Off the Mat and Into the World: The veiled imperialism of Western yoga’s new-age missionaries

This is a paper I wrote recently for one of my classes at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC (un-ceded Musqueam territory). It is an academic paper, though my writing style was heavily influenced by the way I blog. Please note that I wouldn’t usually express my ideas with this kind of language or in this format. I feel like academic writing is often very rigid and inaccesible, for many reasons. That said, I think the paper has some useful insights into thinking though imperialism and feel-good spiritual activism.

Off the Mat and Into the World:
The veiled imperialism of western yoga’s new-age missionaries

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Introduction: good intentions and the end of innocence

The fusion of yoga and activism is a quickly growing trend. As more and more people use yoga as a tool for healing and personal growth they come to a place of deep appreciation and gratitude for the benefits and freedom the practice grants them. From this place a desire to “be of service” arises. This desire to serve, combined with a whole lot of privilege, mobility, and a growing retreat culture has lead to the growth of a new kind of missionary work: “yogi’s” travelling across the world to help those who are “less fortunate”. At first glance this trend might appear not only innocent, but perhaps even positive. What could be wrong with people wanting to put the values and lessons they’ve learned on the mat into action to help others? But perhaps this trend is not as innocent as it appears. In fact it is my feeling that this growing trend in yoga-based missionary work is a veiled extension of colonialism and imperialism, however well intentioned it may appear.

Before I move onto the main body of my analysis I think I should position myself. I’m a western yoga teacher. I’m also an activist and community organizer. Service is most certainly an important part of my practice. I see my politics as an aspect of my spiritual practice and I certainly believe that what I’ve learned on my mat can be put to good use out in the world. At the same time I’m also highly aware of my position of privilege. I’m a white, middle class settler and a Canadian citizen. I’m fit, cis-gendered and ablebodied. I’m often read as straight, though I learning to (more accurately) identify myself as a femme-queer. That said I certainly benefit from hetero privilege. In many ways, my positionality is not drastically different from Seane Corn’s – who is the focus of my paper. Because of this I feel there is much for me to learn and reflect on in deconstructing her subject position. I should also say that in many ways I admire her work and I definitely appreciate the integrity of her intentions, but I also feel good intentions aren’t enough. If we want to create substantial change in the world; if we want to work toward justice, liberation and freedom for all people, I feel we desperately need to interrogate our own privilege and the ways we are implicated in the oppression and marginalization of those we hope to “help”. Further we should be asking if what these people need is our help, or our solidarity.  We need to learn to implicate our own experience, our own positions and our privilege. Jane Flax puts this sentiment really well when she explains:

“We need to learn ways of making claims about and acting upon injustice without transcendental guarantees or illusions of innocence. One of the dangerous consequences of transcendental notions of justice or knowledge is that they release us as discrete persons from full responsibility for our acts. We remain children, waiting if our own powers fail, for the higher authorities to save us from the consequences of our actions.” (emphasis added) (459-460)

I feel one of the most powerful aspects of yoga as a practice is coming into ourselves. We spend time in our bodies, connecting to our breath, learning to take responsibility for ourselves and accept reality without judgment or resistance. We can apply this same kind of self-understanding to our politics. We can use this way of knowing ourselves to be self-reflexive. Indeed we have to, if we hope to truly be of service.

Who is Seane Corn and why does her work matter?

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn teaching at a yoga conference in the Carribean.

Seane Corn is an internationally famous yoga teacher. She is what’s known as a “yogilebrity”. Almost every western yoga teacher knows who she is and her work has contributed substantially to bringing awareness within the yoga community to global injustice. Seane is regularly invited to speak at large events like the Yoga Journal Conference and Wanderlust – which cost hundreds of dollars to attend. At these speaking events Seane speaks about her service work and she often weaves this into the narrative of her life story. In a video posted in 2012, where she is interview by Deepak Chopra, Corne explains the spiritual significance of her service work. She says:

“The answer comes to me usually, through a child or a prostitute, or even a pimp, who says or does something, that reminds me that I don’t even need to worry about what this bigger picture is, all I have to do is show up from love and commit to that love.” (emphasis added)

Now, it should be said that I can relate to Seane’s intention here. Sometimes it’s important to drop your political analysis so that you can genuinely, in a non-intellectual way, connect with the person in front of you. It’s important, I would agree, to be heart centered when you are building relationships. All that said, it appears to me that it is a running theme of Seane’s work and descriptions of her life that she chooses to gloss over her privilege. The thing about privilege is that it’s easy to deem it insignificant when you are the person who has it (which we all do to some degree). Nancy Chater explains:

“Since part of white skin privilige is the “freedom” not to be aware of it, conceding to feeling powerless in the face of actual confrontations with racism serves only to reproduce racism.” (102)

While I can understand what Seane is trying to say, I find it worrying that she can so easily dismisses, “the bigger picture”. I wonder if this bigger picture would seem more important to her, less easily dismissed, if she were in a less privileged position, a position where she wasn’t cast as the saviour.

