Interview with Seane Corn on Yoga and Service

“All the conflict that exists is a manifestation of our collective thoughts as a global society and our global thoughts are fear and oppression and if we want to heal the planet we first have to look within ourselves to see where we’re enacting fear or oppression in our own personal lives. If we can begin to take responsibility and accountability for that then maybe perhaps we can begin to shift our thought process and no longer be a part of this bigger problem. It is a process and it’s deep and it’s personal, it’s intimate and it’s challenging, it’s confronting but we believe that’s the only way to be really effective.”

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Anna Greer: Traditionally I guess activism kind of sets up opposing sides – how do people who are interested in both yoga and activism, or agitating for social change, keep the peace?

Sean Corn: With Off the Mat, one of the first things that we do is we invite people to explore activism on a personal level, an interpersonal level and then on a collective level. We look at what people’s intentions are around being involved in service, if it’s coming from a grounded, healed and centred place or if it’s coming from a place that’s about wanting to fix or change something because they’re not willing to fix or change something within themselves that is disconnected. It’s a very deep emotional process.

All the conflict that exists is a manifestation of our collective thoughts as a global society and our global thoughts are fear and oppression and if we want to heal the planet we first have to look within ourselves to see where we’re enacting fear or oppression in our own personal lives. If we can begin to take responsibility and accountability for that then maybe perhaps we can begin to shift our thought process and no longer be a part of this bigger problem but it is a process and it’s deep and it’s personal, it’s intimate and it’s challenging, it’s confronting but we believe that’s the only way to be really effective, otherwise it’s a bunch of people telling other people that what they’re doing is wrong or bad or evil and no-one is listening. We’re hoping that if we can work on an individual level to cultivate mindful skills so that when we’re in the presence of conflict we’re able to stay in our bodies and listen and maybe be able to communicate in a way that is not damning or judging and as a result creating more distance between two parties.

AG: How have you seen activism evolve in the yoga community over the years?

SC: I have watched the yoga community grow, evolve, participate in ways that have really been unprecedented. There really is a movement within the yoga community, of wanting to be engaged citizens in a way that I never saw before. It’s very exciting.

AG: It is really exciting and it seems to be reaching a kind of peak. Have you seen a catalyst for it or do you think it’s just a logical extension of the yoga practice when the world is at such a troubled juncture?

SC: I don’t know. It’s a hard one to answer because for me, getting involved with service was just a natural extension of my yoga practice. It just made sense and there was just a moment, a shift that happened for me that I realised that I had to be of service. So I don’t know if it’s a natural shift for everyone who gets on the mat, that eventually they’re going to have that experience. I’d like to think that it’s for everybody but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I mean service shows up in so many different ways, being a positive and loving parent is probably the most important service that one can do for many years.

AG: What are some of the important elements to incorporate and be conscious of if you want to go out there and be of service?

SC: What we often see is people, very often there is something that gets people on the mat. Meaning, there may have been a conflict or a trauma or a crisis in their own life that motivated them to want tools for healing or mindfulness. And issues like alcoholism, divorce, death of a loved one, sexual abuse – what we find, not always, but sometimes, is the very thing that was your deepest wound is the very place that you’re going to be the most skilled at serving. Meaning, who better than an alcoholic to be able to go into the alcoholic community and serve from a place of wisdom and compassion and empathy?

With that said, sometimes there’s a process that one has to go through before they can enter into that realm, otherwise it’s re-traumatising. For example if someone has been sexually abused and they’re not really doing the work on their own issues, to go into an environment where there is sexually abused children or adults – it can be re-traumatising. And therefore you can then hurt or re-traumatise the person you are trying to serve because of your own stuff. So you might have to recognise that ok – I think this environment is what is going to call me. I don’t think I’m ready just yet. I’m going to do other things and emotionally prepare myself so that perhaps in time, a year or ten years, I can enter that community in a way that is non-reactive and is loving and I’m not going to be triggered, or if I do get triggered I can handle those triggers without getting overwhelmed.

For someone else who doesn’t come from a place of trauma – just find out – for me it’s always, what breaks my heart. What breaks my heart is injustice and inequality and oppression. So it’s not a big surprise that I worked very closely over the years in the gay community, around HIV/AIDS advocacy, rights, information and sexual exploitation and abuse. It’s not a surprise that that’s where I’d be magnetised because that’s the thing that breaks my heart. But that might not be for someone else. For someone else it might be cancer or the environment or animal rights.

AG: And you mentioned that coming to the service aspect of yoga came naturally to you, but were there any key moments in your life that stand out that drove you in this direction of making change?

SC: When I was young in New York City I was a social activist but I didn’t have any tools. So I did a lot of work with gay rights and HIV/AIDS and pro-choice. And I was that person on a stage screaming at someone else. I was ready to get physical if it came down to that. And there was a pivotal moment – it was a photograph I was shown – a picture of me at a pro-choice rally and I’m standing on the stage and I’ve got a megaphone and my mouth is wide open and my eyes are shut and I’m screaming at a group of people in front of me and everyone in front of me, their eyes are shut and their mouths are open.

I thought the photograph was so telling because for all of us, we’re all screaming and our mouths are open and our eyes are shut. We’re not listening, we’re not present and I felt amazing after a rally, I felt incredible. And it was because I was rinsing energy. I’ve always had big issues with injustice. I was always quick to anger. And going to a rally gave me an opportunity to release this rage that I had. Until the next morning – the next morning I would wake up and that rage would be back and I would be chomping at the bit to get back to the podium or to a rally and I realised I was the worst example of an activist. I was an example of what you should never do. I was not doing any processing work. I was not taking responsibility for my rage. So I got very deeply committed into the practice of yoga and meditation, prayer, therapy, did a lot of work on the mind body, understood the power of thoughts and how stress impacts your thought process.

AG: You mentioned before that you get out of the service more than you put in, or you feel like that, so what do you think is the nature of selfless service?

SC: I don’t know. But like I said, my experience is it hasn’t been selfless for me. It’s changed my life, my perspective, my relationships, I get fed in deep spiritual and emotional ways every single time. . It’s like that thing I said about abundance, the more you put out, the more you get back and I just keep getting so much back. It’s overwhelming at times, the privilege it has been for me to be able to create these projects and to do all the different things that we’ve done. It’s just remarkable. So I don’t know how to answer that. One day maybe down the road I’ll understand what selfless service is and I can come back to you and say, here is what it is, but at this point I just keep getting more gifts than one person deserves in a single life time.