An Interview with Yoga for Peace Founder, Sowmya Ayyar

Recently, I had the great pleasure of getting connecting to Sowmya Ayyar, founder of the Yoga for Peace Program. I found her work so inspiring and I am thrilled to share more about it through my interview with Sowmya.

Megan: How did you first get started doing yoga?

Sowmya: Yoga and peace must be in my family blood. My grandparents stayed with Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh in the Himalayas long before he became famous. My grandmother’s aunts (who raised her) have been pictured with Sri Ramana Maharishi in an age when photography was rare.

So it was only natural for my mother to take us to see various gurus and ashrams as children, even in the United States. We pretty much know all the “Hindu” swamis and saints around. I became attached to one and learned from him. Though I may not have known that at the time, what I was taught was the philosophy of yoga through Bhagavad Gita. My mom also taught us the Gita while driving us on road trips or to the ashrams. Later, I took regular asana classes, and really enjoyed it. As a teen, I always felt so relaxed after class and on the way home.

Megan: What drew you into the yoga practice and into teaching? What kind of style(s) and/or related modalities do you teach?

Sowmya: As an adult, I would practice, and perhaps teach a bit here or there without really thinking about it. Then I had a personal trauma, and turned to yoga for relief from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was going to classes 8-10 times a week and realized the institute I was going to had a teacher training program. So I signed up and got some systematic teaching that focused primarily on asanas [physical poses]. This complimented my knowledge of Gita and other worldwide spiritual concepts. While I was learning under an Anusara instructor, our school was a holistic model beyond just yoga, so I actually was taking more Yin and Restorative yoga, a bit of Power and Vinyasa yoga, and dipping my feet into other holistic practices. I continue to do the same now.

This being said, I follow the belief that “All Life is Yoga” – and that there is no form for the formless. Each individual has to find their own path to self-realization and that means every person’s yoga must be catered for their own needs, according to their karma and this yoga becomes their dharma.

Therefore, I am not really into “styles” of yoga. When I teach, I listen to and observe each student and guide them in order to empower them to reach their own potential.

Can you tell us about Yoga for Peace program and how you developed it? What kinds of results have you seen from this program?

Sowmya: Pretty soon after finishing my yoga teacher training, I moved to Austria to pursue an MA degree in Peace Studies. The moment I landed, other students asked me if I was the yoga teacher. I said yes, and they all wanted to learn. I thought it would be fun to teach a different concept of yoga during the ten weeks of each school term focusing on yamas and niyamas. Then I thought it would be useful if the reflection and introspection we would do in class would be about the course we took the week before. Thus, my class became my term project, and my term project led the way to creating a full syllabus that I call “Yoga for Peace”.

I now offer this course in various venues. The main places are graduate schools in Peace Studies. I will be teaching the course in Rajasthan, India, later this year, through Go Inspired.

This course is useful because it helps practitioners of peace and conflict transformation use the philosophies and practices of yoga in their field work, teaching them how the different systems within yoga can affect individuals, communities, and even the world. Previous students of mine from the peace field have found it helpful in de-stressing after being in difficult situations for the day or working in foreign regions assisting people and places for a long period of time. Yoga helps you navigate the universe in a peaceful manner.

Megan: You’ve taught all around the world and are now working in India. How have you been led to various places? What challenges and rewards have you found in different locations?

Sowmya: Ahhh…. you cannot go just anywhere. Every place calls you to it, and every opportunity comes up for a reason. The yoga is in accepting all gifts from the universe with grace, with equipoise, and with a smile, knowing that this is just a part of the journey called Life, a small speck in the entire universe for all its time.

There are difficulties in adjusting to local environments, cultures, and lifestyles. In addition, there’s the difficulty of scheduling and organizing. And of course, the tough part is the language barrier! I’ve taught to people who only speak Spanish, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and German, and somehow, yoga has no language barriers! I think if I spoke the languages of the people, I could convey a lot more of what is happening in my body and mind. Which means it’s actually good if I can’t speak, because it allows me just to express, and students understand. They focus more on their own inner self and what happens in their own body, mind, and soul.

Megan: Looking forward, what do you envision for your teaching and work with Yoga for Peace in the future?

Sowmya: Yoga for Peace is about using yoga around the world to help transform conflicts. I hope to work with people and places from all walks of life: diplomats and CEOs; Gurus and atheists, students and professionals.

