Tari Prinster: Cultivating Hope, Strength and Community For Those Touched By Cancer

Tari Prinster is a cancer survivor and yoga teacher since 2003. She is also the founder and director of our yoga4cancer program; and the founder of a nonprofit, The Retreat Project, that helps to bring specialized yoga classes and retreats to cancer survivors. Here, she talks with us for our Huffington Post Blog series on yoga service.

Rob: What emotionally motivates you to give back the gift of yoga?

Tari: Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer; it literally took my breath away. I was caught off guard by how this made me feel like an invalid. It stole control away from my life. How could I go from being healthy to being sick, weak, and powerless? And this was not the most surprising part of it. Then came the treatments, which weakened my health, strength, and happiness more than the cancer. Everyone said, “Go home and take it easy,” but I needed help to stay strong. At the time, I was already a yoga practitioner, but it was largely in the name of vanity. My own practice immediately took on a greater importance. I tried to stay normal by walking, biking and, increasingly, doing more yoga.

I learned not to live in fear of losing my life, but rather to embrace what I have. By getting so close to losing it all, I was liberated to focus on the things and people that really mean the most to me. The lessons from my cancer have been the most powerful of my life, and actually I am often thankful for my cancer. It has made me a better version of myself. Yoga also helps me be a better version of myself, as it did the whole way through my cancer treatments and recovery. I feel strongly about sharing this healing tool with others, as I know others are feeling that same lack of support in staying strong. Yoga can be their remedy, too.

What changes occur during our asana, pranayama, or meditation practices that help us get off our mats and “give back” to our communities the benefits we’ve received through the practice of yoga?

The transformative nature of yoga, like cancer, changes your life forever. Through it we learn balance, harmony, goodness, and how to be peaceful, strong, and flexible. As a yoga teacher, when I see people who are suffering from the lack of these qualities in their lives, such as cancer patients, it ignites feelings of compassion in me to help them also find this transformative path to health and healing.

How did you begin to serve?

While I was in treatment my doctors commented on how quickly I recovered compared to others, and I began to ask if it had anything to do with the yoga. I came to a new relationship with my yoga practice through cancer, and I began to wonder why and how I was recovering so quickly and thoroughly, emotionally and physically. Because the doctors couldn’t understand why I was recovering better than others given the treatments that I was undergoing, and because the yoga community at that time had no answers, I began to research on my own and build a program around it. Once I had an understanding of the biological and physical relationship between practicing yoga and undergoing cancer treatments, I began to share a specialized practice with other cancer patients and survivors in need.

How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?

I don’t. I am attached to the outcomes. I’m attached to helping others find a way to deal with their anxieties, to get stronger, to avoid a recurrence, and to learn how to walk through their fears.

But I do serve without attachment in some ways. I have let go of fear of death. I’ve had to let go of my attachment to many students who have been lost to cancer or other disease. At any point a student may not come back to class, not because they don’t like me or the yoga, but because the cancer has taken control of them, and they have either entered terminal stage, or died.

There is no predicting where anyone is going to go in their cancer journey. The biggest lesson that yoga can teach, and that I can provide to my students, is to learn to take one day at a time. This means to not become attached to the outcome of that day, other than to be an opportunity to experience what is happening right now. I need to practice this in my teaching as much as they do in their experience of yoga.

How do you deal with compassion fatigue?

Feeling compassion is different from showing compassion. There are many ways of showing compassion, and some are less fatiguing than others. There is nothing wrong with finding approaches that are less stressful for you — one doesn’t have to give completely and constantly to everybody. Compassion is a broad term, and the expression of it comes in many forms.

Compassion is an emotional and physical action that requires energy, effort, and selflessness, by putting one’s needs aside, which can lead to stress and loss of emotional balance. We cannot really give contentment, ease, and compassion. As we seek to help those we serve balance suffering and contentment, illness and well-being, we can only model that in our own lives. We can give witness to the suffering of others, but we must first give witness to our own suffering. Take care not to deny yours.

It is my responsibility to respond well to my students — to recognize the symptoms in myself. Think, am I being-self absorbed, detached or preoccupied? Being honest with everyone, not just students, and being able to say “I can’t respond to this right now,” is important for all of who try to give back.

How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?

By doing what I do: providing access to safe yoga classes at a reasonable cost with teachers who have been thoroughly trained. Also by providing scholarships to retreats and ways for people to discover yoga for the first time.

Taking responsibility for one’s health and future is the most important part of one’s own healing process. I practice this myself, and encourage students to do the same. It’s not something the medical profession can give to us; it is something we have to create and maintain for ourselves. Owning that process changes everything. Staying healthy isn’t going to happen easily; it’s an ongoing challenge with daily choices. Without effort, change won’t happen. No effort is a loss.

I teach students to walk through their fears. It is most beneficial to walk through fear of change, of pain, of lack of control, by doing things that are challenging. What students need and want is to be treated normally. In the process of being treated normally, they are going to get stronger. If the practice is just restorative, and not an effort to be normal and gain strength and stability, it’s much less effective.

