Seane interviews Teo Drake: Compassion, Mindfulness, Social Justice

Check out this inspiring interview between OTM co-founder Seane Corn and OTM board & faculty member Teo Drake about compassion, mindfulness, social justice, and how these concepts will be explored and embraced during our upcoming Leadership Training Intensive Retreat in Santa Barbara, CA this Dec 8-11 at beautiful Pacifica Graduate Institute.


"My highest hope for this training is that it can be for folks who are seeing the world as it is right now during this painful time and don't know what to do and want some help to figure out what their piece is and how to do it in collaboration with others and how to do it in a way that doesn't feel paralyzing and soul-crushing.  This training is also for folks who have been doing this work for a longtime but need to be in community with others to remember that they're not alone and particularly for folks who are experiencing crushing oppression themselves ." -Teo Drake

Make the Real World Your Ideal World

by Valerie R. Maloof

Imagine a place with no cellular service, no wifi (ok, really terrible wifi that’s not really worth using – so close) and where someone peering into their phone is a rare sight. Now add to that a bucolic setting that reminds you of the camp where you spent summers as a kid, but instead of tug-of-war games and bonfires, there are morning yoga and meditation sessions and evening concerts. That place is the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY- a place so silent that birds wake you up quite a bit before the sun shows up every morning.

At Omega, I spent five days with 30 or so women who I quickly recognized as my clan. All of us came together to participate in the Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) intensive, a five-day workshop led by yoga teacher/activist Seane Corn, yoga teacher and trauma/somatic therapist Hala Khouri, and artist/musician Suzanne Sterling, three friends and colleagues linked by their passion for social justice and healing. The week-long OTM workshop brings together yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry along with “practical tools for communication, organizing, and collaborating." The overarching goal is to help attendees combine the teachings of yoga with their passion for service and translate it into action for the benefit their communities.

Though I had wanted to attend the OTM intensive for at least three years and had read about it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had done several trainings with Seane before and had benefitted immensely from her ability to create a connection between yoga and where pain and trauma are held in the body. (I often credit Seane with jumpstarting a myriad of positive changes in my life seven years ago by putting me in pigeon pose and leaving me there to think for what felt like 150 breaths). I knew and respected Hala’s therapeutic work from OTM’s online trainings, but I did not know Suzanne at all. I figured the intensive would include yoga, deep thinking, and networking. Turns out I got that and much, much more.

Seane, Hala, and Suzanne have formed a powerful coalition (built on the feminist model of lateral management) that doesn’t just embrace differences – it celebrates them.  Their friendship is as evident as their commitment to the work they have been doing together for over a decade (and long before separately). Under their tutelage, the women in attendance at the intensive started to slowly open our hearts to one another. I discovered the three OTM leaders truly know their craft: if Seane, lovingly nicknamed “the grim reaper of yoga”, doesn’t get to your heart through movement, Hala’s rational and gentle prodding does, and if both of those fail, Suzanne’s drum and voice finds the visceral pain that everyone inescapably holds inside them. It is practically impossible to leave the group on Friday without having delved very deeply into what hurts you, moves you, challenges you, needs to be changed in you, and ultimately having come closer to knowing what you are moved to change in the world.

I can’t recall the last time I was surrounded by more impressive women gathered in one place. Most attendees were yoga teachers who also worked in various fields of service including social work, art therapy, and non-profit leadership. As we got to know each other during the week, women shared their pain, joy, and what drove them to be a force for good in their communities. We practiced yoga, worked hard, sang and danced, created art, wrote, laughed, and—yes—cried together. It was impossible not to be moved as women generously shared stories of trauma, pain, loss, and longing with the group.

By far, the most moving part of the experience was the support these women afforded each other. It is a thing of beauty to find yourself in a place where you know you are not being judged by your looks, accent, interests, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or any other of the myriad of things which we are routinely judged for as we grow up and inhabit the world. It was a wonderful and easy rhythm to move to.

After the workshop ended and I came home to my own bed and family, the re-entry into “the real world” was swift. There was the lawn to mow, six laundry loads to get to, and an empty fridge requiring a trip to the grocery store. There was my husband, back from the race track after his first Spec Miata event of the year.  There were the girls and their 11-year old intensity focused on friends and soccer. On our first night together, one of the girls kept us up all night coughing, and the next day – a school and work day – we were all moving slowly while ticking off the to-do lists, making lunches, doing homework, and getting to soccer practice. And just like I had fallen into the rhythm of Omega, I easily fell back into the rhythm of my life.

