meet erin: healing community through yoga in detroit

One Sweet Erin

I love this picture of Erin at Iyengar Yoga Detroit. “My goal is to live in intentional community settings,” Erin says. Since she left college, she has lived in intentional community settings, focusing on connection and creating family space with non-blood family. It’s like her yoga practice brought out in how she wants to live. “My home community is a microcosm of how I want to live in greater community, with conflict resolution, vulnerability, and more.”

“Aren’t I radiant?” my grandma asked me last night.

She just had her final radiation treatment last week in a grueling series of surgeries and therapies over the last year and a half. Hallelujah—she is completely back to the spitfire of a woman that I know and love very, very much. Her puns prove it.

My grandma is a beautiful example of healing and resilience—of knowing who you are and not letting anything stop you from being you. Ever her teacher self, she brought apples to the hospital staff on her last day of treatment.

Just last summer, we were preparing our hearts for a very different outcome, but against challenging odds, with a team of family, friends, and hard-working doctors, she beat cancer, tumors, and more. With her inspiration and support, I’m thrilled to be following her path to teacherhood—and hopefully, strength like hers.

Stories like this are all around us. This week, we share how my friend Erin Shawgo helps empower women with modalities and tools to move through trauma and gain resilience. Erin and I reconnected last fall after being long-lost friends from middle school on up—and guess what? She used to work at Sister Pie!

From the Milwaukee area, Erin now lives in Detroit, using yoga, community organizing and her pursuit of a Master’s of Social Work degree to work toward healing. Erin currently teaches at Iyengar Yoga Detroit, runs anti-oppression and -racism trainings, and works on projects centered around topics such as exploring the effects of community programming on childhood obesity and health.

People with Panache: Can you remind me how your work comes together to support you now?

Erin Shawgo: I’m trying to stick to yoga and community organizing, to keep it in those realms and keep it all connected—but also baking! My friend Erin and I will get hired to bake, like for Meiko sometimes. We call ourselves the Sweet Erins.

PWP: I appreciate that you pursue things that will help you and your community grow.

ES: These are all things I enjoy. I’m also a grad student working on a thesis project to test a yoga treatment, trying to create a standardized intervention.

Erin Shawgo Iyengar Yoga

Here, Erin and I are at her beloved yoga studio. Outside all her other passions, Erin is also in a group call the Flowtown Revue, a singing collective who takes Motown songs and rewrites them about water. They perform at events to draw attention to Flint and water issues. At a Christmasy event this winter, they were singing—and it didn’t seem like the organizers knew what they got themselves into when the group sang a song like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” replacing the main character with “Snyder the red-nosed tyrant,” referring to Michigan’s governor.

At my last placement, a substance abuse treatment center for women, I worked with them to connect the 12 Steps to the 8 limbs of yoga (Editor’s note: Some of the limbs include Asanas, or body postures; Pranayama, or breathing exercises; and Dhyana, or devotion, meditation on the divine.) We did discussions before and after poses about self-disciplines, including ahimsa, meaning non-violence, and connected this to the 12 Steps.

They got so into it! It was so different than classes at the studio. We went over the niyama, or discipline, for the day and had them discuss how it connected to the recovery process. They would talk with a partner, take a really long shivasana, and do a lot of breath work—what they found to be the most useful things—and they loved conversation about these values.

I remember doing an evaluation discussion one time, and this woman who refused to participate in anything—she would sit with her head on the table—talked about a woman who had had a seizure, and how that brought on a panic attack for her because her brother had seizures. She told me she used breathing techniques we learned. She had never said a word, but she used something from that group to curb a panic attack that might’ve given her the urge to use.

PWP: Wow! That is quite an impact—and imagine how much the women you teach are able to carry these skills with them. I know how much the pursuit of balance and serenity through yoga has helped me—but what an important application of the practice.

