Hurricane Harvey: The Time to Help is Now…and Later


By Charles Gaby
Co-Director of the Tropical Storm Allison Disaster Recovery Interfaith 2001

My Experience
When Tropical Storm Allison hit the Houston area in 2001, I was working as a psychotherapist in the area, as well as running support groups at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston. As the Allison disaster moved from the early stages of rescue to the later stages of long-term recovery, I was asked by representatives from FEMA and UMCOR to step into a role as Director of Case Management for the Interfaith Recovery effort. An interfaith coordination of recovery efforts have been the preferred way to coordinate recovery after any US disaster. So, I took a sabbatical and spent six months on that disaster.

Given the widespread destruction of what we are seeing with Harvey, I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the lessons learned along the way.

Right now, we need hope, and there are many reasons to have it. In the midst of the disaster and displacement that is unfolding in Houston, it may be difficult to see it. This may well be the greatest natural disaster in US history. The response that will be required may well exceeded any that have gone before. But I am confident that it will happen and here’s why: people will come from all over the country to help. It won’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican, religious or not, straight or gay, they will join in the acts of compassion that always take place in these times.

I have carried teams from Texas to South Dakota to work on flood recovery, and I have led teams from Minnesota to work on the Texas border. I have seen people from all over the country working side by side in New Orleans. In the Allison recovery, we saw Mennonites from the Midwest working next to Navajos from Arizona. People will come, and they will stay as long as they can and make as much of a difference as they can.

There will also be those who step forward in Houston who have the capacity to look after their neighbors. Some will take on new roles, learn new skills, and take on thankless jobs. Some of them work for government agencies and some will work with non-profits, and some will just step up and give a hand to a neighbor. You are about to witness one of the greatest things you will ever see in your life…the human spirit is really all about compassion. That is where all hope lives.

Rescue vs. Recovery
What few people understand is that the need for public involvement and support in a disaster is mostly in the recovery stage. During the rescue operations, there are brave souls with resources that rush in to help and that can be lifesaving! We have seen a great deal of this in Houston. But for most us, that is not the priority we should be considering. Well-intending individuals seeking to help can often become liabilities for first responders.

In a disaster of this magnitude, we feel a great deal of concern and empathy. It can be frustrating to feel powerless, as we have to accept the limitations to our capacity to help our friends and neighbors. During this period, we can help house those who have been displaced, offer support and nurture and make plans for the long haul. In the Allison flood, displaced families applied for immediate relief to find safe housing. This came in the form of a check from FEMA. Unfortunately, the funds often didn’t cover the costs of cheap hotels to which they were referred for the length of time they had to be displaced. Still, the FEMA funds eased the immediate crisis in the first two months.

Further funds were available to the disaster, but only after a case manager had appraised the damage and assessed the individual situation including how insurance may or may not be involved. In many cases, there will be no insurance and the only long-term solution will be volunteer support coordinated through the interfaith recovery effort.

In the Allison recovery, we met weekly at United Way offices for what is called the Unmet Needs committee. At this meeting, my team of case managers presented cases. Participants in the meetings included representatives from various faith groups, Salvation Army, Red Cross, United Way, etc. Each of these groups came with resources, which would then be offered to meet the needs of the families represented in our cases.

I share this process in hopes of educating those who feel the urge to take action. One of the frustrations we encountered in the Allison flood was that many well meaning church groups jumped in immediately to aid people. But many of these folks they were helping were not the most in need and some even had insurance that had yet to be involved. While all help is great, in these disasters it is the poor who suffer most and whose recovery is often the slowest. The impact on people’s lives and property will outlive the interest of the public and the media.

Flooding Is Wild, and Then It’s Gross
When the water is rising and we see houses inundated, it is frightening and we look with awe at the power of nature. People are often glued to their televisions as news crews show us the scenes of devastation. It is riveting. But when the water recedes, there isn’t much worth filming besides a lot of moldy sheet rock, messy houses and smelly carpet. In Allison, even the local media had moved on within two or three weeks.

I can remember running into people in Houston who were surprised there was still anyone dealing with problems from the flooding within a couple of months. At three months, we were only beginning to get a clear picture of how many homes would need support due to being without insurance. The flooding had impacted many areas of low-income housing and as with most urban areas in Texas, affordable housing was scarce to start with. When these folks get displaced there is nowhere for them to go.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred on the World Trade Center, the recovery hit a major snag. It quickly became clear that the efforts to aid the victims of Allison would no longer be a priority for some of the agencies and organizations that had been involved. Fundraising and donations slowed, but those who had been in homes and listened to stories carried the effort forward.

