Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:


“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.


The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”


The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.


Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.


People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.


Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.


Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.


What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.



The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton

Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas: Witnessing The Positive Impact Of Yoga For Veterans

2016-02-10-1455110783-921279-KateHendricksThomasYoga-thumbThis is an interview with Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran and public health researcher who is interested in finding ways to promote mental health for military-connected personnel. She believes passionately in behavioral health solutions beyond the clinical realm. Kate is a college professor and trained yoga instructor. In 2013, she completed levels I & II of the Warriors at Ease Trauma-Sensitive Teacher Training for Military Veterans. She writes a monthly column for the digital magazine “Grow” about the importance of yoga for veterans’ health, and her articles about her research in this area have been published in scientific journals. Her first book, “Brave, Strong, & True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance” was released by Innovo Publishing Group last fall. Connect with her at

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

2016-02-10-1455111662-7842012-KateHendricksThomas-thumb Dr. Thomas: I joined the Marine Corps in college to test myself, to see whether I could do 20-mile hikes or back-breaking obstacle courses. I quickly learned that I could. In those early years as a Marine, I got very good at presenting a veneer of stoic professionalism at all times. Presenting the certain, effective façade required some incredibly useful skills – skills that become very destructive when you don’t know how to turn them off.

The above description fits most Marines. We tend to be a driven, dysfunctional lot. When I left the Marine Corps, I had a hard time carving a new identity for myself. I was terribly invested in what others thought of me. My public story was of crisp uniforms, physical fitness metrics, and successes. I always looked good on paper. My private story involved destructive choices, broken doors and holes in the walls, hiding weapons in the house, and getting dragged across the living room floor by my hair. I share this not because any of it is particularly interesting, but because it’s particularly common and normal in the military community I call home.

I was floundering through my own transition of Marine-to-civilian. It was at this critical juncture that I came to yoga as an athlete looking for something fun to try, something new to master, and something to help me bend my unyielding muscles a bit more easily. What I found on the mat changed my life entirely. I found a practice that was about more than my body, my training, and was something I could practice and study while joyously never “mastering” it.

I teach yoga today because it saved my life, because it asks the practitioner to work at creating mental fitness and resilience. I know no other way to reach my peers with such effect.

Is there a standout moment from your work with the veteran population?

I love teaching meditation for VA patients on the inpatient mental health ward. They are often so open and curious. Time commitments and distractions are completely eliminated by the confined surroundings, and we have the chance to truly breathe together.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

I am a member of that population. The idiosyncratic messages of warrior subculture make sense to me; I grew up in a military family where “civilian” was pejorative, so I’m very familiar with military life. My own mistakes almost leveled me: I had no words to explain the disaster that had become my personal life, and felt crippling shame about being one of “those people,” with disordered drinking behavior going through a violent divorce. I would have fit right in on the Jerry Springer show. I knew the military intimately and I think I imagined that if I shared any of this with other veterans, they would dislike the authentic me that was full of flaws. In actuality, those flaws are my greatest offering as a teacher.

What is the role of “warrior-ness” in the healing process for veterans?

Marines and soldiers are competitive people who respond much better to notions of challenge than to victim or patient identities. We veterans won’t ask for help. The answer has to lie outside the contemporary standard of care. Yoga can address that. When we discuss the sorts of trauma and injuries our veterans have experienced, we need to bring mindfulness into the conversation around treatment and prevention. Pills and therapy are not enough to return this active, passionate community to full health after trauma.

Right now we are losing more veterans to suicide than to combat. I’m a pretty decisive person with limited ability to ask for help and zero trouble taking risks; I’m motivated in part because there was a time when I could have become one of those statistics. While there are clinical health services for soldiers and Marines with existing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress, these services are not stemming the rising tide of service suicides. Framing mindfulness training as a way to “bulletproof your brain” renders the practices palatable within the confines of warrior culture.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Teaching from a place of flawed authenticity was a skill set I never used to possess, and I have to work hard to overcome my ego. A great example is my lifelong struggle with demonstrating balance poses. I’ve always had trouble in balance poses. To be honest, I’m not terribly balanced in general – I have been accused of displaying control-freak tendencies many a time. To learn to embrace my imperfect pose, laugh about it, and then share that in public has been tremendously liberating. I think our veteran students need approachable yoga.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to veterans?

