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Yoga in Schools – The Trojan Horse in the Encinitas Lawsuit

yoga in schools




“All the days I go to yoga I feel so good and the days that we don’t have yoga I feel worse. If the school district took away yoga I would be sad because we wouldn’t be able to use the breathing ball and I would miss yoga very much.”

~ A fourth grader in the Paul Ecke Central school charged in the Ecinitas case in a letter to the court.


The lawsuit against the Encinitas, CA school system to keep yoga out of schools now heads to trial. One the surface of it, the suit was brought by parents of a child in Encinitas, Calif., who are challenging the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) on the accusation that yoga sessions taught in school violate religious freedom, and that yoga constitutes religious indoctrination.

There is a lot more going on behind the scenes than two parents taking offense that their child is taught Surya Namaskar. In this post, author Carol Horton explores the lawsuit, and the considerable forces behind the suit. The Jois Foundation and its lawyers, who are the defendants in the case, may not realize just how many soldiers are contained in the Trojan Horse the organization is up against, Horton speculates.  

The ruling in the Encinitas law suit about yoga in schools stands to have far-reaching repercussions. There is a growing and successful movement to bring yoga into non-traditional settings such as public schools, VA hospitals, homeless shelters and so on is growing. However, if the courts rule in the plaintiff’s favor, then any institution with any public funding (which means many, if not most working with underserved populations today) will have to think hard about whether they want to risk offering yoga or not. 

Litigating Against "the Lie"
Here's how NPR described Encinitas parents Mary Eady's involvement in the yoga controversy: 
Encinitas Superintendent Tim Baird says yoga is just one element of the district's physical education curriculum . . . But when Mary Eady visited one of the yoga classes at her son's school last year, she saw much more than a fitness program.

"They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises," she says.

Those looked like religious teachings to her, so she opted to keep her son out of the classes. The more Eady reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders' beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more she's convinced that the poses and meditation can't be separated from their Hindu roots . . . 

Eady is part of a group of parents working with Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel of the Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy.

OK, so Ms. Eady grew concerned and took action. Fair enough, right? Well - it's not really that simple.
According to an excellent investigative journalism article at Alternet, "Mary Eady, one of the parents organizing against Encinitas’ yoga program . . . works at a Christian organization called truthXchange." 

As it turns out, Ms. Eady is one of four staff members of this group, which describes itself as an activist "ministry" organization. Its vision, according to the group’s website is to broadcast “a gospel-driven worldview response to pagan spirituality as well as recruiting, equipping, and mobilizing a network of fearless Christian leaders.”

Spreading the Gospel by Transforming the Legal System

Eady is part of a group of parents working with Dean Broyles, President of the NCLP. According to its website, the NCLP is a non-profit "legal defense organization which focuses on the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties." 

Throughout recorded history, liberty must be esteemed, fought for, established, and guarded if is to survive and flourish. Today is no different. Indeed, the enemies of freedom have multiplied, and with them, we have clearly witnessed a mounting number of assaults on faith, family and freedom. Our attorneys stand ready, willing, and able to defend freedom against its enemies . . . We are motivated in our endeavors by our faith to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The lead attorney in the Encinitas case, Dean Broyles, has close links to leading Christian right organizations. He is the President of the National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), and an affiliate attorney of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), from which he received extensive training.
Recently renamed the Alliance Defending Freedom, the ADF website describes the organization as follows:
Recognizing the need for a strong, coordinated legal defense against growing attacks on religious freedom, more than 30 prominent Christian leaders launched Alliance Defending Freedom in 1994. Over the past 18 years, this unique legal ministry has brought together thousands of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations that work tirelessly to advocate for the right of people to freely live out their faith in America and around the world.

Right-Wing Watch explains that the ADF "sees itself as a counter to the ACLU." They are well-financed, highly networked, strongly anti-gay and anti-abortion, and quite powerful.  

Unique to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is their collective of high-powered founders, including wealthy right-wing organizations such as Dobson's Focus on the Family and D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries.

The ADF embodies the beliefs of its founders, harnessing the efforts of a cadre of right-wing groups with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. All of these groups are influential members of the Right working towards a common goal: To see the law and U.S. government enshrined with conservative Christian principles.

On its website, the ADF lists its official "Allies" as including 13 legal groups, 10 advocacy organizations, 8 "educational" institiutions, and 8 "ministries." Many of these organizations are extremely powerful in their own right. Considered as a tight network of right-wing activists with deep pockets and literally missionary zeal, the forces lined up against the Jois Foundation's yoga program are formidable indeed. 

In this context, the Jois grant of $550,000 to fund the yoga program in the Encinitas school, while huge in the yoga world, seems laughably small. True, it was big enough to put them into the NCLP/ADF/truthxchange crosshairs. I wonder if they realize, however, just how many soldiers are contained in that battleship of a conservative Christian Trojan Horse.  



Study: Exercise May Work As Well as Massage for Sore Muscles


Many people work out, committed to their health and fitness, only to spend a fair amount of time post-exercise, aching with sore muscles. Some of us tough it out. Some of us are able to get a massage. A new study out of the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen is offering another way of working out those sore muscles after working out – more working out.

Lars Andersen, the lead author of the study, says:  "It's a common belief that massage is better, but it isn't better. Massage and exercise had the same benefits [in our study].”

Andersen and his team conducted an experiment to see if massage was indeed the best way to find some respite after a workout.  They had 20 women do a shoulder exercise while being hooked up to a resistance machine. The trapezius muscle between the neck and shoulders was engaged, and two days later, was aching at a level of 5 on a 10 point scale, up .8 from before they had done the shoulder work out.

Then the women got a 10 minute massage on one shoulder, and did a 10 minute exercise on the other. Some received the massage first, others did the exercise first.

Andersen’s group found that both treatments peaked ten minutes after the massage or exercise, with women reporting a decrease in pain of .8 points after the warm up exercise, and of .7 after the massage.

This research team believes that sore athletes would also see a reduction in their discomfort with a light workout. They would like to see studies done to track whether warming up the muscles to relieve that soreness might impact how well athletes perform, perhaps by clearing out metabolic byproducts associated with tissue damage.  

The take-home lesson for yoga practitioners? Don't let a little muscle soreness keep you off your mat - once you get going, you're likely to see improvement. Andersen suggests that people try light exercise to ease their pain. While the effect is moderate and temporary, this method doesn’t require a trained therapist, transportation, or money. Of course, use common sense: Any pain that persists or get worse with exercise (or yoga) may require a doctor's attention.

SOURCE: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, online March 21, 2013



Smithsonian to Crowd-Fund Yoga Exhibit


You know yoga has hit main stream when the Smithsonian is planning an exhibit entitled "Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” dedicated to the history, manifestations, and goals of yoga, And curiously, the Smithsonian is using a very modern approach to financing the venture: Crowdfunding.

The crowdfunding campaign, "Together We're One" is set to be launched on May 29 and will run through July 1. The Smithsonian has previously used crowdfunding to fund an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum of artist Ai Weiwei’s work. But with a funding goal of $125,000, the yoga crowdfunding campaign will be on a much larger scale than previously attempted.

The "Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit will be open from October 19, 2013 thru January 26, 2014 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. According to the Smithsonian website, the exhibit will explore yoga’s goals; it’s manifestations in both Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sufi cultures; its means of transforming body and consciousness, and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

To stay updated on the exhibition and related programs, sign up for the Smithsonian e-newsletter.


A Soda a Day May Bring Diabetes Your Way


It’s no secret these days that drinking soda isn’t exactly good for you. When even the mayor of New York City attempts to make large containers of these popular drinks illegal, one needs to think twice. Now a large European study indicates that drinking even one 12-ounce can of soda a day can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 18 percent.

The study was part of a larger study on how genetics and lifestyle influence the risk of developing diabetes, involving 330,000 participants from the UK, German, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Sweden, France, and the Netherlands. It included approximately 12,000 people, who had developed diabetes during the previous 16 years. Another 15,000 were chosen as a comparison group.

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, found even just one 12-ounce can of soda a day (think Coca-Cola, Pepsi, energy drinks) increase their odds of developing type 2 diabetes by 18%. For every additional regular-sized can that you drink on a daily basis, add another 18% to that risk.

The results of the European study are similar to those found by studies conducted in the United States.

The study included a variety of soft drinks, including sugar-sweetened drinks (colas), artificially sweetened drinks (diet colas), and fruit juices. People who drank diet soda were also at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes during the study compared with those who drank no soda, but when participants' BMI was considered, the increased risk disappeared. Juice did not show as an increased risk in this study.

This sort of study cannot prove beyond a doubt a cause and effect relationship between these sugary drinks and diabetes, but they definitely point to a strong correlation.

According to the researchers, sugar-sweetened drinks may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, because of the weight gain experienced by drinkers. There is also a glycemic effect that can produce rapid spikes in blood glucose and interfere with the production of insulin, which typically regulates the blood sugar.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million children and adults in the United States—8.3% of the population—have diabetes. Another 79 million are prediabetic.  In addition to the quality of life issues these extreme numbers present, the cost of medical expenses are 2.3 times higher than for those without diabetes.

Source: Diabetologia, the Journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes



Building Functional Core Strength with Yoga Asanas

Yoga for Core Strength - Julie Gudmestad



Julie Gudmestad is a long-term Iyengar Yoga teacher and founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. She is a licensed physical therapist and widely known for her Anatomy of a Yogi column that she wrote for Yoga Journal for nearly a decade. In this interview, she discusses the importance of core strengthening, why traditional crunches won't work, and how a regular practice of yoga asana can help build true, functional core strength.

Core strengthening has long been a buzzword in the fitness world, and there is great emphasis particularly on abdominal strengthening in most fitness programs. Why is core strengthening considered to be so important?
Julie Gudmestad: Core strengthening has to do with building proper support for the pelvis and the spine. In thirty-five years of working with people with back, pelvis, and hip problems I’ve repeatedly observed the importance of strengthening the muscles that are supposed to be supporting the spine and pelvis. Countless studies too have shown that core strengthening is an important component in relieving and pain and restoring healthy movement.  I could relate dozens of cases with people whose sometimes chronic, severe back pain was greatly improved or even eliminated by strengthening the support system of the core, including the abs.
YogaUOnline: Does yoga strengthen the core and if so, how do yoga postures are best at accomplishing that?
Julie Gudmestad: There’s a great variety of core strengthening that we do in yoga poses. In yoga, the strengthening comes from supporting the weight of our body parts in various orientations to gravity. Sometimes we’re standing, sometimes we’re upside down, sometimes we’re sideways, sometimes we’re face down on the floor, sometimes face up on the floor. Lifting different body parts, be it arm, leg, torso, and so on, in these different positions is going to strengthen a huge variety of muscle groups, according to how gravity is pulling on the body part. 
That is how a lot of abdominal strengthening happens in yoga, and people aren’t even aware of for core strength Standing poses are a great example. In the sideways standing poses, like Triangle, Extended Side Angle pose, and Half Moon pose, your torso muscles including the obliques and the transversus abdominus are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso, which is parallel to the floor. The side abdomen flank muscles are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso. 
If you also are rotating your torso, which we are doing in those sideways poses, you get a double whammy. It’s fabulous strengthening of the obliques in particular, as they hold up the weight of the body as you go sideways and rotating the torso at the same time. 
One of the things that I love about core strengthening in yoga is that we’re training muscle patterns. Lots of times, when you go to the weight room, you’re isolating a particular muscle. If you’re sitting in a machine and everything is supported and you’re isolating one muscle, e.g. the biceps, that’s fine if you lack strength in that muscle and you’re trying to build it up towards normal strength. But in yoga, we’re actually training muscles to work together in functional patterns, which is really valuable for basically, life on this planet! 
If you just have an extremely strong, but isolated bicep, you haven’t necessarily strengthened the other muscles that you need to strengthen, that is, the muscles that stabilize the scapula and the spine. So you’ve got this big, strong bicep but the rest of the muscle patterning that you need to actually do a functional activity isn’t there. I’ve seen a fair number of injuries in weight lifters, because they had isolated certain muscles and gotten them really strong, but not the rest of the team. 
YogaUOnline: When most people do core strengthening, they focus on crunches and abdominal work. But you have been saying in your writings that excessive abdominal strengthening can actually be counterproductive?
Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it can be counterproductive on a couple of important fronts. Firstly, if you strengthen the front, you also need to strengthen the back. If you only focus on working the front of the body, the abdominals and the chest get shorter and shorter, and at the same time, the back muscles get weak and overstretched. The result is often that the person gets pulled over by short abdominals into a slumped position.
The action of the abdominals is to flex the spine or forward bend the spine, and if they get overly short and tight, the person gets permanent trapped in this flexed position. And that creates all sorts of problems. Some people get neck pain, headaches, or jaw problems, because if you’re slumped forward you end up with a forward head posture, which puts a lot of stress on the neck and the muscles that support the neck. When people get rounded over, it also limits the movement of the diaphragm, and that has implications for your ability to breathe normally and take a full breath, which of course has huge health implications. 
An overly flexed position can also contribute to low back problems as well, because it can take the normal curve out of the low back. This flattening of the normal lumbar curve can contribute to disc injuries, because the person’s movement patterns are organized around that rounded-over flat back position. And that puts pressure on the intervertebral discs and sets the stage for serious disc injuries. 
So one of the first things that you have to do with many of those people is train them how to lengthen the front body to help restore the normal curve of the low back and allow the back to heal.
YogaUOnline: So people don’t get chronically locked in that position?
Julie Gudmestad: No, they can definitely reverse it. That’s the message that I find myself saying often to people. Even you’ve had a serious injury, you can restore normal alignment, unless the bones are fused. But you have to work at it. You have to change your movement habits. You have to change your muscle balance. It doesn’t have to be odious, but you have to be persistent and work at it regularly. I’ve seen tremendous changes in thirty-five years of working with people with these kinds of issues. That’s the good news.
YogaUOnline: What about our yoga practice, do overly tight abs impact our practice?
Julie Gudmestad: Yes, if the abs are tight, it will limit your ability to do any kind of back bending poses. The most obvious example is when the mid-back, the thoracic spine is stuck in flexion. If a person with a flexed upper back is trying to do Bridge Pose, he or she just can’t get their back lifted up very much off the floor. 
Similarly, if a student like that tries to lift up to do a Cobra pose, he or she won’t be able to come up very high off the floor, because the front body is short and holds the chest close to the pelvis in the front. So they can’t go into any or very much extension at all. 
YogaUOnline: How can teachers spot these people in class?
Julie Gudmestad: If you line up people on hands and knees and look at how much the spine can move  in a simple Cat-Cow pose, you can see which people have very little extension of the spine. Extension is supposed to be a normal movement of the spine, but if they’re very short in the front body, even on hands and knees, they won’t have very much extension.
It can and will change over time, but there are a lot of layers of muscle in the abdomen and in the chest, including the pectorals and the intercostals, the muscles between the ribs. If that’s all short in the front, it won’t change overnight. It takes time.
YogaUOnline: Right. Very interesting. You have a course coming up on Yoga U Online called “Freeing the Breath: Keys to Releasing and Retraining the Abdominals.” Could you tell us about that and you will be covering?
Julie Gudmestad: Well, the focus is on balancing the abdominal muscles, but I will be placing almost as much focus on the breathing muscles, and especially the diaphragm. We will look at how overly short and tight and strong abdominals can affect our breathing negatively. And breathing, of course, is the central part of yoga practice. 
We will learn some simple ways of strengthening the abdominals, because they do need to be strong. But I will show how to set up your practice to help keep the abdominals strong, without having a negative impact on breathing. You will learn how to assess whether if there are limitations in terms of abdominal tightening in your own body and for yoga teachers, how to observe it in your yoga students. We will then look at how people, who already have too short or tight abs, can open them back up and restore more normal breathing patterns. 
For more information, see also Julie Gudmestad's 2-part online yoga course:



Exercise Shown to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

exercise reduces breast cancer risk

Written by Beth Levine of The Baseline of Health Foundation

Breast cancer is a frighteningly common disease. Most of us can count several friends and relatives who have fought it and hopefully survived. With statistics showing that one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, it is essential to do what we can to lower our breast cancer risk. Now, new research has added another piece to the puzzle to help us understand just why exercise might help women in the prevention of breast cancer.

A study that took place at the United States National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, provides some important insight into how exercise works to stave off breast cancer. The findings show that post-menopausal women who do a greater amount of physical activity and aerobic training have lower estrogen levels. The participants were 540 Polish women between the ages of 40 and 74. All of them were part of the control group within the National Cancer Institute's Polish Breast Cancer Study, and none had been on a hormone replacement regimen.

The subjects took part in various forms of exercise and were monitored for one week. They wore an accelerometer throughout their waking day to measure the time spent doing physical activity and its intensity. In addition, urine samples were provided twice a day during this period. The urine was analyzed for estradiol and estrone hormones, which are two of the major forms of estrogen found in a woman's body, and 15 different estrogen byproducts, or metabolites. More physical activity on the part of the women was linked to a reduced presence of estrogen hormones and a more substantial metabolism of the byproducts.

This study confirms a 2012 study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which found that a woman's breast cancer risk can be decreased with regular exercise and aerobic activity. Those who benefited most were the women who worked out for between 10 and 19 hours per week, even if they were mainly performing light activity such as walking. The design of the current study provides a more detailed picture of how this happens. The accelerometers offer a far more honest and exact method of determining just how much activity a participant is actually doing than the self reporting used in many studies. And by measuring the hormones and hormone byproducts in the urine, changes in the levels found can be accurately tracked during exercise as well as sedentary hours.

Hormones and the way our bodies process them play a very important role in certain forms of cancer and other diseases. In fact, approximately two-thirds of all cases of breast cancer are found to be hormone receptor positive, which means the malignant cells are likely receiving signals from hormones such as estrogen and progesterone that influence their growth. And in post-menopausal women especially, exercise can help in weight loss, reducing the stores of fat that tend to accumulate more easily as we age. These pockets of fat tissue have been linked to increased estrogen production, which elevates breast cancer risk.

The high-fat diets so common in the United States not only promote weight gain, but are often sources of hormones themselves. Commercial meat and dairy products are typically full of synthetic estrogens that have been given to the livestock. These chemicals then end up in the bodies of the consumers, adding more excess hormones. And it's a nasty cycle, because the hormones promote fat in post-menopausal women, then the extra fat ups estrogen levels even more.

Exercise can disrupt this sequence of events and help restore a healthier, more natural balance. Its benefits can extend beyond reducing the risk of developing breast cancer, also conferring some protection from a variety of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It is important not only to get moving, but to regularly practice a multitude of types of exercise. Aerobic/interval training activity will strengthen the heart; weight training will develop muscle tissue and increase metabolism; and flexibility workouts will also tone the muscles and improve breathing techniques. A combination of routines done daily will help you lose weight and stave off much of the bodily damage that can lead to diseases such as breast cancer.

Note: one potential adverse effect of lowering estrogens in postmenopausal women might be a decrease in bone density. But a 2004 study showed no decrease in bone density in exercisers from baseline to 12 months and no difference in changes in a year between exercisers and controls. In other words, with moderate exercise, you get the best of both worlds.

Material originally published at

Copyright © 1999-2011. Baseline of Health® Foundation

Used by permission of the Baseline of Health® Foundation.

All rights reserved worldwide.


Street-Smart Karma Yoga: Terri Cooper and Miami’s Yoga Gangsters

Yoga Gangsters

By Carol Horton, Ph.D.

Yoga Gangsters
is a Miami-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth struggling with poverty, trauma, and the difficult life issues they generate via the science and practice of yoga. Informally launched in 2003 by teacher, writer, and activist Terri Cooper, Yoga Gangsters has since expanded into an independent 501c3 that’s served over 3,000 people (mostly youth in crisis) through weekly yoga programs held in over 25 inner city schools, hospitals, jails, homeless shelters, youth centers and other non-profit organizations throughout the Miami area.

In addition to offering classes, Yoga Gangsters assists youth with career training and job placement by providing selected applicants with full scholarships to the
Urban Guru Program, a 200-hour yoga teacher training. Terri Cooper also leads a Yoga Outreach and At-Risk Certification program, an affordable three-day workshop that trains yoga teachers and other interested individuals to effectively serve youth in crisis. This program, which has trained over 265 volunteer yoga teachers to date, is a prerequisite for Yoga Gangsters Level II training, “YG2: Yoga in the Hood.”

In this interview, Terri Cooper explains how yoga saved her life, ignited her passion to serve, and enabled her to connect with others and build Yoga Gangsters into the inspiring organization it is today.

Let’s start with your journey. How did you first get into yoga?

My story is pretty common. I think that everyone turns to yoga because they’re looking for something. Most often, they need to heal—whether from back pain or an emotional crisis.

I was at a place in my life where nothing was going well. I was completely disconnected from myself, my family, my purpose. I was spiraling downward. My life was unmanageable.

In all honesty, I’m not sure how much longer I would have been living and breathing on this earth if I hadn’t found yoga when I did.

What first really hooked into the practice, and why?

I had tried yoga once or twice back around 1999-2000. But at that point I was too drug addicted to do it. Plus, I got injured on my second day of class. Still, that was enough to give me some sense of spiritual connection to the practice.

I didn’t throw myself into yoga until a few years later. In 2003, I decided that I wanted to change my life, and would commit to whatever it might take to do so—getting clean, ending negative relationships and making an all-around life change.

The first year of my practice wasn’t pretty. I was a miserable person. I’d lie in bed and cry and cry…everyday. I didn’t love myself at all.

Yoga was the only thing that made me feel better. So I’d drag myself out of bed and go to class. Every day. I didn’t have any special method or teacher. I’d just go to whatever I could afford, which meant lots of donation-based classes.

When did you decide to teach yoga, and why?

I knew that I wanted to teach right away. I threw myself into a teacher training during that first year of intensive practice. Since I was still detoxing, though, a lot of it is a blur.

I also knew that I wanted to teach people like me. At that point, I didn’t feel that most of the studio population was like me at all. Now, I know that’s not really true, because we’re all one. But then, I felt like the mainstream yoga community could never understand my experience. I was drawn to teach those who were addicted or incarcerated.

I started in several locations throughout Miami in 2003. It grew organically from there. I taught everywhere, including regular yoga venues like studios, condos, and gyms in affluent South Beach. But I also made sure that I got over the bridge to teach in Miami, which is a different world. Sometimes I taught 25 classes a week.

In 2005, I started teaching kids in the Juvenile Hall on a regular basis. I also taught in a lot of low-income schools. I can only guess how many thousands of kids I served—I didn’t document any of it. Now that I’m running Yoga Gangsters, I wish that I had. But I had no clue that what I was doing was going to turn into an actual nonprofit.

How did Yoga Gangsters get started?

I felt called to study with Seane Corn due to her outreach work, and started with her before she founded Off the Mat (OTM). Then, I took the first OTM training back in 2005. Seane, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling (the co-founders of OTM) were extremely encouraging, and have been mentoring me for years. They supported me in taking my work to the next level and making it legit.

So, did OTM teach you how to run a nonprofit?

Well, I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m a college dropout and an ex-crystal meth addict. But I do have an incredible work ethic. And I’m driven and passionate. But even now, Yoga Gangsters doesn’t have the foundation and structure that so many other organizations doing this kind of work have.

Really, we are straight yoga gangster—we’re from the street. We don’t have a lot of professional expertise to support us. But we do have street cred and many hours of direct service. We really connect with the people that we serve.

What age groups are you working with?

At this point, we’re teaching everyone, including adult staff, teachers, and social workers in the institutions we serve. Our focus is addressing crisis and trauma. We have a training program that teaches the basic relationship between yoga and trauma, and how the practice can help manage and heal it.

We encourage our teachers to work where they’re most comfortable, where they have empathy and understanding. Some work well with little kids, others with teens and young adults. Often, people work best with those who have suffered from the same sorts of traumas they’ve experienced. So, for example, if you’ve lived with domestic violence, you might feel called to work with battered women.

Do you think those who haven’t personally experienced such trauma can teach those who have effectively.

Yes. Everybody needs to find their own balance. For me, this means learning more professional skills, like how to write a grant and build a board of directors. For someone from a more privileged background, it might mean learning to stop seeing yourself as separate from those that you serve.

Yoga enables us to experience connection, to realize that we’re all one. To be of service, you can’t come with a hierarchical point of view, like “I’m educated and I’m going to save you.” All that does is perpetuate the inequality that’s such a problem in the world.

To really be of service, you need to level out the playing field. You need to realize that you’re not saving anyone—if anything, your service is saving you. But wherever we’re starting from, we can all find that middle ground through real connection.

What’s it like to do this work? Can you tell me a good story that provides a living example?

Terri: Sure! Here’s one of my favorite stories that really shows what this work is like:  

I was working with young ladies in the Juvenile Hall in Miami. I’d go every week, but only see the girls three or four times before they’d get transferred to a different facility. It was an institutional, impersonal setting. The students would come in to class wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.

One day we were doing headstand. That pose can be dangerous, and as usual, I made sure that everyone made an agreement about what needed to happen to keep it safe.

