Is Off the Mat Naive?
A recent post by Carol Horton alerted me to a Tikkun article questioning the efficacy of Spiritual Activist programs such as Off The Mat and Into The World. By singling out Off The Mat co-founder Seane Corne, the author and Tikkun generated more traffic than they probably anticipated! In fact the comment thread for the original article grew so long, the author created a follow-up post to highlight his responses to the many counterpoints raised by readers.
I largely agree with Carol Horton’s take on this:
And regardless of whether it’s in fact a valid critique of OTM (and I believe that it’s not), it’s important to recognize that it’s not simply mean-spirited and crazy to raise these issues. There is a long, unhappy, and all-too-often deeply shameful history of white people traveling to foreign lands in the name of “doing good,” while in reality doing nothing more than serving their own self-interest.
… Regardless of how good or aware OTM and similar organizations may be, some people are going to question the motives of white American women working with Black African children. That’s OK; that’s understandable. More than that: To protect against continued abuses, whether intentional or unconscious, it’s important.
I’ve observed Seane Corn interact with students and she strikes me as a compassionate and humble person. If any group can emerge from this controversy stronger and better, I think Off The Mat and its leaders most definitely can and will.
However as a person of color who grew up in the developing world, I’ve always wondered why Off The Mat took volunteers overseas1. I definitely can detect a bit of spiritual tourism in the promotional material. There are certainly more than enough service opportunities in the U.S., particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Heck, New Orleans alone still needs many volunteers. Doesn’t it make sense to keep things close to home? Besides reducing the overhead costs (airfare alone must be exorbitant), immersive experiences with minority populations close to home seem more likely to translate to social justice initiatives that can be sustained long after Off The Mat graduate from the program. Better yet, Off The Mat grads benefit from learning about and interacting with people much closer to their backyard.
In the long run Off The Mat will benefit2 from this controversy. A passionate critic from outside the Yoga community can surface “problems” that escape the attention of those caught up in novelty of Off The Mat. At the very least Off The Mat will probably revisit some of their training materials (which makes their programs stronger). I hate to say it, but Yogis can sometimes be a bit on the dreamy side – even those engaged in Seva. And as many NGO’s have found, venturing overseas requires quite a bit of cultural and historical knowledge.
(1) Then again, the Nov/2010 issue of the Yoga Journal just devoted 10 pages to high-end Yoga Resorts in exotic places (Costa Rica, Mexico, Bali, …).
(2) It also serves as a “welcome to the blogosphere” moment for Off The Mat. I did think the tone of the two Tikkun articles were a bit harsh.
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