11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Yoga Save The World?

It's no secret that yoga has become a commodity. But this week at the Yoga Journal Conference I found something unexpected...yogis giving back.

What was once an ancient Hindu practice aimed at bringing about mental clarity and overall well-being, has today become a popular form of exercise accompanied by hundreds of clothing and accessory companies making millions off the purported needs of the average American Yogi. A February 2005 poll by Harris Interactive and Yoga Journal magazine revealed that about 16.5 million Americans spend nearly $3 billion annually on yoga classes and products.

With this in mind, and coming from Boulder, Colorado where yoga studios are almost as prevalent as ATMs, I headed up to the YMCA of the Rockies outside of Estes Park to spend a day at the annual Yoga Journal Conference.

Now, I'm not the most likely attendant of such a conference, given that I have spent my career focused on human rights in war zones and I can hardly call myself a Yogi, though I have attended a class or two in my life.

To be honest, I went expecting to find a lot of white, upper class, exercise-freaks wearing $80 yoga pants, gushing over rock star-status teachers, and focusing on, well, themselves. And to be really honest, there was plenty of that going on.

But what I didn't expect, what stays with me now that the conference has ended, was how many people and companies I met, in just one day, that were talking about some aspect of giving back. The ancient concept of Seva (Sanskrit for service) is an integral part of yogic teachings, yet it has been less emphasized in the ever-growing tide of "yoga for Me!"

But, as I discovered, there are islands of "other" floating in this enormous yogic sea.

First, I spoke briefly with Alan Zucker, Council Member for the Green Yoga Association about greening the Yoga Journal Conference itself (this year they focused on eliminating plastic water bottles) and how real change starts with educating the masses to make positive "green" choices with their purchasing power. Over the years Alan has seen the large Yoga companies respond in kind with renewable, non-sweatshop, organic clothing and accessories, and today building greener yoga studios is all the rage.

Next, I talked with a woman named Karyn from Bali Malas. Made from Rudraksha beads harvested in Indonesia, these malas are meant for use in meditation practice. But digging a little deeper I learned that the proceeds from these malas support Bumi Sehat, a birthing and wellness center in Bali, whose goal is "conflict resolution and peace building, one mother, one baby, and one family at a time" they were speaking my language. Karyn also spoke about knowing the Balinese women who string the malas and the income generation it has provided for them and their families.

Feeling encouraged, I moved on to speak with folks selling the Shakti Mat, a lightweight plasticized version of the ancient Indian "bed of nails", meant to increase energy and relieve muscle tension. Surely this product, a recent arrival in the US from Sweden, was a classic example of the West appropriating an Eastern tradition for its own benefit. Or was it?

Speaking with Shakti Mat owner, Om Mokshanada, I learned that his goal is to use proceeds from the sale of the mat to help people in need in India. They plan to build a school and orphanage in the Himalayan Mountains and their website has an entire section devoted to their factory and well cared for employees in Varanasi, India.

Finally, over a vegan lunch, I had the serendipitous honor of meeting Rob Schware, Board Member of the Give Back Yoga Foundation. This non-profit out of Takoma Park, Maryland has the goal of providing funds for Yoga teachers to develop and execute yoga programming for under-served communities in the US.

Founded on the belief that classical yoga (the asanas, the breathing and the meditation) has the ability to transform human consciousness, and that yoga in the US has primarily been a privileged and expensive tool available to the elite, the Give Back Yoga Foundation aims to support yoga teachers to provide free yoga to under-resourced socio-economic communities. In essence, they provide grants for yogis to undertake the Seva aspect of their path by offering yoga to disadvantaged communities who can benefit. They have supported free yoga for women in shelters, prisoners and veterans suffering from PTSD. Recently, two stars of the yoga world, Seane Corn and David Swenson, joined the Give Back Foundation's Advisory Board, effectively making it cool to give back.

At the end of the day, I left the conference feeling encouraged about the future of yoga and the potential for its teachings to create positive change in the world.

We live in a society that emphasizes self-obsession and spends billions advertising products to make us look and feel better. Although I cannot say that the yoga world is bucking that trend all together, I can say that a storm is brewing, and it is beginning on the non-PVC, recycled material, yoga mat that donates back.

Yes, most people come to yoga motivated solely to better themselves, but if this wave of giving and service continues to grow, it could be an example to exercise movements everywhere...instead of just obsessing about what we need for ourselves, we can take the teachings that have helped us and use them to alleviate the suffering of others.

Do you practice yoga? Have you had an experience with yoga that is more about giving back and less about you? Comment below!


Kiri Westby

Featured contributor to Ed and Deb Shapiro's new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, with forewords by HH Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman.