A yoga instructor and activist, Seane Corn has made it her mission to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. She has spent time in India, Asia and Africa teaching yoga, providing support and educating about HIV/AIDS prevention. She's sharing her story with us as she blogs from the Uganda Seva Challenge, a trip that will raise money to fund and build health education programs to improve the quality of life for children in Uganda.
On Saturday night, I finally arrived in Uganda. It is as beautiful and complex as I remembered. There are flocks of bats and turkey vultures flying in circles just outside my window, scary and prehistoric looking, but my eyes can't stay with them for long. What keeps drawing my attention down is the earth below. I'm always struck by the rich, red soil of Africa. It looks so fertile and dense, the perfect breeding ground for the "Motherland," and I'm anxious to go outside and feel her once again under my feet. I'm so happy to be back here and feel strangely at home. Perhaps it's the kindness and generosity of her people, or the fact that my father grew up in Northern Africa, or maybe it's the powerful feeling of spirit and tribe that penetrates this culture. Whatever it is, I'm delighted to be welcomed back.
I'm here to facilitate the Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM) Bare Witness Humanitarian Tour. With me are my co-facilitator Suzanne Sterling, our logistics team headed by Dr. Sally Brown and the 21 people whom succeeded in raising the necessary funds to award them two weeks of working with some of the most impoverished and underserved people in the world. All totaled, there are 24 of us, all women, embarking on this journey. It's taken me three planes, a bout of laryngitis and a decade of wanting to make a difference to get here.
Being of service has become a natural extension of my yoga practice. It took thousands of downward dogs, buckets of sweat, hours of meditation and prayer for me to understand that yoga is about the collective, not just the individual. Service is my way of experiencing this unity through outreach and action. In yoga, the word "seva" refers to selfless service, and although I have been deeply committed to different social and global issues, including sex trafficking and HIV/AIDS, I have yet to experience the selfless part of seva. This is because I know I continue to receive more than I could ever possibly give. I do not believe there is enough money, food or shelter that I could provide that could equal the gifts that I've been given. Each time I have been permitted to share in another person's life and support them in their health, healing or even survival, I am rewarded riches unimaginable. I have healed my trauma, reclaimed my disowned self, learned to celebrate my shadow, become more empathic, grown and experienced spirit in ways remarkable because of the opportunity to be a part of another being's life and experience.
The first time I volunteered my time and skills was in 1999. I was accepted to teach yoga weekly at Children of the Night, a shelter in Van Nuys, California, that houses, educates and rehabilitates adolescent prostitutes. These are children between the ages of 11 to 17 who have all been seriously sexually abused.
Although teaching these children was a life-changing experience for me, it wasn't effortless in the beginning at all. Teaching at-risk youth can be beyond challenging, and I had to rely on my own yoga and processing skills often to keep my assumptions and fears in check, but it didn't always work. These children, because of their abuse, were often shutdown, angry, antagonistic and/or withdrawn. Working with them, I would sometimes feel uncomfortable and even judgmental. Sometimes I resented them for their behavior and would lose my patience. It didn't take me long to realize that if "you spot it, you got it!" Meaning that the shadow parts of them (the angry, shut down, arrogant aspects of their personalities) that triggered my discomfort were a reflection of the same emotional parts within myself that I've judged, repressed or disowned. Those kids were just holding a mirror up to my own angry, albeit repressed, self. No wonder I judged them. I was ashamed of those qualities in me and was accustomed to shoving my big feelings discreetly away. In their presence, I experienced the parts of myself I could not stand and projected that shame and disgust onto them because, in actuality, their big feelings scared me. Their big feelings forced me to look at mine! I think it was during this time that I realized that if I were going to choose to serve and be a part of someone else's healing, that I was also going to have to buckle down and commit to healing myself as well. Otherwise, I would continue to respond to the children from judgment, pity or sympathy, which does nothing but create separation. How could I truly serve and love them if I was unwilling to love those parts within me? Their anger was only a mask to their deep grief...as was mine. I could have never awakened to that truth without their presence in my life, as challenging as it sometimes was. I knew that learning to understand those kids was the key to my healing and my pathway to God. I knew that if I was going to be affective in outreach, then I had to understand their trauma through understanding my own. Only then would I generate true compassion and empathy. Only then could I serve without trying to "fix." Only then could I love and be open to God.
