Many of us imagine ashram life as difficult, emptied of worldly delights, a place to hide from the world by silently meditating through the day’s long hours. Perhaps there are ashrams like that, but I am not at one of them. At Sri Jasnath Asan our meditation is through karma yoga, the yoga of doing our work.
Because the word karma is slippery in meaning, it deserves some attention. In Western pop culture, karma has come to represent a mysterious, cosmic vengeance: you steal a pen from work, and then someone steals your pen! Voila, instant cosmic retribution.
This understanding, though useful in curbing impulses, is a bit shallow. I deepened my understanding of karma by reading Swami Vivekananda’s book Karma Yoga as recommended by the ashram before admission to their volunteer program, which starts at 10 days and with application can be extended to as long as 6 months. In his book, Vivekananda points out that “karma” is derived from the Sanskrit root “kri,” which means to do. “All action is karma,” he says, “and the effects of all actions are also karma.” Thus, says Vivekananda, “we are doing karma all the time…Everything we do, physical or mental, is karma, and it leaves its marks on us.”
Yikes! This profound concept–that absolutely everything counts–could easily keep me up all night worrying about the terrible marks left by previous lapses of judgment: sleeping through the 6:30 am yoga class, drinking several unnecessary cups of chai tea, and maintaining a running interior monologue of bitchy commentary about the day’s minor annoyances. (This list is just since I’m confined to this ashram! I shudder to think of all the marks I got back in the world of “worldly delights”!)
Fortunately, Vivekananda quickly puts this concept of karma into a broader perspective. In the same paragraph where he defines karma, he also points out that “the goal of mankind is knowledge…Pleasure and pain are great teachers and (man) learns as much from evil as from good.” So even if we behave badly, if we are learning, we are doing our work. Vivekananda continues to say that this knowledge “is all inside” us, that what we call “learning” is actually an “uncovering.” The external world, filled with its overindulgences, its nastinesses, its torpor, is “simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to study your own mind.”
Instead of losing sleep then, I can relax into the knowledge that this world is here to teach us about ourselves. Hence our ashram tasks of digging rocks out of the desert soil to prepare the garden, or shelling a mountainous pile of peas for the group lunch of aloo matar (peas and potatoes), or trying to teach English to grown men who have never been inside a schoolhouse, are all ways for us to uncover truths about ourselves.
Last week, I taught my first yoga class to the village children who come to the ashram each afternoon for our children’s program. Around 15 children came and circled around me for yoga asana. When I sensed they were getting bored, I had a sudden insight into a fun way to build arm strength using the old-school wheel barrels. The class was a joy for me, the students, and onlookers, and I felt as if I was doing good karma yoga. A week later, when I was due to teach my next children’s yoga class, no one showed up. The empty yard evoked such a personal, deep rooted sadness in me. I went to the rooftop to do my own yoga practice, and after my sun salutations, I began to cry. The next morning, I learned more about karma yoga when I spoke with Shreejan about my sadness, which she saw as a cause for celebration. “This is the work you are to do!” she said. For karma yoga is not always what has been planned or assigned, but the work that is right in front of us. Whether we are physically at an ashram or not, sometimes our work is to respect our feelings and face them, to cry through them, to live them. To take the time to understand why they are there and what they can teach us. Vivekananda backs this up:
With all our feelings and actions–our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter…every one of these we may find, if we calmly study our own selves, to have been brought out from within ourselves by so many blows. The result is what we are.
Of course, our work is not restricted to our sadnesses. Quite the contrary. Guru Gorakhnath, the father of Hatha Yoga meditated in caves for 12 years and then traveled all India to teach his truth:
“Laugh, play, meditate. Such people manifest the truth. Laugh and play with a unified mind. Such people are always in bliss.”
How simple! But not so simple sometimes. Today one of my karma yoga duties was to visit the village schools to generate interest for the ashram’s upcoming Talent Show. Instead of silently meditating in retreat, my ashram work had me surrounded by a hundred curious schoolchildren who stared and timidly waved hello. At the government-run school, our karma yoga involved being treated to chai tea and an impromptu show of aspiring talent-show participants.
Last weekend, Guruji took us out to the sand dunes for a satsang, or spiritual discourse. Since he had been away all week, we were looking forward to hearing his wisdom. We got there and the guys immediately started leaping off a high dune to see how far they could land in the sand. That was our first practice.Â Next, we had a photo shoot of various group yoga poses, accompanied by much laughter. And finally, we did a silent meditation as the sun went down. Some of my fellow karma yogis may have been disappointed that Guruji didn’t give a talk, but I thought it was the best satsang ever: play, laugh, meditate. Allowing these actions to remind us of the blissful beings that we are.
“Miss Amanda” Anderson is a lover of India, yoga, writing, and following the breath. In the summers, she teaches yoga and leads “Yoga Hikes” in the mountains of Vermont, USA, bringing yoga asana and walking meditation together in a transformative experience. In the winters, she comes to Mother India to further her pursuit of living in the ananda maya kosha, the “bliss body.” She has been practicing yoga asana for over 15 years, and meditation for about 10. She is also writing a book about finding a mystical path. You can read more of her writing on her yoga website: www.innerliftyoga.com/blog
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