Uniting Nations Through Yoga
An Interview with Sam Chase
Kripalu Yoga teacher Sam Chase teaches yoga to delegates and staff at the United Nations (UN) Secretariat in New York City. Sam holds a master’s degree in performance from Harvard University and got his Kripalu Yoga certification in 2006. We decided to find out more about his experience at the UN and how his Kripalu training prepared him to teach at such a unique and high-profile organization.
Kripalu Online (KOL) What is unique about teaching yoga at the United Nations?
Sam Chase Teaching yoga at the UN stands out in two significant ways. First, there’s the mission of the organization itself, which maps directly onto the fundamental tenets of yogic philosophy: increasing harmony and decreasing suffering. The very first article of the UN’s charter lays out its goal: "to maintain international peace" and create "a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations." So what you have is a group of people assembled in class who have already made a significant commitment to nonviolence, the foundational yogic principle of ahimsa.
The second element is the international character of the classes. I have students from Russia, Lebanon, Mexico, and many other places. I find this mix of students to be of great benefit to the classes. There’s an inherent willingness at the UN, and among its staff, to hold space for the traditions of other cultures. Because of the cultural diversity, I’ve found the students much more willing to explore the deeper practices of the yogic tradition than the average New Yorker. So they’re open to chanting and pranayama, walking meditations, and talks about the sutras; there’s a real eagerness to explore and try things on.
Together, these two elements translate into real courage on the part of the students and a genuine interest in delving into the subtler elements of the practice as a whole system of creating harmony in oneself and, by extension, the world at large. And because the UN and the students have that commitment to world harmony, my greatest challenge is to make the link between the practice on a physical and personal level and our relationship to the world—our time on the mat as a rehearsal for how we want to be in the world.
KOL Why did you choose the Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training?
Sam Before I came to Kripalu, I had been practicing Ashtanga for a couple years, and it was all I knew about yoga. Then I went to Kripalu with a friend and jumped right into a vigorous class, and as we made our way through the first vinyasa, the instructor said, "As you inhale, pass through Upward-Facing Dog or a low Cobra." And I thought, "You mean I have a choice?"
That first weekend at Kripalu opened a door for me into understanding yoga practice as a personal journey inward that can take a different shape every day. I continue to practice the Ashtanga primary sequence when that kind of structure calls out to me, as it often does. But I also find many days when I sit down on the mat and my body just needs to roam, to explore another road.
After that weekend, I found this idea of choice and the balance between structure and freedom really captivating. What those first encounters with Kripalu taught me is that yoga is a big, big canvas with space for all kinds of images. From that lesson, much of my practice has become about learning to listen on a deeper level, and making choices rooted in that awareness.
When I considered teacher training, it was this attitude of inquiry and exploration that I most wanted to carry back into the community—above all, the idea that this exploration can take so many paths. It was abundantly clear to me that Kripalu was the perfect place for me to study that on the largest possible scale. Ironically, I didn’t intend to teach when I took the teacher training. But I graduated with a strong desire to bring yoga into the world.
KOL How did the training prepare you to teach classes that have such a variety of people and cultures?
Sam The best preparation that Kripalu gave me to teach at the UN, or to teach anywhere, is the core focus on meeting the individual in their own place and starting the journey from right there. This idea that no matter who you are or where you are from or who is sitting next to you, we can come together for a while and take this look inward. We can explore together, and sometimes the roads will look similar and sometimes very different, but what we’re sharing, what keeps us together, is this mutual commitment to living deliberately for at least an hour. In a city like New York, that kind of commitment can feel rare.
On a practical level, what has served me more than anything is that Kripalu’s approach to teacher training provides a toolbox that is so large and varied. Kripalu gave me a framework for understanding how concepts and techniques from all styles of yoga fit together and how to integrate what I learned from each. The methodology is inclusive, to a radical degree, so everything has a place, and all these styles from outside Kripalu are totally welcome. I am always selecting the tools that the students respond to and letting go the ones that don’t fit, knowing that later on they might be just what we need. At a place like the UN, where, in addition to the normal variables of age and body type and injury and history, you have these incredible variables of culture, the versatility that Kripalu teaches has become particularly valuable.
KOL What are some of the challenges your students face?
Sam My students are working with the same priorities and concerns you might see anywhere: a tight back here, tight hips there, a desire to lower stress or increase flexibility.
However, I also notice that there is at times a very political and public attitude inside the building, which I imagine must be there by necessity. There are news cameras outside every day, and there is a real sense that the organization is being watched. Amidst that kind of scrutiny, a lot of the students I’ve spoken with seem to gravitate toward the practice as a private space in what might otherwise be a very public day at work. There’s a quote from Thoreau’s Walden that I sometimes read before class that begins, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately." And here in New York where woods are in short supply, I think a lot of students at the UN, and all over the city, look to their yoga mat as a place to step away from the world for a while, so that they can step back in a little more deliberately.
The majority of people I have spoken with chose careers at the UN because they were fueled by a desire to better the world, and several of the yogis at the UN have been working with the organization for decades. In some cases, I think that idealism can be worn down by the daily realities and frustrations of working inside such a large organization with such a complicated mission. I see that beyond the physical benefits of yoga, many of my students look to the practice as a way of refueling—not only recharging the passions and drives that led them to the UN in the first place but also investing in the idea that change on a global scale begins personally.
I see Kripalu making an effort to expand the scope of yoga from just an inward journey to a journey back outward and deeper into the world. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of that.
Sam Chase holds Kripalu Yoga’s highest teaching certification, as well as a master’s degree from Harvard. He leads yoga programs for the United Nations, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and YogaLife magazines in New York, as well as teacher training programs and workshops at studios nationwide.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in February 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.