On November 5, 2008, Nelson Mandela wrote a letter to President-Elect Barack Obama—a letter that appeared in the New York Times the next day. Mandela's missive included the statement, "Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place."
Perhaps it was out of this very desire that you first became a yoga teacher. Now, after teaching hundreds and thousands of students, you're ready to extend your offerings to an even wider audience.
How can you contribute in a larger way? How can you share the gifts of yoga with those who may never step foot inside the four walls of your yoga studio?
The Yoga of Service
For Seane Corn, a teacher, YouthAIDS yoga ambassador, and one of the founders of Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), the link between yoga and service is obvious.
"Yoga is about creating community, relationship, and connections, and service is inevitably about that, too," Corn says. "We have the responsibility to create an environment where all people can be abundant, happy, and free."
Ashley Turner, a yoga and meditation instructor in Venice, California, who runs international service-oriented retreats, agrees. "Yoga is social activism," she declares. "What affects one of us affects all of us."
As a yoga teacher, you can serve in a larger sense by teaching yoga to underprivileged communities or by using your teaching and/or position as a teacher as a platform to raise money for such communities.
Know Thyself First
When we reform our thoughts and actions so that they cultivate connection, rather than separation, we transform the intolerance, judgment, and persecution that fill our own minds, Turner says. Then we understand the way of healing and can apply this understanding to our surroundings.
For some teachers, activism starts on a personal level with yoga and grows into a broader, more global movement later.
Corn has experienced this progression firsthand. "Through breathing, stretching, meditating, and praying, I was able to create a much healthier perspective for myself," she says. "I was able to communicate more effectively, breathe when I faced a challenge, and hear another person's point of view without being reactive."
She then put these skills to the test when her call to serve brought her to teach yoga to adolescent prostitutes through Children of the Night, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting children between the ages of 11 and 17 who are forced to prostitute themselves on the streets for food and a place to sleep.
Corn's service later led her to the slums and brothels of Africa. Here, staring poverty, depression, and death in the face, she began to question her own spiritual practice.
"For the first time in my life I was in places where I was having a very difficult time really believing that God existed," she recalls.
When Corn returned home, she wrote about her experiences. The public response astounded her. People wanted to know how they could get involved, not only through raising money but also by working in the field.
Build Your Service Skills
In response, Corn's OTM developed a leadership training program to educate others in how to first find their purpose by doing the work on themselves, then to activate that purpose in their local communities through outreach and service projects.
Jill Satterfield, founder of New York City's Vajra Yoga, also felt called to address this unmet need. She witnessed many teachers who were volunteering without the necessary training to work with their target populations.
She developed a Social Action Teacher Training (SATT) to train yoga and meditation teachers to work with at-risk youth and adults, people in recovery programs, and those living with chronic pain and illness.
"A lack of training doesn't serve anyone very well," she emphasizes. "Plus, it can be extremely challenging for the teacher emotionally."
Satterfield collaborates with experts in psychology and clinical therapy to better prepare teachers for the task. This, she explains, enables yogis to offer their work in a way that makes sense in their lives and is practical, helpful, and livable.
Think Outside the Box Instead of Standing on the Soapbox
Being socially active does not mean preaching your views and opinions to your students during class. Students come to class to unwind, and there will be few who appreciate having to hear another's political or social agendas in the process.
"We're introducing two practices [yoga and meditation] in the form of practical tools to people who might take hold of them for themselves to better their situations," says Satterfield. "Any activism we might collectively or individually be interested in is in no way connected to the class or students when we're teaching."
If you do wish to get your students involved in service, offer donation-based classes to raise both awareness and funds for a cause or a charity. Talk to other teachers about ways to involve interested students in being more active in the community outside of class. Whether it's through donation-based classes, charity-benefiting merchandise in your studio boutique, or volunteering your own time to teach yoga in your community, find your own creative means to inspire yourself, your students, and your colleagues to step into action.
Are you ready to use your influence as a yoga teacher to become more involved in your community? If so, direct your enthusiasm with these tips from our experts:
- Stop and listen inside to what you are deeply called to change.
- Practice more than ever to see your own body, mind, and heart more clearly. This will help loosen your sense of separateness and grow your compassion. Then let your practice keep you energized and grounded as you serve.
- Brainstorm (alone and with others) about creative ways to build and support community.
- Seek out people or communities who might not necessarily come into a yoga studio or meditation hall.
- Get as much training as you can about the population you wish to work with.
- Don't make the practices inaccessible by using jargon or Sanskrit words.
- Don't do it alone. Collaborate with other colleagues to keep it fun (and to keep yourself from burning out).
- Offer donation-only classes and invite the community. Use the proceeds to raise money for a local cause or charity.
- Get involved in cause-related marketing. Sell a product that raises awareness of and funds for a social cause.
- Move beyond your comfort level. Be brave and willing stir up the waters of change.
"The more we can work together to see beyond the four walls of a yoga studio and right into our own backyards, the more we can really start to improve our own local communities," says Corn. "As a yoga teacher, you have a remarkable platform to be able to get yourself and others involved in a way that is truly joyful. Why stretch when you can reach?"
Writer Sara Avant Stover is a yoga instructor who lives in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches internationally. Visit her website at www.fourmermaids.com.