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

My dream is that Western medical professionals and hospitals recognize that yoga taught by specially-trained and specifically-certified yoga teachers is the final prescription a cancer patient/survivor needs in his or her healing process. They can prescribe yoga for life, yoga for all the life-long side effects that will be there, regardless if the cancer is not.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Learn how to safely and effectively adapt yoga to cancer patients and survivors through yoga4cancer’s teacher training programs.

What Is Yoga Service? A Working Definition

Yoga service is gaining in popularity. There is a Yoga Service Council, an annual Yoga Service Conference, and numerous professionals in many disciplines working on yoga service projects. But what exactly does the term mean? Isn’t all yoga a form of service? In this interview, two of the founding members of the Yoga Service Council — Jennifer Cohen Harper of Little Flower Yoga, and Traci Childress of the Children’s Community School of Philadelphia and the Mindful Reflection Project — explore a new working definition.

GBYF Executive Director Rob Schware: Can you tell me, what is your working definition for yoga service?

Jenn and Traci: Yoga Service: the intentional sharing of yoga practices within a context of conscious relationship, supported by regular reflection and self-inquiry.

Can you break that down for me, and explain why this definition is needed and how it differs from the general understanding or definition? 

While yoga and service have long been practiced together, yoga service as a unified field is new and growing. As the field develops, the need to establish a shared understanding of what we mean by the term yoga service is essential.

Jennifer Cohen Harper

We propose that yoga service is not defined by who is served, but rather by the manner in which the practices are offered.

The yoga service community often discusses its work in terms of addressing specific populations (veterans, women in prison, at-risk youth, etc.). However, all people experience vulnerability and trauma at different points in life. The circumstances of being human are such that we all, at times, are in need of the compassionate service of others. There are also social forces at play that impact individuals and communities differently, and therefore, issues of power, privilege and justice must remain at the forefront of any critical discussion of service.

As we have worked to foster conversation and exchange over the past three years of yoga service conferences, we have realized that a more nuanced definition is essential. This thinking was further informed by our experience facilitating a working meeting to develop best practices this summer. So, we propose the following working definition:

Yoga service is the intentional sharing of yoga practices within a context of conscious relationship, supported by regular reflection and self-inquiry.

What do you mean by “conscious relationship”?

Sharing yoga always takes place within the context of a relationship, and being in conscious relationship involves acknowledging the many nuances of human experience.

To be conscious of these nuances, we need to educate ourselves about social justice issues like privilege, race, language, violence, gender, poverty, and sexual orientation, as well as listen openly and with curiosity to each other’s perspectives.

To exist in conscious relationship is to compassionately hold the truths about one another and the world in our interactions. It is an active attempt to see each person fully, honor each person’s strengths, and acknowledge anything that is impeding the capacity to connect.

Traci Childress

Why do you see reflection and self-inquiry as an essential part of yoga service?

To support ourselves in the practice of yoga service, we need a regular practice of reflection and self-inquiry.

Educator Parker Palmer writes, “to teach is to create a space,” and that when we teach we always teach what we know.

As practitioners who share yoga with others, we create space for others to learn. We naturally offer the practices (and create our programs) through our own lens — from the perspective of our history, privilege, bias, and wisdom. We offer yoga mixed with all the other things we know and have experienced in our lives.

A commitment to reflection and self-inquiry allows yoga service providers to engage skillfully, honestly, and authentically with students, regardless of whether teacher and students come from similar life circumstances. It helps us look closely at what we know and don’t know about ourselves, those we serve and teach, and the communities we engage with. It is training to better understand our own perspective and the perspectives of our students.

Additionally, an important part of this practice is to have a system of accountability in place where we can receive regular feedback from mentors and the larger community.

Why include the word “intention”?

A core component of yoga service is the intention with which the teachings are offered. While the intention of each teacher or program might be slightly different, the unifying factor is that the yoga practices are offered to support the empowerment and well-being of the individuals or communities with whom they are being shared.

What do you mean by yoga practices?

In this definition, we are referring to the practices that are widely included in different styles of yoga and are most often assessed in research studies: physical postures, breathwork, meditation, and deep relaxation. Other aspects of yoga, including ethical and philosophical practices and study, may also be important components of yoga service work.

Is all yoga “yoga service”?

Not all yoga is yoga service. When yoga is shared without integrating ongoing practices of self-inquiry and reflection, and without a commitment to conscious relationship, it is not yoga service.

The regular practice of yoga inevitably brings up questions related to relationship, community, and self. But it does not automatically lead to a knowledge of how to share yoga in a way that is socially just, compassionate, and aware of experiences other than our own.

We propose that yoga service requires the integration of practices that cultivate this knowledge in a way that yoga alone does not. We hope to engage our community in refining and developing this working definition of yoga service; we feel it will empower us all to share yoga in a way that is safe and respectful of those to whom we offer the practice.

