Yoga, Meditation in Action
Seane Corn is the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS and cofounder of “Off the Mat, Into the World.”
July 31, 2014
SEANE CORN: I’m a really unlikely person to be doing yoga. I was brought up in a fairly blue-collar environment. I’m not an educated woman. Very independent. And buying into all the spiritual fluffiness has never, ever been anything that I would’ve predicted would’ve happened to my life. Why I’m so attracted to it is because it’s anything but fluffy.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Yoga has infiltrated law schools and strip malls, churches and hospitals. This 5,000-year-old spiritual technology is converging with 21st-century medical science and with many religious and philosophical perspectives. Seane Corn takes us inside the practicalities and power of yoga. She describes how it helps her face the darkness in herself and the world, and how she’s come to see yoga as a form of body prayer.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Though yoga is thought of in the West as primarily about physical postures, it originated in northern India as a practice for spiritual and ethical balance. Gandhi’s non-violence was an expression of his understanding of yoga. The American Yoga Association calls yoga “a science of life aiming to bring balance between the physical body, the mind, and the spirit; between action, intelligence, and the higher self.” Over 20 million people currently practice yoga in the United States alone and I’m one of them.
I spoke with Seane Corn in 2008. She is a star in serious yoga circles, one of the most revered contemporary teachers and trainers. Yoga has also drawn Seane Corn off the mat to help child prostitutes off the streets from Los Angeles to Cambodia. And she’s just released her first DVD, “Body-Mind Flow.”
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s just start, and one question I that I always ask — or want to talk about at the beginning — I have been reading other interviews you’ve given, and it sounds like in terms of your upbringing, in terms of religion, you had a situation that’s pretty common these days. More common than a few generations ago. Was it one of your parents Jewish and one of Catholic?
MS. CORN: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And they weren’t observant of anything.
MS. CORN: No. No, my mom was a teenager when she had us. And my mom was raised in a really strict Jewish household. And my dad was raised a Christian — a Catholic actually, but his father was Jewish. So his background was a little bit more open-minded, but my mother’s was not. And when my mom got pregnant, her parents were furious because my father wasn’t Jewish. And my mother, as a result, decided to rebel and decided to raise us with no religion because her upbringing was so strict. So we celebrated every single holiday that provided a gift. And there was an enormous amount of love, but we had like a Jewish star on top of the Christmas tree. And I don’t think I’d ever been to a church or to a temple. None of that was really brought into the way that we were brought up.
So it was interesting, it was good and I recognize some of the negatives now that I’m a little bit older. The good part of it was my parents allowed us to make our own decisions around religion and spirituality. And there was no dogma attached. So my brothers and I are all very very open-minded to spirit in each of our own ways. I would say the negative thing — and I’ve talked about this with my parents — is although they did not raise us to believe in a patriarchal God, the school that I was involved in, the culture that I was raised in — which was pretty blue collar — it was just all over the place that God was an energy that showed up more or less when I did something bad.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, I think that’s really interesting. I saw you’d made that point in another conversation, that although you — in the absence of any kind of positive teaching or observance — you kind of absorbed cultural dogma about what religion is and who God is.
MS. CORN: Completely. And there was nothing to contradict that.
MS. TIPPETT: And you also, from a pretty early age suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder.
MS. CORN: Right. From when I was around 11.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you know what it was when you were 11?
MS. CORN: No. No. Obsessive compulsive disorder, it didn’t get really acknowledged. When I was around 19 was the first time that a doctor had explained to me what it is that I had. Before then I thought it was an interesting quirk. So did my family. I was obsessed with even numbers — 4 and 8. And I would have to touch things in certain numbers. Blink, swallow. If I walked into a wall I’d have to walk in on the other side. And, depending on my anxiety level, my obsession for balance became greater or less than. And it was also very much associated with death. I always felt that if I did things in certain numbers I can prevent the death or dying of somebody around me that I loved.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that called an obsessive compulsive disorder? Now that you know more about it? That people have that kind of fear of death? Or consequences?
MS. CORN: I would have to say that OCD is much more common. I can spot it a mile away. I can watch it in peoples’ body language. It has a lot to do with control, and it’s a survival skill of dealing with stress. Whether or not it’s associated with a superstition, or with a fear like death is really I think dependent upon the individual. But more often than not, people will say that to me, that they feel they can prevent bad things from happening if they do their things in certain patterns, whatever each person’s individual compulsion is.
