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Jill Brenner can point to a specific moment in her first yoga-teacher training that changed the trajectory of what the ancient practice would mean to her forever. “The teacher said, ‘Treat others like they are inside of you—those who are less fortunate, even the most evil,’” recalls the public relations exec turned yoga teacher. “These dual concepts, that we are all connected and should practice compassion for others, really resonated with me and has inspired me to be of service through yoga ever since.”
Aha moments like Brenner’s are common for yoga practitioners, prompting us to wake up to a shared responsibility for making the world a better place, says Rob Schware, PhD, executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation. “All yoga practices are about paying attention,” says Schware. “As we work to improve ourselves, the veils of avidya—a basic ignorance of who we are, and of the underlying reality that everything in the universe is connected—begin to fall away. And as we get closer to understanding how connected we are to our fellow yoga students, families, and communities, we ask ourselves, ‘How can I be most useful?’”
Of course, a host of things precludes many of us from taking the next step and actually answering this question, much less acting on it. Busy lives may leave little time for volunteering; tight budgets can make donating money a challenge. And while so many of us with teacher trainings under our belts would like to use our training to bring yoga to underserved communities, it doesn’t mean we actually can (for the reasons above and more).
Schware says it’s important to think about yoga service in broader terms. “You don’t have to launch a brand-new nonprofit to give the gift of yoga to a community in need,” he says. “Just as yoga shows us how to be here now, giving back can be about doing something now.” In a sense, your charitable endeavors are your yoga practice: helping feed the hungry, solving water scarcity issues, tutoring or mentoring students, grocery shopping for the elderly or homebound—it all counts as seva. The best part? Service can be both customized and immediate. “If you’re a writer, help an organization with its marketing or social media efforts; if you have a background in law, accounting, or web development, offer your skills to organizations that are already doing amazing work. Anyone with talent and knowledge can help expand yoga service,” says Schware.
For Brenner, giving back means teaching yoga to young adults with autism and working pro bono to help Ashrams for Autism, a nonprofit she truly believes in, with their press outreach, messaging, and marketing. Her story, exemplifies the philosophy of giving back now, in whichever ways you can. In fact, she and the other Good Karma Award winners embody the same spirit. While the big-company winners you’ll read about here could have simply written big checks, each went further, devoting both resources and time to help service-focused organizations expand their influence and broaden their impacts. In the pages that follow you’ll also learn about the individuals who launched these organizations, forging positive change and creating opportunities for the rest of us to do more good. And then there are the behind-the-scenes heroes—people like Brenner who are sharing their talents to help enhance lives through yoga. Get ready to feel inspired—and spurred into action.
The Non-Profit: Ashrams for Autism
When Sharon Manner’s youngest child, Kerri, was diagnosed with autism more than 20 years ago, the young mom went through a gamut of ups and downs, trying to figure out how to best help her daughter—and deal with the difficult diagnosis herself. As a yogi, Manner instinctively knew her teachers and practices would help to support her. What she didn’t realize, at least at first, was how much yoga would help her daughter, too.
“At one point, Kerri was in the hospital and taking several medications,” Manner says. “I didn’t want that for her.” As a result, she created calming yoga sequences for her daughter, cooked a sattvic diet that eliminated stimulating foods, and brought Kerri to regular acupressure and Reiki appointments—all aimed at helping Kerri get grounded and self-regulate when overstimulation ultimately did occur. Manner’s efforts paid off, and Kerri started navigating the highs and lows of her autism symptoms more easily. When Manner told her yoga mentor about this success, he helped her develop a program to bring her yoga-inspired regimen to schools and other facilities for kids with autism. In 2010, she founded Ashrams for Autism, implementing her programs in New York–area schools and autism facilities and offering 100-hour Yoga Alliance trainings to teach people how to work with autistic kids and their caregivers.
At first, most people in the trainings were yoga teachers, Manner says. But these days, they’re filled with doctors, lawyers, and so many others who’ve been touched by the autism community. “Our ultimate goal is to build ashram-inspired spaces where students and young adults can live after they age out of their autism programs,” says Manner. “And we’re getting close!”
Manner says she finds as much joy in Ashrams for Autism as the students do. “The happiness this program brings to everyone who works here is undeniable. We bring these children yoga, and what’s reflected back to us is pure consciousness and love. It’s beautiful.”
Remember that big goals are achieved by taking small steps. Seven years after Ashrams for Autism’s inception, building a physical space is still a dream—but in the interim, Manner has grown her nonprofit. “There’s always one small step you can take to help people now as you move toward your ultimate goal,” she says.