Off the Mat, Into the World

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane Corn in Haiti

Seane is the founder of an organization called Off the Mat Into the World. Off the Mat is one of the largest yoga-based non-profits in the world. They organize people who practice yoga to vote, offer leadership trainings and lead yearly Seva Challenges, in which participants have fundraised millions of dollars to support development work around the world. Participants in the challenge who fundraise at least $20,000 are invited to join Off the Mat’s founders on journeys across the world to “work directly with the organization their funds have helped to support”.  Off the Mat’s website describes the Seva Challenge like this:

“The Seva Challenge is a transformational journey that builds community, provokes awareness and action around global issues, and raises significant funds to support communities in crisis. Since 2007, the Seva Challenge has raised over $3 million dollars for projects in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa, Haiti and India.” (emphasis added)

For me, it’s hard not to notice the parallels between Seva Challenge and civilizing Christian missions: well meaning, spiritual people – largely privileged white women – travelling across the globe to “help” those that are “less fortunate” and “in need of development”. As the above quote illustrates, much of the value of these journeys is vested in the spiritual growth of the people doing the challenge, rather than “uplifting” and “helping” people from the global south.

Some might ask, well what is the problem with fundraising money for a good cause and then visiting the place you are helping? That seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? Perhaps not. In a paper discussing international feminist praxis Haggis and Schech problematize the helping relationship which so many western feminists, and I feel spiritual activists as well, ascribe to:

“Here the benevolent trope, with its taken for granted hierarchical relationship between the western feminist and the oppressed other, develops into something more like a marriage partnership, whereby the western feminist becomes the provider. This mimicry of the stereotypical western patriarchal marriage is couched in the terms of partnership.” (emphasis added) (392-393)

When you combine a lack of self-understanding regarding your own privilege with a desire to help, there is the tendency for your service work to simply reinforce the hierarchy you are hoping to address. When people with a lot of privilege utilize that privilege to give money to causes around the world, they not only run the risk of imposing their will on the culture and people they are trying to help, they manage to shape an improved sense of self worth while doing it. So it could be said that the service work really becomes more about reinforcing the image of the helper, than actually helping those “in need”.

One might ask, isn’t it possible to give money to a cause without imposing your will on them? Yes, that is possible, but it’s extremely challenging to do when such a grave power imbalance exists between the two parties involved AND one of the parties believes they have answers to offer the “people in need”. Several years ago Seane and members of the Seva challenge travelled to Uganada to assist with the building of a birthing center. Seane described her trip in a blog on Ophrah.com like this:

“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.”

There are quite a few problems with this description and I feel it is quite revealing, not only of Seane’s position of power, but also of the imperial nature of her trip. First of all, Seanes description of the land and the people as “prehistoric” and “tribal” are extremely reminiscent of the noble savage trope, employed by many colonizers as they discovered the “new world”. All to often well meaning western people essentialize the very complex lived experiences of people from the “third world” and then position themselves as the saviours of these simple, backwards people. The third world people are linked to the land, their bodies, tribal lifestyles and a simple, majestic way of life, as well as tied to nature – many of these links are demonstrated in the quote above and through Seane’s piece.

Much work has been done by anti-racist feminists to deconstruct the un-even relationship that exists between first and third world feminists and insight from this work, I feel, can also be applied to Seva Challenge. Chandra Mohanty explains:

“This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read:sexually constrained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, family oriented, victimized, etc). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self representation of western women as educated, modern as having control over their bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions”. (243)

Seane constructs a perfect example of this essentialized third world woman in another blog post she wrote for Oprah.com about witnessing a birth in a Ugandan birthing center. She writes:

“Like most of the impoverished rural women, she will likely grow up without a proper education, will lack food and water and will most likely be married off young in exchange for cows…and that’s if she’s lucky. The odds were better that she’d be raped, become one of many wives, and most likely contract AIDS, assuming she wasn’t already born with it. It was hard to feel excited for this child knowing that her life would prove to be hard.”

Throughout the piece Seane’s description of the birthing process and her prediction of the baby’s life clearly positions her as the saviour. In the rest of the post she describes herself as deeply moved by this experience and gives money to the woman who gave birth  (which she can easily procure due to her position of privilege, not to mention the fact that she is able to travel to Africa for this experience in the first place). She then tells the new mother what to do with the money – as if the woman couldn’t possibly make an informed decision about how to spend it herself. In this way Seane constructs herself as benevolent and erases the mothers’ agency. She also writes that the new baby is beautiful, “like a wild animal”.

This post not only displays an extremely troubling lack of self-reflexivity, it also casts the birth and the birthing center in a completely inaccurate and minimizing light. The post generated quite a bit of activity online, including responses from a Ugandan midwife:

“This is one of the most offensive things I have ever read. Your inherent belief that your ‘way’ is better/truer, your blatant disregard (even contempt) for the knowledge of the local midwives who staff the clinic and lack the ‘spirit of birth’, your assumption that the lack of care is a result of anything other than colonization is striking and scary. You speak so poorly of the staff midwife (who didn’t offer the care and love that you did). But did you ever consider who would have stepped in if there had been an emergency? Did you ever consider that her attitude might have shifted with you, the white women, in the room? You even assume that three women who have never attended a birth or spent more than a few weeks in a country know more about birth than the midwife and the woman giving birth herself. This comes from a long line of colonized thinking and quite frankly, it’s not helpful.” (emphasis added)

This quote clearly demonstrates the Seane was not only unwelcome in the space, but that her portrayal of the experience is not only imaginary, but deeply harmful. Her narrative then, can be seen as a mechanism within an imperial narrative which consistently and harmfully positions her and women like her as innocent, benevolent and helpful while at the same time represents women and people of the global south as backwards, tribal and in need of western intervention. These kinds of representations are not only offensive and untrue – they are violent.

This kind of simplistic renderings of women from the third world is regularly used to justify imperial conquest. For example, look at the Afghanistan war where imperial nations like America and Canada frequently employee descriptions and images of oppressed, veiled Afghani women to justify the war effort. We’re told “we must bring democracy to the middle east, we must liberate these women” – all the while women’s pay equity and re-productive rights in the imperial nations are constantly under attack. The hypocrisy of these positions is too painfully obvious and detrimentally harmful to be ignored.

Moving Beyond Good Intentions

solidarity

Now, I don’t believe that Seane Corn is intentionally trying to offer herself or her work as a tool in imperial conquest, in fact I have faith that she hopes her work would produce exactly the opposite effect. That said, good intentions don’t excuse the impacts of your actions. I wonder, if perhaps her position as a saviour, an activist and a spiritual leader has left her feeling comfortable enough not to question her own complicity. Sedef Arat-Koc wrote a piece in 2002 regarding western feminist positions on the Afghan war which I think lends itself well to understanding what I’m discussing here:

“In addition to the seductiveness of power that seems to ensure, there is something else which is intoxicating about an obsessive gaze on the “other”. Such a gaze not only affirms “our” superiority over the “other”, but also conveniently shifts the attention away from our own problems, conditions and status. Such a shift of attention not only helps “us” forget or remain unaware of the increasingly grim possibilities of achieving equality and better conditions for women in a period of economic and state restructuring. It also keeps us blind to the state of “our” civilization at a time when western countries are facing a set of changes since September 11th, of a nature not short of a coup. What we are facing since September 11th constitutes no less than a serious awakening, if not a major collapse of many institutions and practices which we supposed to be central to the self definitions of western countries as “free”, “democratic” and “tolerant”.” (61)

Bearing this in mind it becomes clear that a shift away from charity work to solidarity work is much needed. If we believe that we are all one, that we are energetically and spiritually connected and obligated to one another, then we must work to unpack all the dynamics and power and privilege that work to stratify and disconnect us from one another. We CAN work to end oppression, in fact a spiritual practice without this intention, I feel, is hollow and entirely too self oriented. In fact, this is a problem Seane speaks of regularly when she encourages her students and the yoga community to move beyond their personal practice and heed the call to serve. I just think she can and must take this concept one step further to include understanding her own privilege and encouraging her students to do the same.

