Good Karma: Spotlight on Kula for Karma

Through this Franklin Lakes-based organization, yoga volunteers bring peaceful thoughts to at-risk populations.

An inmate practices yoga during a Kula for Karma class at Hudson County Correctional Center. Photo courtesy of Kula for Karma.

When Tom Filan starts his yoga classes with inmates at Hudson County Correctional Center (HCCC) in Kearny, he often asks, “How is the way you think working for you?” The inmates usually respond with blank stares. That’s when he says, “You’re in jail; how good could it be?” That gets a few laughs.

The 66-old-year Wyckoff resident has taught yoga at HCCC for 5½ years. “We try to get our clients to change the way they think, to be more mindful, to understand unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior,” Filan explains. “Or simply to be nonreactive, to think consequentially, to not give in to negative urges like taking drugs or violence.” He knows of one inmate who used a breathing exercise to avoid a physical confrontation with another inmate.

The prisoners receive classes through Kula for Karma, a nonprofit based in Franklin Lakes that brings free yoga and meditation to underserved populations who stand to benefit from them the most. Kula for Karma’s classes are funded by the institutions that host them as well as individual donors and other sources. Its mission is backed by science; medical advisors include Dr. Diego Coira, chairman of Hackensack University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.

To date, Kula for Karma has served more than 10,000 people through 300 programs; it has more than 1,000 volunteer yoga instructors nationwide.

Yoga instructor Penni Feiner, Kula for Karma’s executive director, joined the organization in 2008, a year after it was founded. The original intention was to provide yoga and meditation to underprivileged groups, including the chronically ill. That mission now includes mental illness, trauma and addiction sufferers. In some cases, physicians write yoga prescriptions. Other times, patients already familiar with the program request it.

Kula for Karma has served a variety of institutions, including the Paterson public school system, Covenant House in Newark, veterans’ groups, drug- and alcohol-recovery programs, and prisons, including the Bergen County Jail.

“When I get to teach and I look over a room full of diverse bodies, sizes, ages… in shavasana [a relaxation pose yoga classes end with], some magic comes over the room,” says Feiner. “These people, who were extraordinarily anxious and fidgeting beforehand, now have found just a little piece of peace…It really is extraordinary, the power of the practice. To make it accessible for everyone, that’s where we want to go.”

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