See also Yoga for Autism
The Big Backer: Jade Yoga
The people behind Jade Yoga’s environmentally friendly mats and props have long been committed to giving back. For starters, for every product sold, Jade plants a tree (with more than 1 million planted so far). The company also donates $5 from each mat sale to a specific cause: A teal mat purchase, for example, benefits ovarian cancer research; pink mat sales aid breast cancer research; and saffron mat sales benefit autism causes. Plus, Jade donates hundreds of mats per year to shelters, hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, and other programs in need.
But when Jade’s president, Dean Jerrehian, met Sharon Manner, founder of Ashrams for Autism, he knew he wanted to do even more. “It’s easy to ship mats and write checks,” he says. “But when Sharon told me about her work with such passion, it convinced me of just how much her program really helps kids and their caregivers, and I had to get involved.”
Now, Jerrehian is helping Manner with a series of educational videos to help Ashrams for Autism expand its public reach beyond New York City and New Jersey, in the hopes of inspiring potential volunteers—and donors. “I saw an opportunity for us to use our resources to help this amazing organization expand—and I jumped at the chance immediately,” says Jerrehian.
Are you a nonprofit or volunteer seeking support from a larger company? Go beyond simply “asking for stuff ,” says Jerrehian. “We get many letters each month requesting mat and prop donations for worthwhile organizations, but what really makes us take notice—and often do more than just send mats—is when people convey how passionate they are about what they do,” he says. Jerrehian suggests writing a thoughtful email, sending a short video, or inventing some other creative outreach to make your efforts stand out.
The Unsung Hero: Jill Brenner
As a yoga practitioner with a family member who was on the autism spectrum, Brenner was naturally drawn to Ashrams for Autism. “When I connected with Sharon Manner in 2015, I had just completed my 200-hour yoga-teacher training, and I was eager to teach through her programs,” says Brenner.
At the time, Brenner was working for a major public relations rm in New York City—which put her in a position to see that the nonprofit was missing opportunities to spread the word about its work.“In such a small organization, someone like Sharon is busy doing everything she can to help others—she isn’t thinking about the market- ing and public relations side of things,” says Brenner. “That’s where I saw an opportunity to help.”
Brenner started going after media appearances and placements for Manner and prepping her for interviews—just as she had done in her PR career. “Teaching yoga to populations who really need it is beautiful, and I love doing it,” says Brenner. “But I hope people see that you can use whatever skills you have to help others.”
The Non-Profit: Love Your Brain
After Kyla Pearce’s brother-in-law, Kevin, a professional snowboarder, experienced a career-ending traumatic brain injury during one of his training runs in 2009, his entire family got a sudden crash course in this type of injury (more than 2.5 million people sustain one each year) and the hard- ships that come with them. They learned that traumatic brain injuries can cause deeply challenging physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms long after patients receive medical care, including poor balance, attention deficits, and anxiety, which can result in feelings of isolation and depression. What’s worse, while traumatic brain injuries typically receive extensive care in the weeks immediately following the trauma, as time passes, friends and family are often unsure of how to best o er continued care and support.
Three years ago, as Pearce was finishing her 200-hour yoga-teacher training in Dharamsala, India, her husband, Adam called with some news about his brother: Kevin was finally finding a sense of peace, accomplishment, and vitality through yoga and meditation. “Adam said, ‘Let’s bring this feeling to everyone with a traumatic brain injury. Can we? Should we?’”
As Adam supported Kevin on his continued path to recovery, he recognized the great need for creating a community for others impacted by traumatic brain injuries. This compelled him to found the Love Your Brain Foundation, which brings brain- health programs to traumatic brain injury survivors. Pearce—a yoga teacher, doctoral student at Dartmouth College, and senior director of the Love Your Brain yoga program—supported the mission from the beginning.
Eventually, Love Your Brain partnered with Dartmouth College to conduct an eight-week yoga study involving 30 people with traumatic brain injuries. The study found that participants who practiced yoga experienced significantly greater improvement in quality of life compared to the control group. These findings informed the development of Love Your Brain’s six-week yoga program, which is now being integrated into 24 partner studios across 14 US states and one Cana- dian province. “We partner with studios that are geographically close to a rehab facility for traumatic brain injury patients, so that the program is avail- able to them, for free, as a next step for outpatients,” says Pearce. Each class follows a similar structure: 10 minutes of breathing exercises to calm and focus the mind; 45 minutes of gentle yoga to improve strength and balance; 15 minutes of guided meditation; and 20 minutes of discussion based on empowering themes.
“The gap in care following inpatient services and rehab is a major issue for those with traumatic brain injuries,” says Pearce. “We o er research-driven physical, emotional, social, and spiritual support for this community. After all, yoga is a practice of honoring our inner experience without resisting or grasping. Learning how to do this can help those who’ve experienced a traumatic brain injury regain a sense of purpose, which is critical to the healing process.”
