Something a spiritual leader once said has always stuck with me:

“True transformation doesn’t take place in spas.”

Countless motivational speakers will tell you that serving others is a fundamental step toward happiness. As much as I’ve invested in my personal development through self-help books, workshops, lectures, online courses and even yoga trainings, seva (the Sanskrit word for service) is something I always shied away from.

Perhaps I believed I didn’t have anything to offer. How could I serve others before I “healed” myself? What if my heart isn’t really as big as I believe it is? What if this doesn’t bring me happiness, as prescribed, and there’s nothing left to try?

But when my yoga instructor announced a Karma Retreat she was leading that combined yoga, sustainability, working with children and traveling to another country—so many things I was passionate about—I couldn’t say no. Well, actually, I could and did, due to financial constraints. However, when she announced a scholarship opportunity, my mind was made up in a heartbeat.

The decision to go was easy, but preparing for such an adventure was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Although I knew my teacher and at least one other person on the trip, and even though I’d just returned from a heart-opening experience in Costa Rica with the same teacher and friend, I’d be flying alone to another country and had no idea what to expect.

My parents voiced their concerns over my safety and questioned how responsible I was being. They hadn’t agreed on anything since their divorce, 25 years prior, but they formed an unlikely alliance on my upcoming itinerary. I didn’t need their permission or approval—I had just celebrated my 31st birthday—but their shared strong opinions (and reconciliation) did make me question the journey I was about to embark upon.

I knew in my heart that my soul needed to go, but that quiet voice inside of me was drowned out by their loud judgments.

New fears arose, like: Should I get vaccinated? How safe is it, really, to travel there? Can I trust the people I’m traveling with, or is this opportunity too good to be true? Am I being naive in accepting this scholarship?

Less than 48 hours before boarding my flight, I couldn’t sleep. I was scouring the internet for proof it’s safe for women to travel to Central America alone—any piece of evidence to prove my parents wrong. I found enough personal accounts in the Girls Love Travel Facebook group, an outlet for close to 750K members to share their tips and inquiries about their shared wanderlust, to finally get some sleep. Still, to be extra cautious, I charged $400 to my credit card to switch my flight and arrive earlier in the day on my friend’s flight (rather than alone at night), defeating the purpose of the scholarship I was awarded to help finance the trip.

By the time I arrived in Guatemala, I felt excited yet defeated. It was hard to remember why I was there. The thought of connecting with the group of big-hearted people that also answered the call to serve, not to mention offering something to anyone after all the time I spent doubting myself, felt so heavy. In the beginning of the week, I mostly kept to myself. I’d bring my journal with me on the bus, so I might hide behind this idea of me as a writer rather than actually putting myself out there.

We traveled with Hug It Forward, a nonprofit organization with a mission to create educational opportunities for children in vulnerable communities, while removing plastic trash from their environment.

Guatemala doesn’t have the luxury of a regulated recycling program or technology—not like in California, where recycling and composting stations are everywhere, and the garbage dump conveniently sorts your trash. Before we arrived, residents collected thousands of plastic bottles and stuffed them with inorganic trash, which would serve as the foundation for the classroom walls. This qualified them for a new bottle school and demonstrated their commitment to the project. They did this for almost a year! And their hard work didn’t stop there. They constructed their classrooms—out of plastic bottles!—right alongside us.

Each day, my yoga teacher, fellow karma yogis and I piled onto a bus, which wound up a steep mountain on a one-lane, dirt road—the only way to access Patchalî, the village we were assisting.

On our daily visits, we’d see villagers walking the miles-long, rocky path just to get into town. Few traveled by motorbike, which was considered a rare luxury. When we arrived, the entire school community greeted us with fireworks and a ceremony they had worked hard to prepare. The children took our hands as we exited the bus and escorted us to our seats to watch the performance. Students were dressed in beautiful, handmade Mayan attire, and each class prepared a traditional dance or skit.

At the end of each act, they offered us small trinkets, including candy, fruit they had grown, nuts they had harvested and small toys. Who were we to deserve this warm welcome? They didn’t know us, and yet their arms and hearts were stretched out wide without fear.

By day, we were building classroom walls to provide opportunities for Guatemalan children. By night, I was summoning courage to break down barriers I had built up around my heart. I worried that the little Spanish I retained after studying for three years in high school wouldn’t be enough to connect with the children I’d be working with.

We worked together stringing bottles onto chicken wire, at first in silence but as the week progressed the language barrier got thinner and thinner. Thank goddess for the phrase “Como se dici…” and clever idea to point to, well, anything. We laughed together. We walked hand in hand together, exploring the rural village.

From sunup to sundown, we worked and played together. We even sang together—and trust me when I say I do not sing. But by the end of the trip, when urged by the children to sing one of my favorite songs, I belted out country hit “Head Over Boots” solo in front of the entire assembled community. When two older men from the village courageously shared their personal stories of surviving the Civil War and immigration, translated by our charming tour guide–turned–beloved friend Andy, we cried together.

We learned that, while their crops were plentiful, they still had an uphill battle to provide for their families. Their cost of living is approximately $9 per day, yet the average worker’s salary is only $7 per day. To compensate, neighbors barter their goods, and still many children drop out as early as third grade to help support their families. That didn’t stop them from extending their precious resources to us. We may have been there giving our time, but they offered us everything they had.

This was truly a yoga retreat unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. Sure, we got our daily dose of asana in our morning practice—and while teaching the hard-working community members different poses on our lunch breaks. But the true transformation came in the unexpected moments. Just being a witness to their generosity of spirit changed me, opened my heart in ways I didn’t think were possible and taught me what true abundance means.

The strangers I arrived with became lifelong friends. The people I served ended up giving me more than they may ever realize. Physical walls went up, while emotional walls came down. The lines between “us” and “them” dissolved, and all that was left was love. Yoga, after all, literally means “to yoke,” or unite.

Interested in this particular Karma Yoga Retreat? The next Hug It Forward adventure is in August. 

how a karma yoga retreat transformed my life. spiritual transformation through volunteering abroad.