When service is offered to another being and it contains your best thoughts and feelings, your love and affection, sympathy and compassion, then that action becomes a blessing in disguise to uplift another being. That is seva.
2008 was a big year for Satyananda Yoga in South Africa and particularly so for the small group of devotees living in Cape Town. We invited Swami Pragyamurti from London to teach a yoga nidra course in Cape Town, and she insisted on us taking her out into the townships and poor communities to share her accumulated wisdom in teaching yoga to HIV+ people and prisoners. This led to follow-up visits where she taught prisoners, HIV+ people, and people from impoverished communities with huge success. Swami Niranjanananda visited South Africa in July 2008. During his time with us he spoke about yoga outreach and projects that have been conducted successfully with children, and in prisons and addiction centres in India. He encouraged us all to look at the needs in our communities in South Africa and explore ways of taking yoga into the communities. This along with the incredibly generous hit of inspiration we receive as prasad every time we visit Rikhia, led to us to form an NGO trust.
SevaUnite was formed in August 2008. We wanted to provide a means for people from all walks of life and yogic traditions to become involved in and explore the path of Seva Yoga. Having experienced its heart opening and ego purifying effects, we were very excited about the prospects. What follows is an account of a wonderful journey all those involved have experienced through the activities of the organization thus far.
Based on what we had seen in Rikhia we identified a group of fifty households living in Masiphumelele township in Cape Town. These families are living well below the poverty line in shacks that are one foot under water in winter. We conducted a demographic survey of the families, finding out exactly who lived in each household, the ages of the children, etc. We also set about collecting old clothes and other useful items for the families through our network of friends and yoga students. With donations and collective efforts of the SevaUnite volunteers, we packed hampers that contained clothes, toys, shoes, other appropriate items, as well as food hampers for the shack dwelling community. Our centre was transformed into a mini bhet room with people sorting and packing bags.
Before sunrise on Saturday morning volunteers with loaded cars drove into Masiphumelele. We used a church hall and distributed the hampers prior to Christmas to the families. They were all given numbered tickets the week before to ensure the right bags went to the right families. It went off without a hitch and we felt guru’s grace presiding over the whole event. We repeated this distribution to this community twice more, organizing blankets for a winter distribution. Since then we unfortunately have lost touch with the leaders within the community and have not been able to organize another distribution but took valuable lessons from the experience and everyone involved was uplifted by the project.
We also decided to start a children’s yoga movement based on the model of the Bal Yoga Mitra Mandal in Munger. Ultimately we would like this movement to be coordinated by the children with children teaching yoga to other kids in their communities. We have been teaching four groups of children from Gugulethu, Factreton, Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plein in collaboration with an organization called the Children Resource Centre; these children come from impoverished communities. We also teach another group of forty HIV+ orphans aged between four and fifteen years, through an organization called Ubuntu Africa in Khayelitsha township. It is unbelievably heart opening to watch forty children roar like crazy African lions one minute and the next, sit cross-legged with their eyes closed, observing their breath, their faces visibly relaxing.
We developed a basic children’s manual with a simple asana and pranayama program as well as a short shavasana body scan practice, and one practice called “Help someone have a better day”, with suggestions like helping with the cleaning, sharing your lunch, or giving someone a hug. The children respond very well to the classes, and the group from Gugulethu have begun to teach their friends yoga from the manual!
Yoga for Africa is another exciting SevaUnite project that has hatched out of the inspiration of Swami Pragyamurti’s visits to South Africa. Together with her input, we put together a 12-program yoga manual called ‘Yoga for Africa’. The idea is to start yoga classes in impoverished communities, teaching the yoga that can help them immediately feel better. Especially in South Africa, where the HIV+ epidemic is out of control, the book helps many to boost their immune systems and feel better, without having to wait for the government to hand out treatments, etc. The idea is to identify people within the group who can become ‘fast tracked’ yoga teachers, able to teach what is in the manual to their group, hence making the projects self-sustaining.
We have also trained forty volunteer yoga teachers and practitioners from all yogic traditions to teach from the manual in the Satyananda style, thus standardizing what is taught in the YFA outreach programs and making it easy to get volunteers to teach on a roster basis. If a teacher is unable to make a class, another one can continue with the same material that is based on the tried and tested experience of Swami Pragyamurti.
The teachers seek out projects to start themselves or we try placing them in projects we have set up in impoverished communities. We are currently running a successful project with a group called ‘Positive Muslims’, teaching HIV+ men and women. This group now has two of its own members capable of running a yoga class. Another group is going on with women in Masiphumelele township and we have just signed a two year contract with Pollsmore prison, teaching three groups: sentenced men and women offenders and a group of people still awaiting trial. We hope to train inmates serving long sentences to become teachers within the prison. The manual is distributed free or for a very small cost to the members of these groups and projects, while it is available to people who can afford it for a price that allows us to donate three copies in the projects.
Yoga for Africa has proven incredibly rewarding, when you see the effects that simple practices have on people, how their faces soften, smiles appear and an increased sense of vitality comes over them. The practices work and beginners are the most fortunate as the effects are so profound, especially if they are experiencing things for the first time. As our resources expand, we plan to take this project to many groups, including HIV support groups, impoverished communities, addiction centres, etc.
Besides teaching in Pollsmore prison, we contacted a group in the USA called the Human Kindness Foundation, who send an inspiring book called ‘We’re All Doing Time’ by Bo Lozoff to anyone serving time in a prison, free of charge. The book encourages people in prison to use their time constructively to explore a spiritual path. We wanted to get hold of a few copies for South Africa. Following a short discussion, they asked if we would distribute the book to prisoners in Africa, as the postage costs from the USA are very expensive. Since then we have sent the book to prisoners all over the African continent and keep in letter contact with some of the prisoners to support their journey. A wonderful man in Zambia upon receiving the book, started a yoga and meditation group in his prison block with over twenty members!
There are hundreds of paths to become happy, to attain God, attain peace or awaken psychic powers, but the simplest of all is the path of seva, selfless service.
Personally, in working with SevaUnite I’m continually blown away by the enthusiasm people have for it. I have experienced a willingness of so many who want to help but may not know how, and I have felt their hearts and my own open as the effects of seva take hold when given an opportunity. Just before visiting the ashram, I was praying for guidance and help with the issues and difficulties we face in running the organization due to lack of resources and funds, only to receive an email from a sannyasin in London who wanted to fund-raise for us. And at the ashram three people suggested fundraising leads and were prepared to follow up on them for us. It was also amazing how many people are prepared to support SevaUnite.
The Satyananda family really gets it and it is growing in Cape Town with more of our group experiencing transformative time at Rikhia! What we experience in Rikhia is like a shining example, there to empower us all to find a way to reach out and connect to humanity and experience the meaning and purpose of life. I can only encourage all of you who feel this urge to find something within your own community and take the message and inspiration we get from our beloved gurus into the world through Seva Yoga in whatever form is appropriate to your nature and situation. This way Rikhiapeeth will become a very large ashram indeed. Don’t be afraid to try things out. Remember that seva is a path for your growth as well.
We hope to continue to develop all the projects so that SevaUnite can grow and continue to provide people with opportunities to volunteer and get involved in what we believe to be the quickest and most wonderful path to God – Seva Yoga. Thank you Paramahamsaji!