Beyond the Mat: Yoga and Service

ON May 17, 2019
Yoga and Service: Sean Feit Oakes

Service is a key component of yoga, and is often considered the greatest form of spiritual practice. There are many forms of service: donating time or energy to a cause, being a teacher, being a parent, performing work with love and integrity… Service is a beautiful component of a practice because it innately perpetuates a bettering in the world. Doing good carries forward — the compassion you extend toward others can keep reflecting outward.

But how do we serve? How can we find what is meaningful in service?

Sean Feit Oakes says below,

For service to be part of our practice, we have to feel it, and connecting with others is the strongest way to feel something.

Over the coming months, we want to shine a light on all the ways in which our teachers weave service into their lives.  May it inspire us to find the ways in which our own hearts desire to serve and to take our own practices off the mat.

Sean shares,

“Service shines a light on connection and relationship. Service both creates meaning and reflects the meaning that is already there in a person’s belief system. Acts of service are also intrinsically generous, and so manifest the deep wisdom teachings around giving, renunciation, non-grasping, and letting go. Service is deeply impersonal. It’s not about the one who serves. “

With gratitude to Dr. Sean Oakes for both his service and for sharing these thoughts with us.

Q: Where do you see the intersection of Yoga + Service?

A: Yoga as I use the word refers to physical and meditative practices that make us stronger, more resilient, and more able to maintain a warmth and clarity of presence through the storms of our lives. If they work, these practices should liberate energy throughout our life: energies that instead of being bound up in vigilance, fear, and overwhelm become available for other things. And when the heart isn’t afraid and overwhelmed, our life energies naturally turn toward service. There’s so much pain and suffering in the world! The open and strong heart naturally wants to ease that pain if it can. It naturally wants to help. The intersection of Yoga and service should be obvious: if you don’t have an urge to help others find relief from suffering and oppression in this world, what good is all that practice? If there’s no service, there’s no relationship, and without relationship, even a beautiful Yoga practice is in danger of being narcissistic, of just being entertainment.

Q: In what ways do you bring the concept of service into your life and practice?

A: I teach as much within the model of Gift Economy as possible, I volunteer my time for Dharma and social justice projects whose ethics and missions resonate with me, and I ask myself before embarking on any project: who will this serve, and in what way? Is this a good use of my time in service of the end of suffering? (I’m also raising a child, so I am primarily in service of his deep education and well-being, and the well-being of our family system. That service underlies all the others.)

Yoga and Service: Sean Feit Oakes

Q: How can the act of service lend meaning to our lives?

A: Meaning in life is the experience of connection: actions connected to results, people connected in ethical bonds of relationship, experiences connected to concepts of rightness, justice, purpose, or holiness. Service shines a light on connection and relationship, and so both creates meaning and reflects the meaning that is already there in a person’s belief system. Acts of service are also intrinsically generous, and so manifest the deep wisdom teachings around giving, renunciation, non-grasping, and letting go. Service is deeply impersonal. It’s not about the one who serves. In all these ways, if we connect with the deeper implications in service, a wisdom shines forth. Ultimately for Yoga practitioners connected to Yoga as a spiritual practice, all of life must become service because Yoga is and never was about gratification of individual desires.

Q: Is there a specific cause you are devoted to, and why?

A: I’m devoted to climate justice, the restoration of sustainable cultures to our planet, and the conditions for contemplative practice to thrive so that beings can practice and attain the deepest liberations possible in this life. For that to become possible, racism, sexism, colonialism, and the inter-related cataclysms of industrial capitalism must be healed and our course shifted as a species. in this sense, then, I’m devoted to the destruction of our entire way of life in service of an entirely new way of living with our planet and each other. I know that to be a gradual process, and I’m grateful for the teachings on the nature of conditions and complex systems as I hold this impossibly vast purpose in my heart.

Q: Is there an event or Service related offering that you will be taking part in over the next 4-6 months?

A: I will be taking part in events on May 18, the weekend of the Buddhist holiday of Vesak, coordinated by One Earth Sangha and one of my teachers, Thanissara, around a declaration of climate emergency. I also plan to be a part of the yearly Walk to Feed the Hungry organized by Buddhist Global Relief.

Yoga and Service | One Earth Sangha

Q: Can you recommend ways for students to bring the concept of service into their lives or into their practices?

A: Find something to do that helps. It’s best if it’s not solitary, and not just online. For service to be part of our practice, we have to feel it, and connecting with others is the strongest way to feel something.

It’s so easy for service to stay just a concept. Our lives are so isolated, and many Yoga communities only hold together in the form of groups of people we see in class. And American Yoga tends to be politically disengaged. So a first step is to wake up to suffering, to inequality, to the pain all around us. And then connect with any of the thousands of groups of good people doing good work all over the place. And start doing that work with them.

Join Sean Feit Oakes for his donation based Tuesday night Insight Meditation Sangha at Namaste Berkeley.

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