Seva means selfless service, and that is what these 14 honorees are all about: using yoga to help others in their local and global communities.
About Our Seva Scholarship
Our first-ever Seva Scholarship will help support Yoga4Cancer and cancer survivors in the program. Yoga Journal offers its sincere gratitude to the sponsors including:
• Gaiam, which donated 50 yoga mats and 50 blocks
• Hugger Mugger, which donated 30 yoga mats
• Manduka, which donated 50 yoga mats and 50 towels
After earning a PhD in computer science, Bidyut Bose spent years in research and development in Silicon Valley, where “I could see the ravages of stress—in people’s personal health, relationships, productivity, and global competitiveness. But I also realized that the tentacles of stress were reaching education and public safety, with one in two kids dropping out of high school in inner cities, and a million youth in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
In 2005, Bose, who had learned raja yoga from his father in childhood, decided to integrate yoga with his experience as a researcher by founding the nonprofit Niroga Institute. Its work has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. It now serves 2,000 youths every week in the Bay Area, teaching Mindful Yoga classes in schools and Healing Yoga classes in juvenile halls, jails, cancer hospitals, rehab centers, and homeless shelters.
Bose also trains yoga teachers, yoga therapists, and leaders in education, health care, violence prevention, and youth development. “My biggest joy is seeing the impact of yoga as a catalyst for personal transformation, and knowing it is the very foundation of social change,” he says.
In 2006, when Paige Elenson was on safari in Africa, she saw a group of young men doing Handstands and joined them. “I had a true experience of feeling connected to people I didn’t know through yoga,” says Elenson, who is certified in Baptiste Power Yoga, Jivamukti, and AcroYoga. A year later, she started the Africa Yoga Project (AYP) with yoga teacher Baron Baptiste.
AYP trains young, marginalized Africans to become yoga teachers and professionals, making yoga accessible to low- and middle-income communities. Today, it offers more than 250 free community yoga classes a week in Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Rwanda. AYP has also trained and employs more than 3oo teachers in those countries. “Our teachers come from impossibly challenging backgrounds, yet they have become leaders in their communities,” says Elenson, who lives in Nairobi. “One student told me, ‘I used to use my hands for stealing; now I use them for healing.’ Our teachers are making a difference in ways big and small for Africa, for peace, for economic development, for health and wellness. They are creating a community I am proud to raise my two-year-old daughter in.”
After Mary Lynn Fitton began teaching vinyasa yoga in 1998, she says, “I wanted every young woman to experience the same positive relationship with her body that I had found through yoga—a sense of coming ‘home’ to myself.” Fitton, trained as a neuroscience nurse and family nurse practitioner, believed that for her patients battling anxiety, depression, addiction, and self-harming behaviors getting better “had to start with a reverence for themselves, which yoga provides.”
In 2002, Fitton, certified in vinyasa yoga by the White Lotus Foundation, launched The Art of Yoga Project to teach trauma-informed vinyasa yoga to at-risk teen girls involved in the juvenile justice system. The Project melds yoga with art and writing. “Art is essential, therapeutic, and cathartic. It gives girls a vehicle to process emotions instead of acting out with risky behavior. It also gives a young woman a new identity: ‘a poet,’ ‘an artist,’ and ‘a writer,’ instead of ‘troubled’ or ‘at risk,’” she says.
Adopted by the juvenile justice system in three California counties, The Art of Yoga Project helps more than 700 at-risk, incarcerated, and exploited teen girls a year, as well as thousands more in its affiliates nationwide. “Put simply,” Fitton says, “we provide love in its purest form.”
In 2o0o, James Fox decided to reach beyond the yoga studio, and began teaching youth at a residential treatment center, which led him to teaching in juvenile detention facilities and then adult prisons. “Violence and addiction are the common denominators for most anyone incarcerated,” Fox says. “I grew up around those influences in Chicago, and my personal experience of the benefits of yoga and mindfulness practices made me confident I had something to offer these young men.”
Fox started his yoga program at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California 12 years ago, and that teaching provided the catalyst for something much bigger: the Prison Yoga Project, an acclaimed model for bringing yoga into prisons across the country that Fox founded in 2oo9. Classes help prisoners find their breath, disengage from the reactive mind, and learn impulse control. As one Prison Yoga Project student told Fox: “I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing, which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks.”
Since 2o11, Fox has trained more than 1,000 teachers who teach in more than 75 prisons, jails, and recovery centers in the United States and abroad. His book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, self- published in 2009, has been sent free to more than 10,000 prisoners, including some who use it to lead their own classes. The Prison Yoga Project work, Fox says, has taught him “that in spite of what students may have done that landed them in prison, they desire the same things I do: love, acceptance, respect, and personal dignity.”
