Interview with Seva Award Winner Joanne Spence

In September, Yoga Journal will run their 40th Anniversary issue in which they celebrate 40 influential yogis. Within those 40, 13 yogis received the Seva Award, an honor given to “yogis who are doing seva or selfless work by bringing the healing practice of yoga to underserved people either in their own communities or around the world.”

One of our long-time members, Joanne Spence, is one of the Seva Award nominees. Joanne is the founder of Yoga in Schools in Pittsburgh, PA, where she has been providing yoga therapy to students, teachers, and mental health patients for over ten years.

In anticipation of September’s Yoga Journal, we interviewed Joanne to get a sneak peek into her yoga journey.

CPY: Why did you start practicing yoga? 

JS: It wasn’t something I was particularly intentional about starting. As a water aerobics instructor at a large health club, I was given the opportunity to take a weekend YogaFit training (the only one they offered back in 2000). The training was full of disgruntled, “Gumby-like” woman who had been “told” by their various health club employers that they had to be “certified” to teach yoga (just like an aerobics instructor), and Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit, filled that niche.

That weekend was a tough one for me. The practice was power vinyasa flow (quite different from my practice now, but savasana has always been my favorite once I gave myself permission to do it). Ever since my debilitating car accident two years earlier, I had been working very hard to recover and build up my stamina and strength. I thought I had both, but after a few hours of practicing and learning about yoga, I discovered I didn’t have much of either. Hence my great surprise when I woke up three days later to a pain-free version of myself. I hadn’t seen this version of myself since the accident.

Often I am slow to pick on new skills but when I get it, I get it. I realized that on days when I practiced, I felt good and pain-free, and on days when I didn’t practice, I had pain. This convinced me that a daily practice was my only option – I had to. It was time to be well, and yoga was and is the practice that supports me to be well. I like to call it “being present and accounted for mentally and physically.”

CPY: What questions did you have as a Christian practicing yoga, and how did you resolve them? 

JS: I was very excited about the change in my pain levels, so I practiced and told others about yoga with enthusiastic evangelical zeal. I had no prior knowledge of the practice, so I blissfully told whoever would listen about my experience. Many friends and family who knew of my struggle with chronic pain were happy for my newfound energy and renewed zest for life.

It was an exciting time. The Christian mom’s group I belonged to at Beulah Presbyterian Church became my first teaching venue and where I earned my teaching hours for my certification. As new as it all was, this group really embraced my healing and my teaching. We all benefited from the experience, and many of my first students went on to become teachers.   

It was during this time that I started hearing “scuttlebutt” about yoga not being for Christians. This sounded pretty preposterous to me but did raise a red flag that made me look into the origins of yoga a little more. In my local inner-city library branch, in Wilkinsburg of all places, I found one little book on yoga. It was by Jean-Marie Dechanet, called Christian Yoga (1956). I devoured the book.

I also found Tom Ryan’s Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice (1995). I realized that I had missed my chance to meet the late Dechanet, but I was determined to find Father Ryan.  By this time, he was living in NYC, and I found his email through the Paulist website. We corresponded via email and set up a time to meet when I was next in New York. 

I enjoyed his book and wanted to see if he was a “real Jesus-loving” person. Turns out he was (and still is). Father Tom has been a wonderful friend and mentor over the years, and I have used his books to build classes and courses. It was Father Tom who told me about and invited me to retreat for Christian teachers of yoga in 2003, where I met a whole community of believers who practice yoga and love Jesus. I have not missed a retreat since, and I continue to be part of this body locally and nationally. We talk, discuss, discern and listen as to what the Lord would impart to us about our bodies and how to live in them to his glory.

CPY: Why are you motivated to share the practice of yoga with others? 

JS: I think it is in my nature to share my good news with others. I am the sort of person who hears of a great bargain and wants to tell everyone about it. Certainly, learning yoga was very good news to me and I felt compelled to share it. Now, 16 years later, I have studied and witnessed observable differences in myself and my students day in and day, and I continue to feel compelled to share it personally and professionally. While I do not believe that yoga is a “cure-all” for life’s ills, I firmly believe anyone can benefit from a simple, gentle, daily practice both physically and mentally. What’s not to like?

CPY: How is teaching yoga a Christian spiritual practice for you? 

JS: If having gratitude counts as a spiritual practice, then teaching yoga is a spiritual practice for me. Indeed, not everyone finds paid work that is so fulfilling. I think this attitude of gratitude shows up in my work.

Additionally, when we breathe, perhaps we breathe the breath of God – we can feel His Spirit dwelling in us through the breath. Connecting movement and breath and caring for the body as temple is also spiritual to me. Christ came to us in a body: this is big. Why would God choose to do such a humbling thing?  Whoever is in front of me, believer or unbeliever, seems to grasp that the act of caring for the body one has been given is the beginning of healing of one’s physical and mental health. Although I teach yoga as a secular practice (to people of many different faith backgrounds and/or no faith at all), I sense being on holy ground when I get to teach folks how to work with the body they have and how to take care of it. I am blessed to have such gratifying work.

CPY: What is Seva? How is it like Christian service? 

JS: Seva is a Sanskrit work meaning “selfless service to others.” This is not a uniquely Christian concept, but certainly central to my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Paradoxically, I find great personal fulfillment in “selfless service to others.” Perhaps, this selfless service to others is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that the first would be last and the last would be first.