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DOING SEVA – GIVING BACK
By Isabella Nitschke from Sweden
When I first came into contact with yoga twelve years ago, I saw it as a purely physical exercise. I did not have any knowledge of yoga philosophy and there was no teacher who could guide me. Yet very early into my yoga journey, I felt a strong need and duty to share with others the benefits I experienced from the practice. Little did I know at the time that this feeling had a name to it and that it was a central part of yoga philosophy. Sharath R. Jois, who has since become my guiding teacher, often urges us to “Do your duty (dharma), go out and give back to society”. This is also the message of many yoga texts: that we carry out our actions without attachment to the fruits of them and dedicate our practice to the good of all.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action and is one of the central themes of the Baghavad Gita which talks about the idea of non-attachment to the fruits of one’s actions. This is also true for the Yoga Sutras, where Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment) are two central aspects of yoga. Seva – selfless service is the spiritual name for karma yoga. Doing Seva means to do good actions for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return.
When I was recommended to try yoga following a sports injury in 2004 my sole interest was to heal from the injury and I had no intention for yoga become a permanent activity in my life. I attended some yoga classes I found at the local gym in Brussels, Belgium, where I was coincidentally working as a spinning teacher in my spare time. However, the classes didn’t appeal to me as the pace was slow and I found no coordination with the breath, something was I used to do in my cycling and running. Then somehow I got my hands on David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series DVD. I remember that I simply put it in the recorder and did the whole thing following David’s instructions. It was a mind blowing experience! I found it totally crazy and had to modify a lot of course. But there was pace, focus on the breath and a lot of sweating. I liked it!
At the time there was no Ashtanga Yoga available where I lived, so stuck to practicing with the DVD a couple of times a week for a few years. Yoga helped fix my injury, but very soon I noticed other benefits of having a regular practice. I had recently moved to China and started a very stressful job in international relations and the practice became a tool for me to stay more balanced in life. Unfortunately, I still ended up with a severe burnout where both body and mind fell into a big black hole and I stopped functioning at every level. Had it not been for the regular yoga practice I think I’d have fallen so deep that I wouldn’t have made it back from the darkness. But the practice cushioned the fall somewhat and it definitely helped bring me back to life. If I’d had a teacher at the time who could have guided me in my practice, I am convinced that the damage of the stress to my system would have been even less.
My experience of yoga’s healing abilities made me feel an instant need to share this fantastic practice with others. I particularly wanted to help prevent others from suffering the same way that I had or at least help them recover from similar situations. I decided to quit my career in international politics and work with yoga and people’s well-being full time. This change also involved a move to London where I finally found guidance in my Ashtanga practice. I retrained professionally and was fortunate to be accepted to a special training in yoga therapy for mental health. During this time I also stumbled upon an opportunity to go to Rwanda as a volunteer to teach yoga as a therapy to women who survived the genocide in 1994. This was my first chance of really giving back; to do Seva by helping others heal through yoga.
I fundraised for almost a year to be able to do the trip to Kigali where I got to work for a small not-for-profit organization called Project Air. The organization worked with rehabilitating women, but also men and children suffering from post-traumatic stress and other consequences from the 1994 genocide. For four months in 2011, I worked together with trauma counsellors and medical professionals from the US partner organization WE-ACTx and taught yoga to help the women, who were all also HIV-positive, recover from the experience of sexual abuse and other violence.
When I arrived in Kigali, Project Air had already been running for a few years, but during my time of teaching both old and new participants witnessed of rather dramatic changes to their overall wellbeing since starting yoga practice. Women who suffered from night mares and severe PTSD were able to sleep again; some of the men found that they were less aggressive and could deal better with their emotions; and all participants experienced physical health benefits including a better immune system. There were many other benefits to these individuals physical and mental health that I cannot list, but most importantly the practice made them smile and laugh again, which most hadn’t been able to do after the genocide. The practice gave them energy, zest for life and the feeling of being young again and this was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed.
After the months spent in Rwanda, I have tried to continue to do regular Seva as part of my yoga practice. In London I was a member of the board of Odanadi UK and involved with the Yoga Stops Traffick campaign both in London and in Mysore. Most recently, through my yoga shala Ashtanga Yoga Malmö/Lund in southern Sweden, I’ve started a co-operation with Yoga Shala Stockholm and Astanga Yoga Copenhagen to help a small non-profit called V-Care based in Mysore. It is essential for me that not only my own practice but also to my teaching transmits the fact that yoga goes beyond the yoga mat. However, just like I came to yoga for purely physical benefits I don’t expect my students to want to engage beyond their physical practice. That said; I believe it is my duty as a teacher to inform them that while asana practice is only 2 hours a day, yoga practice goes on 24/7.
Sharath R. Jois says we should remember that there’s something bigger than us in life. The theme of dedicating our practice to something bigger is also central in the Mangala mantra, the closing chant of Ashtanga Yoga. It’s a reminder that we don’t do our practice for our own benefit only (then it’s easy to become neurotic and attached to the practice) but for the good of everyone. Not everyone is able to do Seva physically by volunteering or by donating money, but actions need not be that big. By doing the chant at the end of our practice we take the energy of the work we have just done and offer it to the benefit everyone else. Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu (May all beings, everywhere, be happy and free)!