Friday, May 25, 2012

Reflections on "Yoga Service"

Tree of Life Tribal by Odari on Deviant Art

Right now I'm thinking a lot about "yoga service." I just came back from the Yoga Service Council Conference on Monday, and want to find ways to share some of the excitement and energy I felt there with others through writing about it. Because I truly believe that this event represented one very important step in moving American yoga in the direction that I'd like to see it go: that is, away from being a simply a self-improvement practice for individuals, and toward being a substantial healing force for our entire society.

As Traci Childress, Yoga Program Coordinator at the Omega Institute (which has been instrumental in supporting the Yoga Service Council and hosted the conference) noted, however, "it's not easy to sell service." Glitzy yoga is enticing, with lush spa-like studios, beautiful clothing, attractive students, glamorous teachers, and promises of health, happiness, and fulfillment.

Service yoga . . . not so much. The settings may be gritty (jails, shelters) or institutional (schools, hospitals). Having too many fashion accessories feels out of place. It's not a "beautiful people" scene - at least to the everyday eye.

What struck me at the Yoga Service Council Conference, however, was that there is a quality of energy generated by people who are passionate about sharing yoga with communities that normally wouldn't be able to access it - kids in low-income schools, youth in juvenile detention, women in shelters, men in jail, etc. - that's exceptionally inspiring and infectious. I can't help but feel that if there were a way to convey that feeling effectively, many more people would be interested in getting involved.

Now, I don't want to come off as a reverse snob who's saying that spa-style yoga is no good. On the contrary, I appreciate the experience of having a beautiful setting to practice in, and feel that it's important to devote resources to create such aesthetic oases. It's valuable to have such places to go for retreat and rejuvenation, definitely.

But I also believe that for those of us fortunate enough to be able to access yoga in such comforting settings, there's a charge that comes from bringing some of that ease into settings in which it is normally in woefully short supply -  and that this is energizing and rejuvenating in its own way.

What I experienced at the Yoga Service Council Conference reinforced this feeling for me. There was a level of passion, purpose, and, yes, love there that felt like a natural by-product of the yoga service experience.

This morning, I did my own little bit of "yoga service," teaching yoga to women in Chicago's Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery. Since then, I've been reflecting on precisely why I find this to be such a positive experience. In truth, I find it strangely hard to identify.

Writing about "the joys of service" feels like a hollow Hallmark Card cliche. Really, I don't even like the word "service" much in this context. It carries connotations for me that feel hierarchical, distancing, wrong.

I think perhaps there is something about creating a positive energetic connection that crosses so many socially entrenched boundaries that's really powerful. For me, it's like that magical zing I often feel running through the participants in a really good studio class gets amped up to a new level. I don't want to say that it's better, because when yoga is good, it's good. At that point, there's no better or worse - but there are meaningful differences.

Cook County Jail

One difference that's really important for me personally is that it makes me feel less afraid of what I don't know and more confident of my ability to generate positive connections in unfamiliar and even discomforting environments. This, in turn, reinforces my faith in yoga as something that really works.

And there's always a certain mystery to that. After class today, one of the young women seemed really moved by joy and just spontaneously came up and gave me a hug. That's never happened before . . . and why it felt like such a meaningful gift, I honestly can't say. But I know that I'm feeling a whole lot better now than I was before I taught that class.

When I and another teacher were walking out of the prison gates, a young male guard suited up in tough-looking police gear smiled at us and said, "How was the yoga class, ladies?"

"Great!" Of course, we smiled back.

"I should try yoga sometime . . . I'd like to do that," he replied.

"You should! We should offer a class for you guys too . . . "

The female guard next to him looked at us and more shyly joined in. "Yeah, I'd like to try it too."

Nothing like that had ever happened before, either. Maybe it was the nice spring weather . . . maybe word that yoga can be accessible and good - and not weird or flaky or only for rich women - is getting around. I don't know. But in that moment, I felt proud to have done my own little part to bring yoga into an environment where the centeredness, regeneration, and love it can bring really are needed in a big, big way.

At the Yoga Service Council Conference, I got to learn from some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable teachers in the country about how to to make this sort of yoga outreach work. And to be part of a group of practitioners that love doing it and were on fire to grow the movement. It was wonderful to be there.

I want the conference to be at least twice as big next year. Interested? If so, you can join the Yoga Service Council here. Hope to see you at the conference next year . . . mark your calendar for June 7-9, 2013!


  1. “Love everyone. Forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger, forgive your guilt, your shame, your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth and most especially your heart. Let us all have mercy on each and every one of us. And every day, we will open up like a cocoon and turn into beautiful butterflies and live this moment, and the next, and the next, and the next …” - Richard Hunt delivering Jim Henson’s last words at his memorial ----For your students.

    The conference sounds like a powerful opportunity for community and inspiration. Your pleasure in the connection with your students is a teacher's treasure and it is clear that others would also benefit from being part of the circle of support and mentorship that yoga can offer all involved in healing broken lives.

    1. Thanks, Hilary. Is that Jim Henson of the Muppets? Wow. I never associated the Muppets with such profundity - but I guess I just wasn't paying attention! Beautiful quote.

    2. Yes, it's Jim Henson of the Muppets. Hard to know who someone is behind a muppet or a mask, eh? :)

  2. You have been an inspiration to me. I've have been one for fancy clothes! Next month I complete my yoga teacher training and I want to bring yoga to the homeless shelters and maybe even the prisons in my area. I've been speaking with people I know at the local shelters and seeking a mentor. I will continue to look to you to keep me going and make it a reality. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Cynthia! BTW, one thing I learned at the Yoga Service Council is that Yoga Activist has a great new website with lots of resources for yoga service teachers and programs. You might want to check it out at

      Good luck with your training and finding the right venue in which to teach! Teaching yoga is always a challenge, I think, but that's also precisely why it can be so incredibly rewarding.