Kayoko Mitsumatsu – “For the cost of one yoga class, you can change a life.”
I was 35 years old when I took my first yoga class in a regular fitness gym. At the time, I was practicing Taekwondo and really into fitness. I had no idea what was happening. In my humble opinion, the teacher wasn’t very impressive. I felt really weird because I was used to more physical exercise. I was not very interested. It was my first class, and I wasn’t exactly hooked.
My girlfriend insisted I try different classes, so the next class I tried was a Kundalini class at Golden Bridge, because it was close to my place. There, I started to learn about the depth of breathing and different styles of yoga. I really liked it. There was a teacher who taught a little bit of vinyasa with Kundalini. We did a cleansing for ten days and I became much more interested. It took me two or three years of trying different classes, vinyasa, Kundalini, then finally Ashtanga and that was it. When I found Ashtanga yoga, I was hooked.
I really like the individual practice and how the teacher explains poses such as Marichyasana. For the first couple of months, I had no idea how my arm was going to make a clasp. I thought my body was just not made for it. I looked around, and all these serious students were doing amazing stuff. I like exercise and Ashtanga is a very physical practice. I’m drawn to the physical part of it.
I kept going to class, and the teacher helped me every day. I never received so much attention in a regular yoga class. I started reading about Ashtanga and talking to teachers and other students. If you keep practicing, like Pattabhi Jois says, “All is coming.” I started believing it, and it’s true. The magic started to happen.
In about six months, Marichyasana C was happening and other things that I thought I could never do in my life were starting to happen. The practice really inspired me, so I continued for three or four years nonstop.
Around that time, I learned that asana is just one part of yoga. Yoga is a huge tradition. I studied the depths of yogic philosophy including Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. One day I came upon this quote, “The first part of your life is to learn and to experience, but the second part of your life is to give back from what you have accumulated.”
I was in my late 40s, and felt like I had done enough for my career as a filmmaker. The reason I went into film making in the first place was to share the stories of voiceless populations. Around that time, I was filming a documentary about micro-financing. It’s amazing how big of an impact $15 or $20 can have on the poorest people in the world. Micro-financing can give the poorest women a chance to start their own businesses, build sustainable lives, and end cycles of poverty.
I came back to my yoga classes and I realized, “I should do something as a healthy, blessed being. Use myself to serve others.” Indian philosophy says, “Your body is a temple and a vehicle. You take care of it and use to maximum capacity.”
Going into the second phase of my life, I asked myself, “why don’t I give back to the world as much as I can – in a big way, or a small way?” During the micro-financing documentary I realized 75% of the population in India still live under $2 a day. At the time, the Yoga Industry was $6 billion. Today, it’s grown over 4 fold to $27 billion. There is a huge imbalance. If a fraction of this wealth can be reallocated to India to help the poorest people, through micro-financing, we can make a huge difference.
That’s why I started Yoga Gives Back, to express our gratitude for the gift of yoga. Our mantra is for the cost of one yoga class, you can change a life.
It’s a nonprofit. It began nine years ago in my yoga class. I talked to my yoga teacher and we talked to the yoga studio owner. Long story short, we are now in 15 countries with local volunteer yogis and Ambassador teachers raising awareness about poverty issues in India. Local volunteers also organize fundraisers supporting our programs in India.
Working closely with local NGOs in Karnataka and West Bengal, we currently support nearly 900 Indian mothers and children with micro-finance and education funding. We don’t just give money and leave. We give each person at least five years of funding. We make sure there’s enough time for people to uplift and transform themselves. I’m very proud of our commitment. I visit India every year or two and film these transformations. I film as much as possible to share short documentaries on the website – YGB Films – so that you can see how your $25 or $10 donation impacts many lives in India.
When I go to India and meet the many people we fund, I can see the hope in their eyes.
We are now funding the education of 150 destitute high school students so that they have a chance to get a college-level degree. In rural villages in West Bengal, I see these girls who would be otherwise forced to marry or labor at house or on a farm. Girls’ education is not very important, so they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to educate themselves. Our funding is truly making a difference in their lives. Even the life of a really poor boy who is forced to work in the construction work site at the age of 11, our money has rescued his future. Now he’s finishing his high school degree and he can aim for college. YGB Film “Gold in Hand” shares these inspiring stories.
I talk to these people, those students, and look into their eyes. Their eyes are like stars, so bright, and filled with determination and the hope for a better life. That’s really powerful for me. We say we are giving back, but I always feel we are receiving. I am receiving so much, it’s giving me a lifetime of energy to serve.
To be continued…
1st part of the Kayoko Mitsumatsu interview series at Veda MeLA in Los Angeles, CA.
Interviewed by Hung Tran and Dawn Morningstar