There was one girl who was quite large—maybe two and a half times bigger than me, and I’m not small. I could see in her eyes that she really wanted to go up into headstand. But when she started to try it, she got freaked out: “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

I came up to her and said, “If you want me to help you, I can.” She tried again, but the same thing happened—as soon as she started going up, she got really scared and stopped.

I got down on my knees next to her and looked into her eyes. “You don’t have to do this,” I said. “But if you want to—I’ve got you. I will not let you fall.”

And the way she looked back at me—I knew that no one had ever said something like that to her before in her life. I can only imagine the traumas she’d survived to land in jail at age 14.

I got her in a bear hug to support her. And she kicked up into Headstand. She started screaming and kicking. She was wild. But I held on. And she went up and came back down, just fine.

As soon as her feet hit the ground, she stood up, threw her arms up in the air, and started running around the jail, waving, hooting “Woooooooooo! Wooooooooo!” And there was an incredible feeling of joy—real joy, right there in the jail.

It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After class, when I got back in my car, I had to sit and cry it out for 20 minutes.

And I have so many stories like that. Sometimes, I work with kids with bullets still lodged in their bodies.

And at first, they refuse to do any yoga at all. So I’ll just start practicing – maybe stand on my head for 10 minutes. And the kids will come up, crowd around, get curious …“What’s she doing?” Pretty soon, they’re trying it themselves. And they love it.

I watched a great video on your website where you were talking to kids about yoga as a mind-body-spirit practice. Do you bring in the spiritual dimensions of yoga a lot? If so, is that a problem?

Yes, I’m a preacher girl all the time! I’m always talking to my students about yoga philosophy—the importance of non-attachment, letting go, cultivating gratitude, and creating the life of your dreams. I also teach them about using mantras.

I haven’t had any problems with being accused of teaching religion or anything like that. If anyone asks whether yoga is a religion, I explain that it’s a mind-body science. Plus, I think that the fact that Yoga Gangsters is so grounded keeps us from having those problems—because I know that many other people do. For example, I play a lot of hip hop in my classes, like Jay-Z and Eminem. Sure, I’ll also bring the energy down with more meditative music toward the end of class. But overall, it’s a very familiar, earthy vibe.

Tell us a little about the organizational structure of Yoga Gangsters. How many teachers and staff do you have?

Our Executive Director, Marisol Tamez, is our only paid employee. Marisol took us through the process to become a 501c3 (a legally recognized nonprofit). She manages our programs and volunteers, and helps with everything. Jodi Weiner, our Executive Project Manager, volunteers her time and is also crucial to the success of our organization.

I volunteer for Yoga Gangsters about 20 hours a week, more when we’re really focused on fundraising. I teach one outreach class every week at Booker T. Washington High School in Overton, which is one of the most under-served schools in one of the impoverished cities in America. I also teach a three-day, 12-hour volunteer training program four times a year. Otherwise, I own a yoga studio, teach classes and run a 200-hour, Yoga Alliance certified, teacher training program.

Yoga Gangsters has 135 trained volunteers. We run six-week programs at institutions that want yoga; if it works well, we’ll renew the contract for another six weeks. We do a lot of one-day functions as well. This allows volunteers to work regularly or occasionally, as they wish.

I’m not sure of the exact figures, but I’d guess that 75 percent of our volunteers are yoga teachers. Others are parents, school teachers, guidance counselors and others who have taken our training. It’s only 12 hours and $200—we want to make it accessible. What makes a good teacher is being grounded, focused, centered and completely authentic—wherever you come from and whatever your background is, that’s all you need to be.

What are your biggest challenges in doing this work?

It’s difficult work. It’s beautiful and it’s worth it—but if you ask anyone engaged in yoga service, they’ll tell you that most of us are underpaid and overworked. After all these years running Yoga Gangsters, we still have very little money. Our operating budget last year was $40,000.

Plus, we’re working with people and organizations that are severely under-resourced themselves. Every time I build a relationship with a set of kids, something happens—a school closes or a program shuts down. Every time I build a relationship with someone in power, they move on.

I’ve tried to quit this project several times. But I always come back to it. What keeps me going is actually working with the kids. Every time I go and teach, I’m re-energized. That part of the work is easy—and incredibly rewarding. Teaching these kids gives me a reason to be excited to get up every morning, no matter what.


Yoga Gangsters currently offers yoga teacher trainings in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Columbus, Denver, Dallas, Tampa, and Naples. For more information, e-mail Terri Cooper directly at You can support Yoga Gangsters by making a financial contribution, buying a T or hoodie, or (if you’re in the Miami area) volunteering to teach by clicking here. Communities interested in starting YG programs can email
Note: An earlier version of this interview was originally posted on elephant journal, June 14, 2012. 



The Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Fruits and Veggies to Buy Organic


If you prefer organic foods, but are concerned about the added costs, check out the new organic shopping guide from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization in Washington, D.C.

In its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce list, the EWG lists both the Clean 15—a list of fruits and veggies lowest in pesticides—as well as the Dirty Dozen, the fruits and veggies with the highest levels of pesticides. 

For budget-conscious shoppers, the Guide helps you shop knowing which items to prioritize on the organic list, and which you can buy conventional. 

