For many of us the concept of seva or “selfless service” involves helping others, often those that we perceive as disadvantaged or underserved. But at what point does this very desire to help others in-need further create the idea of separation?
During my time as Director of Yoga Gangsters, a non-profit that brings yoga to youth in inner city areas, I have been blessed to teach yoga to various populations: from homeless youth and victims of abuse to children with various medical conditions. I have approached all of these experiences with the purest of intentions: to simply share the practice of yoga with an enthusiastic spirit. And it is that which I have humbly done. But still, I couldn’t help but to enter each situation with these very labels floating around in my mind… homeless, abused, ill. You see, I know that yoga can release the tension and trauma my students have accumulated thru their life experiences, so it only seemed natural that I be aware of their backgrounds as I prepare to facilitate any moments of healing through the yoga practice, even if only for a few breaths.
All of that changed when I began teaching at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Pediatric Extended Care Center, a half-day program that serves many children from low-income families. Here I would meet so many little angels ages 3-5 with a broad range of medical conditions including: Autism, Downs Syndrome, Sickle Cell Anemia, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, Organ Transplants, and more. I quickly learned that this work would require a resilient heart, compassionate, yet still somehow detached.
On my first day visiting the center I was flooded with a sea of happy children, playing and screaming as all kids do. Yes they were sick, many with breathing tubes and catheters, but they carried themselves with pure joy, almost as if the concepts of “sick, disadvantaged, and underserved” were still foreign to them. It would probably be many years until they would fully understand their medical conditions and how it affected those who love them. In fact, some of them may never fully grasp the labels us well-intentioned caregivers use to describe the very unique qualities that make them all so special.
There was one 5 year-old girl in particular named Sophia who reminded me never to impose my own perceptions of “lack” or “need” upon those I serve. During our very first introduction, she proudly lifted up her shirt to reveal a deep surgery scar straight up and down the center of her entire torso. As I stood there witnessing how carefree and nonchalant she was about this scar that would make anyone’s heart break open, I had no choice but to celebrate with her. Why wouldn’t I? Because of what I as a healthy individual could perceive as “suffering”? It was in this moment that I realized how important it is for me as a teacher to view all of the kids I work with as just that…. Kids. Not “sick kids”, not “at-risk kids,” not “kids with behavioral issues”… just KIDS.
Same goes for Naji, a 5 year-old student with high blood pressure who lives on medication in dosage amounts equal to that of an adult. The radiance in his eyes as he proudly declares, “I am Strong!” every time he shows off his Warrior stance reminds me that in this case there is no need for empathy because there is no pain. What if the pain comes from us — the adult teachers, caregivers and volunteers — who, loving these children, feel a pain for that may not always even be there within them?
You see, children such as Sophia and Naji haven’t yet fully discovered the concepts of different or separate. They serve as beautiful mini teachers reminding me to be more child-like every time I practice seva. For just like its literal translation, “string”, seva connects us all, making us one-in-the-same: whole, healthy, full of life and unlimited potential.
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Marisol Tamez is a yoga teacher, writer, video producer, and Executive Director of Yoga Gangsters, a non-profit organization bringing free yoga programs to at-risk youth in S. Florida. She currently teaches at Terri Cooper’s 305 Yoga and is the head of the yoga program at Fontainebleau Miami Beach. In her previous career, Marisol produced video content for international channels such as MTV Networks, Telemundo and HTV. She now has her own production company, The TV Writer’s VOICE (an acronym for “Vision of Inspiring Communities to Evolve”), in which she focuses on creating innovative projects and documenting the efforts of change-makers across the world.