Doing what I can because I must, on and off the mat: My experience so far volunteering for a year in Philippines.
“If you can, then you must,” urged a beautiful yoga teacher to our class on retreat in Bali a year ago. While he meant it about not taking advanced asanas (yoga poses) even when you know your body could take them, it got me thinking about what I must do in my life off the mat, because I can.
Apparently I could give up my cushy job in Melbourne, say goodbye to my family and friends, my new boyfriend, my cat, Melbourne food and weather and take on a volunteering post in a remote location of southern Luzon, Philippines.
Here, the default green of a landscape covered in rice terraces, coconut and banana trees and abaca plants are complemented by an unrelentingly hot blue sky. This green and blue is interrupted only by the striking orange, yellow and pink of Spanish colonial era style buildings or indigenous coconut-coloured nipa hut houses.
Picturing me on this backdrop in an orphanage feeding children or in a field ploughing harvests? Guess I should let it be known that my particular assignment has me sitting in an office helping a government organization with poverty alleviation policy. From where I sit and from all the places I visit for my research, I have seen that poverty here is real, it’s profound and in many cases, it’s likely inescapable.
This manifests in many ways: corners stores are literally on every corner for groceries accessible to those who wouldn’t get anywhere if not for walking. In these corner stores everything is available in single use plastic sachets for people whose weekly salaries can’t afford more than P5 (10c) for items like shampoo, cooking oil, soap and even water.
For some people, livelihood is found in selling delicious snacks like fried bananas everyday for P5 a piece. When there is a typhoon or other extreme weather event, I see everybody eating rice with tinned meat on the side because people haven’t any money saved for the surprise price hike of vegetables.
I’ve found that thriftiness in an art here. Whenever I tell my colleagues I bought something or other in my travels, they scold me, telling me all I could have done or where I could have gone to buy it cheaper. So too is resourcefulness. You wouldn’t believe what Filipinos can make out of absolutely anything, especially empty plastic bottles. Upcyling isn’t just a hipster way of being sustainable: it’s an essential to get by.
Back home, when faced with problems like none of the hundred or so avocados at the greengrocer was ripe enough to buy, it was easy to live my yoga practice off the mat. I could draw upon non-attachment when they cut down our meeting snack budget at my old work or mindfulness of breath when a flight to a Sydney girl’s weekend got delayed.
Here, when I am alone in my little apartment and my local friends need a break from listening to my terrible Tagalog (the Filipino national language) or from speaking English, I miss my daily studio class. There, the simplicity of breathing ujjayi together with a room full of people reminded me that I am never alone and that I have full control of all my reactions.
Sometimes I miss class and my teachers and experience other lonely, overwhelming and homesick moments. Sometimes I manage this by curling up into foetus, crying and wondering what the hell I am doing here. Other times, I wander aimlessly around my beautiful, green little town and take in the many “good morning/afternoon mam Karen” greetings sent my way.
Yoga isn’t part of Filipino culture like it is in other Asian cultures. But you can find so much of what western yogis spend years trying to cultivate without having to look very hard.
Filipinos always do tasks one at a time, slowly, and their consciousness is always on the task at hand. They don’t give up when life gets a little hard: they find a way to make it work and they keep going. Even if they fall, they smile, dust themselves off and try again, just like in asana.
They have compassion for and generosity to their fellow being, sharing everything from rice and bananas to the care of children in the neighbourhood. I tell myself off for my many first world problem moments when I notice how my local friends never complain about things that for us would be considered debilitating hardship. And maybe you know from any Filipinos you have in your life, there is child-like joy, curiosity and laughter in everything they do. It’s like everything is play they are doing for the first time.
I have learnt so much more from this experience so far than I have given them through my volunteer assignment. The best so far is that even in poverty, you can find gratitude in even the simplest moments and have wealth in love and happiness and family and nature. Sometimes in my curled up in fetus moments, I just have to remind myself that I live here now and so I too am insanely wealthy.
Karen Taranto is an atypical government policy writer who found yoga in a past-dancer-looking-for-something-dance-like-but-not-dancing way. She discovered a practice that gave her a deeper connection with her everyday life and relationships.
On retreat with Les Levanthal in Bali, one little sentence spoken off handed in class sent her on a quest to give more to the world because she could. She found herself volunteering in a remote location in southern Luzon, Philippines, with the closest thing to a class being her own practice on her apartment roof. You can reach her at [email protected]
Editor: Elysha Anderson