Seva & The Healthy Student Teacher Relationship
A yoga culture that encourages participation through seva is a way for students to enjoy meaningful time together, build community and most importantly develop the depth of giving without thoughts for the self. Seva is one of the cornerstones of many yoga traditions. Giving within a community context has been shown in research to support wellness and long term happiness.¹ Volunteer work, while different in some ways from seva, when done from a place of genuine giving, contributes to a sense of connection and life purpose.
When offering seva opportunities to students it’s essential they understand the meaning and true practice of it and that you too are not seeking potential benefits of getting work done or personal needs met for free.
What is Seva?
Seva literally means selfless service. Seva is service done in the absence of ego or any expectation of outcome, reward, or increased status. Seva is not a work exchange nor is it the same as “volunteer” work. In the truest sense of seva the “self,” the ego, is not present.
In the practice of seva, one is not seeking recognition, inclusion, acknowledgement, an enriched resume or college application, or any other benefit for oneself. This does not mean someone practicing seva will not be acknowledged or have some benefit from it, but it does mean any wish for such benefit is not part of the equation…
What is Volunteer Work?
Volunteer work is any uncompensated work done voluntarily and without pressure or coercion. Volunteer work, regardless of internal motivation, helps build a sense of community and internal fulfillment.
Volunteer work is seva when it springs from a place of selfless giving without thought or intent of reward.
Volunteer work is an action while seva is an internal practice while performing an action that is typically in service to others, to community.
What is a Trade or Work Exchange?
A Work Exchange is fundamentally a labor practice and should be based on a clearly defined agreement of what work will be done and in exchange for what benefit. Work exchanges can be a valuable way to include students who wish to participate in particular workshops or offerings but may not have the means to do so.
While doing a “trade” with a yoga student is a helpful way to support them in their continued practice, it can also get messy if multiple roles are introduced into the student-teacher dynamic. For instance, if there is a culture of seva in the yoga studio or if a student is also a part-time employee of the studio, it is essential to truly separate seva, paid work, and work for exchange from each other.
Work Exchange Policy: Any yoga teaching business that offers students work exchange opportunities will best have a clear policy and/or procedure about them that is shared via their website and at the very least with any student requesting such an exchange. Policies and procedures should be in compliance with applicable local, state and national labor and tax laws and regulations. Publishing your policy is an important part of inclusion and accessibility, so that people from differing socio economic circumstances can be aware of the opportunity and that such exchanges are professionally managed.
Work Exchange Agreement: If you require a specific type of skill or expertise, whether you are paying a student their professional rate or via an exchange, it’s best to give careful consideration to expectations on both sides. Put the specifics in writing so the scope of work to be performed and the compensation or benefit in exchange are clearly defined and agreed upon by the Teacher/business and student(s). Any subsequent change, such as increased scope of work, would also need to be clearly defined and agreed upon.
How does all this relate to the Code of Ethics?
Because seva is an important practice for students to learn, The KRI Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct (specifically the KRI Respectful Student Teacher Relationships Policy), gives guidelines to ensure a student’s good will and contributions are respected in a culture that encourages seva. Because of the inherent power imbalance in Teacher-student relationships the potential for exploitation of a student’s trust is great if a yoga teacher has a lack of clarity around financial boundaries, legal obligations, and defined agreements.
Seva vs. Work Exchange
It can be messy or it can be black and white. Let’s look at how.
Consider a Teacher offering students choices of how to develop the practice of seva versus delegating work to sevadars that actually should be paid staff positions. This can get messy quickly and the potential to cause harm to a student’s trust and desire to please is profound. In management and delegation decisions, studio owners and teacher can consider the following:
Considerations for Seva type positions within a studio setting
- Does this task give an opportunity to learn about humility and the practice of giving without thought of reward?
- Which tasks give an opportunity for connection and community building?
- Which tasks allow for contemplation, internal reflection and the development of humility?
