We caught up with Sevanti, an incredible woman based in Lewes. Sevanti is currently working to launch a brand new community yoga centre in a beautiful building that was previously a Turkish Baths. Celebrating yoga for all and banishing the stereotypes that stop so many from coming to the mat, this woman is on a mission to bring yoga to everyone. We just had to find out more and see how we could help support the project…
Tell us about your yourself and what you are currently working on…
I ‘ve been running my yoga teacher training school which includes IYN recognised 200 hour teacher training courses, postgraduate courses including my partner yoga teacher training, and massage diplomas as well as various other courses since 2002. I have been teaching yoga since 1998, running retreats, teaching in schools and working a lot with people who have less mobility and older people as well as mainstream classes.
We have had our Brighton based studio since 2012. I had other studios before that, but it has been a long time coming really where I have been looking for the perfect premises that is predominantly accessible. This project really is about ‘Yoga for All. It is about yoga being accessible, inclusive and celebrating diversity. It will be a centre of high quality classes and trainings, treatments and so on, but it’s really to reach out to all corners of our society and make sure that there aren’t any barriers to people coming in and receiving the amazing qualities that we get from yoga as a life experience.
At one of our recent talks, we had a lady talking and we had her interpreted as she is deaf. She was talking about how she wants to become a yoga teacher and how difficult that is – where on earth would she go to train when she has no hearing ability? – so we are working with her and we’re looking to make that happen for her. We were just talking about the deaf community in general and how difficult it is for them to go to a normal class, a mainstream class. It is not just people who are born with deafness. It is the people who are then becoming hard of hearing. In general classes it is so hard. They can’t get into the meditation because they are focusing so intently on trying to understand what it is you’re asking them to do. So there is a really great trick to use mirrors, so that when for example they are in a forward bend they can see what you are doing, so it is all very demonstration based. There is a certain amount of lip reading but really most of it, we just have to learn to teach without using our voice. It is the most amazing skill to teach an entire class in silence with people just watching. It is phenomenal even for those of us who are able to hear. This project was partly inspired by situations like this. Over 20 years of teaching, I have come across so many situations – for example, students that are really dyspraxic that just cannot mirror, when you’re at the front of a room and you’re saying this is my left arm, that can be really confusing. My inspiration comes particularly from my Dad, from his stroke and how he has got to come to terms with new challenges.
I guess what I am trying to do is blast out of the water that yoga is for a certain type of person with a certain type of income, certain type of mobility. It is not at all. Everyone can benefit from the principles of yoga which is basically finding a connection with oneself and a connection with
others and really tuning into who we are, what we need, what we can offer the world, so why shouldn’t someone of my Dad’s age and disability be able to take on some of those principles. It could be posture, it could be breathing, the relaxation aspect, it could be diet, it could be so many different areas. We are looking at people who have had strokes, people living with cerebral palsy, people with mental health difficulties. So this centre is for everybody, including those with physical and learning differences. So whether they were born with something or developed it along the way like a brain injury or Parkinson’s (which yoga is amazing for, it really helps to centre and helps the shaking fade away when they are practising), we are just looking at working with all different experience levels as well as it being a centre for those who like myself are fortunate enough to be able bodied, so it will be quality classes where people can go deeper and deeper at the context in which they are naturally placed, where they are in life. Not just on the class level but if they want to train, why shouldn’t they be able to train as a teacher. The centre is encompassed around yoga, so the values of the entire vision are based on the yoga principes, on the 8 limbs effectively but there will also be music, dance, theatre, art so it is all related. I would say it is really a centre for community, arts and wellbeing. It is yoga, it’s mindfulness, it’s meditation and then it is all related fields of expression and creativity in a nutshell.
The barriers might also be financial. The town we are setting this up in is really diverse. There are people who are very affluent, right through to an estate where we have a food bank. I want to be able to bring people together from different economic statuses but also intergenerational. So trying to bring together events where we have our older generation, alongside families and children and making it a lot more kind of open community based.
I’ve worked a lot with people with less mobility so I have done a lot of chair yoga with people and some of my colleagues have taken that much further and they work with children with cerebral palsy and they use hoists so even if there is very little movement available, part of our fundraising is that we are trying to get £4,000 for these hoists which is what these very specially designed hoists cost. And of course their range of movement will be dramatically different from others but of course it is not about the destination it is about the journey, for them being able to move just a teeny bit will be absolutely liberating, for them it will improve their sense of connection and self-esteem and just awaken them in so many different ways.
We will also be working with people with dementia. We recently had some speakers at one of our public meetings of people who are very experienced in music for dementia and dance for dementia which is amazing so they gave some fantastic talks about the work that they are going to do – it is all about discovering oneself. We also had a lovely man talking about strokes and my Dad had a stroke, so this is my inspiration. It’s really about them finding themselves again because with a stroke, it is a sense of completely losing your identity. Suddenly you don’t have the mobility, people can’t understand you with your speech, your memory might be affected and it is very very difficult for people with those kind of brain injuries and dementia and so on to just get around in society, so going into a hospital or a clinic is much easier but going into a corner shop is really difficult. So it is about giving people a place where they are really nurtured by real
professionals who know what they are doing, and we can help in a holistic way, with yoga, with bodywork, with healing, with art, in as many ways as we can.
