It is no stretch to say that yoga has changed attorney Robert Altman’s life for the better. Now, he’s using it to help others.
Altman is a co-founder of Grounded for Good, a not-for-profit service project for abused, homeless and at-risk children at the Covenant House in southeast Atlanta.
The idea, he says, is that “yoga and mindfulness training could be a wonderful resource to calm, focus and heal young people who are facing the trauma and stress associated with abuse and homelessness.”
Altman has been on a path of helping people for some time.
He did legal work early in his career representing Native Americans who had been prosecuted by the federal government for taking over a reservation in Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.
Altman moved to Atlanta in 1976 to work with Millard Farmer and Morris Dees in a project called Team Defense. “We went around the South representing mostly poor black defendants against whom prosecutors were seeking the death penalty in murder cases,” he said.
He became the head of the federal public defender office for the Northern District of Georgia in 1980 and entered private practice four years later.
“In 2007,” he said, “after more than 30 years as a litigator, I began winding down my practice to the point where I now spend most of my time working on my volunteer activity, traveling and exercising to stay healthy. I only handle a few selected cases that I take from time to time.”
He talked to the Daily Report about his career and his new yoga service project, beginning with an obvious question.
The most it’s ever got me was a table at a restaurant. The hostess asked me, “Are you the Robert Altman?” I said, “Well, I’m a Robert Altman.”
She said, “We’re full but I love his movies, so I’ll find you a table.”
When did you start doing yoga?
I started a yoga practice at the time I began winding down my law practice in 2007. I had a lot more time to enjoy activities like traveling, cycling, running and yoga.
I soon came to realize that yoga was a unique activity that increases one’s flexibility and strength while, at the same time, reuniting the mind and body by, for example, a focus on the breath. I had been a shallow breather for years, and I learned that I could calm myself and achieve greater relaxation, awareness and centering by simply deepening my breath.
Where did the idea for Grounded for Good come from?
One day in late 2010 I was having lunch with a former paralegal of mine and she mentioned that she was working with Street Grace, a faith-based organization composed of over 60 churches in metro Atlanta. Their goal is to address the serious problem of child sex trafficking in Georgia. It immediately clicked with me that yoga and mindfulness training could be a wonderful resource to calm, focus and heal young people who are facing the trauma and stress associated with abuse and homelessness.
How did you go from that to the yoga project?
It was like a jigsaw puzzle that took 18 months to put together. I started by calling social service agencies to see if there was any interest. Out of the blue I got a call from a woman connected to the Governor’s Office on Families and Children. She said that she heard that I was interested in the problem of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and asked if I would be interested in volunteering to help the Governor’s CSEC Task Force develop a civil legal remedy for CSEC victims.
I agreed to do that, thinking that I could use my civil litigation background to assist the CSEC Task Force, and also because I would come into contact with social service agencies that might be interested in a yoga/mindfulness program for CSEC victims and other at-risk youth.
At the same time, I did what I could to learn about trauma-informed yoga and took a workshop from Mark Lilly of Street Yoga.
I needed to locate an appropriate, willing venue for the program, but I also needed teachers, since I am not a certified yoga teacher and don’t want to be a lead teacher. I figure that a 63-year-old white male is probably not the best teacher for CSEC victims.
How did you wind up at Covenant House?
One of the things I thought would be important for this program was to have it at a facility that had a residential element. I believed that having some youths who would come back week after week would help legitimize it for new youths coming into the facility.
It was difficult to find an agency that had both a residential element and was open to the idea of yoga and mindfulness training. I found that a lot of people in the religious community are suspicious that yoga is some sort of anti-religious cult.
In any event, I finally contacted the Covenant House, which has a wonderful program for homeless youths between the ages of 17 and 22. The Covenant House provides shelter for up to 45 days and if the youth is making educational or vocational progress they have additional support and residential options. They were very receptive.
So, at that point, early in 2012, I had a place for the program, but there were no teachers yet.
I was contacted by Cheryl Crawford and Amy Haysman, co-founders of Grounded Yoga, which has a robust yoga program for school-aged children in Atlanta and across the country. They were quite interested in what I was doing and together with Cheryl, her husband, Amy and Chelsea O’Halloran, we created Grounded for Good and began teaching two classes per week at the Covenant House, beginning in May 2012.
How do people get into your program?
The classes are completely open to all youth and staff at the Covenant House. They are taught in a way that makes them accessible to both the first-timer and to participants who have been involved for weeks.
When you started, what did you expect participants to get out of Grounded for Good?
We believed that through the yoga, breathing and mindfulness practice that the young people we work with would be better able to see the good within themselves, self-regulate, and develop empathy, optimism and joy. We also give the young people tools designed to calm, focus and heal.
We believe that the young people who participate in our program are more likely to find ways to be productive in their undertakings and less likely to engage in destructive behaviors.
What have you learned about those expectations?
It is absolutely clear that our goals are being achieved, one young person at a time. I can see it on a daily basis. Like when a young man says, “When I feel stressed I go to my room and use the breathing techniques you taught us until I calm down and know I am ready to go on.”
One young woman recently said, “I have been calm all week. I have never been calm before in my life.” This is success.
How many people have come through the program?
Some youths have come regularly for the entire five months we have been offering the classes. Some come only one time. We usually have between 10 to 20 youths who come to the classes and as many as 100 or more have come to one class or more.
Have some people balked after starting Grounded for Good?
Sure, some youths never come back. That doesn’t bother me. I know we are touching many young people and empowering people who have never experienced calm or focus in their lives.
Where would you like to see your program go?
There is a program like ours in Oakland, Calif., that offers classes in juvenile court, juvenile detention and to at-risk youths in schools. They offer 100 classes per week in 40 locations. If we can approach such a level of activity I would be very pleased.