- Which positions allow anyone of any skill level to be included in participating?
- Which opportunities are potentially creative contributions, but not necessarily time sensitive and support the community but not the business owner?
- Can your studio have an outward focus, where the value of giving to the external community and to the world is cultivated as an aspect of the seva practice?
- And finally, can you ask the students what they would like to do as a seva?
Identifying tasks that may not be appropriate for volunteers and might be best as paid positions
Any business has pressure to make ends meet. Exploitation can more easily occur IF that pressure extends down the power differential and falls on the student. Tasks are not actually a “seva” if the studio is asking for work exchanges that are disguised as a seva.
A student’s prana and good will, given freely in seva, should be respected. Yet there really isn’t “one” right way to decide about work exchange or seva. The questions below are meant to explore these concepts. Consider that any “yes” answer might mean the task may not be appropriate for non-compensated service/seva. Take into account the power differential in the student teacher relationship in making these decisions.
- Does the task directly support operations/profit & loss of the teaching/studio business?
- Would the task cause a disruption in business flow if not done on time?
- Does the task require a professional skill set that a Teacher can consider simply paying a professional for instead of making it a seva?
- Can the sevadar (the one doing seva) say no at any time, without any pressure or negative social consequences?
It could be that tasks connected to profit or the bottom line may be valuable to offer as a seva, but be sure to offer this task in a no pressure way.
Generally speaking, any work that you need in your training or studio that otherwise a staff member would do or is personal in nature, should be carefully if ever offered as a seva opportunity.
Allowing for the relationship to be personally impersonal, where the student is not serving an individual teacher’s personal situation, keeps the boundaries and relationship respectful. If the job personally benefits a particular teacher or individual that job likely should be a paid service separate from the teaching/studio business.
Seva as a cornerstone of community
Duties like restocking the yogi tea corner/a place in the studio where people gather to drink tea and chat, might be a low pressure seva position to offer, giving a chance for the practice of seva and for connection and community. Redoing the flowers and helping to creatively keep the yoga studio clean and sacred after a training are all areas where seva can be offered without pressure of any kind and as a way for people to commit to the internal practice. Beyond the yoga community, helping students to nurture a practice of seva means that they develop the ability to be internal in consciousness and external in action. Click here for examples of yoga in action around the globe.
Off the Mat and into the World
Ultimately, we would wish for students to learn seva within their yoga community so that they can take this value and make more meaningful contributions to the world. Teachers and studio owners can role model by offering free classes to specific under-resourced populations or making choices that take care of the environment or support resilient yet under-privileged communities. Support your students to allow seva to be a launching pad to take yoga beyond self care and into world service. Yoga students and teachers might collectively wish to engage in a community service project such as road clean up or serving food to those in need.
Seva offered in a no pressure way
Tasks such as answering emails for the studio or generating content for social media are professional level skills that are appropriately paid positions. Being dependent on the results of a seva position are a warning sign that it should probably be a paid position. It’s imperative that yoga studios/teachers understand that a student should never feel obligated or pressured into these kinds of duties. Students, in their eagerness to please and desire to belong, may be willing to take on tasks (that would normally be performed by paid staff) for free in order to garner extra favor with the teacher. Keep a watchful eye on this dynamic.
Seva opportunities must not appear as a pathway to becoming part of a teacher’s “inner circle.” In fact, if the dynamics of a studio space are leading to an “inner circle” vibe, perhaps the studio staff and teachers need further education in healthy student-teacher relationships and inclusion practices.
Red flags are raised especially around incongruencies between who makes the effort and who reaps the reward. For instance a yoga student feeling the longing to belong might be willing to contribute their professional expertise without realizing their vulnerability to exploitation in doing so. Not only does labor exploitation corrupt the very practice and purity of seva, it can be harmful to the student involved, including when they realize the truth of the situation and how they were so used.