Imagine a yoga class where Boat Pose becomes “Boat Pose ball pass,” with everyone sitting in a circle and passing a ball one way with their feet and another with their hands. That’s the kind of fun practice that Little Flower Yoga is all about. “Young children learn best through play,” says founder Jennifer Cohen Harper, a former kindergarten teacher who is trained in vinyasa yoga, “so our classes are lighthearted and playful.”
Harper founded Little Flower Yoga in 2oo6, after so much success using yoga in her kindergarten classroom that other teachers asked for yoga programs of their own. “We help children identify what’s happening to them internally, whether it’s being tired, anxious, or afraid, and use yoga to support themselves,” she says.
Little Flower Yoga directly serves more than 1,800 children per week in schools in New York City and Westchester County, New York, plus many more through a worldwide network of more than 500 Little Flower–trained teachers and school consultations. Harper also frequently collaborates with other organizations to bring yoga and mindfulness to children in challenging circumstances, from domestic-violence shelters in New York City to tent cities in Haiti.
Harper, vice president of the Yoga Service Council, formed in 2009 to provide a community of support for those hoping to make yoga accessible to all, is author of the book Little Flower Yoga for Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance, and she leads trainings for educators and mental-health care providers. But she is always eager to get back to the kids. “It’s like refilling the intention well. When a parent says, ‘Thank you,’ or says how their child taught them yoga when things were rocky at home, it feels like magic,” she says.
Acutely aware of how much yoga and mindfulness once helped her recover from her own debilitating depression, Sue Jones began teaching yoga to underserved women in recovery from domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction, or sexual assault. But what immediately struck her was the women’s need for simple ways to take the yoga off their mats and into their lives. “To me, yoga is not asana,” Jones says. “Yoga is the practice of being self-compassionately accepting and present with yourself and your body, no matter what is happening outside of you. The women needed accessible tools to help them begin this process.”
So in 2006, she founded the nonprofit YogaHOPE to teach yoga to women experiencing debilitating life transitions. Through YogaHOPE’s Trauma-Informed Mind Body (TIMBo) yoga program, first used in early 2o12, women recovering from trauma learn to reprogram their bodies’ conditioned responses to stop the dangerous cycle of violence in families. “Women in our program begin to understand that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them and that their body is wired to send a danger signal when it detects a threat,” Jones says. That helps them recognize when they are feeling anxiety or dread, and begin to self-regulate.
Ultimately, Jones says, “Their feelings of self-worth begin to build. It is truly remarkable to watch.”
YogaHOPE has also expanded to places like Haiti, Kenya, and Iran where people have experienced serious trauma. Says Jones, “There is nothing like watching a woman go from a place of fear and skepticism to a place of confidence and worth.”
“Yoga is all about union,” says Hala Khouri, co-founder of the nonprofit Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), which provides a bridge between yoga and activism. “For there to be justice for all, we have to hold every single person in our hearts, not just the oppressed but the oppressor.”
Khouri, who is trained in Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga and has been a teacher of yoga and the movement arts for more than 20 years, says of her work with OTM: “Our leaders go out and do work in lots of different environments, including schools, prisons, community centers, and other countries. But if you want to teach yoga in a prison, for example, you need to understand the dynamics of mass incarceration, racism, and institutionalized oppression. We want to instill the idea that we are all interconnected and that everyone must have access to basic human rights and needs. We advocate relationship building and engaging in a way that supports resiliency and empowerment.”
Trained in somatic experiencing, a technique that focuses on how to recognize and manage trauma’s effects on the body, Khouri also works as a trauma specialist with the LA–based nonprofit A Thousand Joys, educating social workers, mental-health clinicians, and staff at community-service agencies and providing them tools to manage stress and create a culture of wellness. “Many of these folks are very comfortable taking care of everyone but themselves,” Khouri says. “They are the superheroes of our society! But that comes with a cost. The first thing I do is teach them about the mind-body connection, having them sit and track their breathing and sensations for a few minutes. Then I ask them to imagine a stressful scenario and track how their sensations and emotions change. Once they understand that their body is their instrument, then I can offer them tools to manage stress. I always tell them, ‘You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.’ Helping the helpers has been really profound.”
Believing that yoga is not only a practice to serve humanity but also an everyday survival skill, Mark Lilly founded the internationally recognized nonprofit Street Yoga in 2002 to help people struggling with homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, and other kinds of trauma. Since then, Street Yoga has trained thousands of people—yoga teachers, social workers, nurses, teachers, and police officers—in how to offer yoga and body-based mindfulness to at-risk populations. They, in turn, have helped many thousands throughout the world.
