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Change the World

Meet five yogis whose practice has inspired their activism.

By Mary Billard

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For most Americans, yoga begins with asana. But then a curious thing happens: Once you begin a dedicated practice, you may find yourself growing flexible and strong not just physically but emotionally, too. For many, yoga is a way to become more kind, patient, and loving—first with yourself, then with family and friends, and eventually with everyone with whom you come in contact.

For the individuals profiled here, yoga's effects have been even more far-reaching. Their practice has ignited a passion to change the world. Inspired by the transformations that yoga has wrought in their own lives, these yogis have dedicated themselves to making a difference in the lives of others. Read on and let them inspire you.

Protector of Mother Earth

Jill Abelson, 43, Washington, D.C.
Communications Specialist, Environmental Protection Agency; Yoga Teacher, Jivamukti Yoga (jiva-dc.com)

Passion Teaching people that small things can help to change even a monolithic problem like global warming.

Path For many years, Jill Abelson's twin passions, ecology and yoga, ran on separate tracks. "The two vied for my love and attention," she says. During a teacher training with David Life and Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga in 2005, Abelson experienced asana as a connection to the earth and got a clearer sense of the potential link between her two lives. One important moment came during a lecture by Life about how humans are assaulting the earth. The previous week, Abelson had watched a 100-year-old tree in her neighborhood being taken down limb by limb—a metaphor for the global destruction of nature and the loss of beauty provided by a singular, irreplaceable white oak. "While David Life was talking, I immediately thought of that tree and started sobbing right there in class," she says. "It was then that I comprehended how connected I was to the natural world and realized that love for that tree and my practice were one and the same."

Action Abelson has worked on environmental issues since college. After a stint on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide, she switched to Everglades preservation in her native Florida. When global warming emerged as the preeminent environmental issue, she was hired by Greenpeace USA to research the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Her current job, which is with the Environmental Protection Agency, is to educate people about the dangers of global warming and to promote energy efficiency. "We call it public education," she says. "It is what a yogi would call consciousness raising or helping people to awaken."

Dream Abelson aspires to tap the potential of the estimated 20 million yogis in the United States. They are a primed and aware audience, she says, open to hearing about ways to save the planet and willing to act on those ideas. She'd like to contribute to educating yogis on practical ways of reducing their carbon footprint and creating greener yoga studios. These days, she lectures to yogis whenever and wherever she can.

Spiritual Storyteller

Michael Mccolly, 50, Chicago
Freelance Writer, Speaker, Educator (mccolly.ecorp.net)

Passion Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS among young people, and teaching HIV-positive youth how yoga can help them cope.

Path McColly discovered he was HIV-positive in the mid-1990s, before lifesaving drugs became widely available. "I began to confront the fact that I was going to die," he says. He turned to yoga, which he'd first experienced a decade earlier in divinity school at the University of Chicago. Asana practice made McColly feel stronger physically, and as time passed, he also found spiritual comfort in the practice. He began teaching yoga, and in 2000 he wrote a proposal to teach and speak at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. McColly's proposal was accepted, and his turning point came when, speaking to HIV-positive teenagers there, he was struck by the concentration and hope in their faces. "They desperately wanted to do something to help themselves," he says. "Seventy percent of them do not have access to the medications they need. It just broke my heart."

Action After McColly returned to Chicago, he sold his possessions, maxed out his credit cards, and traveled to India, Thailand, Vietnam, and West Africa, interviewing activists, Buddhist monks, and sex workers about the interplay between sexuality, AIDS, and spirituality. His resulting book, The After-Death Room, is an award-winning spiritual memoir. Today, in addition to teaching yoga and writing, McColly lectures on public-health issues on college and high school campuses. He begins his talks by asking listeners to take part in a short meditation. "Young people want permission to explore yoga," he says, "and learn that their body is a sacred thing."

Dream McColly hopes to continue spreading the word—through speaking, writing, and perhaps making films about how yoga can help people in all kinds of situations to live healthier lives. Says McColly, "I'm thinking more and more about how to creatively take people inside communities where people are using spiritual practices to heal."

Sharer of Sustenance

Samantha Broder, 29, New York City
Nutrition Educator, City Harvest (cityharvest.org); Yoga Teacher

Passion Teaching children, seniors, and low-income teens that healthful eating is tasty and easy to accomplish, and can substantially change the way that you feel.

Path During yoga teacher training, Samantha Broder was so finely tuned in to her body that when she ate anything that wasn't healthful, she felt the imbalance immediately. She was already interested in eating well, but during the training she really cleaned up her own diet and began eating light vegetarian meals. And she discovered that nourishing the body nourishes the soul. "I was feeling so good I wanted to encourage others to feel better," says Broder, who is currently studying at Hunter College in New York City; she's working toward a master's degree in public health as well as studying to be a registered dietician.

