2017 Good Karma Awards: 9 Stories to Inspire Your Seva Practice

Sure, you could teach yoga to communities in need. But this year’s Good Karma Award winners exemplify the many other ways to practice seva, or selfless service. Here are their inspiring stories, plus advice to help you find your own path to giving back.

Jill Brenner can point to a specific moment in her first yoga-teacher training that changed the trajectory of what the ancient practice would mean to her forever. “The teacher said, ‘Treat others like they are inside of you—those who are less fortunate, even the most evil,’” recalls the public relations exec turned yoga teacher. “These dual concepts, that we are all connected and should practice compassion for others, really resonated with me and has inspired me to be of service through yoga ever since.”

Aha moments like Brenner’s are common for yoga practitioners, prompting us to wake up to a shared responsibility for making the world a better place, says Rob Schware, PhD, executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation. “All yoga practices are about paying attention,” says Schware. “As we work to improve ourselves, the veils of avidya—a basic ignorance of who we are, and of the underlying reality that everything in the universe is connected—begin to fall away. And as we get closer to understanding how connected we are to our fellow yoga students, families, and communities, we ask ourselves, ‘How can I be most useful?’”

Of course, a host of things precludes many of us from taking the next step and actually answering this question, much less acting on it. Busy lives may leave little time for volunteering; tight budgets can make donating money a challenge. And while so many of us with teacher trainings under our belts would like to use our training to bring yoga to underserved communities, it doesn’t mean we actually can (for the reasons above and more).

Schware says it’s important to think about yoga service in broader terms. “You don’t have to launch a brand-new nonprofit to give the gift of yoga to a community in need,” he says. “Just as yoga shows us how to be here now, giving back can be about doing something now.” In a sense, your charitable endeavors are your yoga practice: helping feed the hungry, solving water scarcity issues, tutoring or mentoring students, grocery shopping for the elderly or homebound—it all counts as seva. The best part? Service can be both customized and immediate. “If you’re a writer, help an organization with its marketing or social media efforts; if you have a background in law, accounting, or web development, offer your skills to organizations that are already doing amazing work. Anyone with talent and knowledge can help expand yoga service,” says Schware.

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For Brenner, giving back means teaching yoga to young adults with autism and working pro bono to help Ashrams for Autism, a nonprofit she truly believes in, with their press outreach, messaging, and marketing. Her story, exemplifies the philosophy of giving back now, in whichever ways you can. In fact, she and the other Good Karma Award winners embody the same spirit. While the big-company winners you’ll read about here could have simply written big checks, each went further, devoting both resources and time to help service-focused organizations expand their influence and broaden their impacts. In the pages that follow you’ll also learn about the individuals who launched these organizations, forging positive change and creating opportunities for the rest of us to do more good. And then there are the behind-the-scenes heroes—people like Brenner who are sharing their talents to help enhance lives through yoga. Get ready to feel inspired—and spurred into action. 

Join the Movement

Inspired to give back, but still unsure where or how to begin? A new, free online course from the Give Back Yoga Foundation and Lululemon’s Here to Be program may help you find the answers. We talked to Rob Schware, executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, about the course, aptly titled “How Can I Serve?”

Yoga Journal: What motivated you to create “How Can I Serve?”
Rob Schware: Every morning I wake up and ask myself, “How can I serve?” This course is a practical way to answer that question and give back to yoga teachers around the country. It was created to supplement 200- and 300-hour yoga teacher training curriculums, which don’t tend to go into depth about yoga service. You’ll gain access to true experts—yoga service leaders who know what it means to serve and how to get started—and six hours worth of resources in the form of video, podcasts, and printed materials.

Rob Schware

Rob Schware

YJ: Who are the teachers involved? 
RS: We’ve filmed some of the leading luminaries in yoga service, including Beryl Bender Birch, a yoga activist and spiritual revolutionary; James Fox, founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project; Nikki Myers, founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, and so many more. These light workers are inspiring examples of why it’s important to get involved, and they give pragmatic suggestions for how to do just that.

YJ: What is your hope for yogis who complete the course?
RS: Ultimately, we want to inspire yogis everywhere to take action. Of course, the Give Back Yoga Foundation is a great place to start. And for those who want to take the next step, we offer five different program trainings, each of which go into great detail about how to serve a specific population. To take the course, visit givebackyoga.org/serve.

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