But for me, it was definitely related to spirit. Because I wasn’t raised with God, and because God only showed up in my mind when bad things happened, by putting things in order and creating a certain amount of control to a world that I thought was chaotic… I was a very intuitive kid, I was aware that there was a lot of chaos in my family — which there would be when your parents are essentially teenagers — and because there was no structure or the sense of spirit or God, I decided to play God. So by keeping my world in order, I can control bad things from happening. This wasn’t conscious — I figured this out way later. It was just an interesting little survival skill that a kid out of balance created. I’m grateful that I had something and didn’t have to necessarily turn to drugs and alcohol to stave off the anxiety. I found something else that did the trick.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s kind of interesting, interesting only because you found such healing — I mean yoga, one element of yoga is about balance. And in fact you had this disordered relationship, this very compulsive, anxious pursuit of balance in that disease.
MS. CORN: Well, I didn’t know how bad my OCD was until my first yoga class.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MS. CORN: I remember being in one of my first downward dogs, and I looked at my hands, and I noticed that one hand was a fraction of an inch further forward than the other, yet my shoulders were balanced, and I didn’t understand, how do I get my hands to match, but then my shoulders would be out of balance. And my heart started to race. And I was, for the first time, really critically aware that both sides of the body aren’t exactly the same. And the teacher said something in that class that was really life-changing for me. He said, “Breathe, and everything changes. And what that meant for me was that as the anxiety came up, which it was, because I couldn’t get my body in the right alignment, I just kept breathing deeply. And it was a sensation. Anxiety is a feeling, a sensation within the body — the deeper I breathed, the more that started to pass. And it just became something else. And I thought, “Wow, I wonder if when anxiety shows up in my life if I can actually do the same thing.” If I can just stay present and breathe and trust that it will change.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay, so tell me, had you gotten any kind of treatment for the OCD? Or was this also the beginning of you really taking that seriously as a problem, even as a medical problem?
MS. CORN: Yeah, it all happened at 19.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. CORN: I got into yoga at 19. I got into therapy at 19. And I understood OCD at that same age. You know, I lived in New York City so I lived in a walk-up.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And you left home at a pretty early age, didn’t you? You didn’t go to college.
MS. CORN: Seventeen.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. CORN: Yeah. Seventeen. And I would be sure I locked that door, but I would have to go up the stairs again and again and again and check the door. And even though I knew the door was locked, I couldn’t not keep — I’d come down, go back up again. And I think I lived on the fifth floor. And I knew then it was getting in the way of my life.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, it sounds like you actually had really a pretty immediate breakthrough in the first class. I was going to ask you about the first class and also about the class where you understood that this could be transformative.
MS. CORN: Yeah. That didn’t happen for years later.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about that. I mean, tell me about that progression.
MS. CORN: Well, I’d have to say my first yoga classes, I liked them. I felt great in my body. I was doing a lot of drugs at that time, and I liked drugs a lot. I adapted to it well, especially hallucinogens and things like that. You know, I enjoyed getting high, and I’m very grateful that yoga came into my life, because it offered me an alternative way to raise my consciousness that wasn’t introducing drugs into my system. I got off of drugs at that period and stopped smoking cigarettes and just became more health conscious in general.
MS. TIPPETT: Is this when you were working at the Life Café in New York?
MS. CORN: Yeah. Yeah. Life Café was instrumental, because the owners of Life ended up opening the Jivamukti Yoga Schools, which were some of the …
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Which is really one of the formative leading yoga schools in the country, I think, where a lot of people train. Yeah.
MS. CORN: Yeah. And I was a waitress there.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: I was really, really blessed, because they went off to India, the owners, and came back and I really saw a difference in them. They weren’t lecturing or preaching or telling us how to live our lives, but I saw a sense of ease that I hadn’t noticed before and thought like, “Wow. I could use a little of that.” And so I decided just to check it out. And I got into the body part of it, not the mind-body. That didn’t come until later. And I also saw that it helped create a sense of ease in my nature when I would leave the class. I just felt better.
The first time that yoga had a real impact on me was I was still living in New York. I remember the day. It was snowing. I had just finished a yoga class, and I was walking back to my apartment. And I had this really weird feeling in my heart, in my body, and everything. And I stopped because I was trying to identify, like, what it was that I was feeling. And I realized that I was happy. And it was such an odd moment because I was young, prior to that class I was confused. I was with a guy at the time; I didn’t know if I should stay with him, if I should move to L.A. You know, like any young person, I was just in the middle of my own little personal drama and basically lived each day thriving on that drama and was pretty miserable. I just had this sense that everything was unfolding, that I was in something that was bigger than I could possibly define. It was just such an odd little moment, and I thought to myself, “What was different? What changed?” And the only thing that was different was the fact that I took this yoga class. The seeds had been planted; it just hadn’t awoken, and for whatever reason, that day I was ready to receive it.
