Selfless Service

Local Yoga Practice Goes Beyond the Mat to Help the World

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.09.13 – Diversions, Lifestyles, People & Places

A yoga practice can be about more than just flowing into downward dog or murmuring “namaste” at the end of a class. For two local women, it means creating the kind of changes they want to see in the world.

Three years ago, part-time yoga instructors Rebeccah Leister and Geni Donnelly lamented about how most retreats involving travel and spending time practicing yoga, neglect to take it further.

“Yoga has a service aspect to it, which is called seva. It means selfless service,” Leister says.

Donnelly adds that “People in the U.S. tend to think of yoga as just a series of poses and stretching. But there’s so much more to it. There are breathing techniques, meditation and guidance for ways to live your life.”

After that initial conversation, the two played with the idea of making yoga more accessible and discussed how they might bring more seva into their own practice.

“Frederick is such a supportive place,” Leister says. “We wondered if we could find a way to get this community involved with an at-risk community abroad. That’s when our idea began to take shape.”

The two formed Yogamour, the “combination of two words: ‘yoga’ and ‘amour.’ So, it simply means ‘yoga love’,” Leister explains.

Leister’s previous experience with voluntourism inspired Yogamour’s first mission. “I spent a summer volunteering at a school in Jaipur, India, so I had a connection there. It made it easier to get a mission started.”

The two invited students, friends and family to participate and had no problem filling the trip. Since then, Yogamour has been to India twice more. But almost from the beginning, Leister, who owns an appraisal business, and Donnelly, who is coowner of a salon, knew they wanted to expand the retreats and wasted no time adding another country.

Leister visited Thailand in 2003 and fell in love. Through a former classmate living in Thailand, Leister was able to identify a trustworthy foundation working to support disadvantaged schools. Presto! Yogamour had found its second location. This June, the group will sponsor its second visit to Thailand’s north.

Yogamour trips are considered voluntourism because there’s a mix of activity. The days start with yoga, meditation and journaling to prepare participants for the challenges they will face during their volunteer time in the afternoons.

Not A Luxury Vacation

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Madison Clabaugh says. She and her mother, Dale, recently traveled to India, one of three mother/daughter combos on that trip. “It was my first experience in a Third World country and the abject poverty and corruption is eye opening. I think everyone should go there just so they can appreciate what we have here and see why we have laws and regulations to keep it that way.

“But there are also beautiful parts and it feels very spiritual. I used to do yoga just for the physical benefits, but this trip really opened my heart to the spirituality of yoga,” Clabaugh adds.

Evenings are free for exploration and to experience more of the country and the culture; the group changes location on the weekend. Typical attractions include temples, open air markets and sampling traditional foods. The more adventurous might want to include a ride on a bamboo raft or an elephant trek.

The trip fee includes many of the expenses incurred while in country, but does not include air fare, some meals or some of the extracurricular activities. Another portion of the fee is used for supplies that will be used in the volunteer projects. Last year, for instance, Yogamour built an edible garden at the school in Thailand and one in the village where the children live. They had funds left over to buy additional gardening equipment and seeds. Since the trip, villagers built three more gardens with the supplies.

“Malnutrition is always a problem,” Leister says. “So, we’ve started teaching nutrition and creating gardens. We teach gardening to the children because they’ll be the ones expected to do the upkeep.”

What the trip can accomplish has much to do with the people who volunteer. Yogamour tries to hone in on each person’s skill set as they plan.

Donnelly’s sister-in-law, Sissy Jimenez, a pediatric dentist with a practice in Annapolis, went on last year’s trip to Thailand. She brought toothbrushes and taught general oral hygiene and after seeing the condition of the children’s teeth, is planning to bring a portable dental unit in order to provide cleanings, sealants and fillings for this year’s trip.

“I’ve been on about a half dozen other mission trips before to third world countries,” Jimenez says, “and even though last year’s wasn’t a fullfledged trip for me in that respect, it was the most rewarding trip I’ve ever been on because of the way Beccah and Geni structured the trip. The yoga combined with the volunteer work takes it beyond the physical and the mental. It feels very spiritual. I’m looking forward to going back.”

Donnelly says that “we’re working to get our 5013C, so in the future, participants will be able to deduct part of their trip.”

And anyone is welcome to come along. “You can have never done yoga a day in your life,” Leister says. “You can never have volunteered a day in your life. You just have to be open to the experience.”

You don’t even have to be from the Frederick area. On the most recent trip to India in January, Yogamour had participants from up and down the East Coast, prompted by word-of-mouth.

“When you bring such joy to these kids, the smiles on their faces are etched into your mind forever,” Donnelly says. “You don’t ever want to leave.”

Support By Shopping

Yogamour brings back treasures from their trips that they sell at fundraisers. It has a dual purpose. Buying the items incountry helps the artisans support themselves through the sale of their handicrafts. Proceeds from sales are used to buy supplies for future trips.

Yogamour’s next fundraiser will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, April 12 at Sol Yoga, 253 W. Patrick St. in Downtown Frederick. Shoppers will find an array of exotic artwork, clothing and accessories.

For more information on Yogamour and their retreats, visit www.yogamour.org.