I believe as yogis we are a force for serious good in the world, through our practice. I also believe that a commitment to service can support our yoga practice and is another way to experience its benefits. Often this is called karma yoga, seva or compassionate action. Seva offers another path for awakening and deepening into our experience of yoga.
But what if the opposite were also true? What if yoga could help to support us as caregivers, change-makers, activists and world-shakers? I believe that it can. Yoga has made me a better activist and offers me the tools to do change-making work effectively and sustainably. I believe that yoga can be a remarkable vehicle for self-care for those of us who are making change — and that doesn’t mean just activists. This includes teachers, nurses, artists, journalists, social workers — really anyone who is serving others.
Here are a few ways that yoga helps me to be of greater service:
It can be overwhelming to try to make change in this the world. Every day, it seems there’s a new crisis or issue that asks for our attention. The constant exposure to social media and news can simply exacerbate this. Yoga gives me a few minutes a day without the noise. When I’m doing my practice, my mind goes quiet. My focus is on the moment and the distractions fade away. Even just a few minutes a day of dedicated practice time can settle the mind and start putting some space between our thoughts.
In yoga, we practice the same poses over and over. I have the opportunity to refine them and to see how the pose evolves over time. It’s not about judgment, but curiosity: how is this poses living in my body today? This attitude allows us to put some distance between myself and the outcome. It’s not about right or wrong — and there’s no fixed solution. It’s about becoming adaptable, innovative and curious. And if the experiment doesn’t yield the results we want? Yoga provides infinite do-overs. We can just try again.
We’ve heard a million times that yoga means union. The feeling of interconnection that I experience directly affects my activist work. Maybe you’ve experienced this is a particularly great class: the energy in the room is potent and every student in the class is contributing to a higher vibration. Maybe you’ve accessed this in your home practice: you’re not thinking about what’s next, but you’re channeling the poses directly from source. Either way, yoga facilitates a feeling of not just connection, but interconnection: to others and to our purpose.
Yoga gives me access to the best parts of myself. When I’m practicing yoga, I’m able to get close to my own heart for a little while. I’ve learned to give myself the gift of loving attention rather than criticism. Yoga invites us to offer ourselves compassion, rather than judgment, which has direct application in doing change-making work. Yoga gives me a heightened sense of how I’m approaching an issue — and invites me to bring a little more compassion.
Change-making can be taxing. Yoga creates flexibility in not only the body, but the mind. Practice lets me tap into some ease, so when tough situations arise, I’m able to adapt, to spring back. It’s about dropping reactivity and showing up as we are. With this attitude, we have the tools and perspective to respond skillfully. Long-term, this lays the groundwork for more flow in our lives — less grasping — and greater resilience.
Ultimately, my practice allows me to taste liberation. I get a sneak peek of the freedom I want to create in the world. Yoga teaches me that this freedom already belongs to me and that it’s mine for the taking. I can simply choose that within my own mind and body. While we may face impossible odds or deep injustice, yoga allows us to tap into a little bit of that liberation — and puts us a little closer to the world we want to live in. Practice allows us to claim ourselves.
Whether you’re a public defender, a caregiver or a teacher, there are a lot of you who are doing incredibly valuable and world-changing work. A regular yoga and self-care practice can not only offer some respite, but you may ultimately find that it make your work more sustainable and more effective. I urge you to keep going, because the world needs you.
Christy Tennery-Spalding is a yoga teacher, activist and healing arts practitioner. She works with caregivers and change-makers to develop self-care practices that are custom, intuitive & feasible. She lives in Oakland, California, where she enjoys frolicking in redwoods and soaking in hot springs. She makes her online home at www.christytending.com. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.