Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Off the Mat Vs. the Old New Left: Subverting the Dominant Paradigm, With Love

A few evenings ago, idly wasting time on Facebook, I stumbled across a post on Elephant Journal with the provocative title, “SEANE CORN, FOUNDER OF OFF THE MAT, CHARGED WITH BEING WHITEY YUPPIE DILETTANTE BY ARMCHAIR ANTI-RACIST.” Say what? As a fan of Seane’s, as well as an ex-political science professor who used to write about issues of race, class, and equality, this sounded pretty interesting.

The EJ post linked to a lengthy piece at Tikkun (read the original here) that strongly criticized the yoga service organization, Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM) as the latest incarnation of a "paternalistic, feel-good philanthropy that is rooted in 19th century Christian missionary work." Well, ouch. Them’s fighting words, even for peace-loving yogis!

True, the post’s author, Be Scofield, rather condescendingly conceded that OTM is “well-intentioned.” He insisted, however, that its work nonetheless generates “problematic issues of paternalism, ‘feel-good’ service, white U.S.-centric privilege and racism.”

Christian missionary in Africa: Courtesy of www.rethinkafrica.org
Who IS this guy?!, I wondered. I clicked over to his website and was impressed to find an interesting, diverse, and engaging arrays of links to articles, videos, podcasts, and other resources dealing with important issues of social justice, spiritual activism, and environmentalism. Regardless of his hostility to OTM, Mr. Scofield has some impressive bona fides, which made me want to take the time to read his very long post (not to mention the 62 comments (!) on it).

Soon after posting a link to the EJ article on my Facebook Page (which focuses on yoga-related news and information), I found out that Elephant had taken it down. I have no idea why (note: now I do - see comment from EJ, below), but it made me wonder if Be’s piece was judged as too negative to share; something that would hurt the good work OTM is doing. Personally, I don’t think this is the case – provided that it’s read critically, rather than simply defensively.

True, Be’s article is irritatingly (some might chose a stronger adjective) framed as unsolicited tutelage to OTM: I’m-going-to-explain-to-you-clueless-white-liberal-ladies-why-you’re-really-unconsciously-perpetuating-racism-and-cultural-imperialism. Well, gee, thanks a lot (not). Nonetheless, I think that we yoga types can take a deep breath, get past that, and benefit from thinking a little more into how the issues he raised square with the model of service and activism being developed by OTM and others in the yoga community.

 It’s a conversation worth having. And even if it means taking some unwarranted knocks, it’s exciting to see yoga-centered activism attracting attention outside of the yoga community. Besides, I think that old school Leftists (such as Be) actually have a lot to learn from the yoginis of OTM, who have broken out of some of the ossified paradigms that have rendered left-of-center politics unattractive, irrelevant, or unworkable for many people for many years now. Ideally, dialoging with such critics can help grow the spiritual activism movement both within the yoga community, and beyond.

The Specter of Self-Serving White Do-Goodism

The Tikkun article raises important and uncomfortable points about race, class, and privilege intersect in what’s sometimes called “volunteer tourism,” in which the lives, cultures, and even suffering of others may (but don't necessarily) function as little more than a convenient means of generating a sense of adventure, self-affirmation, and personal growth for road-tripping do-gooders.

“Corn is a white, upper class woman from the U.S. who leads women, almost all of whom are white, to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service projects that are advertised as opportunities for self-discovery,” Be notes. He goes on to skewer OTM as little more than self-serving yuppie dilettantism:
Connecting activism with tourism, travel, adventure, reward and leisure is central to their project. During the Cambodia trip participants could visit the Royal Palace, National Museums, or travel in a boat along the Mekong River (and then return to their “5-star premier hotel” in Phnom Phen.) The program description captures this sense of adventure, ‘After the leadership training you have an opportunity to add one of the wonders of the world onto your journey: a trip to the historic Angkor Wat, where beautiful temples and sunrises await’ . . . Most troubling is that these emerging leaders are being taught that they can ‘expand their self-confidence and capabilities by exposing them to unique physical and spiritual challenges’ by traveling thousands of miles to ‘exotic’ foreign locations.
Framed in this way, it does sound pretty awful. And regardless of whether it’s in fact a valid critique of OTM (and I believe that it’s not), it’s important to recognize that it’s not simply mean-spirited and crazy to raise these issues. There is a long, unhappy, and all-too-often deeply shameful history of white people traveling to foreign lands in the name of “doing good,” while in reality doing nothing more than serving their own self-interest.