I also hope to start a company that sells eco-friendly yoga products made by Non-government Organization (NGOs) in India. I believe that carefully thought out products that are useful for yoga practice and relaxation should return back to people who need the funds.

Megan: How can others support Yoga for Peace?

Sowmya: There are several different ways! I am currently looking for a business partner. I’m always happy to get substitute teachers and interns to teach some classes, work on organizational development, and help with research. My home is to expand the program to teach peace-building in university-level programs, as well conflict zones, so I would love assistance with any connections to make this happen!

As with many social benefit programs, donations are a big help. Additional funds would help support various projects I am currently developing, especially work with special needs children. I’m also seeking funding to conduct further research in this field. I love to be to be active in the world caring for others, and am excited to connect with others who share similar passions and want to get involved.

Sowmya Ayyar is the founder of the Yoga for Peace program. She has BS in Sociology, MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, and MA in Environmental Security. Sowmya has lived, worked, and studied around the world and currently resides in Bangalore, India. Besides starting her own ventures, Sowmya has worked for large corporations and small NGOs alike. Her diverse background of studies and experiences has opened her eyes to different perspectives and grow in gratitude for the gifts of the universe. She loves to be active in the world and care for others and finds joy in cooking, gardening, and Indian spiritual-devotional music.

What’s the Apex of Your Day?

“How do you do all you do: traveling all the time; spending so much time teaching workshops and teacher trainings, AND still stay connected to your spirit?”

This was the question posed by a student in one of Ana Forrest’s workshops during a brief question and answers session. Ana took a pause and a deep breath as she always does before responding:

Some people may wake up in the morning and just be excited to jump out of bed. I’m not one of them. So when I’m lying there still growly, I like to ask myself, “What’s the apex of my day? What is the important high point that gets motivated and out of bed in the morning?” Well, you guys [my students] are my apex. Teaching and training is part of my personal mission.

Not being a person who springs out of bed in the morning with a glow of optimism, I have now added a new ritual to my morning routine. Along with my usual turning the alarm off and wallowing in my deep desire to stay in bed, I’ve started asking myself this same question, “What is my apex today?” I’ve found in helps me focus in on what is really important to me. Yesterday my apex(es) were attending a morning yoga intensive alongside many yogis in their last weekend of teacher training and being as fully present as possible with my family during a funeral and reception. Sometimes my apex is coming up with juicy yoga sequences to try with my students or something as small as thinking of something funny I can email. Focusing on my apex also helps me get through the things I’m not always so thrilled about doing (like getting out of bed), but are necessary to experience the pinnacle of my day.

When I start the work day at my job, I find it’s also helpful for me to think about what the apex for my work that day is. Before I get sucked into email and pulled into different directions, I like to write down a few tasks that are most important for me to complete or put some time into so I’m clear where I need to focus my energy. Of course, sometimes priorities change, but starting with this written framework gives me a place to refer back to and re-align myself when I find myself spending time on smaller tasks that aren’t as important or don’t necessarily need to be done immediately.

But it’s also important to have an apex of your day (or at least a mini-apex) that is not just rewarding tasks or work you feel passionate about, but something that is truly for you. Maybe that’s spending twenty minutes reading a book. Or taking the time to pour your tea into a little tea pitcher or special mug. Even turning on your favorite music mix or putting on a scented lotion you enjoy are ways to add small peaks to different points of your day.

So what’s your apex for the day?

You Must Evolve : Assisting Ana Forrest at the Yoga Journal Conference SF

“And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?””
–Talking Heads “Once In a Lifetime”

There was a moment during one of Ana’s class sessions where I looked out at the room of a hundred students and wondered how I got here. I’d been a student in these sessions many times and now, here I was assisting! When I first took a workshop from Ana, I was in awe of the assistants and impressed with how much attention they gave to students. I never imagined that I’d be one of them–clearly someone must have made a mistake, right? I mean, me? Assisting?

Despite those nagging doubts, I felt so lucky to be there as art of a six-person team of assistants (with a seventh, my teacher Colleen, joining us on Saturday). San Francisco is a much bigger conference than San Diego (the first place I assisted Ana), so it was a different kind of energy working with a larger group of both students and assistants. This time around, I was a little less nervous because I knew what to expect, although I was still was apprehensive about wanting to do a good job and help make it an incredible class experience for the students.