Learn the language, take some trauma-sensitive training, be willing to listen and learn, and focus outward. When we teach, it is not about us.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

The yoga community has a real opportunity now to move into the mainstream health and wellness realm in a balanced, authentic, healing manner. Sometimes I think we focus too much on sexy poses or yoga pants, but when I spend time with fellow Yoga Service Council members who care so deeply about using this practice to make a difference in the world, I have confidence in the potential of our little subculture to bring about change.


 Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s 100-hour certification program can lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Find an upcoming training near you.

Kelly Wood: Yoga for Youth

This is an interview with Kelly Wood, who opened Karuna Yoga studio in Los Angeles in 2002. Since the opening of the studio, she has taught kids yoga classes with consistent attendance. Parents who were taking her adult yoga classes asked if she would consider going into their child’s public school classroom to teach kids yoga. In 2002, she began teaching weekly 20-minute classes in LAUSD elementary schools, continuing to this day with a strong network of public school teachers, principals, school therapists, administrators, and parents. She has now taught over 220,000 students from Pre-K to 5th grade. According to Kelly, “once children are in a more calm state, they can remember or be more mindful of actions, thoughts, and words from the heart — a more helpful behavior as opposed to self-centeredness.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Kelly: My initial motivation was to help children develop a love for, and commitment to, the practice. Now I’m motivated to assist with the integration of positive habits such as listening, patience, and helping others within the behavior of children. I believe in the potential of every child. I understand how emotional experiences shape our neural networks–the way we think.

Within public classrooms my motivation is also to build a sense of respect in students for their public school teacher. I am dedicated to helping teachers who give so much to their students, communities, and schools. Our SCHOOL (Smiling Calm Hearts Open Our Learning) classes nurture respect and emotional security within classrooms.

Is there a standout moment from your work with elementary school children?

A gratifying moment is when I hear of or see a student applying teachings without my impetus. It is also gratifying to see the gradual conditioning of students’ learning within our SCHOOL classes. Once children learn the rules and boundaries of the SCHOOL classes, which typically takes four sessions, we have more classroom moments of taking a calm breath in and a calm breath out together. To see an entire classroom take a simultaneous calm breath in and out is very rewarding for me. I’m fortunate to sit in front of children and witness their development of self-regulation and more gentle attitudes, one breath at a time.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

More than 80 percent of the children I teach are Hispanic, with the remaining 20 percent mostly other minorities. Growing up in South Carolina and living in the south until my early 30s, I had little to no interaction with the Hispanic culture. I assumed these children would know Spanish better than I. This proved to be true! Other than this obvious fact, I truly was and remain open to each classroom. I only need to simplify English words of instruction for the Pre-K classes to better communicate the yoga lessons. Because children are strong visual learners, they pick up the lessons quickly as I exhibit posture, pace, and facial expressions. I find inner-city children quite open and eager to learn yoga/meditation.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

The first difference in teaching style is the acknowledgement that I’m a guest within the public school teacher’s classroom. I defer to the classroom teacher for acceptable choices for addressing disruption (talking, distracting peers). I ask for permission to show an image to reinforce the story told at the beginning of class, or if I may move a chair or easel to make more space. SCHOOL kids yoga classes always point to the leadership of the public school teacher. I may refer to the teacher as very patient with students, if the story told at the top of a SCHOOL class highlights developing patience. SCHOOL kids yoga classes often include students making a heart with their hands and sharing their calm heart with their public school teacher. I make myself insignificant, always emphasizing the positive qualities of the public school teacher.

A second way my teaching style differs within public classrooms is that the theme or teaching of each SCHOOL kids yoga class is specifically tailored to the activities, skills, and behavior of daily school life. For example, I may tell a story about being very hungry after a full morning of teaching, and sharing my lunch with a stranger who needed food. Once we’ve established that it is good to be generous, and that being calm helps us give to others, I would then ask the students to think of ways they can be generous and give to their classmates and their teacher in their classroom. Our movements, postures, and meditations would also include positive affirmations about giving.

What is the role of humor in your practice, in your classes?

Humor makes its way into SCHOOL classes effortlessly from children’s comments, suggestions, and questions. I do not put on a show with children, or intentionally try to be funny. Simplicity and honesty make for an uplifting tone, especially as these children take the practice seriously and relate easily to the idea of using their calm breathing to keep a calm heart.


