Elizabeth Carling: Why Teach Yoga and Mindfulness in Prison?

elizabethThis is an interview with Elizabeth Carling, who offers a free community-based yoga program with the support of her employer, Patricia McKeen, owner of A New Awakening counseling agency in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Elizabeth started a free class at A New Awakening as a way to offer the mindfulness-based tools of yoga to clients who struggle with the challenges of addiction, mental health imbalances, domestic violence, and reintegration following incarceration.

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga to the New Mexico prison?

Elizabeth:I’ve worked in the field of forensic therapy as an addictions counselor and Doctor of Oriental medicine for the past twelve years, and have witnessed the struggles of returning citizens. Inmates are released from prison with inadequate preparation for the acute stress of finding employment, rebuilding relationships, and cultivating social competency, not to mention the avalanche of triggers to drug and alcohol use. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from my community yoga students that participation in asana practice, pranayama, meditation, and the other limbs of yoga, were invaluable assets in decreasing reactivity to stress, increasing impulse control, and alleviating emotional dissonance. Most of all, I came to see yoga as a vehicle for transformation through reclaiming an intimate, healthy relationship with self. Upon reflection, it seemed like a natural evolution to offer these tools to inmates prior to release from prison in anticipation of the challenges of reintegration, and the potential for recidivism. A little research brought me to James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project (PYP) training, an invaluable aid in how to design a prison yoga program, and how to introduce it to the N.M. Department of Corrections.

I’m interested in knowing why we should be spending money on providing yoga to prisoners?

I firmly believe that prisons that allocate funds for yoga and mindfulness programs are investing in harm reduction both inside the prison walls, and potentially within the families and communities that an inmate will eventually be returning to. I’m frequently asked why we should want to help “those people” who committed crimes and acts of violence, and deserve to be where they are. My answer is simply that “those people” are going to be released one day, and may be our neighbor, or the person next to us on the bus.

We say we want things to change in our society, but if we don’t offer inmates any tools for change we are setting them (and us) up for failure. I would say that recidivism rates are a reflection of that old definition of insanity: “to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.” I also feel that mindfulness programs would aid in reducing medication costs for prisoners, and would save the system money. This is yet to be researched, but is certainly an area worthy of investigation. Last but not least, we have heard from corrections staff that prisoners who participate regularly in the yoga group are more cooperative and exhibit fewer behavioral issues, making staff’s job easier and more effective.

What is the greatest obstacle in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

The greatest obstacle in mindfulness-based programing becoming commonplace in prison curriculum is the perception that it is non-pragmatic because it does not fit the model of education that administration is familiar with. Certainly a GED, or learning automotive skills, are practical investments; but if we don’t help inmates to address cognitive distortions, limiting patterns of behaviors, complex trauma, and often a history of addiction, then they are not going to function optimally upon release, let alone be contributing, successful members of society.

What is not fully understood by the prison system is that yoga and mindfulness techniques are a form of somatic therapy that aid in improving and restoring the body-mind connection so that a person can contact inner resources to self-regulate and enhance well being. Inmates who are taught how to become sensitive to the self through present-moment awareness will recognize the pain and suffering they cause themselves and others as a result of their own maladaptive behavior. Offering mindfulness education is not frivolous; it gives inmates the opportunity to expand their capacity for compassion, and make conscious choices that result in pro-social change.

What advice would you give anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class at a prison?

The best advice I can offer is to cultivate a unified approach to all that transpires inside the gates. I’m often reminded of the value of the yogic philosophy of “samatavam,” or “sameness,” and the benefit of sitting in the middle and serving, seeing, and acting from a place of oneness. I also wholeheartedly agree with James Fox’s suggestion to co-teach the class, rather than go it alone. Since day one I have been fully supported by my dear yogi friend and colleague Patricia McKeen, who is invaluable in holding a safe space for teaching to unfold.

We can also affirm the importance of consistency in working with this population. Showing up at the same time, week in and week out, builds trust and positive regard. I’ve also found that the PYP model of sandwiching asanas between a beginning and an ending centering technique to be a necessity in encouraging inmates to be fully present and grounded while practicing in a turbulent environment.

What should prison administrators know about the Prison Yoga Project?

