My experience of the Burma Seva Project

By Project Ambassador, Fay Crowther

The Burma SEVA project is one of the best things I've done. I know that sounds like an extravagant statement, but that's how I feel; the experience with Om and Roam has shifted something fundamental in me.

I have been travelling since January. My journey started in India and has taken me to Nepal and Myanmar and now New Zealand.  I found Om and Roam when I was stuck; full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but without opportunities to put them into practice. On this trip I wanted to be able to make more genuine connections with people and communities through practising and teaching yoga as much as possible, but I was finding it difficult to actually do what I wanted as things kept getting in the way.

I couldn't believe my luck when I found Om and Roam and all those obstacles seemed to melt away;  an example (I've now learnt) of how things flow freely when you are going in the right direction. The project was running in Myanmar exactly when I'd planned to be in the country. I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet a group of like-minded people and to have the unique experience of being invited into a convent community to be part of their special celebration for the Water Festival and Buddhist New Year. I was excited to be immersed in a week of meditation and yoga and to welcome the new year in a traditional Burmese way.

I was not proved wrong; it was all that I had hoped, but also a whole whirlwind of other experiences that I had not even imagined! What I had not given credit was the power of meditation and yoga to cause fundamental shifts and transformations. I completely underestimated the capacity that a group commitment and practice could have, especially when shared with hundreds of committed and welcoming Burmese nuns. I'm not new to yoga or meditation retreats, I've been lucky enough to benefit from their positive effects before, but there was definitely something different, more mystical and special about this one.

Marni and Carly created and organised this experience as one of service to the nuns; to support them to learn poses that would help them in their extended periods of meditation, and to serve their physical and mental well-being by being empowered to understand and look after their bodies as part of their daily routine. The yoga sessions were tailored beautifully to their needs and led with insight and intuition that responded to the dynamics of the group even with the limitations of relying on a translator to give instructions and the searing heat. It was clear straight away how much the nuns enjoyedthe yoga offered on their new year celebration programme, and those who attended the first project visit last year greeted the returning teachers like heros!  During the yoga classes, the concentration that the nuns applied was humbling, as was their ability to so quickly pick up sequences and transfer meditation techniques to the movement. There were times in the room where it seemed a collective consciousness was present; that our yoga sequences together represented something bigger, and energy moved throughout the group as a unit rather than as individuals.

The nuns were truly at the heart of the project, and it was evident that substantial preparation and learning from last year had been put in place to ensure this was the case. What I had not realised before the retreat was how much Marni and Carly were willing to commit to support our group of yoga teachers as well. The retreat leaders not only made a commitment to serve the nuns and the nunnery, but they also gave boundless support to our group of yoga volunteers. Our evening satsangs and morning yoga and meditation sessions helped to deepen the experience and to allow us to harness the changes and energy that came from that special environment. Having their wisdom and insight helped me to allow the experience to unfold, even when it felt uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity. I felt at times overwhelmed by their generosity and commitment to our group as well as to the participating nuns.

Once I started to take notice and to tune in to some of the subtle clues and changes that began to happen, more and more seemed to manifest. At times I wanted to halt the whole thing and close my eyes again so that I could go back to relying on my more rational mind, but the support of the group and particularly the group leaders meant that I felt comfortable allowing the experience to happen and to learn as much as I could from it. Part of the beauty of the retreat was that it was a group experience, but everyone took something different out of it; we all seemed to receive a bit of what we needed. We evolved as individuals within the context of the group. The same applied to the nuns too; they were given a variety of postures and flows to allow them to take something they needed from the yoga they learned; strength from the warrior poses perhaps, or a change of perspective from twists, maybe increased self esteem from core poses, or support from the partner work we did.

For me, yoga is empowerment; it is you on your yoga mat, just as you are. It is a practise of meeting yourself with acceptance and non-judgement in order to receive what you need. In this way, yoga is a priceless resource; through practising yoga, you are able to get to know yourself better and to give yourself what you need. I find knowledge of these techniques extremely empowering, because by spending time with myself on my yoga mat, I am able to give myself nourishment to make myself stronger, kinder, gentler... whatever is necessary in that moment. Knowing this, I had no doubt of the capacity of the Burma seva project to offer something truly valuable to the community of female nuns and orphans we worked with. The nuns show such mental and emotional resilience and strength in following their spiritual calling, that it was a real honour to be able to offer yoga techniques that could be so complementary to their daily commitment to meditation. 

