The Good Fighter – Yoga Journal Interview with Marianne Elliott

Posted on September 23rd, 2013

It’s time to take your yoga off the mat. We are sharing an article from Yoga Journal with Marianne Elliott, writer, yoga teacher, human rights advocate and Off the Mat Senior Leader. She believes that “There is something magical that happens when people come together in person to share stories. I tell stories that inspire people to be braver and to find their unique way to serve the world.”

Our stories are how we make sense of the world.

Stories are how we come to new understandings about each other, how we change our view of the world, how we teach, and how we learn. Each of us carries stories. Stories we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Stories we’ve been given by others. Stories we’ve gathered ourselves along the way.

Your stories are powerful. Your stories have the potential to help us see ourselves, each other and the future in a new and beautiful light.

Do you realize how extraordinary your story is? We do.

Tell us about your story and how you are involved with social work on and off the mat. Marianne Elliott and Off the Mat want to support you by gifting you a copy ofZen Under Fire. We can’t wait to read your comments on our blog!


Excerpt below from an article with Yoga Journal 

A practice of flow-based yoga had long supported the work of human rights activist and attorney Marianne Elliott, and her mat had been all over the world with her by the time she landed in Afghanistan on an United Nations Assistance Mission. But in her work in this land of ancient loss and conflict, Elliott’s commitment to yoga—and to both her sanity and basic humanity—would be put to the test in new ways both beautiful and horrible. Just after starting her new job in a tribal leader was murdered in Herat under her watch—and it became Elliott’s job to mend the peace and save lives. The stakes could hardly have been higher.

This is human history and current events, write large. Still, in telling her tale, Elliott mixes in bits of her own neurosis—her ups and downs with a bad boyfriend, her occasional drinking, her obsession with exercise, her own tendency to shut down in the face of the atrocities she sees at work. In short, she has the grace to share the good, bad, and the ugly of her own human emotional experience, which provides a human lens through which to view all the politics.

In order to be effective in her position, Elliott learns, she must use her yoga to stay open—to her own pain, and to that of others. And that is the absolute magic of this book—when you open your ears to the pain of one woman’s story, it’s not so hard then to keep them open for another woman’s story. We are all human, Elliott is saying, and deserve to be heard.

She’s left the United Nations and moved home to her Native New Zealand, but carries on the important work of human transformation, now by writing, teaching yoga, and coaching aid workers and others dealing with high-stress situations (all of which you learn more about at Here, she talks to Yoga Journal about her new work:

What’s your focus these days?

I work online with people who have an interest in doing humanitarian work that involves high levels of stress and trauma, but want to maintain their own wellbeing, too. I help those people get stabilized and grounded so that they can begin the work. But I have lot of engagement around humanitarian efforts myself, mostly through storytelling and little radio documentaries.

Why is storytelling so important to you?

I spent a lot of time feeling like I had to “fix” people’s problems. At a certain point, I realized it was useful just to help people to tell their stories. The listening itself can be healing. It’s a big shift, going from the Western fixing view to the role of active listening. But it is a gift to others if you are able to be present and bear witness to their stories.

How do you stay centered in the face of so much suffering?

I find that all of the tools of meditation and yoga are helpful when you are feeling overwhelmed by a situation. It is easy to start to feel unmoored by large-scale suffering, especially if you start thinking of it on a global scale. But you can use your breath or your body to help bring you physically back into the present moment which is where you have to the capacity to act. And sometimes that act means simply being vulnerable or willing to bear witness.

Why is vulnerability so difficult?

We live in a time when people spend a lot of time projecting an carefully manicured image of themselves whether through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter—a curated and controlled version of who they are. And we might even put these images up ourselves. So when you are struggling, it’s easy to feel alone. You forget that everyone goes through these things. What I have to offer people is my absolute honesty about what I have struggled with so that they don’t have to feel so alone. And I can remind them that everyone has difficulties, and that it’s okay to connect.

How do you help people pull back from trauma?

I think the first thing is to help people see that their responses to traumatic experiences are normal. It really helped me when a therapist said: “You’ve been exposed to a lot of trauma in the past ten years, I would be surprised if you weren’t experiencing these effects.” I also think it’s important to recognize that indirect exposure to trauma can affect us. For me the exposure came in the form of listening to stories from women who had been subjected to terrible violence. For many people today, it will come in the form of media exposure to large-scale traumas like the bombing in Boston. Once we understand that we are experiencing the effects of trauma, and our reactions are normal, then we can find ways to process them. Yoga can help, therapy can help. I also think it’s really important to remember that trauma doesn’t have only negative effects on us. There is research emerging in the area of “post-traumatic growth,” and in my own life I can certainly say that my experiences of trauma—because I’ve had support and tools to process them —have led to a more meaningful life today.


Marianne Elliott is a writer, yoga teacher and human rights advocate. Brené Brown called her “one of the best teachers I’ve ever experienced… a beautiful writer and a courageous truth teller,”

Trained as a lawyer, Marianne helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, she decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine.

Her latest book, Zen Under Fire is in stores now. As a best-selling author and yoga teacher she has been featured in Yoga Journal, Origin Magazine, The Huffington Post and Good Magazine.

When she’s not on her yoga mat or at the keyboard, you’ll find her introducing her nieces and nephews to the joys of political action, or reading feminist crime fiction.

The Good Fighter

Zen Under Fire

How I Found Peace in the Midst of War

Marianne Elliott