Coming back home to my space, my husband, and our children was not difficult at all – I love my disorganized, messy, loud life very much. But returning from a week where so many people kept an open heart and mind and treated my intentions with love and patience, it was quite difficult to step back into the more challenging interpersonal realities in my life: the reality that I don’t see my girls every day, so I’d have to wait to hug them and ask them how their week at camp had gone; the reality that I’d have to wait to give them the tiny bead bracelets I had placed on our altar for my OTM clan to bless as we moved through one last practice together; the reality that not everyone sees other humans as people who are doing their best but instead see them as adversaries and enemies because they don’t practice the same religion or hold the same beliefs when it comes to raising children.

Returning from OTM, I wished the “real world” was more like the world we inhabited at Omega for one week. But I was also reminded that I can stay on the path to becoming a kinder person and improving my world by looking inward instead of reacting to the parts of my life which don’t go exactly as I want. And just as I had started to struggle with this, one of the women I now call my OTM sisters posted a meme which offered me a much-needed, sweet reminder. Her post may have only been a little meme, but it had the sound of Suzanne’s powerful drum and the singing voices of my OTM sisters behind it. I smiled and remembered that my clan is out there, and together we can indeed make this a kinder, more compassionate world.

Click here to learn more about OTM's 5-day Yoga, Purpose, & Action Leadership Intensive. 

Valerie Roedenbeck Maloof attended OTM's 2016 Yoga, Purpose & Action Leadership Intensive at the Omega Institute. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and twin daughters. Read more of Valerie's writing by following her blog at

SEVA SPOTLIGHT! Donny Starkins

Today we're highlighting another awesome participant of our 2015 Global SEVA Challenge: Kenya...

... meet Donny Starkins of Scottsdale, Arizona! Having raised over $8,500 for this year's Challenge (which included proceeds from his popular Sunday Yoga Service Project), we caught up with Donny to ask about his inspiration:

"After attending OTM’s 5-day leadership training last summer in Minneapolis, the vision for Sunday Yoga Service was born. Those 5 days with Seane, Hala and Suzanne were life-changing for me. Seane’s words “How dare we not?” was a question that went straight to my heart. For me, it was “how dare I not share my story.” Those closest to me knew my story of addiction and that I live a sober life. But, many of my students and this large yoga platform we have here in Arizona did not. Therefore, that question lit a fire inside of me to share my story and connect it with OTM’s Seva Project. This has turned into a monthly community event we have at a beautiful resort in Scottsdale. In addition, I’ve been given the opportunity to travel and bring Sunday Yoga Service into other communities in California and Dallas. The opportunity to share my story, carry the message of OTM and the woman of Kenya has been one of the biggest gifts of my life. What used to bury me in guilt and shame (my past addiction) has become my biggest asset. This awakening was only possible because of the deep inner work we did at the leadership training.  In order to be of service and transform the world, the process had to start within. This is what I learned. And, this is the message I now choose to carry. Thank you OTM for giving me a clear path!"

Thank YOU, Donny, for stepping into your truth and your voice. We couldn't be prouder!

*Learn more about Donny on his website or follow him on Facebook or Instagram.

Social Justice Questions, Jacoby Ballard Answers

Our 4-day Leadership Training Retreat is right around the corner - in a week and a half! We love this intensive because the retreat format gives us the chance to immerse into the concepts and practice of social justice and community-building while deeply exploring injustices and the conditions that cause them. We have an awesome group signed-up this year and we can't wait to embark on this collaborative, eye-opening, heart-opening journey together!

Joining us again this year is the wonderful Jacoby Ballard, a long-time yoga and Buddhism teacher, herbalist, health educator, social activist, and co-founder of Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, NY. He has taught yoga in queer and trans communities, to survivors of sexual violence, to people recovering from addiction, to homeless folks, and to everyone else. We asked him to share his thoughts about this training, why it's important, and why he loves being a part of it.

(We have only 3 spots left for this retreat and registration will CLOSE on Wednesday, 11/25. If you feel drawn or have been procrastinating, don't put it off any longer! Snag your spot before it's gone, and join Jacoby and the rest of our incredible faculty for this transformative training. REGISTER HERE)

Jacoby: This training is for all of us who want to make a better world, a more loving, honest world, increase access to education and healthcare, decrease incarceration, increase well being for all. We all need a tune up and retreat held by the threads of social justice and embodiment, kindness, and integrity. This training is for those doing social justice work-to slow down and catch up with your heart and body; this is for yogis who don't know how to help, but look around themselves at the world and know that they must. This training is to gain more skills, be held by facilitators and teachers who are decades-deep into this work, and to be present in mind, body, and spirit in the process.

