People Who Care for People: Four Remarkable Contemplative Teachers Who Help Caregivers Learn to Care for Themselves

By Stephen Kent

November 12 -13 the Institute is holding its sixth People Who Care for People weekend workshop (this one is virtual due to the pandemic), which provides needed respite and teaches yoga, meditation, and other self-care skills for helping professionals, caregivers, and anyone coping with the stresses and potential burnout of extending themselves to serve others.  

In the second year of the pandemic, almost everyone fits that description in one way or another. So the workshop is designed to be effective and accessible for everyone from health care workers on the front lines, to teachers and social workers, to home caregivers and homeschooling parents, to anyone who needs recharging in these tough times.

The first People Who Care for People workshop was held a decade ago.  The 2021 workshop, like most of the preceding ones, is led by leading meditation teacher and best-selling author Sharon Salzberg, and by the co-founders of the Holistic Life Foundation: Atman Smith, Ali Smith and Andres Gonzalez.  Their journey together, from helping at-risk youth in Baltimore to developing the People Who Care for People workshops for the Garrison Institute, adds up to a substantial  body of work, and quite a story.  It starts 20 years ago in West Baltimore, as Atman, Ali, and Andres were creating after-school yoga and meditation programs for neighborhood youth.  

Ali and Atman are brothers, and met Andres in college at the University of Maryland. After graduation Andres and Ali moved into the house in Mondawmin area of West Baltimore that had belonged to Ali’s parents. Atman lived on the next block. “It’s one of the most violent neighborhoods in America,” Atman said.  “There were open-air drug markets across the street, and three murders within a one block radius over a single weekend.”  

“Local kids were terrorizing the neighborhood,” said Andres, “so the three of us went to the ringleader, and said, ‘y’all are getting into some stuff.  We asked them to come to the YMCA to shoot hoops, and then took them upstairs to the dance room. We didn’t tell them we were doing yoga, or teaching them stress relief. We emphasized the physical part, and told them it was a way to beat the other guy at sports.  We made it relatable, and they discovered that they could use the breath and find some internal peace.”

Atman and Ali had learned yoga, meditation, and breathwork from their godfather and teacher Will Joyner, and understood contemplative practice could help neighborhood kids the way it had helped them.  “A lot of people who live in traumatized communities think their undiagnosed trauma is just a normal part of inner city living. Our friends would ask us, how are we so happy?” Atman said.  “We wondered about them.  They had jobs and money, why are they so miserable? We discovered it was our practice keeping us in a state of bliss.  We promised our teachers that we wouldn’t keep it to ourselves; we’d share it.”

Twenty years ago, yoga was a trendy luxury market for the affluent who could afford the mats, the pants, and the fancy water bottles. But Andres, Ali, and Atman saw the opportunity to teach it in underserved communities.  They created the Holistic Life Foundation in 2001 and started teaching yoga in schools in West Baltimore, witnessing how it changed kids’ trajectory from acting out to becoming school and community leaders. 

“They called us the ‘A-Team’ because our first names start with ‘A’,” said Andres.  “At the end of the year, the kids were sad, and one cynically said, ‘nice knowing you.’  He thought he’d never see us again.  But next year, we picked the kids up after school, and took them to the YMCA to do yoga.  They would call their parents on their cells and beg permission to go, and they got it.  One time I had ‘way too many kids in my car, and the police pulled me over. When I told the officer what we were doing, he said, ‘yeah, right,’ but when the kids explained it, he was impressed and said we were doing good work.” The student who once said “nice knowing you” still works with HLF today. 

“The kids we work with are a lot happier than their peers,” said Atman.  “I’ve seen firsthand how when kids go through our programs, their cognitive skills come back and they achieve academically, and in life. Their successes go ‘way beyond the neighborhoods where they came from. Some have filmed in China, or taught classes in Syria and South Korea.  You would never know they had been through trauma. “

From West Baltimore schools, HLF expanded its programs into drug rehab centers, senior homes, juvenile and adult detention centers, homeless shelters, and mental health facilities in underserved communities. “We found people working in all these places were burnt out, and needed tools to take care of the people they wanted to help,” said Ali.  “They were giving to other people, but not taking care of themselves.  We saw it in ourselves, too.  We worked 60 hours a week on HLF, then turned around and did 24 hours at a mental crisis facility.  It wasn’t sustainable at all.  So we had to practice self-care ourselves.  It starts with self-care and self-love.  It’s hard to get people to want to help the planet or the community if they don’t care about themselves.  Getting them to connect to their self-love opens up their care for others.”  

