Mandar Apte is the Director of Cities4Peace, an organization that teaches the tools of yoga and mindfulness to communities that have experienced violence. His work often brings together people from seemingly opposing sides, and, using the tools and wisdom of yoga, he is able to bridge that divide. After his work serving community members, former gang members and LAPD officers — all in the same training — in Los Angeles, a George Mason University study found that the participants had deepened their understanding of and commitment to nonviolence, learned meditation techniques to heal from their trauma, and improved their leadership capacity to promote compassion and nonviolence in the community. Over 90% of participants reported an increased ability to stay focused, an enhanced clarity of mind, and an increased ability to remain calm in challenging situations. To say: His model works. Mandar is a Yoga Unify Honorary Qualified Professional and a Founding Circle Member. To join him in the Founding Circle, please click here.
By Lisette Cheresson
Bringing the teachings of yoga into the everyday world is a foundational idea of Cities4Peace, of which you are the Director. Why were you called to this work?
A key moment of truth happened for me a few years ago. I realized that violence can happen anywhere, and it can happen any time. Between domestic abuse, suicide, drugs, bullying in schools, school shootings, mass shootings, and global terrorism, it spans a whole spectrum. Especially in America, we have become desensitized, to violence.. It’s easy to move on because we think, “well, that’s just another one,” or “it will never happen to me,” or “it will never happen in my child’s school.” The key moment of truth for me was realizing that if violence happens to me, then maybe I would do something about it. And that we often wait for an act of violence to show our compassion. Why do we wait – why not actively promote peace and nonviolence? But who’s going to do something now?
How did you know that yoga should inform how you could help?
It was the realization that, “Oh my God, as a yoga teacher, I am sitting on this precious wisdom about inner peace, joy, happiness, contentment, and the higher purpose of life!” and that the world needs that message, now more than ever before. I’ve been a yoga teacher since 2004, and I’ve taught a class every month, since the last 17 years. But I’m teaching people who are privileged. I’m teaching, you know, people who can afford a yoga class, for example. I really began feeling that we need to bring the message of inner peace to victims of violence. Because after the incident has happened—after the news cycle has completed—people move on. But who looks after the wellbeing of the parents of a school shooting, for example?
It’s sad to say, but you must be busy.
Yeah. we have been teaching all over the place. After what happened last year in Minneapolis, with the murder of George Floyd, there was a huge increase in demand for our work all over the US. We just finished teaching 200 police officers in Seattle. And literally this month, we did our introductory sessions for City Council members and leaders of Minneapolis and Rochester.
There’s a debate in the yoga community about whether or not activism belongs in yoga. What are your thoughts on that? How does the work that Cities4Peace does ladder up to yoga philosophy?
A Yogi is someone who has trained themselves to experience life to the fullest. You can think of the asana practice, for example, or dhyana practice, which is meditation, as just one side of the coin —these tools teach us how to hear our inner voice, how to be equanimous, and how to deal with the chaos and the turbulence more effectively. That is just one aspect of the philosophy of yoga. But the other side of the coin is “seva”, which is selfless service. It is being of use, of being in the moment, and of doing things in the moment. Yoga isn’t just meditating and peaceful eyes closed. In fact, my meditation guru, my teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says that when you sit for meditation and you do yoga, you should think that everything is perfect. Because unless you think — unless you believe that everything is perfect — meditation will not happen. So when you sit for meditation, you should think: “Everything is perfect, this is how it should be.” And then you let go and meditation happens effortlessly, right? But, he says, when the eyes are open, you should notice what is not perfect. This is not perfect. That is not perfect. And you should put your life energy towards being part of the solution to the issues dearest to you. Only when you are peaceful can you really be of service; and only when you serve, can deeper meditation happen. They go hand in hand.
What are the impacts of the programs you’ve worked on in the communities you’ve served?
I think the impact is very transformational. Let me talk about Los Angeles, because that work has also transformed me. Such communities have been facing trauma and violence for decades. South Central LA has been called as the gang capital of the world – o these communities have really been in pain for several decades, I would say. Their residents are yearning for peace of mind. But the violence, in many ways, runs so deep that many of them have never experienced profound peace, as an “experience” or as a “feeling”. The experience of providing these residents with “feeling of peace” has been transformational.
I imagine, though, that in some communities it’s pretty dicey to bring together civilians and the police force in the same training.
Yes, correct—there has been a lot of history for the tension between communities of color and the police. However, if we want to be part of the solution then we need to look at systems change right? So if you want the systems to change, you need people from the systems to come together and figure it out, rather than an outsider’s solution. For my first workshop, I brought gang members, community members who had faced violence, and police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, who patrol those neighborhoods. They came to the class because they had seen and liked my documentary film, and they had expressed an interest to learn the tools that they had seen in the film that provided healing and solace. They all came together in the one common mission of healing from their trauma and reducing their stress levels. And that proved to be a common ground to start on.
How can this kind of work be an example for the larger community, and for all societies at large?
This past year, people have started talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, DEI. And that’s very important. But in addition to racial inequity, there is another inequity that America needs to talk about, and nobody talks about it. It’s the inequity where some individuals and communities, know healthy ways to manage their emotions. Whilst certain other individuals and communities have no idea of healthy ways to manage their emotions. Why does this need to be discussed? Because if somebody doesn’t know how to manage their emotions, that will result in violence: Either they hurt themselves, or they will go out and hurt others. We see this in mass shootings, school shootings, whatever examples you can think of. The science of yoga can bring this wisdom to those communities. And as yogis, we have to bring this conversation to the mainstream, because that is our moral duty. The moral duty of a yoga practitioner is to educate people of this fundamental inequity. We all have a birthright to live happy, peaceful lives. And through this discussion on how to manage our mental wellbeing and emotions, we can bring people together on all sides—blue, red, black lives, blue lives, whatever that polarization may be—so that people can come together in the spirit of healing themselves.
To learn more about Cities4Peace click here. Mandar Apte’s work is just one of the very impressive portfolios of luminaries in the Yoga Unify Founding Circle, and you’re invited to join! To learn more about membership, click here.