Karma Yoga Heroes: Yoga Impact

Newly incarcerated, Tracy Housman was in a dark and transitional place in her life when she signed up for a weekly yoga class called “Relaxation Techniques.”  Thanks to Yoga Impact, the organization that brought yoga into the prison, Tracy was able to experience inner peace and start to rebuild her life.

Yoga Impact is a Colorado-based non-profit that teaches yoga for stress relief to underserved populations including yoga for veterans, prisoners, PTSD sufferers, and at-risk children and teens. Founded in 2008, Yoga Impact is the brainchild of Nancy Candea and Kourtney Betts, two certified yoga therapists from Boulder.

Candea and Betts were inspired by stories of other yoga teachers, who left the comfort of the studio to bring yoga to populations with limited or no access. They banded together with a group of like-minded yoga professionals to give those suffering in their communities a chance at physical well-being and inner peace.

Yoga Impact runs a variety of classes and workshops in cities throughout the country. Their specialized teacher training helps yoga instructors learn how to adapt their curriculum to underserved populations.  Participants complete 240 hours of training over a period of nine months to a year, which qualifies them to teach in studios. Afterwards, they complete a 40-hour continuing education program that gives them skills for teaching in prisons, shelters, schools, or hospitals.

“What a wonderful gift to be given,” writes Housman, who after her release from prison trained to be an instructor with Yoga Impact.  “I am excited that I will be able to bring this to people in the future.  I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have met Nancy [Candea], to be learning from her, and to have the chance to share this knowledge with people who desperately need it in their lives. These people aren’t even aware of how much they could benefit from the teachings, just like I didn’t know…Forgotten people are worth remembering.“

Housman signed up to take Candea’s class at a Boulder women’s prison after noticing that it was popular with some of the older women. Yoga was completely foreign to her, but she appreciated the physical benefits and was intrigued by Nancy’s lessons on “loving-kindness.”  Housman went to yoga classes weekly for much of her 9-month sentence, and, upon release, began training to be an instructor herself. She says her Yoga Impact classes revolutionized the way she related to herself and the outside world.

“Too many people in the jail become bitter and angry and even aggressive,” she notes in an article in Yoga Therapy Today. “It was very difficult to be in such close quarters with so many people going through so much stress. But the techniques taught in the classes allowed me to interact with people and accept their behaviors without feeling triggered myself. I was able to find a place of peace within myself…[Yoga] was truly like being able to take a vacation inside of my own body. I could be surrounded by aggression and chaos and yet be in a safe, calm place within myself.”

In addition to reaching out to individuals who want to become instructors, Yoga Impact also partners with wellness programs at community shelters, transitional housing, or outreach facilities to help them introduce yoga to their clients. These facilities range from women’s shelters and veteran centers to after-school teen programs. Yoga Impact helps interested outreach centers raise money, write grants, or find local instructors who have experience working with the populations they serve. The organization also gives out necessary yoga “props”, i.e., mats, books, and DVDs that make teaching yoga much easier.

Candea’s blog is full of personal stories about her experience teaching. “I’ve probably taught 6,000 yoga classes to children and adults,” she notes.  “Probably 90 percent of those went really well…[but] in the jail and shelter work that I do, I hear some stories that go beyond heartbreaking. I see the resilience of women who have been through horrific ordeals in both childhood and as adults. Helping them with skills to regain their health and to gain the confidence needed to make productive choices for themselves is high on my list for what makes a good work week.”

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