I’m a bit in awe. And am utterly fascinated by this week’s GET TO KNOW guest.
I first crossed paths with Marianne Elliott online.
Though I’m not sure who introduced me to her work, I’m pretty sure it was Danielle LaPorte.
I read a rave review by Danielle and the rest, as they say, is history.
Marianne is a human rights advocate, a writer and a yoga teacher.
Talk about a powerful combo of skills!
Her work is grounded in a deep compassion for others.
In a desire to do good and spread peace.
I admire her dedication to justice, focus on activism and her approach to conflict resolution.
Honestly, our world could use more people like her.
I fell in love with her as a yoga teacher a few years ago, when I took 30 Days of Yoga, her digital course.
Her style of teaching was not unlike her writing. Powerful, purposeful and grounded.
I liked it so much that I signed up for a subsequent course called 90 Days of Yoga.
And today, I get to introduce you to the beautiful world of Marianne Elliott.
Zen Peacekeeper extraordinaire.
In your own words, tell me a bit about yourself (for my readers who aren’t familiar with you + your work).
I’m a human rights advocate and a writer. I served in the United Nations mission in Afghanistan with a focus on human rights and gender issues, helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and Timor-Leste and worked as Policy Advisor for Oxfam. I’ve written a book about doing good and being well in Afghanistan (Zen Under Fire) and I write for the Huffington Post and other places.
I’m also a yoga teacher (Yoga Alliance 200RT) and I created the 30 Days of Yoga courses to help you start (or restart) your own yoga practice. I created 30 Days of Courage to help you find your own way to be brave, do good and stay well. I’m also Regional Leader for Off the Mat, Into the World in New Zealand and Australia and teach workshops using the tools of yoga to support sustainable, conscious activism.
I’m curious about your work as a lawyer and subsequently as a human rights advocate. How did you come to this work? Was it always the type of work you envisioned for yourself?
When I was five years old I wanted to either be a clown – because I liked making people happy – or a Sunday School Teacher, so I would only have to work one day a week. By the time I was 15, I knew I wanted a career that would let me travel, so I applied to international universities and even applied for the Navy (they turned me down, possibly because my school reports often say things like ‘Marianne likes to question authority’).
In the end I studied law because I was passionate about justice (and injustice) and hoped that I could either use the legal system to help people get justice or help change the justice system. My first job was with a big corporate law firm, doing large scale commercial litigation. It didn’t really contribute to either of those goals, but they did let me do some pro bono work and they taught me to be a good lawyer – for which I have always been grateful.
I started my human rights career when I abandoned my Masters in International Human Rights Law to take up a job as an advisor on international law to a Palestinian human rights organization in the Gaza Strip. I was the only employee who wasn’t Palestinian, and this job taught me more about human rights – and how to effectively campaign for their better promotion and protection – than ten masters degrees could have.
Since then I’ve worked in Palestine, Timor Leste, Afghanistan and New Zealand – where the human rights issues are very different to those I was dealing with in conflict-affected countries but are no less important. These days I contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights largely through my writing, and recently also through the medium of radio – I’ve made three radio features about Afghanistan for Radio New Zealand this year, and have two more to make this year.
You are also a writer. And a storyteller. As a filmmaker, I too love and am enthralled by the power of story. What drew you to this art form? Why are you passionate about telling stories?
I first learned the power of story when I worked in Gaza, where part of my job was to write press releases for the Western media about what was happening in the Gaza Strip. I learned that stories are what it takes for people to make the connection between themselves and someone living on the other side of the world.
Stories are how we come to understand each other.
My years at the United Nations made me the Grand Mistress of report writing. We wrote daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports. A couple of years in the UN and you can write reports in your sleep. Because I cared so deeply about the people I was writing about, I wanted to be sure the people in Kabul or New York who read my reports were paying attention. So I taught myself to tell a good story in every report. People pay attention and keep reading for a good story.
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.
At the heart of every useful thing I’ve ever done was a story. And these days that’s what captures my imagination most of all. How to gather, craft, tell, spread and amplify stories that help us all see ourselves, each other and the future in a new and beautiful light.
