All photos of Guerrilla Yoga provided by Guerilla Yoga Bern.
BERN, SWITZERLAND. Beginning in 2009, Guerrilla Yoga Bern combines yoga practice and charity in the urban context of Bern, Switzerland. Twenty-four hours before their meetings, the head instructors Janet Orzechowski, Christina Eggenschwiler, and Elisa Malinverni pick and share a location around the city to join in practice. Then, a teacher will guide a crowd with an average size of of 110 practitioners, gathered together for their own health and to raise money for charitable projects. At the end, 100% of donations are given to charities, supporting causes around the world. Their generous community has donated to projects nearby, like the Stiftsgarten community garden in Bern, and efforts far away like Nila Moti, which provides Rajasthani women with ethical employment in the clothing industry.
In recent years Guerrilla Yoga Bern has formed a connection with Peacemaker Gemeinschaft Schweiz, raising money for Zen Peacemakers efforts with the Lakota in the United States, refugees in Switzerland, Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the annual Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat.
ZPI Staff Anthony Saracino conducted the following interview with Barbara Salaam Wegmüller and Roland Yakushi Wegmüller of Zen Peacemakers International, and Elisa Malinverni of Guerrilla Yoga Bern, on their friendship and partnership.
Anthony: Elisa, can you give me some background on yourself and your yoga practice?
Elisa: I started doing yoga in my early twenties, on and off. Then when I was 25 I moved to New York City for one year, and there I discovered yoga teachers with a strong Buddhist background. That was appealing, so I got more and more into the yoga and when I came back I continued to practice on a daily basis. After I while I went back to NY and did a teacher training, and now I’ve been teaching since 2009– eight years –and for the last six years I’ve been doing it full time, so that’s my main gig! Eventually I started practicing a vigorous Vinyasa but over the years it’s calmed down some, and it’s become less about the physical– though that’s very important to me –and more about the inner work.
Anthony: Great. It’d be cool to have a little info on Janet and Christina too, who couldn’t make it today –
Elisa: Janet is originally from Germany, and she moved here about ten years ago. We started teaching around the same time in Berne. She’s from a slightly different tradition, Anusara yoga. She’s a very sweet person, and very much into the therapeutic aspect of yoga.
Christina is also from around here and she’s been teaching for about as long as we have. She has a strong background in anatomy and physical therapy. She’s a very studious person, always doing more and more training. So we’re a good blend!
Anthony: So how did Guerrilla Yoga get its start?
Elisa: We started about eight years ago, and the only person that was there was Janet- she started it with a guy Mattias who isn’t involved anymore. It started as a very, very small thing– they would just meet outdoors on any given day, and then after four or five years Christina joined the team, and three years ago I joined the team.
It was around that time we tried to structure it more– we said “Let’s always do the same day, same time.” My husband designed the logo for us, we started doing more on FB, and that’s when it started growing exponentially. We started getting 80-100 people every time which, in terms of donations, made a big difference! And for the last two years we’ve always worked with Barbara and Roland. It’s so helpful to have the same partner across multiple projects– somebody people can recognize and relate to. They come to every session or send someone to represent Zen Peacemakers, so there’s always someone to present the project. That made a huge difference in how connected people felt to what they were supporting and how much money we were able to raise.
Anthony: So Zen Peacemakers come to every session to present whatever charity you’re supporting that time?
Elisa: Yes, when Barbara and Roland come, they even do the yoga with us. Something that I most appreciate is that Barbara, Roland or someone from the Peacemakers sangha always comes early to the session to suggest projects that we could support on that specific day, and then we opt for something together. Then, when I’m teaching, I give a short talk about what this is about– that we’re not only doing this practice for our own benefit, but we’re paying it forward and want to include all beings; and that it’s a symbolic act and we dedicate the energy of our practice, and also give a little bit [of money] in the end, if we can. Then, I always “hand over the microphone” to let Barbara and Roland talk about the project. It’s like a dedication, and the teacher of the session can refer back to the fact that we’re supporting others with our practice.
Anthony: So how did this connection between Zen Peacemakers and Guerrilla Yoga form?
Barbara: It began with Janet’s director, Batina. One day Janet asked her if she knew people who had projects. And Batina said yes, Barbara and Roland Wegüller have nice projects! So it just fell from heaven for us! One day Janet called me and soon after she came to visit, and then we started to speak together. Since then we support each other’s projects. I think they’ve been giving us donations for three yea-
Roland: No it was one year, and then there was a pause, a break.
Roland: Oh, and then Janet came to my practice with her daughter and said “Oh it would be nice if we could work together again.” And then of course we were happy.
