The journey of yoga instructor and YouthAIDS ambassador Seane Corn begins in the most improbable of all places -- Heaven -- and carries her to corners of the world that may appear to some to be closer to hell. But the journey has ultimately led her to a life filled with joy and meaning.
"When I was young and living in New York City, I worked in a nightclub called Heaven, which was an all-male, gay sex club," says Corn. Stationed behind the bar, she was at the time the only woman who worked there, when the prevalence of HIV and AIDS was increasing among the gay community. And yet, she says, there was still a lot of denial.
"Volunteers from Gay Men's Health Crisis would come into the gay clubs with a big vat of condoms, which would be gone by the end of the night, which was always great," recalls Corn. "But there was still a lot of unsafe and casual behavior, so unfortunately a lot of the men I met and became friends with were becoming sick and subsequently dying."
Around 1987 Corn got involved with ACT UP New York, and says she was so young and angry that she was the worst kind of activist. "I had a megaphone in one hand and a middle finger up at the world, telling everyone how they should live their life, what they should think, and what they should believe," says Corn. She soon got out of the whole activism world because, she says, she was really ineffectual and had some of her own issues she needed to deal with. "That's where yoga came in. Yoga taught me how to deal with my anger. It taught me -- especially around AIDS -- that I did have fear, and I did have confusion and sadness. But I didn't have the ability to process those emotions, so I kept acting out through my rage."
When a person doesn't have the tools to deal with their emotions, says Corn, its shadow comes out in other ways, such as drugs, alcohol, sleeping around, or food. "There are a variety of ways we use to anesthetize or numb ourselves, and that's essentially what I was doing." She says that yoga helped open her up and connect with her "bigger emotions," and process them more appropriately and become more effective in the way in which she expressed herself, so that she wasn't coming from anger or fear, but more from compassion and love.
"It's always interesting to me," says Corn, "the very thing that I was judging the people I was trying to educate was basically the same thing I had inside myself, it was just coming out in a different way. It's probably why I couldn't stand the people who were in judgment about my friends -- I couldn't stand them and their ignorance and fear because I couldn't stand the ignorance and fear in myself. Working through yoga really helped me to have more respect for the human experience -- to understand that fear, anger, and rage are a part of the human dilemma, and the more that I can understand it in myself, the more I'm going to be able to recognize it in another being, and hopefully act more patiently and compassionately, rather than react from anger or fear. Yoga helped to put all that into perspective for me."
In 1999 Corn became involved with Children of the Night, an organization which houses and provides information for adolescent sex workers -- both young boys and girls -- between the ages of 11 and 17. "I went there because I thought that yoga would be a really good feeling tool for them to use, as they get back into their bodies and try to re-adapt to the world after such levels of abuse and exploitation," Corn explains.
While working at the shelter she learned that a good percentage of the boys and girls had HIV/AIDS. She also came to understand that while many here in the U.S. have access to resources and information, most of those who live in resource-poor countries aren't entitled to the same privilege. During that same period, a friend, actress Ashley Judd, reached out to Corn. Judd had just returned from Southeast Asia and was upset not only by the high incidence of HIV/AIDS among the children and sex workers, but also by the sex trafficking that she saw happening there.
"She called me because she just wanted to talk about how I deal emotionally when working with sexually abused children, and if I had any suggestions or tools for her, because a lot was coming up for her, as you can imagine." Corn says that Judd proceeded to open her eyes to what was happening internationally. These young girls and boys were being exploited, not just because their parents didn't love them, but more often because of poverty, and because they needed food for their families.
"Not to say that a lot of the children aren't just getting sold or abandoned," says Corn, "but there's a variety of reasons why this particular population was being turned out. They were having sex for -- I think the statistic is $1 for sex with a condom, $2 for sex without. And it's not just a health issue, it's a political issue, it's an educational issue, it's an environmental issue -- it's an issue across the board."
