Yoga has been an important tool in Rutu Chaudhari’s life since she was in college. Now she’s trying to pass that on.
Chaudhari founded The Dharma Project in April of 2016, a nonprofit that aims to diversify yoga’s audience and bring its benefits to those who need it most. When she was in college at Georgia State University, a friend introduced her to yoga and it helped her center her mind and body for the first time in years.
After college, she decided to study yoga and make it a more integral part of her life. She began teaching in 2003 and opened her own studio, All Life is Yoga, in 2011.
“I taught all over town. I taught everywhere I could get an opportunity to teach,” Chaudhari said. “It was my only career, you know? I didn’t really pursue anything else.”
When Chaudhari started the project in 2016, it arose from a desire to change the perception of yoga and create a more diverse culture around the practice. She had been teaching and practicing for so long, but wanted to do something bigger.
“I thought, well maybe I could train people, and provide scholarships, and do something to create a more representative or reflective yoga community,” she said. “So that’s really where it started.”
Now, The Dharma Project works with incarcerated people, with refugees, with the Atlanta Public School system, and with numerous other partners to bring yoga to underserved communities. Reporter Newspapers spoke with Chaudhari about her own journey with yoga and how trauma-informed yoga works to help people get back in control of their bodies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Reporter Newspapers: Can we start with a little bit about you?
Rutu Chaudhari: I was born in India, and my family moved to the U.S. when I was about five years old. We moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, which seems like an unusual place for people to go, but there’s a lot of factories. So [there’s] a lot of immigrants there.
From Pennsylvania, we lived in Jersey. And it was while I was in high school that we transitioned to Snellville, Georgia. At the time, Snellville wasn’t what it is today. Gwinnett is way more diverse. Back then, it really wasn’t. It was a very different experience. It was pretty intense in terms of racial things and just feeling isolated, and things like that.
What was your personal journey with yoga? How did you get into it?
RC: I was, during that time in high school, struggling to feel a place of belonging at school. But also, family life was very intense – lots of violence happening in the home. By the time I was in my later teens into early adulthood, I was struggling. I was struggling with depression, anxiety, feeling very dissociated from my body. I mean, I wasn’t aware that that’s what was going on, but I was experiencing a lot of anxiousness and panic. So there was trauma that wasn’t really addressed.
I was going to Georgia State [University] at the time, and I remember … I had a friend that was like, you should try yoga. I just didn’t connect with it. I didn’t think it was for me, you know? I didn’t see anyone that looked like me that did it. For some reason, I just didn’t think it was a tool that was for me – which is strange, which is ironic. I mean, I’m from India, it’s very much part of the Indian heritage. My mom is quite involved in spiritual practices. But for me, I just felt very disconnected from that as a possibility.
I finally did try it because a friend of mine was teaching and she just asked me to come and take a class. The first time I took a class, I had a profound experience of feeling my body. It was like, what just happened? I felt good physically, but there was something much deeper than the physical sensation of good. I just felt in my body for the first time in a long time. And I was hooked. I immediately started to soak it up, take classes with her as much as I could. It came to a point where every day, before I could even go outside of my house and interact with other humans, I had to do my practice. It impacted me so much. It was like a medication, you know? It helped with social anxiety, it helped me feel present and able to manage and cope whatever was coming at me.
I opened up a yoga studio in 2011. It was during the time I was running a yoga studio where I started to really be present to my role and responsibility as a practitioner and as a business owner in context to the culture of yoga. My studio was pretty diverse in some ways, but I noticed in a larger context of Atlanta and this country, there was this lack of diversity in yoga. We kind of all have this perception that it’s soccer moms that have nothing else to do that do yoga. There’s wealth, there’s athleticism – skinny and affluent and bored. That is such a ridiculous narrative. It’s false, it’s always been false. But that is the narrative that we somehow in this country created around yoga. Which I find disturbing and disrespectful to the culture of yoga.
It’s interesting you bring up the cultural idea of yoga. How do you go about changing that idea?
RC: There’s of course access. There are a lot of people that are just like, whoa, yoga is not for me. Whether it’s men, or people of different ages, different body sizes, people of color – there are just so many communities in Atlanta where there are people that are like, this isn’t something for me.
I think the reason why it matters so much to me is that yoga has been a powerful tool in my own healing. In managing my own trauma and managing depression and anxiety, it’s helped me be a much more confident and clear and expressed person, and also helped me develop a life that I feel is purposeful. The people that are in some of the most difficult and challenging circumstances in our city often do not feel like this is something that they can practice. That was really interesting to me – how do we provide these tools for people that don’t feel like it’s for them?
