Living in a spartan cottage for eight days during a boot camp for aspiring yoga teachers in Hawaii, Sue Jones practiced from 7am to midnight, silently watched the rhythms of the Pacific Ocean from a bluff and, she said, gained the confidence to return to Boston and mend her marriage.
But Jones made another discovery that gnawed at her.
"Everyone had enough money to pay US$4,000 to get to Hawaii," she said, "and I thought, 'Oh, my God, there are 100 people here and thousands of trainings every year, and I don't hear anyone talking about teaching yoga to people who can't afford it.'"
After returning to Boston, Massachusetts, Jones started teaching yoga at a substance abuse treatment center. She asked fellow teachers to help and received a flood of responses.
In May 2006, Jones started YogaHope, an organization that teaches yoga at eight Boston-area women's homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment programs and domestic violence safe houses, as well as two programs in Seattle, Washington. The focus is on teaching restorative yoga, and though many teachers have completed at least 200 hours of training, it is not a requirement.
Driven by a missionary-like zeal and a sense that yoga has become an exclusive pursuit, a small but growing number of yoga practitioners are forming organizations that teach yoga in prisons and juvenile detention centers in Seattle; Oakland and Los Angeles, California; and Indianapolis, Indiana. They are working with the addicted and the homeless in Portland, Oregon and with public school students in New York City.
Though concern about the cost of yoga is an issue (studio classes can cost US$20 for a drop-in session, though some offer free or low-cost classes taught by less experienced teachers), most of the practitioners are motivated by a desire to introduce yoga to those who might need it most, but wouldn't think to do it on their own.
Jones of YogaHope said she saw a change in the first women she taught after only one class: They held their heads higher, amazed at what their bodies could do. At that moment, she decided to spread yoga to other women. "We're like Christian missionaries," said Jones, a petite blonde whose green eyes flash with emotion as she speaks. "We really want to offer it to people who don't know better or can't access it."
Those who teach or do research on yoga say these programs have increased in recent years as more yoga devotees decide to spread its gospel.
"You can't do all those prostrations without it doing something to you," said James Wvinner, the founder and director of yoga, tribe and culture films for Acacia Lifestyle, a distributor of mind, body and spirit DVDs.
Wvinner, who taught yoga at a federal prison and fondly recalls the sociopath who never missed a class, said more yogis are working in prisons and social service centers.
Others believe bringing yoga to such places harkens to the ancient practice of karma yoga, or the yoga of action and selfless service. "What it speaks to," said Kaitlin Quistgaard, the editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, "is that social activism is becoming more and more a part of mainstream American yoga. People are realizing it's almost a requirement to give back."
Research in the US on yoga's effectiveness in helping treat drug addiction or mental illness is limited. Most studies have been done on a small scale in India, and the findings aren't universally accepted.