My experience with “Energy Exchange” volunteering at my yoga studio

Posted on February 15, 2018

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In India, cleaning is something that is done by others. There is great stigma attached to menial tasks. Most people do not treat their help as equal. Books and movies like, “The Help,” have no impact on Indians because we still treat our domestic help that way. They sleep on the floor in our kitchens or store rooms. Their bathrooms are separate. The utensils they use when in our homes are kept separate. Historically, these were tasks done by people belonging to the lowest caste — the “untouchables.” And it is not just the rich that treat the lower castes like this. There is a power hierarchy even among the lower castes and classes. It can be confusing. Mostly, caste triumphs class when amongst similar classes. Otherwise, class triumphs caste. As Indians, we love to believe that untouchability and caste politics are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, they are not. Anyway, these are conversations that should ideally take place in a series of posts.

My father belongs to the highest caste in the hierarchy. Brahmin. While they are not the richest class now, they are mostly people we consider as very educated and probably comprise a very healthy portion of the middle and upper classes. My mother belonged to the Baniya / Vaniya caste — the business community. One rung lower, but very respected because they have money, or at least traditionally used to. I grew up in a home where we were theoretically taught to respect people equally, no matter what their class. Yet, I can see clearly the plate and glass that were reserved for the “servants” and the “bhangis”. Bhangis are the untouchables, that clean toilets. We talked to our help with a lot of respect, but in retrospect, there was a clear difference between them and us. Of course, as I grew up and went to school for Social Work etc., I realized how terrible all this was. In my home, there are truly no separate utensils any longer. And even though I would unintentionally squirm at the thought of our toilet cleaner sleeping on my bed, I would welcome them. It would be hard, but I would do it because that’s what it means to love and accept everyone as equal. Yet, it would be hypocritical of me to say it would be very easy — you cannot undo decades of conditioning in a minute. At least I can’t.

Coming back to my story. I live in Canada. Even though I am a 1st generation immigrant, thanks to the education that my husband, Sid and I have had, we are fortunate to be very financially comfortable. But I am constantly aware of how impermanent things are. I recently quit my job that paid me reasonably well. While we were not hard up, it definitely created a dent in our cashflow. I am no stranger to living frugally, because I grew up in a middle class home where my father was the only earning member for the six of us.

fcfc6-14vtqvcjl-iqifbd0b7wdaqSo, I decided to see where I could cut back on my expenses. I love hot yoga. Sid and I have been going to this amazing yoga studio in Etobicoke, in the west end of Toronto, Poweryoga Canada, for the last four years. We love the teachers here and feel so loved and welcomed always. They have this amazing program (as do other yoga studios) called, “Energy Exchange.” Basically, if you volunteer for 4–5 hours a week, you get unlimited yoga FREE. All you have to do is mop, sweep, sanitize, do laundry (which I hate), take out garbage, clean toilets and bathrooms. And if there is time and need, register folks, and do sales at the reception.

So, in January, I approached Susan, one of the owners of the studio, whom I love and respect and asked her if I could volunteer. And now I do Wednesday mornings at the studio.

I have done it only a few times so far. Initially, I had thought I would do it till I get another job. But as time has passed, I have realized that I actually enjoy it and take great pride in making sure that the space is clean and welcoming for members of our community. Yesterday, I mopped the floor twice because I was just not happy with how spotty it looked. It’s been pretty gross with all the snow melting and people walking in with salt stuck to their socks, etc. I think of this as my space and that I am leaving my positive energy in it.

I know what a lot of you are thinking. This is all fine “over there” in the West. People value labour differently. It is true. They do. I also know that in India we complain how much our help take us for granted, or don’t do a good job and how they are ungrateful. And then I reflected on why my experience is different? The teachers at my yoga studio, constantly tell me how appreciative they are of me and how hard I work and how nice I am and how they value me. They don’t need to because they are paying me. I get my yoga free! But they do and that has made me so proud of what I am doing.

I hope that I am able to do the same for all the people that provide service to me in my life — in India and here in Canada.

Here’s what I learned:

Payment and tips are not enough for the people who provide service to us. We should be genuinely nice to them because it truly is an energy exchange. We are trading energy — we can decide what energy we want to trade!

And:

A. I am going to try and continue volunteering, even though now I have two jobs. I am actually organizing my schedule around the Energy Exchange.

B. My ego has definitely diminished providing service. I used to walk around with a bruised ego for not achieving my dreams or my potential, but here I am killing the one thing that makes me dissatisfied with myself (not my life — my life is perfect!)

C. I am acutely aware that I may not be able to do the same in India. The filth in Indian toilets is gross. But I may actually give it a go by trying to clean other people’s loos to begin with. So don’t be surprised if I come over and ask to clean your bathroom.

D. This post reeks of my privilege. But I am going to use my privilege right since I now know how.

Thank you so much, PYC Etobicoke for all your love and support — especially Pino and Susan. You are both amazing and such an inspiration to me.

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Posted in: introspection