Making Volunteering a Yogic Practice

Selfless service is at the core of yogic philosophy. Its benefits share many similarities with yoga itself, and it’s good for the body, mind, and spirit.

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As a teenager I was fortunate enough to be taken by a friend to a local home for the elderly in order to volunteer. We spent the afternoon pushing old ladies in wheelchairs up and down the promenade, and helping them drink cups of tea with straws. And while—as an awkward and typically self-centered 15-year-old—I found it to be challenging, I came away with the knowledge embedded in my heart that there is something very important—indeed, for me, mandatory—about giving time to serve others.

It is in no small part why I fell in love with yoga—because at its very roots it includes the practice of selfless service. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna that:

“In order to excel, mentally control the senses, let go of all attachments, and engage the body in Karma Yoga, selfless service.”

We can meditate and practice asana as much as we like, but without giving to others we will not discover our true nature, we will not fully experience a life of love.

Many of the benefits of volunteering are also the benefits of yoga.

It’s not just the yogic texts that urge us to give of ourselves as part of a spiritual practice. In Kabbalah, sharing and charitable giving, tzedaka, is at the core of its teachings. In Buddhism, giving to and serving others is emphasized to create positive karma. For the Sufis, humanitarianism is considered the practice for overcoming self-centeredness. And in the New Testament we are repeatedly reminded to serve. As Mother Teresa is frequently quoted as saying of Jesus’ teachings: “Give your hands to serve and your hearts to love.”

Beyond a spiritual practice, when thinking about why volunteering feels so important, I was surprised to discover than many of the benefits of volunteering are also the benefits of yoga. Volunteering seems to be a practice in its own right.

1. It’s good for your health.

Studies show that volunteers live longer, are less stressed, and are less likely to suffer from depression than those who do not give of their time. And don’t you just feel better when you help others or a cause?

2. You’ll feel like you have more time.

Contrary to what we may think, those who give their time report feeling like their lives are less rushed. You get back what you give.

3. It’s good for the world.

Volunteering allows community resources to be redeployed to other areas. Indeed, the estimated value of a volunteer’s time is $15. That money can provide someone else with a much-needed job. Not only that, but the effect of volunteer work on the wellbeing of the community and environment is significant. Volunteers can make an impact by helping with environmental cleanup, or serving in after-school programs to help educate children and keep them safe.

4. It can connect us to our community.

We often move around so many times that it can be hard to feel grounded or truly a part of a community. This feeling arises particularly when we are new to an area or far from friends or family. Volunteering is a great way to find a local tribe and better get to know the neighborhood you live in.

5. It can be something fulfilling that you enjoy.

Find the right program for you. I don’t enjoy volunteering in soup kitchens, but I do love working in hospitals. The wonderful thing about volunteering is that because there are so many opportunities to explore you are certain to find something you love. It could be offering childcare, or helping with administrative work. It might be using your creative skills to help with website development for nonprofits, or photographing dogs at a local shelter to help them get rehomed. Whether it’s reading to the blind, cleaning up beaches, running to earn money for charities, or cooking meals for the homeless, there are always people and organizations looking for your help.

6. It can make you more generous.

According to this study, volunteering is more likely to make us donate to charity. The more we give back, the more we want to give back.

7. It can help you find a career.

With so many opportunities to explore, volunteering can help you hone in on what you enjoy, and therefore what you may want to pursue as a career. The skills and experience that volunteering provides can also help you land a job. The experience I’ve gained working with children in after-school programs has enabled me to become a paid tutor, while teaching yoga for free in my community has improved my skills as a teacher.

8. It can change your life.

When we give we receive. And volunteers often report feeling like they receive more from their experience than they give. I have been deeply humbled by the people I have met volunteering—both those who I am there to serve, and through my interactions with volunteer coordinators. And perhaps best of all, I met my partner volunteering in a community garden, and my beloved dog Millie is number 16 of 17 rescue dogs I fostered. Without volunteering there would be a lot less love in my life.

Last year more than 60 million people volunteered in the U.S., which is something to celebrate. Yet the overwhelming majority of those volunteers are over 35. Millennials are the least likely demographic to donate their time. As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, let’s change those statistics. Like yoga, volunteering is good for our bodies, minds, spirits, and the world.

Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.