Reflections on Seva

Photo courtesy of Amy King/Off the Mat, Into the World

Though it was less than a year ago, I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t think about Haiti every day. About the people—especially the women and children—who inspire me and with whom I feel so deeply connected. I was intimidated by Haiti, too, by the level of pain that I felt maybe I couldn’t handle. Like the caring person who shields her eyes from a commercial with desperate, emaciated children or abused animals, because it’s just too much. Because you don’t want to think about it.

But I did think about it. And I realized it was well past time to step out of my comfort zone. The Global Seva Challenge. Initially I saw those looks of disbelief: $20,000? For Haiti? That’s crazy. Not going to happen. Put your energy and talent somewhere more… rewarding.

But these 9 months of effort, of endless emails and phone calls, of inevitable disappointment, of stepping off the ledge of what is familiar and easy, offered me an unexpected pathway to go deeper into myself. My voice was already pretty loud—trained as a lawyer, lobbyist, and yoga teacher, I am quite well conditioned to say what I mean, clearly and, well, loudly. But I nonetheless always had approached with trepidation the act of saying what I truly believe, of offering up myself (and not just someone else’s cause, teachings, or truth).

I learned something important about my own fear of putting myself out there, naked, for a cause like this: it just wasn’t going to fly. I couldn’t leave the talking to someone else. I couldn’t fall back on the script. It was all me. Me, and the women in Haiti to whom I was beginning to feel an inextricable link. As if their struggle—to set aside the blinding, devastating pain of loss and daily hardship, and step forward to make change for their families and their communities—could become my own.

Larkin Goff Photography

This challenge meant I had to connect with people on a deeper level than perhaps I ever had before. I had to make an unforgettable impact. And the response of my community was beyond anything I could have imagined. They took up the cause too. They showed up, they sent emails and posted to Facebook. And when I needed it most, they just came up after a yoga class and said, “Don’t worry, I know you’re going to make it.” They knew even when I didn’t.

The Seva Challenge was so much more than a fundraising project or a volunteer opportunity. In my own urban, mid-career-shift, privileged bubble, it was an opportunity to empower myself. I exercised my creativity in a way that I hadn’t in so many years. I worked with my hands—crafting jewelry to sell for the cause—and my feet—boots to the sidewalk asking for donations, making sales, and connecting with friends and strangers. I found so much more passion teaching a yoga class when I knew everyone in the room was there to support them, the people of Haiti. Not just me, not just themselves. It’s amazing how the energy shifts.

I feel so drawn now to the women I’ll be meeting in Haiti. They are the rocks of their families and their communities, particularly after the earthquake. I only hope that I could muster a fraction of the resilience, the passion and the drive these women have demonstrated in the face of innumerable hardships.

Because of incredible organizations like Fonkoze, and because of some of the funds I helped to raise, they are getting the meaningful, long-term assistance they need to step into their own power. Fonkoze is a non-profit organization, Haiti’s Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor. They provide financial services to the poorest in Haiti, especially women, tens of thousands of them, who receive literacy and business education and small loans to provide for their families and support backyard enterprises like crops and crafts. Because of Fonkoze’s programs, women who had little hope now are growing their micro-businesses, learning to read, and pulling themselves slowly out of poverty. Watch this video to meet some of the women of Fonkoze.

These women are a true inspiration to me. Maybe I’m biased, but I really believe that women are more resilient, more passionate, and more powerful than they are given credit for. It’s nothing against men. But I have watched women, myself included, rise from the dark depths of pain and loss, and transform themselves and the world around them, in their own small ways. The sad fact is that too many women around the world are denied the opportunities men have, the opportunities in my own community that women take for granted—to own property, manager their own money, start a business, or work anywhere other than in the kitchen.

There is an opportunity in Haiti, right now, for real change to emerge. Individuals, many of them women, are stepping forward, despite all of the obstacles and the easy path to hopelessness. They are passionate and strong and determined. And I believe they have the power to transform Haiti’s future.

Along my Seva journey after I had been pushing hard to promote events and seek donations through social media, an acquaintance commented, with a well-disguised mix of respect, surprise, and disbelief…. You just don’t give up, do you? Nope. I didn’t. Why would I? They don’t know me, but nonetheless I could just feel that those women in Haiti were counting on me. No one ever made history without also irking someone. Making a peaceful, joyful nuisance.

I leave for Haiti in less than three weeks. I am so honored to be a part of the Off the Mat, Into the World’s 2011 Bare Witness Tour. Seeing, experiencing, learning, documenting this moment in Haiti’s history. In my own tiny way, being part of the change. Thank you!

The joy of packing for someone else

I hate packing. Really, and I’m terrible at it too. I always end up with a huge overstuffed suitcase with few of the things I actually need when I arrive. This preparation is definitely my least favorite part of any journey…

So I’m starting to experience the usual angst about packing for my trip to Haiti in a couple of weeks. For this trip, though, I can set aside some of the agonizing over flip flops and bug spray, because I get to pack for someone else! That’s right, I’m packing a second bag full of goodies–first aid supplies, educational and art supplies and toys for the kids we’re going to meet in Haiti. It lightens the psychological load to think that this whole bag of “stuff” won’t come back home with me. And I’m so excited to gift it to children who are attending the schools we’ll be visiting or participating in art therapy programs we’re working with, as well as other kids we meet along the way in tent camps and orphanages.

