Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Call to Action

by Laura Land
It started as a calling to create a home. I spent a year between India and Rwanda and experienced an in-the-field crash course on the nonprofit world. My eyes were opened to the challenges as I soaked in the Rwandan culture and read book after book on the failure of aid in Africa and the history of Rwanda. It was a lot to take in.

It was 2008/2009 and the US economy was crashing. I was not engaged in that psychological drama. I was teaching yoga to genocide survivors and trying to understand a culture outside my own. I was resting, reading, writing, and taking in the African sun. It was hot and I grew still. Little seeds were forming.

By the time I returned home in 2009, New York had become foreign to me. April was dark, and the rains chilled my climatized body to the bone. I looked for shelter in a new neighborhood, a place I could stay awhile. I was tired of traveling and wanted deeply to nest. One place kept calling and that was Harlem. For no conscious reason, I was obsessed. I walked the streets in wonder of each sound and color, my senses heightened from my long New York absence and my twice-daily meditations. I saw a neighborhood growing. I heard countless hellos. I settled in.

All that time away had wound me up. I was ready to pop into my new existence. Having no first-hand experience of the crash, I was immune to it. I was told no one was spending and everything was closing. Filled with excitement and purpose, I gave talks on the Rwanda experience and the power of yoga, to not only heal communities, but also to prevent atrocities like the ones we saw there. I wanted to serve my own home, Harlem, but I had to get to know my neighbors first.

What I had learned from Rwanda was just to be in one place, in and of a community and let the work arise. Long term, sustainable work takes time and that’s what I gave it. I opened a studio, Land Yoga, and started teaching not just at the studio, but everywhere; in the parks, the schools, non-profits, clinics, where ever they would let me. I think I knew one day the time would come to start my own non-profit. But it wouldn’t come from me, it would come from the work that needed to be done.

That time finally came calling in summer 2014. I was on my annual pilgrimage to India, sweating, but the streets were really burning in Ferguson, Missouri. And then the tragedy of Eric Garner. My yoga studio had been open three years. I now knew it was time to establish a non-profit. These moments were signals to me that I could wait no longer–Three and a Half Acres Yoga was born.

The mission of Three and a Half Acres Yoga is to empower communities, starting with Harlem, by using the physical and philosophical facets of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition to nurture, heal, and activate residents. Our programs respond directly to the issues and needs of our populations and draw on all eight limbs of yoga to increase the individual and communal capacity of our residents to envision a more peaceful, just, and interconnected existence.

Launching in early 2015, we began programs in partnership with other local community based organizations: the Ali Forney Center and Harlem United. Ali Forney supports homeless LGBTQ youth, helping them to become more independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood. Harlem United provides access to quality HIV/AIDS care for all, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. Our Harlem United program has become a great success, growing to well-attended twice-weekly Ashtanga Yoga sessions. Focusing on breath work and mindfulness, our students report drastic reduction in their stress levels. We have witnessed participants take ownership of the program and their space, coming more prepared each week to be present. In April, world famous yoga photographer, Robert Sturman, took photos of our yogis in poses across Harlem. Their pride in their program, and confidence in themselves, was evident. When we passed a church infamous for discrimination, they linked arms in peace and solidarity. Robert snapped a photo that quickly went viral. Clearly we are changing lives by building confidence in our youth and teaching them the habit of taking a breath inside adversity. They are empowered to defuse conflict.

Our next step is to begin work with our local law enforcement. Over the past six months I have frequented New York Police Department’s 28th precinct–meeting with the commanding officer and sitting in on role call. Being allowed that kind of access is unusual and not something I take lightly. I have really enjoyed observing the culture and have been especially impressed with the desires of the officers to practice yoga. This burgeoning program is already garnering excitement and anticipation from the officers, as well as myself.

As both projects come into their own humble authority, grow in presence and mindfulness, the way we must when we practice yoga, police and youth will have the opportunity to come together in practice. It is my hope that this commitment, to the “simple” act of breathing together, will spark new bonds and understanding and bring our mission statement to life.

Together with the Three and a Half Acres Yoga team, I envision a world where the power of yoga is made available to all—regardless of age, race, gender, class, etc.—to provide the tools and momentum for positive change in individual participants and the communities they create. We will accomplish this by employing the numerous facets of yoga to build confidence and determination, create space for reflection and understanding, and improve critical life coping skills in the individuals we engage. We see yoga as a tool for dissolving biases and providing a safe space, a home, to heal neighbors, resolve conflict, and build community.

Lara Land is a teacher with two decades yoga experience. She has worked all over the world teaching yoga and mindful living and developing programs to heal and empower. In 2008-2009 Lara spent three months in Rwanda bringing yoga as healing to survivors, and from there went to India where she worked with HIV positive children bringing yoga and meditation to their treatment room.

In June 2011 Lara opened Land Yoga in Harlem. In 2015 she founded non-profit, Three and a Half Acres Yoga to inspire community healing and activism through yoga. Lara is the founder of SOULFest NYC a wellness festival which highlights diversity in fitness. She leads retreats worldwide, is a public speaker, spiritual coach, and writer with contributions to the Health Magazine, Apartment Therapy and the Huffington Post. Lara just released her first book, My Bliss Book, a daily planner + online coaching program.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a member of Accessible Yoga’s Board of Directors.

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