June 25, 2013

To Serve, with Love. ~ Laura Berland

I remember watching Sidney Poitier struggle to find his way as an inner city school teacher in the 1967 film, To Sir, With Love.

And if you are of that time, I’m sure you still remember the hit theme song of the same name, belted out by the fabulous Lulu (the singer, not the store!).

I was at a beloved summer camp, long extinct, and it was movie night in the Rec Hall. Our simple white bunks smelled of unfinished pine inside, and a soaring ceiling seemed to protect all who took meals beneath it in the vast Mess Hall. The physical layout was strikingly similar to the bucolic campus of the thriving Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, where 135+ yoga teachers, social workers, school teachers, therapists, scientists, and other health professionals recently gathered for the second annual Yoga Service Council Conference.

Unlike Poitier’s character Mr. Thackeray, who reluctantly taught underprivileged students while waiting for an engineering job to come along, the conference’s attendees are doing whatever they can, scraping and sacrificing, to immerse themselves in service.

Their unwavering passion to serve was palpable throughout the weekend, in every conversation, at every session, and at every booth.

And the work of the 30 plus organizations on hand seemed miraculous given their resources, or lack thereof.

In her inspiring opening keynote, renowned yoga teacher and co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation Beryl Bender Birch marveled at the power of the tribe that had assembled from near and far. “You are all working in difficult situations. So why are we here? Why did you come? To be inspired, more educated, to connect. To connect with spirit, with our true self, and to celebrate our connection with each other.”

Beryl offered advice on how to serve in the world when the world is not so supportive.Traditionally you could go off to a monastery and change yourself. Or become an activist, protest, and try to change the world. The two approaches were even disdainful of each other. Now, she points out, “these paths are convergent. Abhyasa (practice) and activism. An awakening to spiritual revolution.“ And she challenged everyone to “think of yourself as a spiritual revolutionary!”

“It’s not a mistake that yoga brought us all together. Its an experience of oneness that we might glimpse through our practice. Through practice, we grow a circle of compassion. If one of us is hungry, then all of us are hungry.”

So, for each of us, its our responsibility to practice, not just for ourselves, but for all of being kind.

Beryl reminded that group that through practice, we learn to pay attention. Its how we become present and more clear seeing. All the unimportant stuff drops away and we come to see what matters. And in perfect harmony with the full hall of joyful people who dedicate their life to service, Beryl intoned, “what makes us happy is service. “

Beryl Bender Birch and Nikki Myers

Before the coffee flowed the next morning at breakfast, Nikki Myers led the packed room of yogis through a wonderful wake up class, incorporating the unique language and sequencing of her Yoga for 12-Step Recovery program. Nikki is pure inspiration, motivation, and joy!

And then came sessions, too many to mention, but all excellent. The organizers covered the bases – launching a non-profit, keeping it funded and sustainable, diversity, how-to teach special populations, and how to take care of thyself!

The science was first rate, with the latest findings on compassion from Stamford’s Kelly McGonigal, PhD and The Trauma Center’s Founder and Medical Director Bessel van der Kolk, MD taking us deeper into the neurobiology of PTSD.

At Saturday night’s networking event, I had the chance to meet each service organization and the courageous founders there to share and learn. Each one started with their seed of an idea, their calling, and their vision. In just a few short years, many are in full bloom like the Africa Yoga Project, Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga Activist, Holistic Life Foundation, Street Yoga, and Yoga G.

Those just starting out and looking for guidance are well supported by many who have been down this difficult road. For example, Niroga Institute’s BK Bose openly shared his wealth of operational experience, with pie charts and data points feeding the information hungry crowd.

Yoga Service Conference organizer Jennifer Cohen Harper was “gratified and excited” to see the community come together to “find resources, information and support to make their work more intentional, sustainable and ultimately more effective.”

Karen Doyle Grossman is leading the charge at Kripalu, developing a range of innovative programs to work more closely with smaller service organizations. I was talking to DHARA founder Jenna Ritter about funding her curriculum designed for populations with mental illnesses when Wayne Nato, one of Kripalu’s development coordinators came within earshot. How can we support you, he asked…

The importance of planting seeds, without knowledge or attachment to the outcome, was shared by mindfulness meditation master Sharon Salzberg. Years ago a fellow meditation teacher asked her for help publishing a book. Although happy to assist, she thought his methods were so traditional that the book be somewhat of a yawn. In fact, it didn’t enjoy much commercial success. Yet years later she learned it was the very guide used by the Nobel Prize winning Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while she was under house arrest. Separated from her husband and children, Aung San knew she wanted to learn how to meditate, and this was the only book of instructions she could use to build her practice. Om om!

Rob Schware, Yoga Service Council President, Executive Director and co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and unofficial godfather of the movement, closed with a story that brought it all full circle. Eighteen years ago, to the month, at Omega, he took his first yoga class with Beryl. And so began his journey that is now inspiring and supporting so many in the yoga service community.

The struggles are epic, and relentless, and sometimes overwhelming to those who are trying to simply bring a little yoga out into the world where it is so desperately needed.

But despite the hardships, this is a tribe of joyful souls who feel blessed to serve! At the end of the movie, Mr. Thackeray decides to continue teaching at the troubled school despite all the challenges. For the happy spiritual revolutionaries already immersed in service, rooted firmly on their path, there are no decisions to make. Just more practice, more action, more compassion for self and for all beings.

To serve, with love.


For a guide of yoga service organizations.

To read the inaugural issue of the Journal of Yoga Service.

For teacher resources.



Laura Berland is a certified yoga instructor in Bridgehampton and New York City, and an advocate for yoga service.
She is also passionate about science, technology, and digital media to help create a more sustainable, peaceful planet, and serves as the CMO for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio. You can follow Laura on Twitter @lauraberland



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Ed: Kate Bartolotta


Reply to Jennifer C Harper cancel

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Jennifer C Harper Jun 26, 2013 8:51am

Hi Sara. Thank you for your comment about diversity. This is Jenn Cohen Harper, the conference organizer. We spent a tremendous amount of time as a board this year thinking and talking about issues of diversity, inclusion, representation, and what all of those things mean in the context of our work. In specifically addressing the topic, we chose to offer a round table discussion on Sat. and a panel on Sun. In addition, the exposure of individual participants to this topic was largely determined by which breakout sessions they chose to attend.

Our mindset has always been to balance conversation about representation and inclusion with actual action, so rather then just have more conversations about diversity, we sought to actually be diverse in our offerings. Of course, diversity means different things to different people, and there are literally dozens (maybe more) of communities that we strive to include. For example, this year we received a lot of appreciation for including elder care in the conversation. For some, this was an important expansion in our mindset about diversity, while others were disappointed that a specific demographic they were interested in wasn't addressed directly. (To see the schedule of the conference visit http://yogaservicecouncil.org/2013-conference-sch

I think it's so important that we continue to work towards representation and inclusion, but also remember that there is a danger in getting so consumed with talking about diversity that we fragment ourselves and lose sight of the fact that there is only one yoga, and we are all working together to teach, share and practice in a way that is supportive of every single individual. We are all "diverse" and have both individual and collective needs. The YSC as a community is dedicated to this ongoing conversation, and exploring what it means to both teach within your own community, and to teach with cultural awareness, compassion, openness and sensitivity when you are working outside of your own community. AND we are dedicated to the fundamental principle that ultimately, we are just one community, and having compassionate awareness, good listening skills, humility and the capacity to be responsive to a wide variety of individual needs is essential as a yoga teacher (and a human being).

We appreciate your thoughts Sara, and hope that you can make it to the conference next year and will continue to participate in exploring this important topic.

Laura Liss Jun 25, 2013 10:03pm

I loved this article Laura! So wish I could have been at Omega with you all but was on a family vacation. You've inspired me to explore how I can be of further service. Thanks for spreading the good word.

Sara Jun 25, 2013 9:50pm

I heard that the topic of diversity was given little attention at this year's conference and was only discussed at the very end. My hope is that the organizers reconsider the importance of this issue, especially as it relates to bringing yoga to underserved communities, and make it more front and center at next year's conference. I think that it's an important conversation that should be prioritized within the yoga service community. What are your thoughts on this, Laura?

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