According to the EWG, there is ‘growing consensus’ within the science community that even small doses of pesticides and other toxic chemicals can be linked to a host of problems, from increased cancer risk to issues in fetal and childhood development. 

Fortunately, you can lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90% simply by avoiding conventional versions of the fruits and vegetables listed in the Dirty Dozen list. And even if you can’t afford to buy organic for all the items on the Dirty Dozen, don’t fret. According to the EWG, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.” It’s better to have a conventional apple than a bag of potato chips or a bacon cheeseburger from your neighborhood fast food joint. 

We suggest keeping this guide with your grocery list or in your wallet so you can reference it whenever needed. It will become second nature in no time! Of course, for those not on a budget, buying organic as much as possible will help put in your vote to support a cleaner, more natural food production cycle in harmony with Mother Nature.
The EWG’s Dirty Dozen for 2013:
1. Apples
2. Celery
3. Cherry tomatoes
4. Grapes
5. Hot peppers
6. Nectarines (imported)
7. Peaches
8. Potatoes
9. Spinach
10. Strawberries
11. Sweet bell peppers
Plus: Kale, collard greens and summer squash

The EWG’s Clean Fifteen for 2013:
1. Asparagus
2. Avocados
3. Cabbage
4. Cantaloupe
5. Sweet corn
6. Eggplant
7. Grapefruit
8. Kiwi
9. Mangoes
10. Mushrooms
11. Onions
12. Papayas
13. Pineapples
14. Sweet peas (frozen)
15. Sweet potatoes


Healing the Heart - Yoga for At-Risk Teenage Girls





"I usually see things black and white. But after I do yoga I feel like a new person and I look at things in new ways. I see there is more than just yes or no, more than one choice, more than one path. I like this idea because so far the path I’ve chosen hasn’t been great. I’m ready for a new one.”— AYP Participant   

By Carol Horton, Ph.D.

A nurse practitioner by training, yoga teacher Mary Lynn Fitton developed the Art of Yoga Project (AYP) to help traumatized and at-risk teenage girls heal on a deeper, more holistic level and prepare them for a more positive future. Today, AYP serves over 500 at-risk and exploited teen girls annually in juvenile detention centers and aftercare treatment sites in three San Francisco Bay Area counties. 

The cornerstone of the Art of Yoga Project is the Yoga & Creative Arts Curriculum, a year-round course that combines health education, character development, yoga, meditation, and creative arts. Its central goal is to help girls learn “self-awareness, self-respect, and self-control so that they can ultimately make better choices and be good to themselves and others.” Available nationwide, the Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum is currently employed by 24 affiliate programs in 10 states.

The teen girls that AYP serves are coping with a legacy of intergenerational abuse and neglect, mental health problems, gang involvement, lack of educational opportunity, and poverty. Many have been victims of sex trafficking. Based on her extensive experience, Mary Lynn believes that it’s critical to utilize a gender-responsive approach when teaching yoga to such traumatized and at-risk populations. In this interview with yoga teacher Carol Horton, author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, Mary Lynn shares the inspiration behind The Art of Yoga Project and explores her views on the vitally important, but rarely discussed issue of teaching gender-responsive yoga. 

Carol: How did you first get into yoga?

Mary Lynn:
I started yoga in my mid-20s, when I was really much more of an athlete, working hard on running and triathlons. On my mat, I found a connection to my deeper self that was very profound. I also started to gain awareness of my inner voice, which, I discovered, wasn’t kind at all. I finally realized that I had been using sports as a way of running away from my own body and my own issues.

This felt kind of tragic. I’d often weep through my practice. But over time, I learned to nurture myself, rather than always having to push so hard. Through yoga, I developed a truly healing relationship between my self and my body.

Carol: What made you want to teach yoga to at-risk teen girls?

Mary Lynn: In my work as a nurse practitioner, I saw many young women with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Many had core feelings of low self-worth, and even self-loathing. They’d regularly do things that they’d later regret—for example, one-night stands that made them feel really bad afterward.

I felt that yoga could help them with the deeper issues they were struggling with—stuff that I couldn’t get into with my regular nursing practice. But it was the early 1990s, and at that time, yoga was still totally marginal.

I started teaching yoga in the inner city anyway. I wanted to make sure that the practice got to everyone who needed it most. Today, that’s in line with the mission of the Yoga Service Council: to make sure that yoga is equally available to all. 

What does the term “gender-responsive” mean?

Mary Lynn: The term “gender-responsive” comes out of work in the criminal justice system. As more and more girls and women started coming in, it became clear that existing programs and policies had been designed for men. And making them appropriate for women involved much more than just having the same thing for women only. There’s a well-known saying, “you can’t just paint it pink.” Gender responsiveness means comprehensively addressing the needs, issues, and concerns of a specific gender group.

A lot of people in the yoga community believe that yoga transcends gender. Does a commitment to teaching yoga in a gender-responsive manner contradict that?

Mary Lynn: I agree that ultimately, yoga is beyond gender. And in the best circumstances, in which you have a group of healthy individuals coming together and accepting difference, males and females can learn and practice together. Unity is definitely the spirit of yoga. But the reality is that many of our populations have been traumatized in ways that make gender-responsive yoga a necessity.