What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge has been bringing the public up to speed on the fact that proper yoga/meditation practice is more than creating healthier and calmer bodies. Yoga/meditation practice must build caring and helpful dispositions that are evident within behavior. SCHOOL root teachings (patience, generosity, etc.) integrated within movement contribute to mindfulness and self-regulation. SCHOOL classes are quite simple, with emphasis on calm breathing and a calm heart to help build habits of positively adapting to people and life. Busyness, distraction, complaining, and emotionality can be re-patterned when one is more centered and calm. Children who are unable to self-regulate beyond a negative emotion have a more difficult time adapting, learning, and relating positively to others. It is of little use to our community if we produce high test scoring students with the absence of caring hearts. I believe our schools are the places to teach basic life skills that are secular and common to being good people.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Never look at these children as less than yourself. Quite the contrary, look at these children as your teachers, helping you to grow. Exhibit and live the qualities you know they also have within themselves that are helpful for their classrooms, homes, and communities. There may just be a time in the future when you will lean on the kindness and compassion of these children as they are adults and you are in your senior years.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

If those teaching yoga in service to the community have a comprehensive understanding and approach to the practice (not an emphasis on physicality), we may be able to further innovate health and healing in America, while sustaining respect for the origins and purpose of the practice.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on February 5, 2015

Images courtesy of Josh Wood Photography


Are you interested in building strong, engaged and resilient communities?Join us at the fourth annual Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute on May 14-17, 2015.

The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015

Author Rob Schware is the Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation and President of the Yoga Service Council. Each year, he issues a report on the state of yoga service — the work of bringing yoga to those who might otherwise never experience its transformational benefits. Read on for a look at what’s in store for 2015 and beyond, and a download link for this annual report.


A Vision for the Future: Voices From Our Yoga Service Community

In my Huffington Post blog series “Yoga: How We Serve,” a number of yoga teachers on the front lines of outreach to underserved and unserved populations have offered valuable answers to the question, “What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of ”service yoga“ in America?”

Here are some of the insights that are helping to shape the ongoing growth of yoga service:

“My hope is that yoga will be more readily received by unique communities such as Native Americans, and more recognized by health care organizations as a complementary healing modality to modern medicine.” — Christy Burnette, founder and Executive Director of Conscious Community Yoga Association, Inc.

“I would like to see more science, more data, and more randomized controlled studies. In my opinion we owe it to our clients/students and to our future funders (taxpayers and private citizens) to prove what works, and to recognize what doesn’t. We need to enter into the empirical domain, as difficult and as challenging as that is for yoga teachers like me!” — David Emerson, co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body

“The wounds of our veterans permeate all realms: physical, psychological, and spiritual…their needs are immediate. Our imperative is to assist these brave men and women with re-integration into the very culture they have fought hard to protect.  Training for war is intensive.  Training to return to their home lives is crucial.” — Ena Burrud, certified yoga therapist working with veterans in Colorado and Wyoming

“It is my hope that we will see a far greater awareness and participation by the yoga community in service programs. This might include a required ‘trauma and service’ module in the 200-hour training requirements and a consciousness of a service obligation by every studio and teacher.  The establishment of the Yoga Service Council and the yearly Yoga Service Conference is a great way to expand yoga service nationally and spread the word on opportunities and systems for yoga service.” — Bob Altman, Co-Founder of Centering Youth in Atlanta

“I see yoga being a staple in police and fire academies. I then see recruits expecting to see it on the schedule. Once they are on the job, it would be wonderful to continue to have classes offered to them on a weekly basis, or as seminars and continuing education opportunities. This could also happen at local gyms or studios. I’d like to see yoga as an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to training and caring for our ‘domestic soldiers.'” —  Olivia Kvitne, program director of Yoga for First Responders and Assistant Editor of LA Yoga Magazine

Others expressed hope that yogis will share this gift with special populations all around the world, and provide specialized yoga classes for people who find themselves at a homeless shelter, for people recovering from addiction, and for autistic children.

How Yoga Service Organizations Are Turning Vision Into Reality

How are we doing as a community to respond to these hopes? What new partnerships and entities, profit and non-profit, are stepping up to respond to the challenges?

In research:

The Prison Yoga Project, which started at San Quentin State Prison through the work of James Fox, is a shining example of a well-studied program by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), which showed this is a cost-effective means to help with addiction recovery and impulse control. The NCCD study found that a little mindfulness training through yoga can redirect attention, increase emotional self-control and anger management. Over 800 yoga teachers are now teaching yoga and meditation in over 75 prisons around the world.