HLF went on to offer programs in independent schools, college dorms, and corporations.  “In the early years we focused exclusively on underserved communities,” Atman said, “but later we recognized everyone was suffering.  It just looks a little different depending on where you are.”  

Garrison Institute was founded two years after HLF, in 2003. In 2004, while Ali, Atman and Andres were building their programs, the Institute was pioneering the use of contemplative practices including yoga, meditation and bodywork to help domestic violence shelter frontline workers and staff.  It was known as the Women’s Trauma Initiative, which in 2005 became a five-year pilot project called the Women’s Wellness Project. Sharon Salzberg was the project’s co-founder, and instrumental in designing the program and leading the retreats.  

DV workers are at risk of vicarious traumatization through constant exposure to their clients’ trauma. Contemplative self-care practices help them avoid burnout and build resilience, so they can thrive in their generous, demanding, essential work.  

“The recording from the first Women’s Wellness retreat requested most often was the session where we discussed the nature of stress and vicarious trauma and its impacts of the brain, because it validated and normalized people’s experience,” Sharon said.  “It helped them realize, ‘no wonder I am exhausted, no wonder I’m getting headaches.  I’m not feeling these things because I’m not up to the job, but because I care.’  We gave them tools so they could feel more balanced, and find more inner strength.” 

One of the key skills Sharon built into the trainings is learning to distinguish between empathy and compassion.  “Empathy is the felt sense, you feel someone’s pain, and it’s an important building block” said Sharon, “but if you feel for someone else’s situation, and you’re depleted and frightened by it, you can’t give effectively.  Compassion is a state of moving forward and being able to connect with someone else’s needs without getting overwhelmed.  It implies a sense of boundaries or limits, and compassion for oneself.  Caregivers tend to have enormous empathy, but they often need to learn compassion and self-care.  You have to have a sense of limits; you can’t make it all okay by Tuesday.”

In 2010, Sharon drew on the same principles to design specific curriculum and trainings for humanitarian aid and disaster relief workers, who are subject to vicarious trauma and high rates of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Those trainings became the foundation of the Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) program, and were delivered around the world.  In 2019, the trainings for aid and relief workers were spun off as an international program based in the Hague and CBR renewed its domestic focus.  Sharon helped adapt CBR learnings and techniques to helping U.S. caregivers care for themselves, which became all the more important when the covid-19 pandemic hit.  Sharon and colleagues developed a free, Care for Caregivers app specially designed for healthcare workers on the front lines, teaching meditation and mindful movement in short installments.

“Interwoven through all these developments was my friendship with Ali, Atman, and Andy,” said Sharon, who had met them at the Institute and in other settings. “The first time we came to Garrison was for conference for mindful educators with Mark Greenburg, said Ali. “We did a study with him and the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health — the first randomized control study of the effects of yoga on urban youth. On the retreat circuit we had gotten to know Sharon and she became like family.  We’d see her in various places and learn from her as we taught with her.”

The four had a conversation about how CBR might be adapted to teach self-care skills to caregivers.  HLF had done a viral video where a school ditched detention for yoga class, and it got millions of hits. They saw the need and the potential to reach caregivers everywhere with contemplative-based trainings. 

The first People Who Care for People program was held in 2011 for 100 helping professionals and caregivers from diverse fields and walks of life. “When we talked with Sharon about it, we said, let’s open this up to everyone,” said Andres.  “You don’t necessarily have to be working in a hospice to benefit from these techniques; you could be at home taking care of a family member.  Let’s make it so it’s for everybody who gives, forgets to take care of themselves, and burns out.”

