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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Out of the Studio and Into the World

Sep 01, 2020 09:30AM ● By Sheila Ewers

Amelia Reiser, Traneisha Patton and Rutu Chaudhari (Photos: Jason Dennard)

Amid the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, the urgency of social injustice, and the constant need to provide modalities that help heal mind and body in vulnerable populations, it may be more urgent than ever to bring yoga out of the studio and into the world. This month, Natural Awakenings shines a spotlight on three organizations that have been bringing yoga to non-traditional populations for many years. Now, with the challenges of quarantine guidelines, they have been creatively adapting their methods in order to continue to serve the Atlanta communities that need them most.

Centering Youth

Amelia Reiser

(Photo: Jason Dennard)

Founded in 2013, Centering Youth is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit yoga service initiative that brings 
yoga and mindfulness to young people in the juvenile justice system and to those who have been sexually exploited, abused or are homeless.

Since its inception, the organization has been working with the State of Georgia to bring yoga and mindfulness classes to Metro Atlanta Juvenile Detention Centers as part of the justice system’s mental health services program. That program is currently participating in a research study with the National Institutes of Health to measure outcomes related to the participants’ behavior and adaptation to incarceration. Other organizations that benefit from Centering Youth’s outreach include The Covenant House of Georgia, Pregnant Inmates at Helms State Prison, Anchor Hospital and the International Rescue Committee.

Founded by Holle Black, Marlysa Sullivan and Bob Altman, the organization’s local operations are now run by Amelia Reiser, who trained with Black in the Pranakriya Yoga tradition and joined the group in 2018. A professional dancer, Reiser worked for many years with her mother, Dr. Joan Phillips, Ph.D., LMFT, LPC, in crisis relief. They brought creative movement, breath and body awareness to devastated populations of tornado victims in Oklahoma and Missouri. Feeling called to facilitate outreach and drawn to embodied modalities, Reiser found her home at Centering Youth, teaching classes and working on operational, administrative, and fundraising aspects of the nonprofit.

Nine yoga teachers, all of whom have special training in trauma-sensitive yoga, teach for Centering Youth. The organization now reaches beyond the state of Georgia to New Hampshire, where Black is partnering with Dartmouth University to create a program for pregnant women suffering from opioid use disorders.

The unique demands of COVID-19 have created unanticipated obstacles to servicing these less accessible populations, many of which require strict protocols and security even under ordinary circumstances. While teachers have been unable to go into detention centers, the organization is in talks with the State of Georgia to establish Zoom classes that will adhere to the privacy rights of the juvenile inmates. They have explored pre-recorded classes and are also communicating by telephone. According to Reiser, they are using the “pause” to streamline infrastructure and define best practices to avoid disruptions in service that could appear in the future. She believes that now, more than ever, the role of yoga is seva, or service.

Centering Youth is always looking for teachers who are willing to make a commitment to the work. They also need grant writers and financial support. For partnering and teaching opportunities, contact Holle Black at [email protected] For fundraising and educational opportunities, contact Amelia Reiser at [email protected]


The Dharma Project

Rutu Chaudari  

(Photo: Jason Dennard)

The Dharma Project, which was founded in 2016 by Rutu Chaudhari, brings self-care in the form of mindfulness and yoga to communities and organizations that experience high levels of stress and trauma. [Ed: See our profile of The Dharma Project in our April 2019 issue: bit.ly/NADharmaProject]

For the last several years, the Dharma Project has been providing yoga classes at the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) Metro Re-entry facility, a secure environment offering essential services for incarcerated men who are nearing release. The program has been so well-received that of the 15 to 20 men currently involved, six of them have expressed a desire to become yoga teachers themselves. Before the emergence of the coronavirus, Chaudhari was working closely with the DOC to create a Yoga Teacher Certification within the facility. As services have been interrupted, she has pivoted to create an “Ambassador” program instead. She emails written curriculum to the Deputy Warden, who shares it with the men in the facility. Those who want to teach have short sequences to share with up to five other men who are not already practicing yoga. In this way, the program grows within the facility, and the men are empowered with new, viable skills that they can take with them upon release.

Chaudhari says that the goal of those offering outreach and yoga should always be to “become dispensable, to solve a problem while empowering people to do it on their own, to allow the communities receiving support to then support each other within the community.” She believes that most problems are best solved by the communities experiencing the challenges.

Dharma Project also works with the Forrest Hill Academy, a school primarily for at-risk youth. Prior to the pandemic, teachers offered classes to students in the facility, but when learning went online, they shifted to teach yoga via Zoom to the faculty and administration who were in need of more support.

In partnership with All Life is Yoga, a studio owned by Chaudhari, Dharma Project recently launched its Give Yoga, Get Yoga program, a yoga teacher training program that can be paid with yoga service, hour-for-hour. The number of hours students train is the number of hours they offer to teach in the community under Chaudhari’s guidance. While gaining full certification, prospective teachers also receive invaluable mentoring and sharpen real teaching skills for populations that often have no access to yoga.

Like all programs that Dharma Project commits itself to, Give Yoga, Get Yoga focuses on expanding access to yoga and enhancing diversity and inclusion so that healing practices are welcoming for all.

Dharma Project is always seeking support by means of financial donations, volunteers and networking opportunities with policymakers and sponsors. To get involved, visit www.thedharmaproject.org or email Rutu Chaudhari at [email protected]


Little Brown Yogis Project and Ladybug for Girls Foundation

Treneisha Patton

(Photo: Jason Dennard)

The Little Brown Yogis Project was born in response to the outcry from the Atlanta community to end racial injustice. Founded in 2020 by Treneisha Patton, the project aims to serve children of color who are dealing with the effects—and side-effects—of COVID-19, from being pulled from school to living with stressful conversations at home about the dangers to African Americans in America. A certified Grounded Kids Yoga Teacher, Patton offers free online classes to children of color, ages two to six, in order to support them physically, spiritually and emotionally. By the end of their first month, Patton and other volunteers had worked with more than 50 families. The vision for the project continues to grow as offerings now include free monthly virtual yoga sessions, and plans are in the works for in-person engagement when conditions are safe.

Patton is also executive director of the Ladybug for Girls Foundation, Inc., a health-and-wellness, youth development, after-school club for girls. Operating for more than 10 years in Dekalb County schools, the foundation’s mission is to empower young girls by introducing positive thoughts about self-image early in their development in order to strengthen their resilience and coping skills before they reach adolescence. The practice of yoga is at the core of the organization’s social and emotional learning objectives, but it also teaches many other skills, including gardening, personal hygiene and leadership. Patton reports that the combination of yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques helps girls experience reduced anxiety and heightened emotional management.

 “We have found that girls who are in our after-school clubs are better able to develop the necessary coping skills that help them be more confident and resilient to some of the social pressures girls typically face.” Ladybug for Girls also works with underserved girls in West Africa and rural villages of India.

Both Little Brown Yogis and Ladybug for Girls need volunteers, financial resources and assistance reaching families who need their services. To get more involved, email Treneisha Patton at [email protected] or visit LadybugForGirls.org and LittleBrownYogis.carrd.co.

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Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga teacher training classes and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in several online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach Sheila at [email protected]

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