Changing Lives For the Cost of One Yoga Class

written by Anjula October 31, 2013
Kayoko Mitsumatsu, Co-Founder, President Yoga Gives Back

Kayoko Mitsumatsu, Co-Founder, President Yoga Gives Back

LM: Can you tell us a bit about your organization, Yoga Gives Back, (YGB), how it was conceived and its mission to mobilize the global yoga community to empower women in India to build sustainable livelihoods?

KM: Yoga Gives Back was born out of my personal yoga practice in Los Angeles in 2007.  While working on assignment for NHK, Japan’s National Public Television, on a feature documentary, Social Entrepreneurship in the U.S.A., I learned about Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Dr. Muhuammed Yunus’ micro financing and its impact on millions of poor families in Bangladesh and many developing countries, as well as filming online micro loan start up Kiva.org who now raises 400 million dollars as online micro financing.

At home in Los Angeles, I was beginning to appreciate the benefit of my daily yoga classes, and being deeply grateful for feeling healthier physically and mentally.  I couldn’t help asking, “What is the purpose of becoming so healthy and joyful?”

One ancient teaching from reading Indian philosophy and taking Sanskrit classes hit hard, “The first half part of your life is to gain experience.  The second half is to serve others.”  I was 47 years old.

Yoga is considered a luxury, available to only those who can afford the time and expense, with classes averaging between $15-20 per class.  In the US alone, $6 billion is spent annually on yoga and yoga-related activities. The yoga community offered many donation classes, but none that clearly focused on giving back to India, the birthplace of yoga, where poverty afflicts 75% of the population who still live for under $2 a day.  The contrast between what we spend on yoga annually and those living in poverty struck me as something I wanted to get involved in.  I felt responsible for sharing the benefits, giving back to Indians in need. The Yoga Gives Back campaign was thus created.  With the support of my yoga teacher, my brand-consultant husband and a few supportive friends, we had the secret sauce: micro financing + yoga.

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Our mantra: For the cost of one yoga class, you can change a life. Our mission statement: To mobilize the global yoga community to empower women n India to build sustainable livelihoods

LM: Did you find it a huge adjustment coming from working on prime time national broadcast current affairs and documentary television to moving to Los Angeles and focusing on your not for profit’s mission to help India’s poor?

KM: My profession as a film maker and my passion for giving back with Yoga all came togther once I got involved into Yoga Gives Back. My first trip to India came in 2007 and was a great eye-opening experience.  I saw real people with real needs.  I kept asking myself how could my personal practice be meaningful if I could not reach out to these real people living in real need?

I luckily had taken my video camera with me on this trip and was able to capture some footage…I filmed street children in Delhi, shanty towns in Mumbai, along with some very inspiring stories of women micro-fianncing lenders.  Although the footage was far from great, since then, during my last four visits, I’ve been able to use my film making skills to meet new people, interview and learn about them, all while filming on my own.

I still work as a associate producer/director/researcher for Japanese Public Broadcasting (NHK) which is my paid job and I continue to work for YGB, as my passionate life work. One day, I hope to be able to shift more and more, to spend time and energy for Yoga Gives Back and one day, I might even become full time, if such a situation becomes possible!!

LM: Can you share a personal success story of those 237 mothers and children you are funding with micro loans and education funds?

KM: A YGB story that comes to mind is about Jayashree, whom I met on first trip as we filmed her journey to get the first micro loan to escape poverty.  Jayashree is a poor, uneducated woman who lives in the outskirts of Bangalore. In 2007, she received a micro loan for $150 from YGB’s partner, local Grameen Koota Micro Financing Institute. Having only an elementary school education, Jayashree’s wish was to see her children pursue higher education.  In 2009, her son, Guruprasad, was the first in his family to graduate from high school, while also getting accepted to a prestigious dental college. Her son is currently studying at a distant medical dental college.  YGB has been able to provide for his tuition and we’re committed to support his studies until he becomes a dentist, as part of our Scholarship for Higher Education program (SHE).

Sister Aid, SHE recipient, Guruprasad

Sister Aid, SHE recipient, Guruprasad

LM: Can you tell us more about Sister Aid and YGB’s program offering, SHE (Scholarship for Higher Education)?

KM: IN 2010, YGB was able to create a new direct funding program, “Sister Aid” to provide micro loans and education funds directly to mothers and children.  Since that time, we’ve been able to fund over 240 people, each with a minimum five year commitment, in West Bengal and Karnataka, in India. YGB has partnered with two NGOs in India, NISHTHA in West Bengal and Deenabandhu Trust Home in Karnataka, to work with and fund each person in the program for a minimum of five years to ensure real and positive change.

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Sister Aid micro loans do not charge any interest, but require all recipients to save 50 Rupees every month for their daughter’s higher education.  My goal is to replicate this type of micro loan program so that more girls in India can go to school.  Currently only 13% of Indian women have a primary education. 47% of girls are married before they are 18, and 18% are married before they are 15.

SHE is a new program and we are thrilled to announce that Pure International, headquartered in Hong Kong, has joined YGB to support this program and fund 10 girls in West Bengal for 5 years for them to graduate high school and enter college. This is very exciting, as we want to invite more yoga-related corporations to support our campaign.

LM: Looking back on the last six years, what is one of the biggest lessons you have learned?

KM: I’d say one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is not to repeat the same mistakes and to expand our goals.  My next task is to find a way to grow YGB into a robust and sustainable organization.  I’ve learned to be realistic with my goals and limits, to pace myself and be patient. Through a combination of good fortune, karmic momentum, and learning to choose more carefully, YGB has a team that has become more responsive, responsible and able to lead the organization in our next phase of growth.

LM: How can our readers stay connected and up to date on all the great work you are doing at YGB?

KM: Yoga students and fundraisers can follow the stories of the women YGB has helped via their youtube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/user/YogaGivesBack.

We also continue to update stories on our website, blog, e-newsletter and Facebook, so please sign up.

LM: Can you share with our readers a bit more about how they can support the cause and your annual “Thank You Mother India” global campaign?

KM: With over 100 events in 17 countries, we were able to raise $47,000 in our annual “Thank You Mother India” global campaign last year.  That success has allowed YGB to more than double its funding recipients in India. If you are a yoga teacher and would like to host a class, donate or sponsor during this year’s “Thank You Mother India” global campaign that runs through December 31st, please register here.

About Kayoko Mitsumatsu:

Prior to moving to the USA in 1992, Kayoko was a producer/director for NHK Japan’s National Public Broadcaster, working on prime time national broadcast current affairs and documentary television programs for seven years; and cultural attaché at the Embassy of Japan in London for two years. Her passion for documentary filmmaking to bridge diverse values and cultures are rooted in the perspective gained from years of living abroad including Australia, Brazil, United Kingdom and USA.

Kayoko co-founded Yoga Gives Back in 2007, from her yoga class in Los Angeles, which has now grown to a global campaign.

“As a middle age woman, feeling my life being so enriched by the practice of yoga, I felt a strong need to use all my resources to help others. I learned a lot about Dr. Muhammad Yunus’s revolutionary micro financing while working on a documentary about Social Entrepreneurship featuring Kiva.org. I was struck by the incredible impact which micro financing could bring to alleviate generations of poverty. And 25 dollars can make a fundamental difference in somebody’s life in India. As a happy and healthy yoga practitioner, I realized that I could contribute a little to India’s poverty issues. I hope to invite everyone who benefits from Yoga to join in our campaign by giving back and making difference together.”

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