SERVICE AS LIFE: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA HARDING

We sit down with teacher Amanda Harding to talk about incorporating the very yogic principle of seva, or service, into life as a yoga studio owner, teacher, friend, and mother.

Words: Amanda Harding and Vanessa Gardner // Images: Mackenzie Stroh

WITH THIS ISSUE, WE'RE FOCUSING ON SERVICE, AND HOW TO INCORPORATE THAT INTO ONE'S OWN PRACTICE AND WAY OF LIFE, BECAUSE SOMETIMES, PEOPLE FEEL THAT IT'S ONE OR THE OTHER: HELP OTHERS, OR HELP YOURSELF.

Amanda: Well yeah--for people that devote themselves to caring for other people, they can lose that part of it. In a yoga context, they're so interrelated. I've had friends who are so involved in their own psyches that they can't step out of it, and they've gone through whatever they're going through, and immediately when they take themselves out and seek to help somebody else, it changes everything.

They are interwoven. But it's hard for people to, one, not see service as--I hate to use the word "belittling"--but in the back of their minds, sometimes there's a sense of "well, I'm doing so great, so let me help poor you, who's not." But in terms of yoga philosophy, it's definitely soul versus soul. There's an element of actually bringing people to the same level, which I think is a beautiful thing. 

We've interwoven that with our teacher training [at Prema Yoga Brooklyn], which is great, because when you're in something so deeply and you're dissecting your own personal experiences, you lose sight of those around you. And also, it's important to remember that as a yoga teacher, we're in this place of service at all times, but we can sometimes lose that connection. 

HOW DID IT COME AROUND FOR YOU? 

Amanda: I was raised that way. My mother was an animal welfare advocate, so from the time I was born, we had strays [laughs]. But she actually didn't do it the right way, because she put her whole life into service, to the point where she couldn't see. She got so pulled by the devastation that she saw that there were no boundaries. She would come home and just be a crumbled mess. So, it's that fine line of understanding that you're only doing great work if you've taken care of your own self. 

WHAT WAS YOUR DISCOVERY OF FINDING THAT BALANCE BETWEEN SERVICE AND SELF-CARE?

Amanda: Well, I think having a family, for me, helps. Always having a mirror into my own self--there's always a sense of checking when I've gone too far away from them, when I'm feeling too narcissistic, or when I'm too pulled in the other way. And having a family forces you to have that balance. I can tell if I haven't taken care of myself--it shows in how I interact with my children, how I care for them, certainly with my husband, how I teach. But you won't see it necessarily if you're not doing your own personal practice. 

I have a healthy balance now, but it took a while, took a lot of checks and balances. I also have a great community of people who check me, too. A small group of other teachers, and we're very, very close. You need that, because sometimes you can't see it. You can only be so self-reflective. Looking at yourself in the mirror--it's not actually how you look.

Like anything else, a spiritual practice can tread a very fine line of narcissism, so you've gotta pay attention: why am I doing this? 

AS A BUSINESS OWNER--HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THAT WITH SERVICE? WAS THAT ALWAYS YOUR INTENTION AS A YOGA TEACHER?

Amanda: I think it was very organic. I've always had that in my consciousness, that I probably wouldn't teach forever. I think there's probably a bit of an expiration date for me with following the same model. I knew that having the business, there would have to be other things besides changing the toilet bowl, and all that stuff [laughs]. 

So we're launching something called Voice of the Voiceless, and it will cater to the elderly community, animal welfare, single mothers, and children, and we're setting up all the required documentation for all of it. But it's all within this Brooklyn neighborhood. An example would be people that are elderly and in hospice care, but don't always have someone to visit them--we can set up a schedule of people that can be attached to an elder and can spend time with them. Or single mothers that don't get a chance to practice being able to get a little babysitting so that they can. Just very, very localized, without aspiring for the idea of "let me change the world", because sometimes that can be paralyzing. 

AND YOU'RE STILL CHANGING THE WORLD. IT'S ALL SO CIRCULAR.

Amanda: It is! And for those in the community who volunteer, the benefits are enormous. And we can actually see what's happening, as volunteers, and see how it's affecting the person we're helping, as opposed to just writing a check, which is great, but has its limitations. 

IT'S DEFINITELY DIFFERENT TO HAVE IT ON THE STREETS, IN THE COMMUNITY. 

Amanda: Exactly! And you know, one of my students actually sets up nonprofits, so she actually came to me with an idea to have a town hall. So once we have it all set up, we can have a town hall [at Prema], a meeting, and people can say what they think might be needed, or ideas that people might have, of where we could go and be of service. 

AND IF YOU BUILD IT FROM THE GROUND UP, YOUR VISION ISN'T DILUTED.

Amanda: And this is a built-in community already, so we're one step ahead. Someone can come in and say, 'I actually need this'. We have moms going through divorces, they have kids, may not have resources, financially they don't have security, so you know from your built-in community where there's need. 

With your life as a teacher, are there ways you hope to instill this idea of living a life of service with others?

Amanda: I think it's by action. Yoga is so experiential, that you have to experience it to know. So I've set up a lot of things--even just talking in my classes about what it is to serve. Some of it is opening up people's channels and access to their own selves to understand that it's of importance, that service is what you actually do. And some people come to it not being told, but by or through yoga, by opening themselves up, they realize, "this is actually something that feels good, that I want to do, that is part of living my experience." So they come to it naturally a lot of times.

How would you define your idea of service, its personal expression for you?

As my time got more limited, when I couldn't just go "I'm going to volunteer here, on this particular day", I decided that my whole outlook on life has to be of that nature. So, as soon as I walk in this door and see people, the service is there, all day long. Someone has this going on, and someone has that going on, and they're free to tell you about it, and that openness is a kind of service. And when you put yourself out there, you'll have people come to you with their needs. It's little things. Someone might need to visit their child, and they're separated, but they don't have a car, so I lent them my car for the day. It's just there, every day. It will become more formal when [Voice of the Voiceless] is all set up, but service is a part of everything. It's not so concrete, it's not in a little box. There's nothing wrong with that, either--I spent years doing New York Cares, and it was beautiful, but now, I think that I'm doing much more good. In a community, you're tapping into a vein of people who may not necessarily ask for help. It's important to understand that the people you see on a daily basis are going through challenges, or are suffering. It's one person at a time. Who can I help today? 


ABOUT AMANDA HARDING

Amanda Harding is the co-owner of Prema Yoga Brooklyn, where she teaches weekly Vinyasa flow classes as well as private and corporate clients across NYC & Los Angeles through her company, Karuna NYC. She is the creator of a program called 'Yoga on Set', which provides weekly yoga sessions to the cast and crews of NY-based film and television shoots. Heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as well as the Bhakti yoga tradition, Amanda teaches an Ashtanga-influenced vigorous, yet mindful and creative class incorporating the fluidity of dance and music/chanting with heavy emphasis on alignment, breath, patience and fun. She has witnessed in her own life how creating spaciousness in her body, mind and heart and truly 'walking the walk' with humility has immensely affected her relationship with herself and others.  Her wish is to impart to her students the many gifts she has received through her ongoing practice and studies – a greater sense of authenticity, inner peace, strength, compassion and, most of all, service to others. Find her on Instagram.