In February, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will issue the first in a series of research reports on “Transforming Education Through Yoga.” This series was produced with research, input, and onsite collaboration from 23 leaders in the field of yoga and education.

In October, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will also host leaders in trauma-sensitive yoga for veterans to produce a second report in the series, “Yoga for Veterans.” Key researchers, including Sat Bhir Khalsa and Bessel van Der Kolk, have committed to participating. The objective of this Service Week for Veterans is to co-create common goals for our community, share insight, and produce resources that will serve veterans, VA hospital facilities, and yoga service providers, producing a peer- reviewed report of best practices.

In introducing yoga to first responders: 

In February, the first-ever Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Resiliency Training to Benefit First Responders and Emergency Personnel will occur at the Sedona Yoga Festival – the first offering of a new Give Back Yoga program called Yoga for First Responders. Our police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and their families face behavioral health issues similar to those of combat soldiers, such as depression, PTS, anxiety, addictions, and suicides. The Sedona Yoga Festival/Give Back Yoga training aims to share skills and tools to help bring therapeutic yoga to at least 4,000 first responders nationwide.

In reaching diverse populations:

In May, social workers and yoga teachers will come together for a weekend at Omega Institute for the 4th Annual Yoga Service Conference to discuss how the yoga service movement can expand its work to support broader commitments to social justice. This includes addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which channels thousands of low-income youth (particularly men of color) directly from failing schools into the criminal justice system. We will have compelling and direct conversations between social justice and contemplative practice in organizations — join me there!

In bringing yoga to Native Americans:

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with Conscious Community Yoga and the Sedona Yoga Festival to provide a DVD yoga resource for Native Americans, led by a Native American yoga teacher. The class will be structured for those new to yoga, and with potential health challenges kept in mind. Of primary concern are complications from diabetes, obesity, detox for drug and alcohol addictions.

In partnership with the corporate sector: 

 To reach our veterans with mindfulness practices, Gaiam and Give Back Yoga will commit to serve 100,000 veterans through mobile meditation apps.

Yoga Journal Live, Give Back Yoga and Warriors For Healing will host a special event on Sunday June 28, 2015 on the Windsor Lawn of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, CA. This distinctive and compelling event, called Warriors For Healing, is designed to bring greater awareness of the therapeutic benefits of yoga for veterans facing PTS, and will offer veterans who are seeking healing a pathway toward new meaning and empowerment in life.

YogaGlo will support the Eat Breathe Thrive™ Facilitator Training course, providing facilitators with the knowledge, skills, and mentorship necessary to lead a yoga-based program for people struggling with disordered eating and negative body image. Nearly 80% of adult women feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and three out of four report struggling with disordered eating. The rates of body dissatisfaction among men have increased from 15% to 43% over the past three decades, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

New Growth for Yoga Service in 2015

As we partner with our program directors, our Advisory Board Members and influential yoga teachers to bring this powerful practice to the world, one person at a time, we are fostering new growth in several areas.

Bringing yoga to the West Bank: 

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with the Farashe Yoga Center in Ramallah, 7 Centers Yoga Arts and American yoga pioneer Rama Vernon on a new global initiative to expand and harness the power of yoga in the West Bank and Gaza, supporting Palestinians’ exploration and use of yoga in everyday life.

In May, lead teachers from these organizations will travel with Rama Vernon to the West Bank and work in partnership with Farashe Yoga Center to train up to twenty teachers. Following the training, these new teachers will introduce yoga to area residents through work in urban refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and other venues.

 Yoga is largely unknown among Palestinians. But over the past two years, more Palestinians — women in particular — have embraced the discipline as a way of coping with their daily stresses of the prolonged conflict, including commuting through military checkpoints, unstable employment, restrictions on movement and access, and political unrest.

This initiative to foster yoga as a practice of peace in the West Bank will continue to grow in 2016, as Give Back Yoga and our partners host the first international yoga conference in the West Bank. Led by world-renowned yoga teachers, Palestine-based yoga teachers and practitioners will have access to hands-on workshops that will enable them to develop effective yoga programming for their students. Following the conference, there will be a one-week service opportunity for newly trained teachers to apply these principles in their lives and in the community.

Bringing yoga into more prisons:

Based on continuing growth trends, we anticipate a growing demand from prison wardens who want more trained yoga teachers working in more prisons; and want specific programs for incarcerated veterans, for the staff and officers, and increased support for restorative justice programs.

