The Mandela Yoga Project brings free yoga to communities of color that are experiencing public health crises.

Yoga has been recognized as a practice with a wide array of physical and mental health benefits. Research has confirmed that yoga can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression while improving strength and flexibility. Yet, yoga is often unaffordable to populations that are in greatest need of its health effects, including low-income families. Poverty is linked to chronic, toxic stress, which can in turn increase an individual’s risk of a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Between the price of studio memberships, designer yoga pants, expensive yoga mats, and the ever-necessary bottle of kombucha for class, being a part of the yoga scene seems wildly unrealistic to those who don’t have at least $50/month of disposable income (the average monthly price yogis spend on the hobby, according to a study by DOYOUYOGA).

Soaring yoga prices and levels of stress has caused yoga activists across the country to fight for change.

Jeffrey Thomas is one such voice among this crowd whose mission is to bring free yoga to communities of color that are experiencing public health crises through his organization, Mandela Yoga Project. I sat down with Jeffrey to speak about the story behind his passionate quest to provide yoga to many.

Jeffrey explained to me that he has been practicing yoga since 2002 in San Francisco. He recalls, “I started seeing someone who was a yoga teacher. I followed her around so when she went to teach yoga, I went to take yoga.”

With increasing obligations of career, his yoga practice trailed off in frequency. However, years later, he came back to regular practice when his health took a turn for the worse. While living in Boston, he began to struggle to manage his diabetes and high blood pressure.

Several years into regularly attending yoga classes, Jeffrey signed up for an RYT-200 program with the New School of Yogic Arts at Coolidge Yoga in Boston. However, just a few short weeks into the training, his health took another unexpected nosedive. 6 weeks into the 5-month process, he had spine fusion surgery. During his teacher training, Jeffrey was able to practice non-attachment and self-acceptance in terms of his limitations. 

This sense of self-acceptance and non-attachment has come with the simultaneous awareness about privilege and practice.

The economic reality was one of the driving factors that motivated him to start Mandela Yoga Project after completing teacher training. The other factor was losing a sister to complications of diabetes. He explains, “Like me, my diabetic sister could have benefited from the yoga. Yet, as a curvy African American woman, she didn’t feel welcome in a typical yoga studio.”

The project hopes to make yoga less of an elite practice, and more of a practice that’s accessible to everyone.

Jeffrey gets an assist in Half Moon. Photo Credit: Erwins Cazeau “The Empowerment Series”.

A pilot for the project is currently being developed for Boston. Already, Boston has proven to be a perfect jumping off point. Thus far, more than $16,000 has been donated to Mandela Yoga Project by individual donors through a GoFundMe campaign. Additionally, Jeffrey has secured ties with local yoga studios who have agreed to host a free 10-week pilot series of classes, he has secured verbal commitment for fiscal sponsorship with a national nonprofit and is negotiating a partnership with Yoga Alliance.

The Mandela Yoga Project helps to foster the spread of yoga within low-income communities. 

The key to the economics of this arrangement may be to remove the studio from the equation. Frequently, yoga is geographically limited to affluent communities. Consequently, studios that expand out of these areas may have a hard time consistently earning high enough revenue to stay afloat. Thus, compensating yoga teachers directly and employing community spaces may lead to efficiency for the project in the long run.

Jeffrey assists Warrior 2. Photo Credit: Erwins Cazeau “The Empowerment Series”.

All yoga lovers can play a role in transforming this dream to reality.

Together we can contribute to healing the world through yoga. Whether it’s through donating our time to teach classes in public health crisis communities, donating our dollars to funds for low-income individuals to take classes, or donating our minds to advocate for restructuring of the current economics of yoga.


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