S1 E12: Aditi Desai on Bringing Yoga to Diverse Populations

Aditi Desai, yoga teacher at the Meadows Outpatient Center in Silicon Valley, California, sits down with host David Condos to shine a light on yoga’s ability to heal us – not just physically, but also psychologically – and she shares the practical steps she takes to offer yoga to vulnerable populations in a trauma-sensitive way.

Podcast Transcript

Aditi Desai: Hi, my name is Aditi Desai. I’m a trauma-sensitive yoga instructor for the Meadows Outpatient program.

David Condos: Awesome. Well, Aditi, thank you so much for being with us.

Aditi: Thank you for having me.

David: Absolutely. Let’s start by just introducing you as a person. So your story, your journey to caring about this work.

Aditi: I served in Peace Corps back in 2011 and my journey to yoga started before then. I was practicing on and off being a first-generation Indian-American, I have this like interesting relationship with yoga as it’s part of my culture, my heritage, but it wasn’t something that I necessarily practiced all the time. So I practiced it on and off and then when I was in Peace Corps, you get bored a lot in Peace Corps and there’s a lot of emotional-

David: Where were you?

Aditi: I was in Uganda, East Africa.

David: Okay, go on.

Aditi: You have a lot of downtime and there’s a lot of emotional ups and downs. It’s like an emotional roller coaster in that to interchange years. What I found that really helped me was yoga. I would wake up and have the intention of doing a short yoga flow and that really helped ease that roller coaster of emotion. Like when I was feeling really down or upset, I would turn to my yoga, I would turn to my meditation and it really brought me back to my purpose of why I decided to do Peace Corp, why I wanted to serve that community, why I wanted to go overseas and serve others.

David: So you felt the benefits.

Aditi: Yes, I personally felt the benefits of not just physically like yes, yoga can have this great physical piece that can get you into shape and get you physically healthy, but I felt so many mental health benefits and things that I never knew that I was feeling like anxiety and even slight depression. I felt so much better, so much more at ease. Because to me during that time, especially yoga really taught me that I was enough. What I was doing was enough. I didn’t have to push myself to be some savior volunteer, like saving all the children in Uganda. I didn’t have to be that person.

David: Because that’s a lot of pressure if that’s how you approach it.

Aditi: It is a lot of pressure, yes. So that’s what yoga gave me.

David: Right, and so up until that point, you had just been enjoying yoga in your own way- [crosstalk]

Aditi: Yes, just myself, for like selfishly like, “Yes, yoga is amazing.”

David: So when you made that shift and you started teaching it, was the response there just overwhelmingly positive right away?

Aditi: Yes.

David: What did you see?

Aditi: Yes, it was absolutely amazing how open everybody was to it and how much they felt the benefits almost instantaneously. I started working individually with individual therapies. We had like a behavioral health program and it was just positive feedback after positive feedback. Once we started promoting the service to clients, I couldn’t open my schedule fast enough. It’s almost like I gave people something they never knew they wanted and once they realized that they wanted it, they couldn’t get enough of it.

After about two and a half years, it got to a point where I was like, “I have to take this leap of faith because this is something. This is something real. This is something helpful. This is something that will serve a community in a way that will fulfill my passion,” and at the same time, it’s not going to be something where I have to sacrifice financially too much, right. Because I think that’s a big thing for a lot of folks who are trying to follow their passion is like, what’s the financial cost? Especially in California-

David: Right, where the cost of living is so high.

Aditi: Yes, and I think that’s why it took me so long to take that leap. It was like, okay, financially how is this going to work out? As cheesy as it sounds, as soon as I put that intention out there of like, this is what I want to do, this is what I feel like I’m meant to be doing, all these opportunities opened up to me. It was like the universe was telling me like, “Yes, you finally figured out what’s your purpose is, so here, go.”

David: Yes, and there’s such a great need.

Aditi: Yes.

David: Before we dive in deeper on the work you’re doing here at The Meadows, I want to circle back to the vulnerable populations part of this discussion. Because you said like you came from a public health background, right, and so you had this passion even back to your Peace Corps days, you had this passion of like doing something for the greater good and I think that’s really cool how that ties in and that angle of trying to reach these vulnerable populations. Start by just describing what that means, the “vulnerable population.”

Aditi: Yes, to me vulnerable population – I will say like specifically within yoga – is people who don’t have the financial or physical access to get yoga in a studio. There are so many barriers, like whether you live in a low socioeconomic area or you live in the suburbs and the yoga studios may be in town and you don’t have transportation.

David: Access.

Aditi: Yes, that physical access, and then there’s the financial piece. Yoga studios are expensive, not just in California, everywhere. They’re so expensive. So I really wanted to reach populations who deserved to get the same benefits. To me, everybody deserves to be able to try everything they can but not have to worry about how am I going to pay for this $20 class? How am I going to pay for this membership?

Then further defining just general vulnerable populations, they’re folks who have some kind of need, some kind of support needs. For me, it’s like people living with HIV, incarcerated youth I work with, people in addiction recovery. Those are the populations that reach out to me where yoga can really make a huge difference.

