Interview with Rutu Chaudhari of The Dharma Project

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Rutu Chaudhari, the founder of Atlanta’s All Life is Yogastudio and, more recently, The Dharma Project, a non-profit dedicated to delivering the tools of mindfulness and yoga to communities and organizations that experience high levels of stress and trauma, is no stranger to stress and trauma herself— or yoga’s indescribable power to support, strengthen, and overcome it. Now, after years of practicing and teaching yoga, Chaudhari is giving the practice back to those who need it most. 

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“I moved to the South when I was in the middle of high school,” she started as we sat down to talk on a sunny winter afternoon. “Before that, we were living in Jersey, and then I moved from India, so we had a lot of different transitions, but one of the most intense and traumatic transitions for me was the move from the North to the South. I experienced racism all my life, but there was a type of racism in the South that I didn't experience in the North. It was really hard for me. At the same time, there was a lot of violence and abuse going on in my home life, and, by the time I left high school to enter into college, I found myself having unhealthy habits and ways of escaping, and not addressing my depression and anxiety.”

“I was just kind of a mess,” she went on to say. “I also really struggled with my body, wore super baggy clothes, and shaved my head. I just didn't want to be seen, I didn't want to be objectified or sexualized. I’d just developed a lot of unhealthy habits for escaping my reality.” 

 Luckily for her, Chaudhari had “that friend.” In this day and age, where a yoga studio is almost as common as Starbucks, we all have “that friend”: the one that swears by yoga and meditation to cure any sickness of the mind, body, or heart. “I was like, yeah, no, I’m not doing yoga,” she laughed. “Like, no Indians that I know do yoga! I’ve never seen an Indian person in the West do yoga, which is super ironic, but I just never felt like yoga was something that was for me. I didn't feel represented, so I stayed away from it, but at some point, I finally went to her class, because she became a teacher. It was like — it was immediate,” she said. “I felt an immediate effect of being in my body, of feeling good in my body. I just felt good for the first time. I remember having the sense of, “This is what it could feel like.” It was a glimmer of something really amazing, and I got hooked.” 

Over the course of her college years, yoga became more than a hobby, as Chaudhari began to cultivate a daily practice. “I wanted to feel more of that! I started to take her class weekly. I started to record her so that I could do it at home, and then it got to the point that I couldn't leave my house without doing my practice, because I felt so in my body, and so comfortable and secure about my body. I felt like I could actually be myself when I was interacting with the world. After three years of doing that, my sister suggested I try teaching. It was the next logical step. I ended up getting a job teaching, and it just became a career almost immediately. It’s the only thing I’ve done since I left college.” 

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Sixteen years later, Chaudhari is still teaching yoga. “I opened up a yoga studio seven years ago, called All Life Is Yoga, then I started [The Dharma Project] a couple years ago.” When asked what inspired her to create The Dharma Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing yoga to underserved and marginalized communities, as well as the radical “Give Yoga, Get Yoga” teacher training model, she grew thoughtful. “I was starting to feel very troubled by the reality that the majority of people that practiced yoga are white, and they’re women, and they’re affluent,” she said slowly. “It wasn’t necessarily that we didn't have different demographics coming to my studio, but generally, as a culture — even when I was growing up, and why I felt so disconnected from it even though it’s from my lineage — I still felt like, “Okay, for some reason, this is the reality of who gets to do yoga.”” 

I started to feel a personal responsibility,” she continued. “I am a part of a model of running a business — the yoga business model — that we have all kinda bought into, and this way, this story, of who gets to do yoga. It wasn’t conscious or some part of the way that I was running my business, but we’ve all kinda played a part in making yoga exclusive. This is not at all what I wanted, and knowing my own experiences with trauma, and my own experience with being a person of color, and a woman, and an immigrant, and having violence and abuse and issues with drugs, I know how this work of yoga and meditation can support these things that I experienced. That how it started to cultivate. What could change this? What sort of actions could I take to shift that story? That’s how it began.” 

And so The Dharma Project was born. Initially, Chaudhari went into it with the “Give Yoga, Get Yoga” model in mind. “But then I got into a fellowship program, and immediately, my whole idea was shut down. Not that it was shut down, it’s just that the whole goal of a fellowship is “Let’s teach you how to make your non-profit sustainable.” I ended up falling into a business. I ended up pushing aside this vision that I had, and The Dharma Project ended up doing other work for a couple of years, which I’m grateful for. That is still very much a part of our mission, but then, recently, I was like, “This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and even though most people don’t think it’s a very good idea, I still want to do it.”” 