How did you come across the Turkish Baths?
The centre is in an amazing building that used to be Turkish Baths, so it is an incredible council owned building. The council were going to put in a restaurant or something like that and all the community said “no we don’t want any more restaurants, we want a community space!” and that is when it got open to tender and there was an invitation for us all to bid our ideas and that is what I did, and luckily, we won the bid. We still would love to collaborate with the other people that went for it because they were also creative people – they were dancers, they were artists and we just want to bring all these people together. So the building is going to have a new lease of life, I guess the yoga metaphor is that we are breathing new life into the building.
The main studio is really big with space for around 22 mats, a smaller studio for meditation, anatomy and physiology and an art room, and then we will have 2 treatment rooms where we will have talking therapies, bodywork, healing and so on. We hope to get a sauna and a float tank but the float tank is one of the more expensive parts of the project so that may not happen straight away. We will also have a little cafe and a gallery shop area.
We are so inspired by your work, what would you say is your key mission?
I think this project is going to be quite pioneering. It is about saying that what has happened to the world of yoga is not all about leggings. It is about really educating people. A lot of people perceive yoga as something inaccessible to them, someone at one of our talks even put their hand up and said ‘aren’t you just a bunch of yummy mummys?’. So let’s break down this projected fear-based idea of what it is and let’s really make it clear what this 5000 year old practice really is. So for me, I am really excited about bringing in some really experienced Ayurvedic teachers and talking about the science of yoga and of Ayurveda and getting right to the roots of the practice.
Tell us about your crowdfunding campaign…
Yes, we are doing a crowdfund campaign. So far, we have had well over 5,000 views of our video and if you think about it, if everyone put in £10 we would have £50,000. Crowdfunding really does work if people just put in whatever they can afford, it really does add up. But the other thing is, people can help in lots of other ways. Teachers could run fundraising workshops or classes. Even people that don’t live near us can still come and get involved. They can run their teacher trainings here. They can come down and spend a whole retreat weekend here – so there are many ways of making it accessible even if people aren’t local but I think it also about supporting projects like this and working together to get more of them up and running around the country.
Do you think there are many spaces like this around the UK?
I think there are loads of community projects which incorporate a little bit of yoga but we are trying to turn it around and say it is based on the principles of yoga and we are expanding from that point. Yoga is the nucleus of it and that is what brings it all together. So no, I haven’t come across anything quite the same.
Do you think that there are perception barriers which may hinder those who have never tried yoga before from visiting the centre?
Absolutely, and hopefully our literature will explain that it really is for everyone to try. We want people to feel as though they are not going to feel intimidated to walk through the door. We want people to know it is not cliquey and for a certain type of person and so they can come in to the centre in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s with a whole range of challenges. I want those people to come in alongside those in their 20’s and 30’s who are maybe jumping around doing some Ashtanga, but it will be all different styles of yoga that are appropriated, so lots of yoga therapy and yin, yoga, restorative yoga using lots of props and using chairs and so on.
Do you do much work towards mental health?
The recognition body that I am with, the IYN (Independent Yoga Network) has a Chairwoman, Ellen Lee – one of the most phenomenal woman I have ever met. On the postgraduate diploma that I teach, I invite all these teachers that have got at least 20 years experience behind them and they come in and talk about their area of speciality and hers is yoga in mental health, so I would like to invite her to be more involved as well as others such as Catherine Varley, Paul Collins. So for projects like ‘Through the Gate’ for those who have just come out of prison or battling with addiction, we really want to work with these people. It is really grounded work that they need, probably not anything like Kundalini. It is about being on the earth, lots of floor work, lots of gravity and just feeling at home on the ground, feeling safe. There are certain of ways of working like this and Ellen is a true pioneer and expert in this so she will hopefully be coming down and doing some work.
We have this amazing spectrum of people around us and we just really want to draw on their expertise and welcome so many more. It is like an empty vessel, so come in and work with us. We have some great ideas but also we want to hear yours as well.
Where are you with the project at the moment?
The council are doing a certain amount of the work, so they’re spending around £170,000 which is a huge amount of money but an old building like that really drinks up that money. They have to redo the insulation, put new windows in, change the layout, make sure it is energy efficient etc. So I am waiting for them to find the right contractor and do their work and then we step in. This is why we are trying to raise the funds to put in the money for the electricity, the plumbing, the heating, the flooring and then of course all of our specialist equipment and so on. So we are waiting for the council to do the groundwork and in the meantime, we are raising more funds. We have received some money from a local fund and we have some personal investment as well, so as well as applying for various funding bodies, along with the crowdfunding campaign which we are hoping that some individuals will be able to offer a little something to as well.
Read more: yogamatters.com