Non-violent Communication

Erin Wilson at Integral Yoga (George Goss)

Erin Wilson is my hero.  I only met her several times yet there is a reason to fall “head over heals for her.”  The most obvious if somewhat selfish reason is that she invited me to not only witness, but also to participate in her yoga class for high school students from James Baldwin School in Chelsea, as well as a workshop in non-violent communication.

Erin is the teacher of Integral Yoga’s “Yoga at School” program.  The mission statement is to share with the students “how to manage stress, create peace in their lives, and radiate that peace into the lives of others through breathing practices, stretching, relaxation techniques, and meditation.”

Mine is hardly an unbiased opinion as I truly respect the institution that is Integral Yoga.  It is a sanctuary of peace in the West Village at 227 West 13th Street.  I go to the classes far too infrequently.  I know this because every time I do I am aware of how radically the gentle yoga techniques can re-align my body from long hours spent staring into cyber-space.  As a digital photographer the soothing eye movements are welcome relief to the strain of focusing so intensely on the computer screen.

In writing this article my hope was to present the phenomenal work that Chandra-the director and primary advocate of Yoga at School, Erin, and Integral Yoga do in supporting what are known as “at risk” teens, that in-between age that Erin calls a “no-person’s land.”  Erin describes her students as coming from a culture in which “violence is a way of life” with “really rough backgrounds, such as broken homes, abusive situations, and drug addictions. They are coming with a lot of pain.”

Yet on the day that I was privileged to witness and participate in the class each of us was “at risk” of only one thing: having the most fun yoga class that I have ever experienced.

Okay, I am not saying all of this because Erin is a beautiful, rail-thin young woman.  What blew me away was the use of non-violent communication.  I am a strange hybrid of WASP and Irish Catholic so the notion that once can actually communicate with another person is novelty enough.  I have images flashing of Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall” where he is sitting around the Easter table with his girlfriend’s family as well as the ruthlessly off-color sitcom “Rescue Me” with Dennis Leary in which a typical conversation among the guys needs subtitles for the real meaning.

But to be able to communicate non-violently is surely a novelty for any culture. In a time when war or the threat of war is the status quo and with more broken homes than ever how beautiful to use language to say how we honestly feel. Instead of letting anger fester each of us has the freedom and the right to say, “This doesn’t feel right.”

Some may criticize this by arguing that it is egoism at its worst.  But this is a great deal of what makes things so wrong: People often do not listen.  In order to communicate effectively it requires stating not declaring, asking not ordering.  If we can simply acknowledge that it is indeed a human person we are communicating with what wonders would happen, what hurts resolved, and conflicts ceased?

I for one walked away realizing how there are times when I have failed to respectfully communicate with others.  In describing the philosophy of “Yoga at School” Erin quoted Ghandi: “Transform yourself and you transform the world.”  She firmly believes that her students can “transform our society,” and it is her hope that yoga is not viewed as “some Eastern thing that is far out and for hippies, but a practice that can teach life skills that can have a positive impact on their community.”  It may take some time but she is confident that the seeds of peace are being planted within them.