Mark Lilly, founder of Portland, Oregon’s Street Yoga, began teaching yoga to at-risk youth in 2002. He believes that “yoga is a practice of service to humanity.” And considering the young people he’s worked with in his yoga classes–many are youths who have obviously been abused: “There’d be kids shaking, literally shaking, with big bruises,” he’s said–what Lilly does is indeed a service to humanity. The difficulty of working with kids in crisis and supporting them in spite of, what must be stressful and often violent lives, is deep, deep service.
All things must be considered when teaching kids in crisis: what do they most need and how will doing a particular posture serve them; what asanas will make them feel safe, contained; how will doing yoga make their lives easier; and how can they be encouraged to keep doing it? Mark has answered all of those questions and many more in order to make Street Yoga as successful as it is. (Street Yoga now trains 200 people a year — mostly yoga teachers, social workers and schoolteachers — in the skills necessary to offer yoga to the needy and at-risk. These volunteers serve over 1,000 individuals annually, bringing yoga and wellness workshops to the social service scenes of Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and other major cities. source: Huffington Post, March 2011.)
Just before our interview, Mark had the opportunity to work with therapists and healers in Northern Belfast in Ireland, an area long rocked by a seemingly unending, bloody near-civil war and which is now (though no longer experiencing such overt violence) in need of the steady hand of emotional and spiritual recovery. Based on the work he’s done throughout the States, and what seems to be his own willingness to give so completely, folks in Belfast are better off for the yoga and Mark’s presence in Ireland.
simha | transform.: What brought you to yoga and how has doing it changed your perspective on healing, the body, spirit, etc.?
Mark Lilly: I was given yoga as a gift by my wife about 10 years ago, Christmas. I went, reluctantly, but I found a practice that met immediate needs, and that I have been able to grow into ever since. That first day, practicing with my first teacher Sarahjoy Marsh of Portland, I found three beautiful synergies: a sense of community; a practice I could peruse the rest of my life that would support my body’s wellbeing; and, a spiritual practice that I could direct myself, without pressure to conform or accept specific doctrine.
As for healing, yoga presents so many opportunities to be of service in healing. From a purely physical perspective, it is an obvious practice to tone muscles, build strength, increase flexibility, increase stamina and so much more. But it’s the ancient science of yoga that underpins the asana practice with such a great wisdom, about breath and breathing, about an individual’s multiple bodies, about exploring the inner reaches of one’s being. These are the elements of yoga that for me allow healing to be so greatly enhanced with yoga.
I volunteer each week in the Pediatric Rehab unit at Emanuel Hospital here in Portland. I work with young people recovering from car accidents, brain tumors, eruptions of chronic illnesses and many other deeply traumatizing conditions. We also work with many of the families of these patients, and yoga allows us to create a truly holistic healing path, one that addresses the physical dislocations of the illness or injury, but at the same addresses the emotional and psychic impact of the trauma to the family as a whole. By weaving all this together, we are able to give families healing practices that they can take with them when they leave the hospital –the seeds of a lifelong self-care practice.
s | t.: I read that your Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse with Yoga practice has older girls helping young girls and that that experience acts like a mirror for them, which is brilliant and lovely. Can you say a little about how/why yoga seems to help kids who’ve had sexual trauma, heal?
ML: The Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse with Yoga curriculum is grounded in meeting very clear needs for the girls and young women, starting with assertiveness, strength and safety. Those three elements–reinforced through asana practice, ritual, multi-sensory art and sharing practices–allow the girls to re-build themselves up from the insides. They can use yoga, freely and gently offered, in whatever way makes sense for them at that moment. We repeat asana sequences over and over, week after week, so that they can be less distracted by always having new things to learn, and can instead develop a sense of mastery and power, parts of themselves that were often stolen–whether intentionally or not–by their abusers.
Yoga is also a tremendous way for these girls and young women to return to inhabiting their bodies. By focusing, for example, on the feet one week, with attention directed to grounding and the sensations felt throughout the soles of the feet, they are able to reconnect the nerve pathways between brain and extremities. This simple practice forces the brain to notice the body again, but to notice it not as a place of shame and disgust, but as a place of safe habitation.
s | t.: Tell me about what you did in Belfast. How does it connect to your work with Street Yoga?
ML: The Belfast work was amazing. I was invited to come to hold space for a number of community therapists, counselors and healers in North Belfast, an area that endured a large part of the trauma from the 40 years of the Troubles–the bloody near civil war that officially ended in the late ’90’s but which still extracts a toll on residents throughout the communities of Northern Ireland. For example, there has been a marked increase in suicides in the last 7 years, mostly among men between the ages of 17-26, which is devastating to the families left behind.