The way I’ve tackled that problem … very early on I reached out to all the studios. I wanted to have dialogues around these things and see how we could work together to make sure everybody has access to this. So I think it was a dialogue, it was going into spaces. I went into police precincts, I went into roll calls, I was talking to police officers and sergeants to share the value of yoga for officers, for that community. [I was] working with the Atlanta public schools. A lot of it has just been exposure – creating a case for it.
The other thing is, it’s not recognized, in terms of the nonprofit sector. There aren’t very many yoga nonprofits in Georgia. People don’t understand what this is, because we’ve created such a ridiculous false narrative around what it is. So people don’t understand the true value it can have in solving a lot of problems that we experience and encounter in our city. So speaking to those leaders, making a case for it – I mean, I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of convincing [laughs].
Well, you’ve gotten really good at it. Can you talk about what the goal of the Dharma Project is and what the nonprofit actually does?
RC: Let me share the populations we work with, and then I can share what we do. We work with people that are experiencing incarceration. We work with men, we work with women. In one particular jail, we work with women that have mental health issues. We work with youth, both girls and boys, that are juveniles that are incarcerated.
So we work with the criminal system, but we also work with refugee women and youth, boys and girls. We work with seniors that are in housing authorities. We work with high school kids at Carver STEAM Academy.
Those are the spaces we work in. We provide certification – we just got confirmed as a vocational school with the Department of Corrections. So we’re officially a vocational school … Last week was actually the first week that I went into a facility to do a training. We’ve been teaching weekly classes at all of our facilities – weekly or monthly classes. We go in and are exposing people [to yoga] all the time. Not only exposure, but consistently being with them and supporting them. It’s not an overnight thing. I mean, yoga, meditation, all of these are lifelong practices that continue to benefit and support us. So it is important that we have consistency.
We do a lot of weekly programming and we provide certification, which is a super exciting part of it. For example, there are three places that I’m certifying right now. Burruss – which is the prison in Forsyth – I have eight guys going through the certification there. I have one guy at Metro Reentry Facility, which is another facility that we work with. He is training with me, but then he also teaches his own class at the facility that I supervise. One of the guys that has returned to society that has been working with me since 2019, I’m teaching a training at my studio that is for the general population … I’ve brought him in to get that certification.
The final piece that we do … is work placement, finding opportunities for the people that we certify to have opportunities to work. That’s continuing to grow.
In researching the Dharma Project, and you’ve brought this up a bit too, there’s this idea of trauma-informed yoga. How is that different from a regular practice?
RC: I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people have experienced trauma. Whether you’re incarcerated or a refugee, or just living in our life and our world, there are a lot of things that cause one to have these traumatic experiences. I think in some ways, what we’re talking about is complex trauma, which is ongoing experiences of traumatic events that cause these experiences of dissociation, or harm to self and others.
Trauma-informed yoga is just a way of communicating and interacting that creates a feeling of safety. It’s a way of approaching yoga with a mindfulness of what people have been through. In a general class, for instance, you might very directly give people instruction. With trauma-informed yoga, there is a constant choice-based instruction. You’re suggesting to people to do things as opposed to commanding them. A lot of people that have been in complex trauma experiences have been controlled and manipulated, and had a lot of demands placed on them. They don’t have as much sense of their body, or they haven’t had control over their body. Someone else has been, in whatever way, abusing their body. So giving people the sense that they have the choice in their own body to do whatever they want, that they have the power to do what they want, that they have agency over their own body – that’s what you’re really developing with trauma-informed yoga.
It’s a lot about language. Trauma-informed language is how do you communicate? What are you saying to them in a way that makes them feel like, I get to do what I want with my body. I get to move it how I want. I get to decide not to do something if I don’t want to. In a general class, we don’t really have those considerations necessarily. We’re just moving people through something. Which is fine! I’ve worked with people that have trauma in my studios, major things that have happened in their lives. There’s still a supportive environment. But trauma-informed yoga is just tuning into what’s going on in that person and being available for that.
The goal of trauma informed yoga – I think one of them, at least – is to create what’s called self regulation, which is the ability to actually feel what’s happening in your body and manage your behavior and your reactions to your feelings. That’s what happens with people that have trauma, they separate almost from their body. They can’t feel what’s going on in their body, and that inability to feel and sense what’s happening can continue harmful behaviors and lead to even more potential harm and difficulties navigating life, or interacting with others. How do we teach them to be present and feel the things that are happening? That over time leads to power and choice.