Influencing climate change:

This year, leading yoga teachers, environmental and sustainable development experts, and atmospheric scientists will be discussing “Yoga, Personal Transformation and Global Sustainability.” What does yoga have to do with global sustainability? What are we all doing to reduce your individual carbon footprint? We need to raise our consciousness of how the yoga movement can meet the climate crisis, and work to help solve what is far and away the greatest challenge of our time. There’s more and more interest in this educational process, beginning with the recent article, “Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability.”

Join the Yoga Service Movement

There’s a lot of work ahead of us. But eventually, we’re confident that we’ll see tens of thousands of yoga teachers and yoga therapists leaving their studios and sharing down-to-earth yoga tools with un-served and underserved communities.

As an organization, one of Give Back Yoga’s key purposes is to serve as a gateway for yoga service. If you’d like to be a part of this movement for grassroots social change and healing, we invite you to visit us on the web, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our monthly newsletters.

Here’s to a bold, transformative, and prosperous New Year to you all!

Images courtesy of Robert Sturman, Prison Yoga Project, Yoga For First Responders, Farashe Yoga Center and Niroga Institute.


Download the annual report The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015.


Katrina Kopeck: Serving Veterans Through Yoga

This is an interview with Katrina Kopeck, a vinyasa yoga instructor since 2011. I first met Katrina at a 15-hour Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teacher training in Boulder, Colorado early this year. Soon thereafter, she began teaching at the Boulder Vet Center, offering a mindful yoga practice open to veterans and therapists. — Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Katrina: I grew up with a great respect for the military. My dad was an officer in the Coast Guard and is a founding member of the Warrior’s Watch, and my brother served in OEF/OIF as a flight medic in the Air Force. My maternal grandfather served as a gunman in World War II for the British Canadian Navy and my paternal grandfather served as a lieutenant in the signal corps in the US Army.

I was never in the military myself. I’ve had lots of jobs in various careers but chose to pursue yoga as my passion and career. Teaching yoga to the men and women who have dedicated themselves to service is a way to connect my two worlds and give back to a population that deserves a lot more respect and attention. I’m continually motivated by stories of what these people went through and how civilians treated them after their return.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

Simple moments hit me the hardest: a couple of weeks ago a vet told me that he noticed it’s easier for him to tie his shoes. It’s something most people take for granted, but it makes his day just a little bit easier. That’s huge.

There’s another vet I work with who has a very hard time staying still physically and mentally throughout class. But he continues to practice, and he’s changing, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. I started watching his toes in savasana (corpse pose) and his record is 30 seconds of stillness. He gets better every time.

During a yoga nidra (deep relaxation with inner awareness) practice, an OIF vet woke up suddenly and looked at me. After the practice, he shared that he had experienced a particular memory that he had only thought about one other time since Iraq, and that last time he had gotten extremely angry and physically aggressive. In this moment though, his relationship with the memory had changed into one of an observation instead of a reaction. Pretty cool!

What did you know about working with veterans before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them, and how have those assumptions changed?

I walked into the VA the first time with the assumption that I was going to have to be very assertive to start a yoga program in a center that had never offered yoga before. I figured I would have to talk to a lot of people up the ranks and have a lot of information to back up my desire to teach yoga for vets.

Because of these assumptions, I probably entered the VA a little on the aggressive side. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I brought my certificates, yoga resume, and a lot of verbal information about why our vets need yoga and no, I really don’t want any money from the VA.

With great timing, a veteran publication had printed an article about yoga for vets that same week. The lead therapist at the center brought the article to our second meeting and said he thought it would be a great idea.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

In a veterans’ yoga class, I don’t offer any assists or leave my mat. This was very challenging to start as I love offering touch in my vinyasa classes, but it wasn’t appropriate in the VA setting. Partially because of this, I was able to gain the trust of the people in my classes.

I also encourage “community time” at the beginning of these classes. I set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class time to let everyone chat and connect. Sometimes they’re pretty quiet, but most weeks they’re chatty, telling stories about boot camp, war, bears, something someone saw about yoga, whatever comes up. I think this time to connect everyone on an intimate, comfortable (and sometimes crass) level before getting into breath and movement, is important in this kind of class. Just listening without judgment goes a long way in creating relationships built on trust.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge in my teaching experience has been adapting a class to balance younger vets and veterans who have been out of the military and living in Boulder for a long time. I ask for a lot of feedback to develop a class that serves them the best, and this population really wanted more: more core work, more Sanskrit words, more challenging poses, more energy movement. We’re finding a way to walk the line of accessibility and tradition with a mix of people who have studied yoga, as well as those who are brand new.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at a vet center?

