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Making Yoga Accessible to Vulnerable Populations

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We've seen it many times before: A yoga teacher, after six months or six years, decides to give the gift of yoga to an unserved or underserved community. She or he sets up a non-profit organization to use yoga and mindfulness to help one or more of these groups become a healthy and resilient community. That is how the Give Back Yoga Foundation (www.givebackyoga.org) got started, with a phone call in 2007 among Beryl Bender Birch, her administrative assistant Lori Klein, and me, her student.

Beryl has had much experience giving back: Her teacher training program at The Hard and The Soft Yoga Institute she founded and directs includes a requirement to initiate a give back project. At the time I was a manager at the World Bank looking for a way to combine my experience in two decades of international development work with my desire to show appreciation for my yoga teachers who had given me so many gifts as I struggled with the stress of my work. The phone call led to the creation of a new non-profit organization to address the institute's service project requirement.

There are now more than 125 community-based organizations in this country dedicated to outreach through yoga and mindfulness to communities of abused women, prisoners, at-risk children and teens, veterans, cancer patients, and the homeless. At present, indications are that all these organizations combined serve 150,000 to 200,000 people. This is reason for celebration, as well as motivation to ask the following questions, which provided much of the motivation for the first annual Yoga Service Conference held at the Omega Institute campus in Rhinebeck, N.Y.:

• How can we support and expand the work and good will of these worthy organizations?
• Can we find a way for some or all of them to work more closely together to enhance the reach and work of all?
• Can we find a way to train more yoga teachers so that they can serve their own communities with cultural competence and linguistic sensitivity?
• In other words, can we extend our reach by working together to serve more people every week in cost-effective programs?

While the numbers served now are impressive, given the talent and energy of the teachers working in these organizations, this number could be increased many-fold if more yoga teachers and yoga therapists came out of their studios and offices and made the practices of yoga and mindfulness accessible to vulnerable populations. I am keenly aware of the service commitments of these organizations and teachers and have enormous respect for them. They bring new perspectives in working with social service organizations, and they serve endlessly, often with ample room for fun. Some organizations, like Yoga Activist, believe yoga is an urban survival skill and work hard to keep it accessible to everyone. These organizations and faculty represent yoga's next self-transformation, away from the sleek and sexy (and privileged!) to the dogged pursuit of introducing yoga to unserved places and communities.