Yoga Journal Announces Seva Award Winners

Joanne Spence, Executive Director, Yoga in Schools was recently donated with a Seva Service Award from Yoga Journal.  Click here for the details!

Yoga Alliance Scholarship Awarded to Joanne Spence

January 30, 2015

Joanne Spence, Executive Director, Yoga in Schools, was recognized for her many years of yoga service work by the Yoga Alliance.  She was awarded a scholarship to advance her yoga training.  Read more details here.

Photo Gallery from Door of Faith Orphanage

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Elementary school students on their first day of school

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Teens at chapel on hill above Door of Faith Orphanage

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Merryn and Marion outside the toddler house

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Biggest smiles EVER

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Some of the staff had never had the opportunity to care for their own needs with a body-based practice like yoga. They responded with tears of joy, happiness and words of gratitude.

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Ethan and his buddies

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The dream team at DOFO: Ethan, Jacob, Marion, Merryn

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New friends

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Marion and Merryn hanging out with Mr. Cool

A Reflection on Our Time at Door of Faith Orphanage

by Joanne Spence

September 5, 2013

Last Saturday I returned from leading our first international yoga service trip. I took four teenagers to Door of Faith Orphanage (DOFO) in La Mision, Baja, Mexico – about 90 minutes south of San Diego.

As is often the case with service opportunities, we came away feeling like we were the ones served.  Within 5 minutes of arriving, DJ, the DOFO director, handed us keys to a mini van and told us to feel free to use it, saying, “Our home is your home – you are our honored guests and we want you to have a good time.” Michael, our host and full-time volunteer for the week, echoed the same sentiment. Since dinner was over and there were no leftovers, we took off in the van to the closest taco restaurant for tacos and burritos at Magano’s Restaurant. We thought they were great, but Michael assured us there were even better taco stands and he would make sure he personally escorted us to some during our stay.

I am a person that likes structure and a good amount of order to my day (believe it or not). When I realized there might not be much structure to our day, I decided to let go and see what happened.  DJ asked us to be flexible and not to underestimate the power of simply being with children, particularly babies and toddlers. So that’s what we did. Each morning we had breakfast at 6:30 a.m. with the elementary kids – they go to nine different local public schools in all. We got used to beans and rice three times a day – plus other delicious offerings.  

We helped with a few organizing projects like sorting out the Christmas stuff (decorations, lights, gifts, wrapping paper, etc.). This is a huge holiday at the Orphanage. They start buying gifts around now and each house is decorated inside and out. Needless to say, we unraveled a lot of Christmas lights – they are now ready to go. On another day, we sorted and packaged 300 “dispenses” (packages of food for seniors). We had quite the production line going. Service to others is a part of the core values of the Orphanage. This means the children, as they get older, have chores and are involved in the various community outreach programs – like the food bank, so they get to see first- hand what it means to serve others.

One morning we got up at 4 a.m. to drive to the Tijuana Breakfast Club – a feeding program for 150 adults and children who live on former dump sites of Tijuana. They get a hot breakfast and a lunch to go. Perhaps you have seen the face of poverty; what I saw were happy, well groomed kids in spiffy school uniforms. Though I know only 10 words in Spanish (I know – pathetic, isn’t it?), we communicated through gestures, nods, smiles, eye contact and the occasional hand shake. Side note: Lynette (DJ’s wife) told me that the Mexican public schools are very strict on hygiene; clean uniforms, clean nails, hair combed, teeth brushed – they are checked daily – honestly, I’m not sure my kids would pass this criteria. Once, I was away on a two-week consulting trip to China and I found out that Lucca (then 10) didn’t brush his teeth the entire time I was away . . . oy vey!

Likewise at DOFO, I saw kids that had beauty and order and most importantly, people who care about them – perhaps not the images that come to mind when you think of an orphanage. DJ reminded us that colored paint costs as much as white paint – he believes the cheerful colors work wonders. He’s right. It felt warm and homey – one very big family. Sometimes it felt hard to quantify what we did. In our time of reflection one day, Ethan (15) shared that he didn’t realize it was so tiring being with kids all day long and how grateful he was that his parents were there for him when he was a toddler – a pretty cool insight for a 15 year old.

The more time we spent with the kids, the more we knew that serving is self-serving; a phrase DJ used when he was introducing us to the orphanage – it is good for the soul. Here’s how Jacob (15) says it: “I experienced for myself, right from the beginning of the trip, how service is really self-serving. I got as much out of this as I put into it, if not more. We shouldn’t be involved in service because we are told to; we should be involved in service because it helps others and builds us into better people.”