Are you ready to stay engaged in helping after the news cycle turns to the next big thing?

I was often frustrated with the slow wheels of government and the limitations of city codes. This came in two forms: limitations of City Code to the placement of FEMA trailers that would have allowed families to shelter in or near their property. Also, the need for expedited building permits and the skilled supervision of volunteer crews.

For those who become involved in directing the recovery efforts, I recommend staying connected to the hands-on efforts of volunteers. Don’t give all your time to meetings and politicians who want to score points. Being a part of the stories will keep you focused on the good being done. This focus will help you as you run into the frustrations that are sure to come.

As we wait for the waters to recede, there are some things that can be done now to speed the recovery later. I leave these last thoughts as food for thought.

  • Raise money now for the recovery. It will likely be easier now as the public sees the devastation and will be harder as the visuals change.
  • Plan for the decisions that will be needed. Put in place the systems and people needed to determine the priority decision-making that will be required for each home that has been damaged. Case management in this disaster will be a major bottleneck if approached in traditional ways.
  • Consider a fast-track permitting process for contractors that the city can certify as legitimate. Volunteer efforts need careful coordination and guidance. I recommend that all faith and civic groups immediately begin talking to each           other. In my experience, the United Way in Houston is the best institution for coordinating this.One of the biggest challenges to a municipality is what to do with the trash.

Mental Health
All of us are affected differently by catastrophe. Mental health issues are likely to spike as individuals move from the adrenaline surge of rescue to the scary and distressing experiences of displacement, loss and adjustment. We can help others by listening and supporting.

Beyond the physical and financial support, people need to tell their story – not listen to a sermon that tells them how to feel or how to make sense of the disaster. Telling stories is a part of the process of moving toward acceptance of what has happened. Tragedy eventually becomes just another chapter in the story, but for the displaced, for the moment, it is THE story. Where that story leads will depend on many things, not the least of which is the capacity to feel a sense of control and self-efficacy.

There is also a tendency for those who work in coordinating disaster responses to develop compassion fatigue. Even volunteers sometimes find themselves feeling almost useless… as if their week of service was too small to matter, a drop in the bucket. That is why it is important to celebrate every milestone, every home restored, and every family whose life has been restored.

What has happened in Texas will change us. But I have faith that the change will not be toward bitterness, but rather inspiration. I hope these brief thoughts may be of help.

With hopes and prayers for all those affected by Harvey.

Charles Gaby

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What is Kundalini Yoga?

Daniel Katsuk will host a Kundalini Yoga workshop at Sync Aug. 12

Have you heard of Kundalini Yoga? It’s a blend of Bhakti Yoga (the yogic practice of devotion and chanting), Raja Yoga (the practice of mediation/mental and physical control) and Shakti Yoga (for the expression of power and energy). A well-taught Kundalini Yoga class leaves you feeling like you’ve gone to therapy, had an awesome workout in the gym, made it to your yoga mat and enjoyed a fun singing session with friends!

The purpose of Kundalini Yoga is to provide a modality by which people can achieve their maximum creative potential, free themselves from Karma (the lasting effects of past actions) and realize their life purpose. It’s like being given the secret code to always winning a blue ribbon, along with a get-out-of-jail-free card, at which point you gleefully fire your life coach because now you know more than he does.

In the words of Yogi Bhajan, “The process of growth through Kundalini Yoga is a natural unfolding of your own nature. The blocks to that growth are your attachments to the familiarity of the past, and your fear of the expanded Self. As you practice Kundalini Yoga you will grow. Like a snake you will need to shed old skins to be more of who you are.”

On August 12 from 6-7:30 p.m., join us for a special evening of Kundalini Yoga and Meditation with Daniel Katsük. He employs live flutes, percussion, guitar, mantra and singing bowls into this sacred practice ($20/person).

Have Kundalini questions? Contact Daniel at


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Five A’s for Communicating Through a Conflict

One of the great challenges we all face today, is how to have a conversation with someone whose  perspective is the polar opposite of our own. Many of us have simply learned to distance ourselves and avoid such disasters of defensiveness, wisely recognizing them as a waste of time and energy.  But are we truly comfortable with living in a country where about half the people don’t interact honestly with the other half? Not really. Though it may seem that there is no path forward in these conversations, I assure you that often there is. Especially if you learn to follow these four steps. I call them 5A’s for conversational intelligence:

Can you notice what you are feeling and the feeling expressed by the other person? Begin by tuning in to the emotion. Be aware that emotion is motivation and until it is honored there is no real communication. When that emotion is anger, you may want to take a breath and choose not to become defensive. Reassure yourself of your safety and manage the feeling of threat.

Before you engage in any constructive conversation you need to accept that your feelings are your temporary truth of the moment and so are the other person’s. Acceptance is important even if you don’t understand why.

If you have given attention to the first two A’s then you will be in a good place to inquire. Inquiry is the heart of true dialogue. Where do we get our perspectives? What experiences have we had that led to the feelings we have about them? Is there a goal involved that we are trying to accomplish? If so can we name it? What are you hoping for? Why?

Let go of the outcome. Allow what emerges to emerge. Let it be what it is. Perhaps you will be surprised. Intimacy, the sharing of our true selves involves as much conflict as it does harmony. Sometimes we need to just let it be without forcing other’s into our boxes and categories.

No matter what happens, we can appreciate the willingness to engage, no matter how limited or defensive. The goal is to appreciate the other’s experience and journey regardless of what little common ground we may share.

There are times when we should walk away from angry and defensive conversations. There are those who are incapable of dialogue at times. But, if you try the 5 A’s, you may find it more likely to regain real communication. The goal is honest interaction.

Charles Gaby

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What is Integrative Yoga?

Have you checked out Sync’s Integrative Yoga class yet? It’s offered on Tuesday nights at 7:15 p.m. (new time, starting in April). Integrative Yoga is the brainchild of Charles Gaby, and today we are exploring what it is and why it works.


After nearly 30 years of counseling/training practice Charles now consults for schools, businesses and individuals in creating wellbeing. Integrative Yoga is a hybrid experience of traditional yoga with current knowledge of human consciousness including recent insights in the neurobiology of emotion.

Intrigued? Here’s more in Charles’ own words.

Q: According to the description, the goal of this practice is “living from the inside-out.” What does that mean, exactly?

A: “Living from the inside-out” is my way of talking about the experience of an unfiltered life. Most of us learn early on that we must hide our true selves. Patterns are established that become automatic. Sometimes we have to do a lot of work to free ourselves, but there is way to move more quickly toward wellbeing. We can do this through a practice of recovering and re-integrating the authentic sensual experience.

Q: How is this class different from the other yoga classes Sync offers?

A: Integrative Yoga involves traditional asanas that impact areas of the body that have been clinically found to improve the management and relief of anxiety. The other main differences involve practices for returning flexibility and balance to components of consciousness, including emotion, memory, anticipatory images and sensation.

Q: If I’m new to yoga, is this class good for me?

A: Integrative Yoga is an excellent experience for beginners. All of the asanas are accessible to people who are new to yoga.

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Yoga & Illness (Guest Post)


At the beginning of 2016, I was a vegetarian enjoying tennis and yoga several times per week. Sync was my yoga home and social life. As an early retiree of 57, I had lots of hobbies, was financially set, and had a healthy marriage. Leonidas, my husband, still worked. We couldn’t imagine anything disrupting our bliss.

In February of that year, I went for a colonoscopy after noticing occasional blood in the stool since December 2015. I wasn’t tired in the least. The news came back, “You have Stage IV colon cancer.” I sat there in disbelief. They must have mixed my CT scan up with someone else’s. It simply wasn’t possible. It would take as few weeks for it to sink in enough for me to cry.

I started chemo within two weeks, because my liver tumors were so large and pervasive that I was inoperable. I went to chemo, thinking it was a long shot, only because my husband and sister deserved some effort on my part. But, didn’t see how I could keep it up after the first treatment, and secretly wished I were off the hook. In my skeptical mind, Stage IV was a death sentence.

After the first infusion, I went to the free psychologist at UT Southwestern, who I am pretty sure was there specifically to buck up the numerous scaredy-cats. I wanted him to help me feel better about throwing in the towel, or to sticking with treatment.

“I’m so glad you came to see me when you did. I understand your reluctance, but one thing you don’t want to leave this world with is regret.” I asked him how he meant this, to which he answered, “Many people decide, ’I’m not going to undergo chemo!! That’s poison!’ After a few months, the symptoms of the cancer start to really show up. At which point they go back to their oncologist saying, ‘Doctor, I made a mistake. I changed my mind. I’m ready to undergo chemo,’ and the doctor replies, ‘I am so sorry; however, it is too late. It won’t do any good.’”

This chat got my attention. I needed to figure out (1) how to manage the side effects of chemo by reading pamphlets and books and following directions; and (2) what tools I could use to mitigate the chemo with things that were already in my tool chest: specifically yoga.

Ahimsa (Do No Harm)

I know a lot of people who are ill cannot do yoga. However, since I had been practicing since 1990, my body was, up to this point, trained to do yoga daily. If I went a week without it, the aches and pains of living and working automatically showed up. I whined to the therapist, “I don’t even know how I got this! I’m a yogi! I don’t even eat meat! I’ve spent years living in such a way as to avoid this sort of thing!”

