Feb '08 Seva

Service Opportunities in Mysore
By Tracy McDonald

As you probably already know, “Ashtanga” refers to the eight limbs of yoga that make up the path to enlightenment. You are already fulfilling one limb quite thoroughly (asana), so why not use your next trip to Mysore as an opportunity to practice Seva (selfless service)?

It might seem unlikely at first, but maybe with time you’ll find that lounging at the pool or wandering through labyrinthine markets with locals hanging onto your yoga trousers is slightly less fulfilling than say, filling your heart to bursting with love and joy for others. Seriously! It is astonishing to think that the price of one day at the pool is more than what the average Indian can only dream of earning in a month, so why not use that time and your volition to increase the happiness of others, as well as your own?

If you have not yet ventured outside of Gokulum, you will see that once you leave the confines of “the shala bubble” the reality of what India has to offer is not always pretty. In fact, the only “problem” with India is that need is so abundant that the willing volunteer might feel a bit overwhelmed and not know where to get started. Also, please be warned that although most organizations are legitimate, there are a few bad apples in the barrel. So, how do you find the perfect volunteer gig to match your interests, commitment levels, and skills? Read on to find out!

Take a moment to reflect on your motivations and to set an intention. One aspect of selfless service is the place it comes from in your heart – if the volition is pure, then the action is pure.

Once you have set your intention, it is time to think about what you are trying to achieve. Is what you are giving something that is needed? Is it something that will benefit others?

Picking a program
I recommend three charities through my experience in Mysore. They are local and I found my time with them to be extremely rewarding.

This is a massive, colossal, even astronomical problem in India, so what better way to give back to the community than to give your time in assisting some of the most destitute of society? I volunteered for 4 months with an excellent organization called Operation Shanti. This program is run by Tracy Kunichika, who has been in Mysore for close to 5 years, having created this program after her first year. She started as a yoga student in the AYRI shala, where she was inspired to dedicate her time to the homeless community.

Through Tracy’s work in organizing volunteers for this project (a long standing one being a young lady named Kim, also a yogi, who is as committed in heart as Tracy!), she has been able to get over a dozen children off the streets and into boarding schools, where they stand a much better chance of beating the poverty cycle. She has cultivated relationships with several families who are her “regulars” – this consists of mothers and their children, mainly (as the fathers are usually working) – and she has been able to provide housing for nearly all these families. Tracy supports their medical needs by taking them to hospitals, clinics and wellness facilities; she gives them daily vitamins and purchases their medications. In Indian society, it is likely that these people will never rise out of the poverty in which they were born. Tracy is doing a lot to change that.

To volunteer with Operation Shanti, contact Tracy and make a time to meet her before you head out on the street. You’ll accompany Tracy on one of her morning visits to the street. You can choose from a range of activities to engage in with the children. Bring your own talents - you may end up drawing with the children, teaching some English, using flashcards, playing with blocks, or even teaching yoga! These are just some of the possibilities…Tracy is open to hearing your ideas for whatever you’d like to contribute. Once a month, volunteers are invited to join Tracy on her visit to the boarding school, which is a truly special time when families are reunited.

This was such a rewarding experience for me, and the most important thing I did in Mysore during the whole 4 months I was there. Nothing is quite like holding a young child, with so much potential in your arms, feeling the many roadblocks against this child, and then removing some of these roadblocks through your actions.

For more information on volunteering or to make a donation, please contact Tracy by email at info@operation-shanti.org. You can also visit Operation Shant's website at http://www.operation-shanti.org/index.html.

If you are interested in the natural world: the environment, plants and animals, the great outdoors (Sharath Rangaswamy is really into nature and wildlife, too, so you’d be in good company!), you may want to look into doing some work for The Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). I also worked there over the 4 months I was in Mysore, and it was great. If you are looking to get involved in a grassroots, local organization, to make a difference in the planet from the ground up (no pun intended!) and have a unique cultural experience of working with all Indians, this may be for you.

