Spotlight: Taking Yoga to Police Officers and More
Rutu Chaudhari (left) offers yoga… with a twist.
Rutu Chaudhari’s ‘The Dharma Project’ seeks to universalize yoga in America, where it is often confined to people who are “white, skinny, and upper-class.” In the process, she also seeks to transform the image of yoga—from one that is associated merely with body-bending exercises to one where it is seen in its ancient, classical aspect—as a comprehensive life-enhancing practice.
All Life is Yoga.
That’s not only the name of Rutu Chaudhari’s stylish yoga studio in Inman Park, an Atlanta neighborhood, but it is also a statement about Chaudhari’s regard for this ancient practice. It is this mission of hers to spread yoga as more than just exercise postures, which separates her from just another corner-yoga-studio teacher.
Recognizing that there are economic and social divisions that underlie yoga’s cultural divide, Chaudhari began thinking and planning on how to break down these barriers and expand yoga’s accessibility. That’s how The Dharma Project was born in 2016.
Chaudhari started the nonprofit, The Dharma Project, to provide self-care practices to public service organizations. Having experienced firsthand how yoga can help navigate life situations such as being a minority woman or overcoming negative body image, Chaudhari knew there were others who needed yoga’s “transformative, healing, and profound” practices. The cost for yoga lessons can be a real barrier for many communities, especially for working class communities of color. Financial burden aside, yoga in America has also acquired a yuppie, high-end image that prevents many minority groups from feeling a sense of belonging there.
So Chaudhari started training yoga teachers from various diverse communities. Having more people of color teaching yoga means that a larger cross section of people get to enjoy its benefits of mind, body, and spirit.
For years, her studio has helped public service employees with yoga’s healing practices. Chaudhari noticed a pattern of burnout and stress fatigue in some of the most important people that work in public service including teachers, police officers, and nonprofit workers. Using her knowledge as a Civic Innovation Fellow (from Center for Civic Innovation’s 6-month business and leadership program for Atlanta-based social entrepreneurs), she was able to expand access to public service organizations and their communities. She has visited police stations to give 5-minute talks to officers about yoga’s health benefits. Typically, though at first most of the officers are flippant, by the end of her talk “many of the officers hear themselves in my talk especially regarding how 45% of police officers experience PTSD or stress-related health issues, and how yoga can help combat that,” Chaudhari explains.
In 2016, Chaudhari was selected for a Civic Women’s Fellowship, a partnership between Center for Civic Innovation and The Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation, as one of 10 women entrepreneurs to support and develop as leaders in their social enterprise. (pictured left)
Last year, The Dharma Project was selected as a finalist for United Way of Greater Atlanta’s SPARK prize. Chaudhari has used the fellowships and prize “to build the vision and mission of The Dharma Project.”
(Right) Students at Washington High School doing meditation with Chaudhari (not seen in photo).
As is often the case, Chaudhari came upon yoga thanks to her own pain and suffering. Born in Ahmedabad, India, Chaudhari’s father moved the family to Scranton, PA, and after a few years they moved to Jersey City, NJ. Her father’s entrepreneurship brought them to small-town Snellville, GA in 1993 during her formative teenage years. She describes her high school years as a “traumatic experience.” “I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression. Many times I felt isolated and alone,” Chaudhari recounts when we met at her small but stylish studio.
Her older sister and Chaudhari were some of the only people of color in their high school, and they experienced blatant racism. One incident in which a classmate poured deer urine in her backpack still leaves a haunted look in her eyes. Patterns of discrimination and bigotry while trying to assimilate left Chaudhari harrowed, struggling to cope with anxiety and a negative body image.
Her salvation came in college when a friend arm-twisted her to take a yoga class. This first yoga experience while a student at Georgia State University is testimony to its fundamental self-reflective practices—and so began her journey to awakening and self-awareness.
With a BA in English Literature, Chaudhari “felt lost after college graduation”, so she decided to follow through on her sister’s suggestion to take a yoga teaching course. “The minute I walked into my first instructor course, I felt this immediate calling. It was as if I found home. I felt this immense weight being lifted. It was this letting go of negativity and seeing new light. It was like yoga was my therapy without judgment or stress.”
Chaudhari has practiced yoga since 1999 and is on a mission for people to understand that “the physical practice is just a minor component of what it means to do yoga.” Though she understands that cool pants and designer mats have brought yoga into the mainstream, thus exposing it to millions who may not have practiced before, nevertheless she feels it is time that society acknowledges yoga in its essence—a journey to self-awareness.
(Left) Students learning anatomy in Chaudhari’s yoga teaching certification program.
Chaudhari’s first student was blind. She quickly realized that there was a real need for teaching yoga as a healing practice so she focused on teaching Purna Yoga, which is based on body alignment and meditation. Her journey to be a yoga teacher led her to study with renowned yoga masters Aadil and Savitri Palkhivala in Washington State. Aadil Palkhivala was a disciple of B. K. S. Iyengar, whom Chaudhari refers to as “the grandfather of yoga.” In 2008, Chaudhari received her 2,000-hour certification—an advanced benchmark that ensures the student achieves the “highest standards of excellence in personal practice, yoga teaching, and life.” Chaudhari’s life changed after completing her studies: “There is no aspect of who I am that is not influenced by what they have taught me.” Palkhivala’s focus on yoga’s integrity and “not a fitness practice” was central in Chaudhari’s self-discovery to be the “most authentic version of myself.”
Her clientele come from all walks of life—young, old, skinny, overweight, white, African American, rich and poor. Chaudhari’s focus is to make sure yoga is open and available to everyone. She says that her main frustration with yoga in the West is that “people associate it with being white, skinny, and upper-class.” Data shows about one in every 15 Americans practices yoga, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal study, and more than four-fifths of them are white. “Yoga can be seen as exclusive if people don’t see others that look like them—especially teaching or even on the mat beside them,” Chaudhari asserts.
Chaudhari’s life’s work is to see yoga in the West evolve and change by acknowledging yoga’s roots, and helping people practice the fullness it has to offer. Her studio, the nonprofit she has established, and her own daily lifestyle embody the awakening shift in yoga’s cultural divide.
Neha Negandhi is a freelance writer and social change organizer based in Atlanta, Georgia.
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