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Kula for Karma

Delivering Serious Prescriptions

When Penni Feiner, Executive Director of Kula for Karma, pulled into the parking lot of the Ridgewood YMCA, her hands were steady on the wheel. But her manicure was blue, with one orange nail on each hand.

"I like it that at this point in my life, I get to dress how I want," said Feiner, 62, a New Jersey resident, who helps bring therapeutic yoga to settings such as Hudson County Correction Center and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.

Begun in 2007 by Geri Topfer, founder and president, Kula recruits and trains volunteer instructors to teach nearly 40 on-going programs.

"My dream is that we will have therapeutic yoga programs throughout the New Jersey/New York Metro Area. Geri and I joke and say that we are the ‘yes' girls, but we don't want to say “no” to anything," Feiner explained. They are in discussions with Bellevue Hospital and Mount Sinai, and partnerships with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Eyes smiling beneath her grey crew-cut and funky glasses, Feiner led the way through the Ridgewood Y into Kula's 6:15 p.m. class for military veterans. She positioned herself in the back to observe and try the poses herself.

At the front, teacher Jackie Owen coached men, between the ages of 60 and 80, sun salutes. Distinguished with upright postures, these vets are the regulars, having attended class since its beginning in 2013. Using a calm voice, Owen directed the students through shoulder and hip openers, using the wall for balance. She ended with a guided yoga nidra, purposefully devoid of off-putting flowery language or phrases like “corpse pose,” which could have a negative connotation to people who’ve served in wars. As the men put away their blocks, they all chatted about upcoming events for vets.

Sometimes, these regulars are joined by younger participants who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but according to Owen and Feiner, the veteran population has been difficult to reach because they often don’t or can’t leave home. To answer this, Kula created and distributed a six-part yoga/meditation series through YouTube. Backed by a $52,000 grant from Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the videos train vets at home, addressing topics such as post-traumatic stress and paraplegia.

Feiner, who lives in Hawthorne with her husband, got a Ph.D. in Education from Cornell University. In 1976, she joined her family’s firm, which specialized in sheet metal fabrication. When she left in 2012, she brought her business sense to Kula. She has since learned to fundraise, a skill that requires her to know her audience and tell a compelling story through words, and she’s earned nine significant grants doing it.

“I ended up feeling like Santa Claus because I get to deliver on my vision," she said, commenting on her career change Feiner also helps coordinate Kula's gala, the yearly fundraising dinner. This year's Oct. 27 event honors four women who are changing the face of integrative health care, a growing field. “What I'm finding from doctors and administrators in hospitals is that the integrative tools for healing are in demand. Patients are now asking for these adjunct therapies, and having them makes hospitals competitive.”

Oncologists at Hackensack University Medical Center are now prescribing yoga.“Doctors have said that having yoga enhances patient satisfaction,” said Feiner. “That means something.”

A recovering drug addict herself, Feiner said Kula is part of her healing. When she first tried yoga in the 1970s, she experienced 85 minutes of chaos and five minutes of peace. "Those five minutes made a difference. Over time, things started to shift . Working with these vulnerable populations connects me right to my recovery.”

Last year, she taught 60 African American men from Integrity House, a drug-treatment organization. Most of the students were recovering alcoholics who were more interested in music than poses. Feiner led chants and played the harmonium. The experience was so successful, she is planning a second visit, this time with

pianist Ben Wisch and guitarist and percussionist Ray Ippolito.

One of the hardest things is getting the appropriate teachers in the right settings, she said. "Students have to see themselves in you,” Feiner said.

Currently, Kula offers advanced training to teachers in cancer, eating disorders, trauma, addiction & Post Traumatic Stress in Veterans. All teachers must already have certification for 200-hours. Kula recruits by attending teacher trainings at affiliated studios like Yoga Montclair.

"Every one of us needs to feel successful," Feiner said. “I think the most important thing I want to say is that theother person is you. I use that as my mantra wherever I go. There was a moment today when I felt fearful delivering those mats to the inner city high school in Patterson. I thought, ‘What is an old white lady doing here?’ But then I saw a kid on the steps playing his green guitar, and I saw myself in him, and I was okay. I just hope that as I grow that other people can see me in themselves and them in me.

-- Ann Votaw

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives in Northern Manhattan. To read more of her work, click here.

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