Changing the Face and Zip Code of Yoga

An interview with Bidyut Bose, PhD – Niroga Founder, conducted by Vlad Moskovski.

It brings me great pleasure to interview Bidyut Bose, or BK, as many of us know him. He is a leader in the Yoga community, inspiring many with his dedication, wisdom, and caring. Bidyut Bose, PhD, is the executive director of Niroga Institute, a nonprofit organization that brings Transformative Life Skills (TLS) to students, vulnerable youth, cancer survivors, seniors and people battling addiction. The work of Niroga directly uplifts thousands of people every week in schools, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cancer hospitals and rehab centers all over the Bay Area. Niroga also trains minority young adults to become Certified Yoga teachers, prepared to serve their own communities with cultural competence and linguistic sensitivity.

Evolation-Yoga_grid_6 Vlad Moskovski: How did Niroga begin?

While employed in the high tech industry in Silicon Valley, I observed the ravaging effects of chronic stress on my colleagues and the entire organizational culture. Having grown up with yoga and meditation, I knew that there was a solution to this. I essentially became a student of stress and began to look at the impact of chronic stress on society. Feeling the need to give back, to serve selflessly, which was a big part of my growing up, I decided that perhaps this was the time to step back from the high tech world and start to serve my community.

When I learned that one out of every two kids in inner city schools are dropping out, I realized we have to do something about this colossal waste of human potential. When a kid pulls a gun on another kid because they feel ‘dissed’ – in that situation what if we can create a space between stimulus and response? An increase in self-control could be the difference between life and death on the streets.

Even before Niroga was born, we were asked to work with a small group of young women in an alternative high school in Marin. Right after the first session, the teachers came back saying, “The kids took to the breathing and the quiet sitting like fish to water.” And I thought, “This is great – there is hope!”

Next came an alternative high school in Oakland. There is a video on the website, where the therapists, foster youth services, teachers, and the principal all say that everyone has given up on these kids and that the teaching of Yoga, breathing techniques, and the other tools are making them realize that each one of them has potential. Then, people from probation, healthcare, and education in Alameda County called us together saying – we need this program in Juvenile Hall.

The first thing I asked was, “How long is the average length of stay in juvenile hall?” About 3 weeks, I was told. So I said, “Then we have two conditions.” Here we are – a puny non-profit, and we are setting conditions for these heads of agencies! The first condition is that it has to be a daily program. Five days a week for both boys and girls. The second condition is, we have to have one class a week for staff. The staff need these tools just as much as the youth. My idea was simple: change each individual kid, and along the way, also the very culture of the institution to make a long term impact. We did research, used standardized scales, measuring chronic stress, and self control or emotion regulation. We showed we could get measurable results working with hundreds of youth.

Then we began to look at where are the youth are going once they get out of juvenile hall. We started to go into schools, first providing hour-long yoga classes in after-school programs, and then during school offering a distilled version of the hour-long class. We compacted it into 15 minutes, keeping the same structure and called it Transformative Life Skills (TLS).

When we went into the classroom with the 15 minute interventions, the teachers modeled and worked with the kids. Very naturally, trainings evolved for schools and school administrators. We now have training programs for school teachers and school- based behavioral health providers so they can teach this in their classrooms and not have to rely on us. We are effectively giving them tools to help themselves, as well as enhance their professional practice.

Next we began to look at the social elitism in the practice of yoga. In order to reach those individuals and communities that need these practices the most, we have to change the face and zip code of yoga. The face from white to black and everything in between. And the zip code spanning the hills to the flats. As a social justice part of our movement, we began to train people of color to become certified yoga teachers. And so the Integral Health Fellows program was born. Every year we are training 25 yoga teachers, and about half are people of color. We make it affordable by offering a scholarship, it is a pay-forward model. Upon graduation, we require them to serve their community – to give back two hours a week for the next 50 weeks. That’s 100 hours of volunteer service by each of the graduates. It’s a huge contribution in community capacity building.

Vlad: Are you surprised at how Niroga has grown, did you expect this?

We started just about 6 years ago, in March 2005, and I came into this with the spirit to try not to have any expectations. I was just seeing how it evolved. The first few years our growth was almost exponential, doubling year after year. Then it flattened out with the economic crisis. Now it’s starting to grow very quickly again, the demand is there. But, the resources are not quite there – we are still vulnerable as an organization.

