Bringing Others to a Safe Place through Yoga: A Chat with Heather Ruggero

Yoga Care Foundation: How did you first become involved with SafePlace and how did the Yoga Care Foundation contribute to your work?
Heather Ruggero: The Yoga Care Foundation helped me continue the work I had started during my teacher training. As part of my teacher training, I taught yoga once a week at SafePlace women’s shelter. After I completed my training, I continued to teach there as a volunteer. As a new teacher, I was struggling with the competing desire to continue to teach as an act of Seva and the need to be compensated for my time. What Yoga Care Foundation really provided me, in addition to funding and mats, was a sense of validation. I loved taking yoga to this population of women – staff and shelter clients alike that must deal with tremendous stress. As a new teacher it was incredibly helpful to have the Yoga Care Foundation behind me, in support of my work; that support and sense of community helped me recommit to SafePlace. With that support, I felt really good about putting in the time to create specific themes and classes, and I’ll admit that the external motivation of knowing that I represented Yoga Care Foundation encouraged me to set the bar high. It was incredibly gratifying to contact the shelter director to say that I would be able to continue teaching.

I had always admired the vital work SafePlace does for the Austin community. During our teacher training, we were discussing who to approach as a site for the beginner series we were required to teach. SafePlace immediately came to mind but I felt intimidated about proposing this to them. My teacher, Guru Karam, said something to me that I really took to heart. She simply said, “Just don’t be afraid to ask. Worst they can say is ‘No’.” Well, this may not be news for most people, but it really opened up something in me. I went right home and contacted the shelter director without any of my characteristic second-guessing. The shelter director was not only willing but delighted to bring yoga to the shelter! She made it so easy for me! As it turns out, there was a lot of support for this. When people heard about it, they were eager to donate their gently used workout clothes and mats. In the spirit of not being afraid to ask, I thought I’d seek out a grant as well. I guess it’s about forming an intention and then putting it out there in the universe. It may be a cliché, but it’s some good stuff!

What advice would you have for other yoga teachers and yoga therapists who are interested in bringing healing through yoga to women and others during times of crises?
Bear witness. Give eye contact. Cultivate a feeling of respect and empathy. I am careful not to try to sugarcoat reality. Often we try to put a positive spin on things, and I have to remind myself that sometimes it’s important to sit with information exactly as it is. In fact, I found it was best not to offer many comments or suggestions, but rather simply be there to listen and hold space for the students’ experiences. There may be tears, there may be hugs, there may be outbursts of frustration. Try to approach each with equanimity.

I recently observed a class at a low-income senior housing center. There were some interesting social dynamics, and the teacher did this amazing job of being respectful. She was genuine and sincere. She nicely balanced caring and concern with maintaining a teacher/student boundary. Her sincerity set the tone for the whole class and I try to emulate that.

What were some of the challenges of teaching yoga in a setting outside of a studio?
I wasn’t prepared for the starkness of practicing under very sterile fluorescent lighting – kind of a mood killer! I quickly realized that I needed to bring some things with me to separate the yoga space from the shelter. I started bringing in this old lamp with a really comforting shade, my music and lavender oil. It became my ritual, a way to designate a corner of space in a sometimes chaotic setting. The noise levels from the hallways couldn’t always be controlled, so I’d ask students to notice the sounds, as signs of life, and let them go. We practiced in a nice interior room so it was easy to control the amount of light, but you can’t always practice where you expect.

I had one class that I planned about exploring pratyahara. It was the beginning of winter and the class was going to be about turning our focus inward. Well, our regular room was filled with donated presents for the holidays so we ended up practicing in the toddler room: big bright windows, no shades, toys in a stunning array of colors and a ton of glitter on the floor, coating the mats. It was very snazzy. What can you do but laugh? You might have your plans but then life follows her own course. That was a great lesson for me.

There were other ways I was a bit of a studio snob. I wasn’t expecting as many students to receive phone calls during class as they did, or to actually take the call during class. The reality was that some of those calls needed to be answered. In consideration of other students, I do ask students to take calls outside the class now.

Did you encounter any language or cultural barriers?
There were many students whose native language isn’t English. When that is the case, I end up doing more demonstrations than I normally would. The physical asana is actually fairly easy to convey. Walking over to a student in a posture and using ujjayi breathing is informative on a slightly more subtle level. I have taken yoga classes in Spanish that I didn’t fully understand, and at times felt kind of silly and lost. Since I have worn that expression many times, it’s become pretty familiar to me. I can step in and assist when I recognize that moment for a student.

In terms of cultural barriers, I didn’t notice that as much. People coming to try yoga seem to come to it with a sense of openness and willingness – it is completely voluntary. Downward dog might not be part of their regular life, but students seem pretty willing to let the yoga be the norm.

What benefits did you see – perhaps both immediately and in the long term – when you taught yoga to these women?
In an immediate sense, I got a lot of positive feedback from students. They say that they feel so much better after class. People come back, so I believe they notice a difference. You can actually observe students transform! Their countenance changes from tight, closed and anxious to smooth, open and relaxed. They look calmer and there is no denying that yoga glow after a satisfying class!

I think it’s important to remain realistic about the spectrum of transformation. I think back on how long it took me to realize how important and life-sustaining my practice is for me. It wasn’t within a few classes; it actually took years and it is a process that continues. What happens in that space occurs in small increments. I always try to leave students with something small that they can take away: a breathing technique, an awareness of that spacious feeling, tips on reducing reactivity, or an appreciation for a yummy stretch. I think it’s remarkable that the director and staff were so supportive of a yoga program at the shelter. There is a real awareness out there that the technology of yoga can provide some powerful tools to living a fuller life.

Where do you teach yoga now?
I am very excited to say that I have just begun to sub at Yoga Yoga! Yoga Yoga has been my yoga home for the past 4 years and it feels like a natural transition to me to teach there. I like to think that my experience at SafePlace has opened my eyes to a broader range of human experience and deepened my teaching skills. I think I approach yoga as more of a living art now; I have a facility with adaptation that I didn’t have before. I continue to teach at SafePlace, although now I am teaching with a group that began there just as my grant was ending. My work with SafePlace serendipitously opened another door for me with Community Yoga Austin. Through Community Yoga, I continue teaching at SafePlace and will soon begin teaching within the Travis County correctional system. I am humbled by these opportunities to bring this ancient practice to a variety of populations.

What advice would you offer someone who is interested in getting a grant to teach yoga?
I am guessing that we can all think of someone or a group of people who we believe could really benefit from experiencing the peace and healing of a yoga practice. Science is proving what we’ve known to be true: yoga improves your mood and decreases your anxiety. It should be available to so many more people. If you want to take your teaching gift outside the studio, Yoga Care Foundation is an amazing resource that can provide the vehicle to do it. Don’t be afraid to ask!