From Inspired to Effective: Bringing Yoga and Mindfulness to Society’s Most Vulnerable Members

Carol Horton, Ph.D.
December 06, 2017

The face of yoga in the media is increasingly dominated by skinny models in fancy yoga poses, news about high-profile celebrities showing off their new ‘yoga body’ or the latest scandal involving assorted yoga ‘gurus’ or for that matter, see-through Lululemon clothing.

Yet, behind the scenes a wave has been building for years, and continues to grow: The use of yoga in public services programs across the country, serving disadvantaged members of our society. American yoga service organizations now work with an estimated 150,000-200,000 people annually, including women who have experienced abuse, prisoners, at-risk children and teens, veterans, those with cancer, and homeless individuals.

At the hub of this growing movement is the Yoga Service Council (YSC), which functions as the organizational and educational center for yoga seva initiatives. Formed in 2009 at the Omega Institute, YSC is dedicated to the development of “a community of professional support in the field of yoga service” that is engaged in “helping YSC members to move from inspired to effective in using the tools of yoga and mindfulness to reach underserved and vulnerable populations.”

In June, 2013 the Yoga Service Council (YSC) held its second annual conference at the Omega institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The annual YSC conference provides the opportunity to learn from some of the visionary leaders in the field, and to be inspired by the myriad of ways in which the yoga community is being of service to those in need.  

Indeed, after enjoying a weekend of inspirational talks, wonderful workshops, good food, camaraderie, asana and meditation, I felt as though I had participated in one of the most promising new waves of yoga in our time.

The conference was emblematic of the tremendous progress that the YSC has made toward linking yoga theory and practice with real world applications in diverse areas such as organizational development, addiction recovery, social outreach, and neuroscience.  These creative couplings represent invaluable new ways in which traditional yogic practices can be integrated into modern life.

This year’s YSC conference was larger than its inaugural debut in 2012. It is clear that the YSC is growing rapidly and that its mission is building momentum. The 2012 and 2013 conferences featured impressive keynote speakers, a variety of excellent workshops, and evening meet-and-greet sessions during which representatives of over 30 yoga service organizations offered informational tables. This enabled organizers and attendees the time to socialize, form collaborative relationships, and learn from each other. This year 30 individuals were awarded YSC scholarships to attend the conference. Recipients were mostly young members whose presence increased the gathering’s demographic and cultural diversity, and added to the excitement of the event.

The conference looked at yoga service initiatives related to addiction, trauma healing, high-risk youth, cancer survivors, elder care, and creating a sustainable yoga service program. Participants included many full-time yoga teachers as well as social workers, mental health and education professionals, and scientific researchers. Their shared commitment to yoga service created a sense of camaraderie and community.


Highlights from the 2013 Yoga Service Conference 

The conference proceedings were punctuated by a number of highlights. Beryl Bender Birch’s Friday night address on “Awakening to Spiritual Revolution: The Convergence of Practice and of Activism” was moving and inspirational.  Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., delivered a fascinating talk entitled “Strengthening Compassion” that offered insights from her 8-week training program in which she explores the nature of compassion and its roots in Buddhist meditation practices, spiritual philosophies, neuroscience, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.

Dr. McGonigal noted that the four key elements of compassion include 1) recognition of suffering, 2) feelings of concern and connection, 3) desire to relieve suffering, and 4) willingness and ability to respond. She offered a clear picture of the factors that support the development of compassion, as well as those that inhibit it.

People are less likely to experience compassion if placed in unsafe or unstable situations. In the face of uncertainty we are much more likely to resort to our innate fight, flight or freeze responses rather that to address the suffering of another with compassion. In the face of stress it is much more likely that we will be avoidant of another’s distress and choose to avoid, escape, shut down or dismiss a person rather than to choose a skillful action.

Dr. McGonigal detailed practices that can be used to strengthen our ability to be in the presence of suffering without defaulting to reactive or avoidant feelings or behaviors. “Compassion,” she emphasized, “is a set of skills that can be trained.” It is not an unlimited resource that can be continuously mined.  It requires time, effort and self-care to nurture skillful responses. McGonigal urged yoga service providers not to romanticize compassion, but to understand the concrete practices that help it grow, and the everyday scenarios that restrict it.  

The conference included several other highlights. Sharon Salzberg, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher specializing in loving kindness teachings, led a practice dedicated to deepening our capacities for concentration, connection, fearlessness, and genuine happiness.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading expert on trauma, provided us with a thought-provoking introduction to his work on “Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma.” He expertly synthesized information from a variety of fields including yoga, history, neuroscience, and psychology. This was followed by a panel discussion on diversity and cultural awareness in the yoga service movement. This topic will undoubtedly be the subject of greater discussion in future conferences.

The Yoga Service Council and its annual meeting represent a concerted effort on the part of the yoga community to engage in selfless service. The conference is a remarkable experience whether or not you’re interested in yoga service. It reminds us that there is no division between serving ourselves and serving others, and reminds us of the interconnection that is possible through mindful practice. 

The YSC meeting was also highlighted in Forbes magazine - see Grace Bullock's article about the promise yoga service offers for disadvantaged youth.

Photos courtesy of Omega Institute,