Yoga for the People: Inside the Dharma Project
When a friend first suggested to Rutu Chaudhari that she try yoga to manage her mounting levels of stress, she wasn’t interested.
“No one who looks like me did yoga,” she said, explaining even though she and yoga are Indian, yoga in America has been entirely gentrified by affluent white women.
She eventually decided one class couldn’t hurt, and soon after that, had a sudden realization.
“I had such an immediate experience of release,” she explained. “For the first time, I felt like there was something that could help me manage what I was dealing with.” Chaudhari began to practice yoga intensely. Four years after she started, she got her teaching license, and in 2011, she opened her own studio, All Life Is Yoga, in Inman Park. While she was thrilled to be earning a living practicing her passion, she says, the parts of yoga culture that had first alienated her were still present.
“When I opened up the studio, I started to have the realizations of lack of access and exclusion in yoga,” she explains, openly wondering, “Why are most of the people who do yoga white and affluent?”
Chaudhari set out to diversify the local yoga community with a set of programs, classes and efforts that coalesced into The Dharma Project in 2017.
“Most teachers would say they want their studios to be diverse,” says Chaudhari, “but the amount of effort that takes—most studios are not willing to put in.” Chaudhari aims for diversity through inclusive marketing and through programs such as her Give Yoga Get Yoga program, which is expected to begin in late April.
“One of the things I know I can do is start to be strategic about the leadership we have,” she continues. In her Give Yoga Get Yoga program, for example, Chaudhari certifies teachers free of charge, and they teach a certain number of hours for free in exchange.
By selecting a wide spectrum of teachers—including men, the elderly and people of color—Chaudhari hopes to diversify the leadership of the Atlanta yoga scene.
“Working with public servants also became a very interesting area for us,” she says. A branch of The Dharma Project is dedicated to meeting their needs. “Public servants are struggling to take care of their own physical and mental well-being, which is affecting how they relate to the clients they serve.”
Chuma Chapman is a nine-year Zone 2 senior police officer who met Chaudhari at a presentation she gave at his precinct. He takes her classes weekly and says they have been a fantastic influence on his physical and mental health. “Yoga really helped me calm down,” Chapman says. “I started to see things from other people’s points of views if I didn’t in the past, and it helped ground me.”
Chapman says that besides the calming aspect, yoga has had several physical benefits for him. “It’s quite a workout,” he says, and while it hasn’t replaced his frequent trips to the gym, it does compliment them nicely. It has also aided his recovery time.
“I have an ongoing issue of pulling a muscle in every foot chase I get into,” he says. While previously, his injuries could have kept him off patrol for a week, he had, just the day before he spoke to Natural Awakenings, pulled a muscle in a foot chase, and his body was already back in working order.
The Dharma Project offers classes focused on fostering civic engagement and educating Atlanta’s voters, including a YogatheVote class and semester-long yoga classes at Booker T Washington High School.
“The way we talk about this practice makes it approachable to everybody,” Chaudhari says. “Our work is so much about listening. People are always talking about what they need, and my job is connecting their needs with how they support them.”