Photo: Kayoko Mitsumatsu (founder of Yoga Gives Back) in India.

Sixteen years ago, I founded Yoga Gives Back (YGB). When anyone asks me, “What inspired you to found Yoga Gives Back,” I usually reply: “Hope for the future.”  I founded YGB out of a Yoga classroom in Los Angeles where, as a beginning Yoga student, I was getting so much benefit physically and mentally from the daily practice. The real bliss was profound as I walked out of the studio daily, which led me to wonder what I was going to do with my happy healthy self? I was 47, with a good profession, a great life partner in my marriage, my parents did not need care yet, etc. I felt I had everything I wanted in my life, but one thing was missing: using myself fully for a bigger purpose.

In this same year, as a documentary filmmaker working for NHK (Japan’s National Public Broadcaster), I was producing a program about Social Entrepreneurship in the US and came to learn about Dr Muhammad Yunus and the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate’s revolutionary microfinancing success in developing countries to alleviate poverty, especially empowering underserved women around the world. I became aware that $6 billion was spent on Yoga per year in the US alone (it is estimated $80 billion worldwide today), while 75 percent of the population in India still live under the poverty line, earning $2 a day. It was so shockingly lopsided.

My Yoga class was about $15 at that time (now $30 in Los Angeles), and I indulged myself with nice Yoga pants at $65. I realized that for the cost of one Yoga class in the West, you can change a life in India with microfinancing. Just $15 could provide an impoverished woman in India with funds to start her own income-earning business and end the vicious cycle of poverty and care for her children with three daily meals and education! I shared this idea with my Yoga teacher and studio owner. To my surprise, everyone supported the idea right away. Apparently, many Yoga practitioners were already looking for an opportunity to give back but there was no nonprofit organization in the Yoga community that focused on giving back to India to express our gratitude.

This was how Yoga Gives Back was born from one local Yoga studio in Los Angeles, embraced by passionate Yoga practitioners and leaders from the start.

Looking back, it is quite astonishing that YGB’s mission has spread to over 30 countries worldwide in the last 16 years, empowering more than 2,400 women and children with our own micro-loan and education programs. Over 100 top teachers and leaders of Yoga and mindfulness are now our Advisors and Ambassadors with heartfelt support for our mission, helping our fundraising efforts year after year.

When I came back from India in January 2023, I was deeply inspired— especially after a three-year separation due to the pandemic—by witnessing the real generational impact YGB is creating among the marginalized population. We now see hundreds of disadvantaged youths graduating with college degrees against all odds and becoming real role models and change makers in their communities, as well as helping their poor families.

Once abused by her husband, one woman has become the breadwinner for the family with solid income from mat-making micro-loan work which also gained her respect from her husband and community. Young girls with education were the first to help illiterate and poor farmers when COVID engulfed Indian villages in 2020. They risked their lives and bicycled into the villages to help distribute masks, medical information, as well as emergency food assistance. These girls came to be known as “Covid Warriors” and were deeply appreciated by the villagers.

These are just some incredible results of our programs and they provide the inspiration for me to continue to do our best for our mission.  We have also created deep connections with our fund recipients in India, who are now our brothers and sisters. Countless transactional relationships matured into mutual respect over the years. I am beyond grateful for this life mission which continues to guide me and inspire me to explore ways to give back for bigger and bigger impact as the need in India is unlimited.

Our future goal is to reach one million yogis to join in our global grassroots campaign. There are an estimated 300 million people enjoying Yoga practice in the world. If just a fraction—one million of them join us—we can raise much more funding to empower significantly more lives in India. Out of India’s 1.4 billion people, an estimated 50 percent or more still live below the poverty line. The pandemic and climate change hit the most vulnerable population, especially women and children, much harder economically and socially.

As a beneficiary of Yoga, this ancient wisdom from India, I believe our work is critical among the global Yoga communities so this practice does not become one-way, benefitting only the practitioner or business owners. If we believe in Yoga, unity is our goal. We need to express our gratitude with action.

As a near future goal, I challenge every Yoga practitioner to join us in our annual campaign in June, “Global Gathering for India.” It started with a hugely successful fundraiser in the first year of the pandemic as 80 global leaders and teachers from kirtan, mindfulness, and Yoga communities gathered from over 20 countries for our live three-day zoom event. As we enjoy post-pandemic personal interactions, we are inviting everyone to host just one class or tea party or whatever to fundraise for our mission anytime in June and give back as a global family. Size does not matter, but your participation truly matters!

About the Author:

Photo Credit: Dorit Thies Photography

Kayoko Mitsumatsu, prior to moving to the United States in 1992, was a producer/director for NHK Japan’s National Public Broadcaster, working on prime-time current affairs and documentary television programs and with cultural attachés at the Embassy of Japan in London. Her passion for documentary filmmaking’s ability to bridge diverse cultures and share the voices of the voiceless is rooted in a perspective gained from years of living abroad, including in Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Kayoko has been filming real stories of Yoga Gives Back’s fund recipients in India for over a decade as YGB Films, which chronicles the harsh realities of underserved women and children in India, as well as how Yoga Gives Back’s global community support has transformed many lives with real impact and hope.

Learn more the June 2023 YGB special event here: