A onetime lawyer shares how yoga can help sustain human rights advocates and workers.
This is the sixth in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri 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 27-30. This month, Corn interviews Marianne Elliott, the New Zealand–based author of Zen Under Fire and creator of the 30 Days of Yoga courses to help human-rights workers across the globe establish compassionate practices of self-care and self-awareness.
Seane Corn: How did you become a human-rights advocate?
Marianne Elliott: I spent the first couple of years of my life on a farm in New Zealand, and then my parents packed up our family and took us to Papua New Guinea, a country north of Australia with widespread rural poverty, to do missionary work. My father was building a sawmill, and my mother was doing adult education. Those early years had a long-lasting impact on me: I gained an understanding that the world wasn’t set up in a way that served everybody. I wanted to help change that, so I studied international human-rights law.
After school, I worked for a couple of years at a law firm in New Zealand to pay off my student loans. Then, in 1999, I went to the Gaza Strip to do service work with Palestinian human-rights organizations. I was continuing to make sense of why I had been born into a life of unearned comfort and privilege while other people were born into enormous conflict, danger, oppression, and deprivation. I knew I wanted to devote myself to changing the way the world is structured, but I didn’t yet have a lot of self-awareness.
SC:When did yoga come in?
ME: When I returned [to New Zealand] from the Gaza Strip, I was emotionally and physically shattered after witnessing how the Palestinians in Gaza were being treated, how they experienced the constraints and oppressions of life under occupation. I started going with my sister to Iyengar Yoga on Thursday nights at a community hall. It was clearly what my soul and my body needed, but I never attempted to do it by myself at home; I didn’t integrate the practice in any way or make it my own. But after three years of working in East Timor in Southeast Asia documenting violence, I knew the human-rights work was likely taking a personal toll, so I began attending yoga twice a week when I went to Afghanistan in 2005. I struggled with yoga because I couldn’t control or master it. But by the end of every class, I would feel so much better because at some point I had to let something go in order to experience the things that the teacher was inviting me to experience.
By the time I transferred to a more remote part of Afghanistan to continue documenting the effect of the war on civilians, I realized that these yoga practices were key to my well-being, and I practiced at home every day. I would start my morning with asana. Then I would sit on my little cushion and be still and quiet, and practice bringing my attention to where I was, to my breath, and to my body. Little by little, I got a taste of what it was like to stay with myself and be present with everything going on around me. If I wanted to sustain doing or being a part of transformative work, I knew I had to commit to being able to stay with myself and not turn away and go numb.
SC: How did you come to share these skills and tools with others?
ME: I got a job in New Zealand doing human-rights and climate-change advocacy work for Oxfam [an international confederation of organizations fighting poverty]. Between 2008 and 2o14, I put together an online yoga program called 3o Days of Yoga designed for aid workers in places like Afghanistan and Haiti. This tool helped people practice daily despite all the things that get in the way in such isolated places. Also, I created an online community as part of the program. When I was in the mountains [of Afghanistan], I wanted access to a teacher if I had a question, felt afraid, or found myself breaking into tears during Savasana. I wanted to ask somebody: “Is this OK? Am I doing something wrong?” You can’t ask a DVD those things.
SC: You’ve also spent time mobilizing communities to get involved in social justice and to apply the tools of yoga to activism. What have you learned?
ME: I’ve learned that mobilization and community change grow out of trusting, collaborative relationships. When, in 2o1o, I first offered community teachings on consciousness and sustainability to activists for climate change, human rights, and community justice, they were like, “Yes, please.” But I found community building more difficult in the yoga community. If I think about it now, it makes sense because at the time I had deeper roots in the activist community. That’s changed in the work I’m doing now with Off the Mat, Into the World in New Zealand and Australia—we’ve built these wonderful national committees of people who have strong roots in the yoga community and a deep personal calling and commitment to doing transformative work.
SC: You talk about the importance of story in your service work. How did you discover its benefits for people?
ME: From 2oo2 to 2oo4, I was in East Timor in Southeast Asia right after the Timorese people gained independence from Indonesia and had a truly independent democratic government for the first time. I wasn’t directly documenting human-rights violations; I was helping set up an office that would be responsible for documenting predominantly historical violations as well as current ones. Through this practice, I learned the incredible importance of telling our stories and being heard. For the Timorese people, the legal outcome mattered less than giving them an opportunity to tell their stories. Our stories are how we make sense of the world’s chaos. When people refuse to recognize the truth in our stories, it feels like our version of the world and our experiences are being dismissed. When our stories are honored, listened to, and valued, it’s as though we are being honored, heard, and valued.
SC:How do you think stories are helpful to service workers?
ME: I have been reading about the neurobiology of stories. Our brains have either been designed or evolved to make sense of the world through story. If you give me a whole lot of really interesting information about people in a world different from my own, I store that in my brain as data. But if you tell me a story, I store that as memory. It becomes how I believe the world is. A well-told story can be a way to walk a mile in somebody else’s sho es. It’s a way to cultivate empathy. I have huge confidence in the power of story to enable us to connect with each other in really profound ways across great distances.
SC:What are you doing now?
ME: In July 2o14, I launched ActionStation (actionstation.org.nz), an experimental effort in New Zealand to redesign politics in a way that restores power to the many [rather than keeping it with the few]. How do we make it easy for people who are surviving an unjust system and living busy and sometimes difficult lives to claim power? Are others ready to share power in a way that will not only transform them personally but will also transform their world and the system that has served them?
SC: How has yoga helped you make this sort of shift in your own consciousness?
ME: Yoga cultivates curiosity in me because there’s so much I don’t know in my practice, and the practice asks me to be present with the “I don’t knows” of life. Alongside the curiosity comes the courage to see the world as it is, which I cultivate and practice on my mat. If I’m curious enough and I have the courage to see myself and the world with clarity, transformative experiences are possible. When we see things as they are, we can change the way we act and the choices we make.