A journey to do good

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Sacha Kenny chats with social activist, storyteller and online yoga teacher Marianne Elliott about her life journey to connect, be well and do good

Zen Under Fire

Marianne Elliott is a human rights advocate, writer and former High Court lawyer. She has served as a United Nations peacekeeper in Afghanistan, focusing on human rights and gender issues; spent two years working with a human rights organisation in the Gaza Strip; helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and Timor-Leste and worked as a policy adviser for Oxfam.

Marianne is also the author of Zen Under Fire, a memoir of her time in Afghanistan; runs a successful online yoga practice and is co-owner of a thriving Wellington restaurant.


In her own words Marianne has two sets of credentials:


her ‘Be Well ' credentials:
> Certified yoga teacher (Yoga Alliance 200RT);
> Creator of her own successful online yoga business;
> Regional leader for Off the Mat, Into the World, New Zealand & Australia - facilitating workshops using the tools of yoga to support sustainable, conscious activism


and her ‘Do Good ' credentials:
> Former High Court lawyer;
> Human rights advocate and writer;
> Published author (Zen Under Fire, Penguin NZ, 2012);
> Contributing writer with Huffington Post

Marianne also runs a successful website and blog (www.marianne-elliott.com), which she describes as “a watering-hole for do-gooders, wanna-be do-gooders and recovering do-gooders” and with the above credits to her name Marianne certainly knows a thing or two about doing good.

As a long-time follower of her blog and having read her book I was thrilled when Marianne agreed to chat with me  about her life and her journey to be well and do good.

Can you tell me about where you are from – your family and your roots?

I was born near the forestry town of Tokoroa in the central North Island.  My father is a dairy farmer and my mother was a primary school teacher. In my family I would say there are a good number of missionaries and a good number of farmers and teachers.

“When I was a pre-schooler my parents decided to do a year of church mission work (Open Brethren) in Papua New Guinea.

“Some of my earliest memories are from Papua New Guinea and I think those experiences really planted in me both an incredible appetite for different cultures, foods, music and language as well as this really strong sense of social justice and how unevenly the world’s resources are distributed.

“My parents have always been very community-oriented.  They’re very engaged in community and both very generous and supportive of people in need.  Their interpretation of Christianity is a very socially active and engaged approach to helping people. 

“So I spent my childhood and teen years surrounded by, as well as developing, a really strong sense of justice. I have clear memories of school and being heavily involved in justice issues. To the extent that I probably drove my teachers crazy defending the rights of fellow students when I felt the system was unfair."

Were you fearless?  

I think I was - I’m really proud when I think back to that 16-year-old girl who stood up for what was right.  I’m proud of her for not being afraid of the consequences."

On your blog you state “my craft, my medium, my passion is story” . Can you share what this statement means to you?

"I’m a writer, a yoga teacher and a human rights consultant. Above all else, I collect, craft and tell stories. Whether I’m writing a report on violence against 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’ve always been really attracted to narrative as a way to learn about the world – I’m much more likely to pick a memoir or novel to learn about the world than a non-fiction account.

“Narrative to me is also at the heart of good legal work – if you can really tell the story of what happened to your client, that’s when people will be moved and things will shift.  The power of narrative is a big thing I learned when I worked at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission – I learned that if you need to convince someone to get interested enough in a problem or an issue to make change you need to tell them a story."

Did you feel driven by a sense of purpose when you wrote about your time in Afghanistan in ‘Zen Under Fire’?

When I left Afghanistan my dearest Afghan colleague not only gave me permission but also the responsibility of telling the story of my experience in Afghanistan.  Very much as a way of giving people a different picture of Afghanistan, a different experience of Afghanistan to what we see in the media.

“So essentially the book is about the two years I spent working in Afghanistan and in a nut shell it’s a book about somebody who went there with very high hopes of what I could achieve only to have those hopes quite rudely dashed - then finding my way back to the core question of “how do you really do good in a place like Afghanistan?

Zen Under Fire is also about my experience of learning to sit still and become connected, through yoga, with myself so that I could do the work I was there to do without bringing my unhelpful baggage into the work.” 

Where did the idea of running an online yoga business come from?

It came specifically out of my time in Afghanistan.  The yoga practice I did alone at my guesthouse in Afghanistan saved my life – it really did.  It kept me sane at times when if I had not been able to hold myself together I would have been in real trouble.

“Initially I never really saw it as a business, I just wanted to share with people the tools that helped me get my home yoga practice going.  But I had such a great response I decided to try it as a business opportunity - that was three years ago, now my online yoga practice is my main source of income.

“Primarily I run the online yoga and wellbeing courses to support people who are passionate – people who are taking a stand. The courses focus on the tools and practices needed to enable people to reconnect with themselves because I believe it’s when we are connected and deeply plugged in to our truest self that we can do our best work in the world."

You run an online yoga business, are a freelance writer, published author, public speaker, founder of a non-profit organisation and restaurateur.  You state that, for you, the most important and valuable aspect of running your own business is being able to answer to yourself when it comes to your values... can you expand on that?

I recently read an article in Forbes magazine where the headline was “Entrepreneurship is the new women’s rights movement”. The article stated that in the last 10 to 15 years women have been leaving corporate employment ten-fold to start their own businesses - based on their own values.

“For me being my own boss means I can run my business in a way that I feel honours both me and my clients. I guess it’s about putting my ideals on the line and following through with what I have believed for years."

“My business is shaped, directed and driven by my values. When you build your business on your own values, you’ll attract clients and employees who share your values – and nothing is more rewarding than that."

You have written that stories are how you make sense of the past and how we imagine new futures.  What do you imagine for the future both for yourself and the world?

For me – I’ve had a taste of the idea that there is great possibility in ‘ease’.

“I like to envisage myself in five years' time having found a sweeter spot. Where what I love to do and what comes naturally to me, coupled with the changes I want to make in the world, are truly one.  It’s finding that sweet spot where I can be the most useful and happiest in my life.

"A big part of the stories I’m interested in at the moment are stories where there is that sense that people are doing their best work in the world in a way that doesn’t harm them, that doesn’t exhaust them, that doesn’t deplete them and that comes from a place of ease. 

"I get a taste of that. There are times when I’m like “this is me doing what comes most naturally to me and I know it’s useful for the world” but I still feel there needs to be a shift from that hard-working farming way of life to moving forward with ease.

"And I guess in a way that’s what I’d like to see the future be for everybody because if everybody found their ‘sweet spot’ how great that would be."


  • Marianne Elliott: www.marianne-elliott.com
  • Zen Under Fire A story of love and work in Afghanistan (Penguin NZ, 2012)
  • 30 Days of Yoga: These simple, compassionate courses will help you bring yoga home, whether you’re an experienced yogi or a complete beginner.
  • Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping: Are you ready to strike out on your true path? To find your own unique way to do good, to serve and to change the world?
  • Off the Mat, Into the World: Using the power and tools of yoga to help you get clearer on your purpose and find conscious, sustainable ways to make a difference in the world.





0 #1 Anna 2013-01-27 22:57
I am reading Marianne Elliots book and cannot put it down. Thankyou to you and mymag for introducing me to her. What a woman!!!

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