Yoga practitioners interested in spiritual activism definitely need to understand the historical and contemporary dynamics that fuel the concerns Be raised. Regardless of how well OTM addresses them, it’s simply true that photos such as these are going to raise issues of race, gender, class, and privilege for many people, particularly but by no means exclusively people of color:

Where one person might see an inspiring and beautiful photo, another will see yet another white woman affirming herself at the expense of the full autonomy, equality, recognition, and respect of people of color.

This doesn’t mean that such photos shouldn’t be taken and shared, or that the work shouldn’t be done. It’s simply acknowledging that this is the history we’ve inherited, the world that we’re born into.

Regardless of how good or aware OTM and similar organizations may be, some people are going to question the motives of white American women working with Black African children. That’s OK; that’s understandable. More than that: To protect against continued abuses, whether intentional or unconscious, it’s important.

I believe, however, that OTM recognizes these issues and deals with them. I think, however, that Be doesn’t recognize this because they're doing so in a very different way than he thinks is legitimate.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Be’s post raises crucial concerns about race, class, and the legacy of colonialism. Conceptually, however, it’s framed in terms of standard Leftist assumptions that I find neither practical nor compelling.

Be’s writing reflects two crucial assumptions:
1. All forms of oppression – whether based on race, class, gender, sexual preference, or whatever – are rooted in a monolithic “system” that needs to be attacked and, ideally, destroyed. Meaningful social change is impossible without cutting the systemic roots of oppression.
2. Because the world is divided between oppressor and oppressed, individuals in the former camp face enormous challenges if they want to help those in the latter – structurally, they are simply in the wrong position to do so.

    “Taking the best of what is taught on the yoga mat off into the world,” Be writes, “isn’t enough to create just and sustainable communities for social change.”
    Nor is meditation or a personal spiritual practice. Why not? Because yoga or meditation do not teach about how power functions to maintain oppressive systems such as racism, cultural imperialism, and patriarchy . . . Knowing how these systems operate is important for the emerging spiritual activism movement to understand.
    Well, yes, sort of, but . . . unfortunately, it’s just not that easy. There are many, many ways in which human beings create and maintain social arrangements that hurt, exploit, and oppress each other. Of course, it’s important to educate ourselves about the ones that we’re enmeshed in as best we can.
    But there is no simple, singular way of understanding “how these systems operate” – the world is much too complex. They don’t all tie neatly into one, monolithic “system” of oppression. To reference John Lennon again (after all, it was just his 70th birthday) that dream is over. The Leftist belief that positive social change will be automatically unleashed simply by smashing “the System” has been tried and it’s failed repeatedly, often with disastrous results. There is no magic bullet.

    Self-Identifying as “Racist”

    Be is absolutely right in insisting that those of us fortunate enough to be born into relative wealth and freedom should work to be aware of our social position. He’s also right that most whites unconsciously harbor problematic racial attitudes that need to be identified and critiqued.

    But his way of addressing this seems to be to insist that white activists continually lambaste themselves as “racists” – a self-flagellating move that I don’t find at all helpful. “I made it clear that as a white, middle, class male, I am no less racist than Seane Corn,” he wrote, as if this were some sort of badge of honor.