They should know that PYP instructors offering yoga classes are fully aligned with respecting and abiding by the correctional facility’s rules and regulations. We are aware of the effort prison officials and staff put forth to ensure our safety, and are more than willing to cooperate with anything that makes their job easier. PYP instructors are also open to designing classes for special populations such as vets, mental health inmates, or using body-centered skills for conflict resolution.

Administrators should also know that our mission is to offer tools for stress reduction and mental and physical well-being, for staff as well as my inmates. My highest vision for our New Mexico PYP is to have parallel programs of yoga and mindfulness tools for self-care for corrections officers and prison officials. In fact, the highlight of our yoga program was what we refer to as the “Christmas miracle,” when three guards spontaneously joined our class, and practiced yoga alongside of inmates. One of our “regulars” was uncomfortable at first with what he perceived as an invasion of his territory, but in the true spirit of namaste quipped, “maybe the cops need healing too!”

Originally published on the Huffington Post Blog on November 24, 2015.


Are you interested in helping to empower incarcerated women? Learn how you can support a historic yoga teacher training that will take place behind bars by donating to the Prison Yoga Project’s Women Prisoners Scholarship Fund

Paige Reeves: How We Bridge Linguistic and Socio-Economic Borders

paige reevesThis is an interview with Paige Reeves, who launched YogaVida in October 2013 as a non-profit initiative to bring the mental and physical benefits of yoga to the Latino immigrant community in Phoenix, Arizona. She teaches a free weekly general class in Spanish at a partnering non-profit health care clinic (Phoenix Allies for Community Health), and is also sharing relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and moderate asana techniques with a Spanish-speaking HIV-positive support group. YogaVida is starting to grow; recently, several enthusiastic teachers have responded to calls for Spanish-speaking teachers.

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?

When family reasons brought me back to the US after almost two decades in Spain and Peru, I noticed that while yoga is incredibly popular and available in Phoenix, and Phoenix is home to a huge Latino population, the two have barely met. I saw an opportunity to bridge that gap and, at the same time, to support immigrants — a group whose particular obstacles have always concerned me, especially against the backdrop of Arizona’s hard line on immigration. I saw a chance to meet people in a new city and to keep my Spanish-speaking, South American-living side alive.

What continues to motive me is interacting with the students, building relationships, being a part of their lives, and hearing their responses to the changes they have felt along the way. I like that they truly want to be there. We enrich one another.

Is there a standout moment from your work with YogaVida and the Latino community in Phoenix?

That moment would be the openness and willingness of the HIV-positive support group during our first class. I was a complete stranger to them, an outsider to their close-knit community, yet they sat patiently and attentively while I talked (a bit nervously at first — I still get nervous speaking in front of groups!) about mind/body medicine, and stress reduction. Then they were brave enough to take off their shoes and lie down on the carpeted conference room floor, some with visible trepidation, close their eyes (most of them anyway), and follow the instructions of someone they didn’t know at all, to do something they’d never seen before. I relaxed, they relaxed. The class started to be peppered with jokes and good-natured grunts. By the end of our two hours together, there was a palpable feeling of trust and mutual appreciation, of connection.

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 had recently moved to Phoenix, so honestly, I didn’t know much about this particular population. I’m getting to know the community with each interaction. But in any case I did feel that I wouldn’t be able to truly know how the project would be until it actually came into being. I had a general idea of the “how” and the “what” I wanted to offer, but I needed to allow the actual experiences and the actual people to shape YogaVida.

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 YogaVida classes, we don’t follow what I think of as standard studio protocol or etiquette. For example, students might interrupt with a question in the middle of class; we might get off-topic if there is something interesting to talk about. We laugh quite a lot, and the whole thing is a lot less formal. Sometimes, one mom needs to bring her 2-year-old because she can’t find childcare. We simply set the little girl up on a folded mat and have her play along, copying our movements. Yes, it distracts from the class in the strictest sense, but we make it work, and everyone gets to do their yoga.

Secondly, I focus less on refinements, not to water it down or because the students can’t do them, but in order to make our classes fun, light-hearted, and accessible. If the pose a student is making is more or less as intended, and everything is safe, I know the pose is being effective.

