Originally appeared on www.sustain-community.com
Interview by Maria-Antoanela Ioniță
“Sometimes, you feel compelled to start things even though you don’t really know how it’s going to work, but then in time you find the right term for it”, said Ema Barba during our interview on how she became a yoga teacher and meditation therapist, as well as social entrepreneur. “Yeah, that makes perfect sense”, I thought. I remember a short wisdom note from none other than tech-genius and philanthropist Bill Gates saying that we cannot foresee the future, but rather connect the dots going backwards, after we had made our decisions. So where did Ema begin her journey with social entrepreneurship and yoga, what motivated her, how did she fight challenges along the way, and what can we expect from her next? See the interview below and let’s connect the dots.
I know you’re a guide for yoga and meditation at Bright Living, a social enterprise that you founded. I’d like to learn a bit more about your journey through the space of social entrepreneurship.
I’d like to start by saying that I think this mission chose me. And I am saying it’s a mission, because it’s more than a business, it’s more than a job. It came to me more than I wanted to accept at the time. I am going to go a bit more into detail. Just for some context on my life, I used to be a sick child, to be hospitalised all the time. When I moved to Bucharest, I developed asthma. So there were a dozen moments when I thought I really can’t have a normal life. I was struggling with low self-esteem, with ungroundedness – in the way that I would lose things all the time, lack focus, get sick all the time. It was a real problem for me. At the same time, I had this feeling that there would be a stage for me to be healthy again. I just didn’t know how to get there.
I knew that there was something there and I needed to continue
Professionally, I loved learning and I developed myself in the communication area. I think I got very focused on my professional life as a way to escape my personal and health issues. I was working for a startup when my colleagues and I decided we wanted to do some physical practice in the morning together, in the office. So we started practicing yoga. From the very first time we practiced, I felt very happy. I couldn’t express exactly why, I just felt this warm feeling in my body. It felt like I was in a dark room for a very long time and suddenly it got lit up. Usually, I had this problem that after lunch I would lose my focus all of a sudden, but that day it wasn’t like that. So I knew that there was something there and I needed to continue. I became a little bit of a yoga addict, to be honest. And it wasn’t even the right setting, I don’t know if we were doing it right, we were just following a video from YouTube.
In the same period of time, a friend introduced me to meditation. I was very reluctant in the beginning, very skeptical, and I went more out of curiosity, because he was such an enthusiast. Meditation brought new dimensions to my world. I discovered how to explore subconscious beliefs in people and in myself. I started practicing regularly to learn about myself, to learn what lies there so deep that it’s blocking me. After taking a course, I started going to meditation therapy and worked with one of the best instructors in the country.
What is the difference between meditation and meditation therapy?
Meditation is the state of mind and a practice you can do either by yourself, or guided, in which case you have more objectives: to improve your focus, to relax, to decrease your anxiety. It is a practice to support your brain health, to give your emotions some space, to take some breathing, to energise, and it can be usually done by yourself.
Meditation therapy, on the other hand, is the step you can take when you want to explore your inner world and make changes. It is something you do with a therapist, although you can also do it on yourself if you attend a course. Here, instead of talking from the rational mind like in a usual therapy session, you talk from the subconscious mind. So when you ask your client a question, as a meditation therapist,you expect the real, authentic answer, not the polished, rationalised answer. And you start digging, digging, and you learn that the actual cause is often something that people learned about themselves and the world in their childhood. Something that got stuck and might not serve you anymore. It gets a lot deeper.
So meditation therapy can be the next step you take when you begin to acknowledge and understand the space of the unconscious.
Yes. When you realise you have a pattern, something you want to heal, you can decide to discover the causes behind and to heal it as soon as possible. I can give you an example of a session just before, which was about abuse. My client was perceiving the world in a way that had as a root her childhood experience. For example, she was convinced that the world is very mean, very negative. Although she knew rationally it is not always like that, she felt it that way. We started exploring this issue and we found that in her childhood she experienced abuse and everybody in the family knew, as well as everyone in her extended family, her community. That made the world feel like an unsafe place for her. She felt that very deeply. What we did to start healing her was trying to change these feelings by integrating past experiences and by asking for new perspectives, for new ways of relating to that subject. In that sense, it is very similar to behavioural-cognitive psychology, which is widely known and accepted. There you spot the irrational thought and you replace it with a rational one. It’s a process that requires you to think of what it’s not helping you right now and what you could manifest instead.
Let’s come back to your journey. What were the next steps after discovering your passion for yoga and meditation and incorporating these as daily, or weekly practices?