Male yoga teachers can easily trigger girls and women who have been sexually traumatized by men. For example, just hearing a male voice telling them to “relax” could be re-traumatizing, as that’s a command often issued by sexual predators. With same gender teachers, there’s less risk of that happening.

Do the same gender considerations apply when teaching younger children?

Mary Lynn:
I teach yoga in elementary schools with boys and girls together. With young kids, it can work. But I think that it would be amazing to mandate separate classes for boys and girls. That way, boys wouldn’t be coming to classes dominated by females. They wouldn’t feel that “yoga is for girls.”

I also believe that it would be incredibly powerful to have men teaching boys. They would be able to speak to issues that matter to them in ways that females can’t.

Once kids get into the teen years, hormones are so central to everything they do that it’s better to separate by gender. It’s kinder. It’s less distracting. They’re too young to have their Brahmacharya figured out.

Carol: That sounds like it would be true for teens in general. How is teaching yoga to at-risk, traumatized, and exploited youth different?

Mary Lynn: It’s important to understand that the ways in which trauma is experienced and processed in these populations is usually gendered. Generally speaking, boys are traumatized by someone that they don’t personally know very well. They’re dealing with gangs and street fighting. For girls, it’s quite different. Typically, they’re traumatized by someone they’re close to—often someone that they say “I love you” to a lot.

Teen boys and girls, like adult men and women, typically respond to trauma in different ways. There are underlying biological and psychosocial differences. Males tend to externalize their reactions, with anger, fighting, and so on. Females tend to internalize, and beat themselves up on the inside. This manifests as depression, self-mutilation (like cutting), and other mental health disorders.

Carol: Do you think that teaching yoga in a gender-responsive way has any relevance to the mainstream yoga studio population?

Mary Lynn: We need to get real. It’s a distraction when we’re looking at each other’s bodies. Of course, it’s true that part of the practice can be working to stay focused when you’re feeling attracted to someone else. But why not also have gender-specific classes?

I think it would be amazing to have gender-responsive classes that allow men and women to explore their particular concerns and experiences. For women, being able to talk about their cycles and related issues would be meaningful. To offer childcare would be fantastic.

And what if men taught men, and there was real counsel? What if they came together in circle and talked about issues of strength, power, and control in the ways that are particular to men? What if they went on from there to teach boys how to be powerful, right-thinking men? What if boys had time, space, and leadership dedicated to helping them explore the crucial issue of: What does it mean to be a man?

It would also be good to bring male and female groups together and have unity, as well as times consciously dedicated to exploring male-female issues.

While some of this is going on now, it’s not enough. In particular, there’s not enough for men being offered.

Carol: I hear a lot of talk in yoga circles about the “divine feminine.” Does that phrase mean anything to you?

Mary Lynn: I definitely think that girls and women need to connect to their divine feminine—just as boys and men need to connect with their divine masculine.

At AYP, we’re helping the teens we work with tap into the sacred feminine. Generally, they don’t like being female. They think it’s better to be male, as men run the gangs and have power. We want to help them connect to what’s good about being a girl—to honor their femininity, and cultivate femininity at its best.

The divine feminine is about being open, receptive, creative, and intuitive. It involves listening, wisdom, internal power, and unconditional love and acceptance. It means taking the lead in our culture in manifesting love, and teaching others how to love. In AYP, we practice loving the girls, and teaching them to love themselves.

It’s important to recognize that feminine energy also has its negative side. Females specialize in relational aggression, including manipulation, gossip and criticism of the masculine.

Actualizing the divine feminine should not exclude men or be negative toward men. It is important to take that responsibility. That’s not to say that we don’t talk about men—in AYP, we talk about men, sex and relationships a lot. But we do so in a way that respects the divine masculine too.

Carol: What’s most needed in the yoga world today in terms of gender-responsiveness?

Mary Lynn: I’d like to call men to step up and go into juvenile detention centers and work with at-risk boys. Teen boys need men to teach them. Right now, most yoga teachers are women. Male yoga teachers should be actively recruited. We need more men on the covers of yoga magazines. Correcting the gender imbalance in yoga could only help our culture.

We need more gay and lesbian yoga teachers. We have lesbian teachers at AYP, and it’s important to our program. But many gay male youth have also been sexually trafficked, and need help processing their trauma. Gay male teachers could play an important role in that regard.

We also need more professionals involved in yoga service. We need people who understand the world of public policy, fundraising, organizational development, and business. Our Executive Director at AYP, Lisa Pedersen, used to be a Vice President at a large high-tech company. The two of us together are a great mix. In order to have sustainability, we need to have professional expertise supporting yoga service. Otherwise, we won’t be able to build organizations that last.

To learn more about the Art of Yoga Project, you can access their website by clicking here. An earlier version of this interview was originally published on elephant journal, August 1, 2012.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at

Yoga Pose of the Week: Relaxing Yin Flow Sequence with Carrie Shuler


Enjoy this calming, meditative yin flow sequence with yoga teacher Carrie Shuler, RYT-200. The sequence focuses on the deep backbending pose, Saddle, as Carrie demonstrates how to seamlessly work a more introspective yin pose into a flow sequence. Prepare to be relaxed!



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