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Acting In

by Alyssa Giacobbe

Sean Corn’s brand of activism starts from within.

Right away, Seane Corn will have you know: She is not perfect. Although she is one of the yoga community’s best-known teachers—a gifted orator, physically beautiful, and, as the founder of the grassroots outreach effort, Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), certifiably giving—the Los Angeles-based yoga star can be impatient, controlling, short-tempered, and reactive. She has a mouth like a truck driver. Corn makes it clear, however, that she hasn’t succeeded despite these shortcomings—rather, she has succeeded because of them. Learning to recognize, and claim, those imperfect parts of herself has, she says, made her a better teacher, friend, daughter, and partner, and directly benefited her efforts as an activist.

Corn began her relationship with activism at an early age. As a recent high school graduate living in Manhattan, she participated in emotionally charged rallies concerning women’s and gay rights. Before giant, angry crowds, she’d hop on stage, grab a megaphone, and release her point of view in bouts of rage, thinking that she needed to be loud in order to be heard. Eventually—and largely, she says, through her yoga practice—Corn began to understand that change happened only when both sides were willing to see, and hear, the other’s point of view, which first required her to learn to truly appreciate her own.

“For a long time, I had a need to change or fix certain circumstances but an unwillingness to look at my own issues,” says Corn. “I realized that if I was going to change the world, I needed to start with myself.” She came to understand that being a good activist meant taking responsibility for her feelings and respecting those of others even—especially—those with whom she might not necessarily agree, a philosophy that became a natural extension of her yoga practice.

In 2007, Corn founded OTM as an outlet for her activism and a way to harness the power of the ever-growing yoga community. The organization’s mission is twofold: to train would-be activists in both the emotional and practical skills needed to get involved in championing a cause, and to teach those already active how to become more effective through the practice of yoga. Since its beginnings, OTM has enlisted thousands of volunteers who coordinate projects within their communities and are available to respond to calls for action as they arise, such as Occupy Wall Street, where Corn led a flash-mob-style yoga practice for protestors. “Yoga’s been a trend since I began teaching 18 years ago, and it hasn’t waned,” says Corn. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger; there are 20 million people doing yoga in the United States, probably more. It’s an altruistic community that’s educated, more likely to vote and pay taxes, and shares a like-minded ideal of peace and unity. And Off the Mat has enabled us to tap into the energy of that community.”

As part of OTM, Corn also runs the Global Seva Challenge—“seva” is Sanskrit for “service,” or “to go toward.” Each year, the Challenge selects a country in need to benefit from OTM’s fundraising and manpower. OTM recruits who raise $20,000 participate in a two-week trip that combines hands-on work with daily yoga and an experience that, says Corn, often takes people to their absolute edge, both physically and emotionally. Past projects have included building a halfway house and sustainable bakery in South Africa, setting up a microlending system in Haiti, and constructing an eco-birthing center in Uganda—literally from the ground up. “We had to make our own bricks,” remembers Corn, describing a process of stomping mud and hay into blocks that baked in the sun. “It took, like, three of us to make a single brick.”

In many cases, the Challenge helps the volunteers nearly as much as the beneficiaries, albeit in very different ways. “The point of the trip is to bring people outside of their comfort zone, to help them deal with the realities of their own life,” says Corn. Like Corn did when she was younger, many volunteers seek out activism, she says, in order to avoid their own feelings, inadequacies, or prejudices. “Every night during the trip, we draw attention to habits that happen in trauma,” she says. “Do they overeat, isolate, call home, and pick a fight? Do they start to clique up, or find themselves wanting to drink a glass of wine? We address all of these issues because they have to be addressed.”

Corn’s outreach isn’t limited to efforts abroad. Earlier this year, she launched Yoga Votes, meant to mobilize the yoga community to take part in the 2012 election. It’s a non-partisan effort that’s had a presence at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; that inclusivity was important to Corn’s philosophy of activism for all. “I think of myself as a bridge to connect people to another part of their path and to one another,” says Corn, whether as students, activists, or simply more conscientious human beings. “My job is to remind them who they are, inspire them, and hopefully empower them so that when it’s time to leave me, they’re more equipped for whatever comes next.”

Find out more about Seane Corn and her upcoming programs at Kripalu.

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