One of the best ways to overcome the storms in your own life is by helping someone going through a bigger one. I recently volunteered at an animal shelter that was over capacity due to housing their own shelter animals plus animals displaced from Hurricane Harvey. The amount of desperation felt by both the animals and the understaffed, overworked employees was palatable. There are so many human and animals in need right now, and relief programs are desperate for volunteers.
I think it is wonderful when yogis process what is going on in their lives and in the world on their mats and dedicate their practice to those in need, but I deeply believe our prayers and heart openers need to go far beyond our mats to really help those facing desperate situations. We need to use yoga practice as a vehicle to get grounded, connect with our authentic core, cultivate love and compassion within our hearts, and then take all of that off the mat to help those in need.
The following practice is designed to ground and focus you, prime your body to be of functional service, and open your heart. After the practice, I encourage you to make a list of ways you can physically or financially help those facing hardship. For example, locally, you could donate, volunteer, plan group visits, or create a class to support homeless shelters, animal shelters, or nursing homes. Nationally, you could help people or animals suffering from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria or those mourning lives lost in the Las Vegas shooting. Internationally, there are nonprofits that aid those affected by Mexico’s earthquakes, those who are starving, those who don’t have clean drinking water, animals that need protection, and ocean life that needs conservation.
This challenge isn’t meant to overwhelm you. I want to encourage you, if you aren’t already doing some type of charitable service, to pick at least one method of giving that you are passionate about and do it. I am a firm believer that if we all focused on others’ needs, our own needs would be met. We weren’t blessed with individual talents to enrich our personal lives, but we were created to live in community and share our resources and unique gifts with one another. As yogis, it’s time to let our light and love shine.
10 Poses to Equip You to Serve
Hero’s Pose (Virasana)
Get calm and connected. Come to your hands and knees. Bring your inner knees together and take you feet slightly wider than your hips. Sit halfway back, leaning your torso slightly forward. Take the webbing between your thumbs and index fingers to the backs of your knees and draw the flesh of your calf muscles toward your heels. Sit down between your feet, on a block or on the floor. Hug the outer ankles in toward the midline as you press down through the pinky toes. Sink evenly through your sitting bones as you draw your lower abdomen up, lengthening through both sides of the waist. Reach the crown of your head toward the ceiling while softening your shoulders away from your ears. Rest your hand on your thighs or bring your hands to prayer at the heart.
Begin to let go of what is going on in your personal life and in the world, connect with your breath, and connect deeply to your innermost being, your authentic core. Stay here for 2–10 minutes or more, watching your breath, letting go of your thoughts, and connecting to your center. After that duration of time, take a deep inhale, feeling your breath move all the way down toward your pelvis. Pause for a couple of seconds at the end of your inhale, then slowly exhale from your chest all the way down toward your lower belly. Take a few more cycles of breath like this, then open your eyes.
Cobra Pose variation (Bhujangasana)
Tap into the rhythm of your breath, our collective life force. Make your way onto your stomach, extend your legs, and bring them together. Place your fingertips in line with your chest and hug your elbows in to touch your ribcage. Anchor your palms, outer thighs, tops of your feet and toes to the floor. Lift your inner thighs and kneecaps away from the floor. Roll your shoulder blades down your back. As you inhale, lift your chest off the mat, placing very little weight in your hands while keeping the back of your neck long rather than looking toward the ceiling. Exhale and slowly release your chest back down toward the ground. Repeat 3 more times, moving with your breath. With each Cobra you might walk your fingers slightly forward, lifting your torso a little higher.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Ground your hands and feet into the Earth. Come to your hands and knees, tuck your toes under, lift your hips up, and make your way into Down Dog. Spread your fingers, press down evenly through the base of each finger and palm and lift your armpits. Bend your knees and raise your sitting bones skyward to create length through your spine. Keep the elongation of your torso as you press your inner and outer thighs back and release your heels toward the mat. If you feel compression in your lower back or rounding in your upper back, bend your knees as much as necessary to re-elongate your spine. If your heels are away from the mat, place blocks on their lowest height, or a blanket, under your heels to ground deeper in the pose. Hold for 3 breaths.
Stay focused. Lower down to your stomach. Bring arms to your sides, palms facing your hips, or interlace your fingers at the base of your spine. Hug your legs in toward one another. Press your navel and pubic bone down. When you inhale, lift your chest up off the mat. On an exhale, engage your core, press your upper arms toward the sky while keeping the back of your neck long. On your next inhale lift your legs away from the mat, spin your inner thighs up toward sky as you lengthen your buttock toward your heels. Continue to breathe. Hold for 2 breaths and release. Make your way back to Down Dog.
