Saturday, October 10, 2015

Me to We to Here to Be: Yogis in Service at lululemon

Me to We to Here to Be:
Yogis in Service at lululemon

[This is the talk I gave at lululemon conference 10/2015 Vancouver]

Catherine Cook-Cottone
10.2015 lululemon Conference

I am here to talk about yoga.


  • A set of tools (asana, breath, and meditation) that lets me be here (hand to heart).
  • The yoking of mind, body, and soul- the integration of the self.
  • A practice that let’s me be- be aware, present, in my own power, and in my reason for being- my dharma.
  • A practice of self-love.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, age 6

It took me a long time to find yoga. Always searching, I wanted to be anywhere else but here. Here was not for me. I was heading somewhere, achieving, figuring out how to be someone, something else- getting there. I was concerned with the constant measure of- no my judgment of- my progress to there. In this stress, I was never enough, not smart enough, loved enough, or pretty enough.  My body was not enough. Since the day I had a sense of it- I thought my body was broken, wrong. Not the right shape or size, too filled with craving. My thinking self fought my body, pushed it to get there- a battle, no surprise, that ended with an eating disorder.

Ruled from the top-down, disembodied, I did okay. I got through school, a masters, a Ph.D., and a job as a professor at a university. Still, I could not rest. You see, I didn’t know that any pursuit of there, without a safe haven here (hand to heart) was what they call the journey of the hungry ghost, an ancient notion of aberrations roaming the universe never able to be satisfied.

A hungry ghost, I kept going. Resigned to a path of empty pursuit, I started researching eating disorders- to get there. I found the works of Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School.  During World War II, he spent years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. In his book "Man's Search for Meaning" he makes a keen observation. It can be summarized like this,

 “Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In this space lies your power to choose your response.
In your response lies your growth and your freedom.”

In these words, my understanding of the universe was challenged. Where was his there? In the middle the most horrific conditions with no way out, Frankl found meaning, here (hand to heart). It gets better. He called this meaning love, a love that has changed the lives of millions of people.

I wanted to know that space. I wanted the here.

Enter yoga. A student at the university had invited me to her yoga class. I went filled with the notion that yoga was for people who liked their bodies, who had the good kinds of bodies, the bodies that looked right, moved right, and easily fell into calm relaxed states. Yoga was not for people like me.

Curious, I tried Yoga- anyway.  Asana. Sweat. Breath. Presence. In yoga, I was here (hand to heart).

From here, the process began. Each yoga class, each breath, each embodied moment got me a bit closer to settling in and connecting with- maybe even liking- then appreciating- and ultimately loving my own body. You see, I didn’t need to get there to be okay. Being okay could happen right here (hand to heart).

Yoga practice became my home. In yoga and in that space Dr. Frankl described so many years ago, I came to trust and love myself. I could let go of the tight grip on the steering wheel, let the pressure off of the gas pedal, stay, and breathe. Happiness, empowerment, and freedom weren’t in the stressful pursuit of there. In the space between stimulus and response, right here, there is an amazing capacity for love. And that self-love, like yoga, is not something that is gifted from genetics, amazing parents, or a neighborhood. It is a practice.

When you experience the kind of peacefulness and love I have found, you want to share. I became a yoga teacher. I teach at Power Yoga Buffalo and yoga is now central in my research. Through the growth I see in the yogis at our studio, the research findings, and the transformation I know personally, I am reliably and unfailingly moved by the effectiveness of these tools.

It doesn’t end there. When you have a resource this powerful, it becomes an issue of social justice. That is, does everyone have access?

In Buffalo there is great need.
The 4th most impoverish city in the United States, 26% of Buffalo families live in poverty. The four-year graduation rate in Buffalo City Schools is 55%. Mortality rates in Erie County are higher than the NYS average. The main causes of death are cancer, cardio/vascular disease, homicide, and suicide.

It’s hard to be safe.
The City of Buffalo is considered one of the most dangerous in the United States. The crime index in Buffalo City is high at 616, compared to the US average of 295 and NYC at 246. That means per 100,000, we average 50 and 60 murders, 150-200 rapes, 1,300 robberies, 1,700 assaults, and 4,000 burglaries. There are thirteen gangs being tracked in the City of Buffalo.

