The Sexiness of Seva.

Via Chelsea Roff
on Sep 9, 2011
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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.

Creative Commons License 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.

hold them
Creative Commons License 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.

Creative Commons License 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


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


34 Responses to “The Sexiness of Seva.”

  1. Yes! Love this article. A sentiment so many of us feel who practice on our $50 mats. yogaHOPE ( is a great organization in Boston that reaches local communities in need of some reflective time to get comfortable in their own skin again. Just starting CompassionistaGIRL ( to reach girls of the tween age years – and asking the question as to who needs this program? Girls in the city, suburbs, both… we all need people to support us and help us see there are positive, healthy ways to deal with challenges. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. Chelsea says:

    Thanks, Nicole. I've heard of yogaHOPE before, but CompassionistaGIRL is new to me. Bookmarked for further reading!

    There are tons, tons of organizations out there forging ::ahem:: less-sexy models of seva, and I look to many of them for inspiration and guidance as we build our little baby, Studio to Streets, in DFW. Really appreciate your support and for pointing me toward what sounds like an incredible program!

  4. Chelsea says:

    Thank you so much, Tanya. 🙂

  5. While I like your message in general, I question your list of "the homeless, the mentally ill, the single parent families." I am neither homeless nor mentally ill, so I can't speak for those populations, but as a single parent, I find it disconcerting to be assumed to be afflicted. Single parenting in and of itself is actually _not_ an affliction, in the same way that married parenting is _not_ in and of itself an affliction. In fact, many would agree that as the rising majority of parents _are indeed single_, single parenthood is emerging as a new archetype of what is possible beyond the conservative, sometimes oppressive, 50%-likely-to-fail, materialism-driven industry of weddings and marriages in this age. For more of my take on single parents as the new power players, please visit and "like" it on facebook.
    Anna E. Pollock

  6. Nicole says:

    I have done volunteer work in an orphanage in Bolivia, spent a year as a full-time volunteer working with abused children and pregnant & parenting adolescents in LA – I have traveled throughout SE Asia – brought food and supplies to schools in Sri Lanka, Burma – I don't walk passed a homeless person without giving them something – be it money, a smile, always eye contact. But the truth is while these things matter – organizations really really really need money. Giving money and showing up at a yoga fundraiser IS service. It is profound service. it is life-changing service. It is selfless service when you give and never see the faces of the people your donation is serving. I think it is amazing that you are ready for front line service but trust that not everyone is going to be on the same page in life at the same time. I was there – I know how important it is – I know how important gesture is and contact. But so is surviving childbirth and clean drinking water and these things are being brought to people by yoga do-gooders who are raising money at these events. And I can completely understand an event at a shelter that did not involve any of the people living there – you are there to serve them. They are not there for you – they deserve dignity and privacy. And from experience I know, they appreciate everyone's donations and contributions – even if they came from a room full of privileged white women.

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Love your work.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  8. sacredsourceyoga says:

    Greetings! For anyone looking for hands-on yogic community service opportunities, see many, many listings of opportunities at (also ask for volunteers if your org could benefit from one) or simply ask at local sites that you believe do good work (shelters, schools, summertime free breakfasts for kids) or could use a path to peace (prisons, detention centers) if you can share some of your knowledge of yoga/meditation/whatever for free. Schedule it in and make it a daily or weekly thing, part of your sadhana as much as you commit to your mat, commit to your community. You don't have to be a registered or certified yoga teacher. Fundraising has its purpose too, and if you are not ready to step into direct service for whatever reason (hey, some folks really are quite short on time, but not so short on dimes) then cash money donations have a meaningful role too. It may not appear that way at big yoga events, but many people (privileged, white or not) ARE stepping up and stepping into places that they might not have gone without the purpose they feel from yoga. The shift is happening.

  9. Colin Wiseman says:

    Love it!

  10. Chelsea says:

    Thanks, Colin. Love you!

  11. Chelsea says:

    Wow, sacredsourceyoga. Looks like a tremendous resource for our community, thank you so much for sharing it. I ran across it several weeks ago, and I'm curious to hear more about who is running it and what the long-term goals are for the website. Are you directly involved?

    I certainly agree that fundraising has it's value, and I hope that came across clearly in the article. If you feel called to serve, serve… whatever that looks like. Every smile, every dollar, every connection (in person or not) makes a difference.

  12. Chelsea says:

    I'll tell ya what, Tanya. Doesn't feel like work to me! But I love it too, whatever it is. Thanks for all your great work (or not work) at EJ. I think all the writers here truly value your time and support.

  13. sacredsourceyoga says:

    Definitely read up on YogaActivist on it's website. The executive director and staff are my friends / fellow teachers at a DC based yoga studio that helps to fund yogaactivist. it was the brainchild of Yoga District founder Jasmine, and is all about teamwork and connecting the various activist/seva efforts, creating a database that connects those who want to serve with opportunities and vice versa. Pretty simple concept that is making great things happen!

  14. Chelsea says:

    Thanks! Will do. Love the concept, and looking forward to seeing it grow as the opportunities continue to increase as well.

  15. agurvey says:

    Very insightful article, Chelsea. And, as usual, you ask the difficult questions in such a compassionate way. I appreciate how you point out the truth of the situation without attaching judgment. It gives one the ability to palate what is being offered and truly think about what Seva means in the modern world. You are a fantastic writer.

