only your own desires. Service can make you into "a quiet kind of warrior," she says. She likes the gentle approach, but "if I need to, I have the power to speak up and be a warrior," she adds.
They may emphasize the softer-sounding ideals of generosity, support, and honesty, but another trait these leading teachers have in common is something you might call fearlessness. This isn't reckless risk taking or chest-thumping bravado. It's a different brand of courage that enables you to say that you don't have the answer, or to affirm that someone else's gifts might surpass your own. This courage doesn't deny or rush past feelings of fear but lets them dissolve into trust: a deep, abiding trust that your human experience is exactly the experience you are meant to have; that you needn't feel shame or guilt for your imperfections; that you needn't grasp for something that isn't coming your way, or reject what is.
Seane Corn is a one-woman example of awe-inspiring fearlessness, able to face a reality and witness a level of suffering that many would shy away from. Her long-term commitment to social activism and humanitarian aid has taken her to some of the darker spots on the planet: a Cambodian garbage dump, where orphans comb through toxic waste for enough valuable items to earn them a bowl of rice; an Indian brothel, where an eight-year-old sex slave, high on drugs, is forced to receive clients day and night; and many other horrors.
Rather than look away, Corn moves closer to witness the humanity in the suffering and to see how she might help. As a result, she has become a powerful catalyst for social change—challenging others to join her in raising money and volunteering on aid missions through Off the Mat, into the World, the nonprofit project she co-founded to provide grassroots activism and leadership training. She's helped to raise more than $2 million for projects as diverse as birthing centers, libraries, and orphanages and, along the way, inspired hundreds of others to show up and witness the beauty to be found even in the darkest of places and to find their own way to make an impact.
The starting place for this fearlessness, she says, is embracing the darkest parts of yourself, where your own pain and suffering can create barriers to your ability to be honest, generous, and supportive. "Stepping into your power means being super honest about who you are—both the light and the dark—and not being ashamed of the human experience, no matter what is revealed," she says.
"The more we can learn about ourselves and love ourselves, both the good and the funky, the more we're going to be able to stand in the presence of another human being when they're in their light or they're in their shadow and love them for who they are," adds Corn.
This exploration and acceptance of our personalities, the light and the dark, is the foundation of the leadership traits these strong women exemplify. Great leadership is guided by conscious choices, which can be made only when we can first accept the emotions and reactions that arise in us. We can learn this through yoga, self-inquiry, and self-acceptance.
When we tap into the deepest trust that things are as they should be, we don't flinch from difficulty, whether it comes in the form of a petty personal jealousy or empathic pain for the hardship of others. Without the veil of reaction, we can discover what we have to offer and act from our highest place. And when that doesn't work, we dig deeper and try again. This dance of receptivity—inviting the truth in, again and again—isn't easy, but it is the path of the progressive yogic leader.
Through the stories of these women, the face of a new leader emerges. She doesn't have all the answers and is not afraid to say so. She's brave enough to look at the world's problems, and her own, with unflinching honesty. She is willing, even eager, to share the stage, knowing that her contribution is even more valuable when she can invite others to step into her limelight. And she inspires everyone around her to follow her lead.
Kaitlin Quistgaard is the editor in chief of Yoga Journal.