Pittsburgh Yogi Honored for Selfless Service

By: Ashley Trentrock

UPMC yoga therapist, Joanne Spence, has gained significant expertise teaching adults and children with mental health challenges the peaceful art of yoga over the years. Through her pioneering work with sharing and teaching yoga to Pittsburgh’s underserved population, Joanne has been one of 13 yogis nominated for Yoga Journal’s Seva Awards. To be nominated for this prestigious award, a yogi must have been volunteering consistently for at least eight consecutive years and have made progress against serious odds in a difficult situation.


Joanne, who has over 20 years of experience in clinical and community social work, family therapy and inpatient psychiatric care, started doing yoga to heal from debilitating injuries suffered in a car accident. Initially, she found yoga very challenging but soon she was pain free.

“It was as if I got my life back,” explains Joanne. “I began studying yoga to try to figure out what had happened to me and how it could help others. The more I learned about yoga, the more I could see how yoga could be a tool for healing.”

During her tenure as a social worker, Joanne tried many different types of social work, from child protection work and family therapist to teen parent coordinator. While she enjoyed her profession, a part of her always wondered if there was more she could be offering her patients. After studying yoga, she began infusing mind-body practices into her work. Yoga’s gentle movements combined with simple breathing practices were a balm for her overly busy mind and it has stilled the mind of her patients as well.

In 2004, Joanne founded Yoga in Schools, a non-profit organization that helps teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Woodland Hills School District and Shuman Detention Center learn yoga techniques that will calm students and prepare them for learning. In 2007, Joanne joined UPMC’s Creative and Expressive Arts team as a yoga therapist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, where she teaches yoga therapy at inpatient units and works with adults and adolescents with mood disorders, eating disorders and other mental health conditions.

The public can vote for Joanne as the “most inspirational.” The winner will be awarded a scholarship to help the nominated yogis carry on their selfless work. Joanne plans to use the scholarship to help expand Yoga in Schools. Voting ends Friday.