Vlad: What is the biggest challenge that Niroga faces right now?

I think it’s getting the pervasive awareness of the power and potential of these transformative practices. Right now there is a confluence that is making it accessible. Neuroscience is showing that chronic stress really messes up our bodies and our minds, the brain and our behavior. And at the same time there is convincing evidence that mindfulness practices mitigate these effects. Major developments in somatic psychology on optimal treatment of trauma, which is of course the reality of many of the people we serve, speaks to the combination and integration of the kinesthetic, emotional and the cognitive. So yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation fit into this space.

The fact that being able to regulate our emotions affects everything we do, is huge. And yet in a culture that does not know how to do this, it becomes a challenge to not only realize how important it is, but also figure out ways to systematically build these capabilities. This awareness is a really powerful catalyst, this understanding is a game-changer.

When we look at violence prevention, the notion of tough on crime simply is not working. Whether it is a prison or juvenile hall, all of them seem to be running at full capacity. So we know that incarceration is not going to get us out of this mess. You can try to create safe environments, enhance walkability, better lighted streets, clean parks, but you can’t just do that and stop. You have to also change our ability to regulate ourselves and that internal environment is often missed or dismissed.

We need to influence people who are making the decisions. City council members, board of supervisors, the politicians all the way through to Washington. How much importance are they going to give to this powerful catalyst that enables us to make healthy lifestyle choices, that changes our behavior? If we can get them to think along these lines, then the resources will get lined up. This is the biggest challenge, not only for Niroga, but for all mindfulness organizations in this space.

What we are trying to do is transform ourselves so we can change the world around us. Imagine getting to this magical tipping point where most of the people in the community are practicing these skills of self-mastery most of the time. How beautiful that would be!

Vlad: Where do you see yourself and Niroga in 10 years? How will it grow and change?

The big picture dream for me is generational transformation. How do I affect children, their children and their children’s children. In that process, everything we are trying to do is to get these TLS skills to as many people as possible, in as many places as possible. So that they are able to use these skills for themselves and be a lamp unto those around them. One lamp lighting another, there is no other magic to this. We are hoping for that type of exponential, viral effect that seeds the community with peacefulness, joyfulness, and mindfulness. In this way we can counteract the negative spiraling down – the pettiness, smallness, violence, and greed. To pull ourselves back out, so that each one of us can tap into the infinite potential that is within us. That’s the dream!

For this to become a reality it can’t be just Niroga. I think the dream is a shared dream, it’s up to each one of us to play a part in that dream. I have no clue what will happen in 10 years, but I know this much – I am going to keep working at this until my last breath.

Vlad: Is there anything you would like to say, directly to yoga teachers interested in this dream? That are passionate about spreading yoga and working with diverse and disadvantaged populations?

Two things. First – deepen your own practice. Deepen it so you live a life that is aligned with the spirit and essence of yoga. Without that, you will not be able to operate from a position of strength.

And then, grounded in that strength, practice and teach yoga in the spirit of Karma Yoga. The very essence of Karma Yoga is to try to work a little bit more selflessly, so that you really feel like every student is the very embodiment of the divine. So that every act becomes an act of worship. That way we transform everything around us into the sacred, so there is no secular left. And so it becomes all encompassing, it becomes universal, all-accepting.

Like Mother Theresa used to say – I’m serving Christ. Christ in the poor, the destitute, or the one ridden with leprosy. How can I treat every single potential student as my teacher, as the divine embodied in front of me. Strive with every ounce of your strength for self-realization, and then translate that into action. You grow a little bit, and you are able to serve more effectively more selflessly, and through that you grow – elegant positive feedback, reinforcing itself, spiraling upward.

Just start where you are, you don’t have to wait to be highly evolved. A little bit each day, two minutes, five minutes. Work to the best of your ability without caring what comes out of it, without caring what others will think about it. Somebody gives you a dollar for your class or a hundred, you treat them just the same. One person comes to your class or a thousand, you teach the class just the same. That becomes Karma Yoga. We have all of these opportunities to practice. What a blessing! That is how I feel about my life, that every breath, every moment I have to teach is a blessing, an opportunity to grow and propel myself forward.

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