Australian Yoga Journal — January 2018

(Jacob Rumans) #1




january 2018



WHEN I WAS A new teacher, I
volunteered to teach yoga to teen girls at
a Boys and Girls Clubs location in
Venice, California. In addition to yoga,
we’d also do art projects and talk about
issues that affect young adults, such as
low self-esteem. Negative body image
had been a big struggle for me as a
teen, and I’ve often thought about how
learning yoga back then would have
helped me regulate my emotions and
reframe my insecurities. So, I made
body image the theme of one of our
classes and devised an art project to help
the girls honour and love their bodies
just as they were. Armed with poster
board, pastels, and stacks of magazines
containing inspirational messages about
self-love, I opened the class with some
questions I thought would segue to my
planned project: “How do you feel about
your body?” “Do you ever try to change
the way your body looks?”
The girls—who were all different
shapes and sizes—only stared at me
with confused expressions and then

unanimously responded with
statements like, “I love my body;” “My
body’s amazing.” I was shocked and
embarrassed that I’d come in acting like
an expert on an experience that was
different from my own. I hastily
scrapped the art project and went
straight to practicing yoga.
Looking back, I recognise the deep
impact those girls had on me. They
showed me the importance of setting
out to help others, not from a place of
distance or separation, but rather by
making a connection with people,
getting curious about their experience,
and staying open before deciding what
to offer. It’s a lesson that comes to
bear for me all the time.
For instance, a few years ago I
was asked to offer counselling and
information on trauma to a group of
gang interventionists, all former gang
members who had struggled with
addiction, violence, and incarceration.
Their life experience was completely
foreign to me. I grew up in an

upper-middle class, white community
where people who struggled with drugs
were sent to rehab, not thrown in jail.
Most people in my community had
stable jobs and felt protected by law
enforcement, not targeted by them. So,
before starting counselling or offering
self-care techniques, I knew I needed to
listen more than I spoke. Their stories of
resilience, perseverance, pain,
forgiveness, and faith were incredible.
But I never would have heard them if I’d
positioned myself as an outside expert.
I often refer to this quote from Lilla
Watson, an Aboriginal elder and social-
justice activist: “If you have come to help
me, you are wasting your time. If you
have come because your liberation is
bound up with mine, then let us work
together.” When Watson said that our
liberation is bound, I believe she was
speaking to the fact that no one is free
until everyone is free. How can I enjoy
the privileges afforded to me knowing
that not everyone else has the same
privileges? Or worse, that some of my
privileges come at the cost of the
well-being of others? It can feel
overwhelming to think about these
things, but if I want to continue my seva
work, it is necessary. It has also led me
to redefi ne, or at least reinterpret, the
word seva.
While the direct translation of seva is
“selfl ess service,” I’ve come to realise
that there is no such thing. It’s vital that
we let our interactions with people
touch into our own vulnerability.
Otherwise, we inadvertently create
separation and even a hierarchy—which
foolishly implies we are the one with
something to offer. True service is about
acting in a way that recognises the
humanity in each of us, despite our
differences—a way that acknowledges
the pain and the strength we share and
sees everyone as deserving access to
basic human needs. Ultimately, it is our
mutuality that will allow us all to heal.

Hala Khouri reflects on the meaning of seva.

Hala Khouri is a yoga teacher
and somatic counsellor in
Venice, California, and
co-founder of Off the Mat
Into the World.
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