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The Power of Mindfulness in Unexpected Places

How a new social impact initiative from lululemon aims to create a more resilient world by Casey Caplowe

September 23, 2016

At GOOD, we’ve always believed in the power of business to make the world a better place, so years back, we created a division to help companies figure out how to do just that. Here’s a story from that work:

As much as we might like it to be, social impact isn’t always a first priority for most new chief executives of large companies. But when Laurent Potdevin, previously president of TOMS Shoes, joined Lululemon Athletica as CEO at the start of 2014, driving positive social impact was one of the first tangible boxes to be checked off.

“Laurent really understood the opportunity business has to be a driver of change in the world,” said Alison Murphy, the company’s collective impact manager. “He tasked us to develop something meaningful around an issue where we could really know if we were moving needle.”

So just six months after Potdevin’s arrival, Murphy got to work. In classic intrapreneurial fashion, it was a task with big ambitions, but limited dedicated resources. Building bridges across departments and enlisting a few select partners including a team from GOOD, she started to dream up the response to this challenge: a broad network of support and resources aimed at the “intentional sharing of yoga practices for health and resilience for all.”

Alison Murphy of lululemon with Kevin Pearce, founder LoveYourBrain, a Here to Be partner organization

Empowered by both fresh academic research that highlighted how the therapeutic technique of mindfulness achieved from practices like yoga and meditation can help people see the world differently and a wide variety of grassroots yoga movements by unexpected practitioners like inner-city high school students in New York or army veterans in San Diego, Murphy saw an opening for lululemon “to be a convener of sorts and bring people together in what we call a ‘community of practice.” 

This week, Here to Be, the resulting program, officially launches, with Laurent Potdevin making a mainstage commitment at Clinton Global Initiative of $25 million over the next five years “to bring the benefits of yoga and meditation to underserved communities around the world.”

This means the real work is about to begin.

Here, Murphy speaks with GOOD co-founder Casey Caplowe about harnessing the power of yoga in unusual places, the interconnected way mindfulness can bridge different communities together, and the Here To Be’s plan to lead from behind.

Casey Caplowe: Walk us through the moment where you realized the opportunity for a program to serve as an umbrella for a wide-variety of local yoga and meditation organizations.

Alison Murphy: Through our ongoing community work at lululemon, we saw all these amazing projects happening simultaneously all over the world, like Love Your Brain, which works with traumatic brain injury survivors, or Africa Yoga Project, which works in East Africa in Nairobi. But we also started to recognize that these nonprofits weren’t talking with each other, leveraging best practices, or sharing tools and resources. In our program, we saw we had an opportunity to be a leader, but a leader from behind. These groups were already doing this work. We don’t need to double-up efforts or have some strong point of view on the best yoga practices or the best wellness practices. We really leave that up to the experts who are in the trenches and doing the work.

Africa Yoga Project, official partner in Here To Be

CC: So, how do you envision Here To Be supporting these groups?

AM: It’s pretty simple. We come to them and say, ‘What do you need from us? What are your goals as an organization and how can we better support you?’ It’s interesting because I’m learning this isn’t how nonprofits are usually approached, so it’s been really great. Now we’re just starting to bring them together. All of our major partners are getting together and we’re making sure they all meet. Next November, we’re hosting a retreat for collaboration and connection.

CC: What tangible impact or changes are you seeing with these different organizations coming together for the first time?

AM: We have a partner who works with veterans, who is based out of Washington D.C., and he went to do a training for Love Your Brain. There is a ton of overlap between brain injury survivors and veterans. There’s also a ton of overlap between between PTSD and those that are in prison — a lot of veterans and people with brain injuries end up in prison. What works for veterans doesn’t only work for veterans. What works for a veteran is actually a trauma-informed yoga practice, and a trauma-informed yoga practice can work with court-involved youths, it can also work with our schools program for teachers who are working with kids who are actually scared to close their eyes. The practices are universal. The opportunities we saw was that as these group start talking and sharing, it helps legitimize the movement and set those standards and best practices so that people aren’t doing these things on their own anymore. They’re being shared.

CC: How are you getting your stores involved with Here To Be?

AM: Each of our lululemon stores has $2,500 to give to a non profit per year. Before we started Here To Be, spending was scattered and all over the place. But under the new program direction, each store has been asked to bring on a partnership that is based on more than giving funds. It might be about hosting donation-based yoga classes or giving business advice to new non-profits. A store in Buffalo, New York did an event called “Namastadium,” which is the cutest name ever. They used their $2,500 to host a big yoga class in a stadium in Buffalo and ended up raising $17,500 for the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital Meditation Gardens. Part of why I love my job is to see how creative our stores are. We set an intention as a company and then our stores take it on in locally beautiful and meaningful ways.

CC: A lot of people think of mindfulness as a private practice, or something that you do by yourself.

AM: It’s true, a lot of people see wellness as something you do for yourself. But there is a huge community angle. We see yoga and meditation as transformational tools that build resilience, promote health, and create community. Creating community is really important one because yoga studios aren’t accessible or appropriate for everyone. When you suffer a brain injury, people become isolated and feel marginalized.  In yoga class, they have discussions and they’re sharing their common challenges in a much more uplifting way than meeting in a basement of a hospital. For veterans, yoga classes plays upon the training they receive in the military, like safety in numbers and moving as a pack, and doing something physical in a shared experience amongst other veterans who know what they’re going through.

Photo: Morgan Levy

CC: How has the response been from the yoga community since lululemon has got involved in the mindfulness space?

AM: What I witness from the community is that they’re so excited for lululemon to be part of the conversation about who yoga is for. The biggest thing that is important to know is that as a company we know that there are a lot of problems in the world and that yoga isn’t going to solve them all. But when you really take the time to give people tools to cope with life and perceive their world in a way where they actually feel in control, it is a beautiful thing. Change really does start within people.

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The Power of Mindfulness in Unexpected Places How a new social impact initiative from lululemon aims to create a more resilient world