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

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I struggle to keep up my motivation to do the project, to go out and build up a student base, find new spaces to hold classes, seek material donations. In other words, sometimes it is easy to fall back into my own comfortable little life. The “fix”, though, is pretty easy: I simply keep doing it. Each time I do a class and see my students, my motivation and enthusiasm are renewed.

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

As with almost anything in life: suspend your expectations, opinions, and assumptions. Be mindful and open to who, and how, your students actually are. Be informed. Keep it fun and accessible. But more than anything, just go out and do it — the rest will fall into place.

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

What about a future where there is less of a distinction between “yoga” and “service yoga?” Every single one of us already knows how good it feels to help out a friend, a family member, or a stranger. As yoga continues to infiltrate well-being efforts across the board (schools, offices, prisons, hospitals, neighborhoods of all types and incomes, etc.) and as we keep gaining awareness of how truly interconnected every living being on this planet is, I can envision more and more people becoming inspired to pay forward the emotional and physical changes yoga has sparked in their own lives.

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

So far, I haven’t experienced a shift in my definition of yoga or of service. Perhaps that is because my definitions are pretty simple: I believe that yoga meets you where you are, and gives you what you need. I believe that service is a mutually-enriching exchange that can be big or small, subtle or groundbreaking. My practice has changed only in that I have been given one more opportunity to feel the healing power of coupling my own self-study with loving, giving interactions with others.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on July 31, 2015


If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.

Char Grossman: How We Serve People With Disabilities and Physical Limitations

This is an interview with Char Grossman, who is a Therapeutic Yoga Specialist and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist. In 2004, Char founded YogaReach, a therapeutic yoga program that inspires individuals of all ages and abilities to develop educational, physical, mental and social competencies through mind and body techniques.

Instruction is provided for individuals/groups with special needs and people experiencing medical challenges. Char is an author of diversified blogs and a panelist for CureTalks, a medical trends program. She also works with InMotion, a community-based nonprofit organization for people with Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders.

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?

In 1993 I underwent a left temporal craniotomy for a bleeding vascular malformation. The surgery was 5 hours and although the malformation was removed, it left me with my reading, memory, and fine and gross motor functions severely impaired — yet I still understood everything. I was a school psychologist who serviced people with disabilities, and now I was disabled. I lost my skills as a wife and mother and became depressed.

After about 15 months of physical therapy, I attended a “Healing with Power Yoga” Astanga program run by Beryl Bender Birch and Thom Birch. Beryl taught me how to connect my mind, body and breath. As I progressed in my yoga training I had an epiphany: if I could bring my physical, mental, and spiritual disabilities to a healthy level, I can teach others to do it as well. That’s why I founded YogaReach.

What continues to motivate me is the inspiration I receive from my students in the community. I share this love and passion with a team of devoted teachers whom I trained, and who now work with me in community centers throughout northeast Ohio.

Is there a standout moment from your work at YogaReach?

I have been fortunate to be involved in many breakout moments. One recent event involved a 26-year-old with Down Syndrome. I’ve known Leesa since she was a toddler. She lived in the school district where I worked. The past ten years she has participated in YogaReach. One day as class was beginning, I received a text from Leesa saying she would be a few minutes late to class. The class began with a simple breath exercise while we waited. Leesa walked into the room. She ran over, hugged me, and then hugged a few friends who were seated on mats. We were calm, collected, and breathing. As Leesa rolled out her mat, she began asking how everyone’s workday was. Socialization skills are a part of this class. As Leesa arrived, she took over as a well-trained yoga teacher; she has great communication skills. Individuals with Down Syndrome vary from mild to severe, and Leesa tests in a mild range. I was so proud of Leesa’s accomplishments; and as we started Sun Salutation A, tears swelled in my eyes. I’m so lucky to have Leesa as my teacher, on and off the mat.

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 knew nothing about these populations until I was registering for my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati. I was majoring in Elementary Education, and the registration line was out the door and all the way down the hall. There were only six students in the Deaf Education line. I nonchalantly strolled past the long line into the Deaf Education line, and 3 years later, I was teaching a Deaf/Hard of Hearing class in Cincinnati Public Schools. Now I have a Master’s degree in Learning Disabilities/Behavioral Disorders from Ohio State, as well as a post-masters degree in school psychology.