This interview is part of the Huffington Post blog series “Yoga: How We Serve.”


Would you like to be part of this ongoing conversation in person? Join Rob, Jenn, Traci and an outstanding faculty at the 4th annual Yoga Service Conference, happening May 14th-17th at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Tiered pricing is available.


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.


Judi Bar: Fostering Health By Bringing Yoga to Hospitals

In an interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post Blog, GBYF Executive Director Rob Schware talks with yoga therapist Judi Bar about her work with Cleveland Clinic.

“If a patient is willing [to work with a yoga therapist], there are significant benefits. By teaching them to be mindful of the present moment, they are empowered to handle their stress/pain. Their hospital experience will be better, they will learn to relieve stress and pain, and in turn will have a better experience for their own well-being.”

– Judi Bar, Yoga Program Manager at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute

Read Judi’s personal story of how yoga prevented her from being confined to a wheelchair, and her thoughts on why clinical studies are so important to the future of yoga in health care service delivery:


Inspire your yoga service: join us at the 3rd annual Yoga Service Conference at Omega Institute, May 16th through 18th. This weekend of learning, networking and community is open to anyone who has the desire to create strong, engaged and resilient communities. We hope to see you there!

Jill Satterfield: Integrating Mind & Body Practices Into The Healthcare System

In the fifth of a series of interviews for The Huffington Post Blog featuring educators who will speak at the 2013 Yoga Service Conference, Executive Director Rob Schware talks to internationally recognized meditation teacher Jill Satterfield about her commitment to sharing mind and body practices with others, and her vision for the future of service yoga in America.

“I sincerely hope that we as a professional, well-trained group will become mainstream. We should no longer be fringe, but a well-paid and integral part of health care, and mental health care, in the U.S. and worldwide. If we continue to share our strengths, research, and ideas we will grow as a community. We will be modeling compassionate action not only in the communities we wish to serve, but in our very own community as well.”

– Jill Satterfield, founder of the School for Compassionate Action, a non-profit organization that trains teachers, psychologists and health care providers to integrate mind and body practices into their profession

Click here to read more of Jill’s thoughts on caring for ourselves so that we can better care for others, and how meditation offers a path to deeper self-knowledge.

Jasmine Chehrazi: Sharing Yoga As a Tool of Self-Empowerment

In the fourth installment of a series of interviews for The Huffington Post Blog that features educators who will be presenting at the 2013 Yoga Service Conference, Executive Director Rob Schware talks to Yoga Activist founder Jasmine Chehrazi on what inspires her to share her practice with others, and how yoga lets us access the inner strength of our deepest selves.

“Whether in a studio class, teacher training, or outreach class, I don’t give my students anything they don’t already have. They have all the power in the universe to let go of their own physical and emotional tension, allowing transformation to unfold. All I’m doing is sharing some down-to-earth (yet totally magical) yoga tools for this process of self-empowerment, self-mastery, self-coping, and self-healing.”

– Yoga Activist founder Jasmine Chehrazi, whose non-profit organization promotes accessibility and trauma sensitivity in yoga and mindfulness instruction

Click here to read more about Jasmine’s “wow” moments with students, and how she uses yoga to share a message of love and human connection.

Nikki Myers: Healing the Physical, Mental & Spiritual Disease of Addiction Through Yoga

In the second in a series of interviews for The Huffington Post Blog that features educators who will present at the 2013 Yoga Service Conference, Executive Director Rob Schware talks to Y12SR founder Nikki Myers on how she combined yoga and a 12-step addiction recovery program into one effective practice.

“Over the course of my years in the 12-step program, I’ve seen that there are many addicts in recovery just like me who are dealing with levels of disconnection that have roots way beyond the cognitive….(Y12SR) weaves the healing art and science of yoga together with the very practical tools of 12-step addiction recovery programs. It’s a relapse prevention program, based on the theme ‘the issues live in our tissues.'”

– Nikki Myers, founder of The Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, a program now used in multiple treatment centers across the United States

Click here to read more about Nikki’s personal experience with overcoming addiction, and her vision for the future of service yoga in America.

Photo by Seegull Media.

Beryl Bender Birch: Modeling Leadership By Bringing Yoga To Unserved Populations

In the first of a series of interviews for The Huffington Post Blog featuring educators who will present at the second annual Yoga Service Conference, Executive Director Rob Schware talks to internationally recognized instructor and Give Back Yoga co-founder Beryl Bender Birch about how yoga itself inspires us to make a difference.

“All “yoga” practices are about learning to pay attention…as we become more aware, the veils of advidya (ignorance) begin to get fainter and fall away and we get closer to the true experience of yoga, which is the recognition of boundlessness. Once we look around and see the state of things and realize that we are not separate, but a part of it All, we really can’t help but ‘give back.'”

– Beryl Bender Birch, founder of The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute and The Give Back Yoga Foundation

To read Beryl’s full interview, including her thoughts on how to serve with balance and the future of “service yoga” in America, click here.