The biggest challenge as an assistant is staying present and really tapping into the energy of the class. In the seat of an observing assistant, I had a number of insights about the weekend:

1) People are really stressed out. As a general rule, people are incredibly hard on themselves, even in a yoga practice. Tight necks were almost universal. Keeping a relaxed neck when you’re not used to doing so is really a challenge. I put a hand alongside the head of a few students and asked them to rest their head completely into my hand. Even then, it usually took a few more, “No, really let your head hang completely” before they really could let go. It touched me how powerful a single pose can be–even finding just one a moment of being free of pain or stress can be such a tremendous relief.

2) No one is off the hook. Everyone gets challenged in Forrest Yoga to push their edges. Several very obviously fit and experienced students came to the class with an air of confidence. These very same students were sweating away and struggling to stay with the intensity as the class wore on. Forrest Yoga has a way of humbling even the most advanced yogi. We assistants were not immune either. As we did the yoga practice in the early hours before the conference sessions, we encountered frustrations, corrections, and trying to get our brain around new poses and variations. As a result of my own struggles, I felt myself really empathizing with the challenges that the students of all abilities were experiencing, and feeling for how I could find that balance between supporting them, but also encouraging to stay with it and ride through the intensity.

3) Another key thing I’m learning to do is receive feedback. My first instinct when Ana (or other people who I really respect) say something critical to me is to immediately feel terrible and assume the worst: “Ana must think I’m screwing up right and left. She’ll probably never want me back as an assistant. Everyone else is probably wondering why I’m on this assisting team.” Instead, I’m working on having a different reaction. When I start to go into that immediate reaction, I’m trying to catch myself and take the feedback as what it is: part of the learning process. I try to put the feedback in it’s proper place. Ana told me to change something or not do something. Period. I can take that to improve instead of going down my usual spiral of doubt, shame, and assumptions, which not only isn’t helpful, but takes away from the kind of confident, attentive presence I need to be a good assistant.

4) Evolution isn’t optional. Ana is demanding of her students, mentors, assistants, and trainees alike. However, she is equally demanding of herself. Every time I practice with her, I notice a way she has refined her teaching, changed something, and/or added something new. She is continually evolving and refuses to settle for any of the rest of us not doing the same.

The weekend left me exhausted, but full of gratitude for the experience of being around a truly inspiring teacher, colleagues who I have tremendous respect for, and the roomfuls of courageous students willing to dive into Forrest Yoga with us.

Evolve On!

Life Matters

Lately I’ve been fighting off the flu bug that half the population seems to have right now. Yesterday I went to lay down for a nap and my husband snuggled up beside me. Achy as I was, it felt so good to have my hair rumpled and his arm around me. Laying there with my head on his chest, it occurred to me that these little moments are really the best part of life.

Yet how many times do I take this guy, the love of my life, for granted? How many evenings am I caught up in things I have to do: laundry to be done; work to finish, emails to answer? How many times are we there with each other, but mostly caught up in our own tasks and life concerns that seems so important in the moment? Do we really make enough time to have just being with the other person?

This above quote is my mantra for 2013. When I’m feeling caught up in being busy and preoccupied and frustrated, I’m working on taking a deep breath and asking myself, “Am I making time on what matters most?” And while work and doing the dishes and running errands are all important things that have to be done, that which matters most shall never give way to them.

Tonight was a bummer. It was a close game and rough loss for San Francisco fans. Yet there was another part of watching the game that mattered a lot more.


Auntie Megan with her favorite little people

Do You Know Your Forrest Yoga ABCs?

abcsIt’s an altogether different kind of alphabet…

A is for Abs, naturally. A is also for “always”, as in, “Abs are always in a Forrest Yoga class.”

B is for Breath. Hands down, the most important part.

C is for Crotch, crotch, crotch. Yes, Forrest Yoga will say the word “crotch”. Yoga is about another C-word: connection. You connect to all parts of your body. That includes the crotch. So get over the shock of that word in a yoga class. Crotch, crotch, crotch.

D is for Deeper. You will go deeper into yourself and poses than you ever thought possible.

E is for Evolution. Not evolving is not an option in Forrest Yoga.