[Music: “Mumtaz” by Bombay Dub Orchestra]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: Yoga teacher and social activist Seane Corn. Here she is teaching a class at the Yoga Journal San Francisco Conference in 2007.
MS. CORN: So from here, we’ll continue the ritual. I’m going to give you a standing sequence. And just to move the energy through the whole of the body, I’m going to give you a sequence — from the shoulders all the way down to the hamstrings so that the entire body becomes oxygenated, the blood flowing. So go ahead and step your right foot forward, turn your back foot flat. And on the inhale, come up into Virabhadrasana I, arms up over your head. You’re going to release the arms and interlace your fingers behind your back. Inhale. Open the chest. And on the exhale, fold to the inside of your bent right leg.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about what happens in yoga. Whether it is relaxing or stimulating or more of a physical experience or more of a mystical experience. When you first start taking yoga classes, I mean, again, depending on the kind of class you’re taking and the kind of teachers you have, you hear a lot about what’s going on with your breath and your body, with your joints, with energy, with toxins. I mean, how do we know, what do we know about what yoga is doing, you know, really practically that is so unusual, that is unique and distinctive?
MS. CORN: Well, there’s two — let’s stay on the physical for a moment in that any time you’re moving, you’re increasing the respiration and the circulation within your body. And that has an effect on your lymphatic system. The lymphae moving through your body more systematically helps to draw toxins out. So through…
MS. TIPPETT: And do they measure that? Are there people who’ve measured this?
MS. CORN: I’m sure.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay.
MS. CORN: I’m sure. And it’s not just with yoga; it’s with any form of physical activity. So, just on a physiological level, you detox your body, you increase your flexibility and mobility, you create more space in your muscles and your joints and your bones, and you feel better. And so what makes it unique, though, is by coupling it with deep and rhythmic breathing, it has an influence on the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps to align the mind and the body so that you stay calm and focused. So it’s physically stimulating but mentally grounding. So you walk out of a room feeling alive, but in your body and in your center. Not hyper, not depleted. So it becomes a meditation in action that has a very positive influence on your physical body, again, depending on whether it’s a physical practice or a restorative practice.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: Both are different.
MS. TIPPETT: Although it’s kind of ironic, because it doesn’t make you less mentally present.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s just that your mind is settled in your body.
MS. CORN: m-hmm. Right. Because that is the experience that one has when they are aligning the mind with the body. And that’s really the next part of it, too, when you’re talking about the benefits of this practice. It comes to this: In the practice of yoga what we’re taught is that there is no separation between the mind and the body, and everything that we’re thinking or feeling or experiencing over the course of a lifetime, or lifetimes, has an effect on your cellular tissue.
So your body remembers everything and even though we have as human beings a gorgeous ability to reconcile or to reason, our bodies don’t have that same ability to heal unless we’re moving through experiences in our life in a spiritual way. So what I’m saying is if we’re holding onto hate, blame, shame, anger, rage, sadness, or grief, something like that, those emotions can be as toxic on our physical body as a poor diet or as inertia and they manifest as tension, stress, and anxiety. So our physical body is actually masking the emotional resonance that lies beneath it.
MS. TIPPETT: Holding it in somewhere and we’re not aware of it.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm. We repress it.
MS. TIPPETT: I know people who’ve had an experience of doing yoga for some time and having this experience that you describe of just feeling great, you know, feeling happy, feeling calm and alive, but then also going through a period of a real sadness that feels like it is emerging from within their bodies that they can’t put words to. You know?
MS. CORN: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: They can’t date it or give it a story.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is kind of frustrating in our culture, I mean, the way we live, which is that we should at least be able to talk about something in order to put it away. Is that a manifestation of what you’re talking about?
MS. CORN: It is. I believe culturally we’re addicted to our tension, and we use it as a way to control our big feelings. So if I can put a block of energy around me, I don’t have to deal with my rage or my fear. And with OCD, it’s exactly what I was doing. I couldn’t deal with the bigger feelings. My feelings were because of the chaos in my world. I was scared. I was angry. I was fearful. And I had to create order and control in order to not deal with those bigger emotions.
MS. TIPPETT: You did something, in fact, by the fact that you weren’t dealing with that, you weren’t doing anything with that.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm. And so I could feel the anxiety arise, so I came up with interesting tools to deal with the anxiety. And this is what most people in our culture do. Then when it doesn’t work, they use drugs, sex, alcohol, power, caffeine, food, anything to self-regulate or numb out. And in the practice of yoga when you’re releasing the tension organically through the practice of asana day in and day out, the emotions that are embedded in our cellular tissue begin to arise. And yoga is asking us to take the Band-Aid off the wound and be willing to heal it through a spiritual practice.