Lilly also developed Body-Mind Rehab Therapy, a yoga-derived, body-based mindfulness practice for kids recovering from serious illness or injury. “At Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, for example, I work with patients 9 to 19 years old who have been in auto accidents or had brain surgery and are greatly impaired,” says Lilly. “We stand, extend, twist—all the while breathing and becoming aware of our own strengths, healing capacities, moods.” He also created the Mindful Parents & Caregiver program to help social workers and client families with practical, everyday mindfulness. After one training session, Lilly says, when he gave the homework assignment of taking one minute over the next seven days to just breathe, one of his clients balked: “She asked if I was crazy—there was no way she could muster an entire minute to do anything extra. I said 30 seconds. She said no. I said 10, and she paused and said she could do 5. But the next week, she arrived all excited because she did that 5 seconds of breathing more than once, and when that foot came off the accelerator of her survival, she could see how she was struggling to show up for her children.”
Lilly is also director of Each Amazing Breath, which helps schoolchildren and parents with daily practices, and a co-founder and current director of the Yoga Service Council, formed in 2009 at the Omega Institute to help bring yoga to underserved populations.
In 2007, while volunteering in a Veterans Administration program by teaching yoga to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, Suzanne Manafort found her own mission in life.
Three years later, Manafort, a student of Beryl Bender Birch who believes wholeheartedly in Birch’s philosophy that all of us can make a difference in the world, founded Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, which trains yoga therapists across the country how to use yoga to help veterans with PTSD in residential treatment programs and outpatient programs. “I am so proud to be working with these men and women,” Manafort says. “They are heroes. These are people who would step in front of a bus for you, and already have.”
Currently, 17,000 veterans have received Manafort’s Mindful Yoga Therapy Practice Guide, a collection of simple, effective yoga practices developed through her work with veterans. Forty-nine VA hospitals nationwide use her programs, which incorporate postures that allow practitioners to feel safe and that encourage them to be their authentic selves. Says Manafort, “Men and women with PTSD are already experiencing a hyper-aroused nervous system. Our practices are designed to access the parasympathetic nervous system,” which slows the heart rate and blood pressure and generally lifts one’s mood.
Manafort herself works with PTSD victims in a residential rehabilitation program and also teaches classes to women with PTSD at a Connecticut VA hospital. “Many veterans who go through our program are studying to become yoga teachers—it gives them a new purpose in life,” she says.
Manafort is the creator of two CDs: Yoga Nidra by Suzanne Manafort, and Breathe In, Breathe Out, a group of short breathing practices designed for veterans with PTSD. She also serves on the board of the Give Back Yoga Foundation.
As a full-time mom homeschooling her children, Kath Meadows began practicing yoga and found it so nurturing that she decided to give back to others by teaching yoga in prison. “I was inspired to work in prisons by my teacher Kathy Donnelly, who had started prison yoga and meditation programs many years ago. I was immediately drawn to the idea,” she says.
In 2010, she began teaching yoga at the Maryland Correctional Institution- Hagerstown for Women, where she added a weekly yoga class for prison staff to help them deal with the stressful prison environment. She also teaches at two other regional correctional facilities, and is a regional coordinator of the Prison Yoga Project, which brings yoga into prisons across the country, planning teacher trainings at prisons and helping yoga teachers develop new prison programs.
Though Meadows also teaches the public, nothing gives her the sense of purpose she gets from teaching behind bars. “In a studio, we have bamboo floors, natural light, and a peaceful atmosphere. In a prison, we have to create the serenity internally in the face of interruptions, loud noises, and harsh lighting,” she says.
In 2014, in collaboration with the Prison Yoga Project, Meadows wrote A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart, an accessible, comprehensive guide to the benefits of a personal yoga practice for underserved women. “There is a high incidence of physical and mental trauma in the prison population,” Meadows says. “Yoga has been shown to be very effective in helping to reduce, and sometimes reverse, the impact of trauma.”
Each sale of the $15 book supports the donation of three books to female inmates across the States. As one woman prisoner who received the book wrote to Meadows, “I greatly appreciate the breath lesson, and being able to feel my insides connect with my outsides. I will cherish the relaxing, flexible exercises that keep me dedicated to meditating on myself.”
When Matthew Sanford was 13, a car accident on an icy Iowa road killed his father and sister, paralyzed him from the chest down, and changed his life forever. For years, Sanford felt a disconnect between his mind and his body. But as he grew into adulthood, he discovered yoga and started to learn what it truly means to live in a body. “That means realizing that our life force resides not only in what we can control—like muscles, bones, ligaments, and breath—but also in what we cannot control, the empty spaces that reside within us,” he says. “Truly living within a body means embracing both.”
Over time, Sanford slowly learned that the mind-body connection is important not only in dealing with injury and illness but also in living well and achieving success. “When you lift your chest with grace and strength, you connect more directly with the world around you. And when you allow for more connection rather than less, you live a better life,” he says.
