Supermodel-turned-activist Christy Turlington on traveling to Africa and how motherhood and yoga have opened her to the present.
After years spent posing, in the mid-1990s, supermodel Christy Turlington began a process of fully
. At age 29 she got a degree from NYU in comparative religion; began practicing yoga; wrote a book, "Living Yoga;" and started two business ventures: the Ayurveda-inspired cosmetics line Sundari and a high-end yoga clothing venture, Nuala.
In recent years, she's added both mother and activist to her list of identities; she has two young children, participated in an emotional quit-smoking campaign, and is now working with Product (RED), an organization that helps well-known brands like iPod, Gap, and Coverse create products that generate money to help end AIDS and HIV in Africa.
Last week, the yogini and practicing Catholic went with (RED) to Swaziland, a small African country with one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world and 70,000 orphans due to the disease. She listened to people's stories, visited medical clinics, and felt incredibly grateful for everything.
How does the work that you’re doing with (RED) in Africa relate to the yogic concept of seva or selfless service?
Really, anything that I do has that spirit behind it. Particularly anything that I volunteer for. And (RED) is one of those things where as soon as I learned about the concept—almost two years ago before they launched in London—I said, “Gosh. What an amazing thing. I would love to be a part of this." And, “If you ever need me, here I am.”
The last time that you talked to Beliefnet, in 2001, you hadn’t had children yet. How has having two children transformed your life and your spiritual practice?
Well, I would say that they have become my spiritual practice. I practice yoga on a daily basis with them—it’s such a gift in that they really keep you present. And as you know from yoga, it’s always such an effort to remain in the present. And children are instant yoga in that way. Everything for them is present and it’s such a great reminder of that part of the practice that is so important.
And on a bigger level… as a mother, all of a sudden, you’re a part of this huge force in the world. I feel like no matter where I go, I can relate to any woman if we’re mothers. It’s something that we’ve all been through, that we all can relate to, that we all understand, that you can’t really understand on the other side of it fully.
In terms of compassion, it’s broadened that whole aspect of my being in such a huge way. When I travel on behalf of (RED)—or CARE is another organization I’ve traveled with—we’ve always focused on that mother relationship. I was pregnant with my son when I went to El Salvador. I met so many moms that were pregnant as well or had newborns—to be in the company of somebody in that state is a really powerful thing to share.
That was also my experience in Swaziland because it’s mothers, grandmothers, and young girls who are seemingly most afflicted with [AIDS and HIV]. It's the mother-to-child transmission that we’re really focusing on because that’s where you can really turn things around. If you can get anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) to a mom that’s pregnant, you can stop that chain of infection or diminish it greatly.
On the (RED) blog you said you told the kids about our Mother’s Day.
We did explain it loosely and they were like, “Wow. What a wonderful thing." We met mothers that either were pregnant or had new babies, but, in some of the communities, there’s a Kagogo center, a granny center, and it’s because a lot of times, a whole generation has been wiped out [by AIDS] and all of these children their mothers and fathers are gone. So it’s their grandmothers and their older aunts, or great-aunts who are now stepping into those mother roles. The concept they totally got. I said to them, '"It’s Grandmother’s Day that would be celebrated in Africa." And everyone was saying, “Oh, yes. In Africa every day is Grandmother’s Day."
How did your spiritual practice prepare you for this—doing yoga and being Catholic?
I’m able to engage in a really present way with people, to hear stories, to respond from my gut. I spoke to some teenage girls that completely broke my heart, and there was just no way you could control emotion. When I started getting emotional, they started getting emotional. It was sad but at the same time I felt like it was such a release for them and for me. I’m not frightened of those kind of situations.
I’ve done a lot of traveling in places that are developing or that are incredibly poverty-stricken. Sometimes you can go into those situations and be in shock for a while and not be able to really let what’s going on penetrate you. But I’m able to step in and be completely open to the experience.
Is there anything that you do when you go to a place, to engage yourself?
I did as much as I could, preparing for getting my awareness to that place, doing a lot of thinking about it and meditating in a way but not in some kind of isolative meditation, with my eyes closed, in a seated position. Just trying to make sure that I could honor these people because my role in going was to come back and share with people contributing on some level to Product (RED) and the Global Fund—this is what we’re doing and this is how we’ve helped.
We all wanted it to be more like an exchange so that people know that no one’s just dumping money on a culture—it’s really a relationship. It’s an exchange in which it feels good for people to participate as consumers. And for [people in Africa] to give back their gratitude and their stories and pass that message back. I felt like a conduit for that exchange, which also feels like a spiritual practice.
When you meet kids while traveling in developing nations, how does that affect how you think about your own children?
I feel immediately how lucky, how fortunate we are to be where we are, to live where we do, to have the rights of education alone—and basic needs, food, shelter, water—it just makes you so grateful because you realize that it’s just circumstance. Being born in a certain place that presents all of these other challenges. And every child that I met that was around the age of my daughter, all I could do was [imagine] her playing with these children.
And on my way home, all I wanted to do was come home and hug my children; there are 70,000 orphans in Swaziland and you want to take them home. But you can’t, obviously. It makes you want to hug your children and love your children and be so good to them because it’s almost an act that you’re doing towards all children—protecting them and doing the things that they deserve.
Gosh, I feel like so much of it was. There’s still a lot of stigma [against] people that are HIV-infected and so they get shut out of their communities because people are just scared. There’s become this other community of people that are HIV-positive and they are using all of their time to help other people who are newly in this situation. We met many volunteers there to hand-hold people going through this. [There was a] sense of, "I’ve been there, let me help you. We need to help our brothers and sisters to get there."
That’s the one positive thing about an illness that can be a gift on some level if it teaches you that we need others and that we need to be there for others.… Everybody, once they’ve been exposed, wanted to be there to help other people through the experience. This is something we can take back, something that we should have, because we all are sort of isolated in our culture. Everybody’s their own individual family. There’s not this merge and extension of community that is so strong in other parts of the world.
Can you describe the vision of a world that you want your kids to grow up in?
Well, a big thing that I saw there which was so sad was intolerance. You’re in a country where everybody knows how serious the epidemic is. Yet there’s so much fear and cruelty based around that fear. I would hope that we can ingrain tolerance so much earlier in children’s minds that it doesn’t become a thing that separates us from other people. A world that is more tolerant would be a huge, huge accomplishment and would make so many issues dissipate.
And are you hopeful that we can get there?
Yeah. I have to be. I brought young people into the world and you have to have that kind of hope. You really do. I try to think optimistically. It’s just a matter of really practice in that sense. One of the greatest things that yoga has given me is that understanding that everything requires practice. There’s only room for improvement for most of us—you can constantly become more loving, become more accepting, become more forgiving. We need to keep chipping away.