MS. TIPPETT: So, let’s talk about some of the words that you use in the context of yoga that in fact are spiritual words, like “grace.” Talk about invoking the energy of grace in a yoga practice. I don’t think that would make sense to many people.
MS. CORN: I think that there’s a lot of ways. I think first I need to define my relationship with God. I talk about God all the time in class, and I’m pretty confident in my relationship with God. And therefore, I’m comfortable using the word. But when I define spirit, it’s that which exists within that’s of truth and love. And so when I refer to grace or to spirit or to God, I’m talking of truth and love.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, I mean, again, and this is kind of the same theme, when you say that the heart of the practice of yoga is love, you know, what do you mean by that?
MS. CORN: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: How can love be the heart of this practice of a series of physical poses and breathing?
MS. CORN: It comes down to this for me: You can’t get to God through your head, at least in my experience. I might come back in 20 years and say, you know, “Remember that, whatever, thing I was saying at 41? I was totally wrong.” But how I’ve experienced it is that you can’t get to God through your head, because it’s determined by your five senses, so therefore we’re limited to what we know, what we see, what we’ve experienced here on earth. For me, I’ve only been able to get to God through my heart, not through what I know but through what I feel because feelings lead to surrender. Surrender allows you to step into that unknown state where there’s a different level of acceptance to what is rather than what you’re choosing it to be. So for me, you release the tension, it opens you up to feelings, feelings connect you to surrender, and suddenly you’re hearing with a new ear that moves beyond human interpretation but to spiritual perception, which is infinite and limitless.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting. You know, somebody was quoted — this is an article in The New York Times that says you just can’t do all those prostrations without it doing something to you. And the truth is, you know, you’re alluding to this without saying it directly but I think, you know, Western religion, Western Christianity — in particular the kind of Protestant Christianity that has been so formative in American culture — is very much a head-trip. I mean, we really got away from the involvement of the body. And it’s not just yoga. I mean, I’m talking to people to who are Pentecostal Christians and young Conservative Jews, Muslims, who are integrating the body more and more into prayer and worship and experiencing that to be, you know, not just about worship, but to fulfill something that is absolutely basic and essential about being human.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm. It’s inevitable. It’s beautiful to me. You know, what we are taught in yoga is there’s no separation between the mind and the body and the spirit, that everything is interdependent upon the whole. And there’s such — especially in our culture, there’s so much denial about our body, because we all get so fixated on the way that it looks. If we’re not comfortable with the way that it looks, we deny it, shame it, or try to repress it.
MS. TIPPETT: Or we try to perfect it.
MS. CORN: Yeah. Yeah. Another aspect is actually using your body to pray.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, talk to me about that. Body prayer is something you do.
MS. CORN: Yeah. Well, again, it all connects ultimately back to service, which is also, you know, kind of the evolution of the work that I’ve done. But using your body to pray. I trust that if I do my yoga practice, I’m going to get stronger and more flexible. If I stay in alignment, if I don’t push, if I don’t force, then my body will organically open in time. I know that if I breathe deeply, I’ll oxygenate my body. It has an influence on my nervous system. These things are fixed and I know to be true. But I also recognize that it’s a mystical practice, and you can use your body as an expression of your devotion. So the way that you place your hands, the ways that you step a foot forward or back, everything is done as an offering. I offer the movements to someone I love or to the healing of the planet. And so if I’m moving from a state of love and my heart is open to that connection between myself and another person or myself and the universe, it becomes an active form of prayer, of meditation, of grace.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I watched a video in which you demonstrated body prayer. I think it was at the great San Francisco Yoga Conference.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, it was quite amazing to watch. You went through a sequence of poses, which are in many practices of that kind of vinyasa flow yoga, but you did it at this prayerful pace, and it was as though every breath and every movement was so incredibly full of intention. And there was a grace to it that was kind of transcendent.
MS. CORN: Thank you. Well, you don’t have to be strong or flexible to be graceful. And when you’re offering your practice as a gift, as I was in that particular — when you were watching that DVDs, as I do often, I was offering to my dad who’s very ill. And so when I have an intention behind what I’m doing, then it becomes so fluid. Because if I fall out of a pose I’m not going to swear, I’m not going to get disappointed or frustrated. I’m going to realize that this is my offering, and I don’t want to offer that energy to my father. I only want to offer him my love. And so I let my body reflect that. And when you link the body with the breath, when my focus is solely on getting the pose to embrace the breath that I’m actualizing, then the practice, it’s almost in slow motion.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: It has a sense of effortlessness. When people can connect to that, it takes the pressure off of trying to do it perfectly. It just becomes a real expression of their own heart. Sometimes it’s graceful and elegant, other times it’s kind of funky and abstract, but it’s authentic to who the person is. It’s their own poetry.