I started transforming and this transformation became visible, in the sense that I had someone in the office tell me“What have you been doing recently? You are totally different, you behave differently, you even walk differently, what’s going on?”. I started sharing with the world that I was in this process of working on my fears, my beliefs, and I am using meditation therapy and Yoga as a guide. I was very passionate in my discourse, up to the point that people asked me to show them what I was doing. It wasn’t like “teach me”, but more like “show me”. That’s how I organised my very first class. My first attendee was Luiza, a peer who challenged me to do it by telling me that she thought I learned best by showing others. This panicked me. I didn’t think I could explain yoga to somebody else. But my intuition was by my side and I managed to guide her through a class.
Afterwards, the ball started rolling. I started getting invited to more and more events from organizations like the Alternative University and Teach for Romania (within the Leadership Summer Academy). There, for instance, I guided the teachers and the students for two weeks, in the morning, before each class.In the same period of time, I had somebody recommend me as a meditation therapist even though I had never guided anyone else before. Again, I was very reluctant to accept that I can do that. I went to courses to learn for myself, but I had no idea how to guide others. It was a very special moment for me to have my first client who pays for a session of meditation therapy. I also remember how bad I felt about taking the money, because I thought that if I was doing this work that’s helping people, personal developing work, I shouldn’t charge. But that again was my own belief, my own system of thinking around money.
You also underwent some extensive yoga trainings yourself. How did that go?
I realised I needed to take yoga and meditation seriously and train somewhere to develop a practice that I believed in. In November 2017, I went to a yoga school for the first time, to Sattva Yoga Academy. There I learned so, so, so much. All the breath work, all the mantras, the postures. What I particularly loved about it was that it wanted to train leaders, not just yoga teachers, but people who go back, connect to the community, and bring in beautiful values.
Yoga should make one more able to function in this world – not escape from it.
I know there’s this concept that when you become a yoga teacher you move away from society, go on the top of a mountain and meditate. That can be useful :). But once you learn how to guide others in yoga, it’s a shame to not bring it into the world. Yoga should make one more able to function in this world – not escape from it. More accepting. More connected. Not isolated and judgmental.
I spent around two months in India and one month at Sattva Yoga Academy. When I came back, it was a gloomy day of January in Bucharest and I wondered what I was doing with my life. I decided to continue teaching Yoga, while starting my career as a Communication & PR freelancer. So that was the plan. Also, my yoga practice was a little bit different than what is practiced here. But this time I had a lot of trust. Since I felt that I was sent there to learn these practices and I saw how much they helped me, I decided that I had to share them. The result? I don’t think I had a session where my class wasn’t full, to be honest. Not one session. And it was very funny in the beginning. I was preparing the class down to every single minute, the songs and the postures, and when I would get to the class and feel the energy I would do something completely different. It never feels like I am working, it just flows. It’s pretty amazing. When I was 10, I would never think than in 20 years I’d be showing people how to be an example of health.
There was this stung with my heart that I couldn’t work with people who cannot pay…
How did you decide to make it a social business, too?
When I was working with Teach for Romania, I could see the need for more compassion, for more patience, for emotional self-regulation in vulnerable areas. As I was seeing the effects of Yoga and meditation therapy and was having amazing feedback from people, I started getting more frustrated that not everyone can afford it. During the past year, I started getting a lot of messages from people saying that they would love to attend a session, but they don’t have enough money. Every single time it was reconfirmed to me that it’s a good thing to have in your life and they are really transformative practices. But there was this stung with my heart that I couldn’t work with people who cannot pay. At the same time I had to be sustainable and started to think of ways people could access this without paying.
A tragic situation in my family really got me thinking. My father’s brother was killed by somebody who had an anger burst. He offended this person who, in response, threw a rock at him. That ended up killing him. It was an incredibly traumatic event for us. For me it was also a wake up call to a reality that I wasn’t in touch with. That in vulnerable areas people are not trained to manage their emotions, to respond instead of reacting. It got me thinking that I need to embark on this mission to bring a suitable type of practice to vulnerable people. I am doing this with people who already have the means to have a bright life, but those who may need it most lack access. Right after I realised that I needed to bring this practice in vulnerable communities, I got the opportunity to guide a meditation class to children through a Teach for Romania teacher. Children were very excited, it was very new for them, but they also responded very naturally to it.
I have to say I didn’t end my career in communication. I just changed the subject.
I have to say I didn’t end my career in communication. I just changed the subject. Mental health is still a tabu subject in Romania. Somehow, in my career in marketing, I always landed on difficult subjects and this is one of them – I feel like it’s my job to talk about it.