Merryn’s (17) thoughts: “We ventured to Mexico prepared to serve other people but instead, we ourselves were served. The simple action of pushing a child on a swing, or helping a kid catch his balance on a bike can make their day – but mostly mine when I made a child giggle. I adored the time I spent at DOFO and I plan to go back as soon as possible – perhaps during my gap year after high school.”

Marion’s (17) thoughts: “Our trip was a success! I had such an amazing time. I became close with many of the children at the orphanage and I absolutely hated to leave. The scenery was fantastic, the people working there were so kind (even when I had NO idea what they were saying), and I really felt God's presence on the trip. Even though the trip was not based on painting homes or rebuilding things, I loved just simply being with the children. After playing in the nursery for only an hour, Merryn and I were exhausted (we don't know how our parents did it)!”

I had the opportunity to lead a gentle yoga class with about 15 staff people and several people from the local church and health clinic. They LOVED it and the feedback I received indicated that they desperately needed it. One lady, Maria, is a house parent and the primary care-giver for her quadriplegic husband, Marcus. Lifting him several times a day is a big strain for her back. Just from observing and reading body language, I knew she had some back issues. I was so thrilled when she came to class and left with a huge smile on her face. By the way, Marcus is the soccer coach for the Door of Faith soccer team and speaks excellent English. We had some great conversations during our visit. Maria and Marcus are a blessing to many children at the orphanage. It was a pleasure to be able to play a tiny part in their story.

We have included a few photos here (below in the next link of this website), or go to our Yoga in Schools Facebook page to see more. They tell the story better than I can.

Truly, the light in me honors the light in you – that’s what our trip was about!

Namaste, I see you, I really see YOU.

Yoga, The How of Now: Working in an Acute Care, Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital

with Rob Schware, Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation

This is an interview with Joanne Spence, Executive Director of Yoga in Schools. Since the 80s, Joanne has worked in several fields of mental health including clinical and community social work, family therapy and inpatient psychiatric care, where she taught therapeutic groups and stress reduction classes. In 2000, Joanne discovered yoga after a car accident, after which she began infusing mind-body practices into her life and work. In 2004, she founded a non-profit organization, Yoga in Schools, to train teachers in self-care and self-awareness practices. In 2007, she joined the Creative & Expressive Arts Team at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UPMC) Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) as a yoga therapist, where she works with adults with mood disorders, eating disorders, and trauma. 

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Fourteen years ago, I was in a debilitating car accident that left me in chronic pain. Two years later, I happened upon a weekend yoga course, which I found to be very challenging and nothing at all like what I had expected. Three days later, I was pain-free for the first time since the accident. I felt as if I had gotten my life back. I began studying yoga to try to figure out what had happened to me and how it could help others. Previously, I had been a social worker, and the more I learned about yoga, the more I could see how yoga could be a tool for healing-perhaps even more than traditional talk therapy. It was a complete surprise to me to notice the positive changes and stability yoga created in my mental health. Gradually, I realized that gentle movement combined with simple breathing practices were a balm for my overly-busy mind. It has stilled the minds of my patients, as well. 

Shifts happen right in front of my eyes every week. This keeps the work fresh. Every day is new; every class is a fresh opportunity to connect with the people in front of me. Showing up for people--I sometimes call it a ministry of "presence"--is indeed motivating.

Is there a standout moment from your work in inpatient psychiatric settings with people with mood disorders?

I have many stories, but here is a fun recent one: I was on a unit for adults with mood disorders--anxiety, depression, and also some folks with trauma. A man, whom I will call David (not his real name), said to me skeptically, "If you can find four other people to do yoga, I will, too." I told him I wasn't sure if I could round up four people, but I would get back to him. Yoga is a voluntary activity (of course), so I checked in with some folks who had already politely declined my offer for a gentle chair yoga practice. Another young man, Gary (not his real name), looked sympathetic, disinterested, and dismissive. He told me how much his back hurt and that he could not do yoga; this was his claim despite never having tried yoga. I engaged him in conversation for a few minutes and convinced him that yoga might help. With four recruits and David, we were ready to roll. The best part was seeing the look of surprise and shock on Gary's face as he followed my directions to the letter and his back did indeed feel better in just 15 minutes. 

Does this happen every time? No, but it happens often enough to keep me a true believer. I hear every day, "I feel soothed, I feel relaxed, I am less anxious. I didn't know that how I breathe could change my mood." 

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed? 