[ Music: “Beloved” by Anoushka Shankar ]
MS. TIPPETT: Yoga teacher and social activist Seane Corn. Here’s part of her introduction to body prayer to a class at the Yoga Journal San Francisco Conference.
MS. CORN: I want to show an example of how we’re going to work with body prayer. Every day when I get up to practice, I immediately look at the practice as a sacred ritual. I immediately have the sense that it’s important to set an intention and let my body activate that intention, so that every movement becomes an expression of my devotion, that every movement becomes part of the sacred ritual in this dance. And at that point, I’m not going to push, I’m not going to strain because everything that I’m offering, I’m offering with love, with the intention to heal.
And some days, I may have an individual in mind. Other days I may have something broader that’s happening in the news, and put my energy and attention there. And suddenly, whether I practice 15 minutes or 2 hours becomes really irrelevant, because what’s important is the intention that’s behind the practice. And then when I fall out of a pose, my first impulse is not to swear, or to blame the cat. I want to make it part of the experience, because I don’t want to send that energy out. And when I’m done with the practice, I can go on and do what I need to do, knowing that I used my physical body as a way to express my soul’s love.
[ Music: “Beloved” by Anoushka Shankar ]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Seane Corn through our website, onbeing.org. There you can also watch a video of her demonstration of body prayer. It is a stunning few minutes of graceful athleticism and mental and spiritual focus.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: Naked (KK ‘Mirrors’ Remix) by Anoushka Shankar]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: exploring the practicalities and power of yoga, with Seane Corn. She is a superstar in the world of yoga teaching and training. She’s also been a leader in applying the spiritual lessons of yoga to social problems. She began by working with “Children of the Night”, an organization in Los Angeles that helps child prostitutes between the ages of 11 and 17 get off the streets and begin to build normal lives. Later, she became an advocate and ambassador for YouthAIDS, an international education and prevention program. And that work inspired Seane Corn to found a nonprofit program called “Off the Mat, Into the World.” When I spoke with her, she’d just returned from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Cambodia. She was working there with prostitutes and street children.
The philosophy at the core of yoga reflects the Hindu and Buddhist belief in karma, the principle that choices, consequences, and purpose work themselves out across time, space, and multiple lifetimes. So, for example, Seane Corn sees her primary work as an activist to help people accept the given reality of whatever has happened to them – and to experience it as an opportunity for grace and for growth.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think someone might be listening to this and might say, well, this is lovely and it’s sweet and it’s all good but the world is a complicated dark place. And in fact, in the way you talk about yoga and also in how you, you say, take it off the mat, you call it a fierce journey, and I want to also talk about that, that aspect of what yoga has taught you.
MS. CORN: Sure, happily. You know, it’s — I’m a really unlikely person to be doing yoga. Like I said, I was brought up in a fairly blue-collar environment. I’m not an educated woman. Very independent. And buying into all the spiritual fluffiness has never, ever been anything that I would’ve predicted would’ve happened to my life. And why I’m so attracted to it is because it’s anything but fluffy. What it taught me — not right away, it took me awhile — once the emotions came up was that I realized that to really understand what love is and to understand this thing that they call the light, you also have to understand the opposite. You have to understand and embrace the power of the shadow, what love is not. And the shadow is also considered the dark. I hesitate to use that phrase because that’s…
MS. TIPPETT: The darkness within us, right?
MS. CORN: Yes. And is within us. And that’s the beautiful part because if it’s in me it’s also in you. And if I can understand it in me, then I can also witness it and recognize it within you without judging it. I will only judge your shadow if I’m judging my own.
MS. TIPPETT: And how does yoga make that possible or trigger that?
MS. CORN: It’s the emotional part of it. When emotions start to arise, you start to — it’s like a mirror. I start to first experience my uncomfortableness to the emotion, and then I start to witness. If you have a good teacher and can guide you through this, I start to witness my attachment to it or the story I tell myself. And I start to spin out within that story. Tension is addictive, and the shadow parts of the human experience are as well, but we tend to deny it. We tend to say the shadow’s bad. It’s wrong. We shouldn’t go there. So we shut down.
MS. TIPPETT: And when we say the shadow, are we talking about the things about ourselves we don’t like? Are we talking about things we haven’t done well? Are we talking about real vices? All of that?
MS. CORN: All of it. All of it. It depends on the judgment to it. My rage can be my shadow, but it can also be my light if it provides information for transformation. So it depends on my perception. But jealousy, obsession, inappropriate sexual behavior, drugs, alcohol, war, power — anything that’s being done from an egoistic place can be considered the shadow aspect of the human experience. One we see as “that’s bad.”
When we’re looking in yoga, no separation — everything is connected. When we start to really understand this, then we start to see that. If God is in love, and if God is in grace, and if God is in the children, all of the stuff we want to label, then we also have to say, well, there is no separation, and so God must be in the rage, and the fear, and the sadness, and in all of the experiences of our life. Because if we don’t embrace that, what we’re saying is that there is an other, that there’s a disconnect.
What I learned along the way — rather, I should say I’m learning it more and more, is that everything that’s happening on a planetary level, on a global level, the war and the violence and the terrorism, the oppression, everything is a manifestation of our collective thoughts. Nothing is being done to us that we are not a part of. And so very often in a classroom I’ll ask people, “Who here wants to see the end of war?” You know, of course everyone’s going to raise their hand.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. CORN: “Who here wants peace?” They’ll raise their hand. “Who here wants happiness and abundance for all?” And, you know, everyone is in agreement. But then I’ll ask the same question and I’ll say, “Well, what about your ex-husband or your ex-wife?” And the room, they start to laugh.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: Because, you know, because in theory it’s a great idea, but when you start to individualize it you have to say — and I ask myself this question all the time — where am I living an interpersonal war? Where am I creating some sort of psychic terrorism between me and another person or my own form of oppression? And if I’m not dealing with that which is within me, then I’m a part of this problem. And I don’t want to be a part of the problem, so I need to go into myself and see where are my shadows. Where am I not seeing that there is a bigger picture, a mystical picture, at play? We can perceive things as bad or we can perceive things as opportunities.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You say, “Our work is not to want experiences to change” — and I would say this is very reflective of Buddhist teaching, for example — “not to want experiences to change, but to pray for a shift of perspective.” Why does that make all the difference?
MS. CORN: And I say this, you know, I have the ability to articulate information, but I never want to mislead people into thinking that I live this way all the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. [laughs]
MS. CORN: I struggle with this, especially doing work in developing countries, which is where my heart is. What I pray for, and I struggle with this every day, is I ask God, “Do not take this experience away, but give me the strength to perceive this experience differently.” And these are my prayers. Life happens. People die. People get AIDS. People that you love get very, very ill, like my own dad. And that’s life. It’s a bummer. And on a very human level, I wish it could be different. But on a spiritual level, that’s just how it goes down. And we can suffer by trying to make it different and trying to will our perception into trying to understand it or get it. Or we can ask spirit to give us the strength to view an experience in a way that can be more empowering to the whole.
When you’re perceiving an experience differently, what I have to do is say, God is in all the moments, the light and the dark, and the fact that it’s been delivered to me gives me the opportunity to either step into love or to step into fear. It’s my choice. Give me the strength so that I can move towards love, and if I can’t, help me to understand the purposefulness of my fear. And I say it as though it’s easy, but it’s probably the hardest thing ever. But I know in my own soul that this is the way that I want to work.
MS. TIPPETT: When you say, you know, that everything happens — and you’re not the only person saying this — in order for us, you know, every moment, however terrible, gives us an opportunity to move closer to transformation. But then, you know, for example, you’re working with this organization Children of the Night in Los Angeles, which is pulling 11- to 17-year-olds, boys and girls, who become prostitutes, you know, off the streets. And, I mean, can you say to them, “Well, this is for your transformation; this is an opportunity”?
MS. CORN: I wouldn’t say that to …
MS. TIPPETT: Or can you look at them and believe that?
MS. CORN: I have to believe it. Otherwise I couldn’t do my work. It’s not for me to say to an 11-year-old kid, “everything happens the way it’s supposed to in order for your soul to transform.” But if I don’t believe it in my own heart, then it’s very difficult for me to show up and dignify the human experience and empower their experience. Again, it’s about — it — life happens. But what are we going to do when life does happen to empower it, rather than stay victimized by it for the rest of our life? And, you know, I struggle with this working with children, because that’s, you know, my life is — I’m surrounded by adolescent prostitutes, both here in the U.S. and developing countries. I’ve seen levels of abuse that are absolutely unimaginable, and every single time, my spiritual practice is in question because I have to show up and say to myself, “Dignify the human experience with love and have no attachment to the end results.” But I have a lot of attachment to the end result. I want to see the end of exploitation.
