Mat Chat


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We are delighted to bring you this Mat Chat™ from Nicole Smith, a member of our JUJA community. Read on to share her volunteer journey and learn about Room To Read, an organization working tirelessly to help educate girls in developing markets.

I began practicing yoga after our third child was born. My local studio held an evening class in the dark that was divine. We followed the same sequence every week and I relished the repetition, the shadows and the serenity it brought. We moved cross country after our fourth child was born and I was blessed with a yoga studio scant two miles from our new home. I practiced yoga up to and through my due date with our fifth and final child. Yoga taught me to breathe, reflect and receive.

I longed for babies long before I was of childbearing age. I began my volunteer career as a candy striper in the hospital delivering the mail with my grandmother. After graduating college, I spent my Saturdays volunteering in the maternity ward holding newborn infants and gossiping with the nurses. I was then blessed with my own healthy babies and caught up in the chaos, but remained open to what might come next.

The answer soon arrived in my Inbox with an invitation to join a new volunteer effort in town. Some women were forming a local New Jersey chapter to support the global non profit Room to Read. I read the book by the founder John Wood, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and was immediately hooked. Room to Read focuses on literacy and gender equality in education in 14 countries. Room to Read is revolutionary on so many levels. Literacy is something most of us take for granted. Room to Read trains teachers and publishes books in local languages to help young students learn to read in their native tongue and develop a lifelong habit of reading.

Each local chapter around the globe invites volunteers to be creative in raising funds and awareness for Room to Read programs. Coming from a family that values volunteering, I looked for ways to get my kids involved. We have hosted speaking events featuring female executives, visited Girl Scout troops, held concerts, bake sales and book sales to benefit Room to Read. Other chapters host luncheons, galas, and cooking classes to raise funds and friends for Room to Read. Global campaigns invite all chapters to participate using a common theme. For several years Room to Read promoted Namaste World where local yoga studios donated class fees to fund scholarships for girls.

The Room to Read Girls' Education Program focuses on keeping girls in school during the tough transition period into secondary school. Girls are often required to drop out of school at this juncture to marry, find employment in remote cities, or become subject to trafficking. Many must avoid attending school when they are menstruating, which naturally puts them behind.

Girls who are educated will marry later, will have fewer children, will educate those children, and will invest nearly 90% of their earned income back into their community, alleviating systemic poverty. Archaic traditions and customs hinder change, but Room to Read has found a way to advocate for girls and for change.

Room to Read provides uniforms, books, supplies, tuition fees and exam preparation services for girls in the Girls' Education Program. Room to Read goes beyond academic support by utilizing social mobilizers in these communities to foster change. Social mobilizers act as role models, advisors and advocates for girls in the program. Social mobilizers provide support, offer advice, and facilitate workshops that teach critical thinking, speaking, empathy and critical life skills. Local teams also collaborate with government officials at the local, regional and national levels to promote girl-friendly learning environments.

This year Room to Read celebrates educating 50,000 girls through their scholarship program. Room to Read has benefited over 11 million children since 2000. Our New Jersey chapter began in 2010 and I have benefited beyond words. Exercise and social responsibility are my highest priorities. Time constraints have kept me from practicing yoga in a studio lately, but I find peace through repetition in following a yoga DVD several times a week, combining meditation and movement. Yoga allows me to nurture my physical/emotional/mental well-being. By being grounded I can give more.

Room to Read has given me global awareness and a sense of deep connection. I believe we thrive when we have a sense of purpose in our lives. We are fortunate to find purpose through our professions and our passion. I am grateful to have found mine.

Nicole Smith
Volunteer, Room to Read
Want to help? Below are links to donate either to the parent Room to Read organization or to the author's local chapter of Room to Read.

Room to Read New Jersey Chapter

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Is Your Body Image Holding You Hostage?

By Karen Schwartz

I’ve been a health, fitness and yoga teacher for more than 20 years and I’ve always been in great shape  strong, flexible, and falling within a healthy weight range. Still, I’ve never had the proverbial “Instagram” body. Over the years, my struggles with compulsive eating have resulted in pounds alternatively piling on and dropping off, accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, shame and debilitating worries about body image that felt like they were holding me hostage. 