David: As you are identifying these populations and you believe in yourself, you’ve experienced benefits yourself, you want everybody to get that. What have been the steps that you’ve taken to reach those populations and get out there?

Aditi: Yes, what I basically did was I tried to reach out to places that I had the instinct that they would reach out to for services that they needed, support that they need. When you’re talking about people living with HIV, where do they go? They go to hospitals, they go to their doctors’ offices, they go to small healthcare centers. Incarcerated youth, you reach out to jails, people in recovery you reach out to recovery centers. So that’s what I did is I basically went online, looked in the areas that I was willing to travel to and say, “Okay, what are all these facilities that I can reach out to and promote this service?”

David: And meet those people where they already are.

Aditi: Exactly, and that’s a huge tenet in my personal yoga practice and yoga teaching, but also in the greater trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga practice, is meeting people where they’re at. I never wanted to force people to come to this one place where I’m advertising, “Hey, we have trauma-informed yoga, we have trauma-sensitive yoga. So you come to me, you spend that hour and a half in Bay Area traffic and come to me.” No, that’s not going to work. It’s never going to work if you’re trying to really, really help these populations. So you have to go and find where they are and offer it to them and they may be resistant.

David: Yes, that’s the next thing I was going to ask. Once you’re physically reaching them, how do you reach them and get them to buy-in?

Aditi: A lot of it is finding the staff. A lot of these facilities are very research-oriented. So I try and find research, I try and find testimonials. I give them my own story too of how it helped me. I will say though, in California it’s been a lot easier I think than-

David: People are more open?

Aditi: Yes, people are much more open to almost experimenting. I feel like in Florida, it was a lot of I really had to show like quantitatively, these are the improvement scales that yoga has produced. But in California, it’s like here we get that it’s more than numbers, it’s more than what you can find in a research paper. It’s like there’s that intuitive, like, “Yes, this is a healing existential greater thing that you can’t put on paper necessarily.” I think what’s helped a lot of like almost convinced a lot of people is my own story of talking about how emotionally it’s helped me, how it’s given me a more of a positive outlook on life and then specifically with people working in addiction, I think there’s always that up and down, whether they’re detoxing, whether they’re-

David: Of what they are going through?

Aditi: Yes, exactly. I think it’s more that then their actual resistance to yoga. The patients wanted it and then some days they didn’t. It would be the same patient. I would see one week and they’d be really into it and the next week they’d be like, “Can we just lay down and meditate the whole time? I don’t want to move.” That’s where my public health background really helps me. It’s that understanding how all these health needs or life needs, I guess I could put it, affect mood and reactions and knowing that I can’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to come to yoga class. Because it’s not me, it’s what’s going on with them, right.

David: Yes, they kind of roll with what they are going through and respond to that?

Aditi: Yes, exactly.

David: You’ve mentioned the term trauma-informed yoga a couple of times. Could you dive into that a little bit, describe what that is and how it may be different than what someone has experienced at their local studios somewhere?

Aditi: Sure. It’s much more about the client. It’s much more focused on the client’s needs and some basic tenets of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga is making everything optional and invitational. So the language that I use as I guide the clients through a series of poses or breathwork is all imitational. ISo it’s like if you’re ready to, we’ll move on to this. Whenever you’re willing, shift to this, that kind of language.

David: Right, because yoga can be a little intimidating.

Aditi: Yes.

David: I say this as someone who has done yoga but is not like super good at it, it’s great to be like, “If I can’t do that, it’s good to just stay where I’m at for a minute.” I like that.

Aditi: Yes, and you take that in contrast to a, and this is a super generalization but to a yoga studio, where they’ll be like, “Okay, now forward fold. Okay, now bring your hands to the mat.” [crosstalk]

David: It’s more of like this is a program.

Aditi: It’s a very different language from being invitational to being guided, that’s the right word, yes. The other tenets of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga is like there’s like a specific orientation of the room specific like planning of the room. I make sure everybody’s got a circle so we’re all on the same plane. There’s no like-

David: Front and back.

Aditi: Yes, there’s no one in front no one in back. There’s also not that sense of like, I’m the teacher you must do what I say. It’s more of like, we’re in this together, so let’s do this together if you want to. I also orient everyone so that all the clients are closer to the door. Within the circle, I’m at the back wall. They have basically easiest access to the door if they need to- if their something comes up and they’re like, “No, I need to leave.” You don’t ever want to block anyone’s exit especially if, let’s say they have a history of trauma. Then one of the biggest pieces is hands-off.

In a traditional yoga class, you may have experienced a teacher just coming up to you and saying, “I’m going to adjust your shoulders,” and they and they put their hands on your shoulders and they bring them down. Some teachers won’t even warn you that they’re going to do that, right.

David: The physical touch.

Aditi: They’ll just come behind you and they’ll touch your shoulders and adjust you, which may be fine but to me, it seems very intrusive and just a lot of assumptions going on there. I don’t know what’s going on with you and you don’t know what’s going on with me. So who’s to say that you can just adjust me? I might have a shoulder injury, I might be going through trauma right now. You don’t know, right, no one knows. So for me, keeping everything hands-off. So whenever I offer an adjustment it’s all through verbal or I show it on my own body, and it’s all for injury prevention.