  16. ARCreated says:

    I love what nicole said as well. I myself don't have the "money" but i do have the desire to serve. So I serve in the way that works for me, if people with cash flow serve by donating YEAH them — their money helps pay for others to go into the "trenches" …. as long as people serve in their way it's all good.

    I can teach yoga and if teaching yoga is a gift I can give that incites people to action to donate then I am using my gifts to serve. I will not be traveling to a foreign land to help, I'm here finishing raising my youngest son and watching my grandson grow. I volunteer with animal rescue. I used to volunteer in shelters and I discovered that was not where I best served.

    I once did some fundraising for a teen mother shelter – I had helped out at the shelter and was moved by their mission and discovered what they needed was funds – I stopped going down to help in person when I found I could help them more with fundraising… One woman who worked at the shelter said it best in my opinion – If everyone gave in one way or another we would all be better off – those with money donate, those with skills to raise money fund raise, and those with time to spare act…in the end it all helps us out.

    Much Love and I am sure doing good is never bad 🙂

  17. Sara says:

    Very well said. Bravo, madam. I think I needed to hear this stuff today.

  18. Julia says:

    Hey Chelsea. I really love your perspective here. You make many excellent points about human connection. Our yoga teaches us to look within, to see that inner perfection that we may not recognize — then to recognize that in others… ALL others. I hope that your writing circulates enough and will serve as a call to action, not just to serve through volunteering, but to make deep eye contact with your fellow humans who may not look like you or talk like you… but to recognize the humans in all beings. As yoga teachers maybe our "karma yoga" could not just be to benefit a homeless shelter, but to be held in a homeless shelter. Funny thing about volunteering in this way is you always think you're going in to "do someone a favor" then they wind up "doing you the favor" when you see that deep similarities in ALL people. Let's be realistic too that at any point in our lives we could become homeless, disabled or face prejudice for some reason or another. I know if I am in that situation I would appreciate someone looking deep into my eyes or reaching out with a helping hand. Yoga IS union! Thank you for sharing in this way!

  19. Julia... again says:

    oops! Meant "humanness" above 😉

  20. Pieceful Mama says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom and truth. We are here to "teach them to love" and the be fully present. Our presence goes beyond sending in an ink-laden piece of paper pledging our monetary service. To read the words that have been on my mind and heart for the last several years put so honestly, makes me smile.You words are of huge service to others. Keep spreading your message, and please keep sharing! Namaste.

  21. Chelsea says:

    Thank you, Sara. I'm so glad it resonated with you. Namaste.

  22. Chelsea says:

    Aaaah, big smile on my part as well. 🙂 Thank you Pieceful Mama. It's so reassuring to know these thoughts resonated with others as well. Deepest gratitude.

  23. Rebecca says:

    I get your point, and I agree. Too often we sit in ivory towers, showering the "problem" with money, hoping it will miraculously resolve. That's usually not the way it works. However, if you are not one of those middle/upper class white women who can afford $100 for a yoga class, sometimes all you can do is text $5 to the Red Cross when they ask. Throwing massive amounts of money at the problem is a luxury of the wealthy. Ironically, devoting time and energy on more than an occasional basis is also a luxury. When an individual is working two jobs to make ends meet and the only yoga they see is thirty minutes at home around 1am, its a relief to be able to fund (to the extent resources exist) organizations and people that have the time to do the hard work. I'm not saying that same individual won't hit up a soup kitchen once in awhile or volunteer at the womens' shelter, but sometimes that five bucks is really all a person can give.

  24. Randy says:


  25. […] Yoga Aid Global Challenge is going to raise one million dollars for yoga […]

  26. robbryan says:

    " I want to see their faces, hear their stories, learn the lessons they had to teach me."

    At 7 billion people, you can't see " individuals our society hides in the trenches." That is a very long trench.

    If you really want serve a greater cause, serve the Kenya mother's great, great grandchildren.

  27. James says:

    You don’t sound naive to me. I’d say you sound diplomatic.

  28. sarah says:

    i think it starts with the practice. look at your goals: whether you seek impact, success and recognition, to feel better about feeling sorry for someone else, or to truly share the practice.

    if yoga is all about me and my suffering (definitely part of the path), then the practice can help me see the me in every living being instead of a suffering other. i started teaching free yoga at a woman’s program in a medical center in an underserved neighborhood. not the typical bodies one sees walk in to yoga studios. i learned so much and was so humbled by their grace. i passed a woman’s shelter on my way to a yoga class and instead walked into the shelter with my mat. hey, would you all like to be doing a little yoga? they are who they are. they said yes. this went on every week for nearly 2 years. now i also teach chair yoga twice a week at a little yoga studio in my neighborhood in brooklyn, ny.

    my students are my deepest teachers. i am not fixing anybody or trying to do good. i am offering who i am and teaching that awareness is a path in each of us. it leads us all to the self we share.

  29. […] I often wonder what happened to Carlos, what his life is like, if he is safe. Was there more I could have done for a child in the middle of Cairo whose future was so precarious? […]

  30. […] were to do our work and carry out our other relationships in accordance with seva, the world would change profoundly. Seva is not about taking a few hours out of our busy week to help others, it’s not something to […]