I get very angry at pimps and at the men who have sex with children, adult men who exploit children on this level. I have a very difficult time seeing the god within their own soul. And so I have to take some very deep breaths and try to remember that there is a bigger picture at play, that I may have no clue what it is. I don’t know what karma is being burnt. I don’t know what lessons need to be learned. But I do believe that we are all here for a singular purpose and that is to learn what love is. Again, it’s all the mystery.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you if these experiences of yours, these insights, and especially the work you do with child prostitutes — there’s also this shadow side of this observation that mind, body, and spirit are linked. We know that when there is sexual violence, when there is rape or, you know, when there’s sexual abuse, it’s not just bodies that suffer; it’s the soul.
MS. CORN: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: How has yoga helped you understand that more deeply?
MS. CORN: Well, again, it goes back into my own history, and it all lines — you know, it’s all interdependent and connected and that’s where I see the god. My first experience of betrayal, perhaps, was molestation at six years old. And I’m very public with this. I’ve talked about this frequently because it’s led me to where I am today. It’s why I find so much gratitude, and I marvel at how one thing can become something else. When you’re a child, you have no — I had no sense of sexuality, of course, yet I experienced both panic and pleasure. And I didn’t know what pleasure was, so I felt ashamed and guilty. And, again, this is not something I was conscious about. I was very aware of the molestation, but I wasn’t as conscious of the intricacies that I’m sharing with you.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. CORN: That came later. And so when I went through my own journey to the understanding that these events have happened, now what am I going to do with it? Am I going to continue pointing the finger back to my life and saying, “You did this to me and therefore I get to spend the rest of my life in inappropriate relationships, afraid of the world, because of what you did”? Or can I say, like, “No. That was done. Here’s how it disconnected me to spirit. Here’s how I can reclaim this. And now look what I get to do with it, not in spite of the experience, but because of it.” And suddenly this thing that was so bad actually became a gift. And that gift not only changes my heart, but maybe can impact someone else’s.
MS. TIPPETT: You also in that practice of body prayer, I think it was there, you talked about thinking about, dedicating your practice and channeling that energy that you experience and tap into and take in and release in yoga, even towards the people who have, you know, not just towards the people you love and the things you’re grateful for, but the people you’re not grateful for. Right? That the people who’ve hurt you.
MS. CORN: I have to.
MS. TIPPETT: And what happens when you do that? I mean, what …
MS. CORN: Part of me gets irritated, but that’s just my ego. That’s the part of me that just doesn’t know better. But my heart opens. The people who have hurt or harmed me were also my teachers. They provided fierce lessons that brought me closer to myself and then therefore God, and also taught me about life. I always pray for the people who have hurt and harmed me, and just when I think I’ve forgiven them, I forgive them again, because always that energy will rear its head, and I have to make sure that I’m constantly keeping myself clean. Otherwise, I’m holding onto that shadow of anger, and the inability to forgive, they say, is a poison you take hoping someone else will die. And, again, it keeps us disconnected from God.
[Music: “Heard About You Last Night” by Mogwai]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with renowned yoga teacher Seane Corn, exploring the power and practicalities of yoga, and its potential as a tool for social healing.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve created something, which you call Off the Mat, Into the World. And a lot of the projects you’re working on and that you were working on before this have to do with children. You mentioned Children of the Night, the Cambodian’s Children Fund, YouthAIDS. Tell me, how did you, though, come to really become activist in that way? Because this is a discussion within — you talk about the yoga community, which is actually quite large now. We’re talking, I don’t know, 20 million people. But in fact, it’s not necessarily a connected network. So talk to me about how that evolution took place in you and for you.
MS. CORN: Well, when I was young, I started getting involved in activism around AIDS — when I was 19. But I was a horrible activist. I was, you know, on the soapbox with a megaphone and a finger up and telling everyone else how to live their life.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: Because I hadn’t dealt with my rage. So being an activist was an outlet for me, and not an appropriate one. It’s not an effective way to create healing. So I got out of activism and really spent a lot of my years through yoga just healing and trying to understand and coming to terms with the way that I believe spirit operates at this time. And something had happened in 1999 where abundance came into my life. And I’m telling this story because I don’t want it to seem like I just decided that I was going to go out into the world and serve, and Saint Seane was going to go and save the children. It wasn’t like that. I made a little bit of money, so I thought, well, you know, my skill is yoga and there’s an at-risk community out there and they could probably use a little breathing and some yoga work so, you know, maybe I’ll work in the prison system.
