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!

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!

Another Year Younger

It’s my birthday. There, I said it. And I’m not even ashamed to tell you how old I am (31), although my mom might wish that I hadn’t. And although, obviously, I’m getting older, I feel a bit like I’m getting younger this year.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but birthday resolutions seem like a better approach. Another year of me… what will I do with it?

Here are a few things that are on my list:

  • Keep discovering my purpose and living it every day.
  • Take the time I need for self care and inner reflection, every day.  And do a better job of listening to my inner teacher.
  • Breathe.
  • Step off the ledge into something new and exciting, and know that the universe will catch me. (So I guess I’ve already started with that one… I couldn’t have timed my big transition better.)
  • Plan less, live more.
    And a brief interlude for a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (courtesy of Tiny Buddha): “Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.”
  • Teach yoga to kids.
  • Breath some more.
  • Raise $20,000 for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti and travel there next year to put words into action.
  • Connect more with my community, those I know and those I don’t. Meet new people, every day.

So there you have it. Just a few small items to start with for my new year. It’s not surprising, though, that most of the things on this list make me feel younger just thinking about them. That’s the great thing about birthdays – you can take what you need from them. And this year, I need to know that the sky’s the limit.

Here’s to big dreams, new adventures, and starting right now.

Making malas for Haiti

Yesterday I got together with my amazing partner in the Global Seva Challenge, Christy (www.christy4haiti.com), and the lovely Carol of Coco Yogini, to make malas. Christy and I decided that we would make handcrafted malas with a unique design that invokes Haiti and the seva challenge journey, as part of our fundraising efforts. They will be more meaningful than t-shirts or other products we could sell, especially because we’ll be making them ourselves.

You can’t buy these beauties yet, but I wanted to give you a little preview of our mala-making adventure. Christy and I both consider ourselves to be pretty crafty, and I did quite a bit of jewelry-making and metalwork when I was younger, so I was thrilled to dive right in. Carol, who sells beautiful hand-knotted crystal and pearl malas online and in local boutiques, was kind enough to donate her time for the lesson. We worked hard, but had some laughs and a lovely time chatting and knotting, knotting and chatting.

Christy fashioned a bracelet, I created a smaller mala, and Carol worked her magic on a larger mala with some custom touches. Here’s the gorgeous mala prototype that I created:

And here are Carol and Christy, hard at work on their creations:

By the way, in case you aren’t familiar with malas, they are a form of prayer beads, used in yogic and Buddhist meditation practices to count repetitions of a mantra (a word or phrase that is repeated as part of the meditation). A traditional mala contains 108 beads, symbolizing a sacred number in Hindu spirituality. Check out this web site to learn more about malas and the meaning of 108. Malas also just make beautiful jewelry!

Look for Malas for Haiti, coming soon to a web site or boutique near you!

Flowing with asparagus

Flowing with asparagus

A view of the spring garden

I live just outside of a major city, drive my (hybrid) car nearly every day, and generally live what could be considered a modern, urban lifestyle. But I have committed in a few small ways to staying connected with the rhythms of the earth, despite the flow of life in the twenty-first century.

A couple of years ago when we purchased our house, we decided to uproot most of the grass in our backyard and replace it with wooden frames filled with rich, dark soil. With a few gardening books, some basic tools, and a lot of sweat, tears, and lessons learned, we have managed to grow a bounty of greens, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and more. Believe me, you don’t really know what a carrot tastes like until you pull one out of the ground, brush it off, and take a bite. It’s heaven.

But for me, what’s more important than a handful (or sometimes, on a good day in July, a bowlful) of fresh food is the opportunity to connect so intimately with the ground – the earth – and its sustenance. When as part of our modern flow, we can simply grab a bag of dirt-free, pre-carved carrots or a bright red tomato when it’s snowing or – the horror – asparagus in September, it’s hard to stop and remember how the whole process is supposed to work. It’s an incredible exercise in mindfulness. And I really like getting dirty!

I adopted a tradition a few years back related to asparagus in particular. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite vegetables, and it’s characteristics make it the holy grail for me. It shoots out of the ground in mid-April and appears for maybe six fleeting weeks at our Saturday morning farmers market. And with few exceptions, this is the only time we eat it – and we eat it voraciously. This past weekend, as we walked into the market in a cold drizzle, there they were – the first beautiful green bunches. I bought two big round bunches and we sunk our teeth in last night. It was heaven.