: It is important to understand all the underlaying dynamics of how we got into this mess over centuries, who the players were, who it benefitted, who you might represent to those you are trying to serve, what the gaps are in your knowledge of the issues at hand, and what resources are already available and brilliance that we can all already lean into that has built every social movement and resistance struggle. This is the ground that we step into as people trying to make a difference, trying to heal, trying to show up, and we are bound to make cavernous mistakes if we don't educate ourselves-not once, but again and again and again, constantly learning the deeper and deeper layers of history. 

: We need to do the inner work to understand our own history, positionality, triggers, and vision; and we need to do the outer work to create the world we want to live in, a world that every being wants to live in. Liberation is both individual and collective-it can never be one or the other. A huge benefit of this training in particular is finding your people, people to network with, to rely on, to count on, to learn from-a piece of the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of.

: I am part of this training because this is what I do, build bridges between mindfulness and social justice, between anger and action, between grief and creativity. I believe that the changemakers need to be healthy if we are in it for the long haul, and that yoga is a deeply revolutionary teaching. If we all who practice asana truly lived the teachings of yoga, the world would be transformed and our bodies would be nourished.

Hala & Tessa talk Ojai Leadership Training!

Our final training in 2015 is right around the corner! We're coming to Ojai, CA, Dec 3-6 for our Leadership Training Intensive on Social Justice & Community-Building. We revamped this 4-day retreat-style intensive, making it more of an introductory training on social justice issues & effective activism. Read on to learn why Hala and Tessa (who will again be joining us this year) are jazzed about this training, what you can expect, and who we've designed it for...

OTM: Tessa, as both a co-designer and co-leader of this training, who do you think this training is geared towards? Who would benefit most?

Tessa: This training is for all those who wish to make a difference in the world and who are seeking tools, knowledge, community, and personal growth that can aid in doing so effectively. Raising consciousness about social justice is crucial in order to understand where/how we each might play into the injustices that exist in the world and where/how we each can intervene, prevent, and transform these injustices. This training is especially for those interested in taking their personal practice of yoga or community service to another level in order to enact social change and critical community engagement. 

OTM: So, does someone need to be a seasoned activist or social change leader to attend this training? Or could this training be an introduction for someone who is maybe just starting off in social justice and is interested in expanding his or her knowledge and understanding? - a way to gain tools and greater confidence in the concept and practice of social justice. 

Hala: Yes! I think that often people shy away from talking about issues of inequality, racism, sexism, etc. because it can be scary.  We worry that we’re going to offend someone or say the wrong thing.  Some people have the privilege to stay away from this conversation because they don’t feel that their lives are directly impacted by inequality.  Others don’t have that same opportunity.  And it’s true: conversations about social justice can get very heated, and even ugly.  But what's so exciting about a training like this one, that brings yoga and mindfulness into the experience, is that we are cultivating embodied tools to be able to have the difficult conversation in a grounded and non-reactive way.

OTM: So how does this relate to yoga? Are social justice and yoga mutually-beneficial? Why does OTM offer a training that includes both at the same time?

Tessa:  Both social justice and yoga operate on the premise that we are caught in a false perception of duality when in fact we are all interconnected. Yet, while we are spiritually one, we are not all the same. The ideal of "oneness" can sometimes obscure the reality that real inequality and oppression occur at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion that implicate each of us in the perpetuation of dualities that exist in our world today. Learning how to reflect candidly about ourselves and the world, transform personally amidst discomfort, push ourselves to our edge and find our breath there, negotiate not-knowing and difference with compassion, patience and grace-- these are the lessons we must confront both in our yoga practice and social justice education. 

When we confront our lessons with humility, mindfulness and honesty, we learn to see duality of self and other as something we must dissolve while recognizing the realities of pain and injustice that have resulted from the divisions imposed in society. We can take personal responsibility for dissolving these tensions in our own mind-bodies-spirits as well as the communities we are a part of. We can recognize our social responsibility to Martin Luther King's charge that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and use the tools of mindfulness and yoga to making tangible and lasting peace within and with community.