I understood that in addition to following the protocols in my field, I had to address the student’s personal side, just as I did during my own recovery. I then realized my mission was to inspire individuals of all ages and abilities through physical, educational, mental, and social skills.

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

I use humor in my practice to take advantage of the good feeling it emotionally and physically gives you. Humor helps you keep a positive, optimistic outlook throughout all types of situations. In the group classes, I might use a meaningless word when I give directions, and the students will catch me and laugh. At times, If one of my students is aggravated and suddenly stomps his foot, I might ask him to show me how to do that “dance” step. I’ll begin to dance with my foot stomping and my whole body moving. The student begins to laugh and forgets about what almost set him off. The rest of the class then joins us in dance and laughing. It is so beneficial to use humor as a part of your class because it reduces stress and increases energy, which enables you to stay focused and accomplish much more.

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

My greatest challenge is understanding the business side of YogaReach. I am a teacher, not an MBA, and have never worked in the corporate world. I have learned to develop staff schedules, mentorship training programs, histories of clients, locations of classes, revenue, workshops, and structure of the programs. Although I have a team, I am the one running the business.

To help streamline this, I created a dashboard that contains all these components. The tasks are separated by tabs and related to different areas of need. Seeing these lists is a great tool and one that has helped me spend more time creating and developing the program structure.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach physically challenged individuals?

If you are going to teach people who experience physical challenges, it is very important that you have educated and familiarized yourself about the person’s diagnosis and/or disability. Although the person may have physical challenges, each person has different emotional, physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics as well. This first step is a critical part of the healing process because becoming conscious of what is occurring is the most fundamental part of the process of holistic healing.

Additional necessary steps include conducting an Intake/Check-in assessment, doing a Body Awareness Screening, develop an Individualized Lesson Plan for the class structure, Modifying Poses, Conducting Mindfulness/Guided Imagery and ending with a class or individual discussion.

The most important advice I would give anyone who is interested is to teach to the abilities, not the disabilities.

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

I would like to see some yoga studios that offer teacher-training programs add instruction on teaching people with disabilities and medical challenges. It would be so beneficial if volunteers particularly in underserved communities could learn to instruct these special populations.

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

For YogaReach, the service opportunities are endless. We have many affiliates, and we are in the process of expanding through workshops and mentorships. Yoga can help everyone in some way. Age is irrelevant. Whether you are a teenager or a senior, your mind and body will benefit. The magic of yoga helps everyone lead a happy, more healthy and productive daily life. As my mentor, Beryl Bender Birch quoted, “Every person is a best seller”.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on March 12, 2015


If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.

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.


Henry Cross: The Quest for Building Community

I met Henry Cross at the 3rd Annual Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute. Henry is the Assistant Executive Director of Hosh Yoga, a donation-based, not-for-profit yoga studio that promotes health and wellness as a right of life rather than a luxury. Henry is also the executive director of Hosh Kids, a nonprofit that offers yoga-based enrichment education for kids. This interview is his offering to help others successfully navigate the rewards and challenges of yoga service work. — 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?

Henry: Yoga was part of a personal healing process; along the way I became fascinated by yoga as a vehicle for social change. Certain thinkers have influenced my yoga service work; for instance, you can view yoga service through the lens and power of voluntary associations as suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, and its application in the living culture of your immediate community. There are plenty of like-minded people around that you can collaborate with to make a difference in your community: find the courage to start the community yourself.

Is there a standout moment from your work with your community?

Yes, it was realizing yoga service nonprofits can be as effective as any private business. Hosh Yoga and Hosh Kids in New York make yoga accessible regardless of skill or income. We have never refused service to any person, school, or parent for lack of financial resources. We build yoga communities by delivering a bold and strong message to all our stakeholders. This does not mean that you can’t build a business that can grow financially solvent and sustainable while developing a brand that is mission- and values-driven. Therefore, the power of our nonprofit story, brand message, and dedicated team can only make our bottom line stronger. You can put good information to action making your organization better.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching?

