Jeff Emerson: Building a Non-Profit Yoga Studio
Founder shares how his NPO studio offers donation-based classes and trainings to create a community of support for those in recovery.
After experiencing how yoga helped him with recovering from addiction, Jeff Emerson has worked to help others discover its benefits.
Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jeff is the founder of the first known non-profit yoga studio, A Policy for Caring Inc., the parent organization of True Freedom Recovery Yoga, one of the world’s first 200-hour teaching programs for people in twelve-step recovery programs.
He has taught meditation in halfway houses, prisons, homeless shelters, twelve step conventions, and juvenile detention centers. Jeff is also a Reiki Master, E-RYT500 certified by the Yoga Alliance, and the author of Unfolding the Lotus: Working the Fourth Step through the Chakra System.
How did you discover yoga?
At the time, I was in high school and really into physical activities. I competed as a wrestler and was much more limber. I wanted to pursue becoming a yoga teacher then but was told there wasn’t much money in it. So, I decided to sell pot instead, which seemed like a good career move at the time.
Oh, and Lilias is still here in town, active as a teacher. She’s even visited this studio, which was a great honor.
When did you decide to become a teacher?
I had been practicing off and on. I was a typically busy family man with a family to take care of, and life got in the way. Luckily, I had books and videos, so I could learn even when I couldn’t make it to a studio.
I got really serious about yoga about fifteen years ago. About ten years ago, I wanted to deepen my spiritual practice, and so I enrolled in a teacher training course.
Realizing the connection between yogic philosophy and recovery, I was inspired to offer a “Yoga for Recovery” class. It was donation based and the money raised went to the schools in India we were running through Virtues First, an organization which is doing amazing work.
What was the response to the class?
About thirty people came to each class, making it the largest in the studio. After shavasana (Corpse Pose), people would say, “This is the only freedom and peace I’ve had all week.” For somebody less than a month clean, that can be a big deal.
Wanting to take it further, I started looking into opening a studio. It was important to me to do it as a non-profit because lots of people, especially those early in their recovery process, can’t afford $15 per class.
It was tough to find a place that would be affordable for a non-profit. After some time looking around, I found a beautiful place with great owners. However, many people didn’t feel safe in the area, and there were some heating and cooling issues, so I kept looking for other locations. Eventually, I found the space we’re at now.
Can you tell us more about the non-profit and studio you operate?
I started the nonprofit with my Zen teacher. We came up with the concept of “A Policy of Caring,” because there’s so much ‘not-caring’ going on right now. Our policy is to care, in numerous ways. One of them being in yoga and the recovery aspect.
Rents were too high and the nonprofit didn’t have enough credit. So I took out a second mortgage on my house, bought this property, and the nonprofit is paying rent until they are able to purchase it.
It would have happened sooner, but the city didn’t want us here because of the recovery aspect. They thought we were going to run a halfway house or something. We had to spend $20,000 and have experts such as lawyers and architects involved. Eventually, we won, but the whole process set us back by a couple of years.
Our classes all end with an optional half-hour recovery meeting. It’s not specific to any particular type of recovery. We’re not running chapters of AA, NA, OA, or any other organization. It’s for anybody in recovery. We don’t do any readings or anything like that, we just talk. It’s really beneficial.
It’s all donation-based. We suggest $3 — $10, but we don’t ask for anything. We say when you’ve got it, put it in, or whatever.
The teachers are all volunteers who have gone through the program. Laura, my co-director, went through the program. She is in Al-Anon and was also the editor for my book, “Unfolding the Lotus: Working the Fourth Step through the Chakra System.”
I don’t make a dime. Quite the opposite — I spend a lot of money here. Similar to the way some people have a golf hobby — I have a yoga hobby.
In the future, we’d like to bring our programs into corporate America, nursing homes, and other places that would benefit.
What kind of students are you trying to attract?
I’m focused on serving people who are new to the recovery process because they have the time. It gives them direction, something they can go to and deepens their spiritual connection — all of which is vital for recovery.
Addictions, of any sort, are like a hole that needs to be filled. And if you can replace that void with something healthier, you’re better off.
I’ve had people less than thirty days clean come in and stay clean for a whole year, something which they would have struggled to accomplish alone. We had one guy like that. He even started teaching here and was quite involved. Eventually, he got a job and had to quit. Unfortunately, his yoga practice lapsed, and he’s now back in treatment. It’s a process.
How do you let people know about your classes?
Mainly, it’s word of mouth through the recovery network. People get excited sharing about things they are doing for their recovery.
For example, someone might go to a twelve-step meeting and tell the group, “Hey, I did this yoga thing. It’s really cool. I felt great afterward. I feel like I’m working on my spirituality.” Then, a few people there will say, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that, but it sounds good. I’m gonna go check it out. ” And so that’s the way it happens.
Do you have another job besides the yoga studio and non-profit?
Yes, I have a real estate appraisal firm which usually takes around fifty to sixty hours per week of my time. It’s hard keeping up with the teacher training courses, running the studio, and keeping everything together. I do the best I can.
What advice would you give to yoga teachers who haven’t gone through recovery but want to help?
There’s a lot of people who like to put out scare tactics like, “You’ve got to be careful!” As though we’re fragile people. But, we just got off the streets, so we’re usually ok. With the recovery population, there is some trauma that you have to be aware of, but that’s the case with any yoga student.
Every yoga teacher knows that you wouldn’t rush over to a first-time student who you don’t know and give them an intense adjustment. You’d ease your way into it and make sure they’re comfortable. Especially with people who’ve suffered sexual and other kinds of abuse. It’s just common sense that any well-trained teacher would be aware of.
Human beings, especially those in recovery, need a safe place to express and process their emotions. In an ideal world, people would be free to speak their mind and share their feelings. However, our feelings get stuck in our bodies, so we need to work through them. It’s up to the teacher to guide the students and show them how to do that. This is also linked to the spiritual aspects of yoga.
In our 200-hour teacher training program, we help guide people’s minds in the right direction. We teach them that there’s a new life out there and it’s more exciting. Then, instead of running away from your addiction, now you’re running towards spirituality. You’re moving toward a better life — physically, spiritually, and mentally.
Besides recovery, are there other initiatives you’re working on?
We want to have a kids program upstairs and then have the moms or fathers practicing downstairs. I don’t mean a daycare facility so the parents can focus on doing yoga. The kids would have a program of their own.
The children of people in recovery are traumatized. They have to work through that, and if they’re not given the tools, then the cycles continue. We’re really excited about the possibilities.
Also, we’re going to have a class for people in wheelchairs. Our studio is wheelchair accessible. One of our teacher’s son is in a wheelchair, and my grandson is in a wheelchair, so it’s personal for us.
Any last words of advice for other teachers out there?
The way to attract students and keep them coming back is to create community. Once you get everybody liking each other, it becomes a regular event; something they want to keep coming to.
For example, for one of the groups I teach, four times a year, after class, we’ll go to somebody’s house for brunch. We’ve been together for ten years. That’s a group that’s not going to leave.
That came about by getting them to talk to each other. Once they got to know each other, they then want to keep coming to see each other. Sometimes all the chatting is a little too much when I’m trying to start a class, but that’s ok. It’s one of the reasons they come to yoga.
So, I’d advise teachers to create a space and atmosphere that facilitates conversation. Start and end the class saying people’s names. Ask them about something they’re into or how they’re feeling about the weather — whatever — just get the conversation going. Once that happens, people bond. Then they bring friends because it’s a friendly class, and it builds.
For more information about Jeff Emerson and True Freedom Recovery Yoga, please visit TrueFreedomYoga.com.