    Why, one might wonder, should people working actively to heal racial divisions and promote social justice self-identity as “racist”? Be explains that:
    individual instances of oppression — whether they are racist, sexist or homophobic statements, acts, or thoughts — are to be expected even amongst the most passionate advocates for social justice. Why? Again because in the U.S., we live in a racist, sexist, classist and homophobic culture . . . Thus anything that I do as a white middle class male, including activism, is tainted by the dominant narratives, privileges and beliefs that have shaped American and Western cultures.
    Well, yes, we all experience negative thoughts – about others, about ourselves – that are connected to social position, pressures, and prejudices. But transforming that negativity with compassion is much more fruitful than violently attacking it via name-calling and self-flagellation.

    Besides, demanding that all whites interested in spiritual activism denounce themselves as “racists” is not going to help the cause. On the contrary, most will feel confused and scared, and want to stay far, far away.

    Connection and Compassion

    I believe that OTM offers a much more compelling and practical way of confronting the very real issues of race and class division that Be raised in his post. (Note: While I haven’t taken their training myself and don’t claim expertise on it, I say this based on what’s available in the comments to Be’s post, the links it provides, and talking to several friends about their OTM experience.)

    As Seane Corn explains, OTM’s “first step” is “to invite people to allow the inner work that yoga inspires to be translated into interacting with the world with greater awareness.” Once these internal resources are tapped, the “second step” of engaging participants in “a deep dialogue and education about charity vs. social justice, and some of the larger issues surrounding activism, power structures, non- profit work, and race” begins. Very much in line with Be’s core concerns, “a strong feminist, cultural diversity and power dynamics framework” informs OTM’s intensives and trainings.

    OTM’s approach, Seane explains, “is to make sure our participants have the inner tools first so that the complex and confronting conversation about some of these core issues do not become paralyzing.” Rather than guilt-tripping, this approach builds spiritual strength, creating the space in which difficult issues can be confronted and processed with compassion and integrity.

    In this paradigm, cultivating internal compassion and discernment lays the necessary foundation for effective service to others. As Seane explains on her blog reporting on OTM’s trip to Uganda on Oprah.com:
    For this experience to be sustainable and deeply meaningful, it is essential that we spend time every day connecting to our bodies, breath, each other and God. By invoking the sacred, we can be reminded of what our purpose here is, beyond the obvious, which is the service work we'll do in the field. Through grace, we can remember that we are all connected, all one, and are here dignify the human experience, as it is, with love. Not with judgment or pity, which only perpetuates separation, but with understanding and empathy, qualities that unite.
    I suspect that this approach may seem horribly touchy-feely to a good, old-fashioned, hard-headed Leftist. Or maybe I'm just projecting: I have to admit, there's a part of me that frequently feels impatient (if not worse) with the mainstream North American yoga community's culture of pretty, pastel, feel-good niceness. It can feel way too safe and superficial to take on the difficult realities of the world in any meaningful way.

    But I don't put Seane Corn in that camp. On the contrary. This cover-girl beauty isn't coaching us on using yoga for weight loss or to make our skin glow. Rather, she's teaching us about how we can find meaning and inspiration even in the most challenging circumstances, and modeling this by working with such heart-breaking populations as children living in Cambodian garbage dumps.

    Plus, all of my personal experience with left-of-center politics - as well as just living in general - makes me very much agree with Seane’s observation that the internal work that OTM teaches is crucial:
    Over the years, I have met many activists who have had this same need to change or fix intolerable circumstances, but also an unwillingness to look at their own issues, including what might be the motivating factors that are inspiring their interests . . . I've seen great and committed activists burn out as a result of their own need to fight. I've watched them blame, project, rage, insult, be arrogant, act superior, not listen or take responsibility. None of those behaviors create the necessary change, only more separation. 
    Partners and Projects

    Finally (I know, this post is getting to be too long!), I think that OTM’s emphasis on working on good projects with local partners is a refreshingly practical alternative to trying to smash “the System.” (Notably, OTM also supports service projects in locations other than the ones discussed here, including the U.S.) We may not be able to magically transform the world, but we can connect with others to create positive, meaningful change.

    As co-founder Suzanne Sterling explains, OTM is “very careful not to simply come into a culture with an arrogant assumption about what is needed to make a situation more stable and self sustaining”:
    we consciously work with organizations that are in deep, long term dialogue and interaction with the communities involved in the projects that we are supporting. We do not just come in for a few weeks of work and then leave chaos in our wake. We are funding long-term projects, buildings and training programs that are co-created with the local communities and we have continuing support programs for the projects that we initiate.
    “Last year,” Seane notes, “we raised $524,000 to benefit the Cambodian Children's Fund. This year, we raised $566,000 for Uganda. Next year, I'm hopeful we will raise even more when we head to Cape Town, South Africa, to support our partners there."

    Effectively spent, that’s not chump change. And coupled with meaningful, emphatic, international, multicultural, and interracial exchange, who knows what the ripple effects may be?

    Faith, Movement, and Grace

    It’s spiritual activism, and so beyond counting up the money and projects, I also have faith that grace may be at play. And not just with OTM. When we look honestly at the pain and brokenness in our selves and our world, working for healing and wholeness requires some leap of faith.

    Harnessed to spiritual activism, asana practice can be a tremendous resource in this regard: Again and again, we practice taking a deep breath, quieting our mental chatter, tapping our intuition, opening our hearts, and moving – sometimes to fall, sometimes to find the strength to get up and try again, and sometimes to experience Amazing Grace.


    1. And here I thought Yoga was just about deep breathing and toe touches.

    2. It's interesting: I remember hearing Corn doing an interview with Tami Simon from Sounds True and thinking that she sounded really sincere and not pretentious. I still think this, and am glad she's making an effort to bridge yoga and activism.

      I will say, though, that some of Scofield's criticisms, or ones cited by him from others, might be more valid than either of us would like to think.

      1. I looked over the list of partner organizations for this year's trip and last year's in Uganda. Only one out of the four listed in each case is a local organization. This isn't to say that international orgs can't do good work, but it does weaken the local partnership argument in my view. Probably more importantly would be to know how the international groups are seen by people in each country - if they are considered to be "importing answers" or actually are collaborating in a way that focuses on what the people there actually feel they need.

      2. I struggle to reconcile the tourist aspects of the Bearing Witness projects with the service work mentioned. Specifically, the structure of the process is that yogis raise money, and those who raise a lot of money then are given a reward of being able to go on this trip. And because it's a reward for raising 20 thousand + dollars, it's not just about doing service work, but it's also getting tours, staying in fancy hotels, even being able to do a safari (ah, the old colonialist classic. In addition, raising large sums of money is a fairly privileged act, wherein a person needs to have the time, and connections, to collect the targeted amount. It's true that some lower income people might be able to raise a lot of money for a cause, but not nearly as easily as an upper middle class or rich person with wealthy connections.

    3. continued ---

      I guess what bothers me is that placing the fiscal bar that high, and tying the opportunity to serve directly to reaching that bar, makes the probability of these programs being places where young yogis, poor yogis, or yogis from marginalized groups here in the U.S. pretty low.

      3. Two week projects, where the outside group enters, does some service work, and then leave are definitely an aspect of the problematic ways in with Global North, materially wealthy nations do "aid work" in Global South, materially poor nations. It does sound like there are some ongoing efforts flowering as a result of these trips, which is a plus in my book. But how much support does Corn's organization give to these ongoing efforts? It's hard for me to tell because the website focuses on mostly on the two week trips and money raised.

      With all that said, you make a few crucial points I want to acknowledge. The use of the term "racist" in this manner is something you find amongst a certain segment of anti-racist activists. It's coming from an understanding that we cannot step outside of the systems that we live in, and as such, it's likely that we have internalized racialized viewpoints and attitudes from which racist thoughts and behaviors can spring. I agree with that fully, but the problem I see with labeling all white folks as racist, for example, is that it's focusing solely on skin color and not on patterns of behavior. In addition, I think you're right that it creates unnecessary fear and anguish in people who might otherwise be allies. It's much more useful, in my opinion, to focus on specific thoughts, words, or actions someone does that are problematic than to label them racist and call it a day.

      Also, Corn's point about activist burnout, and self righteousness, is key. I've been that self righteous, burned out guy myself and have seen it in so many others. The internal work is essential.

      Which brings me back to one final point. It would be interesting to know how long the people that have gone on these Witness trips had been practicing yoga. Or perhaps more important than link is the sense of self reflection they have gone through in terms of their own positions in the world, as well as the positions in the world of the people they are going to work with.

    4. Thanks for this deeply thoughtful and highly informative article, Carol.

      This "smash the corrupt racist system" logic is so late sixties. The real action, the action that can create real change is, as you say, considerably richer and more complex and even more hopeful than that, and involves every segment of society.

      Bob W.

    5. Hi Nathan: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I can't respond to all the specifics about OTM, as I just don't know enough. I will say, however, that from what I understand, the fund-raising aspect of these projects is very much a way of developing the skills that participants will need if they are to continue to do service work at home. As someone who worked for many years in the non-profit sector, I can attest that fund-raising is an absolutely critical skill to cultivate. So OTM is not simply encouraging people to raise money for this one trip; it's building the skill set of people interested in ongoing service work.

      Re the tourism and hotels: Personally, I don't have a problem with people wanting to stay in a nice place and see some sights. They raised their own money, and what is to be gained from a Puritanical insistence in staying somewhere that may be unpleasant and ignoring the opportunity to experience some of the beauty of the place you're visiting? This is not about building a community of nuns or renunciates, after all; it's about engaging normal Americans in learning, growth, and service.

      Re involving others who can't raise the money: again, from what I understand the point of OTM trainings is to empower participants to find their own way of doing continued service at home, in their everyday lives. So these headliner international projects are really not all that's going on, or maybe even the centerpiece - I don't know precisely. I do know that OTM also works with a Seva project in LA, and that at least two of the founders have had a lot of involvement with disenfranchised and at-risk communities in the US.

      Finally, I think that while it's important to think into the hard issues that the Tikkun piece very powerfully raised, it's much more important to support the efforts of the North American yoga community to harness their practice to service, activism, and social engagement. OTM is a leader in this regard and I for one am very grateful to them for their work.

    6. Thank you very much for this thoughtful post Carol.

      As someone who has worked as a human rights advocate for a decade and who is deeply suspicious of either the benefits or impacts of much in the way of 'volunturism' I have been profoundly impressed by the intelligent, informed and quite radical approach Seane, Suzanne and Hala have taken to the OTM curriculum. I've been through the training with them twice and if anything it has considerably deepened my own critical awareness of the murky motivations for my activism and service work, and brought a searing honesty to what I do and why I do it.

      I remained, however, skeptical about the Seva challenge (which seems to be the project on which the criticism you refer to was focused). I am skeptical of any form of 'voluntourism' and, in fact, any approach to development which isn't rigorously founded in a socio-political analysis of poverty and the structures which create and maintain it.

      Over the past 18 months I've become deeply involved in OTM's other projects. My particular focus is on using OTM's curriculum to share the tools and practices of yoga with activists and people in service work to help make their work more sustainable.

      This year I decided to explore the Global Seva project, and I entered into it with many of the questions that Be seems to have raised (I'm basing this on reading your article since the original has been taken down). And I still cary some of those questions with me. And I think that's healthy.

      But I have seen, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the clarity and honesty and self-awareness that Seane and Suzanne bring to the trainings and I trust that they will that same self-awareness to this project and to the tour.

      Seane's teaching has already transformed my own work as a human rights advocate and as a human - largely through the insights you have highlighted in this post.

      I agree, wholeheartedly, in the need for ongoing critical questioning about what we are all doing. But I believe it's possible for it to be done in a way that invites conversation and I think you've achieved that with this post.

      Thank you.

    7. Hi Carol - Thank you for taking the time to read my article and respond. I tried posting my response here but the comments seem to be limited in length so I posted it on the Tikkun blog as a reply to your comment.


    8. Thanks so much, Marianne, for your comment. It's so valuable to hear from you; someone who has struggled with these issues so directly in her work over a long period of time.

      I have to admit feeling relieved that as someone who's working with OTM, you're OK with the way this post reports on and discusses these very sensitive topics. Because I think that they're important, writing about them is one way to possibly get more people engaged who can't or aren't interested in working with OTM directly.

    9. Be - Thanks for your thoughtful response. I have some thoughts and will write back over at Tikkun.

      Anyone who is reading this and interested in getting into the conversation further, please check about the link posted in Be Scofield's comment above, which connects to his original article. (I've also made the link to this piece more obvious in my post, as Marianne didn't realize that it is still up over at Tikkun - it was just the EJ post that was taken down.)

    10. "Re the tourism and hotels: Personally, I don't have a problem with people wanting to stay in a nice place and see some sights. They raised their own money, and what is to be gained from a Puritanical insistence in staying somewhere that may be unpleasant and ignoring the opportunity to experience some of the beauty of the place you're visiting? This is not about building a community of nuns or renunciates, after all; it's about engaging normal Americans in learning, growth, and service."

      So, who's really benefiting here? In my view, self-less service (seva) is about entering the conditions you are presented with and offering what you can, without any expectation of reward or personal gain. It shouldn't matter one bit whether someone raised a pile of money or not. Any sense that such giving should be tied to specific receiving is not self-less service.

      I have started and developed a non-profit organization, I have been the board chair of another, and an employee of several others - I know the value of fundraising, and appreciate the desire to hone those skills. However, the moment you start wanting a pat on the back for your efforts, you've stepped into ego land. It's hard not to want something in return for all your hard work, but this is the practice - to break through such wantings. And really, anyone who serves long enough sees gifts come into their lives. The challenge is to learn to let the gifts come on their own terms.

      I don't have any problem with, for example, people on service trips experiencing some of the beauty and history of the place they are working in. However, that's very different from offering 5 star accommodations and highlighting several tourist opportunities as central features of what is supposed to be a service trip. It muddies the purpose and intention of the work, in my view. And frankly, if you can't handle "unpleasant" conditions to some degree for a few weeks, you have no business being on a service trip.

      I'm actually, like Marianne, impressed with what I know of OTM's training program. And it seems like something that could be spread fairly easily without a lot of financial resources - which could benefit people in the groups I pointed out in my earlier response that might be left out of the Bearing Witness projects.

      I appreciate Marianne's continued questioning, even though she has participated in the entire set of programs. With anything international, given the many problematic legacies we in the U.S. have spawned, it's essential to maintain a critical mind on such engagement, while at the same time allowing yourself to experience the joys and blessings that come on the ground.

      Finally, it's disappointing that you would call questioning the perks of these trips as forwarding a "Puritanical" agenda, especially given your recent posts about the ways yoga practitioners online have been using sweeping language to dismiss each others' views. They could easily offer basic accommodations that are functional, but not flashy - and drop the focus on comfort that comes with staying at five star hotels and resorts.

    11. Nathan, I apologize for the "Puritanical" comment. It wasn't meant to be offensive.

      I see that you have deep reasons for your criticism of this aspect of the program. That's valid . . . I think that our difference on this comes from the fact that you are (I think?) putting this particular instance of service in the context of a committed spiritual practice, whereas I'm comparing it more to my experience in the entirely secular non-profit sector, where I saw a lot of egregious wasting of money in terms of badly designed and implemented programs - staying in a nice hotel in Africa seems not so remarkable in comparison - as well as a way of making the trip more accessible to mainstream Americans.

      Plus, giving how positive I feel about the larger OTM enterprise, I'm reluctant to pick at what seem like relatively minor details . . . not wanting to be an armchair critic.

      But I do see your point, and it makes sense. You set the bar high, and it's good to have people who insist on that. There's a balance with pragmatism that needs to be considered too, I think - but in order to find your balance, you have to be aware of both sides. Thanks.

    12. Hi Carol

      Thank you for posting this information- I read Seane Corn's posts from Uganda, the Tikkun article and all the reader comments. As someone who is fascinated by Ugandan culture and history I found Seane Corn's writings disturbing. She is applying all sorts of concepts about birth, education, and her own "all is one" religious sentiment that will have no influence or bearing in Uganda. She also neglects to mention the current government of Yoweri Museveni and the role it has played in creating trauma- ethnic stereotyping and prejudice, abuses and rapes committed by the army, etc

    13. Carol, Be's article and your post both raise great questions that need to be asked. I have heard the same concerns raised about groups that go to India.

      The only thing I know about OTM is the work Corn does -- I know nothing about her training for the program and have only done one workshop with her at a conference. But I have to say that I found her comments (like about the birth and her reaction to it) disturbing.

      One thing that I tell people about going to India is to try not to view things from their white western mindset because they will see things in India that will rock their world. to try not to think that our way is necessarily better than their way. and yes, I know that is hard because we are white westerners and we all are conditioned by our culture.

      I also agree with Nathan about the 5 star hotels. seva in the day time and going back to your 5 star hotel at night? hmmmm....seems kind of insular to me.

      has Corn responded to Be's article?

    14. Hi Carol,

      Much to think about in all this, although I have no particular reason to take any side on the specific project that is questioned here. But in the end, I'm just wondering why none of these criticisms are directed towards our northern systems of farm subsidies. Maybe we'll tackle this one day, but in the meantime, even 5-star hotels overseas can provide pretty good jobs to people who would otherwise have even less choices than they currently do, no? Or else why should these dollars be kept here exactly?

    15. Carol, as usual, a very thoughtful and sensitive piece. The Tikkun article was a bit startling (altho not altogether unsurprising), but the lively exchange in the comments was an interesting read.

      My thoughts are a bit off the point, but whenever I read about such ambitious, international efforts it always makes me a bit wistful. It's too bad it isn't sexier to stay home and reach out to our own needy communities. The US has plenty of opportunities to assuage third-world conditions, that don't require a 20 hr. plane ride.

      I'm not questioning anyone's desire to reach out, but I wish some of that energy stayed at home.

    16. Hi Linda: Yes, OTM has a lengthy response in the comments section to Be's article. There's so many comments now, it's buried somewhere in the middle.

      Brendan: Thanks for reading - I don't know anything about Uganda, so can't speak to the concerns that you raise.

      There are so many thorny issues being raised here. All important. I hope, however, that we can acknowledge the good work that OTM is doing as well as expressing whatever concerns we may have. Otherwise there is a danger that people will get scared away from yoga-centered activism altogether, which I think is the last thing we need.

    17. Whoops - these comments and responses are coming out in the proper sequence.

      Anyway: Re Brenda's comment - OTM does has a major initiative working with youth in the US as well, I think primarily in LA. Here's the link:

    18. From elephant's pov, as I shared with Be last night when he emailed me about this, our post was an in-depth, and hopefully light, peace-making post about how he had great points, but how we knew Seane and her work and where she's coming from is a real place. I did feel like Be's piece was rather full of judgement--which is fine, I grew up in the Buddhist tradition and it's all about prajna, discriminating wisdom, skillful means, discernment—but Be's fascinating questions were perhaps light on experience with OTM.

      Given the immediate and strong reaction to my post, however, I realized that my post would just have the effect of further roiling waves, rather than calming us all down and bringing us together in dialogue, so I pulled it. My concern is that OTM's good work continue.



    19. i think there are a lot of spiritual folks who seem to be afraid of making judgments, or seeing other spiritual folks make judgments. things get way too soft and nice amongst a lot of yogis, zen students, and the like - and then when someone does express a strong opinion, all this repressed emotion gets flung out at them, including a lot of judgment of that person. it's kind of sick if you ask me.

      be's post was too critical at times, and made some false generalizations no doubt. it could have been written with more compassion. but at the same time, it made a lot of good points, and frankly the fact that he displayed a backbone, and spoke his concerns clearly, is a refreshing change from the desperately trying not to offend conversations I often see and hear about challenging issues in spiritual communities.

    20. Hi Nathan - Yes, VERY insightful point, I think, about "repressed emotions" tending to vent in unhealthy ways. The problem, of course, is that this sets up a vicious cycle: Someone speaks strongly, a big wave of often negative emotion generates, and all of the more cautious, sane, and/or simply less strongly opinionated people decide that they better stay quiet! Because they don't want to get caught in that kind of scary feeling force.

      So, things shut down again, "niceness" is re-established - but sooner and later - comes, once again, the oh-so-classic return of the repressed!

    21. "i think there are a lot of spiritual folks who seem to be afraid of making judgments, or seeing other spiritual folks make judgments. things get way too soft and nice amongst a lot of yogis, zen students, and the like - and then when someone does express a strong opinion, all this repressed emotion gets flung out at them, including a lot of judgment of that person. it's kind of sick if you ask me."


      sometimes I wonder about organizations like OTM or Sarah Powers' Metta Journeys...mucho expensive trips for seva, so expensive that it seems like only rich people (at least rich to me) can do these trips.

      then I think about how easy it is to go by yourself and help. a woman in my area went to Haiti after the earthquake by herself because she was overwhelmed by what she saw and wanted to help. I will be helping a friend with her charity when I'm in India on my next trip.

      it's the flash that gets the press, but there are so many others who are doing this work quietly, every day, sometimes by themselves.

    22. Hi Linda - Thanks for staying engaged with the discussion. I think that it's all too true that the less flashy, less high-profile examples of yoga-centered service and activism are too easily ignored. Doing more writing about them, like your blogging about your work in the DV shelter, could help this situation.

      But, I think that OTM is playing a different, but very important role. As mentioned above, the participants on the Seva challenge have to fundraise to get the money to go on the trip - which means that they don't have to be wealthy per se. This develops a critical skill for ongoing service work, if they want to do it.

      Also, while the thorny race, class, and culture (etc.) issues become even more thorny when you go overseas, in this rapidly globalizing world, I don't think that it's a virtue to have everyone stay home. We need good people with international experience, interest, knowledge, and connections.

      Finally, the fact that OTM is so high profile raises the profile of service work in general. Young women in particular I think benefit from having Seane, Hala, and Suzanne as available role models. Remember the comments in Toesoxgate about how people see the ad and "want to look like that, be like that"? Well, I'd much rather have images of beautiful yoginis connected to service and activism than to selling products and dieting. Just sayin'.

    23. I agree with you, I wasn't disavowing OTM's seva purposes! seva is seva.

      after I wrote the comment I remembered a group of women of all ages I met in Zanzibar who were traveling to Rwanda to work with the survivors of the genocide -- they weren't going to stay in any 5 star hotels! just thinking of all the seva stories I've heard from people I've met in my travels....

    24. Very interesting. I had no idea this whole debate had happened over at Ele, where I'm also a columnist!

      I don't know Seane, but intuitively feel that she's very genuine.
      Having said that, I can see where Be is coming from. But it seems overly critical: so what if people stay in 5 star hotels - in what way would it be better if they 'pretended' to have a different lifestyle while travelling?

      And I totally agree with this Carol: " I'd much rather have images of beautiful yoginis connected to service and activism than to selling products and dieting. Just sayin'."

    25. There is a very big problem with the tourism and Hotel. The many charity events do not disclose that all money does not go to the "cause" or the political connection of Van Jones http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp7I6PsCU3w