Spreading the Love: Kula for Karma brings compassion, hope and healing to populations in need
Sep 03, 2015 04:05PM
● By Susan Bloom
Once considered an “alternative” therapy, a wealth of scientific research continues to confirm the benefits of yoga on reducing stress, elevating energy levels and mood, enhancing the quality of sleep, improving flexibility and promoting the healing process for those suffering from a range of chronic illnesses. Understanding the power of this practice first-hand based on the positive impact it had on her own life, Geri Topfer founded Kula for Karma—named after the Sanskrit word for ‘community”—in 2007 to extend the benefits of therapeutic yoga and meditation to people of all ages in need throughout the greater metropolitan area. She was soon joined by Kula for Karma Executive Director Penni Feiner on a journey that’s since touched thousands with a healing message of love and hope. We sat down with Topfer, 54, and Feiner, 63, to learn more about the spirituality behind their creation of Kula for Karma and how this groundbreaking, nonprofit organization is positively impacting the many communities it serves.
NA: Tell us about your background and what brought you to practice yoga.
Topfer: I worked in the publishing industry for many years, but when I had my three children I found it difficult to balance work and family. I began pursuing other interests, including acting classes and the teacher recommended that I take yoga to help calm the anxiety I felt performing in front of people. When I first started yoga, I remember feeling like I’d come home—I loved the people, the music and the philosophy. I threw myself into yoga classes of all styles and eventually took many teacher trainings.
Feiner: I worked in the management of our family’s custom sheet metal fabrication business for over 30 years and was looking for a way to calm my over-active mind when a friend suggested yoga. Though I found it hard to relax at first, I kept attending and noticed that the stretches of calmness I felt in class lasted longer and longer; I was able to be still, centered, and mindful for the first time. My mind had always been filled with self-judgment and criticism and yoga really helped me to soften around that and love myself despite the imperfections.
NA: Why did you launch Kula for Karma and who have you reached?
Topfer: Though I was teaching, I felt I needed to be doing something more with my yoga, though I didn’t know what that would look like. Then a yoga teacher of mine described how she was helping children in Ecuador and I realized that there was a lot of work to be done right here in our own backyard.
Feiner: Geri started the program by offering yoga to children at a studio in Bergen County once a week. I heard she was looking for volunteers to teach a group of teenage girls who had been abused and I volunteered to teach that class. We both recognized the power of yoga and how important it was to offer effective tools to these populations. After that, our programs blossomed as the name got out and the need was recognized. Today, we have over 600 volunteer yoga teachers in our network and currently have 50 to 60 active volunteers teaching 70-plus programs for everyone from young children and at-risk teens, victims of domestic violence, and veterans struggling with PTSD to oncology and cardiology patients at Hackensack, Englewood, Valley, Saint Barnabas, St. Joseph’s, Mount Sinai and Bellevue hospitals. We’ll soon be launching programs at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, NYU Langone in New York City, and Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
NA: What do your programs aim to do?
Topfer: We provide a hopeful, heartfelt approach to creating community and a safe environment for people to be their most vulnerable selves while working to give them portable tools to manage pain, anxiety, depression, and trauma. The practice of therapeutic yoga really hits home on so many levels and is so important to the holistic integrative approach to healing. For us, it’s about love and the understanding that we’re all one thread away from the populations we’re serving. We’d ultimately love to bring our programs to operating rooms and medical schools to help physicians and surgeons be more mindful, too.
NA: Since launching Kula for Karma has society become more open to yoga?
Feiner: Absolutely. At Hackensack Hospital, for example, our flagship and first hospital program, we used to offer therapeutic yoga to cancer patients in a small conference room and the class got more and more traction. When the hospital unveiled its beautiful John Theurer Cancer Center in 2010, it featured a special yoga room, which reflects their recognition of the value of this practice to their patients. This remains one of our proudest achievements.
Topfer: People are definitely looking for these integrative options and the medical profession is increasingly advocating for it—it’s the perfect storm. We hope to help make the practice of yoga even more mainstream so that one day it’s not considered “alternative”, but just “healthcare”.
NA: How personally rewarding has Kula for Karma been for you?
Feiner: I wake up every day inspired and challenged by the work that we do; it’s just magic. I feel so much joy, richness and fulfillment from reaching out to more populations and being part of creating a wave of wellness.
Topfer: To be able to tap into your passion, turn it into action, create a platform for volunteerism and make a difference in the lives of others is extraordinary, and I feel so lucky to have Penni as my partner and to share something with someone who allows you to be your best self every day. Looking ahead, we hope to create greater awareness of the benefits of therapeutic yoga to integrative health care and to continue doing what we’re doing in a bigger, brighter way to reach even more people in need.
For more information on Kula for Karma or to become a volunteer, call 888-545-9642 or visit KulaForKarma.org.