How to give generously
Can you dedicate your life to selfless service, with no expectation for return, in a culture based on recognition and reward?
Karma yoga is a spiritual practice that translates as “yoga of action”. With sattvic (pure) intentions, the karma yogi practises loving selfless service, transcending ego rewards and personal gain for liberation from suffering associated with entrapment to worldly desires. Karma yogis identify with the needs of others instead of the ego, thereby uniting with the divine, universal consciousness in all.
We discuss karma yoga with charity providers, so you can find out if becoming utterly selfless is for you.
For Edo Kahn, co-founder of yoga and music charity A Sound Life, life is karma yoga. In 2015, A Sound Life delivered more than 200 free music and yoga sessions to five facilities for those in need and, by the end of 2016, Kahn estimates 400 more volunteer sessions will be delivered. He and his wife, Jo, dedicated their lives to humanitarian projects, until Jo lost her life to cancer in 2015. Not only is Kahn grateful for their time together, he continues on with their mission, with even bigger plans to build a conscious centre for karma yoga right in the heart of Sydney.
“The notion of karma is that our heart is like a fertile soil,” explains Kahn. “We can either sow a beautiful seed or sow poison that creates poisonous outcomes. When we do good things good things follow, and when we have no expectations, that is when we experience joy. Joy is the biggest part of the karma yoga experience.”
“The notion of karma is that our heart is like a fertile soil,” explains Kahn. “We can either sow a beautiful seed or sow poison that creates poisonous outcomes.”
Yet that joy only comes from detachment. “If you give and attach to the outcomes, you suffer when people aren’t grateful … A lot of our spiritual life is about shifting our perception of how we see the world and engage in it.”
For Kahn, volunteering provides an opportunity to break down the concept of separation. “When we share, we see that other people are suffering and in need of help, and we see the differences between us are but constructs. There’s a shared connection and, through service, the people we serve then feel they are no longer alone, that here is someone who cares about them and they feel less isolated in the world.”
While the couple were working in a charitable trust in India, there were opportunities right on the premises to feed people, give out clothes and help others. That, says Kahn, “was the training that Jo and I experienced”. But you don’t need to be surrounded by such obvious need to help, and Kahn urges not to wait.
“Seize the opportunity to give. You don’t need to be a saint; you just need a big heart. Give whatever you have to enrich the lives of others. Even if you have no money at all, put some food out for animals. There are always opportunities to give”.
Michael de Manincor is director of yoga charity The Yoga Foundation, which offers vulnerable communities the opportunity to practice yoga with an emphasis on mental health, the focus of his PhD. Established in 2009, The Yoga Foundation offers evidence-based movement to disadvantaged people in order to reduce anxiety and depression and improve quality of life.
De Manincor asks that karma yogis be conscious of what is driving them to “do good deeds”. He says, “History, and our own lives, shows us that we are very often confused in our desire to do good works, which are often done in ignorance and result in harmful consequences.”
“Consequences of all our actions are the direct result of what goes into them, including intentions and unconscious thought patterns.”
Both The Yoga Foundation and A Sound Life offer senior teacher mentoring support for the yoga teachers who work with people in need. In addition, The Yoga Foundation provides supervision and a psychologist to help evaluate programs with the yoga teachers who run them, ensuring quality and the aims of the programs are met.
“Consequences of all our actions are the direct result of what goes into them, including intentions and unconscious thought patterns,” elaborates De Manincor. “The results reflect our level of consciousness awareness, so seek to act consciously with kindness and compassion.
“Volunteering is a wonderful way to act without expectation of monetary or other rewards, and great joy can come from that. We volunteer because we are conscious of the need for something to be done for others, and do not concern ourselves with our own reward.”
However, volunteering is not necessarily the same as acting with conscious selfless awareness. “We volunteer if we are able to, and it is not suitable for everyone’s circumstances. We can act with conscious selfless awareness [though], whether or not we are doing so as volunteers.”
The Yoga Foundation runs two streams for yoga teachers who teach for it: volunteering and support through income. As general manager, Jessica Hobson, explains, “Yoga Australia put out guidelines as to what teachers should be paid and we try to pay the highest scale because of the extra challenges of teaching in a prison or a hospital and we recognise that. Yoga teachers don’t make a lot of money and we are paying them because they are skilled individuals, but some are not looking for money and want seva (to serve). We support both”.
The Yoga Foundation also runs a program called Corporate Conscious Yoga, involving corporate clients who want to give. The fee for corporate yoga is $250 per class: $100 paid to the yoga teacher and the remainder to a Yoga Foundation program of the company’s choosing. This way, corporations have the opportunity to practice karma yoga as well.
Another timely opportunity is through The Global Yoga Challenge initiated by social entrepreneur Mark Breadner, an initiative that aims to inspire service in yoga practitioners while creating job skills and education for women and girls in developing countries. The first project will be in Nagpur, Central India, in 2017 and teams up with the Bodhicitta Foundation. Six yogis will be selected to perform karma yoga within the identified community of need. Breadner feels that, by living as a member of these communities, yoga practitioners will “wake up, forget about their own identity, and fold into ‘how can I benefit the whole’?”
Mark feels that, by living as a member of these communities, yoga practitioners will “wake up, forget about their own identity and fold into ‘how can I benefit the whole’?”
Karma yoga is the path offered in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna urges Arjuna to surrender all fruits of his actions to him, and this is the key for liberation. By serving the needs of the whole, you depersonalise your identity and unite with the divine. Swami Vivekanada once said, “All work is to bring out the power of the mind and wake up the soul.” Karma yoga is liberation through actions bathed in selfless love.
How can you bring karma yoga into your life? Here are some ideas:
- Seek to always serve the needs of the whole before the desires of the ego.
- With every action, seek to be driven by love for the divine rather than individual rewards and recognitions.
- Perform your dharma, righteous duty and all responsibilities, with a pure heart, aiming for equanimity, and redirect the fruits of your actions to a higher source.
- Banish any sense of burden by depersonalising the actions required, performing them as a form of worship to the divine.
- Question your attachment to your possessions and achievements, know you are “not the doer”, then surrender all actions to the divine.
- Seek to act with unconditional love and compassion.
- See divinity in all beings and be ready to assist in any way that is called upon you as a form of worship of the divine in others.
- Edo Kahn suggests that instead of waking up thinking, “What can I get out of this day?” you start with, “What can I give to this day?” Then your whole life will revolve around giving and the process of surrender.
- Consider volunteering for two hours per week, in ways that best utilise your skills and experiences. For those two hours, practise service of love and surrender the fruits to the divine.
- Look for opportunities to serve. Many charities need extra hands; Homeless Connect (sydneyhomelessconnect.com) and OzHarvest (ozharvest.org) are two examples.
- Where you achieve financial success, ensure some of the money is fed back into supporting others.
- Give to charities more often.
- Make time for an elderly neighbour, smile at passers-by at the local shops.
- Consider a karma yoga ashram stay. In exchange for reduced accommodation, free food and yoga classes, you perform work of service, such as working in organic gardens or preparing produce for cooking, for around five days a week. There are many beautiful ashrams offering karma yoga such as Krishna Village Retreat (krishnavillage-retreat.com).
- Use wisdom to benefit the whole. Consider what you can do for the welfare of all beings.
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