ES: With substance abuse, I learned a lot this year through their stories that many of them hate their bodies; they feel like their bodies are out to get them—a source of chaos, pain, where their urges come from. A lot of coping was distracting the self, avoiding places and people. Instead, how do we do inner transformational work to change how we think about our body, not as a source of danger but that can do this transformational thing? Everyone was in so much pain. It was cool to see people commit to more than a class or two to source their own relief.

PWP: How did you realize you could use yoga to help others?

ES: I thought, if I took my self care practice into my career, I would have to do it. A lot of the reasons I first started teaching was to fully integrate it into my life. Now it’s turned into this huge gift, and I don’t have a choice but to share it with other people.

PWP: What do you see for the future of what you’re doing?

ES: I moved to Detroit to practice recognizing what my gifts are and what the community wants from me. Moving forward, I try not to set any super exact plans.

Erin Shawgo

“Body-based practices give you a solid connection with yourself,” Erin says. “I always think: How can I connect to this person and hold space for them to connect to themselves?”

After I get my Master’s of Social Work (MSW), I still need to get state licensed, requiring 4,000 hours under a licensed MSW. So that might mean working full-time in community health for a few years. Ultimately, I’d want to be running therapeutic yoga groups, and I’m thinking something like what I’m working on now, combining Iyengar knowledge with cognitive behavioral psychodynamic therapy (CBT)—like talk therapy, combining modalities of yoga and more traditional psychotherapy.

I want to keep doing research around it to prove its validity. There’s already a lot more research on yoga helping the physiological body.

Also, the typical community is white, educated, upper class. How do we make it accessible to other communities?

Anti-oppression work and community organizing connects really closely for me. Part of my rhetoric is how do we use our bodies for tools of not only understanding but proprioception: how we understand how one part of our body relates to another part, or the space we’re in.

PWP: That’s a really cool word—proprioception—and I think I need some work on that myself.

ES: When people first start yoga, or even me now, we have so little concept of proprioception. We don’t fully understand our physical being and how it is in space. How many people struggle with understanding how their beliefs and identity fit into the larger context of things? Now in yoga, we’re working toward understanding how identity fits into community and society—identifying that “I have control and power over that” to some extent. Those things connect to me with my facilitation.

PWP: Along this path, what do you struggle with?

Why Detroit? “I moved here to create a new space that felt like I was not going to get stuck, where I could test out radical values I wanted to live under,” Erin says.

Why Detroit? “I moved here to create a new space that felt like I was not going to get stuck, where I could test out radical values I wanted to live under,” Erin says.

ES: The thing I struggle with most is wanting someone to just say: Here’s what you do. Here’s how you do it. Here’s the direction you should go in. I’m piecing things together, really trying to be intuitive about it, and it’s scary sometimes. My family is amazing and so supportive and lovely; now I’m living in Detroit making less than minimum wage half the time. My goal in life isn’t a career, it’s feeling fulfilled and like I’m contributing! Structurally it’s not supported, and socially it’s not understood completely.

I’m really trying to emphasize trusting myself and my intuition. It doesn’t have to be all planned out all the time or make complete sense. I suppose yoga helps with that.

I’m entering into a community I don’t always share an identity with; I’m always thinking about if I should do this work. There are challenges that poverty brings up, that working with people of color brings up. I could go to a suburb of Detroit and teach a class full of students, but that doesn’t fit into the values of what I’m trying to do.

PWP: What makes you feel most fulfilled?

ES: A feeling of connection. In Sanskrit it would be a connection to purusha prakriti—purusha is eternal energy, in everything; it’s a connection point. I feel connected to myself and that connection allows me to connect to everything else.

PWP: What’s something you wish everyone knew or understood to get through the world with more connection and compassion?

ES: What I really hope and hold space for is this: If we’re willing to be humble and vulnerable with each other, that opens up a way for us to be vulnerable with ourselves—there’s so much more to learn about ourselves—and within that process is so much room for healing. We can offer that space to others, too.

Now that is radiant. Thank you, Erin.

How do you radiate love, healing and support for others in your life? We challenge you to consider this as you move through your next week, noticing what others may need and meeting that with a smile, hug or simple gesture.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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