1.) Know how you are going to present yourself and your information. Go in confidently, professionally, and with all the compassion you have. Leave judgment at the door.

2.) Get right to the point. Ask to speak to someone about volunteer opportunities, then have an “elevator speech” ready to introduce why you want to teach to vets in this location. For example, “Hi, I’m Katrina. I am a certified yoga instructor and interested in working with veterans. Is this something you would consider offering?”

3.) Bring materials for the staff to keep and look over. Offer your certifications and credentials, resume, printed articles and media, and any books that might shed light on yoga therapy for vets.

4.) Know your “why.” The first question everyone — therapists, friends, vets — asked me was, “Why do you want to work with vets?” Knowing your answer and having a concise way to explain it will help gain the trust of the vets and staff.

5.) Don’t take no for an answer. If you find resistance, ask them “Why?” Since yoga therapy is still so new, chances are the staff just isn’t that familiar with yoga or the effects of yoga therapy for veterans. Offer your materials, media, and your verbal skills to assure them that this is a positive, helpful therapy option.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

I want to see yoga as an integral part of the military: in training, in combat and in treatment. It’s such an important tool to offer anyone who has or might experience serious trauma. I want to see trained, talented yoga instructors creating a community in which yoga is accessible to everyone.

How has this work changed your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My definition of yoga is constantly changing. In this context, yoga is a way of inclusive, supportive living using the tools to mindfully handle stresses and traumas in a healthy manner, on a daily basis.

My own practice has become more healing and intuitive through pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation as a result. It can be very difficult to take your own advice as an instructor, but learning and living the breath and meditation practices is key to finding balance and healing, especially while working in a yoga therapy setting.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on November 12, 2014


Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s new 100-hour certification program will lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Learn more at the Mindful Yoga Therapy website.

Liza Stacey: The Blending of Yoga & Psychology Within Prison Walls

This blog post comes from Liza Stacey, a psychologist and yoga teacher currently working in a mental health/psych ward in a men’s maximum security facility in Melbourne Victoria, Australia. She works there three days a week.  Along with individual counseling and running programs on understanding and managing emotions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and distress tolerance, she teaches yoga and meditation classes twice a week.

The classes introduce a new sequence of physical asanas each week, including poses for balancing mood, assisting sleep and helping with anxiety; as well as more invigorating asanas for assisting with depressive symptoms such as low energy and mood. After some physical yoga, different types of meditation techniques are taught, such as different breathing (pranayama) techniques, breath counting meditation, guided visual meditation and yoga nidra.

Says Liza: “The men have really benefited from these classes and those with diagnosed mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, have reported it has helped them manage their psychotic symptoms.”


The Blending of Yoga And Psychology Within Prison Walls

by Liza Stacey 

Yoga has a direct link to the needs of people in the prison system; however, it still faces some blockers to the adoption in these environments. Through my experiences and training, I have seen the positive benefits of yoga in these environments.

I have been working in the area of mental health/ psychology for over ten years (including as a Registered Psychologist for over 5 years), have been a yoga practitioner since I was 18 years old and have now completed my training as a yoga teacher. I have been working within the prison system for nearly four years now. Most of that time has been within a forensic mental health unit within a maximum security men’s prison in Victoria.

When I first started practicing yoga, I experienced firsthand the amazing therapeutic benefits it had on my own stress levels, and started using yoga and meditation techniques to manage and cope whenever I had stressful times in my life.

Traditionally, psychological therapies have been based around trying to change your thinking to change your behaviour and mood (e.g., Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).  From around the year 2000, other therapies have started to make their way into mainstream use, such as Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectic Behaviour Therapy/ Distress Tolerance. These therapies all use the basis of mindfulness meditation and breath awareness/ awareness of the present moment to assist in the change of mood and mental states. This is at the core of what yoga teaches, as well.   Over the past few years I have seen more and more the openness of clients and also fellow colleagues to want to learn more about these therapies.

