On the blog this week meet #CCIsuperstar, Rutu Chaudhari, founder and director of The Dharma Project, Civic Innovation Fellow, and current participant in the Civic Women's Fellowship. Rutu’s vision is to provide self care in the form of yoga, mindfulness, nutrition and lifestyle to public service organizations and the communities they work with. Her focus is on disrupting the monoculture of yoga by training instructors who are representative of the communities that they serve.
Tell us a little more about yourself. Where did the idea come from for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I was born in India and moved to Scranton, PA when I was five years old. The only reason that people know about Scranton is because The Office takes place there. From there we moved to Jersey City and then finally to Snellville, Georgia. Snellville was the more difficult transition, even more so than moving from another country. My sister and I were two of only four brown skinned people in our entire school, so this was a traumatic change for me. As soon as I could, I moved out of that small town to the city and began to study literature at Georgia State.
My yoga practice began during my time in college. Because my upbringing was filled with violence and trauma, by the time I got into college I was struggling to manage anxiety and depression. I was also struggling with my body image and the idea of having a female body that is constantly objectified and sexualized. I was not dealing with these things in a healthy way. Initially, I was not interested in yoga either because there was nobody who practiced yoga in the West who looked like me. A good friend of mine invited me to take a class with her, so eventually I did. After that class, I felt an immediate sense of relief. I felt in my body for the first time in the longest time.
It was a very powerful initial exposure to the practice and I was immediately hooked. From that moment on, I was practicing every day. I didn’t take classes at studios because I was in college and couldn’t afford it, so I would tape my friend and research videos of the poses. My practice became my therapy; it allowed me to feel in control of and relaxed in my own body, and less affected by external circumstances. My sister eventually suggested I pursue a teaching certification and expand my knowledge of the topic. Pretty immediately I realized I wanted to share this. I started with family and friends--I was always trying to coerce them into doing yoga because it had been so impactful for me. It was at this time that I decided to start teaching and now I have been teaching for 13 years, practicing for 17 years.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
The idea for the Dharma Project grew out of my frustration with the demographic that yoga serves. Knowing how much yoga helped me navigate the experiences of being a woman and a person of color, I felt that there were a lot of people who could benefit from yoga in their lives. As I began to evaluate what those reasons are that these groups, including people of color, men, and different body sizes, don’t practice yoga, I began to suspect it was not just a financial matter. The barriers are the same barriers that I experienced in not seeing myself represented and in breaking down the monoculture of yoga. When I started this fellowship with CCI, I wanted to create more leadership in yoga that looked like the people that exist in my community.
The style of yoga that I teach is an integral approach to yoga that has alignment based asana practice, a lot of meditation, as well as nutrition and lifestyle education. It’s not an athletic form of practice, it’s a lifestyle practice. We have a lot of public servants show up at our studio and they’re drawn to the practice because it’s not just a workout, it’s asking questions such as: How do I heal despite all of the stress and trauma that I deal with at work? How do I take care of myself as a whole person? We teach people how to take care of themselves. In order to take care of yourself you have to work on the many aspects that allow you to be well.
The Dharma Project is a nontraditional way to address a very common issue. In the public service sector, there is a high rate of burnout and turnover. We have a lot of teachers, social workers, nonprofit workers already coming to our studio who are doing the work to serve others. We also already know that public servants are not taking care of themselves. This approach has proven to be effective as well in reducing stress and increasing focus and mindfulness, so why not start at the top. Then, because public service organizations have already developed a relationship of trust with the groups they serve, through them we also get the opportunity to expose this practice to a lot of people who aren’t represented in the larger yoga culture.
How has CCI supported you in your work?
I love to work on my craft, to teach, and to serve. I don’t want to spend my time looking at the numbers. Selling my idea isn’t the challenge- I have a lot of conviction and experience to know that this works because I have seen people’s lives change. CCI has helped me to think with more of a business mindset. I love that now I know what I need to know in order to propel my idea forward. In the past I felt like I was shooting in the dark, but now all of the business components have come together and allowed me to continue my work.
How do you change people’s perceptions of yoga?
When something makes you feel good, you’re going to do it. But getting to that point can be hard. It happened immediately for me, I had a glimpse of what my life could be like the very first time I took a yoga class. I had a glimpse of my anxiety levels reducing and me feeling comfortable and strong in my body- and that glimpse was enough for me. But sometimes that glimpse doesn’t come for everyone.
It’s about access and experiencing it. I think it’s like art. As soon as you start exposing people that don’t typically have exposure to art, the artists will emerge. The people who have it as a calling don’t know that until they are exposed to it.
The essence of this practice is becoming self referential. Everything in our life right now is separating us from feeling: our food contains chemicals, our media is numbing us from violence, and our environment is toxic. But yoga gets you to start feeling. It is designed to make you feel and be sensitive, and make choices that move you towards being kind to yourself and others. The empathy that is required to take care of other people is being lost because we’re so numb, and this needs to change. Yoga is one way to do that.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?
I believe the two biggest challenges are affordable housing and climate change. I live in a neighborhood near Grant Park that has been neglected for the longest time. We lived quietly and peacefully in this really diverse little community, but in the past two years because the Memorial corridor is changing hands, almost all of the old residents have been pushed out of the neighborhood. This is a huge problem for our community. In addition to this, as a result of climate change, there is less oxygen in the atmosphere. This has big implications for a practice that requires a lot of breathing.
Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs are so focused on the work, on constantly giving. I’m still learning a lot about the nonprofit world, but it seems as though selflessness is glorified. A lot of the nonprofits that I talk to don’t prioritize taking care of their staff, even though it should be a part of the programs that they offer. If these organizations have money, of course they want to give it to their programs. While this may seem like a no-brainer, self care is also important in order to enable staff to do this kind of work. Self care is an important part of what we do and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but getting funders and leaders to take action to change this culture is a new concept. I want people to do this practice with the same importance that they put on brushing your teeth in the morning. You wouldn’t leave your house without brushing your teeth. That is my vision for the world-- that people take that 10-15 minutes to reflect on their day and take care of themselves.
What partnerships is the Dharma Project currently working on?
I would love to find people that want to share this experience as I continue to share with more organizations. I would also love to be certifying people within organization, but this piece of the project hasn't happened yet, because we’ve only been around for a year. Right now we’re trying to lay the groundwork for our full programming, which requires a lot of patience. We’re working on a partnership with another CCI fellow, Jeffery Martín of honorCode. The kids that his organization works with often come from low income school systems, where many issues develop as a result of these kids living in poverty. Teaching kids how to code is awesome because after high school they can get a job and make a significant living, but you haven’t addressed the social emotional issues within the person. Those issues will just continue to surface and cause problems, so we’re partnering honorCode and the Dharma Project as a way of getting kids out of their head and into their own bodies.
Another initiative we are working on involves police officers and law enforcement. We’re really excited about this idea, but it’s also one of the hardest systems to crack. But I am hopeful because I believe that this project will have a really big impact. Research has shown that police officers manage their stress in very toxic ways, and that many police officers are having stress-related health issues. There is a lot of space to develop alternatives to current outlets for stress reduction.
We’d like to send many thanks to Rutu for discussing her experiences with such candor and for inviting us to experience her practice first hand at her studio, All Life is Yoga, in Inman Park. Attend a class and try this alignment based practice for yourself! More information on the Dharma Project + honorCode partnership can be found here.
Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.