Many who practice yoga can speak to how it has improved their physical and emotional wellbeing, and also how it empowers them with an ability to pause, reflect, and make a deeper connection with their inner self. Or as Catherine Cook-Cottone, Ph.D, founder of Yogis in Service, stated, “Yoga gives you the tools to make intentional decisions in your life. The feeling of peaceful presence allows you the space to make really challenging choices.” Cook-Cottone further summarizes her yoga philosophy with a quote from Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Unfortunately for members of Buffalo’s East Side communities, socioeconomic obstacles have severely limited access to that self-empowerment that can be developed through the practice of yoga. Unlike residents of Williamsville or the Elmwood Village, East Side community members don’t have numerous yoga studios in their neighborhood to choose from. Some lack access to transportation to get to a studio outside their neighborhood, and many simply cannot afford the cost of taking classes.
Enter Yogis in Service (YIS), a Buffalo-based non-profit volunteer organization founded by Catherine Cook-Cottone with the mission of creating access to yoga for every Buffalonian. Cook-Cottone is a licensed psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and associate professor in SUNY at Buffalo who focuses her teaching and research on mindful therapy and yoga for health, healing and service. Her interest in yoga began when she was teaching a course on counseling children and adolescents, which focused on how individuals self-regulate in healthy and unhealthy ways. One of her students suggested that she give yoga a try.
“I was a swimmer and a runner, so I thought I couldn’t do yoga – I just thought it was for people who were flexible,” Cook-Cottone said. “I took a class and from the first minute, I loved it. What I had thought about yoga was wrong – it’s for all people. I was very fascinated by how good I felt emotionally at the end of the class and really struck by how relaxed I felt. I felt warm, open and I wanted to socialize with other people. And that was just one class!”
Cook-Cottone went on to become a certified instructor, completing trainings at the Himalayan Institute and Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga. Teaching at Buffalo Power Yoga would connect her with two important individuals who lit the spark of creation for Yogis in Service.
“Rev. Gary Steves of Resurrection Church (located on Genesee and Doat Streets) started going to Power Yoga Buffalo and taking classes with Susan Fain,” she said. “They got to talking and were saying that there should be yoga at the church. I worked with Susan and another teacher, Alexis Asquith, to set up classes for a summer camp there.” The classes were a huge hit and yoga at the church continued for the next two years, under the watchful eye of Cook-Cottone, Fain, Asquith, students from UB, and members of the community. When the lead instructors traveled abroad to study with the Africa Yoga Project, the student volunteers kept the classes going at the church. And when the students graduated, the community members stepped up and carried the torch.
After visiting the church and seeing how the enthusiasm for yoga continued to grow, Cook-Cottone knew she wanted to officially launch Yogis in Service in 2015. When she needed help creating the 501c3, two lawyers from Purrington Moody Weil LLP – Dominka Tanianis, Esq. and Mark Fanton, Esq. – agreed to do it pro-bono. With the help of the community, a volunteer board, and a group of 12 teachers, YIS quickly expanded to offer classes not only at Resurrection Church, but to groups in need throughout the city of Buffalo.
“This past year we started with maybe 10 or 20 people on Saturdays at the church,” Cook-Cottone said. “We helped with a summer camp and a program at Sisters Hospital. We started an after-school program at Delavan-Grider Community Center and a program at Martha Mitchell Center for people recovering from addiction. We also added a Wednesday evening class at Resurrection Church. We were probably helping over 100 people a week – all for free.”
The organization’s reach continues to grow, currently serving anywhere from 100-200 individuals per week. They are starting a youth program at one of the West Side charter schools that already has a waitlist. They’ve also launched a veteran peer support program and are working toward offering classes with the VA for veterans recovering from PTSD and substance abuse. In the coming year, they plan to develop their own yoga teacher certification program that will honor trauma-informed care and community service – a training they hope to provide to aspiring yoga instructors locally, nationally and even internationally.
The positive effects on individuals taking the classes and the community as a whole are numerous. “A lot of people just talk about feeling better,” Cook-Cottone said. “Alice, who comes to Saturday class every week, was in a car accident and got a pretty bad head injury. She can balance now. Curtis, who was diagnosed with legionnaires disease, comes to every class that he can and yoga helped him get better. A lot of people who are coming feel the physical effects. There’s a deeper connection with your own body within which you realize that you’re more in control of your inner experience than you think.”
“I used to drive a school bus and was in an accident in 2009 where I hurt my neck and upper back,” said Diane Rose, an East Side resident and one of the earliest supporters of YIS. “I was on all kinds of medication, but the yoga and meditation enabled me to do more, and they’ve even changed my medications because of those adjustments.”
Rose also speaks to how practicing yoga has empowered the youth in her neighborhood by teaching them to reflect and make better choices when they confront stressful situations. Her granddaughter was struggling academically a few years ago, but now she’s moved into a class for excelled learners. “She used to complain that the work was too hard. Now she relaxes and breathes. As a result, her marks have gone up over the years,” Rose said. “It has such a positive effect on the children in the neighborhood, too. With the stress associated with living in poverty and many in single-parent homes, it’s good for them to find themselves in the midst of all the chaos. What’s causing the stress is them not thinking for themselves and starting with self. They can start with self and in turn make a better community.”
While Yogis in Service has made huge strides in the past year, their greatest milestone comes with the opening of their very own studio this month. As an ambassador for Lululemon, Cook-Cottone was encouraged to apply for a grant and YIS made the top 3 of 48 applications worldwide. The organization was awarded $15,000 to build a high end yoga studio right where they began their work at Resurrection Church on Buffalo’s East Side – in a community that so deserved it.
In addition to the grant funding, generosity from family and community members carried the vision of a studio to reality. “O’Brian Quality Service Flooring on Walden Avenue donated our flooring and had their team come in and install it for free – the supplies, labor, and everything,” Cook-Cottone said. “Jonathan Casey is a member of the Rotary Club and owner of Solid716 interior design company. He offered to help and essentially provided all of the interior design at cost. We were able to build a pretty amazing high end studio in the church at cost. Jonathan has been there with his dad on the weekends doing the painting himself. The generosity of the Buffalo community has overwhelmed us. We’ve had everything from $500 donations from individuals and foundations to $2,500 from Ingram Micro. I think this is the way to really make change in the community – from the inside out.”
The studio will be open to community members of all ages and experience levels. Currently, they welcome everyone to take classes as one group, regardless of age or ability. After expanding their teacher training, YIS hopes to offer more advanced classes, a specialized class for chair yoga, and a kids’ class. Because they are an all-volunteer organization with no admin costs, they utilize donations to provide more community programs and to hire quality instructors who have an understanding of their social justice mission.
“When I did my training, there was a huge emphasis on service,” said Molly Muffoletto, YIS instructor. “It was sort of required that we were to be of service to our community through yoga. So when Catherine brought this up, I knew it was exactly what I was taught to do. Doing anything for YIS, even the monthly meetings, means more than picking up a paycheck from any of the studios that I work at.”
“Yoga is union. It is community. It brings people together,” said Steve Procknal, YIS instructor and board member. “From a social perspective, it brings people together to coexist and gives them space to be themselves, to breathe and move without competition and judgement. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything grows from the foundation we’ve already built. Just being a part of something that’s going to positively affect the city of Buffalo. The more people that are doing yoga, the better off Buffalo will be.”