With Christmas fast approaching I have been reflecting back on my Christmas last year… I spent it volunteering at a homeless shelter in Bermondsey, southeast London. The shelter was run by the charity Crisis and I had signed up to teach yoga for them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I had thought long and hard before signing up…
Was it really an unselfish act? Did I really think I could make a difference? Should I be with my family?
When it came to Christmas Eve I was still questioning my decision. The drop-in shelter, based in a huge sixth-form college, received a couple of hundred guests each day. It was overwhelming to walk in to and I couldn’t help wishing that I was at home drinking mulled wine and helping my mother with the cooking.
I was however completely amazed at what was on offer; not only a bed for those who really needed it and three meals a day but job advice, art classes, football matches, exercise classes, alternative therapies, haircuts.. I could keep going. All my Christmas’s so far had been spent with family or in backpacker’s hostels – this was a new experience altogether!
After the first meeting with the rest of the activities volunteers though I slowly began to feel more at ease. For the next couple of days I taught two or three yoga classes a day and in between I hung out with the guests creating big mandalas, playing board games and drinking numerous cups of tea. After meeting so many interesting individuals, chatting to them about life and listening to their stories I realised how grateful I was for this opportunity….
What I realised…
Giving to others is a sure fire way to transform your life for the better. By spending some time helping others I not only found greater meaning in why I teach yoga (to have a real impact on someone’s wellbeing) but I realised how much I was able to contribute by just being me; making someone laugh or connecting with them in a unique way. It is easy to get wrapped up in my own day to day struggles. By giving less of my energy to them I often find they start to dissolve. By shifting my focus to others I open up so much more space in my life, making it possible to use my time in a more meaningful way.
You do not need to change the world! I have always thought that I need to do huge things to help; volunteer in an orphanage or start a charity. It is the smallest acts of kindness though that can make a massive difference to someone’s day. Maybe that person will go on to do the same for someone else and little by little our world is improved. Start small! Start a ripple of positive energy and it may turn into a wave.
Challenge what you know. I love to step out of my comfort zone, to change my daily routine and do something totally different. It broadens my understanding of how others live and how our world works. It doesn’t have to be a huge change but maybe by just asking ourselves why we have made the life choices we did and once in a while breaking our routine we might discover a whole new world of opportunities.
Be Grateful. This is a huge thing in my life right now. My experience volunteering in the shelter was a strong reminder of how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, a warm bed, my health and a wonderful family. There are so many amazing people who don’t have any of these. I now have a gratitude diary and work daily on giving thanks for all the little things that have gone well in my day, instead of focusing on what has gone wrong. It is astounding how much my life has improved just by doing this and how much more I contribute to my community.
And finally – just show up! I was very close to not volunteering at all. I questioned my decision and went over all the reasons that it might not be a good idea. For me, it rarely pays to listen to my doubts, fears, worries or anxious thoughts. They never prove correct. You don’t need to do anything in life apart from show up and be you; if you can do that with a positive attitude and open-mind even better. You really never know what might happen or what you might learn!
The people I met…
It was really an honour to meet such wonderful people and if I helped make their day a little better in some way then I am truly glad. Looking back though, it seems that I learnt just as much from the them and it was them who made my days brighter; Zac who hadn’t slept for three days but was so gentle and kind; Pavlov whose wallet and winter coat had been stolen from him the night before but was still strong and determined; Michael who had very little to his name but whose positive nature, grateful attitude and ambitions of one day owning his own personal fitness business were inspiring; Tim who rode the buses each night before going to his office job in the day so that he could provide for his children and Ivan who could barely walk but whose chuckle was contagious.
I can honestly say that my Christmas in the Crisis homeless shelter just off Old Kent Road was one of the best I have had. This year my day will be vastly different but I plan to appreciate it and try to make it that bit brighter for those around me, in any little way I can.