The first time I visited our shelter in India I knew it would be a life changing experience, but I was not prepared for just how much it would shift my reality. This even after growing up working in the homeless shelter my mom ran, teaching yoga at a juvenile detention center, and doing acupuncture in shelters and drug and alcohol treatment facilities. I’ve seen countless people get involved in our nonprofit knowing that it was something important to them, but leaving with more than they ever thought possible.
It’s hard to quantify something that’s worth more than money, it’s hard to put a price tag on something that enhances your quality-of-life, it’s hard to put a value on something that affects your state of mind and well-being. As someone who works in the wellness industry and also runs several companies I know full well what it means to be caught up in the busyness of our lives and the effects it can have on your life and health. And, though I love what I do more than almost anything, there’s a weight with it as well.
As a modern-day society we’re finally starting to appreciate the cost of a stress-centered system. If we understand that stress is the currency we spend at the cost of our health, how/where do you want to spend it? We know full well part of the health impacts of stress, or at least a long list of them. We have hundreds of remedies to reduce stress at any given moment, all of which we both forget and under prioritize in our busy lives. But it’s hard to stay on top of it when there’s always another thing you need to be doing.
So, for those of you that love research, here’s some interesting information as it relates to helping others. Just witnessing acts of kindness increases oxytocin and stimulates your body to create serotonin. People who practice kindness regularly have lower cortisol and tend to age more slowly than the average population. When you’re kind to another person your brain’s pleasure and reward systems light up. In other words, helping others is both like a wonderful high (without the negative side effects) and the most potent of antidepressants. 1
But we know there’s so much more to life than what we find in research at the surface. The depth that our relationships create in our lives and their effect on our heart health has been well proven but still not completely acknowledged by the medical world. According to Dr. Dean Ornish, you can predict fairly accurately who will do well after a heart attack by their social support and relationships. But you don’t see that on any of the lists of 5 things to do to improve your health because there’s no way to put a number on it. We love quick fixes and bulleted lists to optimize our health and yet the at the simplest of all is often the most effective and underutilized.
As someone who loves science and research and loves to study how it all interconnects and interrelates there are still so many things we miss when we look at the world through a research lens. But when we speak from experience we have only truth. So, I can speak firsthand from my own experience working with thousands of patients, my own health and my experience in the nonprofit world just how powerful service work can be.
As a woman, I’ve always felt drawn to help other women who lack the resources that I’ve had in my life– education, medical access, healing modalities, yoga and so many others. As a Yogi I’m also very grateful for a culture that’s giving us this gift of yoga to help both ourselves and our communities. So it was natural to want to give back to these women in India who don’t have the same resources to empower and educate themselves or even to change their current situation. Our shelter houses up to 100 women at a time, usually there for 6 to 12 months, rescued from trafficking and other social injustices. But what I love most about what we do is that we empower them with yoga as a self-care tool and we pair them up with meaningful vocational skills that bring them above the poverty line. Meaning they get to choose what they study. Some want to go to college (around $1000/year there), some want to get married (even more expensive), we train some to be goldsmiths (one of the most highly revered jobs in India), we have one girl in law school right now, and so many others. But nothing means more to me than seeing their faces and that spark in their eyes when they realize that they too have a meaningful contribution to this world that they alone are destined (and now empowered) to create. These women have taught me more than anyone in my lifetime, not through their words but through their hearts and their eyes. They taught me the value of acceptance, the power of taking that next step forward and a reminder that all we have is now.
More than anything though, I think the biggest thing people take away from the work we do is a shift in perspective. Stress is simply our perception or reaction to our circumstances, whether it be about the past, present or future. Service work changes the lens with which we see our lives and our circumstances. It’s as easy as that. So, you could take your medications, do your yoga, breathing practices and meditation, follow your exercise plan and nutrition regimen and all the other ways you might try and reduce your stress or simply change the lens with which you view the world to shift the entire cascade completely! Personally, service work has changed the lens I see the world through and I can honestly say I feel happier and healthier now than I did in my 20’s and 30’s. I believe a big part of it is due to these extraordinary women.