When yoga teachers Amy Lombardo and Scott Feinberg took a group of 15 people to New Orleans on a weeklong yoga and community service trip nine months after Hurricane Katrina, the city’s infrastructure was still being rebuilt. Streetlights didn’t work, food was simple and basic (they ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), and sometimes they didn’t have the supplies they needed to do the work. “You couldn’t even go to a drugstore to get a toothbrush,” Lombardo recalls.
But the needs were great and the group willingly tackled many jobs—painting, gardening, and cleaning—to help the healing process. Each day Lombardo led a morning yoga class to prepare the volunteers for what lay ahead. At the end of the day, she taught a much-welcomed restorative session, and the group then had a sharing circle that was open to residents, to talk about what they were experiencing.
“We knew going in that we were going to be facing some unexpected things. We made a real clear intention to think of everything as yoga,” says Lombardo. “We were prepared to let go of the way we thought it would go and learn to live yoga by not holding on to any expectation.”
The experience made an impression. Lombardo, who went on to co-found Karma Krew (karmakrew.org) with Feinberg, is still amazed by both the destruction they witnessed and the kindness and gratitude they experienced. She describes one day when residents were so grateful for their help, they brought the group Popeye’s Chicken from the ubiquitous New Orleans’ fast-food chain. “Mind you, this is a group of yogis, and probably 90 percent of us were vegetarian,” she says. But everyone understood the spirit of the gift and ate with gusto. Later, they shared songs with residents. “I’m still amazed by that, yogis eating buckets of chicken and people from the Bayou singing “Om Namah Shivaya.” I’ve never experienced anything like it,” she says. “That was an exchange of yoga.”
Whether in response to Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, or the Ugandan genocide, yoga teachers are taking the lessons they’ve learned about karma yoga, or selfless service, to heart. More and more yogis are embarking upon seva (service) trips to lend their energy and compassion to healing efforts in places of need. But these trips, while rewarding, often present sometimes-daunting obstacles, such as extreme conditions, a lack of supplies, classrooms that aren’t conducive to practicing yoga, language barriers, and cultural misunderstandings of what yoga is about. Veterans of these trips say that leaving your expectation at home is your best strategy for making the most of your experience, and for being, the most service to those you’re trying to help.
Create a Positive Intention
Reflect on your reasons for wanting to do a trip in the name of service. For example, Lombardo says, instead of coming from a place of feeling sorry for someone less fortunate than yourself (“I have to help these poor people”) focus on the goals of healing and transformation, setting the intention of remembering that we are all interconnected with the mantra on “I am me through you.”
Don’t get caught in a position where you travel to a faraway place only to find that an organization refuses to work with you because you don’t have liability insurance. Yoga teachers should be fully insured and have coverage in case someone gets injured. Research what kind of proof of insurance you need (like a certificate) and whether you are covered in the location you going, especially if it’s a foreign country—and don’t forget to put it in your suitcase before you go.
Get the Appropriate Training
Don’t assume that your yoga training is enough to deal with people in highly stressful situations, such as those who are traumatized after an earthquake or war. “Teachers go in with a big heart and then find themselves overwhelmed and exhausted,” says Lombardo. Continuing education in areas like trauma can help teachers feel more prepared for what might arise. And whatever you do, don’t pretend to be a therapist. “When something comes up and it feels out of your reach,” says Lombardo. “Press the pause button, and say, ‘this is out of my arena and I need help.’”
If you teach yoga on your trip, chances are it won’t be in the same kind of environment you are accustomed to. In a developing country, you might be competing with noisy traffic and nosy neighbors. Be prepared for the fact that your yoga room might be a field or a barn, have dirty floors or be tiny. That’s when your creativity comes in. When Lisa Rueff, a yoga teacher based in Sausalito, California, taught in a crammed classroom to schoolchildren in Varanasi, India, she improvised by having the kids do animal poses so they could have fun toppling over one another.
Sometimes you have no control over your accommodations, so be prepared for anything. Rueff has stayed in a lovely guest home and a tiny shack with 10 other people. In Haiti, which she left for this week, she’ll be staying in a tent city with 3,000 displaced women and children. Along with your yoga mat, bring an attitude of acceptance, flexibility, and a remembrance of why you are there in the first place—to help.
Honor Cultural Differences
Some cultures might be wary of yoga because they think it’s a religion; others might not initially understand what you are doing because of a language barrier. Be respectful of the culture and pull back if you feel it’s necessary. It’s not your job to change anyone’s mind about yoga—you just want to bring some relief and relaxation. If possible, try to arrange for a translator or ask an English-speaking student to help. And if you can’t find one, simply use the class as an opportunity to practice communicating with your body and your movements.
Meet Students Where They Are
No doubt you’ve had some experience teaching beginners. Expect that on a seva trip where you’ll be teaching yoga, your class will be beginning beginners. You’ll need to accommodate your teaching and your expectations accordingly. For example, if your class is older, cut the time down to 45 minutes. If the students enjoy reciting a mantra, do more of it. If the group seems extra-stressed, focus on breathing and meditation. “Try to make it as relevant to their day to day concerns, and then let them guide you as to the pacing and to what aspect of the teaching they want, whether its breathing, meditation, or mantra,” Lombardo says.
Ultimately, the benefits of service trips outweigh the challenges. “All you need is an open heart and the desire to connect, and your influence can make a complete difference in someone’s life,” says Rueff. “And in turn, a person can foster a sense of well-being in their communities. You never know what your impact will be by bringing yoga in. It’s revolutionary what can happen.”