So, I offered them some skills to deal with their tension and stress, but these kids helped make me whole. Who got served?
It was at Children of the Night that I was re-introduced to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Many of the children at the shelter, because of lack of education or abuse, were infected with the HIV virus. Since I had known many people (Thanks again, Billy!) who were infected, I felt very comfortable working with these kids and committed myself to understanding more about this international pandemic and how it continues to affect us today. In 2005, I was named the National Yoga Ambassador to YouthAIDS, a nonprofit that provides education, prevention and supplies to children worldwide who are affected or infected by HIV/AIDS. My job with YouthAIDS was to help spread awareness and raise funds within the yoga community for this global crisis.
The U.S. yoga community is 20 million strong. Statistically, we are an altruistic, educated and affluent group of people who pay taxes and vote. By using media and my national platform, I was able to raise both awareness and a lot of money in a very short time. The success of this effort made me wonder what else could be created if we, as a community, rallied together, unifying our time, energy, money or even prayers toward different crises or causes that affected our global family, whether they be health related, environmental, educational or political. This effort would have nothing to do with one's strength, flexibility, level of experience, age, race or sexual orientation. It would, however, have everything to do with yoga, with unity, and this was something I hoped we could all get behind, regardless of the system we practiced.
Off the Mat, Into the World was my solution to this issue. OTM is a nonprofit project of the Engage Network, and its mission has been varied. We bridge yoga and activism. First, we offer leadership training to aid people in connecting to their purpose through yoga, meditation, self-reflection and prayer. Then we teach them how, through organizational skills, to activate that purpose in their local community through service- and action-oriented projects.
Through these trainings, we have watched hundreds of people become engaged in their communities and participate in actions that effect both their local and global environments. Although it has been a wonderfully exciting opportunity to witness men and women step into their power while also making a difference in the lives of others, I didn't want OTM's efforts to solely be about training people to act. I wanted it to be about action as well. Thus, the Global Seva Challenge was born...which is why I am, at this moment, in Africa.
The Global Seva Challenge is this: Anyone who can raise $20,000 will travel with Suzanne and I to a developing country that has suffered from genocide, natural disaster or war and, as a result, has a culture and population that remains vulnerable to poverty, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking and abuse. The participants can't pay us for the trip. They must find creative ways to raise the money through donations by working with their local community, raising awareness and discovering what it takes to become a leader. This trip is a reward for that leadership. In 2008, our first challenge was to help support the Cambodian Children's Fund. We had 124 people trying to raise the money. Twenty succeeded, but collectively we were able to raise $524,000. In 2009, the 20 people (all women once again!) got to travel with us to Cambodia and actually see how their money was being spent and participate in the different programs that would benefit from the funds. This year, our focus has been on Uganda. We had over 130 people try; 21 succeeded and collectively we raised $566,000. Considering the economy, we were tremendously pleased with this success and are grateful for the support of our community. These funds will be used to support Shanti Uganda, Building Tomorrow, the New Hope School and YouthAIDS. We will participate in building an eco-birthing center in a remote village for HIV/AIDS positive women, build a seven-room school house, provide food, supplies and much-needed bedding to some local orphanages, while also learning about the history of Uganda, its culture, politics and people.
For the next two weeks, I will be blogging about our journey in Uganda and what is being created as a result of the efforts of the remarkable women who have earned the opportunity to journey here and serve. We call this "The Bare Witness Humanitarian Tour," not because we've come to watch how others live, but to also share with them our lives, experience ourselves outside of our comfort zone, confront our own assumptions, fears and prejudice, be present to the circumstance of trauma,and become inspired by the loving connections we make when we dignify the human experience—others' and our own. I am certain that each woman, myself included, will confront both the lightest and darkest parts of their beings over the next couple of weeks. I am also certain that we will all grow, and perhaps through taking our yoga off the mat and into the world, we can experience each other as who we truly are. All one. I invite you to join us on this journey as we open our hearts to serve each other, the Ugandan people and the mystery that is spirit.
Seane Corn is an internationally celebrated yoga teacher known for her impassioned activism, unique self-expression and inspirational style of teaching that incorporates both the physical and mystical aspects of the practice of yoga. For more on Seane Corn, visit SeaneCorn.com.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 14, 2014
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