To me, the blend of yoga and psychology makes sense in so many ways. Bringing this blend into the prison environment made even more sense.  There is more to Yoga than just the physical practice: it is also the practice of breath awareness, the practice of quietening and stilling the mind, the practice of sitting in discomfort to get comfort, and the practice of impulse control. To practice yoga is to practice mindfulness. It is about understanding and compassion to ourselves and others. Yoga is also about developing awareness of self. It teaches you to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings and witness these as an observer, rather than being entangled in the thoughts. Developing self-awareness is the key to change, and yoga helps with this.  To practice all aspects of yoga, we practice strategies which will assist to reduce anxiety, depression, worry, excessive rumination and anger, and increase our focus on the positive – all strategies that psychology teaches, as well.

Think about what prison is: punishment and loss of freedom, leading to feelings of mental and emotional distress, distrust and agitation. This is coupled with men who have committed crimes and often have had a past of unhappiness, trauma and violence in the lives. What better place is there to be teaching yoga and the practices/ philosophies of yoga and meditation?

Most men in prison experience trauma. Often, trauma has occurred in their lives prior to coming to prison (such as the trauma of the loss of attachment from their parents during crucial developmental years, or physical or sexual abuse, or even the trauma that years of substance abuse and crime can also bring). Plus, there is the trauma often experienced within the prison walls (the loss of family and relationships, the daily stress of survival, physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and the threat of this). It makes sense that a practice such as yoga/meditation can assist in helping these men deal and cope with the trauma.

There is more and more evidence mounting each year about the benefits of yoga practice to heal trauma. People who have gone through a traumatic period in their lives can be disconnected to their bodies, and so even the physical feel of a yoga mat underneath their hands and feet when doing downward dog can be hugely therapeutic for them. Most people who have lived through trauma experience high levels of anxiety, and so teaching breathing techniques and meditation can help to reduce anxiety significantly. Most people who have lived through trauma find it difficult to sleep at night — in fact, this is one of the most stated issues within the prison system. So practicing yoga nidra (deep relaxation exercise) and relaxation strategies/ relaxing yoga postures to do before sleep can help those who find sleep difficult. Teaching grounding exercises which men can practice in their cells at night if they cannot sleep can assist those who frequently wake with distressing nightmares.

American prisons such as San Quentin State Prison in California have understood the value of adding yoga to their mainstream prison programs, and more evidence is coming out about the benefits of these programs for the prison population. The Yoga Education in Prisons Trust is an organisation assisting prisoners in New Zealand to learn yoga and meditation and so more and more people are getting exposed to the benefits of yoga within the prison environment.  Each year, there are more and more studies in psychology and psychiatric journals about how yoga reduces distress in prison populations (e.g., a UK study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 found participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population). Australian prisons appear to have not yet incorporated yoga and meditation techniques into the wider prison population.

There are a couple of challenges to yoga in prison being more widespread. The first is the perception of yoga, and having yoga being run in prisons – for staff, prisoners and the wider community.

Yoga may still be seen by men as being “for women only.” Yoga may also be seen by men as not being accessible to them, as they cannot “get their body into twisted pretzel shapes.” Men may also see meditation as being something that is “weak” and not for them.

Yoga may be seen by prison staff and possibly the wider community as being a “relaxation exercise,” and not something that people who are serving time for crime should have access to. They may see it as a reward, rather than as part of treatment and therapy.

To counteract this perception, more education should be done about the benefits of the programs and what they teach. Yoga should be sold more as a means of treatment for stress, anger, distress tolerance, anxiety, depression and trauma. Yoga should be seen as more than just the physical practice, but as a teaching of breath awareness, relaxation, mindfulness and meditation.

The empirical evidence of mindfulness is now understood and well known, and has been incorporated into many programs. However, this can be further incorporated by increasing the practice and teaching of yoga within the prison and within the programs.

I have seen and heard firsthand stories of men in prison who are suffering from psychiatric illness and PTSD reporting that since they have started practicing meditation, breath awareness and yoga nidra, their auditory and visual hallucinations have significantly reduced, and their nightmares have reduced and/or they are able to manage them much better.

I am hoping to begin measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of yoga within the prison population at the psychosocial medical ward of the prison where I work as a psychologist. The program I will be teaching, measuring and evaluating will incorporate the physical practices of yoga, as well as the teachings of mindfulness and distress tolerance — which in fact are the philosophies of yoga, blended into the teachings of modern day psychology and anxiety and depression management.


Bilderbeck, A.C;  Farias, M, Brazil.I, Jakobowitz. S., and Wikholm. C.. Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47 (2013) 1438-1445.