Fierce MedicineF is for Fierce Medicine. It’s what Ana delivers and it’s the title of her book. If you haven’t read it yet, now is the time.

G is for gravity surfing. You’ll know why you do all those abs when you can start doing some awesome arm balancing action from one pose to another.

H is for Healing. It doesn’t matter if your injury is a strained hamstring or a broken heart; you can use Forrest Yoga in the healing process.

I is for Intensity. Because breakthroughs don’t come from lying around. It takes intensity to move through issues in the body.

J is for Juicy. ‘Nuff said.

K is for Kick-Ass sequences. One of the major ways Forrest Yoga is unique is in its sequence which is designed to strengthen, heal, and delight.

L is for Lance Dodger. Have you met him?

M is for Mending the Hoop of the People This is the mission behind Forrest Yoga and Ana’s work.

N is for Native American spirituality. Forrest Yoga has deep roots in Native American spirituality and medicine.

O is for Opening Up. Tight areas of the body will open up and so will your heart.

P is for Paying Attention. The hardest part of the practice is it demands that you pay attention and be present in feeling.

Q is for Quantum Leap. When you stay with the work, these have a way of appearing.

R is for Rolled-Up mat. An essential Forrest Yoga prop that will surprise you. Who knew a mere roll could add so much intensity?

S is for Spirit. Yes, S is for strength and stamina, but way more important is a central pillar of Forrest Yoga: connecting to your spirit.

T is for Tie-Dye pants. An unofficial Forrest Yoga prop. You can usually spot a Forrest Yoga teacher by the tie-dye pants.

U is for Up=level. Just when you didn’t think there was another way to bring a pose to the next level, Ana pulls out yet another way to up-level.

V is for Victoria Keen. Victoria’s clothes are also becoming unofficial Forrest Yoga attire (I like that she has small sizes and the pronunciation of her last name).

windhorseW is for Wind Horse. Wind Horse is the annual Forrest Yoga conference, now in its second year.

X is for X-ray eyes. Ana is incredibly skilled in seeing energy. Take some classes with her and you will likely be wondering if she does indeed have x-ray eyes with what she can perceive.

Y is for Yowl. This is maybe the only type of yoga in which I’ve been encouraged to howl away in unison. It’s amazing what you can let go of when you yowl away.

Z is for Zero chance. As in, “There is zero chance you won’t be challenged and changed by Forrest Yoga.”

Now you know your Forrest Yoga ABCs, next time, I hope you’ll practice with me (in spirit, if not in person).


I Just Got in From the Yoga Journal SF Conference…

…and boy are my arms abs tired!
Whew! For the past three days, I’ve been assisting my teacher, Ana Forrest at the Yoga Journal Conference San Francisco. This was the second time I’ve gotten the opportunity to assist Ana (my first time assisting was this past July). Right now my brain is in the process of taking in the whole experience: learning new poses and assists, bonding with my fellow assistants, and the connections I made with students and friends, and of course, getting more pearls of wisdom from Ana. As my brain is also fuzzy from days of getting up before 4am for the conference, look for a more coherent recap of my amazing weekend soon.

Oh, and GO NINERS!


Here I am with my two amazing friends and Forrest Yogis, Abbie and Sandy

Back to the Blog








But I’m back to blogging! There’s been a lot of changes for me in the past few months.

To back up a bit, a little over a year ago, I left a full-time job as an online community manager. I wanted to focus on teaching yoga, but was fairly sure yoga teaching wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do career-wise.

It’s been a great experience as far as deepening my teaching and growing a base of amazing students. Still, I also missed doing the online community work that I used to do and quickly discovered that I like having the structure and regularity that comes with a full-time, salaried job.

I was in the middle of the interviewing for a couple of non-yoga jobs when my husband and I left on Thanksgiving for a two-week cruise through the Panama Canal. There’s much more to be said about this fabulous vacation, but one wonderful part about it was that we were offline for the most part, with no cell access nor internet access (well, except for 75-cents-a-minute for what access might be there in the middle of the ocean). Unplugging is important to do from time to time.  But I digress.

I had an second interview mid-trip on one of the days we were in port. When our boat docked in Floria early on a Friday morning and I had internet access again, I came online to a job offer and was on a plane to Portland for training the next week. So it was quite the whirlwind. The universe can have a wonderful sense of humor when it comes to bringing you change.

