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Off the Mat into the Fray
Sean Corn's Journey from the Party Girl  to the Yoga Hero

Magazine: SWEAT EQUITY
Summer 2011

 

OFF THE MAT INTO THE FRAY

 

Seane Corn smilingWatching Corn in action as she guides students through their paces. you could easily imagine that she must have been a yoga wunderkind who started practicing in the womb. Not so. says Corn. She grew up in New Jersey and moved to New York City in the early 80s. at the tender age of seventeen. but not to practice yoga. "From seventeen to about nineteen. l was a party girl. and I just partied a lot. I enjoyed drugs, drinking. you name it" Corn was working at a cafe that turned out to be a cosmic magnet for yoga heavyweights - owner David Life (who later created the Jivamukti School of Yoga), his partner Sharon Gannon, and Eddie Stern (who founded New York's Ashtanga Yoga Center) all spun into Corn's orbit and would come to influence her later development.

But her earliest and most poignant spiritual inspiration came not at the feet of future gurus or from stacks of ancient sacred texts, but from -where else? - behind the bar of a gay male sex club. In the mid 1980s. while working as an under-aged bartender. Corn was befriended by a lonely man she calls Billy. who frequented the club. "I was doing a lot of drugs at that time and he would give me a hard time about [it]. and I'd be like, 'Please! You're chained to a wall, and you're gonna judge me?"' Despite the hardships in his life. including being ostracized from his family and church back in Ohio, and his contraction of the AIDS virus that would eventually kill him. Billy taught Corn to see God everywhere. He saw God even in Danny the Wonder Pony, a man who Corn says "came into the club every single night, butt-naked except for a pair of chaps and a saddle." For a dollar, she explains, would-be cowboys could take a ride on Danny's back and flail him with a small switch. Billy's gentle insight struck Corn like a lightning boll: no matter how outlandish. outspoken. or downright awful a person's outward story was. if you could ignore the story, you'd find the pure soul underneath. Corn says. "'Ignore the story and see the soul' is probably the most important yogic teaching that I've ever received."

After moving to L A. in 1992. she started studying yoga in earnest. In 1994, she took instructor training, then spent the next several years learning from the leaders of various schools of yoga and steeping herself in other spiritual traditions. Fast-forward to the present. and Corn has transformed herself from party girl to yoga sensation. The former spiritual doubter has developed an international reputation for spiritually inspired yoga. She's graced the covers of over a dozen magazines (including this one), and she has pioneered a large-scale effort to'bring yoga out of the studio and into the gritty, messy arenas of real life.

Sean Corn style"There was a period in my yoga practice where I realized I actually had decent tools to help me deal with stress. or crisis or conflict - not perfect - but good skills that l could utilize in those moments of crises. And I felt a lot of compassion and a lot of love. and a little voice was in my head that said. 'Now what?' It just didn't feel right that it was on my mat only." She'd heard about an organization called Children of the Night, which provides sheller and education for adolescent prostitutes. Chuckfing in retrospect at her own na'ive idealism. she remembers thinking, "These kids. you know, need a little yoga. probably have some body image issues." Enter that gritty, messy arena of real life: "What I walked into at that time was fifteen young girls - Black. Hispanic. gang kids, rough, covered in tattoos - all of them were on the streets; and they were not interested in me. in yoga. in anything that was coming out of my mouth. They were mean, resistant, critical. arrogant. clearly had issues with authority. and it was the longest hour of my entire life.· After the session. she remembers sitting in her car. internally raging against the system in which the girls were trapped. a system that she knew would continually reproduce "cracked-out. alcoholic baby ho's." Butt he true source of her rage became clear in an instant. "This is what was spinning in my head - judgment - when all of a sudden I burst out crying, and I was overwhelmed with the realization that what I had actually witnessed was fifteen [aspects) of my disowned self. I'm angry. I'm judgmental. I'm critical. I have issues with authority." The list went on. "All the things I could not stand in those kids. it was because I had just shoved the ugly part of myself behind me. and suddenly, when I was confronted with it. I wanted out."

Of course. if Corn had baiied at this juncture, the story would end here. But she returned. forsaking her magic wand of "teaching· the girls for the set of yoga-inspired tools that included just listening and sharing her own vulnerabifity. "As I worked with them longer. I realized that what was underneath their rage was their grief, and that what was underneath my rage was my grief." As she worked with the grief - her own as well as the girls' - they began to heal each other. In hindsight, Corn says, this first yoga service project was not selfless at all, because she was getting back more than she could ever give. "After that. I was hooked."

With the growing popularity of yoga in the West, and Corn's personal notoriety, she felt the time was ripe to channel people's enthusiasm for yoga into a force for social good. In 2007. she founded Off the Mat and into the World: a non-profit dedicated to using yoga as a means to support social activism. The organization provides leadership training. local support for groups of activist yogis. and domestic and international service projects. Corn notes that Off the Mat takes a slightly different tack than do most social activism outfits. Rather than focus on uniting individuals behind a single worthy cause. it considers basic devotion to yoga and its values as the glue that can bind people together to promote various social causes. A local group member could ask for help with a letter-writing campaign, for example, and might later assist someone else with an urban gardening project. It's a sort of goodness-bartering concept.

Although Corn has retained much of her youthful idealism, she also recognizes that many yoga devotees are not on board with the overtly spiritual aspects of yoga, and are more comfortable thinking of the practice as calisthenics with exotic names. How does she reconcile this attitude with her own conviction that spirituality is integral to yoga? "Thank God there's myriad different kinds of yoga that are meant to attract different people at different stages of their experience. and with different personalities. So for some people who'll come into my class. they're going to quite frankly be turned off to the prayer, now. You know, they need to be in the practice in a different way. And if it's part of their karma. part of their experience, it'll evolve into something else."