Yoga Education in Prisons Trust

Van der Kolk, Stone, West, Rhodes, Emerson, Suvak, Spinazzola. Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2014:75, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

Van der Kolk.B. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014. The Penguin Group.


Help Give Back Yoga to put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 1,000 prisoners this year by purchasing the Prison Yoga Project book Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery for yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.

Francie Winters: Empowering the Underserved

In the 1980s, Francie Winters began working with at-risk youth; her hope was to empower their lives. In the 90s, Francie’s work, “morphed into teaching mindfulness and yoga,” something she continues to do in Pahrump, Nevada, where she lives with her husband. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on the Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Francie about the importance of empowering the underserved, and what she has learned from working with such populations.

“I wait patiently in meditation for my students to arrive, and don’t make them feel bad if they come in late. I’d rather they came than not come… I always ask myself, ‘If this is the only time this person comes to a class, what is the one thing I can share that could help them in their life?’” – Francie Winters, Coordinator of Environmental Strategies at the Nye and Esmeralda Counties Coalition (NyECC)

To learn more about what continues to motivate Francie’s work and her thoughts on the future of service yoga, read her full interview on the Huffington Post.


Can you join us in Giving Back from your mat? By donating the cost of one yoga class ($15) per month, you can give the gift of yoga to those who need it most – like veterans, first responders, prisoners, at-risk youth and more. Please join the Give Back Yoga family today by sharing a monthly donation!

Lara Land: How We Serve the Whole Neighborhood

Courtesy of Will Haraldson

After spending time sharing the gift of yoga overseas, Lara Land came back to New York with an important goal in mind: to make a difference in her community. Since her return in 2009, Lara has opened her own yoga studio, Land Yoga, in Harlem and teaches senior citizen participants (and “non-participants”) yoga classes once a week at the Food Bank. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on the Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Lara about her first experiences with yoga service, as well as the continuance of her service.

“I get so much more in my teaching than the seniors do… I definitely have the tendency to be A-type, and they keep teaching me the real yoga. They hide nothing, say everything, and are the realest of the real.” — Lara Land, owner of Land Yoga

To learn more about what continues to motivate Lara to give back to the community and her thoughts on the future of yoga service, read her full interview on the Huffington Post.


Anyone and everyone can play a role in giving back through yoga. Learn about the many ways you can give back by subscribing to the Give Back Yoga newsletter (and check your welcome email for a 50% discount on a MP3 download of Deep Relaxation: Yoga Nidra).

Jardana Peacock: Yoga, Antiracism and a Different Kind of Yoga Service

Can a “slim white yoga teacher” play an authentic role working towards social justice? And are studio classes like “Yoga for People of Color” divisive, or supportive? In our latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post Blog, radical wellness coach and social activist Jardana Peacock takes on the tough questions.

“People don’t want to be tokenized; they want to feel like they’re welcome and invited into a space for real. People of color, low-income folks, folks with trauma or working through addiction issues don’t want to be separate from the studio; they want to be part of the community. Outreach should be authentic, it should be about community building and relationships, and that takes a long time.”

  — Yoga teacher and author Jardana Peacock

For more about Jardana’s work and her advice for teachers and studio owners who want to build community, read her full interview on The Huffington Post.


Can you join us in Giving Back from your mat? By donating the cost of one yoga class ($15) per month, you can give the gift of yoga to those who need it most – like veterans, first responders, prisoners, at-risk youth and more. Please join the Give Back Yoga family today by sharing a monthly donation!

Peggy Hong: How a “Yoga Nun” is Making Yoga Affordable to All

In 2013, Peggy Hong moved to Detroit, MI, where she began “embracing the path of a ‘yoga nun.’” Peggy is part of a growing movement, incorporating themes of social justice into her work as a yoga instructor. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Peggy about her work with this movement, including the “Community Gift” pay-what-you-can classes that she teaches.

“As living yoga master Guruji BKS Iyengar points out, ‘Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through the individual, society and community develop.’

We must come to each other in our vulnerability, in both our brokenness and our wholeness… Realize you are here to heal each other, let your teachings flow through you, and be receptive to new lessons.” – Peggy Hong

To read more about what motivates Peggy’s work and her advice to others interested in teaching Community Gift Yoga classes, read her full interview on The Huffington Post.


Can you join us in Giving Back from your mat? By donating the cost of one yoga class ($15) per month, you can become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga, and help us to share this transformational practice with those who need it most — like veterans, first responders, prisoners, at-risk youth and more. Join the Give Back Yoga family today!