An Interview with Yoga Gives Back Founder, Kayoko Mitsumatsu
The central tenets of Sattva Yoga Online are to create a community of yogis contributing to the evolution of the science of yoga while living in service to others. As I am about to embark on an extended stay to in India to study Sanskrit, my heart was seeking some way to get involved with the local community and devote some time and energy to the country that has given me a precious gift in yoga.
Through a mutual friend and volunteer for Yoga Gives Back, I was introduced to Kayoko Mitsumatsu, an amazing woman behind an amazing cause. Yoga Gives Back (YGB) is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.
Their tagline is simple: for the cost of a yoga class, you can change a life.
YGB dedicates their efforts towards raising awareness in order to alleviate poverty in India. Mitsumatsu started in Los Angeles back in 2009 by arranging a donation class, raising $500. This year she is anticipating “Thank You, Mother India” second annual global event will raise $50,000. Last month, I was invited to serve as the YGB ambassador for the state of Washington.
“Yoga is a gift from ancient India, embraced by the West. In the United States, it is a six billion per year industry. Yet today, however 76% of India’s population—800 million people—live below the poverty line, barely surviving on less than $2.50 per day. Our mission is to mobilize the global yoga community to empower women in India to build sustainable livelihoods.” states Mitsumatsu, a documentary filmmaker.
Mitsumatsu gained inspiration to start this foundation after working on a documentary for Kiva.Org around the time Muhammed Yunus’s was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his innovative micro-lending in the third world. She witnessed that the yoga community was actively giving, addressing many critical human concerns, but saw an opportunity to address many issues systematically by applying Yunus’ model to the challenges facing India today, namely educating women and children and aiding their transition out of poverty.
“Many charitable organizations have emerged from the yoga community, but what makes Yoga Gives Back unique is that it specifically targets and supports our struggling sisters in India. Yoga Gives Back focuses on creating opportunities and viable, sustainable lives for the poorest women and their children.”
Originally, YGB collaborated with the Grameen Foundation, Yunus’ global organization of micro-lending. But Mitsumatsu felt that an organization that large created distance from the people YGB was directly impacting and there was no way of tracking to whom the funds were being sent so there was no way to establish relationships or measure the impact of the funding. As a filmmaker, Mitsumatsu wanted to connect, to see a story of transformation from the efforts and intentions of yogis who supported the cause and wanted to directly and specifically serve women in India. So she expanded her own direct efforts through YGB into supporting micro-lending programs in India, providing small loans to women in particular, who have no access to capital, partnering with NISHTA International and other India-based programs.
The program funds education, vocational training and micro credit programs for struggling mothers, girls and orphans:
“Women are the best poverty fighters—the most effective return on investment for development dollars is an investment in women. The initial investment is small: with $25 a month, mothers can start their own businesses and their daughters can go to school.”
Since 2007, more teachers around the world have joined the cause, creating new channels of awareness and fundraising. The grass roots movement is growing organically as certain countries, such as the UK, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and United States yoga communities’ band together to raise awareness.
“As a grass roots organization we just keep growing with teachers who want to share the mission of how much yoga benefits one’s life, and how much they want to give back to the source of yoga: India.”
Mitsumatsu practices yoga almost every day. A former director at the Japanese National Public Television, she left Japan in the eighties and lived two years in London (where YGB hosts weekly donation classes at the Whole Foods in Kensington). Since 1991, she has resided in Los Angeles as an independent producer/director for Japanese National Public Television.
Mitsumatsu travels to India regularly and in addition to meeting with organizations, meeting families YGB is supporting, she is using her filmmaking talents to document the sponsored families. “I am going to be making my fourth visit to India to show the global yoga community what their donations are actually doing for people’s lives. I will use my gift, and hopefully video will transport this message.I just have to trust my eyes, let the people we serve tell their story.”
“Oftentimes, you give money and you don’t know where it goes, what it really has done for someone’s life. We are funding over 100 families. Half of them are children, two of them now in college. In five to ten years, one of those young women might become a doctor or lawyer.
Poor women from local villages building businesses to send their children to college would be unheard of in that village. But we are making it a reality.”
Mitsumatsu credits the advancements in her organization to Barbara Piner, a former educator and dedicated Vedanta society member who created American Service to India (ASTI). Over thirty years, ASTI now raises over $1m per year towards non-government organizations across India. Piner introduced local programs in India to Mitsumatsu. She recalls Piner’s invitation: “Come with me to India and I will introduce you to the best organizations.” This is how YGB began serving families in the most remote area in West Bengal.
“Tripuranagara village, south of Kolkotta is the most beautiful place but really, very poor. Families live on dirt floors with no roof, and overall living conditions are poor. All they want is an opportunity to educate their children.Still today in modern India, many girls are assigned to marry as they enter into their teens. We need to create awareness that there can be options for them. We support the ground up educational work by NISHTHA, a well-established local NGO. They don’t have to marry just to survive. Currently YGB funds 44 mothers through micro-lending. With that, we are also funding the education of 44 daughters, one daughter from each family with a full year of education.”
“One group we support is an orphanage home in Mysore that began in the early 90’s, serving children who come from horrendous backgrounds: abused street children. Now today, when you visit, all you see is so much love, a positive spirit and outlook on life. These little children wake up and sweep the floor to prepare for meditation.”
Through the tremendous volunteer efforts of my friend Jane Connors, I was able to connect to Yoga Gives Back, meet Mitsumatsu and found synergies with an organization that combines my life’s work with my heart’s passion. And that’s my simple gratitude!
Please look in the Gadabout as well as the web for times and dates for Yoga Gives Back events I will be hosting a yoga studios around Washington state. For more information, to get involved or to donate, please visit www.yogagivesback.org.