In 2002, Sanford, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, founded Mind Body Solutions, whose goals are to share yoga with those living with a disability, help them turn trauma into hope and potential, and transform our current approach to rehabilitation, including for veterans. “I want the rehabilitation process to get better at helping people rehabilitate the subtle body in addition to their overtly physical body,” he says.
In 2006, Sanford also wrote the acclaimed book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, now often used in medical and rehab schools and yoga teacher trainings. “Our current medical paradigm doesn’t explore healing other than curing. True healing is shared, not imposed through treatment,” writes Sanford, who is working on his next book, Waking Again.
Guided by a belief that “social and emotional learning from an early age is as important as learning to read,” Joanne Spence founded Yoga in Schools, which trains teachers in several Pittsburgh school districts in yoga techniques that calm students and prepare them to learn.
Spence, who has 30 years of experience in clinical and community social work, family therapy, and inpatient psychiatric care, discovered yoga in 2000 after a car accident left her in chronic pain. After taking a yoga workshop, she woke up three days later pain free. “It was nothing short of a miracle. My opinionated, skeptical self softened, breathed, and paused,” she says.
After training in several traditions—Yogafit, Iyengar, Viniyoga, LifeForce Yoga, Functional Synergy, and children’s yoga—Spence was teaching yoga in an inner-city Pittsburgh school when she got the idea to make yoga available to more kids. After receiving a $34,000 grant for a successful 16-week pilot program in three schools, Yoga in Schools (YIS) was born in 2oo4. “The initial schools we targeted were in high-poverty neighborhoods. Since then, we have also operated yoga programs in juvenile detention centers, public and private schools, and alternative schools,” she says.
Class exercises might include “The Breathing Wheel,” in which students use a Frisbee-like disc that can open out and in to simulate yogic breath. “Kids love it,” Spence says. YIS has trained teachers in Cleveland, Ohio; Chicago; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Savannah, Georgia; and exposed nearly 2o,ooo children and 1,000 teachers or educational staff to yoga. Spence says kids’ feedback—“I feel soothed,” “I can calm myself down”—is proof positive that the programs work.
Corn is uniquely influential and noteworthy as an advocate and facilitator for other teachers in the seva community. Because she’s currently a contributing editor here at Yoga Journal, she was exempted from our Seva Scholarship.
“When abundance comes in, you have to give abundance back out,” says Seane Corn, a longtime social activist, vinyasa flow teacher, and co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM).
Corn, along with Hala Khouri and Suzanne Sterling, created OTM because they saw the need for a leadership program to bridge the gap between yoga and activism. A student of Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller, Corn had earlier developed the yoga program for Children of the Night, an LA–area shelter, and fundraised as the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS.
But OTM, which launched in 2007, is the apotheosis of her yoga service work: “I recognized that there were more than 20 million people in the yoga community in the US, people who had influence, education, money, and access to resources, and I thought, what would happen if we, as a community, came together? I felt we could really make a big difference in the lives of others.”
OTM trains activists to use the tools of yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry to help others, and it teaches yogis who want to be activists how to make their service work more effective. A big part of Corn’s work with OTM is the Global Seva Challenge, which has raised more than $4 million for projects in eight countries, and given participants the chance to travel worldwide to provide support.
“When I see ordinary people doing extraordinary things, I feel like I have succeeded,” Corn says, “because it will take a lot of people to transform this planet from one of fear to one of love.”
YJ readers voted Prinster the recipient of our Seva Scholarship to help support her work with Yoga4Cancer. Read an interview with Prinster about her organization and efforts.
When Tari Prinster was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 56, she couldn’t have been more surprised: Two days earlier, she had won a cross-country ski race for her age group. “The word ‘cancer’ pried loose my hold on life, and time just seemed to stop. At least it stopped until I took the next breath on my yoga mat,” she says.
Yoga, Prinster found, helped her deal with treatment side effects and gave her emotional and spiritual support. After her diagnosis, “Yoga was the only exercise I could do or wanted to do. I was able to bring strength back to my arms and upper torso. And yoga charged me with energy.”
After her recovery in 2003, Prinster wanted to share the gift of yoga with other survivors and learn why it was so effective. She became a certified teacher, started offering free classes to cancer survivors, and researched everything she could about yoga and cancer. “True compassion comes from facts and understanding. And I came to realize that yoga, like cancer, is as scientific as it is spiritual,” she says. That work led to the birth of Yoga4Cancer, which offers classes and retreats to cancer patients and survivors, and has trained more than 1,2oo yoga teachers and health-care practitioners.
Today, through Yoga4cancer and the Retreat Project, a nonprofit that helps low-income cancer survivors, she has helped thousands of women. And with her recent best-selling book Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors, she’s on the path to helping more.