The Next Step

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After reading Cyndi Lee's Yoga Body, Buddha Mind and taking one of her workshops about the Buddhist principle of seeking enlightenment through helping others, I wanted to use my yoga practice in that way. But first I had to figure out how. I felt that some people in the economically depressed former mill town where I live and teach would benefit from yoga, but that they might be reluctant to come to a class, whether because of cost, language, or cultural barriers.

So instead of asking students to come to me, I went to them. I started a weekly one-hour class for six weeks at the Next Step Perception Program, a work-release and 12-step treatment program for women in eastern Connecticut designed to help residents stay clean and sober and reenter the community after they've been in jail.

The program director warned me about being manipulated and cautioned me to resist becoming attached to my students' struggles or compromising my own boundaries. With that in mind, I set an intention to teach with compassion and without judgment—to remain open and let things happen as they might.

Initially, the class atmosphere was challenging. The room was small and stuffy; noises drifted up from the street and from people talking in adjacent offices. Students would arrive late, fall asleep, or refuse to participate—all of which I accepted. My only ground rule was "Take what you need and put the rest back with respect."

Each session began with breathing exercises and a request for students to set an intention for their practice. Since the women were mostly sedentary and unfit—and because the room was so small—the program was limited to 20 minutes of chair yoga followed by meditation, a reading and discussion of a poem or inspirational passage, and, finally, a seated Savasana.

Students were asked to write about their feelings at the end of each session. In the beginning, most mentioned how relaxed they felt. By the end, they had gone a little deeper. One commented, "I feel I understand the meaning of letting go and going beyond myself."

I never expected such a rewarding response, and I've become a volunteer maniac since then, working with mentally challenged adults, obese adolescents, high-risk girls, and cancer patients. All it took was one look into my yoga body and Buddha mind.