Transforming Workplace Cultures with RISE

The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living is using the tools of yoga to help organizations create long-term change.

Just half an hour after leaving Kripalu, Jon Schnauber, executive director of Pittsfield Community Connection (PCC), was back at work—and already putting to use the tools he learned in the RISE program. “I was ready to tear someone’s head off, but I was able to stop, assess where I was at that moment, and utilize the breathing techniques I had learned at Kripalu,” he says. “The conscious breathing calmed me right down, and put me in the frame of mind I needed to be in to handle the situation.”

When you work at an organization dedicated to helping violent youth make better choices, as Jon does, the ability to draw on techniques like this can have a profound effect on your day-to-day experience—and that inevitably trickles down to those being served.

The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living has been working closely with PCC (located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts), Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Vermont, Pittsfield High School, the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City, and other organizations to deliver a multifaceted RISE curriculum to staff, including counselors, directors, principals, and teachers.

“The Institute’s particular interest is in working with organizational partners to create a critical mass of professionals who have access to the tools of yoga,” says Edi Pasalis, Institute Director. “We look at long-term, sustainable change as happening at three levels: personal transformation for staff as they learn tools for self-care and self-regulation; professional transformation as they bring these tools into the workplace; and transformation at the organizational level, which creates new opportunities and new ways of working.”

Representing nearly a decade of research by leaders in mindfulness, brain science, and human performance, RISE is a revolutionary program in conscious leadership, designed especially for those in high-stakes, high-stress industries. The evidence-based curriculum, developed by the Institute for Extraordinary Living in partnership with researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, aims to empower people to sustain optimal levels of functioning in the face of life and workplace challenges. Anchored in the science and practice of mindfulness and Positive Psychology, the program is specifically designed to support greater clarity and resilience, improved situational awareness, better decision making, work/life integration, and superior long-term performance for both individuals and organizations.

RISE alumni report that what they learn has a tremendous impact on their own well-being, allowing them to approach their work with renewed energy, compassion, and focus. They also share aspects of the curriculum with colleagues and clients, catalyzing powerful culture shifts.

From Detention to Rehabilitation

Aron Steward, assistant director at Woodside and a Kripalu Yoga teacher, has so far sent 19 staff members to Kripalu with the help of Kripalu scholarships, and plans to send more. She says that staff come back from RISE “not only with tools for taking better care of themselves, but also with a whole new perspective on how to work with the kids. They’re using yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, and mindfulness to intervene when there’s a crisis.” Residents practice these tools in weekly yoga classes at Woodside, with staff participating alongside the kids.

Aron shared a story that encapsulates the organizational change taking place at Woodside: The facility is video-monitored 24 hours a day, and one day she noticed that, in one room, the students and teacher were all lying on the floor. Her first reaction was concern, but when she went to the classroom to investigate, staff member Scott Green, a RISE alumni, told her that everyone had needed a few moments of relaxation to rest and restore before moving on with the class.

“My mission is to build a strength-based treatment program out of what has historically been a detention center,” Aron says, “and RISE is a fundamental supporting element of this transformation.”

Breaking the Prison Pipeline

PCC’s clients come from backgrounds that typically include gang violence and drug abuse. The organization provides them with programming that ranges from positive behavior support to mental-health counseling and employment training, depending on their specific needs.

“The young men we work with have gone through so much, and they come to us at a point where they’re ready to change their lives. We use what we learned at Kripalu to help them do that,” says PCC program manager Rachel Hanson, who attended the RISE program along with Jon. “One of the main things we’ve taken away from Kripalu is the ability to meet the clients where they are, in that moment.”

Developing the skill of mindful listening has been particularly impactful for her, Rachel says. “When I came to Kripalu and learned what mindful listening was, I realized I hadn’t really been listening that well before. Now I’m able to tap into that and use it with the clients. These kids don’t have people who want to listen to them or hear about their dreams or aspirations. I had my first session with a client recently, and as soon as we finished, he asked me when our next session would be. He said, ‘It’s nice to just talk and have someone actually listen and understand me.’”

Creating Safety for Staff

For Bridget Hughes, director of youth services at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City, the RISE program was a powerful confirmation of something she and her staff know well: Our brains don’t function optimally under stress. Hetrick-Martin serves a highly traumatized population: Among the two thousand LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 who come to the Manhattan center each year, 20 percent are homeless, 36 percent have attempted suicide, and more than 50 percent have experienced sexual abuse.

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, amid increased tension and violence among young people at the center, Bridget was inspired by her experience at Kripalu to shut down programming for two weeks. Using tools she learned at RISE—including breathing exercises, mindful listening, sharing circles, and journaling—she gave staff the respite and support they needed to return to their work.

“We built connectedness, cultivated calm, and spent time celebrating the ways in which we enjoy and appreciate each other,” Bridget says. Since then, staff members have felt a greater sense of cohesion and empowerment, she says, and the number of violent incidents among clients has decreased. Bridget has established a day every month dedicated to connection and rejuvenation among staff. Funded by Kripalu scholarships, 12 additional staff members will attend RISE in 2017, creating a critical mass to help shift workplace culture and enhance staff resilience.

RISE has the potential to create lasting change throughout society, Edi says. “Our partnerships with these organizations is revealing the incredible multiplier effect that happens when people learn these tools and bring them back to the workplace—and that can be a school, a detention center, a hospital, or a corporation. There is no limit to where we can take this.”

To find out more about RISE, visit kripalu.org/rise.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.