I would never adjust someone because they’re aligned wrong. I would only say, “Can you move your foot forward so that you don’t hurt your ankle in the long term?” It just makes sense. In any place, what makes it okay for you to just touch someone without them consenting to it, right? I’ve translated all these tenets into my yoga studio practice too. Because for me, I truly believe that all yoga should be trauma-sensitive, trauma-informed yoga. Because even when you’re working with someone who can pay $20 to come to a yoga studio, that doesn’t mean that they have never been through trauma. That doesn’t mean that they are not also going through recovery, that they may not have a chronic illness or an injury.

So it’s not fair for me to assume that just because you can come to my studio that means that you-

David: You don’t have any of those problems.

Aditi: Yes, you don’t have anything else going on, right? That’s like. I think one of my biggest things in my grand plan of life is to try and really work with the yoga studios and yoga teacher trainings and say, “Hey, this is a big deal. This is the thing that needs to be incorporated in all classes.” Whether it’s a power yoga class or a gentle restorative yoga class.

David: Zooming into the work that you do here at the Meadows Outpatient Center in Silicon Valley, how do you describe the relationship that yoga can have with this recovery journey, specifically looking at substance use recovery, mental health recovery? What does yoga bring into that?

Aditi: The stereotype I guess of like addiction recovery or behavioral health recovery or treatment is very much talking. I know things are changing and it’s slowly changing and I still think that there’s this huge idea that if we talk about our problems we can ease those problems away. What I feel like is starting to come out right now is that as we talk about our problems you feel things physically in your body. Think about the last time you were feeling anxious, think about the last time you were feeling frustrated. It’s not just in your head. It’s everywhere.

David: Because the mind and body are so connected.

Aditi: Exactly, so what yoga brings to these programs especially here at the Meadows is that physical tension release. So as we’re going through detox, as we’re, you know, talking about our feelings or trauma history, all those feelings come up and there’s always going to be a physical reaction to that. A physical manifestation of those feelings. Yoga helps process all those feelings in a physical way. It’s almost like, I don’t even know if they still say this, but back in the day when they’d say, “If you’re angry punch a pillow or go to kickboxing.” It’s a very similar concept but it’s less aggressive.

David: Right, but it still helps your body release.

Aditi: Yes.

David: So, looking at a bigger picture sense for the general public, what might be one thing that you wish they understood better about yoga specifically and the role that it can play, the benefits it can have?

Aditi: I just honestly wish that the general population understood the depth of yoga. I think the general population has this idea of the physical benefits of yoga. I wish that there was this drive to open the collective mind to say, “This isn’t just a physical practice.” Because yoga isn’t, it’s breathing, it’s meditation and it’s the physical asana practice. So I think our culture, our society, has gotten stuck on that physical part. It’s like that quantitative piece of research. If you feel a physical change then you know something’s working. But when you emotionally and spiritually you may not feel that direct change right away and so I think that the other aspects of yoga got lost.

I think if we could open our collective mind and say, let’s give it a chance to work on all these other levels not just physically.

David: Beyond just being a stretching exercise unlocking would altogether. For people who might be interested in learning more about this, diving into this little bit deeper, what would be like a book or a resource that you might recommend for them?

Aditi: There are a few out there specifically related to trauma-sensitive trauma-informed yoga. I’ve noticed that a lot of these resources can be very specific to different populations. There’s one website that’s called Yoga of 12-Step Recovery. Great resource especially-

David: You sad that’s a training that you did growing up.

Aditi: Yes, I did that training and the founder of that training Nikki Myers is amazing. She’s similar to me, she used yoga to help her through her recovery path and realized that, hey this is a thing so we’re going to make it a thing. There’s also Purple Dot Yoga Project. They do trauma-informed yoga with individuals who are surviving domestic violence. Then there’s The Art of Yoga Project which is based here in Palo Alto. Their training is specifically centered around incarcerated youth. Even if you just go online and Google trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga, there’s a wealth of information right now. I think the more we can learn the more we can experience the better with this.

David: Yes. All right, the last thing to wrap up, what might be one piece of advice, something that you’ve received yourself or something that you find yourself passing on to others?

Aditi: I think the greatest piece of advice that I’ve been given or the greatest guidance I’ve been given is to honor where I’m at. So that’s what I emphasize in not only my yoga classes but everything I do. Whether it’s my personal relationships, whether I’m just talking on a podcast. [chuckles] I think honoring where you’re at is the most important thing you can do for yourself because if you try to push yourself in one way or another, you’re going to have that misalignment. You’re not going to be happy. To find true joy, to find true happiness, you have to honor where you’re at, even if that means you’re sitting in those negative feelings.

David: Aditi Desai is a registered yoga teacher who specializes in bringing yoga to vulnerable populations, including those in recovery from addiction and mental health issues. To find out more about the Meadows Outpatient Center in Silicon Valley, California, where Aditi serves as a group yoga instructor, visit their website at www.meadowsiopsv.com.

To check out more episodes of this podcast and find all kinds of other resources and tools from Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, visit www.beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening and I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.