Yoga and Service
“In essence, yoga is a practice of service to humanity,” says Mark Lilly, the founder of Street Yoga, a nonprofit that teaches yoga to at-risk youth and their families in Portland, Oregon. “Yoga is a tool of transformation. With that transformed Self, you can show up for others and be of service.”
This understanding—that yoga is something far more powerful than a fitness routine or a time-out from a busy life—is motivating hundreds of yoga students to offer their time and talents to those in need. In the past several years, impassioned practitioners have started up dozens of organizations to offer humanitarian aid, yoga programs, and more to populations in need around the world. Groups have formed to reach out to just about every kind of at-risk population, from inner-city schoolchildren to battered women to refugees.
“Yoga service organizations have multiplied greatly since I founded Street Yoga in 2002,” adds Lilly, who is also the coordinator of the Yoga Service Council, an umbrella organization that supports yoga-related service projects in the United States by sharing best practices and providing a forum for communication. Founded in 2009, the Yoga Service Council has already doubled the number of participating organizations from 12 to more than 25. Lilly estimates that there are 800 classes being taught per week among member organizations in North America.
I Wanted to Give Back
Many service-oriented students describe their motivation in terms similar to those of international vinyasa yoga teacher Seane Corn, whose desire to serve others has continued to grow since her first forays into service in 1999, when she taught yoga to a group of adolescent prostitutes. “I felt a responsibility to engage in community that I had never felt before,”she says. “I felt gratitude for all the gifts yoga had given me, and I wanted to give back.”
Corn soon discovered that service could be far more challenging than she had imagined. Her first hourlong class left her in tears: “The girls were defiant, angry, and rude,” she says. She was convinced she couldn’t help them. But in the weeks that followed, not only did the girls’ behavior improve, but Corn felt a shift in herself as well. “I realized what I had just met were parts of myself that I still hadn’t recognized and loved,” she says. “I got in touch with the child in myself and started to heal what was broken.”
Indeed, if you speak to anyone who engages in service projects like those featured here, you’ll learn that while yoga practitioners intend their acts of service to benefit others, they often realize great benefits themselves: coming face-to-face with their own fears, pushing past limitations, experiencing true joy.
For Corn, seva (selfless service) offers a tangible opportunity to practice yoga’s teachings. “The idea that we’re all one is an easy concept to hold on to when you’re not confronted with real suffering,” she says. “But seva means going outside of your comfort zone and extending yourself when you might normally withdraw.”She says that even the term “selfless service” may be a misnomer, since seva is such a valuable spiritual practice. “I’d love to say everything I do is selfless, but there has not been one experience where I haven’t gotten more from it spiritually than I could ever give.”
Corn is one of the yoga world’s biggest champions of service. In 2008, she co-founded Off the Mat and Into the World—a grassroots organization that raises awareness and funds for international causes. The program offers an annual Global Seva Challenge, a fundraising effort that has raised more than $1 million for communities in need. Participants pledge to raise $20,000 from their local communities during one calendar year. If they succeed, they are rewarded with a trip abroad to work as humanitarian aides alongside Corn. In 2009, Off the Mat worked in Cambodia; in 2010, participants went to Uganda. The current challenge is to raise money to help people with AIDS in South Africa.
Off the Mat also offers leadership training to the participants in its programs. Many go on to start their own service projects around the world. For instance, a group of participants from the Uganda Seva Challenge, who worked alongside refugees from the civil war there, have started Seva Uganda to raise scholarship money for refugee children.
Beryl Bender Birch, one of the first Americans to teach Ashtanga Yoga some 30 years ago, is delighted that service is a part of so many people’s practice today. The creator of Power Yoga has always required her teacher trainees to engage in some form of service. In 2007, inspired by the efforts her students were making to serve, she founded the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which gives grants to support seva projects within the yoga community.
Bender Birch says that the pressing environmental and social crises we see all around us are a call to action. Yoga students, strengthened by their practice, can make a difference.
“As practitioners of any spiritual discipline, we are required to become spiritual revolutionaries,” says Bender Birch. “We have an obligation to share with the world the benefits of our practice.”