I had about 15 years of clinical social work experience with adults and children before I discovered yoga. During those 15 years, I had tried many different types of social work, from child protection work, juvenile justice (probation officer), family therapist, community educator, and teen parent coordinator, to group home worker. A short part of that time, I ran talk therapy groups in a different inpatient psychiatric hospital. I enjoyed the work but often asked myself if there was something else I could offer my patients. Over the years, I had gained significant experience working with adults and children with mental health challenges. 

My biggest assumption that has changed is that I no longer look at people and think, "Who can I help fix?" but rather, "I will be with you as you learn to be with you." As much as is humanly possible, I try to let go of judgments; therefore, the distance between us is much closer. "I am with you" and "I see you" are essential messages to convey in the context of a group yoga class at WPIC.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

A big distinction is the lack of control of the environment while working in a hospital. We don't often have a dedicated space with mood lighting and quiet music. Sometimes, we practice in a corner of a common room or in a hallway. To me, teaching at the hospital is all about managing the environment and the continuous, mostly unavoidable, distractions. I have to consciously decide what I will pay attention to and carefully monitor myself. Where my attention goes, so goes the class. For example, it is commonplace for staff to walk through the tiny space where we are having class. Often, it is the only way to get where they need to go. Yoga is about acknowledging what is in front of you and proceeding from this real place, so this can also serve as an opportunity to learn how to focus in the midst of distractions and interruptions. 

While teaching yoga as therapy, I like to use props like mats, blankets, chairs, and blocks. In the hospital, I have to improvise a lot and be creative as to how I can support a patient with the tools I have and am allowed to take onto the unit. For instance, at my studio I often use a yoga strap, but at the hospital a strap is considered contraband, so I have to think of another way to achieve my teaching goals.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

At our hospital just over a year ago, we experienced a tragedy that affected all of us, when one of our colleagues was killed by gun violence. The whole staff was deeply affected. For me, it heightened my sense of purpose and urgency. We all need real skills (and practices) that allow us to self-regulate. Yoga helps us do this, helps us to improve our ability for self-care, self-regulation. These are critical characteristics of whole, functional, and compassionate people. We now have heightened security measures at the entrance of our building. I have an opportunity to practice deep nasal breathing every time I enter and leave the building. It helps, as does the sense of being called to this work.

My greatest tool is practicing yoga for myself, not just to be other-focused, but to incorporate the practice as a lifestyle choice. Getting a good night's sleep is also one of the best coping strategies I have found. I think we highly underrate sleep in our culture. I also pray, a lot.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

It is absolutely essential to work on yourself. Perhaps that means being in therapy. It certainly means practicing your own self-care. If yoga is not your own practice, don't teach. This is not new information, but certainly worth re-stating. People who are in the acute phase of mental illness may be in a weakened state, but still highly perceptive: they can sense inauthenticity in a heartbeat. 

My classes are always less than an hour. People want to feel better, and they want specific direction. If they already knew how to relax, calm down, and focus, they would be doing it. They want to know how: "Tell me what to do." As teachers, we need to know how to give simple and concrete instruction that allows people with no connection to their bodies to experience their bodies in a tolerable and even pleasant way. Every time this happens, it is memorable! 

Additionally, gathering academic credentials is helpful in a health care setting. Until the yoga industry is regulated, the only recognition in a health care environment that counts towards your remuneration is the degrees you have, not your yoga credentials, no matter how impressive. A degree in social work or psychology is very helpful, and, more often, a graduate degree is necessary. I have sought out teachers like Amy Weintraub (Yoga for Depression) and Bo Forbes (Yoga for Emotional Balance) because their work directly relates to mental health. 

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I dream that more yoga teachers will reflect on how they can give back and make meaning from this practice that has served them so well. I encourage yoga teachers to get quiet and think about who they resonate with. Who are you drawn to? It is an inquiry worth exploring. 

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I think it has clarified some things. I am my patients. They are me, my brother, my mother. I am continually challenged to answer the question: if it were me in inpatient psychiatric care, who would I want to be teaching me yoga? What if it were my mother--who would I want to be with her? My own yoga practice is essential to my well-being and to my ability to show up as my best and healthiest self. My definition of yoga is the art of giving exquisite attention to what is in front of me. That is truly a gift to be cultivated and is my act of service to others. I now see service as being not doing. Yoga has taught me this. My practice these days is breath-focused and restorative in nature, revolving around gentle poses, like the six movements of the spine. 

What other organizations do you admire? 

My work has led me to cross paths with some outstanding people, particularly in the arena where yoga, children, schools, and mental health intersect. Last year at the inaugural Yoga Service Conference, I was heartened and inspired by meeting many more individuals who are drawn to serve specific groups of people. It is thrilling to come across so many individuals with big hearts doing great work. 

