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The 2002 Karma Yoga Awards

Our second annual selection of yogis who bring their practice into the real world through service to others.

By Phil Catalfo

This time last year, when we announced our first annual Karma Yoga Awards, the United States—and much of the world—was in shock in the aftermath of devastating attacks on New York and Washington, DC. As Americans slowly began to recover from those attacks, it was frequently said that "everything has changed"—that we could no longer take our freedoms and safety for granted; that the attacks had brought strangers together and woven the fabric of society more tightly; that the crisis had led people to seek meaning and purpose and a spiritual understanding of life to a degree that our success-driven culture had seldom seen before.

But have things changed so much, really? As many returned to "business as usual," the unity we saw a year ago dissolved into political battles, strangers again regarded each other with caution, and people everywhere went about their daily lives. We craved normalcy, but ironically the "normal" conditions that existed on September 10, 2001, included a great deal of suffering that our fleeting unity and altruism could have done much to alleviate. And those conditions persist. Fortunately, there are effective models of energetic humanitarianism to help us imagine ways to heal the world.

Even though the practice of yoga urges us to go within, to become more present in our bodies and minds, that is not all that yoga ultimately teaches. For "union" means transcending our limitations, regarding the world with compassion, and acting accordingly. In presenting the recipients of the 2002 Karma Yoga Awards, we are proud to introduce you to yogis who are doing just that.

Ben Brown
Burmese Refugee Care Project
"I WANT TO HELP PEOPLE"

Ben Brown was in college when he realized he wanted to become a doctor. A summer internship in the medical practice of a family friend sold him on training to be a physician. The friend "was a Sherlock Holmes," Brown recalls. "He'd ask me, 'Now why is this guy yellow?'" Working by his side, Brown found he loved the intense problem solving medicine demanded.

Brown didn't really come to appreciate the more altruistic aspects of the field until sometime in the mid-1980s, when, while still an undergraduate at San Diego State University, he volunteered at a community health clinic. There, working mainly with people suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, he acquired enough paramedical training that he could screen patients on his own. Eventually he realized, "This is what I want to do: help people." After college, he went off to medical school with high hopes of doing just that.

But there, overburdened by class work and uninvolved in clinical work, "I didn't feel useful. I felt like my time could be better spent by helping people." The professors to whom he expressed his frustration counseled patience: "Some day you'll be able to serve," they said. "But," he recalls, "I felt I knew enough to be useful already; I'd already done that as an undergrad. It didn't make sense to me to wait. I wanted to do both—train and serve—but I didn't have any role models.

It wouldn't be long before a role model, and a bona fide chance to serve, would appear. While still in medical school, Brown spent some time in Bolivia, working with a nomadic group of indigenous herbalists; the originator of that project told Brown about work he'd done in Cambodian refugee camps. Brown headed to Southeast Asia but found those camps emptying out as their inhabitants returned home. Someone told him about a Burmese physician, herself a refugee, running a clinic for her compatriots in Thailand. Brown was given directions written on a napkin and soon met up with Cynthia Maung, M.D.—"in a converted wooden shack, between a noodle factory and a gem factory," in the Thai village of Mae Sot.

Dr. Cynthia, as she is called, did her training in Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), and had an established practice there until fleeing the military dictatorship in 1988. When Brown first met her, she was primarily treating malaria cases, delivering babies, tending wound infections, and performing minor surgeries. "It was a disaster situation," Brown explains. "There were 30,000 people coming across the border every few months." To say that Dr. Cynthia's resources and facilities were minimal is to glorify them. "She had no medical books and no microscopes, just blood pressure cuffs, a stethoscope, a thermometer, and a few bottles of medicine." And so the Burmese Refugee Care Project was born. Brown brought nothing but his own energy and knowledge as he worked alongside Dr. Cynthia that first time, but he has returned every year since (usually twice a year, for two to four weeks per trip) not only working in the clinic but also bearing medical supplies and much-needed cash to fund ongoing operations. To date, he has provided Dr. Cynthia with some $1 million worth of medical equipment and supplies, and $50,000 to $70,000 a year in funds. The result: Today, Dr. Cynthia oversees a whole "medical village," including an inpatient facility for 60 patients, a pediatric ward, a surgical unit, a prosthetics manufacturing center (a particular need for an area where land mines produce a dismaying number of amputees), a maternal-and-infant-health center, and an orphanage.

