5 Questions with World-Class Yogi Suzanne Sterling
There is always a lot to take in over the weekend at Bioneers. All of the incredibly stimulating discussions about solving the world’s problems can get overwhelming, so many of you have expressed the desire for more opportunities to unwind and recharge, which is why we have radically expanded our yoga and movement offerings this year. We are delighted to welcome world class yogi and ritualist Suzanne Sterling, co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM). Read on to learn more about OTM and Suzanne, including how she remembers to stay centered.
1. What inspired you to start Off the Mat, Into the World?
Off the Mat, Into the World® (co-founded by Seane Corn, Hala Khouri and myself) is a non-profit project bridging yoga and activism within a social justice context. We have many facets to what we do, including Intensive Leadership Trainings, grassroots community building, and lots of projects aimed at serving communities in crisis both locally and also in countries affected by genocide, poverty, war and disease. We have also recently begun to focus on making yoga/mindfulness practices accessible to ALL, as well as offering platforms for leaders on the margins who have not traditionally had a voice in the social change conversation. Our goal has been to unify and utilize the incredible resources (both practical and spiritual) of the yoga community to serve those who are suffering most and to be able to respond effectively to real time challenges as they emerge.
The program that I have been directing for the last 8 years is called the Seva Challenge which is a fundraising challenge culminating in a humanitarian work trip and collaboration with local organizations doing incredible solution oriented work around issues like sex trafficking, education access, environmental justice, girls and womens rights and human rights violations. To date, we have raised over $3.5 million for our partners doing direct service work in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa, Haiti, Ecuador, India and Kenya. This has been an amazing journey for us and we are thrilled at the outpouring of enthusiasm and practical service that has been generated in the short time that we have been in partnership.
We began OTM as a response to the growing population of yoga practiioners who wanted to be of service but did not know how to organize. Our experience has shown us that almost everyone would like to be of service in some way, and yet so many of us are waiting for permission to start or waiting until we “get our act together.” Our message is that there is no time to wait and that there is no person who can offer your gifts to the world better than you! Over the last 9 years we have seen incredible growth and organization in the community such that we can now see that the intersection of yoga/mindfulness and social change is a crucial one for long term viability and sustainability.
2. Tell us more about the intersection of yoga/mindfulness practices and social change.
Well, part of what we teach in our Off the Mat, Into the World Intensives is that the mind and body are intimately connected and that how we approach our yoga practice is much like how we approach our lives. When things get challenging, how do we respond? Do we blame others? Self beat? Try to escape? Shut down and go numb? All of these coping mechanisms can be seen all around us both personally and culturally and one of the first steps we can take as conscious activists is to take responsibility for the ways in which we ourselves are at war within ourselves and with others. Understanding the personal and cultural systems that perpetuate separation and oppression helps us to contextualize that responsibility. Then and only then can we communicate and collaborate with others to make real, sustainable change in the world.
Yoga practice is an opportunity for deep self inquiry and a stripping away of the distractions so that we can find our true calling, service and dharma (sacred work in the world) and so that when we do serve, we do so cleanly and with an open heart, truly unattached to the outcome. This is challenging work but the interest in these ideas and concepts tells me that we are collectively ready to do this work. The yoga community is ready to activate and serve, and the activist community is ready to deepen the sacred container and context for it’s work.
I believe that once we truly experience the sacred web of all living things and our place in it, that we have an obligation and invitation to serve the continuance of that web. I also believe that when we cultivate mindfulness and self expression, we cultivate the creativity needed to come up with new solutions to the problems that we face in these times. In my work specifically I am focused on using self expression and ritual to build communities of interdependence and reciprocity. We want to help create a force for change that is so creative and exciting that it magnetizes the change we seek.
I believe that once we truly experience the sacred web of all living things and our place in it, that we have an obligation and invitation to serve the continuance of that web. I also believe that when we cultivate mindfulness and self expression, we cultivate the creativity needed to come up with new solutions to the problems that we face in these times.
3. You are obviously very experienced at helping others find peace within – what do you do to stay centered yourself?
I have a strong daily practice that is non-negotiable, I get out into nature as much as possible, I have a posse of stellar coaches, colleagues and friends upon whom I deeply rely for reflection and support. This is an intense time on the planet and I often have to remind myself to remember the pure joy of simple living!!!
4. Do you have any hopes or goals in sharing some of your practices with the Bioneers community at the conference this year?
My hope and joy is to remind us all that it is important to integrate any new information that we receive into the body. Our bodies are so much more sensitive than we know and if we allow them to be a deeper part of the experience, if we allow the untamed part of our being to be part of the conversation, then we can experience a transformation that leads to deeper growth and deeper connectivity to the earth, ourselves and each other. In other words, inviting all parts of ourselves — the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual — to the table will not only be a more engaged and joyful experience, but it will be smarter and more effective!
5. What are you looking forward to most at the Bioneers Conference?
I am looking forward to a deepening conversation about bridging the world of yoga/mindfulness and activism with some of the best thinkers in the fields of visionary environmental and social justice. The conversation is a juicy one and the more interdisciplinary thinkers work together, the more real and comprehensive solutions we can invent and manifest.
You can join Suzanne for a refreshing morning yoga class at 7:45 AM and a special embodiment class at 1:15 PM on Saturday, October 17, 2015 at the National Bioneers Conference. Click here for the full yoga and movement schedule.