There are so many organizations I greatly admire. I think the Niroga Institute is at the top of that list. Every time I hear B.K. Bose speak, I think, "I must put aside everything and teach in schools and health care to the underserved," and then I remember, "Oh, I am doing that!" He inspires me to keep going, and I am grateful for that. 

I love what Ali, Andy, and Atman are doing in Baltimore with the Holistic Life Foundation. Their commitment to mindful practices and their neighborhood is what fuels their passion to see kids graduate. 

Then, there are individuals who quietly chip away one school at a time, like Susan Solvang and her committed team in Milwaukee Schools called Growing Minds. 

I am deeply appreciative for the work of the International Yoga Therapy Association for forging a path for yoga as therapy and for creating standards for us.

Unwind your mind, as well as your body, with Joanne's DVD, classes or workshops at

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.

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Yoga in Schools Improves Students' Focus and Concentration

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By Meaghan Casey

The Pittsburgh Educator, Spring 2011

Photos: Jason Cohn

What may look like a simple exercise in breathing and balance is having a powerful impact on Pittsburgh students – helping them to become more focused, relaxed and engaged in the classroom.

Yoga in Schools, an organization that aims to empower students and teachers with yoga-inspired exercises and promote lifetime wellness, is helping to make yoga part of the District’s physical education program.

Founded by Joanne Spence in 2005, Yoga in Schools began as a 16-week pilot program at Pittsburgh Faison PreK-8. Spence, a former social worker who has her own yoga studio in Pittsburgh’s East End, had been running an after-school yoga program at Pittsburgh Faison when she was approached by the principal and staff members to introduce more students to yoga during the school day.

“It was always my intention to try to teach yoga to young children, and the school setting seemed like the best way to do that,” said Spence.

Spence was awarded $35,000 from The Grable Foundation to pilot the program, using a standards-based curriculum, Yoga Ed., written by a Los Angeles-based company of the same name. Spence and her staff provide training for PE teachers to master breathing exercises, games and activities, yoga poses and movements, and time for self-reflection. Combined, the techniques help to calm or energize, invigorate the body, dissipate tension and activate brain cells.

“We make it fun and engaging for the students, while helping to strengthen their emotional intelligence,” said Spence. “They’re learning how to manage their emotional states, which, in the end, increases their focus and concentration.”

At Pittsburgh Faison, Spence worked with physical education teacher Scott Mandarino to teach yoga three days a week during the initial rollout.

“It was something new and challenging at first, but the kids really enjoyed it,” said Mandarino.

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Yoga is now part of the everyday routine for Pittsburgh Faison students, both in and out of PE class. It has helped to boost self-esteem and self-awareness among students, while helping them to become stronger and more limber.

“It’s great to see the kids smiling, laughing and moving around, and really getting excited about it,” said Mandarino. “It helps them take their mind off of other things in their lives and concentrate on what they’re learning throughout the day.”

Pittsburgh Faison is not the only District school benefitting from the program. Yoga in the Schools has since expanded to reach more than 18,000 K-12 students in the District, thanks to the generous support of The Heinz Endowments and other donors.

Pittsburgh Schaeffer health and PE teacher Jen Bichler cannot say enough about the benefits.

“Overall, the kids have more body awareness and it helps to fine-tune behavioral issues,” she said. “And I think the staff really likes it. If any of their students are upset or acting out, they’re able to put them in a pose or say, ‘stop and take a breath.’ It helps them regain control.”

Bichler also finds it’s a useful exercise to ease the transition from PE to the classroom.

“We use it to cool down and bring their heart rates down,” she said. “It gets them to take a look at their energy levels and find a center of focus before going back into class.”

In addition to the behavioral benefits, yoga has helped to redefine physical education and activity for many students.

“Yoga is something that everyone can be successful at,” said Spence. “Whether you’re an athlete or you’ve never played a competitive sport in your life, this is a way to increase your physical fitness. I think that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do – inspiring as many children as we can to live healthier lives.”

City Stretches Phys Ed Curriculum Through Yoga

By Karamagi Rujumba

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

April 19, 2010


                                                                             Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Shaquala Austin, a senior at Pittsburgh Brashear High School, holds her "dancer" pose during a yoga session at gym class.

For some students, physical education classes offer a needed respite from the monotony of shuffling between stuffy classrooms.

For others, they can be treacherous. They can feel singled out or self-conscious about their fitness and body shape in comparison to peers.

Pittsburgh Public Schools are integrating yoga into the phys ed curriculum to diversify the gym experience and give students at different levels of fitness an activity they can adapt to at their own pace and still have a workout.

