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.
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.