“That word ‘caregiver’ turns out to be pretty elastic,” said Sharon.  “Sometimes people would contact us and say they weren’t caregivers, for example they managed an NGO, and wanted to know if they qualified to come to ‘People Who Care for People.’ Absolutely they do. They have the same kind of service mission and the same kind of frustrations and challenges as other helping professionals.  Then people began writing and asking, ‘I am taking care of my mother, can I come?’  Yes, you are in the caregiver mode, so you can benefit from learning these self-care skills.”

In the decade since the first People Who Care for People workshop, the participants have gotten even more diverse. “There were always a lot of educators, healthcare workers and people in other helping professions,” said Sharon, “plus a lot who are caregivers in their personal lives, many of whom had to find someone else to take care of their loved one so they could come to the Institute.  But the mix of people has widened over the years, because our understanding has widened.”

“Anybody can be caregiver – from the greeter at WalMart or the stranger who gives you a smile to full-on hospice or drug rehab center workers,” said Andres.  “Caregivers are people who recognize suffering and want to relieve it.  That’s an innate thing in all human beings.  If you have a kid, or a pet, and in most lines of work, you are caring for someone.  You might as well have tools and a well to draw from, rather than an empty cup.”  

“The pandemic made it more visible,” said Ali.  “We’re all caregivers now. Parents were turned into home school teachers. They had to keep their kids engaged, while some kids are fearful to even leave the house.  Essential workers had to go outside the house then come back and take care of the people inside the house. Worry and fear and stress and division are at an all-time high.  Self-care is needed more now than ever before.  People may be hesitant to call themselves caregivers, but we successfully created a container where people know they are caregivers when they walk into the room. How?  By letting them know it is a weekend for them, to love and care for themselves, take a pause, learn some skills.”  

And enjoy themselves.  “These guys are tremendous fun,” said Sharon. “They personify what it’s like to be in tough situations and find community and joy.”

“Many people who come to these workshops don’t have a practice at all, so we’ve got to make practice fun, practical and relatable,” said Andres.  “We love working with Sharon, we’re always joking and light-hearted, not so serious. That’s why we’ve been successful.  We make participants think, ‘if you guys can do this, I can do it.’”  

“Everyone laughed a lot,” said one participant. “Everyone seemed to be having a great old time getting to know each other… and letting go of their stresses and strains for the weekend. We were also almost commanded not to feel guilty about relaxing! If caregivers don’t relax, neither will the people they’re caring for, we were told.”

Because of covid, this year’s People Who Care for People workshop will be virtual, which has its drawbacks, but also its opportunities.  For one thing, it makes the workshops more accessible, including to caregivers who would otherwise have trouble finding the time and money to travel to the Institute for a weekend away. The Institute offers tiered fee structure for the workshop, including a subsidized fee of $35. It also avoids the quandry of whether caregivers should gather at a face-to-face event. “With covid, in-person retreats are asking caregivers with vulnerable people in their lives, maybe in a nursing home or hospital, to come to a congregate setting,” said Sharon.  “That’s a tricky proposition. The current push is toward trying to get back people together for in-person retreats, and that will evolve as our understanding of managing the virus evolves. But meanwhile I like the virtual ones.”

“A generation ago, people who wanted to learn meditation had to go to India like Sharon did,” said Andres.  “Then more teachers brought techniques to the U.S. to make it more accessible, but you still had to find and pay for the books and retreat centers.  Today, technology makes it accessible to everyone.  It’s not an exclusive practice, it’s a human practice.  For us teaching over Zoom was trial and error at first, but now we have it down.”

“We do breathwork, meditation, talks, and optional yoga session at lunch, all over Zoom, with camera showing the positions,” said Ali. “We create real interaction, we’re not just us talking at you.  All you need to participate is an internet connection and some space for yourself to receive the experience.  Find somewhere to be alone, just a room. Avoid distractions that pull you away from taking care of yourself, even a pet.  Let people know you need this time for self-care, so you can care better for others.”

The 2021 People Who Care for People retreat takes place on Zoom Friday November 12, from 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM EST and Saturday, November 13, from 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM EST. You can register here until 6:00 PM EST on Friday November 12, and email events@garrisoninstitute.org with questions.

Stephen Kent is the president of KentCom LLC, a public interest PR practice serving non-profits working on environmental, peace, and social justice issues.”

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