When he's not working with Dr. Cynthia in Thailand, Brown maintains a community-based family practice in Northern California. Earlier this year he took a position as medical director of the Southwest Community Health Center in Santa Rosa, where he serves a somewhat similar clientele, i.e., an underserved, impoverished population (in this case, 72 percent Latino). "With today's HMO woes," he notes wryly, "many doctors forget why they became doctors." But in his Santa Rosa clinic and in Dr. Cynthia's medical village, he says with obvious relish, "it's me and the people."

While in the last year of his residency, Brown worked with Dean Ornish, M.D., as a staff physician for the yoga-and-meditation retreats Ornish led as part of his now-famous heart-disease studies. It was then that Brown began practicing yoga, and today he sees his refugee work as a many-faceted expression of his life as a yogi. "A lot of it is karma yoga, of course, but a lot of the time it's about my deep love for these people, so I guess it's more bhakti [devotional] yoga. And then it's wanting to understand it all—not just the medical aspects, but also the political conditions—so it's like jnana [knowledge] yoga." After more than a decade of this work, Brown has found, not surprisingly, that a subtle but powerful transformation has taken place within him. "My initial interest in this work," he says, "was from a place of combining that need I had to be useful with the desire to learn about other cultures. But now it's much deeper. What changed was my heart started to open in this work. I was touched by these people.

To some, undertaking such arduous and hazardous work—"I've been chased by soldiers and spent time in shelters while planes dropped bombs outside," Brown says matter-of-factly—may seem unappetizing, not to say ill-advised to the point of foolhardiness. But for Ben Brown, it is nothing less than a portal to aliveness. "Sometimes," he says, "when we get most overwhelmed is when we get the biggest breakthroughs. And if we don't put ourselves in those situations, we don't get to draw on this well we didn't know was there.

For more information, write to Burmese Refugee Care Project, P. O. Box 1774, Sebastopol, CA 95473; phone (707) 524-0333; e-mail mailto:brcp@monitor.net; or visit www.burmacare.org.

Steven Liebes
Yogi People
DOING THE RIGHT THING

Five years ago, Steven Liebes was a hard-driving, Washington, D.C.–based policy advocate involved in issues ranging from economic aid and cooperation programs in the Middle East to global labor standards to the complex of environmental and labor issues surrounding the World Trade Organization. His exercise regimen consisted of diligent workouts on the Stairmaster at a local gym. Then, one day in the spring of 1998, he took his first yoga class on a whim. "I walked out feeling like a pretzel and fell in love [with yoga]," he says. He began taking classes twice a week, trying various schools including Kundalini and Iyengar before settling on Ashtanga; in the following months, his practice deepened, and the dyed-in-the-wool politico says he "felt my heart expanding."

From 1991 to 1995, Liebes had been economic and trade director for a powerful advocacy organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he worked on various foreign policy and trade issues, including economic coperation in the Middle East peace process. Later, as director of government affairs for the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, he developed public-private programs to promote economic cooperation as a tool for creating political stability in conflict-torn regions. But his rapidly developing yoga practice expanded his perspective to the point that he could no longer limit his focus to the Middle East. "I realized there are more people out there who need help," he recalls.

By 1999, he had become trade director for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). In December of that year, the DLC sent Liebes to Seattle for the WTO meeting. His mission: to reach out to the anti-WTO protest organizations by identifying the common ground between the opposition (i.e., environmentalist and labor groups) and the corporate beneficiaries of WTO's "free trade" policies. But after talking to some opposition leaders, "I saw that there really wasn't any common ground," he says. On the last day of the WTO meetings, he resigned his position, leaving the next day for a three-month sojourn in India that included study with Ashtanga Yoga master Pattabhi Jois and others.

After returning from India, Liebes took a position with the Mikhail Gorbachev Foundation's State of the World Forum, helping to organize the September 2000 Forum in New York City. During the Forum, he encountered for the first time what was described as "the worst form of child labor abuse": the shockingly pervasive phenomenon of children being impressed into service as soldiers, most notably in Africa and South America. "In many cases," he explains sadly, "these kids' fathers are killed, and the children are hauled off. If they're age 7 to 10, they're made to be porters. If they're older, 11 or 12, they become frontline soldiers." Shocked by what he learned, he established a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization (NGO) called the Child Soldier Network.