The Origins of Seva
Seva, or selfless service, is a traditional yogic concept, says Douglas Brooks, a Tantra scholar and professor of religion at the University of Rochester, though it wasn’t always associated with humanitarian work. The Sanskrit word seva comes from the root siv, or sev (meaning to serve or to honor). “It has the meanings both of serving and of being an offering, an homage,” says Brooks. “It’s giving or doing something out of devotion.”
The word appears frequently in the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, and there it has the sense of honoring the ashram, or one’s guru or other authority figure. In ancient India, seva was not considered a tool for alleviating social problems, says Brooks. “But there’s no reason why the yoga community can’t redefine and adapt this vocabulary,” he explains. “If the motive stems from a spiritual principle of serving something greater than oneself, then it could be called seva.”
David Frawley, a scholar of Hindu traditions and the founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, says the contemporary understanding of seva as serving for the good of the broader community goes back to Gandhi and other early 20th century luminaries.
Service, he says, becomes a spiritual practice when it is done with the intention of bringing a higher consciousness into the world. Frawley adds that yoga is an ideal support for activism because it includes the pursuit of inner peace. “When we are doing outer service, we have to have the intention to bring peace into the world,” he says. “Seva should always be connected to shanti (which means ‘peace’).”
Service With A Smile
Below you’ll meet a few seva pioneers who have gone to great lengths to carry their yoga out into the world. They are each special and inspiring—and there are many more like them, sharing yogic teachings around the world.
Parinaama Prison Project
Atlacholoaya, Morelos, Mexico
Mission: To help prisoners recover from addiction and become mentally and physically healthy. Project volunteers give weekly classes in two prisons (one for men, one for women) in rural Mexico. They also provide training and support to released prisoners to work as yoga teachers in local community centers.
Inspiration: Founder Ann Moxey says she takes inspiration from her own Anusara Yoga practice and from Swami Muktananda’s Prison Project, which he founded in 1979 to teach meditation to prisoners. “He told them, ‘I bring you the key to freedom,’” Moxey says. “My goal,” she continues, “is to take yoga to people who are in a double prison—the physical one and the prison of addiction.”
Impact: Most students who have participated in the program report that yoga has helped them get off drugs while in prison, and that it reduces their stress levels, improves their health, and creates more emotional stability as well as less inclination toward violence.
Highlight: Though students often start classes with an aggressive attitude, Moxey is always amazed by the way they soften and become more aware. After teaching in prisons for seven years, she still feels exhilarated every time she goes. “I’ve had the proof that the more you give, the more you get back—it’s such a buzz to see these guys so involved in yoga,”she says.
Website: annmoxey.blogs.com/yogaprisonproject (in Spanish).
Africa Yoga Project
Kenya: Nairobi’s Kibera slums, and rural villages
Mission: To use the transformative benefits of yoga to empower vulnerable communities in Kenya. The project is based in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, which house close to 1 million people, with little access to safe water or sanitation. Disease is prevalent, while schools and job opportunities are scarce. For many youth, petty crime and gangs become a means of survival. Africa Yoga Project offers free yoga classes and provides teacher training and financial support to young people who want to teach yoga in their communities.
Inspiration: Formerly a yoga teacher in New York City, Africa Yoga Project co-founder Paige Elenson went to Nairobi for a few months in 2006. Used to seeing a studio on every corner in New York, she found none in Kibera, but she knew that the people, stressed and sickly from crowded living conditions, needed yoga. “There was this gap, and I wanted to fill it,” she says. “I realized, if not me, then who? With the abundance we have in the yoga community, we need to be activists, sharing yoga in places that are hungry for it.”
One of the first students she trained, Moses Mbajah, joined her as the co-director of Africa Yoga Project after he attended a Baron Baptiste teacher training in Mexico. Mbajah wants to train other youth like himself to transform their own lives and participate in the betterment of their communities. “Yoga has taught me about taking a stand for myself, my family, my country, and my world,” he says.
