Yoga: How We Model Leadership Working With Unserved Populations

Beryl Bender Birch is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and author. She happens also to be my yoga teacher, friend, and co-founder of The Give Back Yoga Foundation.
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A female yoga instructor is sitting outside with lotus position
A female yoga instructor is sitting outside with lotus position

This interview is part of a series devoted to interviews with several health, yoga, and spiritual educators presenting at the second annual Yoga Service Conference hosted by the Omega Institute and the Yoga Service Council June 7-9, 2013. Anyone interested in working to create strong, engaged, and resilient communities is welcome at the conference. Beryl Bender Birch is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and author of Power Yoga, Beyond Power Yoga, Boomer Yoga, and, soon to be published, Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans and Active Duty Military Service Men and Women. She happens also to be my yoga teacher, friend, and co-founder of The Give Back Yoga Foundation. How special it is for me to interview her in this space!

Rob: What changes occur during our asana, pranayama, or meditation practice that help us to get off our mats and "give back" to our communities the benefits we've received through the practice of yoga?

All "yoga" practices are about learning to pay attention. It doesn't matter if you chant, do asana, breathe, meditate, study, or scrub floors. The training is the same: learn to pay attention. As we get stronger at focusing our attention, we become more conscious, more aware. Attention drives transformation!! As we become more aware, the veils of advidya (ignorance) begin to get fainter and fall away and we get closer to the true experience of yoga, which is the recognition of boundlessness. Once we look around and see the state of things and realize that we are not separate, but a part of it All, we really can't help but "give back."

How did you begin to serve?

I don't really remember; likely it started several lifetimes ago. For as long as I can remember, I was taking care of starving poets, struggling farmers, sick dogs and horses, out-of-work musicians, and families who couldn't take care of themselves. As a child, I would wrap myself in diaphanous robes, pretending to be the goddess of October or whatever month it happened to be and float around in the woods by my house with my dragonfly and wolf and jaguar buddies. I was very connected to a spiritual world, to my animal guides, to a metaphysical reality and worried about people and animals that didn't have food or clothes or a way to stay warm in the winter.

As we get older, we very quickly get caught up in life and the pressures from society and our families to be a certain way, to conform to certain belief systems, to get a job, and to be "successful." We are busy working, raising children, struggling with life, and enjoying our homes and our stuff. Slowly, as we evolve through our yoga practices, our circle of compassion begins to expand and we start to notice the world outside of our backyard.

I worried for a while in my 20s about what I was going to "do." I started down a few paths that went into dead ends, but were still a necessary part of my evolution. Most of that decade I was pretty wrapped up in first and second chakra issues -- survival and relationships. I didn't really find my dharma until I was almost 30, in California, which is when I started Buddhist and Jain meditation. And then it seemed that I circled around to where I left off when I was 5 or 6, before the world took over and obscured my childhood memories of oneness.

How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?

I don't know -- practice, I guess. You do the work and hope that it helps. There is always hope, I think, that you are helping. But hope is such a non-yogic ideal. It means that you are somewhere in the future, "hoping" for some outcome, as opposed to being present. But we do hope, a little. We hope that Monsanto gets enlightened and stops genetically engineering crops. We hope that organic farming replaces the factory farm. We hope that poachers stop killing elephants and rhinoceros. We hope that wars end and corporations stop razing the rain forests. But what good does the hoping do? It's useless. Do the work. That is what helps. Breathe consciously. Pay attention and do what you can, with what you've got, in this moment!

How do you deal with compassion fatigue?

I think the best way to avoid service fatigue is to pay attention in your practices to what is going on with you. Our yoga practices are what help us deal with stress, find balance, and stay healthy. There are obvious things to do like don't overschedule and take time to rest. But more importantly we need to be conscious of the subtle balance between hard and soft, effort and rest, outward pouring and inward recharging. I work hard and travel extensively for teaching. But I also take plenty of time to hike, swim, read, play and walk with my dogs, cook, garden, visit friends, and explore life.

How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?

Just do the work. Pay attention and listen. And try to match impedance levels with the people you are working with. If you are too pro-active and come on with too much energy and too many self-righteous plans, you will turn off the people you are hoping to help, or what Dr. Elmer Green used to call turning on the "Anti-Christ energy." Our objective in teaching and practicing yoga is to turn people on, not off. Conversely, if you don't have enough energy, you will put people to sleep. They will give up and go home, feeling discouraged by your lack of worthiness. So you find a balance between giving out and holding back. Kind of like a star -- finding balance between two opposing forces. Thermonuclear fusion at the core of a star creates immense heat and radiates outward. Gravity tends to collapse the star. These two energies are in constant play with one another -- they go back and forth between inward-pulling gravity and outward-pushing radiative heat. That's why stars twinkle. We are stars. Every element in our bodies was created in a star. We are destined to twinkle.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

People ask me all the time if I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth -- deforestation, extinction, population, poverty, pollution, global warming, and the rest of it -- and you aren't pessimistic, then, as Paul Hawkin said in a commencement address in 2009, you "don't understand the data." But if you meet people like those reading this blog who are doing yoga service and working to restore the Earth and help the poor, and you aren't optimistic, than you aren't breathing!!

I think we are evolving, but slowly! More and more people are getting "into" service. Look at the Yoga Service Council -- it didn't exist two years ago. That is encouraging, but we still need a quantum leap in human consciousness. I do see movement, and awareness is collectively growing, evolving. More and more people are more and more conscious. But is it enough? I don't know. I'm not sure that we will survive as a species. But that doesn't really matter. Life continues. The universe knows exactly what it is doing. The important thing is to consciously work on your own evolution and to take that growing awareness out into the world to serve. Not to proselytize, not to preach some self-righteous blather, but just to help. Work for water or air or the dolphins and whales or for children or the poor or disaster survivors -- something. Every day, show up for your practice. Do the work to make your self better for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

Join Beryl Bender Birch at The Yoga Service Conference, presented by Omega Institute and the Yoga Service Council June 7-9, 2013. This conference offers a unique and intimate opportunity to forge relationships, build skills, and draw inspiration from leading yoga and mindfulness teachers who work with tens of thousands of people in underserved communities every day. Learn best practices for working with trauma survivors, incarcerated adults and teens, at-risk children, cancer survivors, the elderly, and domestic violence survivors. Join us on Facebook.

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