Kula for Karma is a nonprofit organization that helps those dealing with stress or crisis access mindfulness exercises to better deal with difficult situations while focusing on their mental health. We spoke with the organization’s leaders about what inspired them to take on this work and why yoga and mindfulness are important for those dealing with major challenges.
Founder and President, Kula for Karma
“Women uphold our society at every level in every sector: the home, the family, schools, the workplace, the business, the economic world, our political systems, our communities.”
Executive Director, Kula for Karma
“A mindful approach to life on a moment-to-moment basis allows me to stay balanced and grounded, and more importantly notice when I’m off.”
What inspired the two of you to start Kula for Karma?
Geri Topfer: My yoga teacher had just come back from Ecuador, working with children undergoing cleft palate surgery, offering them mindfulness and breathwork to support them in the process. As she was sharing the story, her connection to the children and families was palpable. As I listened, I had a visceral experience, like something channeling through me, and knew in that moment I had tapped into my life purpose. I knew there were people in need right there in New Jersey and the surrounding areas: people in prison, people in recovery centers working to heal their addictions, kids lost in the juvenile justice system, people in hospitals fighting deadly diseases.
I decided then and there to start providing yoga, meditation, and breathwork programs to people in crisis who needed — but couldn’t easily access — a toolkit of mindfulness practices that could help them understand and overcome their trauma, addiction, and mental health challenges and change their lives.
Penni Feiner: Geri founded Kula, and I came along about a year later. After I stopped self-medicating with cocaine, I found myself left with a monkey mind and plenty of self-criticism. I was drawn to yoga as a tool for healing. After finally finding some inner peace connecting breath to movement, I was on a mission to share the practices that changed my life.
I knew personally that restorative yoga, guided meditation, and breathwork could consistently relieve stress and calm the nervous system, allowing anyone facing trauma, crisis, addiction or mental health issues to bring their bodies and minds into a state of balance and quiet that can allow them to reflect, grow, and make significant changes that put their life onto a new trajectory. That’s what Kula’s programs still do today, and more and more scientific studies show that mindfulness practices like these are an incredibly effective solution to our current mental health crisis.
Why is it important for women to take better care of their mental health?
GT: Thank goodness we are finally, openly talking about mental health, and no longer need to suffer in silence. We are all mirror images of one another, and giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and connect with other humans is so freeing.
Women uphold our society at every level in every sector: the home, the family, schools, the workplace, the business, the economic world, our political systems, our communities. And on top of it, women are still fighting for equal access, pay, and treatment in all of these areas and more.
We need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves and incorporate a daily practice of radical self-care, so we can continue to care for our families, friends, and communities, and keep making change.
Surround yourself with like-minded people on the path of painstaking self-discovery — it’s so freeing! It’s also critically important that we share these practices with women in underserved spaces and crisis situations.
PF: In my experience, mental health unlocks the key to physical well-being. We cannot and should not separate the two. Traditionally, women are taught to be caretakers of everyone but themselves and, consequently, our mental health is always teetering on the edge. Self-care is primary care.
The connection between body and mind is inseparable. Healthy mind equals a healthy body, or at the very least a healthy approach to physical challenges, and lately I’ve come to believe in my own circle and the circles of those around me that mental health is at the apex of the pyramid or, rather, the seed from which everything else sprouts.
Given your own struggles with mental health, what are some of the best tips and tricks you’ve learned to help you overcome these obstacles?
GT: I struggled with social anxiety my whole life, which led to drinking to help soothe. Today, I attend meetings every day, pray, meditate, write a gratitude journal, and also do hot yoga, weight training, and cardio. I have many communities that resonate with my heart today, and also have learned to say “no” when participating in something doesn’t feel right or I’m overwhelmed already — what a concept! I pay attention to my intuition and try to navigate life mindfully.
One of the biggest tips I can share is my practice around being of service. Serving others helps me get out of ego, self-doubt, resentment, and fear, and inspires me to flip the cookie, as I like to say, and be in immense gratitude for today. I am either moving in the direction of insanity, or peace and calm. We get to choose! Life happens and we get to choose how to suit up and show up.
PF: I have a disciplined, consistent, robust self-care practice that begins each day with chanting, meditation, and physical exercise. I also check in with myself periodically during the workday to see if there’s some feeling or thought that I’m stuck in. I take a moment to be still and feel into what’s calling for my attention. A mindful approach to life on a moment-to-moment basis allows me to stay balanced and grounded, and more importantly notice when I’m off.