September 9, 2011

The Sexiness of Seva.

I Am Africa Campaign

Yogis love to do good. We’re seeing it everywhere; service — selfless or not — is all the buzz. We’ve got Yoga Gives BackOff the Mat Into the WorldYogaAid. No doubt about it. This majority white, affluent, college-educated population is aware of its privilege and apparently wants to give back.

So what? There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’m white and a self-confessed yoga do-gooder (whatever that means). But maybe that’s the question we need to be asking… what does it really mean to “do good”?

There’s an unspoken assumption among yogis that everyone in the world will benefit from yoga and that our money can fix an economically broken continent. Seva increasingly seems synonymous with fundraising, divorced from the actual human beings it’s supposed to be serving. Many of us stay in our comfort zone and send money to the organizations we believe will do the job well. We let them take care of the dirty work. They’re the experts, right?

Sending money alone is not service.

Sure, people need food, shelter, and medical care. But divorced of human relationship, those items have little long lasting impact. We need something more to thrive. Human connection is vital to our survival. In college, I remember reading about orphan babies in Russia who, deprived of human touch, wasted away and died in their cribs. Sometimes, service is as simple as a gentle squeeze of the hand; others it’s teaching someone to meet their own needs for themselves.

And yet, we “serve” from arm’s length.

 photo credit: Ferran

Are we afraid to gaze at our own reflection in the eyes of the meth addict desperate to find a fix for his broken heart? Are we afraid that the hungry little girl might grab our hand and not let go — that her needs might consume us, that we’ll lose our ability to say no? Are we afraid to walk into a place as the only white person, afraid of seeing how the legacy of slavery and racial segregation shows up in our jails and juvenile centers?

Fear. What is it we fear?

As a yoga community, we’ve gotten quite adept at creating elaborate and successful fundraisers, big events with lots of wealthy white people “doing yoga for a good cause.” I’ll be the first to admit I enjoy the energy and camaraderie inspired at those large gatherings of community. And I place tremendous value in their role in supporting organizations that work with people in areas of the world we can’t easily reach.

But I’ve started to feel uneasy at these so called “seva” events. I was asked recently to help fundraise for two organizations I wholeheartedly believe in through YogaAid, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.  Perhaps it’s my own selfishness, but I want to see the person I’m serving. I want to touch their hand, tell them I care.

YogaAid Event at Wanderlust, via Patience Steltzer

As I inhaled into up dog at one of these events recently, I gazed out upon a sea of mostly white women smiling at the cameramen passing by. Unsettled, I realized I was surrounded by yoginis who looked like me, women who could afford to donate $50, $100, maybe even $1000 dollars to attend a yoga class. I was trapped inside an eerie yoga bubble.

Where were the homeless, the mentally ill, the single parent families?

Better yet, who were they? I couldn’t tell you. At that point, I’d never stepped foot in a homeless shelter or asked the single mother of six in Kenya what she truly needed help with. I wanted to connect with my community, but found myself surrounded by an amorphous group of yoga practitioners. Surely, this wasn’t it.

I know, I know, these events aren’t meant to be demographically representative of our communities. And hell, the single mom probably had better things to do with her time than 108 sun salutations early a Saturday morning. These “seva” events are fundraisers, opportunities for the “haves” to come together and give to the “have nots.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. Organizations do need our support to make the great work they do possible.

I wonder if we’re increasingly falling into a model of service that’s disconnected from human beings. It bothers me that when I went to a “karma yoga class” for a homeless shelter, I never actually get to stand in the presence of the people my dollars supposedly benefit. I want to see their faces, hear their stories, learn the lessons they had to teach me. Okay, Chelsea, so why don’t you? Well I am, and I think it’s about time we all start seeing individuals our society hides in the trenches.

 photo credit: Victor Bezrukov

I don’t fit in a model of service that requires I have inordinate amounts of time, money, and resources to do good.

I’ve said this before, but when I look back on my life — it was never the stuff that served me (and trust me, I’ve been served). It was presence. It was a gentle nod of acknowledgment. It was people simply being there, showing up.

What if service was that simple?

Show up. Make eye contact with the homeless woman asking you for spare change as you walk down the street; say thank you to the janitor sweeping the halls. Touch — yes, really touch — the filthy dog who begs you to help him scratch his itch. See your children. Teach them to love.

I think it’s worth asking why seva is becoming synonymous with fundraising, and more importantly why we’re so reluctant to rub shoulders with our modern day lepers. And I ask not with judgment, but with tears. It breaks my heart to see children roaming our streets looking for love in all the wrong places. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know there’s love here.

Maybe it comes down to fear. We’re afraid that if we give one hour, we’ll have to give four. We’re afraid to feel guilty, powerless to help. We’re afraid of standing in the presence of  those who remind us of our own pain. I get that. But, if you ask me, that fear deprives us of the chance to be served ourselves. Service is about human connection.

 photo credit: h.koppdelaney

Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m too critical. But this is my service — showing up as I am, a bright-eyed little visionary, questioning the ways of the world. My youngness gives me the perspective (and maybe gall) to ask the challenging, and yes, sometimes irreverent questions. So I invite you to serve me, teach me.

What stops you from walking into the trenches to connect with the people in your community? 

Why is it sexier to send money to children in Africa rather than help a local kid about to get picked up by pimps? 

Read more from Chelsea and other great contributors at YogaModern.com

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