Whether I’m writing a report on violence again women in Afghanistan, raising funds for a great cause, helping a client share their good work with the world or writing my memoir – my craft, my medium and my passion is story.
I LOVE that. I’m pretty sure I could talk to you for hours about storytelling! For the sake of keeping this story moving ;), I want to shift to yoga. Why yoga? How did you find yoga and what drew you to it? What motivated you to create 30 Days of Yoga?
I had practiced yoga before I moved to Afghanistan – but it was in Afghanistan that yoga became a lifeline, and where I had to develop my own home practice – which is why I created 30 Days of Yoga. I know first hand the many ways in which yoga can save us from the worst elements of modern life, and bring us home to our true nature. I also know that it’s the yoga we do at home every day that will make the biggest difference to our mental and physical health. A little bit of yoga every day has been shown to have greater benefits than one or two longer classes a week.
But it’s hard to do yoga at home, alone. There are so many things that get in the way – not least of all our own inner critic telling us we are doing it wrong! So I created 30 Days of Yoga to give people access to a yoga teacher while they do yoga at home. I’m like a virtual personal yoga teacher, in your living room – encouraging you to get on your mat everyday and talking you through the challenges that come up along the way.
What inspires + motivates you to keep doing what you do?
Everything! I’m inspired by the emails I get from people who have taken my yoga courses and who write to tell me that they are healthier, happier, clearer and pain-free. I’m inspired by the people who take my online course in courage and then write to tell me that they’ve finally had the conversation they needed to have with their father, or have started the course in teaching English as a second language that is the first step towards their dream of living in Cambodia. I’m inspired by the emails and letters I get from people who have read my book: from a man in prison for political protests; from a young woman doing humanitarian work in Colombia, from people I worked with all over the world and from men who served with the New Zealand army in Afghanistan. When they tell me that I have written their story, as well as mine, and that they now feel less alone, I’m inspired to keep writing. To keep telling stories.
I’m inspired by my parents, who I have seen – over and over again throughout my life – give their time, their money, their attention and their love to whoever needs it. I’ve been with my Dad to visit prisoners, men who messed up but still love their children and hope to one day put right the things they did wrong. I’ve been with my mother to visit elderly people from her church, making sure they have enough to eat, something to do with themselves (if not, she’ll sign them up for a painting class and drive them to it) and most importantly, someone to listen. My parents really have taught me what it means to be generous, to serve the people closest to you, and to care about people who might seem very different, or very far away.
What an amazing family! You clearly have an entrepreneurial spirit (and are your own business woman). I share that same sense of adventure with what I do. Have you always wanted to “do your own thing”? Did your parents inspire that in you? What do you find are the most challenging (and gratifying) things about working for yourself?
My parents and both of my sisters own their own business. I grew up in an entrepreneurial home, I guess – although we wouldn’t have called it that then. I didn’t really aspire to have my own business, in fact I was put off by the idea that I would have to think about taxes, accounts and budgets. But as my career as a human rights advocate progressed I started to get frustrated by my constant struggles to either find an organization or boss to work for whose values I could wholeheartedly endorse (and who actually implemented those values in the way they worked) or to change organizational values to better reflect the kind of place I wanted to work.
In the end I realized that if I worked for myself I would be answerable to myself for the values I applied to my work. And today, for better and for worse, that is the case and it is certainly the most gratifying thing about working for myself. It’s also one of the most challenging, I can no longer blame my organization or my boss if the way I work doesn’t match what I believe. It’s up to me to find a way to do business that aligns with what I believe.
I’m fascinated by the idea of how others balance the creation process with doing business. Personally, I find it challenging to strike a balance between the two in my own life. Do you struggle with this? Any thoughts or words of wisdom?
I think everyone who does creative work – and tries to make a living from it – has to find this balance and it is not easy. I’m not sure I have any words of wisdom. Running a business, no matter how creative it might be, takes time. One thing that has helped me is to embrace the things I love about all those ‘other’ parts of my business. I actually love connecting with people, so using social media to build new connections with potential creative collaborators or customers is fun for me. I love writing, so drafting emails and newsletters to go out to my mailing list is also fun. I don’t love technical stuff, or financial – but I do love the feeling of mastering something I thought I might not be able to do. So I’ve learned to focus on that feeling, and that helps motivate me to do the parts of my work that might otherwise intimidate me.