OTM: Love that quote! That illustrates a fantastic reason for someone who is interested in community engagement to attend this training, right?

Tessa: Definitely. Anyone interested in advocating for or directly making small or big changes in the world around them must think through the critical approaches to community engagement that ensure that individual participation is carried out ethically, respectfully, with integrity and with purpose. Understanding the structural, political, economic, environmental, social, cultural and personal causes that have led to the inequity and injustice that exist in our world today will not only broaden our scope of knowledge and personal awareness but will allow us to more effectively tackle big issues through tangible strategies in the communities near and far from us.

OTM: Beautifully put. We feel so fortunate to have you, Jacoby Ballard, and Leslie Booker as co-facilitators again at this year's training along with Hala, Seane, and Suzanne. Now that's one powerful collective of leaders!    

Hala: One of the things that all of our co-facilitators bring to this training is beautiful role-modeling in being authentic and real with what they feel, while being both compassionate and curious about others’ experiences.  Last year’s training was so powerful, in a huge part due to our amazing faculty, which included Tessa, Jacoby, and Leslie. Each of them modeled such wisdom and grace in their own way. 

I’m excited to have our students spend time with them and see how it’s possible to engage in these touchy dialogues in a grounded, honest, and self-responsible way. 


Interested in attending this Leadership Training in Ojai?
Get more info and register HERE!

SEVA SPOTLIGHT! Interview with SEVA: Kenya participant Bryonie Wise

Today we're interviewing Bryonie Wise of Toronto, Canada. Bryonie is a participant in our 2015 SEVA Challenge: Kenya

OTM: Hi Bryonie! We are so happy and grateful that you are a part of our SEVA Challenge this year. What is your fundraising goal and how much have you raised so far?

Bryonie: I set my goal at $7,500 - $10,000. To-date I've raised $7,259.

OTM: That's fantastic! What does "seva" mean to you and why do you think it's important?

Bryonie:  'Seva' speaks to my own belief (culled & refined through the practice of yoga, creativity, and shamanism) that there is no separation between us; that although we roll around in our various corners of the Universe, when it comes down to it, we are connected if only by the thread of our beating hearts.

We all suffer, we all celebrate, we all grieve, we all love — we all need help at one time or another and are often too fearful to ask. Sometimes (most often) it's because we can't ask - where we live or how we fit into the hierarchy of the society that surrounds us often determines how loud we can speak & how far our voices are allowed to go. We are held down instead of encouraged to rise up. 

The older I get, the clearer this becomes: we are here to love, unequivocally -  and it is my responsibility as a human being with relative freedom of word & action to use my superpowers (my heart & privilege) for the safety of all beings. 

The more we begin to think of ourselves as connected, from one side of the world to the other, the stronger we become.

OTM: Yes! Superpowers! Your heart & privilege. We love that.  What inspired you to sign-up for the Challenge this year? What do you hope to gain or achieve by participating?

Bryonie: 1. The opportunity to support & learn from (and learn how I can further support) young girls & women who have experienced FGM or who are currently working to create alternate rites of passage & fighting for the right to choose how they step over into womanhood. 2. The opportunity to travel to a part of the world that has long tugged at my heart. And 3. The opportunity to study & work with Suzanne & Seane and to expand my capacity & ability to love as a human & as a teacher.

OTM: All beautiful reasons. You mention that the opportunities to support, to expand, and to learn were motivating factors for you.  What is the biggest lesson or skill you've learned so far by participating?

Bryonie:  I have learned how to soften my words & shape them differently in order to make FGM an accessible topic.

When we come from a place of love, anything is possible— and sometimes, in transmuting (not bypassing) our fear or rage into love or curiosity or surrender (or whatever is most authentic to our own personal experience), we spark someone else into a different kind of thought or action. 

We change the world, slowly, but surely. 

OTM: And that is a powerful lesson to learn. Thank you, Bryonie, for sharing your words and experiences about SEVA: Kenya! If you're inspired  by Bryonie and would like to take part in the Challenge, visit our SEVA: Kenya page HERE. We're finishing up Phase 2 (taking $75 pledges which provide a young girl at the new rescue center with a bed, mattress, and dresser). Pledge today and make a difference! The Challenge ends Sept 30.

Trading Girls for Cows: FGM, Human Rights, and Cultural Tradition

Female Genital Mutilation (and its brother issue of nonconsensual male circumcision) is an incredibly divisive issue that is taking a larger place in the global conversations of our time.

