Stronger to­gether

Hala Khouri re­flects on the mean­ing of seva.

Yoga Journal - - LIVE WELL -

WHEN I WAS A NEW TEACHER, I vol­un­teered to teach yoga to teen girls at a Boys & 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 honor 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 rec­og­nize 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 coun­sel­ing 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 coun­sel­ing 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 in Aus­tralia: “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 re­de­fine, or at least rein­ter­pret, the word seva.

While the di­rect trans­la­tion of seva is “self­less ser­vice,” I’ve come to re­al­ize 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 rec­og­nizes 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

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