Reflections on the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR)

Written by Alison (Ali) Zuba, MBA, RYT 500, Yoga Therapist in training

Pictured (left) Ann Maxwell, co-owner of Yoga North and (right) Alison Zuba, new IAYT member

It all starts with a story…
As a newbie yoga teacher, business graduate student and former IT analyst, I was happy to dive into a
professionals conference that wasn’t your average university ‘cup of joe’ meeting nor a ‘hyper-functional’
software takeover. A “newbie” with 10 years of practice, 6 years of study, and 4 years of teaching experience, I am always looking for ways to make my practice and teaching new and novel. To stay on the path! I do believe my pursuit of knowledge and deep connections keeps me engaged. So here I landed with a beginner’s mind at SYTAR, and being a beginner requires action from a place of essentialism. Our every action matters! The Sanskrit word Upaya was highlighted by keynote speaker Shyam Ranganathan and it inspired my efforts in writing this reflection. He defined Upaya as “something you do when you are not good at it, a remedy”. Upaya is also translated as limitless possibilities or starting from exactly where you’re at to meet the needs of the moment. To attend SYTAR in person was a wonderful and inspiring opportunity to meet and grow alongside the organization International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), and definitely aligned with my needs at this time! As a new IAYT member in my 30s, I represent just 5% of membership in this age range, and I’ll say it was a special treat to be alongside seasoned practitioners, scholars, teachers and all-around changemakers! It all starts with our story…

Looking for a deep well of collective knowledge and support, I found more than I thought I needed when I
started at Yoga North International SomaYoga Institute in late 2019, just as my dad was passing away from
chronic alcohol drinking and I was facing internal dissonance in the University IT career I had fallen into. I am so glad I safely landed with a close-knit group of people in a yoga therapy training program that continued adamantly when forced online during a very traumatic pandemic time!

During trying times of managing personal and situational stress, I have developed patience, engaged regularly with self-regulating practices, and learned to enjoy the journey of becoming something new. I started practicing devotional mantras, guided meditations, and redirecting my thoughts toward more positive affirmations (Post It notes on mirrors really helped!). I moved more mindfully, compassionately, more slowly, and held myself well as I battled bouts of loss, grief, shame, guilt, disorientation and nervous system dysregulation. Not to mention the big shifts away from a 12-year career at the University, toxic interpersonal drama, relational trauma, and rampant self-doubt. Gratefully, I was afforded lots of new tools and space to relieve stuck emotions and negative thought patterns, and I was washed many times over by my own waves of tears on and off my mat. What a joy it was connecting with a group that understands this deeply complex human experience. This is what I wish to share with others!

Attending the conference in person…
As I write this and reflect on my own life starting over again, I mostly wanted to share that SYTAR reminded me that action, especially as a beginner, is necessary, and the knowledge you gain and share along the way informs the path! IAYT is an organization of passionate, intentional, and diverse population of professionals. Members have integrated yoga and yoga therapy not only into their own lives, but also into their work with individuals, groups, and corporations – where we know our efforts really matter, as old systems are tough to change! This association cares deeply about people, and it is clear they want to help people realize their own belonging, dignity, and personal sense of safety (as beloved yogi Maryam Ovissi called forth in my first ever SYTAR panel). SYTAR 2022 was ride I will never forget!

The presenters and professional staff demonstrated well that investment in action is the way forward. They chose to host a hybrid conference – a full schedule in person and robust live streamed sessions, and all recordings were shared after the event. Seems commonplace these days, but for this part-time and mostly volunteer-staffed organization, it was quite the feat! Initially, I thought the online conference would be more cost- and time- effective given my busy June schedule. Perhaps also lurking was a bit of social anxiety in new groups after 3 years frozen in a pandemic… yet at the same time I felt a yearning for professional development opportunities and the chance to expand my network in this new field. My decision turned when a classmate offered to share a hotel room, and since the location was a short driving distance away, the decision became clear. I registered to attend the conference in person just 2 weeks before the event! I am so glad I made the investment.

Well Scheduled and Informed…
The attendee schedule opened Thursday afternoon and right there at the conference hotel I attended my first SYTAR panel! Led by Maryam Ovissi, it was jam-packed with highly personal and emotional stories around collective trauma, and an important call to action: to recognize the individual in society and ask people genuinely about the impacts of current events. Each session at the conference was 3 hours long, a deep dive with the speakers, and this potent first panel had 6 speakers! (Have you seen the conference schedule? It’s bursting with good people on a mission!). What a fun ride from singing together to grounding with ‘HA’ breaths to shedding tears with a hint of a smile. This is what connection feels like! This panel was uniquely impactful as each panelist spoke to their closest work and shared their personal story as it relates to our ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ systems. In this panel, I heard about resilience in research, unique public emergency civil support, thankless and tireless work of hospital staff, brave spaces for victims of sex trafficing, triumph in addiction and recovery, and the importance of seeing cultural differences and similiarities. We must learn to see!

