This is the fourth individual spotlight in series 3 of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign, which launched in 2014, and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.
About Jill: Jill Ippolito is the founder and executive director of UpRising Yoga (URY), an organization with a mission to bring yoga to incarcerated youth and underserved communities. URY holds weekly yoga classes for boys and girls in juvenile detention facilities, group homes, mental health facilities, schools, and underserved communities in Los Angeles. Jill also conducts trauma-informed yoga trainings and mentors yoga teachers and professionals in the mental health, social work, and juvenile-justice fields. Her goal is to share the gift of yoga life skills with those who need it most—both the people who need help and those committed to providing it.
You’ve done some amazing work with UpRising Yoga, sharing the practice with incarcerated kids and other marginalized communities. I’d love to hear what you were like before you started practicing and teaching yoga.
Before I started yoga, I was beginning my recovery from drugs and alcohol. I was hostile, underweight, and covered in bruises. I had spent time incarcerated, both in jail and in mental institutions. I was an angry person, and getting sober made me even less fun to be around. Then one day I walked into a Bikram Yoga studio and bought a $10 ten-day pass. Honestly, I hated going to yoga, but I always felt better after, so I kept it up. That led to me working at the studio, then teacher training, then teaching up to 12 classes a week. And it eventually led me to create UpRising Yoga.
When we talk about sharing yoga with underserved communities, personal empowerment is a benefit of practice that often comes up. How do you utilize yoga to empower yourself and others?
Yoga quiets my busy mind and guides me to serve others. I'm able to offer community empowerment by sharing my personal story of recovery, and encouraging others to do so. The more we share of ourselves, the deeper our power to heal.
Can you talk a little bit about your unique model at UpRising Yoga?
UpRising Yoga brings yoga life skills to incarcerated youth and communities without access to yoga. We train yoga teachers to teach in those settings, along with teachers, social workers, probation officers, and other service professionals who want to incorporate yoga healing into their approaches. I also work hard to obtain contracts and grants that ensure our teachers are compensated. That’s a big deal for me.
When it comes to actually teaching yoga, I realized early on, after a few classes at juvenile hall, that we couldn't offer the kind of class you would find at a “normal” yoga studio. The environment leaned toward “trauma informed” principles, and I felt they were applicable to what we were doing. So I wrote a training manual and developed trainings that reflect those concepts.
How does UpRising Yoga consider systemic issues of injustice and oppression, such as those based on class/race/gender/sexuality discrimination?
We could not achieve our mission without acknowledging the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated, and the fact that we have an oversized correctional system that emphasizes a punitive approach rather than a rehabilitative approach. People—kids especially—leave jail more confused and angry than they were when they were first locked up. And the cycle begins anew. We try to be a positive influence in juvenile hall, both to the kids and to the staff. Happily, the Los Angeles Probation Department recognizes our work and requested that I train its staff to reduce incidents and better connect with youth.
No one really pays much attention to the communities we teach in. The families living there face crime, poverty, and issues of environmentally related discrimination every day. Some of the kids we see in jail come from those very communities we teach in. So in our community classes, we try to make the connection between personal empowerment and self-care through a yoga practice.
Yoga doesn't belong to one person or one group of people. It belongs to everyone. The trick is to find a way of communicating that to folks who don't believe they deserve more, but are stronger and more resilient than they ever realized. We say in our classes that “yoga is a gift—no one can take it from you.” Once people have the tools of yoga (breathing, conscious movement, etc), they can apply them to every facet of their life, wherever they find themselves.
Yoga doesn't belong to one person or one group of people. It belongs to everyone.
The formation of UpRising Yoga and the work you do with incarcerated youth and your community have clearly been transformational. How then has yoga changed you?
Yoga changed me for the better, no question. It helped me scrape off layers of anger and shine a light on who I am. It helped me reconcile my past and take responsibility for my life. It caused me to look around and see how I could share yoga healing with others. Yoga changed my life and continues to be a profound healing journey.
How has yoga helped the students you teach overcome obstacles? Can you share a story about this?
UpRising Yoga brings yoga life skills to incarcerated youth and to communities without access to yoga.
We teach sexually trafficked foster youth. One girl practiced with us weekly and was grateful for the certificates of excellence we gave her to give the judge in court. Breathing deep in empowering postures, offered with tons of kindness, helped her to participate. After three weeks we watched her smile and feel safe in her body. No one told us until later that she had had every toe except one removed by her trafficker. Can you believe the courage she exhibited?
Each week we see incarcerated youth overcome things like moving limbs lodged with shrapnel after being shot; being pregnant and scared to give birth, asking how to breathe and move; bad backs from hard lives; being next to a rival gang member on their yoga mats and sharing with each other how to get into postures; being a transgender teen and accepting themselves. In our community classes with Spanish translation, cancer patients struggle, runaways show up with their social workers, three generations arrive and help each other. Watching them deepen their connections to themselves helps me to further investigate my own connection to myself.
Do you have an inspiring teacher? What have they shared that resonated and stayed with you?
There are two teachers I have deep gratitude for: Rajashree Choudhury and Emmy Cleaves—two “phenomenal women,” as Maya Angelou says. Raj taught me how to teach yoga from a place of kindness. Emmy is a model for me in terms of how practicing yoga carries into every aspect of your life and becomes a habit. Together, they are the foundation of my ongoing yoga journey.
What do you love about what you are doing?
I love working with the kids and with the people who are there to help them. I love seeing people in our community classes who never heard of yoga establish a weekly practice that enhances their lives. I love meeting other healers who come to our Trauma Informed Yoga Trainings. I love that I can mentor and compensate yoga instructors and inspire activism in communities. I love sharing our Yoga Life Skills, which makes what we do always more than just a yoga class.
What are your aspirations for the future of yoga?
I would like to see yoga recognized as a legitimate healing modality for trauma, and to see institutions adopting this as policy change. I want to see yoga teachers compensated for their beautiful work, as opposed to yoga being another “volunteer activity” that sometimes has to compete with pizza/movie night in institutions. I want to see fewer kids arrested and more kids connected to healing yoga practices that offer peace within and all around. As I always say, all yoga is good yoga and more yoga all around is good for everyone.