The other work, Chaudhari goes on to explain, is part of the pillars upon which The Dharma Project was built. “We provide yoga and meditation for public servants: educators, police officers, the staff of nonprofit organizations, people whose work directly impacts others in our community. We make sure that these organizations and the people working in that environment have the tools and operations to take care of themselves, because their work is so important for all of us. We need to invest in that. We need to care that police officers are physically and mentally well, and our teachers are not being burned out. Another pillar of ours is Yoga to Vote, which is our community engagement pillar. Yoga to Vote is an initiative I started during mayoral elections in 2017 to raise awareness and encourage people to register and vote. The challenge that I see in this yoga culture and community is that there’s silence. Yoga to Vote is a way of relating things that people don’t think should be together, which is politics and yoga. It was my way of being like “Everything is yoga. It’s all relevant. All life is yoga.”” 

But at the heart of The Dharma Project is “Give Yoga, Get Yoga.” Its mission is as simple as its name: aspiring yoga teachers — specifically those who don’t fit the “mold” of the Western yoga teacher — are given free training, in exchange for volunteer work in underserved and marginalized communities. In just a few short years, Chaudhari has already seen the ripple effect of her dream. “I think that impact in the underserved communities is representation. It’s very exciting for me that there are now police officers that think yoga is something they should do. I also work at this place called At Promise Center, where “at-promise” kids who have disciplinary infractions have the option of going, instead of going to a juvenile detention center. Police officers are there, the Boys and Girls Club is there, CHRIS 180 is giving mental health care there. We have a yoga program where police officers and teenage boys and girls — two groups who do not typically trust one another — do yoga together. We’ve had a few boys who are very difficult to get involved. They cause a lot of distractions and don’t participate, and every single time, one of the boys says, “Black boys don’t do yoga. I’m not doing yoga.” That’s his story; he says it every time, and he just acts up. He continued that for several weeks, over the course of the program. I recently saw him at another event that I was doing at the Boys and Girls Club, and he said the same thing, but for whatever reason, this time — maybe because he was in a different environment — he decided to participate.”

“By the end of the session,” she went on, her passion for her work obvious as she grew emotional while sharing the story, “he came up to me and gave me a huge hug and asked when I was coming back to the At Promise Center. That’s a sample of what I envision and what I hope will happen, that people who don’t think yoga is for them begin to embrace it, begin to enjoy it, begin to benefit from it. As soon as people start doing this work, they fall in love with it. You can’t not,because it makes you feel more connected to yourself, more grounded, more calm, more able to manage your stress. I hope that we can provide that for more people.” 

It’s more than a hope, though. As she prepares for the first Give Yoga, Get Yoga training of 2019, she shares another issue she witnessed among yoga teachers, and how she intends to go about changing it, one teacher training at a time. “I think there’s a real disconnect,” she says. “People get yoga teacher training, and they want to teach at studios and fitness centers. They want to figure out a way to earn a living doing it. Earning a living teaching yoga is a wonderful aspiration, and one of the pillars of the Dharma Project is to support teachers in creating a thriving yoga career, but I think I want to see more teachers — especially initially — I want to see more people who have gotten 200-hour certifications, which is very little training, and have almost zero teaching experience, not have such a sense of entitlement to earning a living doing it.”

She goes on to explain how she is doing her part to shift that mindset. “Teachers that come out of our training are initially going to be volunteering and serving in the city, and serving where they can be of real value. I can’t imagine that that wouldn't shift our relationship to our work, you know? I think it’s going to just make a much more purposeful way of approaching the work. And that sounds crazy because anybody that wants to teach yoga isn’t doing it because they want to make a living necessarily. You’re still interested in sharing something amazing and beautiful, but I feel like it’s just gotten distorted, you know? We have gotten kind of over-occupied with the product and away from the service.” 

The best part, however, is that you don’t have to be a yogi to be a part of The Dharma Project. “We’re doing a fundraiser to raise some money, so that’s one way that the community can get involved: donate. Any amount could be helpful for us. Anybody that donates money is supporting somebody who wouldn't be able to do a teacher training otherwise and giving them the opportunity to do so, so that’s exciting! And then their work will ripple into so many different communities. Another way is by volunteering. We have a lot of different ways that people can get involved just by supporting the work we’re doing, or just by following us on social media, knowing what we’re up to, and helping to just share the vision and mission of this work is very helpful.” 

With only a few months to go before their March training, Chaudhari and her team are deep in the application and interview process, meeting their applicants prior to the training, and raising funds to help The Dharma Project grow even more in 2019. With fifty thousand dollars already raised, they’ve only got thirty thousand left to go, and Chaudhari is still in a state of intermingled disbelief and satisfaction. “I think that’s the beauty of it. There’s something really incredible about being generous with what you have, and trusting that generosity and service lead to all the things you need to sustain and support. That’s kind of been this beautiful unfolding and learning that’s happened from this experience.” 

To learn more aboutThe Dharma Projectand stay up to date on programs, volunteer opportunities, and more,follow along on their Facebook page

Luci Turner