The all-female environment provided a softness that allowed greater relaxation and release into the poses we practised together. Not only was it an essential condition to foster a safe environment where we could spend time in moving meditation together with lesser feeling of self-consciousness, it also was a basis that bonded us. As a group we were united by our womanhood and it was a space where this could be embraced and celebrated. More than that, the nuns were women highly practised in meditation and with that seemed to come boundless levels of acceptance and compassion. Without the need for words, these conditions were palpable everywhere in the retreat environment. At first it felt quite intimidating; there was nowhere to hide. Such an allowing environment held the potential to be quite exposing; and for me, this was the beauty of it; being able to be strong together whilst vulnerabilities and insecurities surfaced, and to be accepted just as we were.

I wanted to stand in front of the nuns as a steadfast, reliable, unbreakable teacher, but they were too wise for that. The compassion in the room melted away any facades, and instead we were just a group of women, perfect in our imperfections, moving through sequences as one, and at times it really did feel like that; that there was a collective consciousness that breathed and moved together and understood. This was only possible in such a safe and accepting environment. I felt that the nuns were experts at cultivating this; they spent their days fostering this attitude in meditation and selfless service. For me as a guest, I needed help to blend into this, which is where the support of the retreat leaders was so important and why the nuances of the retreat schedule in providing reflection and preparation time for us as visitors was so important. It was necessary for us to shed layers of our egos to create the space that the nuns needed also to let go. Whilst they are experts in the art of doing this with their thoughts and in meditation techniques, they too had instances where new emotions or vulnerabilities arose from their bodies. For many of the nuns it was the first time that had explored the emotions stored in their bodies, and through creating a safe and secure space together, I could see that there were many times when many of the nuns experimented with doing things differently. I saw the delight in the faces of the women who successfully held the crow pose; the feeling of power that they got from being able to complete a pose that looks so impressive. I also saw the grit and determination in many faces when our sequences pushed them to explore their edges of comfort in their bodies in order to be able to strengthen their core muscles; they were discovering the boundaries of their bodies that they were able to expand and extend. I saw as well moments of vulnerability and release in raw emotion; some nuns held hands with each other during the savasana relaxation for support; others let go completely and allowed themselves to express their emotions through tears or laughter as they experienced release in their bodies. All were held by the support of the group to allow and accept whatever came up for each individual, just as we had been encouraged to do in our sessions with Marni.

Going forward, I will take with me the strength and value that can be found in compassion and unity that does not need to be expressed in words. I also have a further deepened trust and faith in the practice of yoga to bring unity to groups and individuals through encouraging all to express themselves exactly as they are and to accept whatever that might show. In this sense, I feel so keen and sure that this offering to communities in challenging circumstances should be made on a larger scale and to women in more contexts in order to empower them to listen to themselves and to have the courage to act on what they hear.

I set an intention at the beginning of the retreat to think less and to be led more by my experience. This means I find it hard to explain what actually happened as it is not logical or easily analysed. (I realise that's not that helpful for anyone reading this!) All I can say is that I feel that my eyes have been opened to more of the magic that life holds; I've started to see things that have always been there, but that I have been too busy or distracted to notice. The group and individual sessions with Marni helped me to tune into some of the shifts that were taking place;  how much I was learning from the nuns without conversation, how the environment seemed to change me by osmosis and how I was beginning to become aware of my own insight which was surfacing through the programme of meditation and yoga held at such a special time in such a special place.

I have no doubt in the value of the project for the nuns, and hope that projects like these can reach more communities who would benefit from empowerment and greater health and well-being through yoga. I also feel very grateful for the impact it's had on me; I went with the intention to volunteer and offer something new to the nunnery, but realise I have taken away a lot more than I could offer. I feel that my Burma SEVA experience marks the unveiling of a new mindset for me and new perspectives that I would like to explore. I will forever be grateful to the Big Love for Burma project for that, and hope that one day I'm able to give more back.

I depart from the project full of gratitude, appreciation and humility for the experience and the people I have met. I will carry a little piece of Burma and the nunnery with me forever and hope that I will always stay connected to and involved with this wonderful project. I am reminded of the famous quote from Rumi 'As you walk the path, the way appears' and as a result my next steps feel more confident and purposeful. If you are considering getting involved too, stop thinking and just do it! Find out what will unfold for you through offering yoga to this special community. When my friends have asked me what happened I've replied 'I feel like Alice in Wonderland and I've decided to follow the White Rabbit.' Perhaps you will take a trip down the rabbit hole too! Wish me luck... I'll let you know where mine leads...!

If you have any more questions aboutmy experiences on this project, please get in touch! I'd be really happy to tell you more:) or go ahead and apply for 2018 here.

Fay Crowther, Project Ambassador for Om & Roam