yoga service conference 2012: the motivation to serve

In her opening remarks for the first annual Yoga Service Conference, Beryl Bender Birch asked the 145 conference attendees gathered at the Omega Institute: “What drives us to come together? What motivates you to serve?”

These questions set the tone for the three-day event, and I found myself coming back to them again and again, whether I was watching panel discussions, keynote speeches or chatting with new friends over lunch.

The conference was organized by the Yoga Service Council, a network of organizations and individuals working to bring yoga to underserved populations. The council was formed in 2009 after a group of people doing similar yet varied work were invited to the Omega Institute to support each other, collaborate and share resources. They’ve met there each May for the past three years, and it was clear that the beautiful Omega campus was a homebase for the council, a place where the co-leaders could solidify the vision and determine the direction.

The Yoga Service Conference was a collaborative project for the council, giving them a broader platform and an opportunity to build community. As co-organizer Jennifer Cohen Harper told me in a pre-event interview, the conference was a sort of “debutante ball” (my phrasing, not hers) for the council, enabling them to reach out to potential communities.

With a packed weekend schedule, the conference featured an inspiring keynote by Gabor Maté, panel discussions on starting programs and challenges in the field, and intimate breakout sessions lead by member organizations. Rather than going through the details of each session, I’ll identify some of the recurring themes that emerged over the weekend.


As James Fox of the Yoga Prison Project pointed out, yoga in North America is maturing and gaining mainstream acceptance. However, it’s still perceived as a fringe activity, and in order to make headway in institutions such as correctional facilities, schools and hospitals, the yoga community has to be willing to support the claims of yoga with research, studies and documentation.

There was also much talk about how to grow and expand yoga service programs while maintaining their integrity. A panel discussion on starting and funding programs featured practical advice from founders on whether to register as a non-profit or incorporate, and how to seek out grants from private and public funders.

Shared resources

Conference attendees were repeatedly told that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. All of the presenters were generous with their information, both in the formal presentations and in between-session encounters. Smaller outreach programs like Washington DC-based Yoga Activist were open about their support from the Give Back Yoga Foundation, proving the power of partnership.

Self-care and personal practice

Photo Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck, NY. (not taken at the Yoga Service Conference)

A key concern about working as a service provider (yoga or otherwise) is how to prevent burnout. In the opening Storytelling Panel, Mark Lilly emphasized the importance of personal practice and this theme was repeatedly revisited over the course of the weekend.

Seane Corn brought this home in her closing remarks, telling us that it’s our responsibility to commit to our spiritual practices and use our tools. “Service is to do our own self-work,” she said.

And so…

The overall feeling of the conference was grounded, loving and supportive. There was a willingness among attendees and faculty to connect and share knowledge. The Omega Institute provided a natural setting for this to happen: wide open spaces, intimate meeting rooms and a dining hall with huge circular tables perfect for conversations.

As with any first attempt, there were some glitches: a packed schedule with little time to transition between talks, a lack of communication about where sessions took place and a scheduled keynote which turned out to be an asana practice at the last minute (and which I missed because I choose to take my time after breakfast).

But participants were patient and accepting of these little blips, and everyone seemed pleased to be there. Their presence proved that if there is a commitment to slow growth, effectiveness and remaining true to its core principles, the yoga service community has the potential to evolve into an actual movement, a force to be reckoned with.

However, I have some concerns about what populations the community currently emphasizes. There is a lot of discourse around incarcerated adults and teens, at-risk youth, veterans and school-aged children. While these are all worthwhile communities, there’s also the possibility of glamorizing these populations. I’m concerned that people who attempt to do service work may feel that it’s only worthy if it reaches these “high risk” populations.

For example, in my own service work I teach weekly yoga classes at a community mission for “regular” low-income folks. I found little content in the conference that related to my experience and its unique challenges, which are perhaps less dramatic than teaching in a high security prison or a homeless shelter, but are certainly present.

Of greater concern is something that BK Bose of the Niroga Institute addressed in the final panel discussion. “The yoga teaching community doesn’t represent the populations they serve,” he told a room full of earnest, well-intentioned, mostly white women in stretchy yoga apparel. This was greeted with an enthusiastic, yet kind of guilty, round of applause.

But we have to start somewhere, right? The drive and the motivation are there. And this conference was a wonderful first step towards an informed and purposeful community of yogis who aim to dismantle not only the dominant image of yoga but systems (correctional, educational and medical) that are broken and ineffective.

Stay tuned for more detailed posts about some of the amazing projects and resources I discovered at the conference.

Save the date: the next Yoga Service Conference is June 7-9, 2013!

Learn more about the origins of the Yoga Service Council and the conference in my interview with co-founder Jennifer Cohen Harper.

Check out Where Is My Guru’s radio show and podcasts direct from the conference.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the conference! I agree with your point that you serve the general underserved population. We do too. I think the concepts that apply to the specific groups – inmates, recovering addicts, female trauma victims – will apply to our general population. As a few speakers pointed out, we are they, they are us. We are one. Coming from a cultural psych perspective, I firmly believe in the idea that we need to break it down and study on a micro level only to bulid it back up and practice and observe at a macro level.

    Regarding the amount of white ladies in the room – I was impressed with the diversity of thought, location and service. I’m a white chick. I can’t ever change that. All I can do is be the best “fluffy headed white girl” ala Seane Corn, that I can be. I’m glad BK mentioned it. I think teaching yoga to said “underserved populations” and offering it to more diverse groups will allow the potential for diverse yoga teachers.

    • hi emily ~ thanks for your insights! yes, i agree that the specifics can be applied to the general. and in this post, i didn’t even go into what i learned and what i want to apply to my own teaching work. so much!

      it was nice meeting you at the conference and i’m sure i’ll see you next year.

      • Oh I know, right? There is SO MUCH to dig into from this conference! Each post can barely scratch the surface. I look forward to reading your other recaps and findings. Really glad to meet you in person. You will absolutely see me at YSC next year! Maybe, before? 🙂

  2. Thanks for the update, Roseanne! Sounds great!

  3. Thank you Roseanne for your lovely and candid reflections. While Street Yoga does focus on homeless and at-risk youth, many of the volunteers who come to our organization simply feel the call to the path that you walk so humbly in your life. They work with the intention to bring yoga to those who might not ever experience or find yoga in this lifetime. Your reflection on the “glamorization” of these high-risk populations is an important conversation this yoga service community needs to address to keep this practice grounded, rather than indulging in the high-flying magic carpet of what yoga is often packaged to be in western culture.

    The conversation of cultural competency is another issue Street Yoga hopes to encapsulate more deeply in our curriculum, and bring the conversation to the table of who we serve, who we are, where and how the disconnect exists.

    Its great to be among those who have the courage to ask the hard questions, and help us all examine our motivation, actions, and intentions.

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