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The Remarkable Truth About Giving

Back in 2005, when my “picture perfect” life began to dissolve, I sank into a deep depression. My life as I knew it would never be the same, and my feelings of worthlessness led me into a period of suicidal ideation. With the help of my therapist, some anti-depressants, and yoga, I was able to find my way out, but to this day that period of my life still feels like a deep and dark hole. However, I was left with the nagging feeling that my life could have a bigger purpose. I wanted to feel something—to do more. It was as if my body knew there was a way to engage with life that could lead to my healing and my mental and emotional health; my head just needed to do the work of finding what that engagement should be. In August of 2005, I signed up to participate in a Habitat for Humanity project and found myself in Taos, New Mexico, for a two-week experience that changed my life entirely. From that time on, I knew that service was the key to my well-being.

It happens all the time. We’ve been on the hampster wheel of life for a few decades, our job feels uninspiring, or perhaps our marriage falls apart. We feel we lack purpose. Through a series of events that feels beyond our control, we find ourselves at a crossroads.

We know there is more to life; we just don’t know what that “more” is. Like me, many of us discover that being of service - helping others in ways big or small - is the key to feeling content with life.

Giving back feels good and creates a greater sense of well-being and more happiness in life. And as it turns out, giving also creates positive changes in our brains! One study on the impacts of giving social support used fMRI tests to measure changes in the brain that occur with both giving and receiving.

Remarkably, it seems our brains are wired to feel rewarded by acts of selflessness, which would explain why so many of us arrive at a point in our lives engaged in a search for something more—our brains are starved for it.

When we engage in acts of service and social support, the following areas of our brain are impacted, including:

  1. Reduced stress-related activity in dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, right anterior insula, and right amygdala.

  2. Greater reward-related activity in left and right ventral striatum.

  3. Greater caregiving-related activity in septal area.

Not only that, but in all of these brain areas, the scans showed specific activation when a participant was giving support, but not when receiving support.

After my experience in Taos I was still searching. I had given up my career for my family, had no way of supporting myself and no formal education outside of a BFA in Graphic Design from RISD. While making a living was a major priority for me, I knew that service had to be a part of my life—so I started up a non-profit organization that encompassed two of the things that I credit to saving my life: yoga and service.

About three years after the start of my organization, I was invited by a small group of individuals who shared a similar passion to my own. These were primarily founders and executive directors of other non-profits engaged in yoga service, and they were organizing a summit that was to be a meeting of the minds. We had hopes that something important - we didn’t yet know what - would materialize after these initial five days together. That “something” became the Yoga Service Council.

We all knew that being of service had enhanced our own lives; and we also knew that it was challenging work, where we often felt alone and isolated. Today, the Yoga Service Council is a collaborative community that welcomes yoga and mindfulness teachers, social service providers, health professionals, educators, researchers, and all others who share the YSC’s mission and vision.

That first summit came at a crucial time for me. My life, once again, was in upheaval. I had been feeling frozen and stuck for the better part of a year, and the invitation to join something significant was a true lifeline. The five days I spent with that remarkable group of people, including Mark Lilly of Street Yoga, Jennifer Cohen of Little Flower Yoga and Mary Lynn Fitton of the Art of Yoga Project served as a reminder of what was important to me in life, and that it wasn’t just me - here was a whole group of people who were committed to making yoga and mindfulness practices accessible to a wide range of vulnerable populations!

We felt over-worked and under-funded, but deeply passionate. At times our conversations were infused by our energy and passion for the work we did, but we also shared frustrations and feelings of being misunderstood and invalidated. Yet as we came together as a community, our conversations focused on how we could be of more service!

We wanted to help individuals who shared our passions but perhaps felt alone, isolated, or overwhelmed with ideas and frozen in fear. We wanted to offer the help that we wished we had been offered; and our strongest desire became focused not just on helping others, but on helping others help others.

Through its offerings of webinars, community resource papers and best practices book The Yoga Service Council continues to passionately support individuals to give to others—which ultimately increases feelings of well-being and positively impacts society. The single most inspiring offering of the Yoga Service Council is the annual Yoga Service Conference each spring at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. This inspiring weekend gives those of us in service an opportunity to network and befriend, to offer advice to those seeking it, to gain wisdom and inspiration from those who we admire, and to reaffirm for ourselves that the work we do is not only good for others, but also makes us feel alive, worthy, and like we have a solid purpose in life that connects directly to our own of well-being.

I have attended all but one Yoga Service Conference. Each year I’ve met many individuals who have changed my life and influenced me in ways I could not have imagined. Being part of this weekend of community in action helps reinvigorate my own commitment to what I do. As I instruct others in workshops or chat with people at the lunch table, I recognize myself in everyone. I feel connected, understood, and re-impassioned for the work I have chosen.

At this year's Yoga Service Conference I will be leading a full day workshop on safe and supportive touch for trauma survivors, something that I am passionate about because I have seen and heard the life changing benefits in the women with whom I work. I am grateful to the Yoga Service Council for seeing the benefit of my expertise and understanding that this skill may be of interest to others.

The conference also features many other breakout workshops, discussions, plenary speakers, and opportunities to network—all of which are inspiring and informative. But my favorite part of this weekend is connecting with like-minded people, hearing their stories, and understanding their passion for the work they do. The conference is a true opportunity to feel the benefits of being of service because being immersed in a community of folks that are passionate about giving social support to others just plain feels good!

And now we are discovering the brain science behind why that is. So do something good for your brain, your life, and others. Sign up to attend the Yoga Service Conference this May 11-13th, then find me and tell me all about how helping others makes you feel.

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