Since Off The Mat, Into the World launched our international service project called the Seva Challenge and Bare Witness Humanitarian Tours eight years ago, we have consistently chosen to tackle issues that are complex and multi-layered.

This year we are diving into the FGM discussion in a big way.

This is an issue steeped in cultural traditions, has been normative in many parts of the world for centuries and is just now being unpacked in its complexity.

The web of reasons for the continuance of a tradition that has such obvious physical and psychologically damaging, and often fatal consequences is complex. Such reasons are relational, generational, economic, often cloaked in communally complicit silence and in some places considered crucial to the fabric of communities seeking to ensure the survival of their values.

FGM is also at the heart of a long-standing controversy between the concepts of the universality of human rights and cultural relativism.

In other words, are human rights universal or simply another form of cultural imperialism?

As we focus more and more on a social justice framework for our activism, we at OTM have been grappling with these questions over the years and in taking on the complexity of FGM, the inquiry is even more important and timely: how do we justify “serving” others in a way that does not simply impose our own cultural values upon those that we serve?

It is a question that we consider deeply and we have diligently worked with organizations that are locally-led. This question has led us to examine the underlying issues of power and privilege as well as the consequences and motivations for our work in social justice that are at play anytime we step out in our activism.

As a long-time ritual leader myself, I respect rituals, traditions and the honoring of culture in general as well as an understanding of the kind of reciprocity needed to work in a multicultural setting (especially in the area of rituals and rites of passage). I have seen first hand the terrible effects of a world that is increasingly homogenized by the trance of Western culture and hold a deep grief for what has been and is being lost in the avalanche of globalization.

However, I also believe that culture is not always unpolluted or beyond the need for examination.

Often, dominant culture is an expression of the worldview of the most powerful in society and is complicit in the disenfranchisement of the less powerful in a society. Cultural norms of patriarchal, caste-based or racist societies normalize and justify discrimination in many forms. It is good to remember that the human rights standards that came into existence as a response to the atrocities of World War 2 were drafted by representatives from diverse nations who agreed that state sovereignty could never justify certain practices such as genocide or torture.

A big part of what we have learned from Seva Challenge is that we must not only look at what is obvious in terms of the suffering we encounter, but we must also look underneath to find root causes and in most cases, the factor of our own contribution to the very issue we are seeking to change. This goes for both the internal inquiry about our own suffering and how it affects our motivation for service but also expands out into the wider global sphere.

For instance, it was important to note, when faced with the brutal realities of addiction and domestic violence that we encountered on our first trip to Cambodia, that there had been a genocide of 7 million people 30 years earlier. That massive collective trauma was no doubt a contributing factor to the huge amounts of post traumatic stress and its natural outcome of widespread addiction and domestic violence that we encountered first hand.

But we are also choosing to look even deeper. For instance, when researching sex trafficking in India we discovered that sex trafficking is the third biggest criminal industry (after drugs and arms trafficking) in the world and that often times the motivation for families to send their daughters away with strangers is a crippled economy and the promise of jobs, money and a better life. On our trip to Ecuador we witnessed the effects of globalization (and the resulting global debt that is incurred by many developing nations) on a country striving for economic independence.

The result being the decision to auction off the most diverse parcel of rainforest on the planet (one host to numerous species of plants that could contain cures for many of the worst modern diseases) in order to pay off its enormous global debt.

As conscious activists we strive to understand that we are all interconnected and interdependent…that our thoughts, actions and decisions have a profound effect and that there is really no way for any of us to exist without effecting the whole. So how are we in any way part of creating the problems we have chosen to try to solve?

In so many ways. When we choose to do nothing about the suffering around us we are part of the silence that kills. When we act without awareness of the underlying causes, we can do more harm than good. When we do not understand that our choices about our food, clothing, and the products that we consume are effecting people and cultures around the world, we are actually contributing to the atrocities. That is not to say that each of us is entirely responsible…but understanding that our choices do matter is crucial and our individual choices can effect the collective profoundly.

Today, we can see that the rising tide of free trade and globalization which was suppose to “end poverty” has, in the half century since this big push began, created more poverty than ever before and the situation is getting worse. In other words, my choices as a consuming American have an effect on the global economic culture. My choices in a very real way contribute to the need for an Indian family to send it’s daughter off with strangers in hopes of a better life or money making opportunities. My choices are part of the reason that a family in Kenya will send a child to be married (and necessarily to go through the FGM process in order to become a wife) if doing so will ensure a dowry of money or cows that will keep the rest of the family alive.