Liebes's investigation into the problem led him to refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Mozambique, and he "decided to come up with ways to deconstruct causes: Why are child soldiers used? What are wars over?" He concluded that "wars are fought over natural resources; child soldiers are the worst of it, but it's also about labor abuse and countries being forced to grow crops and produce goods for export in order to pay off foreign debt." What's more, "I saw that there were no companies there doing the right thing—making money in a good way." And so YogiPeople, a company Liebes founded and now heads, was born.

Having begun operations barely a year ago, the Mill Valley, California—based YogiPeople offers a line of yoga mats, clothing, and accessories that, according to its Web site, "are made in accordance with fair trade business policies by community trade groups and use only the most environmentally sound or organic materials." Their sticky mats, for instance, "are the only mats on the market to have been tested and certified to be free of toxins harmful to humans." And in keeping with Liebes's commitment to righting labor wrongs, "No child or sweatshop labor is used to make any of the products we sell. Workers who make our products in India are from a community trade company and receive fair wages, free medical care, subsidized meals, a safe work environment, and other benefits."

The company's philosophy is, of course, also tied to the practice which brings its customers to it. YogiPeople's mission statement (also on its Web site) says, "We appreciate that practicing yoga improves the quality of life for individuals, communities, and the planet. We strive to promote the principles of yoga—tolerance, freedom, compassion, health, and happiness—in every aspect of our business and beyond. YogiPeople business practices are dedicated to the highest good of all involved. At the heart of YogiPeople is a commitment to global peace, environmental health, and individual well-being."

YogiPeople earmarks a percentage of its profits to supporting various causes, including the Child Soldier Network. But Liebes points out that giving away money is only one of two ways for businesses to do good as they do well. "In terms of absolute dollars," he notes, "WalMart probably gives the most away. But there's the question of how they make the money in the first place; much of what they sell is made by foreign workers earning as little as four cents an hour. We intend to give money away, but we also want to have daily operations that support and promote values we care about." And so, in an echo of his earlier work, Liebes said last summer that he hoped to be able to offer by the end of the year a "Kashmiri Peace Practice Rug," a silk yoga-and-meditation mat produced by a joint Hindu-Muslim venture in the same region that for decades has been a source of conflict between predominantly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India.

"This is where yoga as my path flows over into business and politics," he says, waxing philosophical. "Yoga changed me; it made me care about other people in the world. If people open up more through yoga, they'll see that this spiritual connection is available in many more areas--by making conscious decisions about what clothes you buy for your kids, and so on. YogiPeople is about having a better vehicle for doing that."

For more information, visit www.yogipeople.com.

Mata Amirtanandamayi
"Ammachi"
TO UPLIFT AILING HUMANITY

As you drive up the dusty road, past the horse corrals, there is a sense of entering another world somehow removed from the din and strife of the metropolis just a few miles away. This former cattle ranch in Castro Valley, California, is now the Mata Amritanandamayi Center, an ashram of "Ammachi" ("Beloved Mother"), as she is known. Also called "the hugging saint," she is forever receiving people in endless darshan (audience with a sage or saint) and is said to have hugged more than 20 million people since she began her ministry nearly 30 years ago.

On the spring afternoon when I arrived at the ashram temple, Ammachi was finishing five hours of a nonstop darshan that began only hours after the eight-hour marathon of the day before. She seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for receiving her "children," as she calls devotees and first-timers alike, pressing them close to her, chanting "Mol, mol, mol" or "Mon, mon, mon" ("Daughter, daughter, daughter," or "Son, son, son") softly into their ears, presenting them with a piece or two of prasad (blessing-gift) in the form of a Hershey's Kiss or a piece of fruit, and sending them on their well-loved way.

Her love has also manifest in a stupefyingly long list of charitable projects undertaken in her native India: several hospitals, more than 30 schools, a projected 25,000 new houses for the poor, pensions for up to 50,000 destitute women, and more. And in the United States, she has initiated projects to feed urban poor in 25 cities ("Mother's Kitchen"); to provide hot showers, food, and clothing weekly to the homeless (the San Francisco Shower Project); to offer material support, transportation assistance, and hospital visitations to prison inmates and the disadvantaged ("Amma's Hands"); and to teach yoga, meditation, and computer-training classes at a battered women's shelter in Akron, Ohio. "She's the living embodiment of karma yoga," says her American spokesperson, Rob Sidon.

Born in 1953 in a destitute fishing village in the Indian state of Kerala, Ammachi was forced by her father to leave school at age 10 to perform family chores full-time. Out of a burgeoning sense of mystical devotion and a wish to alleviate suffering, she also cared for the sick, poor, and elderly in her neighborhood, giving away some of her family's meager food stores and other possessions to them. As a young woman, she began attracting large gatherings of those who wanted to receive her blessing—which she invariably bestowed in the form of a hug. A single woman in India hugging strangers defied prevailing cultural norms, and she faced fierce resistance from many, including her own family. In those early seasons of her ministry, people threw stones at her, attempted to poison her, and even tried to stab her to death.

Yet she persisted in her calling, which she describes as "uplifting ailing humanity," and by the late 1980s began touring the United States and Europe every year, establishing ashrams and raising funds (through donations, the sale of books, recordings, and other merchandise, and retreat fees; her public programs, including darshans, are always free) for her many charitable endeavors. To date her organization has been able to build a $20 million, state-of-the-art hospital in the Kerala city of Cochin (which so far has treated more than 200,000 outpatients and more than 20,000 inpatients, and performed more than 7,000 surgeries), fund 25,000 of a projected 50,000 monthly pensions for destitute women, build 20,000 concrete homes for homeless in different parts of India (including nearly 1,000 homes in three villages flattened by the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat), and provide 50,000 free meals to hungry people near her Indian ashrams. And the hugs just keep on coming.

As the darshan proceeded, I wandered around the temple hall a bit, perusing the bookshop wares and talking to some of Ammachi's staff, like Ron Gottsegen. The former Northern Californian sold a profitable electronics firm and moved to Cochin to oversee construction of the 800-bed hospital, which he now directs. Asked about giving up material success for a life of service, he protested that his decision and present work are not about doing without. "People feel I'm doing so much sacrifice," he said, "but I'm so enriched by what I'm doing. I don't feel I'm giving anything up at all." The darshan soon ended, Ammachi glided gracefully out of the temple (to soft, plaintive cries of "Ma! Ma!" from devotees nearesther), and I followed the throng outside into the bright sunshine. Above the entrance hung a banner proclaiming one of Ammachi's favorite mantras: "Om Lokah Samastah Sukino Bhavantu," or roughly, "May all beings be happy." A personal interview wasn't possible, but I submitted written questions about karma yoga to which I later received (through her interpreter, via e-mail from her spokesperson Sidon) Ammachi's answers. "Karma yoga is not the beginning, but the end," she said. This kind of service, she added, is "the highest form of experience," a state in which "one will spontaneously be able to behold everything as pure consciousness."

Asked about how people in the modern world, struggling with the vicissitudes of daily life, can find it possible to give of themselves, Ammachi pointed out that "Giving more and serving others is basically an attitude toward life. Developing this attitude has nothing to do with how much money one has." She also subtly evoked the notion of seeing one's practice as being for the benefit of the world one inhabits: "A pure life based on spiritual principles, not harming others, and finding peace within oneself is in itself a form of giving and serving others. Find contentment within yourself, and you are already serving society." Recalling that sunny afternoon at the ashram and the caring spirit that abounded there, it was easy to agree.

For more information, write to Mata Amritanandamayi Center (M. A. Center), P.O. Box 613, San Ramon, CA 94583-0613; phone (510) 537-9417; fax (510) 889-8585; e-mail macenter mailto:@ammachi.org; or visit www.ammachi.org.

Father Joe Pereira
SURRENDER, STILLNESS, SILENCE

Despite having been born in India, Father Joe Pereira's coming to yoga was somewhat unlikely. For one thing, his Portuguese forebears, although settled in India since the sixteenth century (he was born in 1942 in the former Portuguese colony of Goa), were devoutly Catholic. For another, when as a young man he heard a spiritual calling, it was to the priesthood, and so he spent a decade in seminary and received advanced training before being ordained. But he was also a singer and a lover of music, which led Pereira to attend a performance in Mumbai (Bombay) of the internationally renowned violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin—whose own interest in Eastern arts led him to play with sitar maestro Ravi Shankar as well as write the foreword to the B. K. S. Iyengar classic Light on Yoga. At the performance, Menuhin introduced Iyengar as "my next violin instructor," piquing the young priest's interest; he soon began taking weekly classes from Iyengar near his Mumbai parish. That was in 1968; by 1971, Father Joe was teaching yoga, and in 1975, he became a certified Iyengar instructor. He incorporated hatha yoga and meditation into his pastoral duties and eventually added a ministry for alcoholics to the parish's services.

By 1981, he and one of the recovering alcoholics he had brought into the parish program founded the Kripa ("Grace") Foundation, which focused on serving addicts through a unique recovery program combining the "12 steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous with instruction in yoga and meditation taught by Father Joe. Eventually, he added Western psychological models, such as dyads and gestalt therapy as well. From its humble origins in the annex of the parish church in Mumbai, the program has grown to include more than 30 counseling, detoxification, and rehabilitation centers throughout India, as well as offices in Germany and Canada; the program's recovery rate is an astonishing 65 percent. From unlikely beginnings, Kripa today enjoys the blessings of the Church and the patronage of the Archbishop of Mumbai, Ivan Cardinal Dias.

For Father Joe, this work was perhaps the most fitting by-product of his own spiritual journey, for he struggled with alcohol abuse himself as a young man. "I have all the qualities of an addict," he told Yoga Journal in a 1997 article. "I am not exempt from the self-destructive behavior patterns people come here to be healed of." Father Joe's collegial relationship with Iyengar—he returns to the latter's institute in Pune every July for intensive studies in yoga therapy—led him to ask the yogacharya to devise practice techniques and sequences (of asana and pPranayama) specifically to help people cope with addictive traits and residues.

In time, the Kripa program, which is formulated around Patanjali's eight limbs, also began serving people who were HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS. The two populations exhibit many of the same emotional responses to their conditions, including anger, depression, guilt, and self-abnegation; Pereira's yoga and meditation instruction, along with the time-tested recovery "steps" and other psychological tools offered, help individuals "honor" abused and pained parts of themselves, find a centering still point from which they can draw strength, move beyond addictive and self-destructive patterns, and vastly improve their quality of life. Father Joe has even had clients who have been HIV-positive for more than a decade and have yet to develop AIDS.

Valery Petrich, a Calgary, Alberta—based yoga teacher who is director of Kripa West Charity and has worked with Father Joe for years (together with senior Iyengar teacher Margot Kitchen, they produced a video, Living with AIDS Through Yoga and Meditation), describes Father Joe as "a healer" and talks about him in near-rapturous tones. "It's sort of like being in Mother Teresa's presence," she says, invoking one of Father Joe's heroes. (The Kripa newsletter calls her "our inspiration," and Father Joe leads yoga-and-meditation retreats several times a year in various parts of India for the religious order Mother Teresa founded, the Sisters of Charity.) "I consider him to be a true man of God in the sense that he's truly selfless," Petrich adds. "Father Joe seems to have unlimited energy from his meditation and yoga practice, which he does for about two-and-a-half hours every morning.

But his spiritual presence is equaled by the practical impact of his work. "I think the best gift he has to offer," says Petrich, who also works with HIV-positive students, "is the successful model that Western countries can study and follow, and so better understand the value of Iyengar's restorative yoga. The brilliance of that model, Petrich notes, is the way in which yoga augments the AA steps. "It's all in the surrender," she says, "handing it over to a Higher Power.

"In the restorative poses, the idea is a long hold, moving into stillness. Father Joe's 'steps include surrender, stillness, and silence; you can't get into silence without stillness, and you can't get into stillness without surrender." What is more, this practice allows the addict to get at root causes. "Addiction is usually about fear," she says, "and not wanting to experience pain. This is about surrendering into experiencing pain, rather than numbing it." As the practice deepens, something miraculous happens. "When the ego moves over," says Petrich, "then the healing takes place. People let their behavior get out of the way and surrender control. Then the divine can work.

For more information, write to Kripa West Charity, c/o The Yoga Studio, Suite #211, 5403 Crowchild Trail N.W., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T3B 4Z1; phone (403) 270-9691; or e-mail mailto:yogalady@telus.net.

Do you know someone who merits recognition as a karma yogi? Do you work with an organization that is especially good at meeting needs in your community or around the world? Is your company an innovator in socially responsible business practices or community involvement? Then tell us! You can nominate a person, business, or nonprofit organization. Click here to submit.

Phil Catalfo, who writes our annual Karma Yoga Awards story, is a senior editor at Yoga Journal. He often performs karma yoga in his hometown of Berkeley, California.


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Reader Comments

Lois Carol Mitchell

I knew nothing about the KRIPA foundation or Father Joe, until I received an invitation to a candlelight yoga solstice gathering, and with it links to this foundation. I am totally moved and humbly grateful for the knowledge and for the dedication of these god-sharing people . Every day I look for hope and always it come to me in small packages like this one. A little bit of information about something big and totally loving that is happening in the world. Thank you.

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