Have ideas for helping an organization but don’t know who to approach? Don’t be afraid to start at the top, says Kim Baker, director of implementation for Love Your Brain. “Oftentimes, startup nonprofit organizations are lean, which makes it crucial for volunteers to just dive right in and show us what you’re capable of doing,” says Baker. For example, if you see a need for better social media posts, send the program director a new strategy pitch along with 10 posts you think could go viral.
See also The Big Brain Benefits of Meditation
The Big Backer: Lululemon
Alison Murphy, global collective impact manager of Lululemon’s Here to Be program—which facilitates opportunities and networking for yoga brands to help their communities—says the decision to partner with Love Your Brain was clear. She knew Kevin (he had been a Lululemon Elite Ambassador) and felt his family’s commitment to the underserved traumatic brain injury community was remarkable. “The Pearces are uniquely qualified to do this work,” says Murphy. “They come from a place and intention that’s so authentic to them as humans.”
So Lululemon teamed up with Love Your Brain to create a powerful video about the effects of traumatic brain injury and also to show how yoga and meditation can bring a sense of peace and progress to those dealing with this often-hidden injury and its debilitating symptoms. (You can watch the video at loveyourbrain.com.) Together, the
two organizations embarked on a West Coast tour in March—Brain Injury Awareness Month—which helped raise $108,000 (which Lululemon matched) and boost awareness.
“Our work with Love Your Brain is a great example of how partnering with organizations with similar goals helps us to reach goals faster,” says Murphy. “Helping a great organization grow intentionally and sustainably is what really lights us up.”
When asking big companies to support the philanthropic work you’re doing, don’t act like you have everything figured out, says Alison Murphy of Lululemon’s Here to Be program. “That attitude doesn’t give us space to be true partners,” she says. “Instead, get to the heart of what you’re trying to achieve—and how we can help.”
The Unsung Hero: Lauren Tudor
As a recreation therapist for the Shepherd Center, a brain rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Lauren Tudor sees the challenges traumatic brain injury patients face every day: It’s her job to help them transition back into their communities. As a yogi, Tudor also knows yoga’s ability to rejuvenate—which is how she found herself advocating for Love Your Brain. “I see first-hand the impact yoga has on our patients in the Shepherd Center,” Tudor says. “The fact that Love Your Brain makes yoga so accessible outside the hospital setting, when patients arguably need yoga even more, is truly amazing.”
To help spread the word about Love Your Brain’s yoga programs, Tudor joined the clinical connector network, where she refers patients to a six-week, Love Your Brain program at a nearby yoga studio. She also completed the Love Your Brain training along with a few other therapists at the Shepherd Center, and together they’ve formed an informal committee to help target patients who might benefit from the program. “Yoga is one of the most powerful healing tools I’ve seen at our facility,” says Tudor. “It’s truly a gift to be able to refer my patients to a yoga program that has the potential to continue that deep healing.”
The Non-Profit: One Sandwich at a Time
Seven years ago, Erin Dinan—a young artist and yogi living in New York City—was running to catch a train. She’d just picked up a sandwich for an on-the-go dinner, and just before she got on the subway car, she spotted a homeless man sitting on the platform. Without even thinking about it, she gave the man half of her sandwich.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face—it was this silent communication of gratitude,” says Dinan. “It became a pivotal moment for me when I realized the ultimate lesson of yoga: We are all connected; we just have different trials and tribulations.”
Before this exchange, Dinan had lofty goals for how she was going to change the world. She wanted to open an orphanage in East Africa. She dreamt of large-scale projects that would help feed millions of hungry children in the world’s poorest countries. But this subway experience helped her realize that she could start now, here, in her own community—a city where so many people could use her help—one sandwich at
She began making sandwiches and taking them with her wherever she went, handing them to people who looked homeless and hungry on the streets of New York. Initially she wanted to talk with these people and document their journeys in a photo-journalism project to raise awareness and decrease the kind of numbness that occurs around problems that seem too big to resolve. Soon, her friends wanted in on the “sandwich project,” and Dinan began hosting sandwich-making events. In 2011, One Sandwich at a Time received 501c3 nonprofit status. Since its inception, One Sandwich at a Time has fed more than 100,000 individuals in need.
