Last year I bought a t-shirt for my two year old daughter that says, “When I grow up, I want to make a difference.”
I instantly connected with this message and knew that she would make the cutest billboard. Yes, the shirt was way too expensive and although she can’t read or even fully grasp the meaning, before I knew it, she was prancing out of the store, wearing this enormously powerful commitment across her tiny body.
This message, full of compassion, love and courage, has always been my guiding light. It conveys the way I wish to live my life, and the legacy I wish to leave for my children. It expresses the notion that we can all, no matter how small, contribute in some way to a better tomorrow. It encourages us to be thoughtful, giving and selfless. I believe this is where seva begins—in the corner of your heart that has a loving desire to make a difference in the world.
The Sanskit word seva means “selfless service,” an act offered without any expectation of reciprocity. Seva is more than altruistic action; it is also an ideology. It is the gift of giving, without needing to receive. It is loving kindness at its purest. It is finding joy in just the offering. Seva allows us to discover reward in the act of contributing to others.
I wish to believe that seva is the needle at the heart of my moral compass. Always following and having faith, that pure love, without condition or expectation, will point me in the right direction. When I glance back at my life, I can find the influence of seva, navigating my course.
I was raised in a Jewish family, where the notion of tikkun olam or “repairing the world” was seen as a shared responsibility. Stories told around the dinner table offered lessons that we can all heal and transform the world. We simply start by performing “mitzvahs” or acts of human kindness, without hope of payment or reward, just for the sake of doing. Like seva, the gift is in the giving.
Maybe it was the subtle pull of seva that encouraged me to veer off course from my fashion marketing career and led me to the social work profession. Perhaps it is in my hope to share the notion of seva that inspires me each day to teach physicians how to express sincerity and empathy with every patient they encounter. Seva may even have been behind that push to explore yoga teacher training, bringing clarity to the true gifts of yoga.
I wonder if seva is the quiet voice guiding the choices I make that later turn into teachable moments for my children. Holding the door for a stranger who has their hands full, helping a lost person find their way, or smiling and offering a small piece of yourself to a person in need, all done with only the hope that they pay it forward; this is how we accomplish seva.
Still, it is when we begin to teach seva, that we come full circle in truly appreciating its meaning: the gift is in the giving. I want to show my children the true spirit of faith and generosity. I hope they learn to never underestimate the impact of a single act of kindness. I want to teach my children that they can make a difference in the world; they just need to have the courage to try. In my quest to teach seva, I will continue to ask my son to put a quarter in the expired meter of a neighbor’s car, or show my daughter that we can lend a hand to strangers. With every toy donation, dollars shared with a homeless man or thoughtful gift to a friend, I hope my children will always see seva as the moral of the story.
The yoga studio is the most creative classroom to teach students about seva. The readings I share at the closing of each class connect the lessons we practice on the mat to the world happening in and around us. Simple ways to create loving kindness towards oneself and others are brought to students’ attention, at the precise moment when they feel at ease and at peace. Yoga instills in us a spiritual practice, even to those that arrived rebelling against anything other than the physical rewards. Yoga cannot help but teach us about the layers of ahimsa (love) and satya (truth). Yoga sheds a glowing light on sauca (purity) and santosa (contentment). Through yoga we embrace humility, grace, patience, practice, and aparigraha (letting go). Our postures, both in our practice and in our lives, open us to svadhyaya (self-awareness and forgiveness).
As a yoga teacher, I am given the wonderful responsibility of helping students recognize these gifts, without any expectation. This is when the reward comes from just the offering; the very definition of seva. As teachers of yoga we are incredibly lucky to be able to weave seva into our sequences. Our work is to help our students find balance in bakasana and in life. We start by giving them permission to act mindfully and truthfully—and to create their own happiness.
We encourage them to be honest to themselves and to others. We ask that they simply love from within. We then help our students find ways to pay it forward and to make a difference in the world. Teachers begin sharing these yoga pearls on the mat with the hope that they extend far beyond the studio. We are trained and granted the opportunity to share the gift that keeps on giving, seva, in every sense of the word.
Seva is a decision, a choice that expresses love and selflessness. If you choose to align your life philosophy with seva, then you begin to notice the significance of its force. I believe that seva has served as a mentor on my journey to become the best version of myself. As the course of my life changes, I hope that seva continues to serve as a true north, helping me to follow the path that is most in line with how I wish to live. I trust that belief in seva will keep me anchored to a commitment to enact change in the world.
There is a beautiful energy that surrounds those that provide selfless actions. I assume it’s because they are shining from the joy of making the world a better place. Rolf Gates defines love as, “non-harming, honesty, non-stealing, moderation, non-hoarding, purity, contentment, zeal, self-awareness, and surrender.” It is no wonder then that at the very heart of seva we find love. And love, in and of itself, makes all the difference.
As for my adorable little public service announcement, you know what they say, if the shirt fits….
Author: Amanda J. Zavodnick
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Author’s Own