When she stepped onto a plane headed for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Philadelphia vinyasa instructor Brittany Policastro didn't realize she was also stepping into a new phase of her life. Her 2008 journey was through Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), the seva (service) organization based in Venice, California, and founded by Seane Corn, Suzanne Sterling, and Hala Khouri. The trip brought Policastro and 19 other yogis to volunteer their time with the Cambodian Children's Fund. For two and a half weeks, they taught English in orphanages, introduced yoga to impoverished children living in slums, and visited historic sites, including the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge massacred thousands. Throughout the trip, they practiced yoga every morning, and every evening had a "processing" session where they talked about what they had accomplished during the day.
Although she had spent months preparing for the trip, warned that what she would see and experience could be difficult, Policastro didn't anticipate that she would be overwhelmed by so much empathy and so much love. "I felt the pain of the Cambodian people's past deep in my heart," she says. "My experience with them changed my life in ways that still continue to blow my mind and open my heart."
Seva trips can have a powerful emotional impact and can make us feel truly humble about the good fortune and abundance that grace our lives. But they can also provide yogis a chance to live out the tenets of bhakti yoga (devotion) and karma yoga (selfless service) in direct, tangible, and memorable ways. These trips' popularity is growing, with seva journeys now available on five continents, at prices ranging from $200 to $20,000, with the bulk of that money being donated to the non-profit organizations that volunteers service.
Indeed, more than ever, yogis are volunteering their time to travel to places of need, building hospitals and homes, tilling farm fields, and holding babies without mothers. Sometimes, the yoga on these trips is practiced only among the group, helping volunteers stretch their hard-worked muscles, keep themselves grounded, and process their emotional experiences. On some trips, teaching yoga to guides or residents is part of the service. "When I took a seva trip to Rwanda in 2009 through the organization Metta Journeys, one big highlight was sharing asana practice with our guides," says Connie Beaudoin Karlson, the owner of Parasutra Yoga Shala in Palm Beach, Florida. "We all moved and sweated and laughed together, united in a beautiful experience."
Whatever the scope of the trip, participants regularly report that say the experience was more than they had ever imagined it could be. "You show up in service," says Andrea Curry, who teaches Forrest Yoga in New York City and also went on OTM's 2008 Cambodia trip, "and you get so much back in return."
If you're interested in participating in a seva trip, there are numerous options. But before you book it, here are some things to consider:
Because seva trips can involve working with people in compromised states, you need to be emotionally stable and grounded before you go. For example, f you've endured a divorce or the death of a loved one recently, or any other traumatic event, you may want to consider waiting. "You have to be able to remain neutral," says Seane Corn. "If you've been traumatized yourself and aren't dealing with it, your stuff is going to come up."
Make sure the service organization for which you're volunteering is legitimate, reliable, and reputable. Talk to its leaders and former trip participants and conduct web research on the place you'll be doing your hands-on volunteering. "You want your work to have a positive, lasting impact," says Victor Oppenheimer, a Boston-based Iyengar instructor and the co-founder of Karma Yoga Journeys, who has led yogis to work with orphans in Machu Picchu, Peru.
Make sure you know what you need and what to expect ahead of time. For example, what are the travel, lodging, and insurance arrangements? What do you need to pack? What vaccinations or visas are required? If someone has an accident, what kind of medical treatment is available? What's the daily routine—and the contingency plan if it falls through? "Participants should ask these questions, and organizers should start answering them at least 18 months before an international trip and 6 months before a domestic one," says Sally Brown Bassett, a vinyasa teacher in Indianapolis and director of the seva travel organization Peace Through Yoga.
To make the most of your volunteer experience, approach it with the same mindfulness that you practice during yoga. Let go of the storyline, open your eyes, and stay present. "When I went to Uganda in 2009 with OTM, I barely called home or emailed anyone," says Cyndi Weis, the owner of Breathe Yoga in Pittsford, New York. "And because I let myself just drop into the simplicity and rawness of what was happening, my experience will stay with me forever."
A seva trip can make you more proactive, progressive, and devoted in your practice—and in every aspect of your life. Be prepared for things to shift upon your return. That's what happened to Policastro when she came back from Cambodia. "I've stopped drinking alcohol, eating meat and watching TV," she says. "I'm aligned with my most authentic self, and have let the parts that were no longer serving me fall away."
For more information on seva trips, check out these organizations: