About Mary Lynn Fitton
Mary Lynn Fitton, RN, MS, FNP founded The Art of Yoga Project in 2005, a non-profit bringing trauma-informed yoga and creative arts to system-involved youth. She is a nurse practitioner (UC-San Francisco) with specialties in neuroscience, women’s and adolescent health. A certified yoga teacher since 1998, Child Trauma Academy trainer, co-founder of the Yoga Service Council, and a contributing editor for Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System, her work has been featured in the Washington Post, NPR, Yoga Journal, The San Francisco Examiner, The Mercury News, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and The Huffington Post.
What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you?
I was working as a family nurse practitioner in adolescent and women’s health in the early 1990’s. I saw many young women struggling with self-harm, addiction, anxiety and depression, and I felt frustrated that prescribing psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals were my only options. Since the practice of yoga was so transformative for me as I was coming of age, I knew it could be prevention and remedy for what I was seeing in my clinical practice. So I would literally prescribe yoga.
Believe it or not, there were hardly any studios at the time! I would have to help them find a place to practice. And yoga was quickly becoming inaccessible and somewhat elitist—available only to those with resources, a demographic of primarily white, wealthy, educated women. I wanted to change that.
I began teaching Black and Brown girls in a middle school in a city with the highest homicide rate in the country. The girls were so grateful and receptive to this beautiful ancient practice! The tremendous need and opportunity for positive impact were definitely motivating.
So I grew the program into residential treatment centers for girls and then eventually into the juvenile justice system; substance abuse recovery and other behavioral health settings; sites for youth survivors of sex trafficking; and alternative schools. We also became more gender expansive—serving non-binary, gender non-conforming and male identified youth. All this brings new learnings to us for which I am grateful.
How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
It hasn’t changed, only deepened. It’s always been about utilizing yoga to heal and empower. When we started working in the juvenile justice system, the prevalence of trauma was staggering and overwhelming at times. We were learning as we went. We were finding that the majority of girls (90% or more) had a history of sexual abuse. (Our advisor, Rebecca Epstein, at Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality eventually wrote a critical report “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls Story”). No one was talking about trauma at the time but we knew it was there and absolutely had to address it in our classes which were now becoming fully integrated into their rehabilitation programs.
So my motivation has come from really listening to the youth, centering them and their experiences to truly understand their pathways into the system and their unique needs. And then, knowing that if we respond with a trauma-informed and healing-centered approach which promotes self-awareness, self-regulation and self-determination, we have an incredible potential to transform and even save lives. That’s motivating!
I love seeing how people are taking yoga into service and therapeutic realms. I am also wary of the pitfalls of hierarchies and assumptions that come with a desire to “help” or “serve.” Those of us who choose to serve must commit ourselves to work deeply on ourselves before and during our service. Could you say something based on your experience about the dangers if you don’t do this inner work?
We distribute an article by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD to our potential teachers as part of their training called, “In the Service of Life.” She talks about the critical difference between helping, fixing and serving. She says fixing and helping can cure but not heal. Fixing and helping implies a power imbalance over the one being fixed or helped. She says:
“Fundamentally helping, fixing, and service are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak, when you fix you see life as broken. When you serve you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: all suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.”
A best practice for us at The Art of Yoga Project is cultural humility. Our advisor, Melanie Tervalon, teaches us that we must examine our own power and privilege. Cultural humility is the practice of recognizing cross-cultural power imbalances through three principles: recognition of deeply-rooted power imbalances; critical self-reflection and lifelong learning; and advocating for institutional accountability and alignment. So cultural humility is a personal self-practice. It is a recognizing of innate power imbalances within our own lives, communities, cultures we belong to and those we don’t belong to but serve. They are based on race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability and others.
Since it is our goal to heal trauma rather than perpetuate harm, a deep practice of self-reflection is necessary to avoid perpetuating harmful cycles of oppression based upon these power imbalances. It’s an awakening to what some may choose to ignore because it’s a sensitive topic- when there is a group in power there is always a group who is not.
This process of self-reflection invites us to consider where we came from, how we came to view cultures other than our own and then make a choice to learn from people not of our culture, avoid assumptions, see them as the expert on their own lives, apologize if we make mistakes and always keep an open mind and heart. Only then can we create culturally connected spaces, capable of healing.
I’m also constantly inspired by the ever-changing application of yogic practices driven by the needs of students and clients. In what ways is your work an art and a science?
I’ll start with the science. Our work is evidence-based. Our foundation is the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) which gives us an understanding of the neurobiology of trauma. We know how incidences of chronic, unpredictable trauma can negatively impact brain development and subsequently our physiological functioning and stress response systems.
Our work is also an art. It’s taking that science (our “trauma toolkit”), and expressing and applying human skill and imagination to it. What I mean is that we have a very specific model at The Art of Yoga Project, a template and format for our specially sequenced classes. But all of us as yoga teachers know that we must then take that structure and adapt it to the moment. We have to bring in mindfulness, so to speak, paying attention to everything that’s happening in the room.
It is truly an art to watch our teachers creatively and compassionately apply these principles to both prevent and effectively deal with the manifestations of trauma that present in our settings.
Of course we also quite literally bring art to our work in many forms from teaching painting, self-portraits, collage, and ceramic arts to poetry and reflective writing. Creative expression is incredibly healing and a natural pairing with yoga.