Hands to Heart Center has been making yoga accessible to the people of Boston since 2014. Today we are chatting with Jamaica Plain resident and Hands to Heart Center founder Susan Lovett about practicing trauma-informed yoga, the importance of volunteering and how Hands to Heart Center was created.
K: You are very involved in the community. What are some ways that you volunteer and why is volunteering important to you?
S: I’m a very active member of The Connelly Library. I am such a fast and avid reader so I’d never be able to afford all the books I want to read. I love my library so I joined The Friends of The Connelly Library group. A very close friend of mine started Girls Rock Campaign Boston and I’m a founding Board member of that organization. I provide training for GRCB on youth development and best practices for youth work. Most of the GRCB volunteers are musicians so I’m able to offer the youth perspective. I’m on the Governing Board of the Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester and I’m also a server at The Pine Street Inn. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life but Hands to Heart Center is the organization that now receives the vast majority of volunteer time. I do love volunteering at other organizations and I am a huge believer in the importance of volunteerism. It can be transformative to one’s life just like yoga. Volunteers get back as much as they give. A great thing about JP is that there are so many organizations to choose from to volunteer for right here in our backyard. The meaningful social justice work that is happening in JP is remarkable and it is something that we should all be proud of.
S: I’ve been a social worker for low-income youth and families in Boston for 25 years. I work with youth and families who have trauma in communities of color. I have been doing that work my whole adult life. About seven years ago I started practicing yoga because I had all this soreness and tension in my neck and shoulders. I know it was partly related to my job because there is a lot of stress in that. I was benefitting from my own yoga practice in many different ways. My shoulders were able to relax. I had more energy. I felt that on the weeks that I could go to yoga classes more consistently , I had more patience. I loved the community of people I met as I was finding that people were very kind, compassionate and cared about lots of different social justice issues. I noticed that the local communities of yoga at had so much to offer.
K: How did you become a yoga teacher?
S: About six or seven years ago, I was trying to introduce yoga to some of the youth clients I was working with and they were not interested. They thought it was weird and for white people. Fast forward a couple of years and yoga became much more mainstream. I took a 200 hour yoga teacher training to learn more and during that I had to teach classes. I started teaching them at the Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester. This time around people couldn’t get enough yoga! I had teachers asking if I could come to their classrooms for different reasons. I was a person who wasn’t intending to be a teacher and at that time I was brand new and still in the program. The requests I was getting were pretty advanced and for very specific groups. I was being asked to teach classes for family members, for larger bodied women, young boys with ADHD and special education students. I got a request from the Roxbury YMCA to teach every Friday night in the summer for their teen night. I wasn’t able to make that commitment so I asked other yoga teachers who I knew if they were interested. 100% of them said ‘Yes.’ That was when I realized the volunteer potential of Boston-area yoga teachers.
K: How was the Hands to Heart Center created?
S: On the one hand, there were all these requests for yoga in low-income communities of color and on the other hand, there was a growing community of trained yoga teachers who wanted to share their practice and yet the two worlds were pretty separate. In this country, the majority of people who practice and teach yoga are white. If someone has the time and money to complete a 200-hour teacher training, they typically are a person with privilege. I had one foot in both worlds and I thought I could bring them together. Right from the start it was successful and overwhelmingly popular.
Now it’s been almost three years later and we have 175 volunteers who are yoga teachers throughout Boston and outside of Boston. We have served over 50 community partners with over 1.000 free, customized yoga classes. Hands to Heart Center is the only non-profit yoga organization in Boston and our goal is to increase access to yoga. It is such an important goal because there is scientific evidence that shows that a regular yoga practice alleviates anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma. As a social worker who is always looking for effective interventions, I was thinking ‘This is it!’ Yoga is a relatively fast-acting intervention that anyone can do, in any location and in any condition. The young people I work with love to be physically active but they often need a basketball court and a basketball and other people. That is not always easy to come by. So many physical activities require equipment, some skills and a location but yoga can be done in a jail cell, on a bed, or even standing in a line. This was the intervention that I had always been searching for because once someone learns how to do it is ultimately free. It’s your body. It’s your breath. It’s your movement.
In all Hands to Heart Center classes, we provide yoga mats, LED candles, essential oils, music, and lavender eye pillows that are great for relaxing. Our teachers come in to institutional spaces and put out beautifully colored yoga mats, set up the LED candles, dim the lights and offer scented essential oils for students to apply to their pulse points. We transform whatever space we are in and shift the energy. All of our teachers participate in a Hands to Heart Center orientation and are provided with resources and ongoing trainings that support community-based teaching for beginners. This can be different from studio-style teaching. Hands to Heart Center yoga classes are trauma-sensitive. They encourage people to go at their own pace and all of the cues are invitations with modifications offered for each posture. Physical consent cards are used in our classes so that teachers know which students would prefer not to receive physical assists. Teachers don’t use Sanskrit or introduce any advance poses that may intimidate students.