As a result, I dressed for my classes accordingly. When I was “feeling thin,” I’d wear closer fitting tops that revealed my frame. When I wasn’t, I’d wear billowy tops that hid my belly, hips and thighs. Once, when I was trying to demonstrate a yoga posture to my class, I realized my oversize tank top completely obscured my body and prevented my students from seeing what I was doing. I paused, had a moment of terror, then pulled the tank off over my head. The earth didn’t swallow me up and the students didn’t run from the room screaming. With a giddy mix of freedom and fear, I continued my demonstration, realizing that this body image thing was something I needed to get a handle on. 

Despite the rise and evolution of the feminist movement, body image continues to be an issue for the majority of girls and women in the United States and worldwide.

According to recent statistics compiled by The Body Image Center in Washington, D.C., 89 percent of girls have dieted by age 17, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Interviews conducted with 10,500 females across 13 countries for the 2016 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report found that “women's confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline, with low body esteem becoming a unifying challenge shared by women and girls around the world - regardless of age or geography.”1 Recent years have seen progress, like a broader spectrum of women’s images portrayed in the media, and a wave of pushback against magazines and advertisers that routinely airbrush and Photoshop out “flaws” in appearance; however, it takes constant vigilance not to fall prey to the pressure of unrealistic norms. Loving and accepting ourselves completely is an ideal that many of us have not even come close to.

If you’re not sure where you stand with your body image, think about it for a moment. You might look at yourself in the mirror and determine whether there are things you feel like you need to hide, or that somehow make you less than you think you could be. Now, flip that script — simply state the opposite out loud. Can you do it? Can you actually feel it? The degree of resistance you have to changing your perspective may indicate just how deeply rooted your beliefs are.

Of course, body image isn’t only about weight and about the images we see. Difficulty expressing emotions, sexual objectification, physical and sexual abuse and trauma can all result in a fraught relationship with our bodies, and may result in addictions or eating disorders that affect both our actual appearance and our self-perception. Women who have been objectified or assaulted might come to see their body as something evil that needs to be controlled, hidden or denied. The “me” that we see might look perfectly lovely to an outside observer, but when we look in the mirror, we see a surface layer that is hiding pain, rage, shame and all the shadows of our experience from the rest of the world. It keeps us safe, but it also holds us hostage. 

Enter the healing power of yoga — not an approach centered around perfecting forms and achieving extreme flexibility and strength, but yoga that teaches us to be present in each moment, noticing the sensations we feel and honoring our experience. When we practice, first and foremost we witness what is there, releasing judgment and even relinquishing the desire to change. As we stretch, move and breathe with mindful awareness, we come to understand ourselves on a deeper level. Practicing in this way loosens the grip of our habitual ways of being, allowing for greater self-trust and making room for a new perspective. 

For many of us, this takes time. Patterns can run deep, especially when they’ve served to protect us for so long. When we’re used to feeling bad, feeling better can be scary, and as much as we want freedom, we might not know what to do with it when we find it. That’s why it’s important to be consistent with our practice, but gentle with ourselves as well. I practiced and taught for years before I began to understand yoga in this way, and to develop a compassionate relationship with my body that opened the doorway to greater freedom. 

The beauty is that you can begin any time. As a start, next time you put on your yoga clothes, step in front of your mirror and pause. Is the voice in your head rushing to judgment? Try closing your eyes and doing some movement. Are you comfortable? Can you breathe and stretch freely? Do you begin to feel more spacious inside? Yoga gives us a new touchstone, one that focuses on the feeling inside. Try taking that risk—like an oversized tank top, you can pull off that outer layer and letting your true self shine through.

Karen Schwartz, LMSW, TCTSY-F, C-IAYT is a New York City based social worker, yoga therapist and writer with more than 25 years of experience helping people achieve better physical, mental and emotional health. Find her at