Judd's involvement with YouthAIDS intrigued Corn, not only because of its extended, international reach, but also due to the fact that around 97 cents out of every dollar went to providing direct services and information -- not a bad return. Out of curiosity, Corn began working with various grassroots businesses within the yoga community, creating products and tithing a portion of the proceeds to YouthAIDS. "In just a few short years we've been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, raise an enormous amount of awareness, and really get the word out -- and get people much more actively interested and involved."
YouthAIDS eventually named Corn their national yoga ambassador, and invited her to travel with them to teach yoga to prostituted children and sex workers, and to better understand how their programs run. "That was just life changing," says Corn. "To be able to go and to meet the populations who are really at risk, to really put a face to AIDS." It also furthered her own understanding of the impact HIV/AIDS was having on those communities, as well as the effectiveness of the programming itself. Yet despite all the good work that is being done, it became clear to her how much prejudice and stigma still exists, even to this day, and how much needs to change before health and wellness can ever be fully achieved.
The type of yoga that Corn currently practices is something called Vinyasa Flow, which simply means linking movement with breath. Corn, who's now 41, has been practicing a variety of styles of yoga for the last 22 years. She says that as she's gotten older, her yoga has evolved and changed over time. "That's the thing I love about yoga -- is that it's a real creative experience. It's more like an art -- it evolves and grows as you evolve and grow, so it's never fixed or absolute. It certainly has matured as I have matured."
Corn was fortunate enough to have been turned on to yoga as a kind of alternative high, she says, as it provided different lifestyle opportunities for her. "I learned how to get back into my body, and the healthier I got, the more responsibility I was able to take for my life, and I was able to stop drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. It just opened my mind up to an alternative way to live my life."
These days Corn divides her time between overseas excursions as ambassador for YouthAIDS, spending time at home with her two cats Daisy and Grace, and her boyfriend of eight years, actor Al Corley (who played the original Steven on the TV series Dynasty), as well as teaching yoga at various workshops around the country. While she hasn't taught any workshops specifically geared towards HIV-positive people, she's worked one-on-one with a number of HIV-positive clients, and has many HIV-positive individuals who attend her workshops.
She says that one of the most important things for people to realize, regardless of their HIV status, is that the practice of yoga has a very specific influence on the nervous system. "It helps you stay calm and grounded no matter what conflict or crisis is in your life," says Corn. "One of the things in working with people with HIV is that it's very important to help give them the tools to deal with stress."
There's one other very positive gain derived from yoga that she's seen in the lives of people with HIV/AIDS. "Acceptance," says Corn, "just acceptance. You can live with HIV/AIDS angry, resentful, and bitter, or you can live with HIV/AIDS with acceptance, openness, and a willingness to take your experience and help to serve the world in which you live. Those are two very different attitudes. It doesn't guarantee a longer life as a result, but the person who can come to a sense of greater self-acceptance and peace can certainly live a life that has so many additional gifts as a result.
"And I'm not just talking about HIV, I'm talking about any struggle, any conflict, any challenge that one has in life, you can either use it as a way to become disempowered, or you can use it as a way to become empowered. For example, the reason I work with sexually abused children is because that's my own personal history, and I've watched other people who have been sexually abused choose to live as a victim as a result. My quest has always been, 'This has happened, it's a part of my journey, but it's not going to define who I am. How can I take this experience and actually help it make sense?' And so for me it's all about service. That's the most important thing for me -- you can't change what has happened, that's just life. It's a bummer, I wish it hadn't happened, but that's not the reality, it did. So now what? It's the same philosophy I have with someone with HIV/AIDS -- now what? What are you going to do with this disease? How are you going to live your life?
"My hope is that we can all choose to break shame and live completely authentically, and tell the truth, share our stories, reach out to another human being, dignify the human experience no matter how difficult or challenging or scary it is, and come from such a sincere place of love that it empowers someone else to be able to live their truth. That's the one thing I always want to offer, whether it's someone who has HIV, or they have cancer, or a drug addict, or someone who has been sexually abused, that you don't have to take something that you might perceive as negative and allow it to impact every aspect of your life in a way that's disempowering. There's a way that we can turn it around. So for me, service is everything. And that's what I encourage anyone I have worked with who has HIV who does heal and come full circle with it, to get back out there into the world and to reach out to their community, because who better than them knows the struggle that another human being is going through?"