K: What is trauma informed yoga? How is it different from other types of yoga?
S: Trauma-informed yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga mean can mean many different things. I’m participating in a 300-hour certification program for Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) so I’m learning a very specific style of teaching. Generally speaking about trauma-informed yoga, there are some best practices with invitational language where there are always options. Teachers are cueing in a way that is welcoming and not authoritative. In working with people with trauma, we want to give choices but not so many that they become overwhelming. Trauma survivors often feel that their choices didn’t matter. We don’t want anyone to feel that they don’t have choices in class but we also recognize that it can be overwhelming to have too many choices. Trauma-sensitive yoga teachers also have to be very mindful of how they use physical contact. In most mainstream yoga classes, a yoga teacher may just come up and put their hands on a student’s body – this is called an assist. For many students that can be fine and, as a yoga student, I often welcome an assist. For people with trauma, touch isn’t always welcome, especially certainly not unexpected touch. TCTSY teaching has no contact. Taking touch off the table makes it predictable for the student. In TCTSY, classes are always set up the same way. Typically, there is no music and the focus is on the body and present moment experiences. The teacher will speak clearly and slowly and give the students time to move. Teachers use language that helps students to notice what’s going on in their bodies. In other types of trauma-informed yoga classes, teachers may use physical assist option cards. These are cards that students can use to say yes or no to an adjustment or assist. There is no body shaming or fat shaming in trauma-informed yoga and it would be great if that were true for all yoga classes. So, trauma-sensitive yoga teaching can be delicate and there is a lot of complexity to it but very talented and skilled teachers are working with Hands to Heart Center to do teach with this kind of intention and compassion.
K: Where did you grow up? Is your hometown similar to Jamaica Plain?
S: In Brockton, Massachusetts. JP is really different in the sense that there are so many events, programs, workshops and performances around the arts. Brockton is pretty economically depressed and has been for quite a while. It is a former industrial city so there are high levels of unemployment and for many years it has seen some of the lowest real estate value in the state. There is high crime and lots of social problems. At one time JP was similar to Brockton but JP has really changed a lot. But they’re both diverse politically, ethnically and socio-economically.
K: How long have you lived in Jamaica Plain? What part of Jamaica Plain do you live in?
S: I have lived here for 16 years. I live in a place that’s called Parkside. It’s by Franklin Park. It wasn’t called Parkside when I first moved there. At that time, there were lots of empty lots around where I live. There was some street crime. There was much more affordable housing. In the 16 years that I have lived there it has completely changed. All of the empty lots have been developed into luxury condos.
K: Why did you choose to move to Jamaica Plain?
S: I had previously lived in the South End and I really loved it. That was about 25 years ago. It was an affordable neighborhood at that time. It was diverse, exciting and beautiful in the way that JP is. Those rents and housing prices increased to the point that it was no longer affordable. When I moved to JP it was the more affordable option. I love all of the green space, diversity, all the shops and restaurants, and I had a lot of friends that lived in JP.
K: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen to Jamaica Plain over the years?
S: The housing costs are the biggest change I’ve seen and also the most concerning one. JP was considered affordable and now it is one of the least affordable neighborhoods of Boston. I think that Boston doesn’t even have many affordable neighborhoods left. I see a lot of younger people and artists not being able to live in JP. I see more upper income people moving here.
Another big change that I have seen is all the work being done to Forest Hills. The bridge came down. The MetroMark Apartments went up and the Flanagan and Seaton buildings came down. The parking lot next to the courthouse is also going to be a big development. Washington Street is going to be unrecognizable in the next five years. That area is going to look totally different.
K: What is your favorite thing about Jamaica Plain?
S: I love that JP is progressive and for the most part is social justice minded. I can’t imagine living in a community that’s not like that. I can’t imagine living in a community that’s not celebratory of all diversity whether its gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability and ability. I love that JP is that place. I hope we stay that way. I really also love the green space. Being able to get to some trees and some water counteracts so many of the effects that city living can have on us. JP is aesthetically pleasing and there are so many great old houses. We also have a lot of great places to eat. I am really into JP Seafood but I happily go into any restaurant in JP.
K: What would you like to see happen to Jamaica Plain in the future?
S:I think it’s all about affordability and affordable housing. I really don’t know what is going to happen. I just don’t know how people are going to be able to afford to stay here. What happens when families and young people and artists can’t live in the city? It becomes a lot less creative, interesting, compassionate and politically active and it becomes generic, exclusive and the politics probably change. Boston is a small city and JP is an even smaller part of that city and lately it seems that everyone wants to live here. JP is thriving in so many ways but it’s important for all of us to support the residents who may be struggling. Honestly, I don’t quite see the solution for it but I’m talking to people and I’m listening and I hope to be a part of it. People want to stay here. This is their home.
You can catch Hands to Heart Center every Saturday morning at CityPop Egleston from 11am to 12pm for a free yoga class.