Feed Your Heart By Giving Back
Jill Satterfield, founder of Vajra Yoga + Meditation and the School for Compassionate Action, describes yoga service as food for the heart. In this Yoga Service Interview with Rob Schware, she discusses the importance of self-care when practicing service and her desire to see yoga service providers become a well-paid and integral part of health care and mental health care worldwide.
Rob: What emotionally motivates you to give back the gift of yoga?
Jill: Sharing the boundless gifts of yoga and meditation not only pays respect to the generosity of those who have diligently practiced and cared enough to teach others, but is also a valuable way of life, through which we can help others help themselves.
Giving back is an organic and natural development of practice. As compassion blossoms, so does action. The action aspect of compassion is what compels many of us to assess where and how we might help others and make a difference. Sharing what we love, what has made a difference in our own lives, is a skillful way to live. It's what is called right livelihood—compassionate, selfless, and something about which we can have no doubt makes a positive difference, no matter how large or small. Giving back is food for the heart. When we give back our heart softens. When we give back our heart expands. When we give back our heart is at peace.
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?
Jill: By practicing asana, pranayama, and meditation, we open ourselves to becoming more humble, joyful, and present. These multidimensional components naturally nourish compassion and its partner action. Compassion is not a concept or an inert mantra, but a living, breathing manifestation of a deep and sustained practice. When we are more present, more humble, more joyful, and more open, the illusory walls of separation crumble and we see the interdependent nature of life. Taking care of our selves is in truth also taking care of others because at the heart of it, it's caring for all sentient beings, of which we are an organic part. When we take care of each other, we are simultaneously helping ourselves; it is a win-win situation.
Empathy is a natural emotion that we all possess, or that we all can foster in ourselves. It's the kick-start that contributes to action—we see someone in pain and we want to help that person. If we have benefited from a technique or tools ourselves, we naturally wish to share it.
Rob: How did you begin to serve?
Jill: I began this work once I had physically and emotionally healed from an illness. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to help as many people as I possibly could to mitigate the pain, loneliness, isolation, anger, and depression that I went through when I was ill, and before I discovered the transformational aspects of yoga and meditation.
There was also no doubt that I could offer practical, accessible, and sane ways to help others help themselves. If yoga and meditation helped me heal, they could help others. It started with that conviction and continues with that same conviction—but now I have the additional benefit of 27 years of witnessing the beautiful results of helping people help themselves.
Rob: How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?
Jill: This is an excellent question, and one that I think is important to consistently reflect on and consider as we start and continue to teach. It's not helpful to anyone to be under the guise of "saving" or "healing" others, or the illusion that we are responsible for the benefits someone might receive from what we share with them. If we get attached to feeling that we are responsible for a positive result, we not only get tangled in unskillfully caring about outcomes, but also in believing that we are responsible for what the technique or tool does. We lose sight of the fact that we are merely passing things on—and that it is how, or if something, is utilized that will make the difference. Of course, some are more skilled at presenting or sharing than others, but at the end of the day we are practicing and passing on what someone else passed on to us. We are an integral part of that rich continuum.
Meditation practice is a simple and elegant way to keep our ego in check. We become familiar with our mind's rascally, childish, or emotional behavior, as well as the wisdom aspects of our mind. This self-knowledge helps keep us on a mindful, intentional path. When we are clear about our own thoughts and motivations, we are much better equipped to help others.
Rob: How do you deal with compassion fatigue?
Jill: Through trial and error from experiencing it! It comes down to simple self-care. I can't overstate the importance of self-care and of having a personal practice. The nourishing support and revitalization of meditation retreats, of having a good teacher, spiritual friends, and colleagues, are more ways to stave off burnout. Each of us must find the ways to keep our spiritual nutrition high and constant, whether that's walking in nature, trips to museums, reading poetry, or having dinner with friends.
Rob: How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?
Jill: By encouraging each student to think and feel for themselves, and to follow the insights of their own direct experiences. When a student begins to be affected by yoga or meditation, there are signs of deep peace, even if momentary; we might see someone more joyful as they walk out of class, or see smiles where there were previously none. If we take a little more care with such a student, give them more responsibility, more creative freedom, ask them to assist, etc., it can empower that person and give them confidence.
Rob: What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
Jill: I hope that as a community we will continue to share our strengths, as we will be doing during this conference. It is so important to learn from each other, and practice together.
We must be well-trained to do this work and informed about the population we are seeking to serve, so that we understand their needs, handicaps, stressors, burdens, and strengths. We also need to understand, as much as possible, the emotional state of the community we wish to work with—how we can be sensitive to their emotional need, knowing what not to do or say, as well as the options that have been proven to work well. We need to be versed in the physical issues that each population presents so that we help keep them safe and facilitate health and balance, rather than stress and injury. The better educated and practiced we become, the more respect we will garner as professionals. There is no reason that somatic therapy, yoga therapy, and yoga service cannot become an integral and standard form of care that complements allopathic interventions.
I recommend and hope that it will become common for yoga service providers to have a support group, a mentor, be in supervision, and have someone to assist and intern with. This helps keep us in check, on the path, and accountable. I would like to see more retreats that support both yoga and meditation practices for caregivers, not to learn new skills necessarily, but to provide a respite and reprieve, turning our attention inward for self-care and reflection. This is not emotionally easy work, so all the more necessary to refill our own wells.
Lastly, I sincerely hope that we as a professional, well-trained group will become mainstream. We should no longer be fringe, but a well-paid and integral part of health care, and mental health care, in the United States and worldwide. If we continue to share our strengths, research, and ideas, we will grow as a community. We will be modeling compassionate action not only in the communities we wish to serve, but in our very own community as well.