“These days, life involves big-scale problems that are so massive, it can be tough to know where to start,” says Dinan. “Creating even the smallest change, and coming from
a place of compassion and kindness, creates a ripple effect. As Margaret Mead once said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
The Big Backer: Bhakti Chai
When Brook Eddy started Bhakti Chai, she was a 32-year-old single mother working full time as a development director for a nonprofit. She didn’t intend to launch a multi-million dollar business: It started innocently enough after a trip to Mumbai, India, when Eddy started brewing her version of a spicy chai tea she was served there. Years later, when making her own recipe at home, she recognized a hole in the market for a craft-brewed spicy masala chai. She started by selling to cafés near her home, and slowly the company grew into a booming business.
From day one, Eddy—a longtime yogi—made social action part of Bhakti’s mission. “We started from very humble beginnings,” she says. “I didn’t have any money, or parents with money, which inspired me to support a lot of smaller organizations who were doing good in the world.”
In 2015, Eddy decided to combine all of Bhakti’s philanthropic efforts—more than $350,000 in charitable donations worldwide—into one platform called GITA Giving (GITA stands for Give Inspire Take Action).
Today, GITA Giving donates money to a total of 25 organizations, many of which support women and girls—a longtime passion of Eddy’s. The goal is to do more than simply write checks—it’s to also give smaller organizations access to Bhakti Chai’s enviable platform. “I also wanted to make it easier for organizations to apply for grants,” says Eddy. “When I worked full time in the nonprofit sector, I used to spend 90 hours completing one application for $1,500.”
Beyond helping organizations gather support, Eddy is hopeful her platform inspires yogis everywhere to take action in ways that most resonate with them.
“We can pray, repeat our mantras, and send peace and love into the world, but the action piece is really where change happens,” says Eddy. “Check in with your own passions and see where your skills can best be used in the world. Do something.”
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the change that needs to happen in the world—and feel paralyzed as a result. To overcome this inertia, choose an effort you’re really passionate about and do one thing, says Brook Eddy, the founder of Bhakti Chai: “Whether it’s donating $5 or offering a specific skill, remind yourself that every little bit can make a real impact.”
See also Giving to Charity
The Unsung Heroes: Lisa Goldstein & Julie Weiner
When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in 2012, Lisa Goldstein knew she wanted to do something to help her community recover. So, she took her kids, then just 9 and 11 years old, to a local synagogue to make sandwiches for people who were displaced from their homes. “Something about this volunteer work really resonated with my daughter, Julie,” says Goldstein. “So much so that when she was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah last year and looking for the requisite community service project, she tried to find an organization that would enable her to make sandwiches for the homeless.”
Sure enough, Weiner, now 14, discovered One Sandwich at a Time, and she and her mom attended one of its sandwich-making events. More than a year later, Julie has met her service requirement, yet the mother-daughter duo continue to volunteer once a month, spending time together as they make sandwiches for the homeless in their city.
“It’s really become our thing,” says Goldstein. “It started as a requirement, but now we do it because we love it and want to support Erin’s extraordinary effort to make a difference.”
As a breast cancer survivor who found yoga during her treatment in 2013, Goldstein also appreciates how their volunteer work is helping her daughter learn one of the most beautiful lessons of yoga: that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we play an integral role in the well-being of that bigger world.
“We may not be doing yoga poses, but what we are doing is healing ourselves and others,” says Goldstein. “It helps us feel very grounded. It helps us find our center. It helps us think outside ourselves, even for just a couple hours each month. These are beautiful lessons that I’ll be forever grateful my daughter is learning.”
Join the Movement
Inspired to give back, but still unsure where or how to begin? A new, free online course from the Give Back Yoga Foundation and Lululemon’s Here to Be program may help you find the answers. We talked to Rob Schware, executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, about the course, aptly titled “How Can I Serve?”
Yoga Journal: What motivated you to create “How Can I Serve?”
Rob Schware: Every morning I wake up and ask myself, “How can I serve?” This course is a practical way to answer that question and give back to yoga teachers around the country. It was created to supplement 200- and 300-hour yoga teacher training curriculums, which don’t tend to go into depth about yoga service. You’ll gain access to true experts—yoga service leaders who know what it means to serve and how to get started—and six hours worth of resources in the form of video, podcasts, and printed materials.
YJ: Who are the teachers involved?
RS: We’ve filmed some of the leading luminaries in yoga service, including Beryl Bender Birch, a yoga activist and spiritual revolutionary; James Fox, founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project; Nikki Myers, founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, and so many more. These light workers are inspiring examples of why it’s important to get involved, and they give pragmatic suggestions for how to do just that.
YJ: What is your hope for yogis who complete the course?
RS: Ultimately, we want to inspire yogis everywhere to take action. Of course, the Give Back Yoga Foundation is a great place to start. And for those who want to take the next step, we offer five different program trainings, each of which go into great detail about how to serve a specific population. To take the course, visit givebackyoga.org/serve.