So could this perspective of examining the many aspects of this issue prevent me from taking action at all for fear of making mistakes? Quite possibly….but it could also spur me to extend an ever deepening commitment to being conscious with not only my own choices and their consequences, but an understanding of my place in the evolution of a sensitive and creative global vision.

Yes, culture is disappearing at alarming rates and yet culture is not static. We can evolve toward the elimination of torturous and dangerous practices such as FGM with a deep sensitivity to the cultural and social background of the communities that practice it. New rites of passage can and will be implemented, thus replacing the dangerous practices without giving up meaningful rituals.

Ending FGM will require a comprehensive and multilayered approach—a sustained creative collaboration, and discerning advocacy from families, communities, the media, governments and the international community.

Global Seva Kenya, jointly hosted by Off The Mat, Into the World and The Village Experience, will be supporting the work of The Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and Samburu Girls Foundation - both of whose primary objectives are to rescue girls from FGM, child marriage, domestic violence and physical/sexual abuse as well as offering and educating groups on alternative rites of passage ceremonies.  Funds will support the construction of a rescue center or "safe house" in each location that will provide health care, education, and protection from abuse and exploitation.  We have raised 40K so far and hope to reach our goal of 100K by October 2015.  Please donate now at !

The incredible women leading these organizations are supreme examples of bravery, speaking truth and creative activism…each with a strong story of stepping out of the oppressive silence to challenge cultural practices, engage with communities and create alternative rites of passage for young girls to enter into womanhood.  They have rescued, kept safe and educated hundreds of girls and with the funds from Global Seva Challenge Kenya, will be able to create safety, and nurture leadership for many more.  Please join us in support of these women and girls and break the silence!

With love and a strong voice…
Suzanne Sterling
Global Seva Challenge

“When women stand up and defend themselves, it works. Remember—in 1975, 98% of women were mutilated just like I was. Today, it is 27%. That’s 27% too many, but it’s also the sign of a revolution. It wasn’t handed down on high. It was fought for by me and my sisters. I believe that no woman should call herself free until all women are free.”
~ Agnes Pareiyo, Founder and Director of the Tasaru Ntomonok Rescue Center

“We are lucky to come from a country where laws and policies are against harmful cultural practices and are very clear both in the Children Act 2001 and the constitution of this country. However, it is not enough to pass these laws, they need to be implemented”
~ Josephine Kulea, Founder and Director of Samburu Girls Foundation and winner of the 2013 UN Person of the Year award.

“It will be important for Kenya to recognise that no country can achieve its full potential unless it draws on the talents of all its people and that must include the half of Kenyans, maybe a little more than half, who are women and girls. Every country in every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is. But just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future … there’s no excuse for sexual assault, or domestic violence, there’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation, there’s no place in civilised society for the early or forced marriage of children.”
~ President Barack Obama on his historic trip to Kenya, July 2015

Off the Mat on Instagram

Help us re-ignite our Instagram page by following us @offthemat !

In honor of our upcoming Game Changers: Yoga in Action conference Sept 28-30 at Yoga Journal LIVE! Colorado, we are asking our family, followers, and supporters to submit photos of how they take their yoga off the mat and into the world by uploading it to Instagram with the hashtag #OfftheMatGameChanger. We will review every submission, and the most impactful photos will have a chance to be featured on and also on the OTM Insta account. 

So get to snapping and show us how you create change in the world through your yoga practice or by using the tools of yoga. We can't wait to see your beautiful work! 

Don't forget the hashtag: #OfftheMatGameChanger

The Silent War on Women (Seva Challenge 2015)

How often do we talk about our vaginas?  How freely do we discuss our sexuality in this culture where many women's rights are fairly secure (albeit still surprisingly not entirely equal to men's rights)? Sexuality is often a very private matter and when it gets down to sexual anatomy, many of us choose to remain very coy. 

And although I wish I were about to initiate a deep discussion about liberating women's sexuality from centuries of oppression (that will come later), I am writing today about a cultural "secret", a taboo so insidious that many people either don't know that it exists at all or are fuzzy on the details. I am talking about Female Genital Mutilation or FGM.

