The Practice of Karma Yoga: Life, Service, Joy
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Yoga teaches us to inquire within, walk a path of self-discovery and in doing so we enhance the mind/body connection. Within the collective yoga practice and culture, the focus on the asana and the personal journey tends to be the most dominant, turning our gaze primarily to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this focus. Often in our busy lives and hectic routines a little self-reflection goes a long way in terms of providing more stability and success in our day-to-day interactions with the outside world. For many of us yoga has become a necessity for this very reason. However, there are many other ways of practicing yoga off the mat and out of the studio, and sometimes these more subtle elements of the practice can be challenging to discuss and introduce in a 50-minute lunch hour class. A measure of our focus can remain on the self, but there’s so much more to yoga than just our personal experiences.
The quote above was recently posted by one of my favorite teachers from Sonic Yoga on their Facebook page and inspired me to explore this concept further. In my own personal journey, I’ve noticed that when focus on the self becomes too dominant things very naturally get off kilter; a variety of issues can arise in interpersonal relationships. I suspect that this happens to many other yogis as well. This lack of balance can manifest in a variety of ways: insecurities, misunderstandings, unnecessary hurt feelings, or just general indifference toward others. Questions and self doubts rise to the surface: “Why didn’t he/she call me back?” “Why isn’t this person coming to my aid in my time of need?” “Why doesn’t anyone affirm me?” Notice the recurring theme in these questions: me, myself and I. Suddenly the focus on the self takes on the potential to transform to something less than positive.
It is said that there are five different languages of love that exist for us as human beings, and each of us give and receive love through our dominant languages. These five languages are as follows:
1. Physical Touch
2. Acts of Service
3. Gift Giving
4. Words of Affirmation
5. Quality Time
These love languages are often discussed within the framework of a partnership, how we relate to our significant other. However, we also speak in these languages when we interact with friends, family, our community, and society as a whole. The love language our featured quote addresses is Acts of Service, which translates to the concept of Karma Yoga: how we serve, give of ourselves, and spread love to others and the world.
Studio culture and connection often gives us the opportunity to serve and act out our karma yoga in one way or another. Many studios in the Seacoast area offer donations based classes on a quarterly or bi-annual basis, allowing us to give something concrete, most often financial or food offerings in exchange for a special class. This provides us with a built-in opportunity to serve. And let’s not forget such wonderful events as the Yoga Mala, the opportunity to serve and represent as a community to our community. But what of our karma yoga and acts of service in our day to day lives, one on one with those we love or just happen to interact with the most (work relationships, etc.)?
Consider the quote above and what that can translate to on a day-to-day basis. When I find myself slipping from self-discovery to self-involvement (this can happen quickly and very subtly. Beware the difference!), it’s easy to turn to old tricks and ploys to soothe the mind and the ego. Fishing for compliments, passive aggressive behaviors, and other destructive acts all seem to be such a normal reaction. Instead of going directly to those negative places, consider a different alternative and re-direct your energy. “Why isn’t he/she coming to me in my time of need?” becomes “What more can I be doing for him/her right now, today, in this very moment?” “Why isn’t he/she affirming me?” becomes “What can I do to affirm him/her?” Converting negative self-focus to positive energy through a simple act of service is easier said than done and goes against natural human reaction. This makes it a daily practice just as important as the asana.
Acts of service can be difficult to conjure when you yourself are feeling depleted or neglected, but I find that within my own personal practice it’s during these times that it’s most important for me to give to others in whatever way a need presents itself whether that’s making a meal for a sick friend or going out of my way to write an encouraging email to someone I know has been struggling. When I shift the focus off of myself and onto doing something for someone else it’s so much easier to find internal peace knowing that I did something good, selfless and uplifting. I believe in karma and I believe that any goodness I spread will come back to me at some point in time, but even if it doesn’t, I can rest assured that I’ve done my part to serve. That’s all I can control and that’s all that really matters.
More often than not though, my faith in karma is affirmed as I watch this positivity and goodness come back to me in ways both big and small. Sometimes I wake up and Mike has scraped the ice and snow off my car and dug me out of the driveway completely so I don’t have to lift a finger before leaving the house in the morning. Sometimes I find an encouraging email of my own to read. Sometimes dinner is left for me on my own back porch when I need it the most. Sometimes I suspect the universe is acting on my behalf without me being completely aware of it. We are truly surrounded by so much to be thankful for that to serve others in return can’t help but bring joy to our lives.
Examine not only your asanas but also your karma yoga practice on a daily basis. Consider what acts of service you’ve benefitted from in the recent past, no matter how small (we all have them – there are many generous souls out there!), and consider who may have recently benefitted from some small act of kindness you’ve given. Think of it on a person-to-person basis. When you have the opportunity to do so, give of yourself without expecting a single thing in return. This service is a practice, and within that practice, the key to great joy in this life.