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Karen Schwartz on Mindful Living

A Master Social Worker, Karen has more than 25 years of experience helping people live happier, healthier lives. With a gentle, warm approach infused with humor, she has worked with people of all ages dealing with a wide range of issues, including trauma, addiction, eating disorders, domestic violence, depression and anxiety, as well as with people seeking personal growth, greater well being and a deeper expression of their spirituality.

In addition to maintaining a private practice in New York City, Karen serves as Director of Operations for the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at JRI. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications.

Read our interview with her below!

Can you tell us about your yoga journey?

It's funny. I used to be a personal trainer and a fitness instructor, along with being a social worker. I took dance classes, and one day I was at a dance studio, and I saw a class, and I liked what they were doing with their bodies. I didn't know what it was, but I said, “I need that class.” I looked at the schedule, and it was the yoga class.

So I went to the class. And it was so hard. And I was, you know, Miss Fitness and thought, “What is this!?” I thought: “I cannot wait to get out of this class!” And then I left the class. And I said, I have to get back to that class.

So there was something about it. And it took a while for me to understand really what yoga was, first, the physical practice, and then everything behind it. But I stuck with it. And it's been quite a journey and an evolution. I've been practicing yoga for 20 years now.

Can you tell us what role yoga plays or can play in social work or therapy?

I think that therapists and clinicians started to wake up some years ago to the idea that yoga, in terms of breathing and movement, is really helpful for people dealing with anxiety–to bring their energy level down, dealing with depression–to bring it up, and also the mindfulness aspect for both. I think that started to become a greater awareness some years ago, but I think now there's an increasing awareness of how we need a combination of what we call “top down” therapies, like psychotherapy, things that deal with thoughts and beliefs and explicit memories, with a “bottom up” approach, which really works with the body as really a source of wisdom and understanding.

I think one area where it's not as talked about, and maybe it's only starting to come clear within social work, which is inherently about social justice, is the fact that systemic oppression, systemic racism, systemic power abuses, resulting in embodied experiences for people. So while we need to work to change systems, we also need to help people understand their embodied experience interacting with these systems, and how even as systems begin to change, there's some personal work that also has to happen.

So how can yoga help with trauma?

There's lots of different ways and there's different kinds of trauma. There’s a single incident trauma, like an accident, there's witnessing an accident, and there may be certain techniques that are appropriate for those kinds of things. But the approach that I work with is trauma center trauma-sensitive yoga–TCTSY–and that's designed for complex trauma, which is trauma that occurs in the context of relationships over time.

We offer movement, we offer the opportunity to move and breathe and do physical practices that may have an impact on the nervous system. But what's most important to us is that we create safe, supportive, reliable relationships. If trauma happens in the context of relationships, and healing can only happen in that context as well. So the relationship is really primary, and we really focus on empowering our students, clients, and participants to be in charge of their own experience and their own body, because in the same way that you and I might experience the same thing and have different effects–one of us might get PTSD and one of us might not–healing happens differently as well. And we really want to honor that.

So how is trauma yoga different from a normal yoga practice?

In the approach that I focus on, again, that relationship container is really important. We never tell people what to do, we invite them to participate. And people always have choices. They have choices about what to do, how to do it, if they even want to do it on a moment to moment basis. We share the experience with them–I practice along with my students, participants, and clients. I don't leave my mat. I don't correct anyone. I'm not trying to teach anyone how to do something a certain way. I’m trying to facilitate someone's experience of connecting with their own body, being able to feel their body in whatever way they can; whatever way works for them. So they're really in charge.

What age do you think people should or can start yoga?

I think any age although I will say that I don't really think babies need to do yoga. I think babies are already pretty yogic. Most of the time when we talk about yoga, we are also emphasizing that yoga is not just about movements and breathing, it's really a way of understanding life. But you know, as long as you can breathe, you can do yoga.

What benefits do you think we might see if yoga was available in schools?

Well, there's been yoga available, sometimes I think it's available in the general curriculum, and then there's certainly programs that bring yoga into schools. I've worked with one of them, doing some teacher training and helping them get their program into schools. There's a lot of interesting things that we can see.

On the one hand, kids can actually learn tools that they might need to regulate their own nervous systems: Kids have a lot of energy, but at the same time, don't like to be out of control. When they have some tools that they can bring in for their own emotional self regulation, that can be really useful. Kids can develop that mindfulness, that ability to recognize what's going on, and then be able to kind of even take a pause, and instead of acting out, maybe use their tools.

Secondly, both from a trauma informed perspective, and a general perspective, kids have a lot of rules and boundaries, many of which they need. But for kids to have a place where they're in charge, where they have autonomy over their own bodies, certainly, and over their own experience, is also really valuable. Kids need empowerment as well.

What would be your message to people who are hesitant or skeptical about trying yoga?

As far as finding a physical practice, which again, is what we mostly think of, there's lots of different approaches. So, you know, feel free to explore, find out what different approaches look like, feel like there may be specific things that you want yoga to do for you or that you want to address. Perhaps find someone with expertise and feel free to explore different teachers, because the relationship again there is really key.

And then the other thing again that I would like to say about that, is that the word “yoga” is generally translated as meaning either union or yoking. Joining with the translation in practice is often taken to mean that we have to do something to join with our spiritual core, that essence of who we are. But really, we are that already, that is already what exists.There's something about our human experience that makes us forget it, or move away from that realization. So, whatever your desire is, whatever your need is, you're already okay. You perhaps could use some support and some guidance in increasing your lived experience of that.

Follow Karen on her website.

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