September 22, 2011

Five Ways to be a Better Yogi through Volunteerism. ~Sonja Bjelland

Photo: Raty_seithor

When we travel to a culture other than our own it takes some special consideration to be a good “house guest” in that country.

When these places are in the developing world and maybe you want to volunteer, it’s more of a challenge.

As yogis we try to follow one of the main tenets, ahimsa, to be non-harming.

A new report looking at if volunteerism is becoming the “new colonialism” raises the question if the West is maintaining power by keeping groups involved to “help” the area.

So how can we be better yoga travelers?

Issues with volunteerism have been raised before when companies capitalize on the hearts of the West by having people pay to come build something they would otherwise have paid locals to do.

Volunteerism, missionaries—it all stems from the same roots. We in the West want to help, and we think we know how to make a place different from our own by making it more like our home.

We miss another key yoga principal—non-judgment.

Photo: National Museum of American History

I am reminded of a story I heard about a Peace Corps volunteer who got all this money together to build a town a well so people wouldn’t have to walk to the river to get water. The well was built but no one used it. The volunteer finally asked what was wrong with the well. The local women replied that going to get the water was a chance to get out of the house and chat with their friends.

This is a struggle in all aid organizations. Doing work that truly makes a difference when at least millions are spent making Westerners feel like they’re doing good (as noted in an excellent Slate.com article on Cambodia.) The West is home to more non-governmental aid organizations than any other country on the planet.

Then there are those people and groups who do listen, and who are bringing about change.

When we travel abroad this has to remain present in our minds. It’s tough to not give money to the Cambodian kids selling postcards—especially when they can count to ten in at least five languages and want to chat with you about President Obama and American politics.

But buying their wears only keeps them on the street and not in school.

Photo: James Khoo

Really though, how can you blame the parents? At some point Western tourists started handing things out. I’m not sure if it started with candy or money but now kids just stand on the riverbanks yelling, “pencil, candy!”

It’s our duty, especially as yoga travelers, to do good, not harm. Even when we think we’re doing good. So here’s some tips to consider:

  1. Talk to locals or ex-pats running your hotel about best practices and the reality of the area, not your assumptions.
  2.  Research before you go and know what type of work you’ll be doing for a volunteerism trip and ask if this seems right to you.
  3. Ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of this experience.
  4. Question people who have already done the trip by finding them on Facebook fan pages, Lonely Planet’s ThornTree forum and Google searches.
  5. Find other ways to help by getting to know someone on the ground who you know is contributing and help fund their work. Like my friend Laura who helps do online marketing for women in Thailand making yoga clothes http://www.border-weaving.org/cart/index.php. Or my friend Suzie who is trying to raise $3,000 for a generator to keep the ten computers in her tech center going during frequent power outages in Africa. They are the only public computers for an area of 200,000.


Sonja Bjelland travels the world looking for great yoga and even better food. After 10 years writing about America’s underbelly for daily newspapers, her stories now focus on international travel and wellness tourism in both popular and remote corners of the globe. These finds are often highlighted on her website, BlissPassport.com. She previously has been published in Sailing magazine and the Los Angeles Times. When she is not behind a camera lens or laptop she can be found on a sailboat or her yoga mat.

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