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Grow Simply with Seva

Reach new students by selflessly giving with free and donation-based classes.

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Teacher Kate Hallahan gets by on the belief that when you give, you get back. “Every month, I trust that enough money will come in to pay my bills,” says Hallahan, who coordinates The Guerrilla Yoga Project, a network of donation-based yoga classes at studios, community centers, and churches around Charlottesville, Virginia, and lived on donations for the better part of a year.

Hallahan practices seva, or selfless giving, to sustain her life and practice while reaching new students and helping others. With many avenues to access, including teaching free or donation-based classes or offering classes to benefit a favorite cause or charity, incorporating seva into your teaching schedule pays dividends for yourself, your students, and the world.

Do it for a Cause

Each week as part of its Karma Yoga Program, Connecticut’s Kaia Yoga Centers give 100 percent of the proceeds from 10 to 12 classes to local nonprofits. The program is a way to market the studio and its classes in a nontraditional, low-cost manner, while doing something good for the community.

“It has helped spread awareness about our studios and increases exposure as well as attendance for classes and sales for other services,” says Kaia owner Gina Norman, adding that Karma Yoga classes get people who are new to yoga and new to the studio, as well as existing students. “Part of our goal is seva and supporting the community…People want to give, and it’s great that they’re doing that with yoga.” The Centers also offer to teach classes at nonprofits in the communities of Westport, Greenwich, and Bridgeport.

Instructors who donate class revenue toward a charitable cause recommend sharing this intention with students. Get information from the organization to share with students and ask the group to spread the word; the more people you have in class, the more support the organization receives.

In addition to its donation-based classes, teachers with The Guerilla Yoga Project offer downloads of workshops and lectures through, with 55 percent going to a charity of the teacher’s choice. For example, Hallahan’s “Standing on Your Own Two Feet” download benefits The Westhaven Clinic, a nursing facility in a public housing development in Charlottesville.

With seva, every action, small or large, makes a difference. When you join forces with other instructors or studios, you can spread the word (and expense) of your seva offerings.

Such is the case with Passport to Prana, a multi-studio annual pass that costs $30 and allows students to take one free class at each participating studio. Available in 15 North American cities, proceeds from the Passports support the local yoga studio community and yoga-related charitable organizations in each community, such as San Francisco’s Headstand, which brings yoga into Bay Area schools. Cofounder YuMee Chung says that new yogis who use the Passport often find their yoga homes.

Believe in Generosity

Donation-based classes can support an organization or you as the teacher, but in either case, the question of suggesting a donation amount is a loaded one. Hallahan doesn’t believe in suggesting a specific donation amount, but the Project lists its donation policy online as a guide; the policy reiterates that the donation reflects the value of the class to the student, and that regardless of economic situation, it is not appropriate to not make a donation, however small. Bartering may also be an option; one student brings Hallahan fresh eggs and raw milk in trade.

“In our experience, we have found that those who can pay more often do,” says Hallahan. “It’s an inspiring example of how a community can come together to support each other.”

Believing in generosity encourages others to pay it forward, which is the impetus for Anusara instructor Kenny Graham’s Be the Change Contract. The contract is not an obligation, but a reminder to make a difference in the world. It works several ways: students can “pay it forward” in service hours or a donation to a charitable organization in exchange for classes with Graham. Graham currently travels throughout North America teaching Be the Change classes for signed contracts; in October, he taught a class at Brooklyn’s Abhaya Yoga Studio, where everyone in class filled out an individual contract and all proceeds went to adopt a child in Rwanda for one year through the nonprofit Kageno.

“I will donate my love, my time and my gifts and, in exchange, ask others to pay forward what they have received in a way that feels honoring and appropriate to their life,” says Graham.

Money Matters

“The temptation with seva is to get all loosey-goosey with it,” says Chung. “We thought about giving [Passport to Prana] away for free, but we realized that we don’t serve anyone’s best interests by devaluing what we do.”

If you decide to offer seva-inspired classes, keep accurate and detailed records of the donations received, and collect tax receipts from the organizations you’re donating to. Also, consider your expenses. If you don’t have access to studio space or want to reach students where they’re at and must rent space, negotiate. If a space is available for free, Hallahan suggests offering a small donation in return.

And regularly evaluate your seva practice. “Martyrdom to a cause is not seva,” says Chung. “We want our seva efforts to be sustainable and nourishing, for everyone involved.”

If you feel it in your heart, don’t give up. “Seva teaching is an incredible way to reach people that you wouldn’t otherwise reach,” says Hallahan, “and its very rewarding to see people start to develop this connection to themselves—sometimes for the first time in their lives.”