Teachers should include sufficient allowance for labor costs in their financial planning and budgeting for courses and not rely on students’ free work to keep costs down and increase profits.
Let’s consider a situation where a work exchange was offered to a student. Because the studio culture and teacher had misunderstandings about what seva actually is and did not hold the boundaries of the respectful student teacher relationship, the student walked away feeling hurt and taken advantage of.
Real-Life Scenario: When eagerness to serve goes sour
Amanda has started attending yoga classes but due to unexpected stressors in her life finds she can no longer afford a weekly yoga class. She asks her teacher Ardas Singh if she can do a work exchange in order to attend more regularly.
He agrees and says he could use some help with data entry for new students and class attendance in his software program and suggests she help with that, probably just an hour a week, and she could attend one class a week without paying.
Amanda respects Ardas Singh and wants to do a great job. For the first few weeks she spends about an hour of work and attends class once a week. But the student community was growing as his classes became more popular. He turns over some backlogged data to Amanda and it takes her five hours that week to input it all.
When she goes to attend a second class that week the studio staff won’t admit her without payment. She explains she spent five hours doing the work exchange and they tell her that’s between her and Ardas and she should talk to him about her seva. Amanda is confused because she thought she was doing a trade in services.
She asks Ardas Singh if he could explain the work exchange agreement to his staff to resolve the problem and is surprised when he replies “I’m sure I can find someone else to do this work if you don’t want to. Seva is something you should be doing for your spiritual growth. Just wait until you see what miracles come into your life!” He went on, now chastising her, “How can you demand something in return for the gift you are offering to the community? I thought you were really growing in your yoga practice.”
Amanda feels demeaned and confused. She sees a few other students doing “seva” who receive more attention from their teacher. She thought she’d asked for a “work exchange” and it seems to be morphing into something else. The data entry now takes her at least two hours a week to complete yet no matter how much she does it’s apparently only good for one $18 class. She also questions the integrity of the teachings being offered. Why would I do all this “seva” in order to attend a yoga class or get some free one on one time with Ardas Singh? This looks like an unfair transaction to me!
She wants to quit but Kundalini Yoga has helped her so much with her chronic back pain and right now this is the only way she can afford the classes. She calculates she is owed at least five or six classes but when she asks Ardas about it his response is “It looks like you’re in Shakti Pad. This is a time to keep up! Do more seva! Don’t let your negative mind take over.”
Amanda is torn between continuing with the unfair exchange or moving on.
Can we see how this situation got messy very quickly? There wasn’t a clear written or verbal agreement between them for the work exchange and the studio culture perpetuated exploitation of seva for personal gain.
Amanda is now in a position where she has to advocate for herself because her yoga teacher has failed to hold the boundaries of a professional relationship. He could have initiated a clear agreement for the exchange in writing and stuck to that. When the workload increased, that would have been time to talk about it and come to a new agreement (as to whether it would become a part time job or she could attend more classes).
Respectful Teacher-Student Financial Relationships
Let’s look at the KRI Respectful Student-Teacher Relationship Policy for guidance on seva and work exchanges :
- Non-monetary work exchanges – Teachers are strongly encouraged to commit the details of such agreements to writing, clearly defining the responsibilities in terms of required hours and type of work to be performed and in exchange for what benefit, to decrease possible tensions and misunderstandings.
- Non-compensated service
- The practice of seva may be a required element of Teacher Training and Academy advancement.
- In the case of “voluntary” seva/non-compensated service no student should be pressured to participate or made to feel excluded in any way for declining to participate.
- In either case (work exchange or seva) the work performed must not be for a Teacher’s personal gain or benefit.
There isn’t only one way to create a healthful community of seva. Teachers can pay attention to the details here, be clear to offer seva without pressure and produce opportunities for the internal practice of selfless giving.
KRI is a non-profit organization that holds the teachings of Yogi Bhajan and provides accessible and relevant resources to teachers and students of Kundalini Yoga.