I believe that the call to service must include un-packing our privilege. Doing so will allows us to enter into much-needed solidarity work. Service shouldn’t be a stepping-stone to higher self esteem achieved by standing on the backs of others – in fact I would go so far as to say that that isn’t service at all. Yoga is, at it’s heart, a liberatory practice. We can and should combine it with critical self-analysis. Doing so will leave us unable cling to comforting notions of innocence and allow us to do work that not only unpacks, but completely rejects the notion that we can or should impose our will, our answers, on others. Any other kind of approach lacks empathy, is steeped in illusion and will simply work to re-produce the separation we are all working so tirelessly to overcome.

Works Cited 

Arat-Koc, Sedef. “Hot Potato: Imperial Wars or Benevolent Interventions? Reflections on “Global Feminism” Post September 11th.” Atlantis 26.2 (2002): 53-65.

Chater, Nancy. “Biting the Hand that Feeds Me: Notes on Privilege From a White Anti-Racist Feminist.” Canadian Women’s Studies 14.2 (1994): 100-104.

Corne, Seane, “The Journey Begins.” Seane Corne Arrives in Africa. Oprah. 16 Feb 2010. 20 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Seane-Corn-Arrives-in-Uganda

Corne, Seane. “A Soul Enters the World.” A Birthing Center in Uganda. Oprah. 5 March 2010. 21 March 2013. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/A-Birthing-Center-in-Uganda

Flax, Jane. “The End of Innocence.” Feminists Theorize the Political, Ed. Judith Butler. Routledge, 1992. 445-463.

Haggis, Jane and Susanne Schech. “Meaning Well and Global Good Manners:Reflections on White Western Feminist Cross-cultural Praxis.” Australian Feminist Studies. 15.33. (2000): 387-399.

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes.” The Post Colonial Studies Reader, Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Routledge, 1995. 242-245.

“Seane Corn “Showing up and committing to love | WHO ARE YOU Part 2”. YouTube. The Chopra Well, 24 September 2012. Web. March 16 2013.

15 thoughts on “Off the Mat and Into the World: The veiled imperialism of Western yoga’s new-age missionaries

  1. wow, great critiques and analysis. Very timely for me, in a grad class and am having a hard time with the lack of space/ awareness/ skill necesary in the academic culture for a dialogue about hierarchies and how we can be oppressors evn with the best of intetions.

    peace, and please keep on writing/thinking/sharing your perspective!

  2. I read this paper with growing excitement. I’m Maxim’s Aunt and follow his social activism activities with great interest so I saw this link on his facebook page. I found so many of Seane Corn’s observations and statements stunningly naive, patronizing and downright offensive…
    Your evaluation of her ‘activities’ was insightful and so well written. It’s my hope that you will send this to Seane Corn, as she obviously has such a potential, with her ‘following’ to actual serve others in a spirit of universal community rather then in an egocentric manner. Hopefully she will also have the potential to she her behaviors as you have presented them and learn from this insight. Keep up the writing …. this is a solid A+

  3. While I appreciate some of the intellectual fortitude displayed in this analysis, I find the comparison of the work of OTM to Christian missionaries stunningly naive. It is a complete false equivalency, in terms of your attempted connection. Missionaries are there to proselytize first and foremost; there were reports after the earthquake in Haiti that some pop-up medical shelters run by religious organizations were refusing service to those who would not submit to Christ before entering. THAT is dangerous and imperialist.

    I do not disagree with you that some of Seane’s blog comments are troubling and, being open to pubic scrutiny, deserve analysis. Yet I just don’t equate a non-denominational organization that receives private funding from charitable means with a ‘privileged’ sect. As a yoga instructor for a decade, I’ve seen plenty in this varied community worthy of scrutiny, and very little of the work that OTM is actively accomplishing. So that leaves me to ask: What OTM events/workshops have you attended that would qualify your statements about the purported privileges you are lambasting above? For certainly you’re not basing an entire argument against an organization’s intentions on a blog post?

  4. Pingback: Why it’s important that teacher trainings include classes on the ethics of counselling, transference and basic sociology | Attceq- Quebec Mind/Body Association

  5. Ms Corn seems to me to be a textbook example of altruism=self-interest. I’m going to quote Ken Wilber: “Real compassion kicks butt and takes names and is not pleasant on certain days. If you are not ready for this FIRE, then find a new-age, sweetness-and-light, perpetually smiling teacher and learn to relabel your ego with spiritual-sounding terms. But stay from those who practice REAL COMPASSION, because they will fry your ass, my friend.”