He replied, “Your lifestyle up to this point didn’t prevent you from coming down with cancer. However, your lifestyle may very well save your life. There are many studies done on cancer patients and exercise, and those who exercise do much better.”

“You mean, they get to live longer?” I asked.

“No. They get to live.”

Another attention-grabber. My mother had died rapidly from cancer, and I remembered her going from the chair, to the couch, to the bed, and to the grave in less than six months. I did not want to succumb to the temptation of “giving in to the couch.”

He continued, “You’re going to feel like crap anyway, whether you are walking, sitting, or lying down. You may as well walk.”

Yoga While Undergoing Treatment

I kept up my yoga schedule at Sync. I would go when I felt nauseous, fatigued, crampy, dehydrated, and depressed. I used yoga to flush out the chemo by doing a lot of twists, and always came out of class feeling much closer to normal.

I had to get over my fear of other people’s sniffles. I might move away from them, but the bottom line was that my coming to class was more important than not catching germs, even though my immune system was shot. I was very open with my teachers and classmates about the cancer, and on top of the detoxing from the postures, I received endless love and support from my Sync family.

I worked out while wearing a chemo pump (truly going above and beyond) and we all got used to it early on. I simply didn’t allow myself to come up with excuses for staying away. I knew other people might be allowed a permission slip to skip class after a giant nose bleed in the car on the way to Sync, but I had to hold myself to a higher standard. Being easy on myself wasn’t going to get me through this. Being tough might. 

Even after undergoing abdominal surgery in October and December, I continued gentle postures in the hospital bed (listening to my body to make sure I didn’t overstretch.) Once out of the hospital and released to drive, I returned to practicing at Sync by doing gentle warmups and meditating. Basically, I listen to the teacher conducting class and picture the poses in my head until I fall asleep.

Where I am Now

Throughout the year, my response to chemo was dramatic. I thanked my oncologist, who replied, “It’s not me, Melody, it’s you. If it were up to me, all my patients would be doing as well as you. And they’re not.”

I can only say the secret ingredient was yoga.

The tumors shrank and died, and in December they took out two-thirds of my colon and removed seven tumors from the liver. They removed 40 lymph nodes, of which three were still “live” (cancerous). I will have to continue chemo for probably six months.

Instead of a two- to three-year prognosis, I’m looking at decades. I can’t wait to be able to get into warrior one or a twist, but my new mantra is, “Don’t get in any kind of hurry.” This has always been a marathon, and, as long as I can walk around the block or come to class, I am moving forward.

About the Author:
Melody Stanford is a member of Sync Yoga & Wellbeing. She is an inspiration to all of us, and we celebrate her and thank her for sharing her story!

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When the Heat is On (Guest Post)


As I stepped into this tremendously hot room barefooted, I was carrying the stress and
concerns of my world on my shoulders. My ministry & nonprofit initiatives were looking faint. Business goals seemed uncertain and delayed with galaxies between myself and their completion. My finances moved out of my bank account home to reside in the accounts of bill collectors. And, it seemed as if the world had slowly chewed me up and spit me out like sunflower seeds. Life had taken me by the throat and all I can do was gasp for air.

Entering into the yoga studio was an opportunity to take a break from my world.So as we moved through our flow, heaps of sweat began to flood my mat. At one point, I started to think that I would need a mop or to call the rescue guard to prevent my fellow yogis
from drowning!

Once I embraced the sweat, the intensity of the practice began to increase and I started to think that I didn’t need any more pressure. As I contemplated walking out, the words of my instructor showered over me like I was in a rain forest, “What is your practice
saying to you?”

At this point, I began to listen to my practice as my practice was teaching me some principles I needed to apply for the current climate I was living in. If my practice had an audible voice, it would say:

Yoga provides a safe place to practice breathing. The practice of breathing begins before
you enter into your flow. Whether you start your practice in child’s pose, in crossed – legged pose, or in any other soft position, this is the time for you to find your inhale & exhale. As you begin to move through your flow, sometimes the ferocity of your practice can lead you away from the sweet inhale and exhale of your breath. Once you recognize that you have lost sight of your breath, do whatever it takes for you to find it – even if it means returning back to the soft and gentle position.

Dismiss your ego
In a heated flow or in any yoga practice, the temptation is to “perform” and to keep up
with the momentum of the class, even at the cost of ignoring what your body is trying to tell you. One thing that helps me when my ego begins to surface is to remind myself that everyone is focused on their own practice, not mine. In other words, do not try to impress anyone because no one is looking at you, anyway. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Yoga is a safe place to be vulnerable and care for self. Kiss your ego goodbye.

Take a break
If you begin to lose your breath, get tired, or even get frustrated, it is OK to stop for a
moment and step away from the flow. Taking a break provides an opportunity for you to find your breath, collect yourself, and listen to your practice. Taking a break is a healthy reminder that we are only human with perceived limitations to be tested and necessary boundaries to be respected. The more we practice, take breaks when necessary, and progress in our practice, our limitation will extend beyond our imagination.

Smile & laugh
Though at times yoga can be intense, an ongoing practice will afford one the courage to
smile. I remember the first time I attempted to practice crow, I immediately backed away
because of fear. But as I continued to practice yoga and realized how safe it was to try new
things, I attempted a crow pose and almost face planted. All I and my instructor could do was smile and laugh. Though yoga has moments where we find ourselves to be meditative and focused on our practice, it is also OK to smile and laugh – especially when you’re about to fall from a balancing move.

Find delight in yourself & the practice.
Sometimes in hot yoga I would think to myself, “what in the world am I doing here?” Then I would answer, “just keeping it clean,” which then leads me to laugh at myself, all by myself in front of people who do not have a clue as to why I am laughing. So, smile and take yourself lightly.

Be thankful
When you reach the end of your practice, whether it is in your savasana resting pose or
your cross-legged meditation pose, this is the time for the ingredients of your practice to come together. This is the moment to express thanksgiving to yourself, the practice, and the community of yogis that are making this world, your world, our world a better place. As a community of yogis, this attitude of gratitude does not lay on our mats, but walks with us through sunny and rainy days. When we carry the light that is within us into the world, we demonstrate to our community an alternative perspective and approach to the various climates we are faced with daily. So be thankful for yourself, your practice, and the community of change agents.

These principles are not just to be used in the studio – they also help us practice being
loving human beings in our world. Imagine a world where humans practice breathing,
dismissing the toxic aspects of our ego, taking breaks, smiling/laughing, and having an attitude of gratitude. As Louis Armstrong once said, “What a wonderful world this will be!”

The light in me honors and recognizes the light in you, friends. Namaste!

About the Author: 

Steven Brice practices yoga at Sync, where he took the class that inspired this post.
Steven is a proud New Yorker who loves his family and friends. He is a pastor, professor,
entrepreneur, a committed volunteer for social causes, and a Yogi. He is an introvert that loves people and loves to laugh and have fun.

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Meditation Workshop on June 16: Detox Your Nervous System

meditation bowl courtney

This is a guest blog post from Courtney Pinkerton, who will lead our meditation workshop on Thursday, June 16 from 7-9 p.m. The theme is “How to Create Your Life-Giving Meditation Practice.”

Register now ($25 in advance, $35 at the door).


The big aha moment came for me several summers back after hearing a meditation author describe the practice as a “detox for the nervous system.”

ChaChing! Yes, please.

For whatever reason, after years of being a “sensitive” person, I could really hear that description of meditation as an invitation. And something within my reach that I could do to take care of myself.

As we get closer to the workshop, here’s a tip: tune into your desire. The clearer you are on why you want to start or deepen your meditation practice, the stronger your commitment will be as you create this new habit.

My secondary reason for starting a daily practice (which is pretty much one of my core motivations for everything) is that I want to feel good. Happy even. I know that it is not realistic to feel shiny + light in every moment, but I had the sense that I could be way happier way more of the time. This turned out to be true.

In fact, happy has become a sort of base line for me – a shift I credit almost entirely to finding a meditation practice that nourishes me daily. I still fall off the happiness wagon, but meditation helps me reconnect to Source. And voila! The happiness reemerges from its hiding place. (I think it might have been close by all the time, watching me with compassion as I push and struggle.)

One of my favorite meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg, says that our desire to be happy is rightful and noble. (At least that is what I remember her saying at the workshop. I was blissed out at the time, so this may not be verbatim.)

I love that language.

She also says “The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” (Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.)

Which is exactly what meditation trains our brain to do. To place and hold attention.

And of course being happy is never all about you. Your happiness is contagious. It is one of the most direct ways you serve your community.

So whatever you desire — to be happy, to have peace inside your body + mind, to be more present to your family — the more conscious you are of what motivates you, the more you will enjoy playing with these meditation practices. And you will know by the fruit in your life when you discover a meditation routine that is a great fit for you.

Join us for the workshop at Sync Yoga & Wellbeing to Create Your Own Life-Giving Meditation Practice on Thursday June 16th from 7-9 p.m. At the event you’ll also learn about a way to continue honing your meditation throughout the summer.

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