Yoga for all: The Dharma Project is creating inclusive, representative yoga culture

Dharma Project’s inaugural Give Yoga Get Yoga teacher training graduates. (Photo by Inari Brianna)

The Dharma Project is now providing yoga instruction to men at a second prison – Burress Facility in Forsyth – thanks to equipment funded by MailChimp.

“We’re excited about how this work can expand to other prison facilities in Georgia,” Rutu Chaudhari, Dharma Project Executive Director. The Metro Reentry Facility in DeKalb County was its first prison partner.

The nonprofit works to bring yoga and meditation to those who experience high levels of stress or trauma and believes that regardless of race, location, gender, sexual orientation, or financial state – everyone should have access to these self-care practices.
Chaudhari felt the healing power of yoga 22 years ago.

“I was going through a lot around violence I experienced in earlier years, dealing with body image and being a woman of color in the South. I found myself getting anxious and depressed all the time,” Chaudhari shared. “Immediately, I loved the empowerment it was giving me with my own body and emotional response to things.”

She began practicing diligently, went on to earn her certification and opened her own studio.

APD Officer Chuma Chapman shows off a yoga pose. (Photo by Rutu Chaudhari)

“It became very apparent that different groups of people weren’t doing yoga – whether it was men, people with different abilities/disabilities or people of color.” Chaudhari said. “When I see people who look like me participating in or leading in certain things, I am more receptive to the possibility that it is something for me.”

Driven by the intention to create a more inclusive and representative yoga culture, she founded The Dharma Project, which has served more than 550 people since 2016.
Two years ago, Chaudhari began partnering with the Metro Reentry Facility to help support the re-entry of men finishing the last 24 months of their sentence. A few participants wanted to go further and explore yoga certification.

“I was excited about providing them with another option for when they return to society; to earn income by showing others how to take care of themselves” Chaudhari said.
In January 2020, she began an informal certification process at the facility, while awaiting formal approval from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

“All I asked was that they find three to five guys [not in our program] to teach on a regular basis. We had 25 guys in our program and a lot who would not do yoga in that group environment. But if guys within the facility were teaching them, they might be open to it,” Chaudhari explained.

During the pandemic, she sends in written packets of curriculum, meditation, and philosophy because the facility lacks online programming.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that there are guys in there teaching each other and excited about getting their certification,” Chaudhari said.

The Dharma Project and All Life is Yoga also provide certification for applicants who pay for training with yoga service to underserved groups, hour for hour.

Yemisi Harrison apprenticed with Chaudhari at the Metro Reentry Facility and recently completed his 200-hour yoga teacher training certification. He began practicing yoga nearly 30 years ago at Morehouse College, which taught him that “we all share the same fundamental nature.”

“It’s a little unnerving walking into a prison – hearing all the heavy doors locking behind you,” Harrison said. “But once I was in there with those men, I felt safe. It was rewarding to watch. You could see them just let go for a moment.”

He is hopeful that yoga will help the returning citizens navigate life outside of prison to create healthy and happy lives.

“When you do something that improves the quality of your life, you naturally want to share it with others” Harrison said. “Eventually, presenting myself as a teacher, people, particularly men may be more inclined to learning this wonderful psycho-physiological discipline and experience its benefits.”

The Dharma Project has also conducted outreach with Atlanta police officers. In 2017, Chaudhari visited several precincts during roll call.

“Similar to what’s going on right now, “Chaudhari said. “There was a lot of concern about the reactions police officers had to circumstances they were called in for.”
She would show them breathing and meditation techniques and saw resistance give way to interest. Zone 4 Atlanta Police Sergeant Chuma Chapman heard her speak and decided a year later to take a class. He’s been practicing with Chaudhari ever since and now serves on The Dharma Project Board.

“Give it a shot. I tell my officers under my command.” Chapman said. “I talk with them a lot about mental health. I admit to them – yes, I have issues – I also have a therapist. I also do yoga. I work out a lot. I do different things to find a healthy balance in my life. To get me to a point where I can be their rock in the field if they need me and make sure I’m still a sane person when I get home.”

Yoga at Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy. (Photo by Brianna Whitfield)

And to reach the next generation, the Dharma Project partners with schools – like the Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy, an alternative public school in southwest Atlanta.
“It was palpable the shift from the beginning to the end of class,” Chaudhari said. “How much more calm, focused and present the kids were. And shifting in their interaction with each other – less negative talking and more playfulness.”

As students embraced the program, faculty and staff also took note of its impact.
“Students expressed how yoga significantly helped them to become more open-minded, increased their self-confidence, and nurtured the desire to broaden their horizons,” Principal Dr. Zawadaski Robinson said.

Next up, Chaudhari is launching a high school curriculum once she identifies the pilot APS school.

“To have lasting meaningful impact – four years of a consistent practice is going to give them tools to use their entire life,” Chaudhari said. “This stuff really works and there’s a lot of opportunity to solve some of the problems we have in this city using these tools.”