My bag is getting full, but if you’d like to help me stuff it with some more new or gently used kid-friendly items, e-mail me at tohaitiwithlovedc@gmail.com.

A taste of Haiti, right here in DC

Last night, I set out to experience a bit of Haiti, right here in Washington, DC. Two events offered a timely opportunity to immerse myself in the people and culture of Haiti, with just a few weeks until I travel to Haiti myself as part of the Off the Mat, Into the World Bare Witness Tour, the culmination of the 2011 Global Seva Challenge. Great timing!

Photo by Keith Lane, courtesy of Studio Gallery, Washington, DC.

First, we checked out an amazing art exhibition at the Studio Gallery. Two American artists–photographer Keith Lane and graphic artist Jenna Crowder–have created a collaborative project of multimedia art, called Ornamental Foxes, to document their travel experiences in Haiti after the earthquake. Keith and Jenna offered an artists’ talk about how they created this art, out of a desire to connect with Haitian artists and bring back a complete picture of the good and the bad in Haiti. They immersed themselves in the culture and art of Haiti, conducted dozens of interviews, took thousands of photographs, and distilled it all into a poignant representation of the people, the landscape, and the spirit of Haiti. This exhibit will be open for a few more weeks, so check it out if you can!

Haitian artist BelO

Then, we stopped for some nourishment (unfortunately there’s no Haitian food in DC that I know about!) and headed over to Artisphere in Rosslyn, VA, for a concert by Haitian musical ambassador BelO. BelO is an energetic, talented, 32-year-old musician and activist who speaks and sings passionately about his home country. He played everything from reggae covers to traditional Caribbean beats and Haitian pop. Most of his songs were in Creole, but he made a point of translating and telling the stories of the songs for the non-Haitians (although it was clear there were quite a few Haitians in the room!). BelO’s most important message was one of hope–encouraging Haitians to stay connected to Haiti, to help find solutions to the nations’ challenges and tell the stories of positive change that is taking place despite immeasurable hardship. He covered Tracy Chapman’s song “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” with such conviction that you wouldn’t doubt he meant every word.

The string that rang through the whole evening was joy. Haiti has faced what for many nations would be insurmountable struggle. Yet Haitians–those reflected in Keith and Jenna’s artwork, BelO joyfully singing about his home, and the Haitian community dancing to the beats of their history–have so much hope, a fighting spirit. There’s no question in my mind that Haiti will recover. I am beyond inspired to document the passion of this incredible nation myself soon!

We did it! On to Haiti…

We did it!!! Today officially ends the Global Seva Challenge for Haiti, and over the past eight months, we together as a community have raised more than $23,000! Thank you to everyone who purchased Malas for Haiti jewelry, generously donated or attended To Haiti With Love DC events, or helped spread the word about the cause, especially in the final weeks of fundraising. This incredible achievement would not have been possible without all of you. And we are all part of a larger community–across the country, more than 60 participants in the Global Seva Challenge collectively raised more than $300,000 for this incredible cause!

On to Haiti… On February 5, I will board a plane to Port-au-Prince with a group of 10 other yogis from around the country who also successfully raised at least $20,000, along with the Off the Mat, Into the World team, including yoga teacher Seane Corn and teacher/musician Suzanne Sterling, for the Haiti 2012 Bare Witness Tour. We will travel through Haiti for two weeks, connecting with the individuals and organizations that your donations are going to support and assisting with various projects, including installing water filtration systems, contributing to the construction of a community center and children’s center, meeting and learning about the women who are receiving small business loans, and helping to remove rubble from streets and project sites.

Stay tuned, I will be blogging in this space, documenting this extraordinary journey.

Ride of Love: My Seva Journey to Haiti

About six months ago, I set out to do what still seems like the impossible: raise $20,000 for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti, through Off the Mat, Into the World’s Global Seva Challenge.

I set out on this journey initially because I needed a project, a focus for my energy, a direction for my practice as a yoga student and teacher. I was going through a challenging time at my now-former job and wrestling with the urge to find a new higher purpose in life. I felt disconnected and disjointed and disoriented.

But as I quickly began to immerse myself in the situation in Haiti, which had largely faded from my memory and the public consciousness, replaced by new disasters, celebrity gossip, and the perceived chaos of daily life, I realized that this journey was a big part of that higher purpose I was looking for. This nation, virtually in our own backyard, continues to suffer immensely more than a year and a half after the devastating earthquake in January 2010.

Click over to the prAna blog to read the rest of this post about my Seva Challenge journey!

Connecting through Seva: Sharing the Journey

The beginning of my OTM journey, at our DC intensive back in March.

