Asking Questions About Devotion, Service And Finding Home With Aimee Schoof, Founder Of Amayoga
My first time walking into a homeless shelter in the infamous Skid Row, near downtown Los Angeles, I felt uneasy. I felt the furthest from home I’d ever been, even though for many people, this shelter was home – at least for a day, or more. I could hear people arguing outside; I smelled their cigarette smoke creeping in through the windows. In my mind lingered superficial thoughts of my car in the parking lot and whether it would be in the same condition when I returned to it. We walked pass stiff, cold, metal bunk beds that hinted of lonely nights. The kids’ playroom was scattered with toys touched by children whose odds seemed stacked against them. There was a sense of neglect in the walls. I feared that loneliness might be contagious and I yearned for an out. I was uncomfortable; I was frustrated, but I felt a sense of being compelled by some force.
I was brought here for a day of service at the shelter along with my class at the behest of my social action and justice college professor. Here I was introduced the concept of seva, Sanskrit for service. My teacher’s passion inspired me in a way that nothing else did. Whatever the fire was that he had for his work, I wanted the same for mine. On that day on Skid Row, I couldn’t have been any further from home. Yet I quickly learned; life begins at the end of our comfort zones. Shortly after spending a day “abroad,” I declared a Social Work major, which would be the start of one of the most challenging and eye-opening experiences of my life.
Choosing to study within the field of service meant constantly inquiring as to the nature of my intentions related to working in this arena. How much is about chasing down the “feel good” vibe from helping others? To what extent was I masking the fact that through service I was attempting to cleanse myself from my own faults, guilt and demons? During these moments of swadhyaya (self-study), questions arise that can be so difficult to face that it can nearly make a person crumble and walk away from one’s higher purpose.
When I began to learn how to surrender: to surrender to the way things are as opposed to how I thought things should be, to surrender my ego, and to surrender to God, the work became more bearable. Incidentally, during this trial I discovered these four paths of Yoga: Karma (service), Bhakti (love and devotion), Raja (the regal path of meditation) and Jnana (the journey to understand, know and realize God). Through these philosophies, I discovered service and devotion.
My own path led me to work as a case manager at a homeless shelter for women with mental illness and substance addictions. Working at a homeless shelter is no longer really my seva – I am financially compensated for these efforts. However, lessons of service surround me daily as I see volunteers, activists and artists cautiously step out of their comfort zones, open their hearts, contribute their talents and give their time in the effort of justice and love for all.
AmaYoga – Providing a Home through Yoga
One example of selfless service working with people who are currently homeless is the nonprofit organization AmaYoga. AmaYoga was conceived by Aimee Schoof in 2008 to give back to the community in a way that she found personally healing. When living in New York City, Schoff became aware of people living on the streets – because it was so visible. “When Giuliani took office, most of the homeless were forced into the streets and parks,” says Schoff. “I was disturbed; I wondered where all the people went. There were large shelters, but when dealing with an extensive population of people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, many of them would not stay in shelters. You would see them hiding or sleeping in the worst conditions.”
After moving to Venice, California, Schoof was again confronted by this population and wanted to make a difference. When attending the Self Expression and Leadership Program at The Landmark Forum, Schoof created AmaYoga, inspired by the prompt to create an organization to give back to the community. AmaYoga began by providing classes for three shelters within Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC), a nonprofit serving the homeless population of Santa Monica.
Currently, AmaYoga provides Yoga classes at ten shelters throughout Los Angeles with weekly classes ranging in size from three to twenty-five people; people who may not otherwise have access to the practice of Yoga.
The word Ama stems from a Sanskrit translation of “within.” Schoof was drawn to this name for the concept of bringing a sense of “home” to everyone – whether or not they have a physical home.
It reminds us all that “we are perfect and whole without anything else, we must just find that home center, that peace within to activate our best selves,” says Schoof.
Schoof believes, “Breathing, stretching and being in our bodies is the first key to self-realization; then anything can be possible.”
AmaYoga coordinates with the Westside Homeless and Hunger Coalition, local Yoga studios and professionally trained Yoga instructors who volunteer their time. They’ve secured support from Creative Visions and GAIAM. AmaYoga has received mat donations and other financial and community support. Schoof is planning to film an AmaYoga DVD, a beginners’ class taught by Ama instructors, to distribute in shelters and offer for sale online.
Schoof’s plan is to raise enough money to be able to pay the instructors who are dedicating their time to teach people in need through seasonal fundraisers and events at the shelters. (YogaWorks on Main Street and lululemon in Santa Monica hosted recent fundraising events.) AmaYoga hopes to coordinate twenty Los Angeles area classes by this Spring and dive even deeper through a nationwide expansion to cities with visible homeless populations including San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York City. “I would like AmaYoga to be the organization people call when they do not have the budget or resources to offer a Yoga program in their shelter, school, or facility.”
