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December 7, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

Yoga to the People. No, seriously.

Lenny Williams, founder of Mandala House

You may have heard about Yoga to the People, a donation-based yoga studio in the East Village that’s now the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga (TM). A yoga-based lawsuit could and one day may be the subject of its very own blog post, but for now I mention it merely to highlight its polar opposite: seriously bringing yoga to the people. Not just broke students who can’t afford the very high prices of yoga classes in New York, but people who’ve never heard of yoga. People like former child combatants in Uganda, and women who have survived sexual violence during conflict.

The person bringing the yoga is Lenny Williams, the founder of Mandala House, who I profiled last week for Women in the World. An excerpt follows, and the full profile can be read here.

Williams had practiced yoga regularly since her mid-twenties and trained in 2003 at OM yoga studio in downtown Manhattan. While she enjoyed taking classes, she knew she wanted to work with people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a yoga studio. To work more effectively with these populations, she began training in trauma-sensitive yoga. During a training with trauma pioneers David Emerson and Bessel van der Kolk, she realized that much of what she was learning – that yoga can help heal – she knew through her own experience.

“I didn’t even know that I was using yoga and these techniques to heal and self-regulate, but I was,” she said, “so I intuitively knew there was this toolkit. I just hadn’t formalized it.”

She tried reaching out to organizations working with incarcerated youth, and to local rape crisis centers, but got little traction. Friends who worked at the United Nations and with international relief agencies encouraged her to look abroad. Just a month after she secured fiscal sponsorship through the women’s rights organization MADRE, she got the green light from the St. Monica’s Girls School in Gulu. From her conversations with the headmistress, CNN Hero Sister Rosemary, she gathered that the staff was enthusiastic about the yoga training. Only upon her arrival did it become clear that no one had any idea what yoga was.

“I wish I had a picture of my face at that moment,” she said. “They thought it was going to be badminton or something — some sort of sports activity.”

Full story here.

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One Comment

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  1. lenny / Dec 7 2011 5:21 am

    you rock!
    thanks — again — for helping bring awareness to the work.

    hope you are well.
    be merry, be bright!

    lenny

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