This past autumn I spent three months of service and practice at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in the Catskills of NY. Karma yoga, or selfless service, is one of the paths of yoga and is the yoga of action. It is performing every action, both on and off the mat, in totality, with complete presence, authenticity and love, without any expectation to receive anything in return. It is a powerful way to transform ourselves, to break out of the cycle of likes and dislikes: the cycle of attachment that leads to suffering.
With the ego as the target, it is no wonder the process felt like a roller-coaster. From week to week, even day-to-day, I was on a pendulum of either being in love with the experience and trying to figure out how I could stay forever, to hating it and plotting my immediate escape. It was astounding to witness the opposing forces that exist within me in such a magnified sense. And this wasn’t limited to just my experience, all of my fellow karma yogis expressed the exact same thing. We were all on Arjuna’s battlefield, our lower and higher Selves grappling for control:
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, “What is the force that binds us to selfish deeds, O Krishna? What power moves us, even against our will, as if forcing us?” Krishna explains that anger and selfish desire are our greatest enemies. They are the destructive powers that can compel us to wander away from our purpose, to end up in self-delusion and despair. Krishna exclaims, “Fight with all your strength, Arjuna! Controlling your senses, conquer your enemy, the destroyer of knowledge and realization.”
Being in the ashram was like an intensified microcosm of the real world, with nowhere to escape to, no Netflix to numb out to. The reasons for wanting to leave were created by my mind and perpetuated by my ego and brought to light the core of the main blockages to my spiritual evolution. I don’t mean to say that on the surface the barriers aren’t rooted in any sense of reality, but I see the answer as a re-writing of my narrative to favour growth. When it comes down to it, we are constantly faced with choices. Yes, karmically our current experience in life is the result of previous actions but it doesn’t stop there. Whatever we do in each moment, every thought, action, attitude and word spoken, determines our experience in the future.
Krishna explains that selfless action is an underlying law of creation. I have learned that this doesn’t mean endlessly giving until we are empty. We cannot give if we don’t fill up first and have a healthy and nourished place to give from. Everything in nature exists on the foundation of equitable exchange, a sacred circle of receiving and giving, of which we are part. Every cell of our being exists on this principle, with the exchange of each inhalation and exhalation, as does Mother Earth, the sun and the moon. Living from this place helps us to live with humility and to release self-centeredness and self-judgment. Nothing is less than we are and every being is equally part of the Universal right to be.
The Yoga Ranch has a prison yoga project and given my enthusiasm for this work (hint to the research page on www.loveyogaanatomy.com) and the Divine arrangement that the previous person in charge of it had just left the ashram, I gratefully accepted the opportunity to take over during my time there. Every week, multiple letters arrived from inmates all over the U.S. requesting books on yoga, asking questions for clarification, or expressing gratitude for materials we had sent and how our support was helping them. My duty was to read their letters, answer them and send them books. Each moment I spent opening, reading, sealing addressing and stamping, organically cultivated absolute presence and focus and an immense feeling of gratitude in my heart, which felt like such a gift, a master class in meditation.
I would like to share a letter I received that will always stay with me:
“Dear Yogins, I am reaching out to you for help in the study and practice of yoga. I am writing to request the Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. I seldom practice yoga on my own, I do not know much. I am compelled to write because I had a dream before waking. In my dream I heard a voice calling my name. When I finally grasped the voice it said, “DO YOGA” and then I woke up. I am a practicing Buddhist. I know that the Buddha did not reach enlightenment on meditation alone but also was a practitioner of yoga. I am not well read with the stories of the Buddha, but from what I feel I know is that Siddhartha never would have awakened without the practice. I believe in God in a mystic sense, in a way that God would be shapeless and formless, not as a deity, but as a thread that connects all beings. With that notion, whether it was a psychic message or the voice of God, I was awakened with the instruction to do yoga. I am in prison because of a terrible situation I could have easily avoided, but my mind was clouded by intoxicants and a backwards notion of loyalty to my friends. In a desperate attempt to flee from a fight I shot a man in the leg and punched him in the face and shattered his orbital socket. He survived my desperation though I am now in prison. I have a prior history of drug abuse, which led me to steal from my own mother and she pursued criminal charges for it, which I well deserved. That is a small portion of my story that sums up the criminal history. I have been compelled to achieve a better life than this for myself and am now dedicated to the studies of ethics and morals. Beyond myself, religion and beyond all that I hope one day to be a healer and stargazer. Thank you for reading my letter and please help me with any literature so that I may help myself and someday, others. With love and respect, [Prison Inmate]”
When I held the piece of paper that this man had touched and so beautifully inscribed, I was profoundly moved and understood on a deeper level why I was doing this and what has been powerfully drawing me to this work. In our culture we are so detached. We are detached from the people we interact with daily, those whom we walk past on the street or sit thigh to thigh with on the subway. There is a deeply engrained sense of I and them and we are all in protection mode, almost on high alert but in a very dull and asleep sense. We are afraid that even one second of eye contact will threaten our safety, which I see as a fear of our own Selves, a fear of life. So, to think of the distance we feel from incarcerated criminals, the fear and consequential rejection we collectively create, it is no wonder most prisoners are unable to return to society and typically end up back in prison. But reading this man’s words, the eloquence and Truth coming from behind these bars that I could relate to in my core, sitting in an ashram in the mountains, it all made sense. We are all living this human experience and yes, in a karmic sense, this time around I ended up in the ashram reading the letter from the man behind bars, but the aspects of why we are drawn to yoga are the same for everybody. We are all trying to find out who we are to our core, who is our true Self, despite anything that we have done. And often it takes going to the depths of darkness to find our path towards the light. To pervade dark with light is a constant battle, it is a daily practice and it cannot happen without compassion, acceptance and love. If we approach the criminal justice system from a place of fear and anger and selfish desire, then we are stepping out onto the battlefield and will never afflict change.
“The only battles are those running around in our own hearts – that is where the battle should be fought.” –Mahatma Gandhi