I have also learned that I have to set aside blocks of time for reading and writing when I won’t be interrupted or distracted by all the other aspects of my work. I include reading as well as writing, because although writing is my core creative practice, reading is the activity that most powerfully feeds and nourishes my writing.
The other essential ingredients for me are: movement (whether in the form of yoga, running, walking or dancing, I just have to move my body every day); plenty of good quality sleep; and space and time to ‘wonder’ – time to let my mind meander through the various ideas, images and conundrums it is housing at any given moment. I do find I can combine the ‘wondering’ with a walk or run, which is possibly the only kind of multitasking that actually works for me!
I’m quite enamoured with beauty + aesthetics, so I’m curious, what does beauty mean to you? What do you find ‘beautiful’?
I’m a nature girl. I find the sky beautiful, and the ocean. I also find human faces beautiful – all sorts of different human faces. The one kind of photography that has always appealed to me most is portrait. I love finding a way to represent, through a photograph, something of the whole person.
When it comes to design and aesthetics, I’m heavily influence by nature – I love exposed wood, for example, I love seeing the varied colours and patterns in the timber. And I love seeing how people dress – I much prefer street fashion photography to styled shoots in magazines. One of my favorites is Advanced Style – those women are all much more stylish than me, but they inspire me to express myself, my personality, my passions in the way I dress and to continue doing so even when society tries to tell me I’m too old to be beautiful, to be stylish, to have fun!
I know you love to travel too – tell me, what are a few of your favorite spots? Any places you’re still aching to visit?
I find it so hard to name my favorite places. I’ve fallen in love with so many over the years. In terms of towns and cities, I love Jerusalem, London, New York, Rome, Venice, Madrid, Ubud in Bali, Damascus in Syria, Istanbul, Melbourne. I love the entire San Francisco Bay area – especially the East Bay and the beaches and hikes in Marin County. I’ve had wonderful adventures in Egypt, in South Africa, all the way up Eastern Africa, in the Ivory Coast and in Ghana (where I think everyone who has any interest in the history of slavery in the US should go, visiting the slave fortresses along the coast of Ghana is an experience I will never forget). I absolutely loved Ghor province, where I lived and worked in Afghanistan – the landscape is almost inhospitably harsh, but it’s starkness is beautiful and it’s people are determined, devout and devoted to the survival of their families. I’ll never lose my passion for travel, and I constantly ache to see more of the world. Near the top of my list right now are returning to Mexico, and exploring more of the amazing Pacific Islands right in my back yard!
Is there a specific quote or a philosophy that guides your life?
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
We do whatever inspires people to help themselves, and whatever it takes to remove suffering.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
WHY do you do what you do?
Because I believe that what I do has the potential to reduce suffering, to make the world a fairer, kinder and safer place. And because I love it. I love writing, I loved telling stories, I love teaching yoga, I love advocating for change. I do what I do because it fulfills me, it gives meaning to my life and because I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing right now.
I feel honored to have been able to give you a tiny glimpse into the mind + world of the beautiful Marianne Elliott.
Her work and teachings have enriched my life in ways I never expected.
I am grateful to know her and be able to share her message with you.
I hope you enjoyed this Q+A. You can find out more about Marianne here.
And, if you’re looking to jumpstart your yoga practice, I highly recommend checking out one of her 30 Days of Yoga courses (choose from the standard, beginners or busy people editions). The courses start on March 18th.
She even has 30 Days of Curvy Yoga (yoga made for REAL bodies)! This course starts on April 15th.
*note, I am an affiliate for Marianne’s programs. And as you know, I only promote products + services that I fully endorse and can wholeheartedly stand behind.
And, because she’s the superstar lady that she is, Marianne is giving a signed copy of her remarkable book, Zen Under Fire, to one of you lovely readers!
All you have to do for a chance to win, is leave a comment below and let us know what motivates + inspires you!
Extra love :: click to tweet this message, for an added chance to get her beautiful book.
Have a beautiful rest of your week!