    Ms Corn should either get her hands dirty or invest in some asbestos underwear.

  6. I agree with Derek Beres. Surely your vanguard political action here is more than a textual analysis of blog posts?

    The tone of this piece is deeply anxious and moralistic. This is the tone of most of the discipline of anthropology since 1980. Don’t worry so much. You are not at fault for the political incorrectness of the world. You don’t have to fix it. It is only the imperialist mindset that makes you think you can.

    We are all just doing the best that we can to help each other. We have different cognitive structures – all evidencing certain race/class/gender/bodysize/etc limitations – for doing that. That doesn’t make the efforts to connect and serve others null and void. Just naive. Just unconscious in certain respects.

    On the flip side, I’d submit that “deeply harmful” is a term for those NOT on that agenda off attempting to connect and attepting to help. For, you know, people running prisons and drone warfare programs and genocides.

    Speaking of naive, and selectively unconscious, how long will you use your newfound powers of neo-Marxism to try to make other people look morally wrong, politically incorrect and even all-out harmful? Seane Corn, she didn’t get to go to college like you. She waited freakin’ tables. This elite discourse of “empowerment” (especially “empowering the oppressed”) is a mark of ultra privilege. Thinking these thoughts, like writing this blog, is an activity only for those in the critical classes.

    Use that power with a little self-reflexitivy, eh?

    • @ (0v0) and Derek- Thank you for responding with the degree of thoughtfulness you have.

      I struggled with this paper on many levels, but often get intimidated by inaccessible academic privilege. I didn’t have that fancy education either.

      Why make this about Seane? There is plenty to talk about regarding how the west has co-opted yoga. I am even willing to have the transparent conversation about organizations like OTM wrestling with privilege. Walking a spiritual path deeply committed to social justice requires that each of us engage and re-engage in a delicate balance between our intentions and our impact.

      Seane Corn isn’t OTM. OTM is both an organization and a community. Seane is one human being, albeit one with privilege she has chosen to leverage to the best of her abilities for a better world. Perfect-no, but she herself would laugh off any attempt to put her in a guru status.

      Full disclosure: I am part of OTM and have been for quite some time. I owe a great deal to Seane, Hala, Suzanne and all of the OTM crew. See, I am not who the yoga world usually embraces. I don’t easily feel at home in yoga studios. I’m a queer,blue collar trans man living with AIDS and all the trauma that comes with it. I feel self-conscious walking into yoga studios in work boots and oiled stained hands. I can’t touch my toes even after years of practice.

      If it wasn’t for an article I read about Seane linking yoga as a spiritual practice deeply linked to service, I never would have endured the alienation I feel every time I walk into a studio. The OTM community gave me hope that I could use an embodied spiritual practice to somehow befriend my own body and create the world I wish had been available for me as a kid.

      I have personally had conversations with Seane and other OTM staff about privilege and ways they can continue to grow. I know others have as well.

      I would much rather work with imperfect human beings who put themselves out there in love. Folks I know are willing to misstep, listen and learn.

      I suggest you actually sit and talk with Seane someday.

  7. Your article leaves me feeling less concerned about white privileged yogis and yoginis in Africa and more concerned about jealousy, finger pointing and the ever present ‘evil white feminist’ doing their own perception of good in the world, which sounds strangely like the GOP party line about feminists to me.

    Yogi/nis are not proselytizing missionaries bringing Christ to the noble savage, telling said people they are going to hell if they are not believers. Yogi/nis erring on the side of wanting to do good, help others with essentially no payback other than their own travel stories and an inner feeling of ‘good’ in the face of poverty that most American’s will never see, is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, I suspect some new level of awareness happens for individuals in this program, and in my mind that is the precursor to sustained action. I would suspect that those inclined to do this work are already looking at, interested in the politics/privilege/imperialism of these situations – hello! how could they not be? And if by chance this is their first foray into those topics/experiences, well thank goodness! Cause time is wasting!

    Perhaps if the tone of your article/essay were less accusatory and more hand out to remind, advise and suggest, I’d feel better about it. I’m sure the white privilege points are real. But so is Sean’s commentary about the baby girl. Truth is women, children on this planet are mostly fodder. I’m not sure you can blame a person for being born into the life they were, neither Sean nor the baby have that choice, so to dis Sean and her co-creators of OTM might feel empowering to you, its actually neither helpful nor productive, IMO.