When I became a public school teacher, I knew I wanted to make a difference. I’m sure every classroom teacher and teaching artist can relate. However, it takes much more than just your will to make a difference and change the lives of our school students. I’ve seen too many of my peers and colleagues teaching in very stressful environments as classroom and yoga teachers in schools. I developed and directed a staff development program for an enrichment vendor in NYC with over 50 teachers, and I realized you had to teach teachers about the context of a learning environment before they could effectively deliver content. I’ve visited thousands of classrooms and I rarely meet a teacher who doesn’t understand what he or she is teaching. Teachers teach as they know how. Therefore, the sooner a kids yoga teacher develops an education philosophy and an understanding of human motivation, praise, self-esteem and discipline, the sooner that teacher can deliver content. I’ve shared our message with principals, political leaders, and superintendents, most of whom still know very little about yoga as a health and wellness option in schools.

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

With children it’s difficult to teach life lessons, over and above content. Yoga philosophy is full of guidance in how to live and what to live for that we can help children understand in a simple way. We encourage our staff to understand the context of the learning environment, because children who might need yoga the most are also the ones most divorced from it.

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

I would get a mentor, and I’d volunteer, as ways to learn from others teaching kids yoga in schools. Be ready to ask for help. Be ready to change and question your teaching approach depending on whom you are teaching. The process might be rocky, but there is good news in every classroom if you look for it. Believe that you too can start a program that makes a difference in people’s lives.

From a business perspective, visual marketing is a powerful tool to deliver your message, impact, and results in an interactive way. You can make a lot of good happen with limited resources, passion, and skill. Investing time in training your staff to deliver the brand message at every point of contact with your stakeholders is essential. Hosh Kids does it by running Open Book Management, and I credit this method with expanding our reach to over 20 kids’ yoga programs in NYC in 16 months. I would say that if you’re going to volunteer a large amount of time, heart, and effort into a nonprofit, it is also possible to plan and strategize about how to generate an income from it in the long run.

As yoga service nonprofits, we should constantly be advocating for more yoga service programs in the community. I believe yoga is a life skill that works for anyone, anytime, anywhere. I simply share with our leaders that as we teach children how to take tests, we must also teach them life skills that make them better test takers. Go out there and tell the community about yoga service.

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

I hope yoga studios and yoga service nonprofits collaborate more often in joint programming in their communities. We can do things better and on a bigger scale by collaborating than by competing with each other. I believe yoga service is part of the new yoga economy. I hope there will be innovators who help donors look at yoga service as a form of philanthropy that yields great cost savings to our society, making it worthwhile to use private dollars for this awesome public good. I’m confident that the collective effort of the yoga service community will make yoga an increasingly popular form of community service across the country.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on December 9, 2014


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.

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.

Sylvia Jabaley & Kristin Cooper: How We Serve Girls in India

In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Sylvia Jabaley and Kristin Cooper about their work with Homes of Hope India. By bringing yoga to communities in India, the two women help to cultivate and maintain a “resilient spirit” among orphaned and abandoned girls.

“My assumptions about our goals were transformed by realization that when the girls become women, they will still encounter illness, poverty, and misogyny… Today, we are realizing the value of our work as the little girls we’ve known for years turn the corner to become empowered women in their own communities.” – Sylvia Jabaley, Program Coordinator for Homes of Hope India-US

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


Are you interested in making a difference in the lives of orphaned and abandoned girls? By donating to the campaign you can help to build an orphanage in Kokrajhar, India, providing girls with a safe home and a chance to better their futures.

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!

Shayan Landrum: Yoga For the Heart

Courtesy of Matthew Champoux

After suffering from serious injuries in a car accident in 2010, and undergoing open-heart surgery several months later, Shayan Landrum relied on yoga to help her regain strength. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware learns how this experience inspired Shayan’s work at a Boulder hospital, where she teaches yoga to cardiac patients.

“My own yoga practice has been so significant in my life that it fuels me to tackle obstacles as I try to bring yoga to others. Being so thoroughly convinced of the benefits of yoga on a daily basis gives me the strength to continue to try to break new ground in challenging territory. I want to share the beauty and profundity of the experience with others.” – Shayan Landrum, yoga teacher at Boulder hospital and at The Yoga Workshop

To read more about Shayan’s work with cardiac patients and her thoughts on the future of yoga service within the medical population, read her full interview on The Huffington Post Blog.


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.