The keynote speakers were not to be missed! Each distinguished presenter shared important messages from different aspects of our collective being. Topics ranged from body-image awareness to nurturing a courageous mind and all knowing spirit, and ultimately that practicing is the path! First Dr. Catherine Cook-Cottone shared stories of her resilience with yoga when recovering from a significant back injury. In her presentation, she gently reminded us of the importance of body-consciousness, the most visible layer of the Kosha, and drew forth unseen mental and emotional concerns of those that suffer from body-image and eating disorders.

Major Adhana McCarthy, C-IAYT and Physician’s Assistant in the U.S. Army, met with us in the general session and invited us to Be Bold, Be Brilliant, and Be Brief. She briefed us on how to best enter the headquarters buildings that appear to be impenetrable. Highlighting in brief here, she told us that the buildings are indeed made to be entered, to be bold in learning the organizational chart, and to approach units that are most connected to delivering wellness programs – and be prepared to engage with a regular and routine schedule! It was a treat to hear from Dr. Sayam Ranganathan, researcher, scholar, author, and teacher of philosophy. On this afternoon, I felt like I was back in a college elective course, yet the topic of yoga I was not privy to in college! Philosophy has always been a favorite subject of mine, and I was happily reminded of that here. Sayam was direct in his talk that Upaya is the path and that we are always practicing Yoga. This is essential knowledge! Engaging with the eight limbs reduces our suffering and helps our practice, yet they are not the entirety of Yoga. The Kleshas clearly indicate the path to ‘stuckness’ or, otherwise known as, trauma in our systems. And to end the talk, he postulated that it’s not so much Trauma-Informed Yoga… it’s Yoga informed Trauma. To recognize such is life-affirming and life-changing! Yes, go ahead and watch this presentation!

Saturday evening Keynote Marshawn Feltus, who had already taken us on an impactful personal journey during the first SYTAR panel, once again lit up the room with his faithful and forthright spirit. He simply stated a smile and friendly hello can really change a person’s outlook, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is not just empathy, it requires that you are continually called to act. He started A.C.T. Yoga (Awareness, Change, Triumph) and serves up peace in his community. He’s been actively mentoring and facilitating building better citizens in Cook County, IL ever since getting out of prison where he was introduced to yoga practice. He doesn’t hesitate taking early morning phone calls from youth in trouble or those in need of a responsible (and deeply empathetic) adult figure in their life. His call to action: We can all be that person … when we show up, and share our story!

And I must share before closing…
There was an awesome group of panelists that turned the phrase ‘cultural competence’ on its head. As a former university staff member, I’ve attended quite a few ‘cultural training’ programs and the integrity and impact of this one blew my sandals off! These 3 influential C-IAYTs – RW Alves, Michelle Bowles, and Priya Verma – highlighted that awareness, self-inquiry with heart-centered debate, and striving to see and understand the impact of our actions is where change happens. I recommend you take a listen to their passionate voices, and the waves they made during the Cultural Sensitivity panel.

All that conference goodness and more was integrated during morning practices and thoughtful breaks. Very well-timed placeholders were there to make more space for ingesting and digesting new material. I was sweetly held by the conference schedule (not too loose, not too tight), and all of the participants that were bursting with knowledge and authentic personal stories. And to make it even sweeter, I won a DoTerra essential oil door prize. Thanks Nicole DeAvilla! And kudos to all those involved at IAYT and beyond for making this conference a huge success!

In times of collective suffering, it is best to surround yourself with good company, and to take action! Thank you to my teachers at Yoga North, Ann Maxwell and Molly McManus, also the current IAYT board chair, for being exemplary educators and relational experts that do not blink at a chance to facilitate and to create deep meaningful connections. Their reach is impacting the world! I am so encouraged and inspired by all that challenge us to skillfully connect to our wholeness, and to carry a vision of ourselves that holds true to our personal dharma. Upaya! It only takes one bold action to make a wave of change! Attending SYTAR in person was that bold action for me this Summer. There are lots of opportunities ahead, and being on the younger side of membership in this organization, I look forward to being connected with these trailblazers for the long path ahead. I will remind myself, in hopes to inspire others, that action comes through constant courageous effort, and it is in big part to share our story in creative and impactful ways. Thanks for reading mine from a beginner’s mind!