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Seva in Action

Four monks standing in line

Last week I shared my thoughts about martyrs, heroes and servant leadership. Many of you reached out to share how this lesson spoke to you. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your self-study and your inspired life!

I think we all want to be of service and contribute positively to our communities. Sometimes it’s hard to determine WHAT that service or contribution looks like. This week I want to talk about both WHAT and HOW we practice Seva as a discipline of contribution to our community and some pitfalls to avoid. Maybe next week I can offer a fool-proof strategy for discovering the specifics for our unique contribution… don’t hold your breath that I can resolve all your existential crises, but I do have some ideas 😊

Some of you may have heard me expound the “rules” of yoga at Life’sWork Yoga:

  1. Breathe.
  2. Practice self-care.
  3. Ask for help. (This is really an expansion of rule 2).
  4. We clean up after you.

I like these rules as an extension of my role as space holder and servant leader in the yoga practice. I also appreciate them as a student and having a “break” from the work of cleaning up. I feel loved and supported when someone does an act of service on my behalf. But mostly I love the rules for the practice of LIVING. Especially Rule #1. Life gets pretty hard pretty fast when we don’t breathe. Likewise, I find even the hardest of days is a bit easier when I breath, especially with my community.

Service is my preferred Love Language (see Love is Love is Love). So at home, these same rules apply… Breathe. Practice self-care and ask for help when needed. Number #4 is a bit of a challenge, especially with THREE teenagers living in my house. … the application of Rule 4 is that we all take turns cleaning up after ourselves and each other. But if I can be completely honest, some days it’s just “easier” to do it myself. But what does that teach my children?

I absolutely HATE absolutes!. (However, I love irony. Insert wink with a silly smile!)

But absolutes work so well for making this point, so bear with me. If I do the kids chores, they will NEVER learn to accept responsibility or enjoy the fruit of accomplishment, the satisfaction of participation and the pride of contribution. On the other hand, If I hold the line too firmly and NEVER assist or support them, they learn that power-over rules our household rather than abundance of love and belonging.

My favorite word these days is ABUNDANCE. We’ll come back to that because it’s a key ingredient in Seva and Tapas, the balance of service to others and self-care.

The other thing I’ve noticed since sharing these Rules at Life’sWork Yoga, that both surprised and delighted me, is that many of my students actually want to pick up their props and help tidy the studio. I love you for this! Who am I to neglect you this opportunity for Seva? And yet, I have… I apologize if I made your contribution feel unappreciated. Can you trust that my intentions were good?

I have since come to reframe (from love) rule #4. It sounds something like this. We are a community studio (family) and all are welcome here to share and participate freely from their own level of abundance and need. We hold each other in compassion and trust that when abundance is available it is offered freely. If service is NOT extended, it is accepted as a practice of self-care NOT as a neglect or refusal of personal responsibility. Please ask (rule #3) if you would like to contribute but do not know how. If you want to receive the gift of us serving you today, than receive our act of seva honorably.

It is as honorable to RECEIVE as it is to GIVE!

That’s a mouthful, I know. Hence “we do it for you” was easier… but just like at home, this can enable studio members to feel disconnected and devalued…. The last thing I would ever want to perpetuate!

How do you know when to give, offer, contribute? How do you know WHAT to do or not do as an act of service and generosity?

To freely give is critical to the practice of Seva and generosity. This is NOT to say that we give only to get something in return or that we give only when there is no benefit for ourselves in exchange. We give when the act of giving or the gift is an extension of our best selves. If we apply the principles of Yoga to our giving and receiving, we have a guideline for when, how and what to give.

TAPAS, or skillful application of wise action (and inaction), is the practice of intention in action. It is also defined as heat or the process of purification and it makes up the bulk of Isabella’s menu downtown 😊 Not the same (different language), and yet when I eat at Isabella’s I have to practice a lot of discipline and self-control! LOL!

Tapas based service is dependent on understanding of
1) what we have to share/offer and
2) what would be a benefit to those with whom we intend to share.

In other words, giving something that isn’t needed may be more of a burden for the receiver than it is a gift just as withholding something that would be beneficial might be defined as selfish or even harmful to the other. I see this conundrum a lot with giving and receiving feedback. Sharing feedback is an earned privilege but one I fear we have not learned how to do well from either perspective (giver or receiver). However, I think we can agree that feedback is best when it arises from love and well-wishing for the recipient.

What do we share?

  1. We share what we have in abundance. Abundance… there’s that word again. Every time I say or hear the word abundance, I expand with its energy. Abundance is a mindset even more than it is a measurement for our possessions or bank accounts.
  2. We share what we no longer need. This is not permission to dump our trash at the local Charity, but rather to consider that which doesn’t serve us could still be of benefit to someone else.
  3. We share what is ours alone to share/give. We don’t give away someone else’s stuff or promise someone else’s time, energy, talent or resources.

How do we share?

As an extension of Patanjali’s yoga principles, we give according to our values and our understanding of those values in action. In a nutshell, perhaps, we share freely and with love which is easier when we share according to the list above. We share that which benefits the recipient while NOT causing harm to ourselves or an unintended other. For example:

Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas as they relate to Seva

  1. Ahimsa (non-harming): a gift that enhances without deterring vitality and wellness.
  2. Satya (truth): a gift that reflects our best self in integrity and honesty.
  3. Asteya (non-stealing): a gift that is ours to give and does not result from any form of theft or unfair advantage.
  4. Brahmacharya (energy management): a gift that exemplifies wise application of our energy in terms of its impact and consequence.
  5. Aparigraha (non-possessiveness): a gift that is freely given.
  6. Suacha (cleanliness): a gift that is free from burden, obligation, expectation or ill will.
  7. Santosha (contentment): a gift that establishes and affirms enough-ness in the world.
  8. Tapas (wise action): a gift that requires effort and opportunity to purify ourselves in the act of service.
  9. Svadhyaya (self-study): a gift of sharing wisdom or truth that we have acquired through study and reflection.
  10. Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender): a gift that allows another to let go of performing and perfecting in order to be worthy of another’s love or attention.

In my opinion, the BEST GIFT is your attention… whether it’s listening to my stories, reading my newsletter love notes, cleaning the yoga mats, or showing up to practice. One last thought, to be of service is often interpreted as being LAST to receive. However, if we are to practice yoga, being first does not equate greater value but rather a primary objective. A primary objective like breathing is what makes the secondary objectives like service to others available. If the primary task/intention is NOT completed first, the need cannot be filled through service.

If you chose to practice Seva (service), my suggestion to you (and request of you) is to first serve yourself… then those who need you and those whom you need. What’s left over can be shared with others beyond these closest circles according to your balance of energy, time, resources. You’ve heard it before: one cannot give from an empty cup. That’s why we put our own face masks on BEFORE assisting those around us. In other words, we cannot help others if we don’t breath and ensure our own breath first.

If these concepts are new to you, don’t fret… stick with what makes sense and practice them.Let your understanding grow as your attention grows as you notice how these ideas show up in your daily living.😊