Zubin: You are one of the founders of Off the Mat, Into the World®. In your view of yoga, there’s a big service component. Can you explain?
Hala: I think a healthy yoga practice is going to express itself in some kind of taking care of the world and the people around you. There is an expanded sense of self beyond the personal body. I think that’s what this idea of service is about. It’s not necessarily that I’m going to go help other people, because there’s something arrogant about that. But I’m going to engage in my larger community so that I remember that I am interconnected and interdependent with everybody around me.
In my therapy practice, I see that we can get so concerned with our own stuff, and it starts to feel so big. Suddenly waking up to the world around us creates some context. Entering into conscious relationship with others in a way that’s mutual and respectable can give balance.
Zubin: And you think that yoga practice is a good framework for that?
Hala: I do. I think that yoga practice, in terms of keeping oneself in check, is vital, so that when we go out into our communities, we have this relationship with ourselves that is conscious. I also think that sharing yoga with others is a great way to create that connection.
Zubin: What about the service work you do in the bigger field? You’ve said that one can get into a very paternalistic attitude, a taking–care-of-other-people mode. To be frank, I’m always a little suspicious about many of the yoga initiatives that go and teach people in Africa how to do yoga.
Hala: Absolutely, it can be arrogant. In our work with Off the Mat, going in and teaching yoga is not actually a big part of what we do. The trips that we do are called “Bare Witness.” We teach participants that we’re there to bear witness unto others, but unless we’re able to bear witness unto ourselves, we can’t bear witness unto them without creating judgment or separation—or an arrogance—of imposing our own will onto different communities.
When we take people into these communities, we very much say, “You’re not doing anything to help these people. Nothing. You’re there to learn from them.”
Truthfully, we’re going into countries that are so poor, and we’re the root of their suffering, in the way that Western countries exploit the developing world, causing some of their poverty. And yet, we then go and hand them a sandwich, and we feel so good.
Most Americans can do the best good by staying home and changing what they’re buying—that can affect the rest of the world. The trips we take with Off the Mat are about educating people about what’s happening in other cultures and inviting people to be in relationship with those who are different from them. The thing I love about yoga is that I do feel like it transcends race, class, and culture. We all have bodies; we all have nervous systems, and our nervous systems operate the same. The fight-or-flight response is the same in everybody.
Zubin: You said travel is not the central piece of Off the Mat?
Hala: The crux of what we do is about using yoga to do shadow work and depth work so you can get clear about what you want to do and what your purpose is, and so that purpose is not blinded by your own unconscious material. Yoga is about making the unconscious conscious.
For us to do whatever off of our mat, how can we bring that same attention to it that we do on our mat? In other words, if I’m out there, and I think I’m doing service, but I am really just wanting to feel good about myself and have people tell me how fabulous I am, that’s like me doing my downward dog wrong, and being misaligned, and eventually hurting myself. How do I look at what I’m doing outside and be really clear about what might be happening behind that? What’s motivating me? How can I come from a place of connection rather than separation?
I often tell the story of when I first moved to Venice. I was at the park and I saw a couple of African-American women with gang tattoos on their necks. They had their kids with them. I thought to myself, I’m going to go talk to them. Maybe I can bring them to yoga class. Then I stopped and thought, “God, that was such an arrogant thought. There was so much racism and assumption in that thought.” I caught myself, and I really had to look at it.
Then, last Friday, before going to teach the yoga class, I was at the park again. I saw some women that are local with their kids and I thought “I’d like to meet them because they have kids my age.” I felt I had come a long way. I was wanting connection with them because they are in my community; I wasn’t thinking that I needed to teach them anything!
Adapted from Conversations With Modern Yogis by Zubin Shroff. Used with permission.