Last August, New York yoga instructor Sonia Butler watched in horror as the destruction of her hometown of New Orleans unfolded on her television screen. Two months later, she organized the Yoga for Relief project and spent her two-week vacation—usually reserved for a relaxing yoga retreat in the Bahamas—in Houston and New Orleans teaching free yoga classes and passing out yoga clothes to evacuees, volunteers, and relief workers. "I know the benefits of yoga to relieve stress and heal people," she says. "I just couldn't watch and do nothing."
Butler is one of many yogis choosing to take karma vacations, giving up time lounging at the beach for time serving a community in need. Some, like Butler, plan their own karma yoga retreats to cities recovering from natural disasters; others hook up with organizations, like Breath of Hope Foundation in Texas and the Camp Moomba Yogathon in British Columbia, that link travelers with short-term service projects.
"It's not arbitrary, these people who choose karma yoga," says Camp Moomba Yogathon founder Eoin Finn. Last year, the Yogathon fundraiser brought in $60,000 to help HIV- and AIDS-positive children. "People who are drawn to practice yoga have an intention to live from the heart, and to connect with others in the community," he says.
Though it can be rewarding, traveling to volunteer is hardly relaxing. In order to raise funds for her trip to the South, Butler had to live more frugally so she could afford to take a break from her full-time teaching schedule in Manhattan, and she returned exhausted. Still, "it was the most meaningful act of service I have ever performed," she says. "I was unable to reach my family and friends that were still there, but it helped to connect with people and help others heal."