Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…

YogaCityNYC ~ interview with Beryl Bender Birch


I first met New York City yoga veteran and pioneer Beryl Bender Birch at a 9/11 memorial service for Captain Pat Brown, a firefighter who was legendary for being New York City’s highest decorated officer and then dying while saving people exiting the North Tower. His final words were “We’re still heading up.”

In 1998, Pat got his first healing dose of yoga at the Roadrunners’ Club where Beryl was teaching. Using her hands-on method, she wrestled with him physically, mentally and spiritually, helping him release demons held since Vietnam.

After 9/11, when Pat and many others died, a sort of PTSD had settled over the entire city. Beryl told me she wanted to do something to give back, in some way. The seeds of Give Back Yoga Foundation (GBYF) were planted in the ashes of the Twin Towers.

The non-profit, GBYF now serves to support yoga teachers working in the more marginalized segments of society. Part of that focus is the Yoga For Veterans Campaign, which addresses the fact that our armed forces are returning in droves from Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress and ill-equipped to jump back into civilian life.  Asanas and meditation can address all levels of civilian stress, but I wanted to know more about the special needs of those who have experienced combat, and how yoga can help them bridge the gap to reclaiming and reconnecting with their former selves and lives. I sat down with Beryl to talk about the journey that led to GBYF, as well as an upcoming fundraiser at Kaia Yoga in Westport, Connecticut on May 17th.

Sharon Watts: You have been teaching yoga for 38 years. I imagine your clientele then was a room full of healthy, robust athletes. Now you have segued into another arena, where the need for yoga benefits is even greater. Can you share your thoughts on yoga’s evolution into that of addressing extreme anxiety disorder?

Beryl Bender Birch: In the past decade, following 9/11, an awareness has evolved in the medical world that yoga is capable of helping in the treatment of depression and other anxiety disorders like post traumatic stress caused by terrorism, accident, abuse, and battle deployment. Doctors and scientists are now looking closely at mind-body practices for the potential benefits they offer to mental and physical health.  It used to be that only those people following some kind of a spiritual journey were aware of the tangible benefits.

SW: What about your own research?

BBB:  Immediately after 9/11 I had the opportunity to work with families of burn victims at the Cornell Weill Burn Center. I was extremely apprehensive about what I could possibly do to help. But I began by teaching Ujjayi breathing and it almost immediately brought a few moments of relief.  It was incredible. We then went on to develop programs that used the Ujjayi breathing, along with cognitive behavior therapy, for others directly affected by 9/11: employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, Con Ed, the NYPD, and the FDNY.

SW: PTSD and other major stressors are accompanying so many returning members of our armed services. How does a class address these issues?

BBB: There’s an enormous spectrum of mental and physical impairment, from brain injury to loss of limbs. They cannot all be treated in the same class with the same techniques and protocol. Each person needs to be evaluated individually, and, depending on symptoms, treatment options range from breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques all the way to power yoga. Veterans know how to pay attention, they’ve been trained. In the case of post-traumatic stress, the goal is to transform their hyper-vigilance from being externally focused to internally focused.

SW: What is your advice to a yoga teacher wishing to start a yoga class for veterans?

BBB: Start gently, and very mindfully. It is important to create a safe space, and to give veterans permission to do what they can, to feel comfortable. Many are reluctant to talk about post-traumatic stress. But have the courage to jump in without being totally sure of what you’re doing. Be honest about your awareness and capabilities, and do your research. There are training programs listed on the GBYF website.

SW: What is an example of a success story?

BBB: There are extreme cases of a person standing by the wall the first class, not being able to even make eye contact, and eight weeks later asking for Yoga Nidra or meditation, or participating in asana.

SW: Soldiers doing yoga is a relatively new phenomenon. Is yoga being redefined in the mindset of our armed forces to be a viable way to heal, and are V.A. hospitals open to this? Or is it more of a community-based movement?

BBB: As PTSD is finally being better understood, V.A. hospitals are starting to incorporate yoga into their offerings. Programs are being supplied through the Veterans Yoga Project, developed by Suzanne Manafort, one of our board members.  We act as a clearing house for sharing information with many veterans organizations. This also helps us to maintain an ongoing and informal control study of what is working, as the field develops.

SW: Vietnam seems so long ago, and eclipsed by several more wars. Those vets were not treated all that well on their return home and did not have access to much of the help available now.  Do you have many Vietnam veterans attending classes?

BBB: Yes, we do. Since they were so underserved nearly a half-century ago, it is gratifying to see them get some help now.

SW: What have you personally experienced through teaching a vet that has enhanced your grasp of the human condition, or that has broadened your spiritual outlook?

BBB: It fuels compassion. The primary foundation of any yoga practice is serving. Giving back to a community in a conscious way makes you aware that this is the only work there is to do. That’s our job: How can I serve? Serving is joyful. Veterans have served, and are now looking for help. We owe it to them.

SW: You support studios with funding. What is the criteria?

BBB: We support projects needing development in any under-served area of a community.  Besides Yoga for Veterans, we have Prison Yoga, and have supported, through grants, survivors of sexual abuse, children with cancer, street children in Kenya, and people who find themselves homeless.

SW: Finally, what can you share about the fundraiser at Kaia Yoga on May 17th?

BBB: Just come! If you can only donate $5, that’s fine. It’s about awareness, and giving back, and spreading the word.

(published 5/2012)

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