So I researched and I found out about “Children of the Night.” So I thought, Oh, okay, adolescent prostitutes, mostly girls. Oh, they need to get in their body. They need to learn about breathing. This’ll be great. You know, I can help them to connect. I walked in, you know, all white and fluffy-headed and, you know, the girls are mostly at that shelter at that time black and Latina, and a couple of boys, you know, homosexual, all street hustlers. They were defiant, rude, so completely not impressed by, you know, the fabulousness of me.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. CORN: Flicking each other’s bras. Like they just could care less. The only reason they did anything was, because there were counselors around forcing them to, essentially. And they were just the — you could just see the darkness on these kids, and they seemed to me in that moment as hopeless. That’s how I felt. And they were — I left the shelter after just a horrifying experience trying to teach them yoga.
I went into my car and I was really emotional and I was just thinking, these kids are messed up. They’re never going to get better. They’re going to go back out into the world, you know, as criminals, and going on and on in my head. And it always takes me a while to kind of, you know, where I always think spirit’s saying, like, “You done yet? You going to wake up to this yet?” Because I realized that I had just met the part of myself that I had denied, that I called into my experience the child in me that had been, that is, defiant and angry and scared to death and has absolutely zero tools for healing.
MS. TIPPETT: And, in fact, had been sexually abused also.
MS. CORN: Yes. And, honestly, God is hysterical, and I get the joke really, really late always. Because I got exactly God was saying, “It’s time. It’s time. You can’t deny this. If you really want to heal and open your heart to love, then you’ve got to find the places within you that’s disconnected from God. And I’m giving you an opportunity. Go back. And don’t serve these girls; meet them. Go and meet you.” And that’s exactly what happened. I went back to those girls, and the next time I went in, I shared my story. And instead of teaching them anything, we just played and we connected and we laughed and the yoga was, you know, a mess to the outside eye. What it was was just a bunch of human beings laughing. And the more we laughed and giggled and just connected, the more they opened to me and the more we realized that we were both alike. And it was by learning to love those little girls, I learned to love that part of me that I had felt, especially the part of me that had received pleasure from the molestation, I got to reclaim her and understand. I understand that little girl and really forgive her and bring her back home again. So I always say, like, who got served? It wasn’t those kids. It was me.
[Music: “Beauty and the East” by Mogwai]
MS. TIPPETT: Here are some remarks that Seane Corn made at the Omega Institute, a holistic learning center in Rhinebeck, New York.
MS. CORN: Give me a junkie and a whore any day of the week. They’re my teachers. Find me someone who has gone to the darkest parts of their own character where they were so close to their own self-destruction and found a way to get up and out of it, and I will bow on my knees to you, because I want to know how did you do it. How did you go to that such a place of self-neglect and hate and self-rejection and heal? You’re my teacher. Who better than you, the alcoholics and the whores, to help someone like me who can’t get out of that?
MS. TIPPETT: You know, as we’ve said, there are so many people doing yoga now. There are yoga centers springing up on every street corner in every city and not just yoga centers, but classes and YMCAs. And I’m sure you’re aware within Christian circles there is some resistance to that, some wariness, because there is this sacred aspect to the tradition of yoga, the sacred history. And, you know, there is some movement to replace some of the Hindu phrases or the Sanskrit phrases with Christian vocabulary and words. I’m just curious about your response to that, how you think about that.
MS. CORN: You know, again, yoga has been happening for thousands of years, and it’s certainly a continually evolving practice. I like to think that yoga itself is bigger than any one tradition and that it has its place in all the different traditions. And if a Christian needs to bring in — I mean, when I go into the Bible Belt, for example, and using prayer in the class, I will always mention Jesus Christ because I want to invoke into the space a sense of the sacred that’s going to be familiar and comfortable to the practitioners that I’m working with so that they feel at home and they feel welcomed. So I don’t really have a problem with it.
That’s probably not a popular decision or opinion, but there is room for yoga and Christianity. There’s room for yoga and Judaism. There’s room for yoga in all the different traditions. What it comes down to, what you can’t take away is that yoga means we are all one, and so it’s fine by me. If that’s what’s going to take these religions to get everyone breathing together, moving together, releasing tension together, and being more available to authentic prayer — not prayer from your head, but prayer from your heart — that’s more unified, then I welcome it.
[Music: Sunrise In Injumbakam by Pathaan]
MS. TIPPETT: Seane Corn is the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS and cofounder of “Off the Mat, Into the World.” Her first DVD, “Body-Mind Flow,” is available now.
[Music: Sunrise In Injumbakam by Pathaan]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this show with Seane Corn, go to our website onbeing.org. You can also stream our show on your phone through our new iPhone and Android apps.
[Music: Sunrise In Injumbakam by Pathaan]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Julie Rawe.
Special thanks this week to Betsy Stretch and Matthew Sanford.