NCF is involved in wildlife conservation throughout India, but the main office is less than a ten-minute walk from Tina’s house. The organization does a lot of work in the mountainous regions, conducting research in areas such as Ladakh, the Western Ghats, and the Himalayas. (I was constantly invited to go on interesting site visits to learn more about the research that NCF was gathering. Unfortunately, I was always too involved in my yoga practice to leave on any long trips, but I highly recommend this!)

NCF is great with sharing knowledge: they have an Environmental Education branch, part of which was giving presentations at the local zoo; and all of the people out in the field conducting research come back to the main office periodically and give presentations (including slides) of amazing creatures such as snow leopards. One guy is especially focused on amphibians, and had a ton of slides of frogs taken in the wild – truly outstanding! The organization also engages in human-animal conflict, and has a whole program with elephants for this purpose (stampeding elephants are a big deal in India! only the kind of stuff you’d learn at NCF – it’s all really interesting!).

NCF is well managed, and the people working there are very “down to earth”. Working with NCF was not as intense as working on the street (you will be working in a comfortable office with a woman who brings around tea all the time! ah, that lovely chai…), but by helping at whatever level you can, you are supporting work to sustain our planet for future generations.

Check out NCF’s website, they are a reputable organization in India, and probably one of the only ones dedicated to this amazing cause (everyone who works there is really aware and passionate about it conservation) on http://www.ncf-india.org/. Contact Vena Kapoor regarding volunteering at ncf@ncf-india.org.

Directions: Coming out of Tina’s, make a right and go to the main intersection at the bottom of the hill. Make a left onto this “main street” (it is the first real street after the cement wall ends, not that little dirt road). You are now walking uphill, you will be passing many shops on your right, and on the left some open space, maybe some pigs and a little temple. After a couple of minutes of walking, the shops on the right will give way to an “open” field where there are sometimes goats grazing – across from this, on the left, is an entrance to an Engineering College (you may see students, and sometimes a cricket game or band practice!). Carrying on up the hill, walk for another couple of minutes, and at the end of this field on the right, you will see over to the right some energy works, and a bit further back, a house with a blue roof – this is NCF!

People of all professional background, skills, and interests, can volunteer at a local school program organized at Tina’s. Volunteers meet at Tina’s two days a week and head off together for the teaching, which lasts about an hour, sometimes an hour and a half.

During the time that I was involved, we had 20 volunteers going out on a day. Often times, volunteers could double up in a classroom, which was fun for both the volunteers and the children. The volunteer teachers created their own curriculum, although we have since created an on-line curriculum that you can check out and implement from the following website: http://groups.google.com/group/EnglishVolunteersMysore/web. So don’t worry about a lot of pre-planning – you mainly just show up, take attendance, jot down a few notes about what you did and how it was received (this fabulous program is still building, so we like to know what works and what doesn’t), and that’s it! The rest is just that in-class time with your students, with whom you will grow meaningful relationships.

As with the street children in Operation Shanti, you are encouraged to bring your own ideas and skills in order to bring the lessons to life and make them as interactive as possible. The goals of the program are to teach English to a level where the students can actually use it, and if you have the inclination and volition, check out the website above, and don’t hesitate to give one or two days a week to this great cause! Find out at Tina’s when the volunteers are going out. Moreover, Indian students are keen to learn English and to get to know people from other countries, so not only are you facilitating this learning process, but also engaging in a cultural exchange that is more important than even the teaching!

I hope I have convinced you to change in two hours a week at the pool for two hours in another capacity that could change the life of one or many people. Who knows what brightness and possibility you can bring into the world, if you only just try!

Tracy McDonald was introduced to Ashtanga yoga in London 2004 at Surya Yoga by Sabel and Jennifer (students of Dena Kingsberg). A workshop with Dena in '05 inspired Tracy to start a daily self practice which she took with her to Madagascar for service work. From June-October 2007, she was lucky enough to be able to study in the AYRI shala with Sharath, Saraswati, and Guruji. Tracy currently volunteers with the Friends of Wissahickon NGO to maintain Philadelphia's largest park, and in March 2008 will volunteer for 27 months in Senegal for Environmental Education in the Peace Corps. Seva is an important part of her practice.

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