Q & A with Seane Corn: On Yoga & Giving Back

mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
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Seane Corn is one of the most celebrated yoga instructors in the world today. When you talk with Seane, she immediately demonstrates her incredible sense of awareness, her passion for personal growth, commitment to philanthropy, and her deep understanding that she's here to make a difference.

Seane's road to becoming the Seane Corn that we know had lots of emotional and physical twists and turns, and was far from being easy. Her personal story and inner journey is inspiring to yogis and non-yogis alike, as she truly recognizes the importance of healing, compassion, and acceptance, which she carries with her in her yoga practice and in her philanthropic organization, Off The Mat Into The World.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Seane about her own personal journey, her yoga practice, the importance of compassion, and more. Prepare to be inspired.

MBG: It seems like you’ve found your calling? Has this been a slow and steady process or a series of 'aha!' moments?

SC: I think it’s a combination of both. There have been a lot of aha moments along the way. If twenty years ago, someone would have told me that teaching yoga and doing all the humanitarian work that I do was my destiny, I would have scoffed at the idea. From the moment I began teaching yoga, there was something so eerily terrifying and exhilarating in the process. I could have not felt both more natural in the yoga room and simultaneously more afraid. I would want to run from it, but when I walked into that room something else seemed to take over. After class was done, I would have the sense that this was something I was supposed to do. It just came so natural. Not to say that it wasn’t a tremendous amount of hard work and learning to become a teacher. It was not an effortless experience at all! I was a terrible teacher when I went through my first teacher training. Partly I was so afraid to speak publicly – horrified actually.

Really? You’re a tremendous public speaker.

Like I mentioned, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. There would be these moments, when I’d get out of my own way, and the words would flow so effortlessly as if I had been doing this my whole life. But once my insecurity would rise up, my ego would get engaged, and then I’d clam up. But every once in a while when I had that moment of effortlessness in this creative process, it would really encourage me to come back into the yoga room and give it another shot.

So this is a pushing vs pulling feeling?

I have my own resistance in the form of limited beliefs in my head. I’d think, ‘Who am I to teach? What right do I have?’ My own fear is doing the thing that I’m being pulled to is stopping this organic pull. To this day, I still have to avoid self-sabotaging myself. There’s a little voice in my head, which I call my New Jersey mantra because it’s a little bit mean, where I say to myself, ‘Hare dare you. How dare I let my insecurity, my doubt, my fear, my shame, get in the way of doing what I know in my heart needs to be done, which is to support and create an environment for healing, health, and peace.

Was there a specific moment early in your practice when you knew this was it?

Yes, there were a few. I started when I was 19 years old, and yoga meets you where you’re at. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual experience, I was looking to get healthier, quite frankly, and develop some tools that could help me stay away from drugs and alcohol and stay clean – and yoga was one of these tools. I felt great when it was done. I loved it. I’d still party with my friends, but that stopped feeling as good. I was still a New York City girl out on the town. But around 23, there was a very specific moment. I was on my way to class and I was miserable. I didn’t know if I should stay in NY, move to LA, or stay with or leave my boyfriend. I did my class, began to walk home, and something felt different. It had occurred to me that I was happy. Nothing had changed in those ninety minutes except that I had taken a yoga class. There was something in my soul that felt that everything was unfolding the way that it was supposed to. So the next day I went back to the same class and I felt as if the teacher was only speaking to me, I heard every word different, as if it was my first time ever practicing. I was actually kind of freaked out. After that moment, yoga took me to another level. Another door opened and I stepped into it and took my practice to a different awareness.

In LA in 1994 there was another pivotal moment. One day I burst into tears during a class for no reason whatsoever. All this emotion had literally burst through my body. I had never felt such a release of emotion before. It took seven years of practice before all that tension in my body thoroughly released to allow my practice to go to another level. Now I’m 44 years old and have been practicing for 25 years, and am still humbled by yoga. Just when I think I have a glimpse of what yoga might be about, it reveals to me that I’m still a beginner.

What is it about yoga that helps people become more aware?

I think that’s the mystery of the practice. That’s why it’s so great that there are so many different styles of yoga that can relate to so many different personalities. I can only speak for myself, but I think it’s really that mind-body connection – the idea that everything is connected, that there’s no separation. The body doesn’t understand time like our minds do. When we grow up we develop really good survival skills and keep emotion in our body, which becomes tension and manifests as stress. When you practice yoga, you release this tension, where emotions might be embedded. Emotions start to arise, tensions start to release, and you hear differently – not from your head, but from your heart. You start to remember who you are. Our minds expand, and we feel more connected. If you’re lucky, this feeling lasts a lifetime. But if you’re someone like me who holds a lot of tension, I need to hit the mat every single day, otherwise my tension will come up fairly quickly and I’ll become cynical, judgmental, critical, and reactive.

Is there something that people overlook in their practice that’s so important?

The breath – above anything else. I’ve seen seasoned practitioners who can do amazing things on the mat who have trouble with the breath, and then I’ve seen people who can barely touch their toes who are so connected to their breath and their intention, and I’m in awe of them. Personally, there are some days when I can’t believe how well my breath is flowing during practice. And there are other days when it’s all over the place and it’s extremely frustrating. Regardless, I still practice.

 When did you begin to realize the importance of the chakras?

The two women who made it very accessible to my practice mind were Caroline Myss (Anatomy of the Spirit) and Anodea Judith (Eastern Body, Western Mind). They do such a tremendous job of communicating the idea of using the physical body to connect your emotions to your history. They help me really understand how tension got there in the first place and what I can do to relieve it.

What I love about the chakras and yoga is that it gets me so excited about the mystery of this practice. When you’re ready, another mysterious piece of this puzzle will be offered, but not a second sooner than you’re ready to receive it. I’m still very excited about this because my life in yoga will never get stale or stagnant if I stay open to possibilities.

What do you struggle with?

On a physical level, I have slight scoliosis, so if you ever see a picture of me demonstrating you’ll notice that I always do things on my left leg. You’ll never see me with my right leg forward because I got nothin’. I love and loathe Twisting Triangle, but I’ll always do it because it’s the most frustrating pose for me physically. I struggle with any twist on the right.

On a spiritual level, I use my practice to reorient and ground myself. It’s easy for me to be calm, patient, grateful, and gracious when I’m on that mat, but the challenge is bringing those practices off the mat and into my daily life -- especially when things aren’t working out how I’d like them to.

You are involved in many great service projects -- how did this start? What projects are you working on?

There are 20 million people practicing yoga. I thought, "What if everyone, regardless of the style they practiced, got together and rallied around a crisis?" We’re a powerful community, especially if we were more united. I began to think about ways I could use my platform to focus on things that were much more important to me. This lead to the birth of Off The Mat Into The World. Here we train people to identify their purpose and teach them how to take that purpose and turn it into action in their local community. It’s about transforming oneself and transforming a community. Each year we set out to raise at least $500,000 and to rally the yoga community. In the past we’ve raised money for an eco-birthing center, a schoolhouse, providing medical supplies in Uganda, and this year we’re focusing on the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa. We’re halfway toward our fund raising goals to build a sustainable bakery, a library, and a halfway house. So many kids are missing parents there, and when they hit age 18 they’re literally kicked out of the orphanages. It’s such a critical age where they’re vulnerable to drugs and alcohol, and therefore unprotected sex and AIDS. The goal of the halfway house is to teach these kids life skills so they’re in a better place to go back out in the world. If a child doesn’t have self-esteem, they’re never going to develop.

Next year we’re going to be working in Haiti. The following year we’re looking at focusing on environmental issues in Nicaragua.

I made a decision in the 1990s that I’d never sponsor any yoga products and have it be just self-promoting. I’ll only do it if the company is a good company, a company that has like-minded ideals, and would use their marketing schemata as a way to promote Off The Mat and tie that money back to our projects. Anytime you see a picture of me promoting any product, know that the reason I’m doing it is that the money is going to Off The Mat.

Over the last few years, I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to be self-sustaining and focus on the projects that we feel deserve attention. It just feels so right.

Why is this so important?

It’s very easy for people to say that the world should change while we’re sitting here. But when you go to any of these places and witness firsthand the devastation and how it affects people’s personalities, it’s very powerful. It’s important that we as citizens who are so privileged understand things like why violence is the natural extension of desperation, and how deep, deep grief is underneath rage. If we’re able to understand these things, we can go back to our own world with a deep sense of compassion and see the world in a very different way. My hope is to bring this opportunity to people because it’s had such a deep impact on me. If you can soften this cynical and hardened girl from Jersey, then you can soften anyone.

Any teachers, mentors or books that have inspired you?

I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing teachers in my life, starting with my parents. They have forced me to never ever buy into any hype and stay down to earth and authentic and grounded.

In terms of yoga, Maty Ezraty, one of the founders of Yoga Works, and Bryan Kest are probably the two single most important influences because they both encouraged me to become a teacher even when I didn’t want to. Also, David Life and Sharon Gannon have been a tremendous influence. I actually worked for them when they had their café back in the 80s, before they started Jivamukti.

There have been a number of unexpected teachers in my life that have come to me in a number of different ways. All beings that we come in contact with are teachers and I believe it’s up to us to discern what the lessons are. I don’t have a singular guru. I’ve been taught that there’s only one guru, and that guru is within.

I love The Enlightened Mind and The Enlightened Heart, edited by Stephen Mitchell. They're so great because it takes all these famous quotes and passages that basically say the same thing -- “Love is everything" and “we’re all one.”

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