Schoof confesses, “Seva, to me, is the art of giving…I have received great joy from facilitating seva for the teachers and staff, who usually take the classes, along with their students.”
Bhakti and Seva
Seva springs from two forms of Yoga – Karma and Bhakti – the Yoga of action and the Yoga of devotion inspired by Divine love, respectively. In the practice of Karma Yoga, the understanding is that for every action there is a direct effect for both the doer and the recipient. Yoga is an attitude of devotion to God based on human relationships. The great Bhakti Nityananda said, “It is not Bhakti to give a man some money or to give him a meal as charity. Bhakti is universal love. Seeing God in all beings, without the least idea of duality, is Bhakti.”
I’ve never seen anyone become cured from hopelessness because a family decided to come in and cook a meal. But I have seen a person feel validated when one of those family members listened to the health limitations and made a plate catering to that person’s needs. That is validating; fulfilling nourishment. In that moment, that volunteer unconsciously practiced seva. It’s about the loving, human touch: Seeing God in all.
Seva is not always easy, it’s not always uplifting; it’s not always inspirational. It asks us to confront our ego and seek God in all situations. A person can walk into a home for people with cerebral palsy feeling enchanted by the opportunity to show someone unconditional love and walk out feeling disheartened by the fact that God could allow a debilitating disease. Seva challenges us to ask questions and find our answers. It challenges us to not waste in anger but push on and chant the beauty of the good.
Like all therapists, teachers, and healers, I face resistance and adversity while working in the field of service. It is humbling. Recipients of service can sense when there’s an ulterior motive; I have heard one client bluntly state, “Don’t be getting all high and mighty on me.” When I face cues like this it reminds me to stop, surrender and reevaluate.
The most highly regarded therapists, healers and teachers are successful because their work is based on empowerment. It is not of service to anyone to tell someone how they should act, think, or be. Just as Yoga teachers offer suggestions for each pose to open the door for students to find the perfect fit for their body, all we can do is offer skills and suggestions as to what has gotten us through our own experience and empower others to find their strengths and their truths.
Service and Duty
In the Ramayana, Hanuman selflessly serves Lord Rama, not because he desires a specific outcome, but because it is his duty, his dharma. Hanuman teaches us we must understand ourselves first to uncover our purpose. His devotion shows us that seva is a reflection of our connection to the divine.
How do we know when we are working out of selfless duty and when we are not? I am just one human with limited knowledge, but in my experience, it is akin to the moment when a person falls in love – when you know, you know. True seva occurs when you are not attached the result or the glory of your actions; when it doesn’t matter if the other person validates or even realizes your effort. When the only thing that matters is that you have done all that you can to guide a person, child or community toward finding happiness and peace within themselves. In those moments when there is no separation between you and the recipients of your actions.
If Yoga is union between you and the divine, then what higher form of Yoga is there than seva when you are merging with the divine, another soul and your highest self at the same time?
It doesn’t matter if you have the most successful 501(c)3 or have been awarded medals of honor for your service and devotion. As Kirtan artist and Yoga instructor Andres Salcedo says, “It is not a performance.” What matters is when intentions are in line. And in this process, all we can control are our actions, not their fruits or results. However, as we have been taught time and time again, the fruits of our actions fall in line with their intentions.
During many moments in our lives, the most important seva we can practice is to become quiet, to observe our feelings, intentions, actions and inquire within to become more fit for serving others. Through our self-study, through our seva, through our dharma, we find our own home within.
When we are connected to this home, we can be anywhere in the exterior world and be comfortable. When at home in your heart, you can spread that joy you carry within by planting the seeds of seva – whether it be mentoring youth, teaching Yoga to inmates in prison, rehabilitating the homeless, preserving Mother Earth, or nursing a dying grandparent. The lessons of seva are not population sensitive, but universal.
This is the work of Aimee Schoof and AmaYoga. We’re all looking for our home, the one that comes with us in every moment, whether or not we have a physical address. This home is the wellspring from which our action arises. We’re all serving, no matter which side of the balance sheet we’re serving from. It’s not about you. It is about us.
Close your books, test your comfort zones, turn off your mind and develop the heart. This is seva, this is shanti; this is Bhakti. This is the Yoga that will lift us out of a time of adversity and into an era of nondual consciousness.
For more information on AmaYoga, or to volunteer or support the project in any way, visit: amayoga.org.
Vanessa Harris is grateful for all of the volunteers, staff members, and mentors at Daybreak Shelter who tirelessly (and unconsciously) practice Yoga, Bhakti, and seva day in and day out.
By Vanessa Harris