Virtual Satsang

Resources for the community of seekers

Is Off the Mat Naive?

with 3 comments

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.


Written by virtualsatsang

October 14, 2010 at 7:15 am

Posted in Seva, Social Justice, Yoga

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3 Responses

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  1. Hi – Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog. Just wanted to note that OTM does have a service program focused on disenfranchised youth in the US; the link can be found at

    I also know that Seane Corn has done a lot of work with at-risk youth in the US – I believe including teenage prostitutes and HIV-positive youth – and Hala Khouri works with kids in Juvenile Detention. If you check her website there are links to her work in that area there.

    Carol Horton

    October 15, 2010 at 2:55 am

    • Hi Carol,
      I was aware that OTM did a lot of great stuff in the U.S., I just didn’t phrase my thoughts well. What I meant to say was that I wished they stuck with that for a while — before expanding overseas. It seems like they wanted to do too much too soon. Another sign of that is they keep moving from country-to-country. As any NGO will testify, it takes time to plant roots, make an impact, and understand any country.

      In any case, I do think they are good folks.

      Love your blog.


      October 15, 2010 at 3:14 am

  2. […] For a second year in a row, I enjoyed walking around and running into people. I thought the panel discussion on Yoga and the Whole Man was pretty good, and Rod Stryker did a good job making sure things flowed nicely. I particularly enjoyed listening the Richard Freeman, who combined wit & wisdom, with stories from his travels. Rod highlighted the following factoid: while most attendees (and yoga students) are female, most of the presenters at the conference (and senior teachers) tend to be male. This might explain why the most popular strains of yoga in the US tend to be more aggressive and masculine in sensibility (e.g. ashtanga). OTOH, the growing interest in seva among yogis has largely been led by female teachers. […]

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