Action Broder works as a nutrition educator at City Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes leftovers from restaurants to emergency food programs throughout the city. She also educates low-income people about healthful eating, riding subways to the ends of the lines to reach poor neighborhoods. Broder recently gave a series of classes at a halfway house for teen mothers in Brooklyn. She took the girls shopping at local markets to show them how to make more conscious food choices, and then she cooked meals with them. "When one of the teenage mothers, who had said she never ate vegetables before, tells me, 'I had broccoli today,' I am so happy," she says.

Dream Broder has written a grant proposal to start a breakfast-and-yoga program for kids in New York City schools. "So many schools don't have gym classes anymore, but if you push the desks away, any classroom can become a yoga space. Yoga will help these kids learn about their bodies and concentrate better."

Inner-City Healer

Nikki Myers, 54, Indianapolis
Executive Director, Cityoga (cityoga.biz)

Passion Sharing yoga with people struggling with substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, and HIV.

Path "I tried yoga in the '70s and was fascinated—for a moment. Then alcohol, drugs, and men were far more interesting," quips Nikki Myers. She credits a 12-step recovery program and delving deeply into yoga's spiritual side with saving her life. While reading T.K.V. Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga, Myers was struck at how concepts from the Yoga Sutra helped her understand addiction. The interpretation of raga ("we want something today because it was pleasant yesterday"), for instance, echoed her attachment to drugs. She began studying with Gary Kraftsow of the American Viniyoga Institute, going on as many retreats as possible, and eventually graduating from his 500-hour intensive teacher training. She's also been inspired by teachers Nischala Joy Devi, Tias Little, and Seane Corn. "It is the deep work with Seane that has taken the sutras from the realm of the intellect right into my heart," she says.

Action Myers offers classes twice a week at her studio, Cityoga, to people with HIV. She also teaches yoga at the Hamilton County Juvenile Services Center, where many of the offenders have had drug and alcohol problems. "Yoga gives substance abusers a way to reconnect with their bodies," she says. "It helps them tune in to when things may be out of whack." Her newest project is a workshop called Yoga of Recovery, in which students learn asana, pPranayama, and chanting.

Dream "One of my things is bringing more minorities into yoga," says Myers. And she's written a grant proposal to teach a longer version of Yoga of Recovery at Bethlehem House, a nonprofit run by her husband. "I would love to create the space where addictions are addressed through a model mixing cognitive behavioral services, therapeutic treatments, and spiritual services—with yoga as the centerpiece."

Activist Activator

Katchie Ananda, 43 San Francisco
Co-director, Yoga Sangha School (yogasangha.com); Yoga Teacher

Passion Inspiring others to discover, through yoga, what issues speak to them most profoundly, and then plunge ahead with commitment.

Path While teaching yoga at Yes!, a worldwide organization focused on empowering youth, Ananda discovered that if people took a yoga class directly after a talk by an activist, the discussion afterward would be deeper and the listeners would feel more motivated to act. "When we listen to our breath and get in touch with our body and the deep feelings that are held there," she says, "we will tap into our true calling."

Action Ananda has organized what she calls a Spiritual Activation Series at her San Francisco studio. At the monthly event, a guest speaker addresses a current social issue, and a yoga class follows. Speakers have included Julia Butterfly Hill, the environmental activist who sat in an ancient redwood for two years; Evon Peter, national director of the Native Movement Southwest, who advocates for the rights of indigenous groups; and John Robbins, best-selling author of Diet for a New America. By presenting many different topics over the course of the series, Ananda's hope is to connect students with issues that are close to their hearts.

Dream Someday, Ananda would like to expand her social activism series so that millions of yogis will be working for social transformation. "We all need to become activists to survive this century," she says. "I want people to become activists of the heart."

Path to Action

Yogi activists come by their altruism honestly. A sense of connection to others, a corresponding social responsibility, and a call to action are all deeply embedded in both Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and the epic Indian poem the Bhagavad Gita. The third chapter of the Gita, in particular, is a touchstone for many: "Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work, one attains the supreme goal of life."

For some, involvement in political issues flows naturally. "To be political means to care about the politic—the greater body or the community," says Sharon Gannon, cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga. Gannon has inspired a generation of students to take action on environmental and animal-rights issues.

How you take action, though, can be as important as taking action itself. Yoga teacher Seane Corn recalls that when she became an activist for women's rights, she often felt angry. "I was so quick to get on a soapbox," she says. "But that energy turns people off." Gradually, Corn's yoga practice helped her to lessen that anger. Now, in her work as National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS, she is inspired by the concept that we are all connected, all one. And that, she says, is a much more sustainable place from which to work.

To find out about service opportunities in your area, check out volunteermatch.org.

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