Ever been to an ashram in India? Many westerners are surprised to find that, far from being tranquil retreats where frazzled city dwellers find their inner zen, they are bustling community centres.
Ashrams provide the schooling, food, medical assistance and social safety-net that their communities would otherwise lack. I’m not idealizing the ashram system and I’m well aware of the unsavoury side of some of them. But the idea of yoga as central to a network of social projects that benefit the community resonates strongly with my personal philosophy.
Have you heard about Jarrod McKenna? He successfully crowd-funded a mortgage, then bought a house for himself, his wife, his son and 17 refugees in his Western Australia community. He’s not a yogi (that I know of). He’s a pastor. Nonetheless, McKenna embodies the yogic philosophy of karma (even if he wouldn't use that word himself), something that is often overlooked by secular western yogis.
Karma is all about surrendering the fruits of our actions to God (or ‘the universe’ if the word 'God' word makes you uncomfortable). The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important yogic texts, explains this very clearly. We should make decisions based on what needs to be done, rather than figuring out what we have to lose or gain from our actions. Then, once we've done what needed to be done, we surrender the outcome of those actions to something bigger than ourselves (God, the universe, nature).
This is what McKenna, and an increasing number of yogis, are doing. Getting on with what needs to be done without being afraid of, or attached to the outcome.
We can furiously sign online petitions and participate in endless yoga and personal development courses. But unless we take action without fear or attachment to the outcome – karma- we will never experience the richness of following our dharma.
In a church, ashram, or other spiritual community, there is a sense of common purpose and organization that supports this approach. And the central figures of God and Guru (whether it’s the Buddha, Jesus or the local guru in rural India) gives devotees something tangible to surrender the fruits of their actions to.
But outside of those institutions, how do we work together for the common good? Well. Imagine if yoga studio’s started to behave less like boutique gyms and more like ashrams (or churches). What if the racks of $150 designer pants were replaced (or at least augmented) with opportunities to engage in meaningful service instead of retail therapy. What if they found ways to serve all the members of their community, not just the ones who are young, bendy and affluent enough to buy a monthly pass.
There are plenty of yoga teachers working for little or no financial reward. And it breaks my heart to see them do it in the service of clothing corporations that exploit them to increase profits from retail sales. Then there are the teachers who work for peanuts at studios in swanky suburbs under the guise of making yoga ‘accessible’. Really, if you’re going to offer free and discounted classes in the wealthiest suburbs in the country, don’t pretend it’s to make yoga accessible. Go find the people who really don’t have the resources to practice and share your skills with them.
Imagine if every yoga teacher used those low and unpaid hours to do something that genuinely improved the wellbeing of the most vulnerable community members. We can’t all open our homes to refugees, but there are many ways that we can practice Seva (service). We don’t even have to initiate our own projects, thanks to organisations such as A Sound Life. A Sound Life brings yoga, meditation and music to those who need it most through a network of big hearted and talented volunteers.
Many yoga teachers and studios are starting to engage with community service programs. Like Jarrod McKenna, they see what needs doing and get on with it. They understand that the eight limbs of yoga don’t begin with asana (yoga poses). They begin with Yama and Niyama – ethics. And the first of these is Ahimsa – non-harming. When we don’t take action to reduce suffering, we become part of the system that creates it. Karma yoga – serving others with no expectation of reward – gives every yogi the opportunity to practice this first and most fundamental principle of yoga: Ahimsa. Try partnering with (non profit) organizations that are making a real difference to the global community and you’ll not only be contributing to the greater good, you might discover that some of the obstacles in your own path magically start to dissolve…..
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.