Thus far, I am loving the work. I work for a nonprofit organization I’ve long admired and respected. I’m back working with a similar group of constituents and have been blown away by the warm welcome I’ve had from many people I know in this network. Best of all, I get to work remotely and have some flexibility with my hours which means I’m able to keep teaching away.

Right now, I’m still teaching a lot with a number of privates and group classes a week, so it’s busy and I’m juggling a bit to get into a routine with it all. That said, I’m loving it. Perhaps what I love most of all is teaching. I’ve re-discovered the joy teaching brings me. Now that it’s not the only thing I’m doing, I find myself excited again about coming up with juicy sequencing and exploring new assists. It feels like the best of both careers.

It took me a long time to get to writing this blog post. To be honest, I’ve been scared to talk about my new job and situation because I’m afraid: “What if it doesn’t work out? What if I blog about being happy about things are coming together so well and it all goes to hell?”

Ironically enough, as much as my fear makes me want to hide and not make a big deal out of things, I have two careers that are very public and require that I put myself out there, be it online or in front of a class of people. I can’t be hiding behind a curtain waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is a blog for if I can’t also be honest and put my truth out in words?

There’s a lot of stories out there about yoga teachers finding their path to teaching from another job. It may seem odd to find one’s path by taking a step back away from teaching, but that’s the way I’m finding my way and weaving my two careers together.

AND…I’m happy to be back to blogging and bringing in the beauty reports to come in 2013!

Tip Tuesday: What Yoga Videos Do You Recommend?

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Occasionally I get questions asking for yoga video recommendations. Some people may scorn videos as not being the same nor as good as being in a live yoga class. While videos aren’t a substitute for a live teacher, I think they are a fantastic alternative when a class might not be an option, time-wise, money-wise, or location-wise. Videos are also a good way to help you develop a home practice. They give you a place to start and once you get familiar with these sequences, you can do these on your own or weave them into your practice. I learned the Ashtanga yoga first series entirely from a video and practice manual before I ever went to an Ashtanga class.

Now there’s even more options available for video viewing. In addition to DVDs, there are a number of podcasts, vidcasts, and downloadable class mp3s and videos. Many are free, many are reasonably priced, considering that for the price of a regular yoga class, you can have a class to keep and practice at will. Netflix is also a great way to try out videos before you buy. I’ve test-driven a number of them this way.

Here’s the videos I usually recommend:

Ana Forrest’s The Pleasure of Strength is a great introduction to Forrest Yoga for beginners and intermediate students and includes a breakdown of the basic moves. Strength and Spirit is a slightly more challenging practice and also has an inspiring video of one of Ana’s yoga demos so you can see where all those abs might take you. Both are an hour so it makes it easier to work into a busy schedule. Ana also has a 5-CD set of advanced classes and class mp3s available. Most of these are much longer (two hours or more) and because you only have the audio and booklet, they can be much harder to follow along. I recommend these only if you’re a more experienced student and have some familiarity with Forrest Yoga. If that’s you, you’re in for some butt-kicking, juicy classes.

Yoga with Deborah Burkman is perfect for a beginning vinyasa practice with plenty of challenge, but also instruction so you’re not lost in the flow.  I also like Seane Corn for a deep, intermediate yoga flow.

Les Leventhal has a bunch of videos available on iTunes. Most cost a small amount, but you can save by buying a bundle of classes. There’s a few classes that are offered free so you can get the flavor of Les’ classes. They range in length, so I will often pull one out that works for the time I have available for practice. Most are all-levels, but offer plenty of advanced (and beginning) options.

Jason Crandell has a number of short helpful videos on Yoga Journal. They are accessible and useful for all levels. He also teaches weekly online classes through YogaGlo, though I have not tried any of these.

If you’ve got any favorites I missed, please share them in the comments.





Tip Tuesday: Yoga for the Holiday Season

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

If the Christmas decorations in stores didn’t tip you off, the holiday season is officially upon us. I’m on pre-holiday holiday with my husband for a few weeks. So it seems like a good time for a round-up of Tip Tuesday tips, especially ones that can help you approach the season with a breath (well, lots of breath) of yoga serenity:

 3 Poses for When You’re Feeling Anxious

A Simple Way to Take Your Yoga Off the Mat

Getting Back to Yoga