And it is this very secrecy that is keeping the practice alive… in countries like Kenya, Egypt, Mali, Sierra Leone… but also in the UK and the US -- 29 countries total. (Recently, 500 cases of FGM were diagnosed in one month in British hospitals.) 

Here is the "procedure" more than 130 million girls and women alive in the world today have undergone (from BBC News):

--Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes any procedure that alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons

--In its most severe form, after removing the sensitive clitoris, the genitals are cut and stitched closed so that the woman cannot have or enjoy sex

--A tiny piece of wood or reed is inserted to leave a small opening for the necessary flow of urine and monthly blood when she comes of age (most FGM is carried out on infants or young girls before they reach puberty)

--When she is ready to have sex and a baby, she is "unstitched" - and then sewn back up again after to keep her what is described by proponents as "hygienic, chaste and faithful"

--In societies where FGM is commonplace, a woman can bring shame on herself and her family if she does not comply. Some see it as a religious necessity, though no scriptures explicitly prescribes it

--Most often, the procedure is carried out by traditional circumcisers or preachers, using crude, accessible tools, such as thorns and thread, broken glass or razor blades, and without anaesthetic

In many countires, FGM has been outlawed, but prosecution rates remain very low. In Kenya, for instance, FGM was outlawed in 2001 and a conviction for FGM related-offenses carries a penalty of 12 months imprisonment or a fine of $50,000 or both. The tradition, however, persists and there are relatively few prosecutions.

This is due to the silence surrounding the issue and also because in so many communities where FGM/C is prevalent, it is part of a ceremony, a celebration of a girl’s transition to womanhood.  Cutters -- midwives, traditional healers, aunts, and grandmothers -- perform the act out of love, as a way to prepare a girl for potential marriage or to protect her from becoming a social outcast.

So it becomes clear that FGM won’t end until individuals and communities collectively and publicly declare an end to the practice and are given viable alternative rites of passage for girls to become women.

One Kenyan woman said, "FGM and anything related to it is never discussed at home or anywhere else; it is regarded as a taboo subject. And this is one of the reasons that FGM continues; no one knows the details."

And another woman, an outspoken anti-FGM activist said, "It's only in the last year that I have stopped being threatened by men and people who expect me to stay silent."

As an outspoken advocate for women's rights and most especially for breaking the silences that keep humans (and many women) silent and sick, I am strongly urging you to add your voice to the collective rising voice against FGM.  

Join us for this years Global Seva Challenge trip to Kenya and use your own voice to spread awareness and shed light where there has been only silence, suffering, and darkness.  

The Seva Challenge is an incredibly inspiring and empowering journey that takes participants from fundraising and awareness-building through to life-changing experiences in the field, and, in many cases, a life-long commitment to conscious activism and service.

We have had 7 years of successful Challenges bringing us to Cambodia, Africa, India, Ecuador, and Haiti, and raising over 3 million dollars for organizations doing long-term, on-the-ground work that matters. We have built schools, birthing centers, gardens, safe houses, micro loan programs, libraries, health care centers, and more. Perhaps even more importantly, we have become a voice of awareness for global issues such as social, economic, and environmental justice, extreme poverty, access to education, human trafficking, global health care, deforestation, and more.

Global Seva Kenya, jointly hosted by Off The Mat, Into the World and The Village Experience, will be working with The Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and Samburu Girls Foundation - both of whose primary objectives are to rescue girls from FGM, child marriage, domestic violence, and physical/sexual abuse, as well as offering and educating groups on alternative rites of passage ceremonies.  Funds will support the construction of a rescue center, or "safe house," in each location that will provide health care, education, and protection from abuse and exploitation.

The incredible women leading these organizations are supreme examples of bravery, speaking truth and creative activism… each with a strong story of stepping out of the oppressive silence to challenge cultural practices, engage with communities, and create alternative rites of passage for young girls to enter into womanhood. They have rescued, kept safe, and educated  hundreds of girls, and, with the funds from Global Seva Challenge Kenya, will be able to create safety, and nurture leadership for many more. 

Please join us in support of these women and girls and break the silence!

With love and a strong voice…                                                                                             Suzanne Sterling                                                                                                                  Director, Global Seva Challenge

"My silence only serves to add to the shame around this harmful ritual & one of the most beautiful parts  our bodies hold, so I dedicate myself to excavating my own discomfort as I continue to understand how much we are connected, no matter how far apart."                                                                                                         - Seva Challenge participant Bryonie Wise