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Caring For One Another – Mind, Body, and Soul

Suruchi Honavar

“Kula for Karma” is a non-profit organization that extends the wonderful and healing benefits of yoga, breathing and meditation to those who are facing tough times in life, people and children without the resources and infrastructure to cope.

Providing them with the necessary tools, energy and hope for a brighter, more promising future, this is the brainchild of Geri Topfer, an Anusara inspired and trained Yoga teacher. Her philosophy in life has always been to “pay it forward”. In a free wheeling interview, Geri spoke to me about her inspiration and motivation for giving back to the community and making a difference in our world, one breath at a time.

Q: What is the mission of your non-profit group?

A: Our mission is to offer, at no charge, services to those who have been challenged by difficult circumstances, such as illness, abuse, and addiction. Our services are offered with our hearts and minds open and we focus on uplifting the human spirit, while cherishing the dignity and uniqueness of each individual. The goal of Karma, or selfless service, is to enhance the lives of those who are in need of spiritual healing by providing peace, love and compassion.

Q: How did you come upon this idea of healing the abused and neglected with yoga? And how did you turn this vision into a reality?

A: Having hit my own rock bottom and being able to bring yoga into my life, which literally to this day saves me, I experienced the power of the practice. For me it’s like a kid in a candy store… whether it’s the physical practice, chanting (which has taught me to use my voice and speak my truth), meditation (which inspires me to go inside and quiet my mind so I can begin to understand and see what is really going on internally), breathing techniques (learning how to breathe has shifted my whole life)! I now have the tools to take a step back before I react and breathe, settling my mind before I speak.

My Anusara certification has been my platform for teaching, but my “Yoga for Depression,” and Kundalini training is the locomotion behind my desire to get out in the world and share these gifts. I am trained to specifically teach people who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, drug addiction, anxiety and depression. Through Kula for Karma, we are taught to meet the client where they are; if they are depressed their physical conditions and meditation reflect that state, and then we bring the client to a more energized space. The same is true if someone shows up for class and is going through rehab and cannot sit down. We start with an energizing practice and move to a more meditative one! I have shifted away from teaching “regular yoga classes” in studios so that I can spend my time working with people who are severely distressed and need support. We work with MS & cancer survivors, bi-polar sufferers, cutters, heroin addicts, alcohol abuse, battered women/children, and lots of teens suffering from rape, etc.

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The goal of Karma, or selfless service, is to enhance the lives of those who are in need of spiritual healing by providing peace, love and compassion.

I also approached Sheryl Edsall, owner of Naturally Yoga in Glen Rock, New Jersey, who said that she had wanted to volunteer teaching abused teens/kids forever, but never had the time to explore. For years she would begin the process and because of logistics, phone calls, etc… it dissolved. Finally, I made it happen. The children, a year and a half later are still being bussed to her studio in Glen Rock to take yoga classes and the teen program in Ridgewood followed shortly after, and to this day still exists. These are the most severely battered children/teens in our state. They all live in foster homes.

Q: Why did you decide to call the group “Kula for Karma”?

A: I launched a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program at my temple, where Bar/Bat Mitzvah 13-year-olds, would as part of the process have a mandatory mitzvah project. I wanted the projects to be a labor of love so when they completed their obligation they would want to stay with it and also begin to understand what giving back meant – tapping into a passion and giving that gives back to others. For instance, my son loves basketball so I found the Boys & Girls Club in Paterson, New Jersey where he would teach basketball to 3rd & 4th graders… He is now in high school and is still teaching basketball to inner city children. The idea is that I would dialogue with the kids, explore their passion and I would find the venue. That became my muse, inspiration for Kula for Karma. In Sanskrit, Kula means “community” and that is who we are – a community of yoga teachers with a deep connection to a spiritual path.

Q: Can you give us examples of cases where yoga has benefited and helped in healing the abused and neglected?

A: One such place is at LESSC, the Lower East Side Service Center in lower Manhattan, which deals primarily with heroin addicts – these recovering addicts would meet us down at the car to help us with the mats, clean the floors where we practiced, help with sign up, and help clean up and again walk us to our car. They became part of the experience. They hung on every word, chanted, and were fearless with the postures. They would chant their hearts out and would feel safe enough to cry or chant SO LOUDLY getting out their anger, frustration, etc. They asked for all the material that was used in class so I created folders that they would add to every week, and they couldn’t wait to share with us what they had worked on during the week…a chant, pose, meditation, etc.

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We became family. Our purpose is to create a safe container, and every week they showed up on their mats. That’s how we know that the practice is working. At first there were three inmates and gradually the class in the Hackensack Prison grew to 20 and sometimes more. They too came to their mats desperate for something that would help them, in resting pose when my partner Penni who is a professional singer chanted, the women would fall still; their bodies/minds totally at peace, feeling totally safe and loved…the tears would flow. These were the same women who would stroll in tough, hard and with closed hearts. There were women who left the prison and asked us for yoga studios in their areas; so maybe, just maybe we created some peace, and gave some tools that they would be able to turn to when in need; and experience empowerment.

Q: What are your plans to make this a nationwide effort so that benefits are available to many?

A: I have begun reaching out to studios and teachers in Connecticut, New York City, New Hope, PA and Long Island. We are going to offer a new 888 phone number that will enable studios/yoga teachers to contact us so that we can partner with them and create Kula for Karma opportunities in their community. People want to do good in the world but do not know how to get started; we tap into your passion, make the phone calls and get the Kula for Karma opportunity off the ground. Our website becomes everyone’s website. You can sell items and all proceeds will go to the organizations. www.kulaforkarma.org.

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My idea was to create a sutra (thread), a community that ties us together. With all that is going on in the world, I want to give people the opportunity to feel empowered in their own backyard – the opportunity to make a difference with one person at a time! Kula for Karma creates accountability and community. We will be introducing our Uganda Healing Project soon – we have three programs, Water4Water (to raise money to build a well), CompassionNet (malaria nets) and Mushana (our jewelry line with the beads made by the orphans/widows at the local Uganda orphanage).

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