    Lastly, here are some questions that came to me as I read your piece:

    Would it be different if the OTM founders were: African-American? Hispanic? Asian? Male? Openly queer or trans? Something other than white women from the USA?

    Would you prefer that OTM not exist?

    How can you disrespect the innocence of the volunteers who come to OTM? We are all in our own learning curves. Disrespecting that does not encourage the ongoing learning and understanding that you express wanting in the said individuals. What is your plan to remove the ‘innocence’ that people who come to this program, naturally and accidentally bring with them? We are all innocent of experience and understanding until we are in IT.

    I hear you want something better than OTM, something smarter, more aware, more sensitive, more dialogue between helper and helpee, less imperial, less white, possibly less feminist. I don;t know how to get from the proverbial here to there but it seems to me that for whatever shortfalls OTM has, it begins the process of helping some to move in those directions. Again, I say, be aware of the tone you send your message with…

    Best and Blessings,
    Urania

  8. Would like to know if the author has done any trainings with OTM or any service trips with the organization? My personal experience (with both) is that race/gender/class/privilege are discussed quite a bit.

  9. I have been a yoga teacher for 13 years and a social justice activist for 15 years. The two practices for me are deeply intertwined, and my work is to bring more of a justice analysis to healing modalities (especially yoga and western herbalism), and more of a priority of healing to social justice work. I have worked in food justice, healing justice, transformative justice, solidarity work, anti-racism, transgender justice, and queer justice movements. I am a white working-class transman, partnered with a dis/abled woman and live in Brooklyn where I co-run Third Root Community Health Center, a worker-owned healing cooperative. This is all to give context.

    I met Seane Corn two years ago at a conference at Kripalu. Up until this point, I had been deeply skeptical of Off the Mat, and distrustful of anything big-name in yoga. I have seen a lot of dynamics of oppression show up in the yoga classroom, as everywhere else in our world, but it’s disturbing when an environment is intended to be healing, and when I expect mindfulness, to have more harm inflicted. During the Q and A at the event, I was asking her the hardest, most direct questions that I could think of pertaining to my experience of racism, transphobia, classism, and other forms of trauma inflicted in the classroom. I asked her how OTM trains their ‘leaders’ to be conscientious of dynamics of power in the classroom. I asked her how do they determine which country the Seva challenge goes to, and who they give their money to.

    I have faced incredible transphobia in the yoga classroom, and when I met Seane, and toId her about this, she apologized, and said that I should be able to attend trainings and classes to heal, not to educate or be on guard. I was shocked that a big-name yogi said this, and it was the most genuine understanding of what I go through in every class I take. Coming to know Seane, as well as Hala Khouri, Kerri Kelly, and Suzanne Sterling, I have found them all to be excellent allies in many ways. And, I have struggled with them all around their justice practices.

    I found Seane to be very open, very real with her mistakes, passionate about social justice, and open about her identity-so much so, that much to the surprise of everyone who knows me, I have attended both of OTMs retreats, and have actually been embraced by the organization. I have also been incredibly frustrated in the classroom with them, along with other queers and people of color. I found Seane’s story of how she came to yoga, and how she came to be a queer ally, as especially touching-are you familiar with it? It’s clear that you don’t know these stories, and they are relevant. She has much more than good intentions. She has vision and skills for collaboration. This doesn’t mean at all that I agree with everything that OTM does-and the Seva Challenge is the thing I disagree with the most. But I do think they are willing to work, to change, and are at a profound growth point in the organization. I am working with them around offering different trainings around issues of power and privilege, as well as strategies of how to bring more diversity to the table.

    One thing that I have learned from Seane in a personal way, is the ways that I create separation and isolation-as a queer, as a radical. Every time I use the word ‘my community’, she looks at me sideways, and has challenged me to grow to the point where ‘my community’ is as broad as the world itself. Queers have been hurt. Trans people have been pathologized, murdered, assaulted. There are reasons to protect myself. And, as long as I do so through anger and separation, the wound will not be healed. The Buddha says that love alone will end hatred. So, Seane has challenged me, how do I love the very people who have hurt me the most-which, in my case, is straight white upper class women like herself. She has asked me, what are the areas that I still hold shame about who I am, and how can I work on that, to dissolve it, so that I am not threatened by anyone seeing me fully? She sees me, honors who I am and the journey that I have had, and is bold enough, and is a great enough ally, to not be afraid to challenge me to grow my wings bigger.

    There is no similar work being done in as big of a way in western yoga-OTM attracts thousands each year. That is profound, and an perfect opportunity to change the dialogue in yoga in the US. One thing Seane regularly says is that yoga teachers have a platform to speak from every day-so how do we use that opportunity for the real liberation of all? I have attended the trainings of various organizations who offer yoga to homeless people, in shelters, to incarcerated people, and OTM is actually the best that I have found. They engage the issues and embrace diversity better than other organizations, and are continually open to feedback. They work with other organizations in the ‘yoga service’ world, whereas others have some territorialism. They actually helped to found the Yoga Service Council and its conference, bringing all of us doing transformative justice work together. I’m curious if you know this history, or if you looked into it.

    OTM is imperfect, as we all are. And they are trying, and they are growing, and they are open. They are yogic-and have not yet reached enlightenment. So then, how do we turn and walk with them, engage them and utilize the power and tools that they do have?

  10. Unfortunately, what’s offered here occurs to me to be a kind of Fox News (the Rupert Murdoch owned U.S. news outlet known for one-sided analysis) uninformed perspective.

    As a black woman who participated in the Uganda work referenced in the article, It’s really clear to me that there’s been very little time invested in researching Seane Corn or the work of OTM. For example, cultural diversity, sensitivity and privilege work are a part of what’s done in Seva Challenge. I know that because I helped to create it.

    Another example is the misconstrued comment about bats and turkey vultures. Seane was speaking about the birds, not people in her writing. When I saw them I had the exact same reaction – bats and turkey vultures are are scary and pre-historic.

    There seems to me to be a hidden meta self-righteousness in this piece. And…even if that last statement is an incorrect assessment, what I know because I was there is that the underlying conclusions drawn are flat wrong.

    Nikki Myers

  11. I am sure your motivation in writing this blog entry is also well intentioned but your analysis is misguided, uninformed, one-sided and not constructive.

    I am part of the OTM community and traveled to South Africa after raising $20,000 for the Seva Challenge in 2009. I did this fund-raising over the course of a year working my tail off to raise every dollar mostly by teaching donation yoga classes and by spreading awareness of a global issue. After hearing the stories of the other participants, many of them did this in the same fashion. The experience of meeting the organizations in Cape Town that we considered our partners was not an act of imperialism or superiority but an act of connection. As I live in a soccer-crazed town and the World Cup was in South Africa that year, my community was also able to learn more about South Africa beyond the glamourized portrayal on t.v. during the World Cup.

    You position yourself as if you are excused from being a privileged because you put it out there right away. If you had ever attended an OTM event this is something that is acknowledged right away and is addressed continually by Seane as well as the other leaders and members. During our trip to South Africa, we spent many hours after long days discussing privilege and how it might have unexpectedly shown up for us. We did a lot of group work that showed us this was the case even if we originally did not realize it. As a matter of fact, I learned a lot on that trip about privilege, assumption, and subtle and not so subtle racism from the group work we did as well as from our discussions with South Africans (who were open and eager to discuss this topic). I developed a close friendship with a woman who is a teacher in one of the organizations who came to visit me in the US, and we discussed this in depth during her visit. Comparing this experience to Imperialism or “new-age missionaries” is really off target.

    You have worked hard to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s as far as being politically correct in your presentation, but your judgmental and self-righteous tone is the essence of privilege. What is most disheartening is that OTM and its members are completely open to having this dialogue, but you offer your opinion as an exaggerated, dogmatic monologue using your forum to make yourself feel better about what you do—exactly what you accused so many others of doing.

    Your presentation is flawed on many levels. OTM is bigger than just one person and has many dedicated people that work tirelessly to improve the organization as well as its programs. Your condescending description of “feel-good” activism is naïve. I am sure you do the work you do in part because it makes you feel like a better citizen and person. You refer to solidarity as an alternative, but what is that and can you stand by your words that it is not flawed in its approach?

    Instead of creating a meaningful conversation that could improve OTM as well as the work you do in your community, your approach creates the exact opposite—judgment, separation and blame. Your skills, insight and knowledge could have been used so much more constructively.

  12. Pingback: beyond duality: talking about race, power & oppression in yoga service

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