As the director of 7 Centers Yoga Arts in Sedona, Arizona where she leads five yoga teacher trainings per year, co-founder of the non-profit Mystis, Inc., former president of the International Yoga College, and yoga teacher in the Middle East, Ruth Hartung fills her life with spiritual activism.
In the midst of a 200-hour teacher training Ruth was leading, she took time to talk with me on the phone. She was excited to speak about the diversity of this training: There’s one woman who is overweight and well-known in social media for inspiring people who are overweight to do yoga and one Palestinian woman in the US for the first time.
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“Yoga is for everybody. A lot of people see the perfect bodies when they see people in magazines who are doing yoga and they feel like they couldn’t do it because their bodies don’t look like that and they have limitations,” Ruth said. “One of the things that’s important to me in the trainings is that people understand what the deeper aspect of yoga is. It has more to do with what’s going on inside than how it looks on the outside.”
Ruth is passionate about sharing the deeper aspect of yoga with people all over the world. In May of 2014 Ruth went to Palestine with her mentor and teacher Rama Jyoti Vernon, Rob Schware of the Give Back Yoga Foundation and Suzanne Manafort of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans to offer yogic teachings sponsored by Farashe Yoga Center in Ramallah.
How did you get involved with bringing yogic teachings to Palestine and do you plan to do more?
In the 90’s Rama was going back and forth to Israel and Palestine facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Rob Schware and Give Back Yoga Foundation had sponsored two Palestinian teachers for further yoga education in the United States a few years ago. It was through his contacts that we were able to offer yoga workshops (primarily for psychosocial counselors) last May in Palestine.
This year Rama and I have offered to help establish yoga teacher trainings with an emphasis in yoga therapy. We would help give more advanced training to Palestinian yoga teacher trainers and then assist in establishing yoga classes in the refugee camps. The Palestinian woman in the training I’m doing now is part of this “training the teachers” program. We’re also looking at another tier of teachers that would be trained to offer yoga classes in refugee camps. There is tremendous interest in yoga. Even with people who have never encountered yoga before. We found that there was absolutely no ideological issue for those that were Islamic or Muslim with learning yoga. They clearly saw it as something that could help them with the stress in their lives and build better health. We were thrilled to find that out. A few of them had experienced yoga before. A lot of them had not. One of the most satisfying things was that we heard stories of them taking the practices we were teaching home to their families and teaching their children.
Last May almost all the students had to cross checkpoints to get to the Farashe Center. Even if their home was in the next town. Checkpoints delay them from getting places because the lines can be long and it can take them up to two hours to cross a checkpoint. One of the things that was so fascinating is that they started to understand that yoga could help them find more centeredness or more balance or allow them to cope with their daily stresses with more dignity. A day into the workshop, some students reported how they started using the practices as they were standing in line for the checkpoints. They began practicing some of their asanas like Tadasana. It was gratifying for us as teachers. Their challenges are so great that they probably would integrate the yoga into their lives more quickly than perhaps someone else would in the United States. They were very grateful that we would take our time and cared enough to come and teach. They were very thirsty for what we had to offer and quick to practice what we gave to them as tools. That’s something that’s particularly rewarding in working with this type of outreach situation.
How did you end up offering yoga as a tool for peace? Why yoga?
Rama has a long history of facilitating dialogue in conflict situations using the principles of the Yoga Sutras as the basis for mediation. She spent eight years going back and forth to the Soviet Union before the Berlin Wall came down. She has done some amazing work internationally in war zones in actual diplomatic situations using yogic technique and yogic philosophy, and this is something I’ve taken a deep interest in. She feels that those that teach yoga are natural diplomats and so has offered training in conflict resolution based on the Yoga Sutras where there is a focus upon finding and resolving inner conflict first. When people start to understand how to do it for themselves, they’re in a better position to be able to assist when there’s conflict outside or in an external situation. The skills that are involved in yoga are very helpful in mediation and conflict resolution.
One of my yogic lineages is with the Bihar School of Yoga founded by Swami Satyananda. He was quoted in the 60’s as saying, ‘Yoga will become a mighty world power and change the course of world events.’ At that time there wasn’t much yoga anywhere outside of India. He really felt that yoga has something to offer society and that it’s important that yoga teachings come out of the domain of the ashram and be used to help our social conditions. That’s one of the things that I always hail to as I do this work and this type of spiritual activism. I really believe that yoga has something to offer and it seems like it shows up over and over again in many situations where yoga teachers are invited or asked to come help or bring yoga where people see the value of it.
What other projects is Mystis currently involved in?
Here in Arizona we’ve made a commitment to see if we can get yoga classes as an option in all of the elementary and middle schools in this area. I have a student who comes to our studio and sometimes brings her granddaughter. Her granddaughter told her that the yoga helped her in high school. She found herself experiencing mental and emotional upset and it was the yoga that helped pull her out of depression. This student of mine wants to support kids having access to yoga. With her inspiration, we have taken initiative to see if we can get yoga classes available to students if they want it.
We also have a children’s yoga teacher training program. We’re hoping that some of the elementary or middle school teachers will be able to attend and develop some tools that they can then use in teaching. We already have teachers that have been trained in yoga that are doing things like teaching their kids how to be still and breathe prior to starting a lesson. Some teachers integrate yoga in their classes by helping the students work with meditative skills, breathing techniques or sun salutations as a way for kids to learn how to constructively direct and manage their own energy.