In many ways, Off the Mat, Into the World's Global Seva Challenge this year, which benefits victims of sex trafficking in
India, feels like coming full circle for Seane Corn, who cofounded
Off the Mat, Into the World with Hala Khouri and Suzanne Sterling in 2008. Corn has had a special place in her heart for India since she visited it as a volunteer with YouthAids in 2007. She has never forgotten the intensity of that trip, she says—or its transformative effect on her. "I was working in brothels, up to my elbows in semen and piss, cursing the pimps," she says. "I was in conflict. I thought I was there to bear witness to the suffering, but I was bearing witness to my own shadow self."
A survivor of sexual molestation herself, Corn is as passionate about helping young women and children recover from the brutal effects of sexual slavery as she is about challenging and empowering yoga practitioners to become activists for positive change.
While hard statistics on the number of people affected are nearly impossible to establish, by all estimates sex trafficking in India is widespread and notoriously difficult to combat. The goal of this year's Global Seva Challenge, a grassroots fundraising effort, is to raise awareness of the problem worldwide and to support organizations that are working to provide safe housing, education, mental health services, and vocational training to former victims of the sex trade.
As this year's Global Seva Challenge heads into the homestretch, Yoga Journal caught up with Corn to talk about the legacy of Off the Mat, Into the World's many projects, including its latest initiative, YogaVotes, a nonpartisan effort to mobilize yogis to apply the practices of mindfulness, inclusiveness, and love to the way they engage with the political process.
Yoga Journal: How did you choose which organizations to support in India?
Seane Corn: For each year's challenge, we start off with 15 organizations in that country that we want to research. We find out who's done what and what their track record is, and then we narrow that list to 10. After that, we visit the country and meet with the organizations and come back with a full report. From there, we invite eight organizations to submit proposals and then choose the final five.
We're meticulous about every proposal. Does it align with our values? Is it sustainable? Can it be replicated in other places? Will it be effective? We try not to work with organizations that don't respect the indigenous religion. Kerri Kelly, our executive director, and the rest of the staff make sure we don't get diluted in our mission or vision.
The groups we chose in India all are grassroots organizations with an established history of advocacy. For one of the organizations, Sanlaap, we're funding the construction of another facility [this will be its seventh] to house and educate former victims of sex trafficking.
YJ: Is there follow-up after Off the Mat, Into the World funds a particular organization's project?
SC: We have ambassadors who stay in touch with the organization, host future trips, and continue to check in on them and raise additional funds if necessary. Most of the organizations we work with are well-established and come highly recommended, so we know they'll continue to exist after our project is completed.
YJ: What are some of Off the Mat, Into the World's success stories?
SC: In our first year in 2008, we raised more than $524,000 for the Cambodian Children's Fund, which provides education, food, and other services for hundreds of impoverished and abused children there. We raised more than $576,000 for organizations in Uganda in 2009. We've raised more than $2.5 million for programs in Uganda, South Africa, and Haiti.
One of the projects I'm most proud of is Shanti Uganda's birthing center. Shanti Uganda is an NGO started by a young Canadian woman I met in Toronto in 2005.
She had a vision for an eco-friendly birthing center in Uganda, and OTM gave her $150,000 to help her realize that vision. With our help, she built a birthing center in the middle of the bush where women could safely deliver their babies. The center is solar-powered, has an organic garden, and allows women to give birth in a variety of ways—such as lying on their backs, water births, and squatting. The center trains midwives and teaches both indigenous and modern birthing practices, including using sterile medical equipment. It also distributes sterile birthing kits to women in more isolated areas.
YJ: Is Off the Mat, Into the World involved in projects in the United States?
SC: We have an empowered youth immersion that helps people who work with at-risk youths in urban areas bring the principles of yoga back to their communities and effect positive change. And through Project Springboard, we help visionaries incubate their ideas for community or charitable work and start their own 501(c)3s. We give them the jump-start they need to realize their vision.
YJ: OTM's latest initiative is called YogaVotes. What was the origin of that idea?
SC: Four years ago, Arianna Huffington, a former private client, reached out to me to talk about creating a lounge at the Democratic National Convention where people could unwind between sessions. Instead of getting a Red Bull and a burger, they could do yoga, have a massage, meditate, or practice tai chi. I reached out to my regional leaders and asked for volunteers. I told them, "We can't pay you anything, and you might sit around doing nothing, or you might be crazy busy." We got volunteers from everywhere. They did everything from teaching yoga and tai chi to giving massages and facials and carrying trays of organic smoothies and other treats. The lounge was busy all day with VIPs and media. I remember one woman who would come to the lounge in her tight skirt, pantyhose, and pumps and do yoga and burst into tears. She was there every day, and every day she cried and shared how important it was to have the space so she could do her job more efficiently.
YJ: How did that plant the seed for YogaVotes?
SC: We got such an outpouring of support from the yoga community at the Democratic National Convention. So many of them wanted to be involved. They wanted to be part of something. I wanted to build on that response.
YJ: What do you hope to accomplish?
SC: We want yogis to recognize that yoga and politics
go together. And that when we bring our yoga into politics, we bring love, connection, and compassion to the table. Apathy is not an option. Yoga is about participation in all aspects of our life, including politics, and we want this community to get informed, engaged, and active. We're trying to create an inclusive conversation that's not partisan. One of our goals is to try to shift the perception of yoga practitioners from a community to a constituency. If we can identify our shared values and become more aligned, politicians might be more interested in us. We'll be at the Democratic National Convention again this year, but we're also establishing an oasis at the Republican National Convention.
YJ: What are some of the nonpartisan values yoga practitioners might share?
SC: We have a community that's educated, is altruistic, is interested in inclusivity and unity, and pays taxes. We believe everyone, regardless of economic circumstances, should have access to health care and to the best education possible. We advocate bringing mindfulness practices into the schools to help students and teachers de-stress and be less reactive. We support introducing food in schools that is nourishing, grounding, and nurturing rather than hyperstimulating. We're proactive about the environment, supporting things that are less stressful to the planet, like organic food. And we want to know where our leaders stand on these issues.
To inform how they vote, we encourage yogis to ask questions like, "Do these policies serve the greater good, and are they based in love and connectivity?" Anything that favors fear over love or is rooted in separation or exclusivity or is unsustainable over the long term is not in line with yogic values.
YJ: How has the yoga community responded?
SC: he reaction has been mixed. Some people believe yoga has no place in politics. Others are excited to engage in the political arena rather than sit on the outside. They feel strongly that everything is yoga and that if politics impacts their life, then yoga should be part of the conversation.
YJ:How do you respond to those who don't want to mix yoga and politics?
SC: I completely respect it. I'm not trying to push my own agenda. But I do believe yoga needs to be in politics because yoga intersects with everything. I'm trying to create a conversation, and I don't necessarily expect the conversation to agree. I get that politics may make people uncomfortable, but I'm committed to this goal. It's our right and privilege to be a part of this process.
YJ: What's the long-term plan for Off the Mat, Into the World?
SC: We're in the business of creating leaders, and we want to continue to build up and support a powerful network of leaders who are finding their purpose and taking it into action in their local communities through service, projects, and advocacy. We don't believe this is it. We are an important voice, but Off the Mat, Into the World is meant to evolve in a way that we haven't envisioned yet, and that pathway will come from our community.
By the Numbers...
Cambodia: More than $524,000 raised
As part of the 2008 Global Seva Challenge, Corn led a service trip to Cambodia with 20 yoga practitioners who had each raised at least $20,000 for the Cambodian Children's Fund. The money they raised went primarily to improving the lives of orphans who had been working in the Stung Meanchey garbage dump.
Uganda: More than $576,000 raised
Off the Mat, Into the World's 2009 Global Seva Challenge raised more than half a million dollars for HIV/AIDS, women's health, and children's organizations in Uganda.
Find more information at:offthematintotheworld.org