See also Being a Yogi Makes You a Political Activist (Like It or Not)
Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
Move forward from a heart space. From Down Dog, rock forward to Plank and lower to Chaturanga. Press down evenly through the base of each finger and the entire palm. Straighten your arms and lift into Up Dog. Press your shoulder blades into your chest and spread your collarbones. Keep your thighs lifting away from the floor as you lengthen your buttocks toward your heels. The only body parts that touch the floor are your hands and the tops of your feet. Hold for 2 breaths and make your way into Down Dog.
See also 9 Stories to Inspire Your Seva Practice
Revolved Low Lunge (Parivrtta Anjaneyasana)
Expand your reach north, south, east, and west. From Down Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, place your right ankle under your right knee, lift your left inner thigh up, and extend through your left heel. Keep your left hand to your mat or a block underneath the left shoulder and reach the right arm up to the sky. Lengthen the left side of your waist forward and keep lifting your left inner thigh up. Get as much length as you can from your left heel to the crown of your head, and as much length from your left hand to your right fingertips. Take your gaze toward your right hand. You can modify by placing your left knee on the mat. Hold for 5 breaths, then make your way into Down Dog and repeat on the opposite side.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Fill your heart with love and compassion. Lie on your back, bend your knees, and bring your heels toward your sitting bones. Press your feet into the mat and lift your pelvis toward the ceiling. Tuck your shoulders under and rotate your palms so they face up toward the ceiling, or interlace your fingers underneath your pelvis. Press your upper arms and feet into the mat, spin your inner thighs down, and guide your tailbone toward the backs of your knees. Broaden across your collarbones and relax the throat and jaw. Hold here for 5 breaths then lower down from shoulders to hips. Rest for 2 breaths. Repeat 2 more times.
Reclined Hand-to-Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Keep mobile. From your back, draw your right knee into your chest and place a belt below the ball of your right foot and extend through your right leg. If you don’t have a belt, take your right hand and hold onto the back your right thigh, calf muscle or right big toe with your right index and middle finger. Keep your left knee bent, or if you decide to reach the left leg out in front of you, ground the left leg into your mat. Gently lead the right leg toward the wall behind you as you draw the right outer hip toward your left foot. Reach through your heels and balls of your big toes. Lengthen both sides of the waist evenly and maintain the natural curve of your lumbar spine. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on the opposite side.
Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Bow down, connect emotionally, and pray for those in need. Make your way onto your hands and knees. Walk your hands a few inches in front of your shoulders, shoulder-distance apart. Slide your right knee toward your right wrist making a diagonal with your right shin from your right wrist toward your left frontal hipbone. Slide your left leg straight behind you. If there is space under your right hip, use a block or blanket to keep your hips even. Lift your left inner thigh up and press the top of the left foot and all five toes into your mat. Walk your hands out in front of you or bring your forearms to a block or to the mat. Lengthen evenly through both sides of the torso. Spread through the collarbones. Pray and connect with those in need. Stay here for 5 breaths and switch sides.
Supported Inversion (Salamba Sarvangasana variation)
Stay calm, let go of anxiety, soothe your nervous system. Lie on your back. Take a block on its lowest level, widthwise under your sacrum and send your legs skyward. Tuck your shoulders under slightly then relax your arms out to the sides. Engage through the quadriceps and hamstrings and reach through the balls of the feet. An alternative option is to lie on your back and take you legs up the wall in Viparita Karani. Stay here for 2–10 minutes then slowly make your way into a simple cross-legged position. Pause here, reconnecting with your natural inhalations, natural exhalations. Open your eyes. Take what you have cultivated on the mat and make a difference in the world.
About Our Expert
Laura Burkhart (500 E-RYT) is a YJ Influencer and San Francisco-based international teacher, featured on Grokker, My YogaWorks, and YogaVibes. Burkhart sought out yoga to help combat serious health problems due to a decade of major stress and insomnia. Yoga reminded her of the similar movement meditation she found when she used to dance. But unlike dance, yoga encouraged her to respect her body rather than push it beyond its limits. Burkhart’s creative, well-rounded classes are smartly sequenced with smooth and rhythmic flow. She has been a writer, video model, and two-time cover model for Yoga Journal. She has presented at the Yoga Journal Conference, The Bali Spirit Festival, Yoga Festival Italy, Wanderlust 108, and is co-creator of “Yoga Business Secrets” workshops and online program that helps yoga teachers build successful public and online yoga careers. Burkhart completed various trainings including a 200-hour training at The Loft, a 300-hour training with Shiva Rea, a 200-hour and 300-hour training with Jason Crandell, and a 200-hour training with YogaWorks.