Eighteen folks from throughout North Belfast and I shared a weekend together at Corrymeela, a center grounded in reconciliation and healing, on the coast in the north of the country. Our focus was self-care, and my job was to hold safe and sacred space so that they could let go of the burdens of trauma they carried with them every day. All of them, I’m sure, had suffered direct personal loss of one kind or another, and as they are serving now as healers within the community, they experience secondary trauma through direct exposure to the pain of the people they help.
From a yogic perspective, I have grown to be able to see the energetic imprint of trauma on peoples’ beings. It intrudes upon the safe and coherent structure of a person untouched, and it leaves one vulnerable–to chronic disease, to drug addiction, to depression, to suicide, to predation at the hands of others. It puts people at risk.
Through a gentle weekend of gentle yoga practices, spaciousness, compact personal mindfulness, we were able to share a healing together that was truly touching and beautiful, one of the highlights of my entire Street Yoga career.
We are looking at establishing an annual retreat for different groups of healers throughout the Belfast area, as well as building a second-level training to help the healers use these new skills outwardly, to help their clients heal, with yoga and mindfulness, no matter where they live, or what community they belong to.
I like to think of this work as the New Front Line, and am hoping to bring it to Chicago and other cities with high levels of inter-community violence.
s | t.: Our issue for November is on the power of nonviolence. Considering the history of Belfast, I’m wondering if you could reflect on how the power of nonviolence might connect to the work you recently did there? What were some key moments?
ML: My host in Belfast gave me a tour of East Belfast, to look at the murals. Belfast is famous for its murals, which depict heroic battles, literary figures, shipyards and so much more. But during the Troubles, murals were put up to mark territory, to create a sense of community in the neighborhoods most afflicted by violence. At the same time, though, some of them were obviously intended to create fear. There was one we drove by that showed two masked men, identified as belonging to one of the combatant sides, and they were menacingly holding automatic military-grade weapons, all of this a good 20-30 feet high and visible from great distance. This mural just went up six months ago, and it was chilling! The message was one of threat and its ultimate aim was to create a sense of fear and terror. I felt a wave of cold violence move through me as we drove past.
That got me thinking of how the young men who are now killing themselves are the same ones who were little boys when they first beheld those murals. Some of them may have felt a sense of martial pride, but some of them, I know, felt a blood-chilling fear. I truly believe that fear never left them, and decades later they now take their own lives.
I don’t know if that speaks directly to non-violence, but violence, unless in the most extreme cases of self-defense, leads to death, decay and despair. Ahmisa is the first yama: do not harm. Where violence as a weapon is traumatizing to both the victim and the aggressor, yoga can bring healing. Where violence replaces mindful approaches to solving problems, yoga can help bring people closer to the shared truth of our connectivity.
At Corrymeela, we created a space that was utterly without violence –certainly no violence towards each other, but equally important, a sublime gentleness towards ourselves. True ahimsa.
s | t.: Working with healing the body seems to be key in unlocking trauma. What are some of the things you’ve noticed about how this process seems to work for young folks practicing yoga?
ML: I’ve noticed it as much with adults as with children. With children, there is an innate habitation within the body, so asana practices, when imbued with joyfulness and storytelling, are amazing tools of healing. They take to it so naturally, as if humans were meant to do yoga
With teenagers, you have to be more directed in your sharing. You have to convey a true sense of invitation, rather than command, and you have to equate the practices of yoga with the very skills teenagers unknowingly (for the most part) crave: independence, connection, power, wisdom and sense of self. If offered that way, they can accept the invitation and explore yoga in their own way, with great benefit.
With slightly older people, people in their 20s, say, who have yet to heal from their own traumas, it can be quite challenging. The toll of childhood trauma begins to really grow while the person’s need for a life of their own reaches a high-water mark. At that point, if they are not open to or seeking their own healing, they might be so deep into the effects of post-traumatic changes (to the brain, psyche, relationships…) that they have a hard time accepting yoga into their lives.
With people older than that, or people embracing their own healing, with a gentle approach, it usually only take about 10 minutes to give people a personal relationship with yoga. That’s really sweet to behold. From there, it’s easy. They are so ready to heal, and finally sipping from the cup of yoga is a blessing of the highest order; it’s an honor to be there for that realization.
Learn about Street Yoga
Read the Huffington Post article on Street Yoga
Read the NPR article on Street Yoga
*the true meaning of the word “yoga” is “union.”