"We build our [phys ed] curriculum around five components -- body composition, flexibility, muscular, strength and cardiovascular endurance -- and yoga has a direct impact on all of them," said Jerri Lippert, the school district's chief academic officer.

The concept was the brainchild of Joanne Spence, proprietor of Yoga on the Square, who approached the school district, Pittsburgh Urban Christian School in Wilkinsburg and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School in 2005.

A former social worker who started yoga to heal from a knee injury suffered in a car accident a few years ago, Ms. Spence said the idea of yoga in schools appealed to her. "I thought it would be a good way to give kids who are having a hard time managing their bodies the confidence they need to become physically active."

Now a certified yoga trainer, she said beyond the physical fitness aspect, yoga has the potential to enhance a child's mental maturity.

"There is every reason to think that yoga can help children as they grow and give them a sense of how to deal with anger and hurt," said Ms. Spence, who sought funding from the Grable Foundation and the Heinz Endowments among others to fund the program.

Initially introduced as a pilot program in elementary and middle schools, yoga is now part of the physical education regimen in 25 of 66 district schools, Dr. Lippert said.

So far, she added, all phys ed teachers have been through a yoga instruction session, but it is mostly practiced in elementary schools and middle schools.

It has not yet made it to many high schools because the district is crafting what its physical education curriculum will look like when it fully incorporates yoga, said Megan Perfetti, who supervises high school phys ed instructors.

Yoga can enhance phys ed because it creates a calm and confidence-building interlude for students who may have a hard time with some of the exercises and sports, said Dr. Lippert, a former phys ed teacher.

Cara McKenna, a middle school teacher at Allegheny Traditional Academy, said that while she has not yet had a whole period dedicated to yoga, students have taken to it as a warm-up and cool-down activity.

"For the age group I work with, yoga for my students still seems a bit slow. They are more into the physical games right now, but every time we do yoga, they are fully present and participating and they really enjoy it," said Ms. McKenna, the district K-8 health and physical education specialist.

"Yoga allows an entry point for students who may feel like they don't want to get on a track or soccer field after third period, for example, because they don't feel like having to go through with the hustle of sweating at that point in their day," said Dr. Lippert.

Chris Wolski and Kelley Gavlik said they have already seen a transformation in attitude since they introduced yoga in their phys ed class at Pittsburgh Brashear High School this year.

"[The students] absolutely love it," said Ms. Gavlick, a phys ed teacher for 10 years.

"It's different from what we have traditionally done in gym class and now they are completely into learning the yoga poses, the stretching and the breathing exercises," she said.

On a recent Thursday morning, Ms. Wolski and Ms. Gavlick were scheduled to do circuit training -- weight lifting and cardiovascular exercises -- with a class of 30 freshman, sophomore and senior girls. The juniors were excused due to state exams.

They chose yoga, however, to make up for a previous dance class when they would have integrated it into the routine, but also because "the girls said they want to do yoga instead," said Ms. Wolski.

As a CD mix of pop ballads blared, the teachers stood back and watched as the girls performed their yoga poses.

"They have learned it, they know it, and now they don't even need us to show them how to bend and stretch and meditate on the exercise. They just do it," said Ms. Wolski.

At Allegheny Traditional Academy, where Anne Kelly had a group of 17 kindergartners in an early Thursday morning physical education class, the yoga routine was a lot less cerebral.

It started out with a stretching warm-up before the children took to running around the center of a gym in a circle, abruptly stopping every time Ms. Kelly blew her whistle to twist their bodies into different poses.

After a 30-minute workout, Ms. Kelly led the group through a round of cool-down stretches as she explained the importance of lowering the heart rate after an intense workout.

"They absolutely love it. But what is amazing, they have been going home and showing their parents what they do here," said Ms. Kelly, who is planning two sessions of yoga with the parents.

Karamagi Rujumba: or 412-263-1719.

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Pittsburgh Public Schools PE Teachers Learn Yoga

Monday, August 31, 2009

Today and tomorrow, 25 physical education teachers will be trained to incorporate yoga into their P.E. classes using the Yoga Ed Curriculum, a standardized model of physical and emotional wellness. This curriculum is used around the nation and meets physical education requirements. The Pittsburgh Public School District formed a partnership with Yoga in Schools to do the training.
Joanne Spence, Executive Director of Yoga in Schools, says yoga will benefit students in both mind and body as they learn self-care and self-awareness while building physical and mental strength. She says they could use these exercises for the rest of their lives to relieve stress and remain physically active.
Spence says this will be a permanent program and hopes to extend it to any other schools that are interested.
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