07/15/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Service Yoga: How We Connect With the Villages of Costa Rica

This is an interview with Joshua Canter, who, unlike most of us, began his spiritual journey at 16 when his grandmother gave him the book Be Here Now by Ram Dass. Featured in the book was Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass's guru, who is most known for the simple and profound teaching, "Love All. Serve All." These teachings laid the foundation of his yoga practice, his career, and continue to guide his life today. In 2003 Joshua and his wife Kristin Luna Ray co-founded True Nature Education. True Nature Education is an international learning institute based in Costa Rica, which has hosted over 1,000 participants of all ages from around the world, who have taken part in a wide range of programs featuring the practice of Karma Yoga ("Service Yoga"). The CREER ("Believe") Service Organization, True Nature Education's sister organization, founded by Canter in 2005, is a non-profit dedicated to serving the native rural population in Costa Rica, operates several programs, including affordable adult education, micro-finance, land stewardship, and international volunteer support.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

When I was a child my parents would often ask me, "What are you going to do to make this world a better place?" These words continue to be a reminder and a motivation to learn more about myself and how I can offer whatever gifts I have. Each day when I wake up and sit on my meditation cushion, I say a part of St. Francis's prayer: "Merge my will with thy will and 'make me an instrument.'"

I believe that we have an innate human desire to give to others, and that we feel a sense of fulfillment and purpose when we serve. As I continue to grow and evolve in my work, I see and believe in the potential to serve more people in more sustainable ways. When I look at my 2-year-old daughter, Jaya, I wonder how I can support the generations to come. These thoughts fuel my passion for service, and it is the same inner fire that drove me to create True Nature Education, and guides me as my life's work continues to evolve.

Is there a standout moment from your work with True Nature Education in Costa Rica?

This past January, one of our groups had the opportunity to take part in building a house for a family in a small village. Their previous home, the size of a little storage shed, housed seven people, and was destroyed in an earthquake this past fall. As we watched the walls of the house go up, the mother of the family was crying, and as I looked around, many from our group were also shedding tears. This sharing of emotion exemplified for me the common need we have as humans for connection and support, to give and to receive, and to remember that we are not alone.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

When I'm in a studio, I'm aware of the boundaries and limitations that come with that particular environment. People are arriving from their everyday life, we are inside a building, and without the presence of nature. I'm also aware of the demographic of my students as well as the amount of time allotted for a particular class.

When teaching abroad and in a multi-day program, I have more time to be patient, to improvise, and to open to all the possibilities available. A class in a studio might be compared to a river, and our retreat programs feel like an infinite ocean.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

My greatest challenge as a teacher lies in working to meet the full spectrum of needs of those I am teaching and serving. I truly enjoy sharing, teaching, and learning from many different kinds of people. Whether it's a child in a Costa Rican school, a lawyer wanting to learn mindfulness for the first time, or a woman with cancer wanting to learn tools for her end-of-life journey, each person and group provides a new challenge. My greatest tool is simple awareness and flexibility. When in a class, in a retreat setting, or in a village, I do my best to offer a clear plan and to listen and feel the needs of those I'm working with, allowing the space to create, shift, and teach as I go. I see life as a school: Each day we wake up to many lessons, challenges, successes, and struggles.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

I was once at a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and he shared, "Cultivating peace within oneself is the greatest gift we can offer to the planet." If we can be present and listen deeply to the voice of our own true nature, I believe we all have the ability to teach one another. With this realization, we can also embrace the truth that we are all teachers and we are all students.

When teaching and serving in the villages of Costa Rica it's easy for me to think, "I know what these people need." But when I have a chance to truly observe and listen mindfully, I see that this picture changes. I'm able to feel and truly understand the needs of the people and how I can best support them. We actually facilitate formal practices of mindful listening and sharing in our education programs, with one person intentionally sharing and one person actively listening. It has been amazing to see the impact of this simple exercise, and the realizations that come from them. Through these practices we learn a valuable tool -- to fully listen. It's simply profound when it actually happens!

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

My hope is that "service yoga" can be incorporated into the mainstream of the growing industry of yoga. The yoga movement is just beginning here in the West, and to millions, yoga is still a set of postures. "Karma Yoga," one of the lesser-known forms of yoga, is often referred to as "the yoga of selfless service." During these changing times on the planet, my hope is that karma/service yoga will increasingly be found at the forefront of modern-day yoga practice. With the growing population of yogis, including my young daughter and the next generation, we have the opportunity to instill these teachings and values at a young age, bringing these concepts and practices to schools, into the homes of families, and into communities around the world. My hope is that the message I heard when I was 16, "Love All. Serve All," can be a message that helps guide our country and the next generation.

What other organizations do you admire?

Give Back Yoga, Ibme (Inward Bound Mindfulness Education), Upaya Institute, Embracing the World, The National Society of Leadership and Success.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!