Off the Mat, Into the World, was founded on the idea that a natural extension of having a practice that brings us personal healing is a desire to contribute to the healing of others.
(In fact, we begin to realize that our healing is inextricably connected to the wellbeing of everyone, and that we cannot be truly free unless everyone is.) Many of us who have had the luxury to practice yoga or meditation, and spend time attending to our physical and mental health, feel called to offer something to people who have been less fortunate. Many of us step off our yoga mat idealistic, naive and with some idea that we can walk into an environment and help to transform it like a made-for-tv movie.
Some people feel called to work in marginalized communities because they can identify with feeling oppressed, unseen and disregarded. Others want to work in these communities because they feel guilty for the privileges they had. For the majority of people, our motivations are complex and nuanced- a combination of our privilege, trauma and desire to help make the world a better place for everyone.
Being “of service” is an idea I was introduced to in church as a child. In the church, it meant helping someone less fortunate than you; we’d do food drives, clothing collection, and fundraising for the “poor.” But we were never encouraged to ask why people were so poor that they needed these things. We were never encouraged to push back against the status quo, which left so many on the margins without their basic needs met. We were simply encouraged to feel good about ourselves for dropping a dollar into a bucket.
Yogis doing service is not new. Karma yoga is a term most yogis are familiar with. My experience with karma yoga as it was taught to me in my yoga trainings was similar to the church version: help the less fortunate. Again, no call to think critically, to see behind the symptoms of poverty and pain.
Band aids are useful, but healing requires a deeper investigation into the state of the world.
When I first ventured into teaching yoga outside of the typical yoga studio setting, I had no clue what I was walking into. I knew yoga could help people feel better, and I knew there was a lot of suffering out there. When I went into a correctional facility and taught to a group of girls, ages 12 to 17, my desire was to offer them something that might empower them to feel more in control—of their body, breath, emotions and life. They loved the classes, and it made their time inside easier, and for some, impacted their lives on the outside as well.
Giving these girls tools to deal with their circumstances is important; but to not ask why they are in this situation misses the bigger picture.
For me, I don’t think I was ready to ask the difficult questions for a while. I was overwhelmed enough by witnessing the suffering of others, investigating the root of the suffering was too much at the time. Eventually, it was inevitable that I start asking the more difficult questions, not just, “How can I help people who are suffering?” but “Why are people suffering? How am I complicit in their suffering?” I’ll admit, I went into a deep sense of overwhelm and paralysis at first. All around me I saw signs of oppression and inequality. I felt angry, hostile and incredibly guilty.
I couldn’t even have a simple conversation at a party without saying things like “Did you know that America incarcerates more children than all other countries combined?”
This is reminiscent of the time when I learned about the importance of being conscious of where our food comes from and how it’s produced. I’d sit at dinner parties and cry, feeling alone and isolated as my friends enjoyed non-organic food and meat. I felt separate and I judged everyone. Eventually, I found a way to be passionate about eating consciously while having compassion for those who don’t understand the importance of it yet.
With opening my eyes to the huge issues of injustice and oppression that operate both globally and within the US, I’m hoping to find a similar balance with being in the world amongst people actively working to find solutions and those unaware that there’s a problem, without creating separation and judgment, and hence isolation for myself.
This makes me think of a phrase in the book Trauma Stewardship where the author shares, “ I had to find a way to bear witness to trauma without surrendering my ability to live fully.”
When we come to understand the deep issues of social justice that plague our community, it is a trauma that we are opening our eyes to; a trauma that affects all of us whether we are benefitting or being harmed by the system.
Every day I ask myself how I can be a steward of this trauma while still being fully alive….
If you are asking yourself similar questions or want to investigate some of these topics around social justice and being a yogi, please click here.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Thomas R. Wood