I am continually filled up with gratitude for the ways in which the Global Seva Challenge and my journey with Off the Mat has allowed me to connect with people with whom I never would have crossed paths otherwise. This weekend, I headed “home” to the Philadelphia area for a family commitment. But while I was there, I dropped by a lovely yoga class taught by my friend and fellow Off the Mat leader Maura Manzo. The class, which Maura teaches every Saturday morning on the rooftop deck of a local Whole Foods store, began as part of her own Seva Challenge journey last year for South Africa. She’s kept it up since then as a community class.

My sister and I laid out our mats with a bright-eyed group of yogis. In addition to the amazing sun-basked class, Maura gave me ashout-out to let her regular students know that I was there visiting and currently fundraising for the Seva Challenge for Haiti. I received some donations and sold some of my Malas for Haiti jewelry after class as a result, and received some impromptu seva mentoring and support from Maura over juice later.

I am honored and humbled to be part of this amazing community of yogis and activists. Everyone I have met through Off the Mat has been an angel on my journey, shining a light on my path and lending the type of support that can only come from someone who has walked the very same path of growth and transformation.

Om shanti!

Malas for Haiti: One bead at a time

I’m not afraid to admit it—I’m drawn to pretty things. I’ve struggled with the tug of materialism since childhood. Here, have a new [whatever], you’ll feel better.

So when I went to India for this first time as part of my long-time-in-coming transition from over-educated, well-heeled young professional to over-educated, emerging-inner-hippie suburban yoga teacher, I fell in love with a set of mala beads because they brought out the color in my eyes. And because a wise man told me those were the right stones for me. And because it’s what yogis are supposed to buy in India.

But when I held the cool beads in my hand, I felt a pulsing energy, something powerful and grounding. I was drawn to them. They represented for me the start of a long path to begin to fill a spiritual void that I had been carrying for many years, the genesis of my decision to travel to India in the first place.

I have to admit, however, despite bringing home several sets of japa mala beads that I dipped in the healing waters of the river Ganges, I still have yet to settle into the daily mantra and meditation practice that I know is a vital part of my spiritual journey. But I am at peace with the fact that I will get there in my own time.

And the beads still play a very important part of my practice of yoga, reminding me that this journey must start slow—one bead at a time. Right now, I’m engrossed in the practice of being present, not getting lost in the lure of every shiny object that floats by, not getting distracted by the inner critic that likes to remind me I’m a good-for-nothing yogi because I can’t manage to meditate and chant every morning.

Mala beads took on a new meaning when I embarked on the Global Seva Challenge in collaboration with Off the Mat, Into the World, to raise funds and awareness for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti. This is another practice that for me has seriously tested my edge. I’m good at spending money and supporting other people’s causes. But I am challenged by asking for donations, by finding my voice to champion a cause I believe in. By connecting with others in a meaningful way rather than always choosing an easy yet sheltered road. And especially by not letting a big intention and a big goal—raising $20,000 for Haiti—make me feel small, doubting, and powerless.

So, I decided to make malas. . . . Because I find something so powerful about a strand of 108 little beads hanging around my neck, whether I’m meditating with them or not. It reminds me to focus only on the present repetition instead of the 107 beads that lie ahead. To not let the big goal overshadow each tiny step to get there.

Every mala that I sell, every small request that I make—asking a friend or a complete stranger to support my effort or buy a piece of jewelry—brings me one step further along on my journey. But the beads also help me remember to stay unattached to the material goal of the challenge and the dollar signs that go with it. It’s all about the journey, and it’s all about the intention: to serve, with no view towards the outcome, simply out of compassion and deep love. I am humbled by the innumerable gifts I have been given in this life and the opportunity to share them.

As I travel simultaneously on my own inner spiritual journey and outwardly as a leader in this incredible effort for Haiti that is so much bigger than myself, I am learning about yoga in a way that I might not ever experience it on my mat.

And for those who buy the malas I have lovingly made, one bead at a time, in a process that is itself much like a meditation, I hope they will find the same path to peace that I have. One bead at a time.

Selflessness: Mama Bonite and the Jacmel Children’s Center

Donations for To Haiti With Love and the Global Seva Challenge will support several incredible projects in Haiti. One is the Jacmel Children’s Center. In a rural community outside Port-Au-Prince, hundreds of children who were orphaned by the earthquake are living day-to-day, by the selfless service of local community leader, Bonite Affriany. “Mama Bonite,” as the children call her, feeds and educates more than 275 children everyday. Most importantly, she provides these children with love and support that many do not get anywhere else, but even so then they must return to their tents or the streets.

Yogini and Off the Mat leader Lisa Rueff, along with her husband, are spearheading a project to build the Jacmel Children’s Center, a property that would house many of the children Mama Bonite cares for, as well as providing education, art opportunities, and refuge to many other children and serving as a gathering place for the community.

Off the Mat co-founder Suzanne Sterling, who recently traveled to Haiti, wrote of her journey: “Every Haitian I met was extremely proud of their country and their people and expressed the need for empowerment through employment. . . self sufficiency as opposed to another hand out or another temporary shelter.  In other words, they were asking for our assistance in their long term vision and sustainability.”

That’s what the Seva Challenge is all about. Please support To Haiti With Love so the Jacmel Children’s Center can become a reality. Read about the other incredible partners and projects we are supporting.