Anthony: I hadn’t realized- there’s a very close relationship between the Zen Peacemakers in Berne and Guerrilla Yoga.
Roland: It’s a close relationship but it’s really free. We don’t expect Guerrilla Yoga to always work with us, but of course we’re happy when they invite us to present projects and we can ask for dana [offerings, monetary donations]. But of course we have no fixed ideas, I mean we are all free. We just want to be happy and work in a good way together.
Anthony: When did the yoga practice and the charity come together? How did that come to be– early on, or– you talked about dedicating your practice and the energy of it, but when did it become a charity?
Elisa: I’m not sure, it’s been this way a long time…It’s not like a class in a studio so you don’t have the perfect floor and mat and conditions; sometimes you don’t even hear the teachers cause it’s loud and there’s traffic. So you can’t really ask people to pay for a class like that. So it just seemed like a good idea to have people come and enjoy– and, give!
Anthony: I’m curious about the relationship between the Guerrilla Yoga practice of moving to different locations in the city for each session, and the Zen Peacemaker idea that in bearing witness retreats the location is the teacher. Is there a connection there?
Barbara: I grew up in the city of Bern and I’m intimately familiar with it because it’s not a big city. For me, all the places I had the chance to do Guerrilla Yoga practice, they became even more intimate. Of course, it was also a lot of bearing witness to the people too. I usually went very early with my mat, and I appreciate very much to see all the young people coming with their bicycles, mats– rolling them out, sitting down, quietly waiting; and doing this yoga every Sunday with another teacher, it was always a deep and moving experience for me.
Also, to listen to the teachings, I so often felt moved, especially from Elisa. She introduced the practice of karma yoga, the practice of deep spirituality, the appreciation that we live here in a very safe country where we can meet to do this practice in a very safe place; that we have the information to go there, the time to go there, that we can take care of our health, and be together for an hour of practice and join each other in joyful movements; and also to “give it away” to people and think of people who don’t have these conditions. So it was always a very spiritual experience– the places, and just the whole thing. A huge gift. Not only for the donations but for all the rest.
Roland: So, you have to know it is forbidden that more than maybe ten people meet in Berne–
Elisa: It has to be approved by the government.
Roland: Yes, you have to ask for a permit. And we meet with 100 or 200 people– that’s why it’s called “Guerrilla”!
Elisa: Yes, if you announce a gathering longer that 24 hours prior then you need permission from the government. But if you do it less than 24 hours before, it’s considered a spontaneous gathering and legally they can’t say that you organized it, it just “happened.” That’s why we call it “Guerrilla” and why we do it like that. Interestingly, in Berne we’ve never had a problem, as long as we don’t go to public swimming pools. I know in other cities the police have come and broken up the gathering. But in Berne– touch wood! –and we are somehow protected, they’ve left us alone (laughs).
Barbara: And now, the city even asked Guerrilla Yoga to meet at the place they celebrated an inauguration. So, the organization is now very famous and the city likes us.
Anthony: Heyy! (laughs)
Roland: So we are accepted and maybe now if they’d announce it more than twenty-four hours before it would be ok– I don’t know. But these are two facts why they organize the way they do.
Anthony: Right on… So you have a different teacher every time– how many teachers work with you? And you’ve expanded to different cities, so how big is it now?
Elisa: Well, it’s not exactly right that we’ve expanded to other cities- we have nothing to do with that. Other cities want to do it and they try to build it. What we do is, February through March, Janet, Christina and I get together and decide the start date of the season, the end date, the closing event, and then we just count weeks– optimistically planning to do it every Sunday. Then I do the roll call, I just email as many teachers as we need. Some teachers have worked with us for years and some are new, so I just extend an invitation, I make a doodle, then everyone signs up (or they don’t!), and then I distribute the dates– every teacher gets one date –and that’s it. Usually it’s fourteen or fifteen weeks, so we get around fifteen teachers and some teachers do it together, they do a team teaching.
Anthony: So Guerrilla Yoga Berne was the first, and other cities have…
Elisa: No, I remember there was a Guerrilla Yoga Zurich very early on that started around the same time, maybe a bit earlier than us even. But in Zurich it never took off. Zurich and Berne are a bit like New York City and Washington DC- Zurich is a lot more fast paced, people are a bit more hesitant to expose themselves publicly, do yoga publicly. I think that’s why it doesn’t work as well in Zurich…Swiss people are fairly reserved in general, and the smaller the group, the more courage it takes to do yoga in public. When it’s 100 ppl you feel fairly protected by people around you (laughs).
Barbara and her son Benjamin on Zen Peacemakers Native American Programs in the Black Hills, summer 2015