James Gaddy refused to become a statistic.
When he was just six months old, his father went to prison. His stepfather struggled with alcoholism. But rather than fall victim to the numbers—children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves—Gaddy followed the wise advice of his mother.
“My mom told me what makes us different is what makes us special. She always said ‘be positive and have faith,’” says Gaddy, who lives in South Jersey. But it wasn’t until years later, as a college student at Burlington County College, that Gaddy discovered the key to maintaining his own sense of optimism: yoga. After losing a bet to his sister, he took his first yoga class; years later he rediscovered it and his career path—and life—fell into place.
The clarity that yoga brought Gaddy inspired him to bring the practice to those who need it most: In 2018, he founded Project Little Warriors, a nonprofit that uses yoga to instill mindfulness and self-love in students in Camden and Cumberland County.
Gaddy’s journey wasn’t always crystal clear. After graduating from Burlington County College and Valley Forge Christian College, bouncing from job to job, and spending five weeks living in his car, he struggled to find meaning in his life. “I didn’t have a vision or goals,” he says. In 2017, Gaddy returned to yoga and found his sense of purpose. He tried a week at CorePower Yoga in Cherry Hill and immediately bought more classes. He started out as a student, then quickly became a teacher at the same studio.
Like most yogis, Gaddy says the power of yoga comes down to breathing. “Once you enhance your breathing, you enhance your life,” he says.Yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness leads to goal-setting and what Gaddy calls dream-building. “Dream-building is giving your dreams a chance to grow and shape your decisions.”
While working at local studios and gyms like CorePower Yoga and Orange Theory Fitness, Gaddy yearned for more; he wanted to bring yoga to those who might otherwise not have an opportunity to experience it.
A friend recommended he volunteer, teaching yoga in Camden public schools. He started out teaching yoga to six 11 year-old boys in a behavioral disability classroom.
“The students weren’t listening to me and were ripping up the dream books I had given them,” Gaddy says. Frustrated, he wanted to give up. But the same friend who’d encouraged him to volunteer discouraged him from quitting. “Don’t give up on them like everyone has,” his friend implored.
Gaddy took that advice to heart and stuck with the boys. Over time, he realized that schools rarely focus on breathing, bodily awareness and mindfulness, which were all things the boys needed in order to be successful in life and in school. Many of the students had dealt with trauma in their personal lives, including violent crime, which they were struggling to overcome. Yoga was a valuable way to handle these hardships. “Instead of getting upset, I decided to think how can I love you more? I put my faith in the kids.”
With his dedication to them clear, the students’ behavior improved dramatically in a short time.
After leaving his first school, Gaddy moved on to other schools. In 2018 he taught yoga to 35 students; this year, he’s already taught 175. In total, Gaddy has worked at 10 different schools, including eight in Camden and two in Cumberland County.
In April, Gaddy decided to make working for Project Little Warriors his full-time job. He enjoyed his work at CorePower and Orange Theory, but his dreams for PLW are big, and he’s motivated by the challenge. “If your ‘why’ doesn’t make you cry, it’s not big enough,” he says.
His dream now? To expand beyond the Philadelphia area. One day, he wants PLW to be a national nonprofit.
“Yoga is for everyone,” he says. “Everybody needs this.”Photo via Project Little Warriors