Yoga Gives Back Around the World

After foot surgery, I had to find an exercise regime that didn't require shoes. My gym offered a yoga class and from there I started "doing" yoga.

I'd heard of yoga places with their Om or shanti-something names, but it didn't mean I would enter the unknown. My gym was the familiar, and even though I peddled on the bikes, climbed the elliptical machine, and pounded weights, I knew no one and spoke to no one.

This is how I rolled for years. I still know no one from the gyms I frequented, and I've never reminisced about padding the mechanical stairs. I certainly didn't help launch a non-profit to give back to a culture that brought weigh training into my life. But that's what I did after I hit the yoga path.

Eleven years of yoga practice later, I pause when reading what yoga brings to practitioners. I do this because I still don't comprehend how yoga does all that people proclaim, but it does, and more.

Here's what I do know: The physical practice of yoga changes the body. As the body changes, our physical, mental and emotional well-being improves. So much so that I've made lifelong friends, studied scripture and philosophy, traveled near and far to practice yoga with compadres and respected teachers, and I contribute through Yoga Gives Back, a non-profit that helps women build sustainable livelihoods with microloans and helps their children reach their dreams through education.

That's my story. For Jorgen Christiansson, long-time yoga teacher and ambassador for Yoga Gives Back, Indian music filtered through his dad's recording studio in Sweden. At a young age he gravitated to the sounds of world music. In the local library, he explored different cultures and, in his late teens, set off to India to learn about Indian philosophy and yoga. Twenty years later he is still practicing and teaching yoga.

"I've always felt strongly about trying to unite people from different faiths, cultures and traditions," Christiansson said. We sat down in his yoga studio, Omkar108, and chatted on the floor while old Hindi bhajans and incense wafted through the air. Christiansson has bright blue eyes and passes for a Midwesterner or a native Swede, but he definitely seems otherworldly.

Yoga, as Westerns have witnessed, has transitioned through the terrible branding phase of the 70s. Like the awkward teen, it's morphed into the beautiful being so many embrace. Yoga's explosion speaks not only to the integrity of yoga but also to the creativity and innovation of the West.

Retail stores like Lululemon and yoga schools like Bikram have blossomed. But without this ancient Indian practice we would have none of this.

Kayoko Mitsumatsu, a Japanese documentary filmmaker and resident of Los Angeles, started to explore yoga's roots while enjoying her regular yoga practice. Mitsumatsu also understood the power of microloans after producing a documentary on the subject, learning about Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and the innovator of microloans as we know them today. Mitsumatsu felt strongly about the practice's effect on her and founded Yoga Gives Back to give back to the country that gave us yoga.

76% of India's population lives below the poverty line while six billion dollars is spent each year on yoga in the U.S. alone.

"With $25 a month, a struggling woman can start her own business, or a child can go to school. For the cost of one yoga class, you can change a life," Mitsumatsu said.

Yoga Gives Back is just a few years old but has grown rapidly with an expanding network of teachers and volunteers around the globe. Proceeds from donation yoga classes go to either the Grameen Foundation or to a direct funding program launched in 2010 called Sister Aid. Among 22 mothers who received microloans this year, 15 women are already making profits.

On September 17, Yoga Gives Back launches their first global fundraiser, "Thank You Mother India," with over 50 studios from 10 countries participating. Teachers will devote a special donation class so that everyone can share in the moment.

"I appreciate Jorgen's support to make this event for all, uniting the global yoga community beyond schools and geographical borders to give back to India."

"It's nice to acknowledge India," Christiansson said. "With the yoga community to support this cause it helps us remember the importance of the roots of yoga and practice it from a sincere place."

Today in India, yoga's roots are going through another transformation as techies and middle-class Indians seek out Western style yoga studios. Christiansson was recently asked to teach yoga in India to Indians. Given that he sought out this unique and old culture as a child, I asked him if he thought it was strange it would seek him out as an adult.

"People come to practice from all walks of life, with their own limitations and reasons, but we realize through yoga, the main work we do inside is all the same."

A quest that began in a Swedish library and a recording studio, grew into a lifelong dedication to India. "You reach people's hearts through three things: music, food and language," Christiansson said.

I guess we can now add a fourth, yoga.