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.
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
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.
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.