The first asparagus of the season, waiting to be devoured

Admittedly I buy lemons, bananas, avocados, and some other decidedly non-local produce throughout the year. But there’s something magical about a vegetable that’s not supposed to grow except for during this very brief period, and the rest of the time is forced out of the ground in the southern hemisphere and flown many thousands of miles to reach my grocery store. It just wouldn’t be as delicious in April if you could eat it all the time, and so I choose to only eat it when the earth tells me I should.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who thinks about vegetables as much as I do. Maybe you never find yourself contemplating mindfulness in the context of asparagus, and that’s fine. But I invite you to find yourself a little bit of dirt, even if it’s just a pot, dig your hands around in the soil, and learn something about how the food you eat grows (by the way, you can’t grow asparagus in a pot, and even if you plant it in the ground, it takes three whole season before it produces any edible shoots). Even if you can’t grow your own food, go out and meet some farmers. And set an intention to be a bit more mindful about what ends up on your plate and how it got there.

I have lots more to share on this topic, so stay tuned for reports from the backyard garden and the role of carrots in my daily practice of yoga. In the meantime, if you do head out to the farmers market and pick up some asparagus (DC folks, now’s the time!), here’s my recommendation for cooking it.

Basic Grilled or Roasted Asparagus

  • Hold one of the asparagus stalks firmly and snap off the thick woody end – it will tell you where to break it. Repeat with the whole bunch.
  • Brush the spears with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Grill on an outdoor grill until lightly charred. Alternatively, you can roast in the oven on a nonstick baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until tender but still crisp.
  • Serve immediately. Savor every bite while it lasts!

Waking up to being

My yoga practice is a work in progress. For me, the most important foundation of this practice is being yoga. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. This is also the part of my yoga practice I am least likely to perfect in this lifetime, no matter how many times I come into handstand or hanumanasana, no matter how many deep breaths I take. These things help, of course. But being yoga – off of my eco-friendly rubber mat and out of the serene setting of a yoga studio – is so much more.

Being yoga means awakening fully to our inner wisdom – that all-knowing divine teacher within. When you find this guide, you become more attuned to others and the world around you, the impact of your every step, and the ways in which we are all connected. There is no other, there is just “we.” And every breath I take affects the breath of my neighbor next door as well as my neighbor on another continent, worlds away from my daily existence.

This is a bit of a scary proposition, I know. You’re probably thinking, I can hardly worry about myself and what I’m going to eat for lunch today. How do you expect me to think about the impact of every decision on every other human being on the planet (there are nearly 7 billion of them, by the way), let alone trillions of animals, plants, and the earth itself? It’s just too much.

I said it was “practice,” remember? We won’t all get it right most of the time. But if we don’t try, I’m afraid we’re all doomed. Let’s start here. Margaret Mead’s famous quote rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This blog marks the beginning of an old yet new journey for me. Over the next 8 months, I will work with committed people in my community of friends, yogis, activists, and citizens to raise at least $20,000 as part of Off the Mat, Into the World’s Global Seva Challenge. If I succeed, I will have the opportunity to travel to Haiti early next year to put seva – conscious, spiritual, selfless service – into action. OTM’s challenge is an extraordinary chance to help the people of Haiti, working with grassroots organizations on the ground to help rebuild that country in a sustainable way.

But I am also not ashamed to admit, this is an incredible moment that the universe has set before me, to practice yoga in a new way with each breath I take for the next 11 months. There will be opportunities for very practical experiences – overcoming obstacles to make large fundraising events come to life, regaining some of my forgotten french-speaking skills, learning about the history and culture of a troubled yet vibrant country. But there will also be countless occasions to step back and consider the impact of my own suburban yogi lifestyle on people I have never met but with whom my existence is inextricably intertwined.

There is a lot more than money standing between me and this trip of lifetimes. I fully expect to face down my own fears and demons on a daily basis, whether manifested from within or in the voices of others. But I’m armed with love and community and ready for whatever lies ahead. There will be a lot of yoga, and a lot of breaths, between here and there.

Please visit this space for much more about my journey to Haiti, as well as musings on yoga and living awake through a mindful and sustainable lifestyle.

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. . . unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.” ~ Goethe