During my recent stay in the Ashram I found the karma yoga quite profound on several occasions but mostly in the garden when preparing the ground for new growth. It became quite clear to me that this was a perfect reflection of the things I needed to do to prepare my own spiritual ground for growth. The weeds need removing, the ground needs digging through and sifting out all the unwanted elements before the seedling can find a suitable environment to grow and with daily watering and constant weeding and the energy of the sun, eventually flower. Although this is not a new analogy, it wasn’t until I was doing the karma yoga that it really hit home.
(Jake, recent course participant)
Selfless service, Karma Yoga or Seva is an interesting practice for yoga practitioners in the western world. We are strongly conditioned to work for a reward, usually financial, or praise, or in exchange for something. But the notion of giving our time, skills and efforts as an offering, whilst letting go of any expectation of reward, can seem quite alien.
At Mandala Yoga Ashram karma yoga is at the heart of the Ashram’s daily schedule. The founder and spiritual director, Swami Nishchalananda, did plenty of Karma Yoga whilst he was India with his teacher or Guru. Other than asana it is one of the physical practices that can help us remain grounded in our bodies. This can be an excellent balance to more energetic practices such as meditation, pranayama and chanting which bring more subtle qualities to our experience yet can stir up thoughts and emotions that at times can be difficult to manage. Through Karma Yoga or meditation in action we can channel these energies, e.g. anger, grief, negativity, judgement etc, in a more purposeful way. Working in the garden, kitchen, office or household also helps us challenge notions or perceptions which we may have about ourselves or certain tasks. Swami Gyan Dharma, a visiting teacher at the Ashram, says that all his anger was channelled into constructing the buildings in Munger Ashram in India where he lived for a number of years. Isn’t it wonderful, that what could have been a destructive energy was transformed by an alchemical process into something that serves others for many years to come.
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great yogic scriptures, Arjuna the student asks Krishna, his teacher, about selfless service or ‘The Way of Action’. Krishna says, ‘through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find fulfilment’ and ‘selfish action imprisons the world. ’ That’s how it is usually nowadays - we all want and expect something and are surprised and mistrusting if something is offered freely: ‘there must be a catch, am I being tricked?’.
Sometimes people can experience Karma yoga as punitive. It can also bring us face to face with our habitual preferences which otherwise constrict our mind and our approach to life. For a woman who has spent her adult life washing, cleaning and caring for her husband and teenage sons to then be asked to clean the bathrooms can trigger strong feelings. For someone who has difficult feelings about cleanliness and does not wish to get dirty, to weed the garden can be challenging. Karma Yoga offers us an opportunity to move beyond our preferences. To put ourselves aside and do what we are asked to the best of our ability within the time we have with the resources available.
Karma Yoga reveals to us the fickle nature of our mind and how we compare our experiences with others making assumptions from our own habitual thoughts: ‘They are so lucky to have their Karma Yoga in the garden on this sunny day, I wish I wasn’t in the office’, and the next day, ‘They are so lucky to be in the office on this rainy miserable day, I wish I wasn’t in the garden’. It also helps us develop the qualities of humility and respect. ‘I don’t like my supervisor giving me instructions, doesn’t she know who I am’. Are you able to receive and follow instructions or do you sulk and grumble and do your own thing anyway? We are given an opportunity to contemplate what happens in the mind.
Karma Yoga can have a profound and transformative quality. If we shine the windows we can use the metaphor of cleaning our perception and discernment until it gleams. If we sweep the floor we can imagine that we are sweeping our hearts, sweeping them free from clinging onto old wounds, grievances and loss, potentially opening us up to loving more deeply once again: our natural state. If we need to dig out the brambles we remove the negative thoughts and perceptions we may cling to such as guilt, anger, jealously and desire. Cooking for our fellow course participants can help us connect to the gift of giving, providing and nurturing.
As with other paths and other practices, there are many pitfalls to watch out for during karma yoga. For example, pride can easily arise - ‘aren’t I a good karma yogi, always happy to help’. But look closely , are you really being efficient in the allotted karma yoga time or are you standing about chatting. ‘Aren’t I quick at Karma yoga’ - again let’s be honest with ourselves, have you closed your eyes to the dirty, dusty corners that you prefer not to ‘see’? ‘I hope Swamiji notices how well I’m doing’… so we have to be vigilant. The mind is very clever, and we need to watch and observe closely. This is why it is a practice in that we observe, with kindness, how we act and react, illuminating our inner motivations and resistances, and gradually refining the mind. A true test of karma yoga is whether the practice is strengthening the sense of ‘I’, or gradually making it more spacious in which our actions become a simple offering.
Of course, you do not need to be in an ashram to offer selfless service. At any time of the day you can make an action a selfless offering. The Ashram supports us in developing this practice and deepening the qualities that are essential on the yogic path allowing us to experience the joy in giving.