Corn has some simple advice for anyone thinking about starting yoga. "On a practical level -- and this is not just for people with HIV, it's for anyone -- if you can create a three-day-a-week practice, an hour to an hour and a half a day, three days a week, something that is going to increase your circulation and help to provide more elasticity in the muscles and in the joints, increase your heart rate -- any kind of exercise program that's going to help strengthen and tone all of the various systems of your body is going to help make you feel better. The two just go together instantly. So three days a week at an hour to an hour and a half is what I would recommend, depending on their status.
"If I had five people in the room, I'm going to recommend five different kinds of yoga, not based on whether or not they're HIV-positive, but on their age, their health level, their weight -- that's going to determine what the proper yoga is for them. So there's not one style of yoga that's going to be recommended for someone with HIV/AIDS. It's really going to be who they are, their personality, and what they are attracted to." If your status is more accelerated, then she recommends the restorative classes on a daily basis, as well as in the evening time before you go to bed.
Corn adds that it's not just about exercise, but it's about mind, body, and spirit. You also have to look into your diet, and look at the emotions that you might be repressing, and deal with any feelings of anger, fear, or rage that are coming up.
"Create a medication practice, a practice of forgiveness, a practice of self-acceptance. And none of this is not yoga -- all of this is yoga. And, of course, a connection with God, the god within themselves, the god of their own understanding. It's a very holistic practice. My recommendation is to allow the disease to become an opportunity where they have to look at the whole of their own lives, to see that even holding onto bitterness or resentment, that's a poison one takes hoping that someone else will die, and that's just as dysfunctional as a poor diet, as drugs, as inertia. So it's really looking at the whole of their lives, using, perhaps, the disease as an opportunity to clean up other places that might be dysfunctional or repressed, and hopefully this healing class as mind, body, and soul will help to create a life that's whole, that's complete, that's integrative, that's loving for themselves and for others."
Corn recommends either checking with a local health club or searching online for programs throughout the country, many of which offer free classes to people with HIV. "Unfortunately -- this is the part that makes me crazy -- yoga is a business, and it is expensive."
For those who may think that you can't teach an old guru new tricks, Corn says it's never too late to take up the practice. "My dad got into yoga in his 50s, and he's now in his 60s. He has kidney cancer, and he's a yoga teacher. And I would never have seen that coming, never. My dad is the perfect example of someone who was older, and he was curious, then all of a sudden it took his life over -- and he's doing remarkably well."
Yoga has very little to do with your strength and flexibility, and everything to do with your attitude and perception, says Corn. "Yoga really holds a mirror to who you are and gives you the opportunity to heal it. If I'm snorting and pushing and being all aggressive and egotistical in my yoga practice, there's a good chance that anytime I'm up against a conflict or a crisis that I'm going to be reactive. Whereas the person who can learn to really breathe in the face of a challenge, when they go out into the world and they're confronted by an injustice, they're going to think to themselves, 'I'm in a very challenging yoga pose right now, and I'm going to breathe, stay in my body, stay focused and present.' And so, that's really what yoga is about. You know, great if you can get your legs behind your head, but it's not really going to change your life or make you any happier."
If you get into a practice, Corn advises to go slow at first. "Learn as much as you can about the technique, but be willing to have an incredible sense of humor about it. Yoga can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly humbling. You just have to be willing to laugh at yourself, commit to the practice -- it's not a perfect, it's a practice. And have fun with it. Enjoy being back in your body. Whether you're old, thin, fat, it doesn't matter. It always feels good when it's done. And that's the most important thing."
For more information visit seanecorn.com and youthAIDS.org.