Karma Yoga


We've been told that when people would arrive to the Sivananda Yoga Farm Ashram when it was first founded seeking wisdom and guidance from Swami Vishnu-Devananda he would send them to the garden to weed or to the kitchen to do some dishes. And maybe after a few months the teachings (in the permutation that the aspirants were initially seeking) would begin. In yoga you don't start with the heady philosophy or even with the asanas (the physical postures that we inaccurately call yoga). You start with the dishes, or the weeds, or the trash, or the dust. You start with Karma Yoga--the yoga of selfless service. You start here because through selfless service you begin to eradicate the ego and it's twin brother selfishness, which per the yoga teachings is crucial for reaching enlightenment.

Selfless service by definition demands that you put the needs of others first. By practicing selfless service you also learn the hard lesson of detachment. Your good actions might not yield the results you hoped for, but if you are truly engaged in Karma Yoga then your focus is on the "actions, not the fruits of the actions," as elucidated by Krishna in his teachings to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. 

So that's all very well and good. It's the Yoga parallel to the Golden Rule, found in various permutations in various religions and philosophies many times over. But what's different here at the Ashram, from so many other contexts where I spend time, is that people are truly training in this path--in the Karma Yoga path. The Ashram functions in a tangible way because there is a staff of Karma Yogis who work here without days off or a paycheck. The recompense (at least of the variety that most of us would recongnize) they get is a place to pitch a tent and two meals a day. The intangible recompense is of course the teachings, the community, the distance from the rest of the world. But in watching them and talking with them, it's clear that recompense is not their priority--that they are in fact seeking to diminish it as a priority to the point that recompense isn't even a thought in their heart or mind. They are, as you would imagine, remarkable, if unusual people. 

As part of my Advanced Yoga Teacher Training course I am engaged in what I'll call Karma Yoga lite. A fellow classmate and I sweep the Yoga Hall and set up meditation cushions for class and evening Satsang (Sanskrit for: "association with the wise") each day. Our assignment, objectively speaking, is one of the easier ones. On the first day of the course when we were assigned our duties a Swami cheerfully told one of my peers that he was going to be the "colon of the Ashram," in other words: the garbage man. In any case, we each have our duties that take about an hour to complete. The naysayer would look at this and call it extortion--we are after all paying customers here. The moralist would call it a sham--assigned (and required) selfless service is a bit of an oxymoron. But I think the truth is closer to this: we are being asked to stretch and strengthen the muscle of selflessness. A couch potato who is an aspiring runner doesn't start with a marathon; he/she starts with a couple of red faced, ugly, gaspy, sweaty miles. And then it builds. The service starts as a requirement and somewhere along the way you get glimmers of selflessness. My peer who I clean the Yoga Hall with is one of my favorite people at the Ashram--and if for no other reason than to ensure I don't leave her with more work, I do want to do my work well. And sometimes, I can expand the circle wider than just the two of us and include the Ashram as a whole. 

I have worked in two other contexts where the principle of Karma Yoga was in play under different labels. The Outdoor Academy, a semester school where I formerly taught, had a "work crew" that was a core part of the curriculum, right there alongside geometry and Spanish. Students and faculty alike were responsible for keeping campus facilities clean and functioning. Teaching my students how to scrub a toilet was as important as our classroom discussions on environmental ethics--more important perhaps. Because it was in this "in the dirt" learning that the ethical concepts, which we could read and discuss ad naseum, really came to life. You don't need to read Garrett Hardin's essay on Tragedy of the Commons when you have a peer who was lazy during his wood chopping work crew, and the fire boxes are empty, and the wood stoves are stone cold. That learning quite literally goes into your bones. 

NOLS, the outdoor leadership school I work for in the summers calls their version of Karma Yoga "Expedition Behavior." The premise is the same. Your expedition's needs come first. Notably, you have to take care of yourself in order to be able to care for your group. But in the students' (and leaders'!) minds this sometimes gets distorted into a justification for lavish self care. Suddenly, when there's a tent to take down and a pot with oatmeal residue to clean, a student might realize that they have to massage their foot before the hiking day begins. This is of course a perversion of self care--a crucial concept that has been crucified by marketing. If your self care regimen leaves you no time to care for others then it has crossed the bridge from self care to self indulgence. In the midst of a 30 day wilderness expedition where the relativity of what counts as an indulgence shifts so radically from the front country, it's easy to confuse the two concepts. But when we don't...when the group is really working in the mentality of Expedition Behavior...it's magic. And interestingly, there is more time for, and less need for, self care in this kind of group. 

Most of us intrinsically understand selfless service of the people we love best. We are less skillful at extending the mentality to those we don't love or don't know, and even less skillful at serving those we dislike, or even hate. Social scientist, Adam Grant, explores the idea of generosity in the workplace in his book  Give and Take. He posits that most of us adapt one of three attitudes towards generosity in the workplace: a taker, a matcher, or a giver. Through his studies he has found that givers in the work place are present at the extremes of the success (as defined in the business sense) continuum. Givers are among the most successful and the least successful with takers and matchers generally falling in the middle. If your hackles are rising, fine. I also know plenty of takers who seem to be having their cake, and eating mine and yours too. And Grant acknowledges that there are takers at the top, but what he says is that successful givers who rise to the top are less likely to crumble (because they have the authentic support from those they have helped along their way) and that a person with a giving orientation at the top acts in such a way that others benefit from their success and so the success multiplies and grows. Takers on the other hand can truly make a work place toxic, causing scarcity mentality and encouraging everyone to hoard resources, talent, contacts, and expertise. Of the unsuccessful givers, Grant says this: they have not learned to be discerning in their generosity, and so they are taken advantage of and they burn out. 

I was curious about this concept of discernment in the context of the Ashram and Karma Yoga, so I asked the Swamis how they react to laziness  (or malice) in other people. One said: You stay out of judgment, and you try to maintain the mentality that the person you perceive as lazy is acting to the best of their ability in the moment, and you keep giving them opportunities to serve." This suggestion is of course monumentally hard to follow. I can think of various distinct instances in my life where I was livid because I felt like I was picking up someone else's slack. Unsurprisingly, I can think of precious few where I was the cause for someone else's frustration. This is not because I am ready to be canonized as a saint--quite the opposite. Like most humans, I am better at remembering the times I was slighted than the times I was doing the slighting. Perhaps something to think about when I am diving headlong into judgment (one of my favorite swimming holes, as it turns out). In response to this same question a different Swami  said: "You have to see the other person as yourself (one of the key teachings of yoga is unity of all things), and from this perspective give compassionate feedback. And then let go of the hope that they will put that feedback into practice." In a later lecture this same Swami pointed out that you can't teach people who aren't already seeking out the teaching.

Only the truest aspirants would stick around the Ashram doing the dishes for months (or years), because they know that the dishes have lessons to teach, and maybe once they've learned the lessons from the dishes, they'll be ready to receive what the Swami has to say.  

While I am not staying at the Ashram to do more dishes after my course ends, I do know, on an intuitive level that the Karma Yoga teaching is right. That lessons of the soul start down in the dirt and muck before climbing higher. That those machines in the Skymall magazines of yesteryear that promised a suction cup powered by electricity would jiggle your belly fat away were an unadulterated crock of shit. There is no just add water recipe, no silver bullet. Just hard work, which is remarkably satisfying if you let it be.