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.

Tip Tuesday: A Simple Way to Take Your Yoga Off the Mat

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.

Image credit: Only In Philadelphia

Maybe you’ve had it happen. You leave yoga feeling serene, centered, and calm. Next thing you know you’re in your car uttering four-letter words at the car in front of you or grumbling at your partner at home. You wonder how that post-yoga calm left so quickly.

The challenge lies in keeping the serenity that yoga can bring into daily life, especially the parts of life that are not so serene. I’ve found a tool that helps me tremendously with keeping up the calm I’ve cultivated on the mat as well as with being a less frustrated human being overall. It’s a technique I learned from yoga and meditation teacher, Erich Schiffmann, where you treat everyone you meet as a brother or sister.

The practice itself is very simple. When you encounter another person, you think, “Brother” or “Sister”, as the case may be.  It’s especially effective when this is a person that is irritating you for one reason or another. The guy that cuts in front of the grocery line? Think, “Brother”. The woman talking loudly at a restaurant? “Sister.”

For me, the effect is three-fold. It allows me to catch myself when I’m about to call the person in question something very different in my head. Yes, I usually silently curse them in my head first, but I am becoming aware of when I do more quickly and then re-addressing them as my brother or sister. I also notice it helps me separate the person from their actions. Instead of labeling, “That guy is a jerk”, I think, “Brother”, and he becomes not a jerk, but instead a fellow human that did something that bothered me.

Finally, this practice helps me be more compassionate. Rather than get enraged at the guy who cut me off, I feel empathy for him. “Wow, he must feel really stressed and in a hurry to feel the need to dangerously whizz in front of people.” When someone is yelling and ranting on, I feel sorry for the person. “Wow, he/she must feel very angry. Being that person right now can’t possibly feel very good.” I feel more like an observer watching someone make a scene but not having to go to that emotional place with them. I can keep a distant calm and respond from that place of serenity instead of reaction.

Brothers and sisters, I hope this tip helps you too. Now I must be off to brave the highway with other brothers and sisters who I may need to mentally address along the way.


At Peace

I just got some really terrible and sad news last night. The best friend of my youngest sister was found dead in a river up in Oregon. She was just 26. They’d been best friends since early elementary school and our family knew her well as she was a fixture around our house growing up. I was shocked that this wonderful, happy-go-lucky person that had everything going for her was driven to commit suicide. It shows that you just don’t always know what is going on inside a person. My heart just goes out to my sister’s friend, Carly for the pain she had that led her to that point.

As I talked and cried with my family last night, I remembered when I was in the depths of depression when I was fifteen. I just felt like I was in a dark hole where no one could pull me out and I couldn’t see anything positive beyond it. I thought about suicide a lot and even had a plan for how I would do it, where I would go so my body wouldn’t be found by anyone until it was too late. Would I have gone through with it? I don’t know, but it struck me how lucky I am to have gotten out of that place and not ever been back there. It could’ve been me in that river of depression. I don’t know how it is that I got lucky enough to pull out of it, but I am so grateful to have made it out of that hole. It makes me heartsick to know how awful Carly must have felt to feel that was the only way out.

I hope that wherever Carly is now that she is out of pain and her spirit is at peace. We miss you, Carly.