Impact: In 2009 Africa Yoga Project invited Baptiste, an international Power Yoga teacher, to give a teacher training in Nairobi, and now 43 young teachers lead more than 100 classes per week, with roughly 3,000 students each month in Nairobi and nearby villages. The teachers offer classes to groups they wish to help, such as schoolchildren, women entrepreneurs, and orphans. Many report that yoga has changed their lives and the lives of their students; they feel less stress, eat better, and practice better hygiene. Some feel empowered to improve their lives, whether by getting further education or by starting small businesses. Some say they’ve found a new gang to belong to, a “yoga gang.”
Highlight: In 2008, right after violence swept the country in the wake of a contested election, Elenson and Mbajah taught yoga, along with circus arts, in refugee camps. They saw people from warring tribes relax into the practice of yoga, even offering adjustments to each other and smiling in friendship.”The scope of yoga is so much bigger than teaching asanas,” Elenson says. “It’s service and a connection to the self and others. Yoga [can be] a means of community transformation.”
Mission: To help HIV-positive women and girls heal from the trauma of sexual violence experienced during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and cope with their illness through the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Rwanda were raped during the conflict, and many were left with deep depression and emotional scarring. Common symptoms are insomnia, lack of appetite, and bouts of hysteria that traditional Western mental health approaches (such as drugs and therapy) don’t always help. The program will expand to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is also used as a tool of war.
Inspiration: “My inspiration is the women we teach,” says Project Air founder Deirdre Summerbell. “There’s no excuse for what happened, and no excuse for leaving them to rot and do nothing. I know personally how strong this form of yoga can make you, and my impulse is to pass it on. It’s not something you can keep to yourself.”
Impact: Project Air has reached hundreds of HIV-positive women and girls. Many women report being able to sleep through the night for the first time in years as well as feeling strong and hopeful again. One woman said yoga allowed her to finally mourn the loss of her family in the genocide and to begin to think of forgiveness.
Highlight: Summerbell says that watching women walk into class convinced that they are too old and too sick for yoga, then seeing them suddenly begin to smile and move through Sun Salutations, is deeply satisfying. It reawakens in them the visceral joy of being alive, she says.
Krama Yoga (a program of NataRaj Yoga)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mission: To teach yoga and life skills to orphans, adolescent sex-trafficking victims, and other vulnerable children and to train Cambodian yoga teachers. Certain communities
in Phnom Penh suffer from endemic poverty, and conditions for children are tough. Though thousands of aid organizations work to help children there, they have a high failure rate among youth from backgrounds of poverty who try to get regular jobs. Children raised without parents or in abusive conditions often lack basic social skills and confidence. “The degree of damage that results from generational poverty is vast. There’s a whole sense of self that’s never been developed,” Isabelle Skaburskis says, explaining that yoga offers tools to build that sense of self.
Inspiration: Skaburskis was running NataRaj Yoga, a studio in Phnom Penh, for a mostly ex-pat clientele. She trained Yan Vannac, and together they started teaching yoga to orphans and other vulnerable children. “I was thinking about how yoga could stay in Cambodia sustainably. I wanted to get more Cambodians involved,” Skaburskis says.
Impact: Krama Yoga teachers give free classes to 250 students each week. More than 350 at-risk kids have taken at least one class. The first group of teacher trainees—one young man and six young women, who were all former sex-trafficking victims—is close to graduation. At a recent teacher training for Western students, Skaburskis’s Cambodian teacher trainees assisted the class. “They were not intimidated at all—they were on top of their game,” she says.
Highlight: Skaburskis says that seeing her young students—many of whom are healing from abuse—gain confidence, body awareness, and empathy deepens her own understanding of yoga. “They’ve been my best teachers,” she says.
Want to join in? Here are a few ways to get involved:
- Give Back Yoga Foundation: Have a great seva idea? Apply for start-up funding here. givebackyoga.org
- Street Yoga: Learn to teach yoga to at-risk youth and others in need. streetyoga.org
- YogaActivist.org: Seek service opportunities and connect with other yoga activists in this national online community. yogaactivist.org
- Karma Krew: Find a seva event, or organize your own, in your local community with this nationwide network. karmakrew.org
- Off the Mat Into the World Join a seva challenge and learn how to be a leader. offthematintotheworld.org