It’s also hard to be healthy.
Despite the growing number of urban gardens, Buffalo is considered a food desert with no grocery stores. Residents are forced to shop at over-price, junk-laden convenient stores.

To be certain, there was no yoga.

Many in the city see no way out of the chronic stress that fills each day. It’s beyond being scared. Surrounded by obstacles and lacking resources, there is a sense of resignation for many. It’s a shutting down of hope. You have a felt sense that things are never going to change. I know that feeling.

At the end of a long home practice, sitting on my mat, mala beads hanging from my hand, I realized- I found here and I can be of service- a Yogi in Service. I have my love of the practice, my skills as a yoga teacher, the university, the members of the yoga studio in which I teach – I can create access to yoga.

Yogis in Service teaches yoga on the East-side of Buffalo. We have our weekly community class on Genesee and Doat and outreaches. The YIS mission is one of social justice. That is, we believe that all people regardless of poverty, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and neighborhood should have access to the tools of yoga. They should have access to that space, the one between stimulus and response, right here, that is filled with love, power, and freedom. You don’t need to get it out there. This is a space that-despite your circumstances- can be found in your practice. In yoga, you build resilience and strength. You learn how to down regulate your nervous system, center yourself, and be in intention- a skill set that that has great consequences in the city.

Through Yogis in Service, Diane has found Frankl’s space- her here.  Emotion is no longer a trigger that ends in more stress and hurt. Yoga has helped her, as it has helped me, stop, refocus, and breathe before acting, allowing her to act in full intention. Her grandchildren, Eric and Daija see her, see me, see us, and embody their practice, learning to think before they act. In that space, in their here, there are dreams of college and contribution. Emma is more confident and Cynthia sees her thought patterns, owns them, and has made an empowering shift from seeing the world through a lens of what she cannot do- toward a vision of what she can. Recovering from a horrible car accident, Alice now teaches us poses. Jeannette finds steadiness. Curtis finds calm in the middle of stress as he works to heal his body from tremendous illness. In Paulette, we see a journey to self–confidence and peace. She’s here to be happy- to dig into the here of life and be happy.

This is the power of yoga, meditation, and sweat- they are the pathway to here- tools for self-regulation, tools of integration, and the tools of self-love. It’s amazing what lies in the space these tools give us. Here we find the very best versions of ourselves, our passions, and our dharma.

lululemon Buffalo has supported me on this path since 2013. They helped my research team raise enough money go to Kenya and study the Africa Yoga Project, yielding the first published research study of the work they are doing, and helping me create the framework for Yogis in Service. With lululemon, I have done workshops, day-long retreats, service classes, and shared yoga with so many here in Buffalo. Inspired by the presentations I saw at the Ambassadors Summit in 2013, I successfully pitched YIS to lululemon Buffalo with a poem. That day, I earned Yogis in Service’s first small metta grant that allowed us to begin the work of becoming an official not-for-profit. With the Here to Be grant, we will be building a new yoga studio for our community class, for Yogis in Service. As I close, I will share the poem that got us the first metta grant...

Y- I- S- Yogis in Service

So many yogis want to serve
Teaching yoga to those in need
Alone it's easy to lose your nerve
Dreams die, un-watered seed

Yogis need a tribe, a place to go
A collective of the giving
Soil for dream seeds to grow
 Evolving thinking into living

Yogis in Service- I propose
yogis that meet to dream
To drop their fears, to strike the pose
so they can carpe diem

Goal- equipment to share
Goal- Mats, straps, and blocks
Goal- badass T-shirts to wear
Goal- a web page that rocks

Goal: yoga in schools, for kids in need
Goal: yoga so everyone can grow
Goal: yoga to inspire hearts to lead
Goal: YIS- across Buffalo

Yogis in Service, YIS

Yoga- to unite

Y- I - do
Y- I- love
Y- I- serve
Y- I- be


Be the change you want to see in the world.  

Yogis in Service, YIS.      

Here to be.     

Catherine- out.

Yogis in Service, 2015

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