Thursday, August 29, 2019

Discussing the Yoga Path of Service with Jivana Heyman

Wild Lotus by Sarit Z Rogers

Nina: Recently I wrote two different posts for our blog about karma yoga, The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga and Arjuna is Us: Staying Strong When You Stand Up for What's Right, that really seemed to resonate with people. And I know that for you, personally, the yoga path of service is very important. So I think our readers would like to hear something from you, Jivana, about why that is. 

Jivana: Service is my personal path of yoga. It’s the way I practice on an ongoing basis throughout my life. I think of my formal practices of meditation, pranayama, and asana as preparation for the service I do in the world. Those formal practices are the way I care for myself so I can serve more effectively, and they help me get into the right frame of mind to serve. 

Service is a powerful personal practice, but also offers benefit to the world. The point of service, or karma yoga as it is traditionally called, is about working with my own mind. Service isn’t about what I’m doing as much as the way I’m doing it. 

I think of service in the context of spiritual practice as a way to act without focusing on what I’ll personally get out of the action. Just like Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, we are always acting; the question is whether we are acting with or without attachment to the results. 

Service provides a way to bring yoga into all my daily activities by asking me to be constantly watching my mind (specifically my ego). I think the mind and ego are incredibly important, and I don’t want to overly criticize them. But I want to find a way to practice yoga with my mind that allows me to stretch and strengthen it. A strong mind and healthy ego will allow me to be effective in the world and truly be of service. 

Nina: I think that is beautiful. But for people who are used to thinking of “yoga” as the eight-fold path in the Yoga Sutras, it might be surprising to hear that you can be practicing yoga as you go about your work in the real world in your everyday life. Can you explain how engaging in social activism or performing service are forms of yoga? 

Jivana: I often start conversations about service with a discussion of nonattachment because they are closely related. You could say that service is nonattachment in action. Nonattachment is simply letting go of the misunderstanding that happiness comes from outside of us. It’s a powerful and empowering concept that is the foundation for all the yoga teachings. Nonattachment means that the happiness or peace that I’m seeking in my life already exists inside me, as me. 

This is the conundrum of spiritual practice: can I work on myself and contribute to the greater good? The answer is yes, if I practice karma yoga. By looking at my life and seeing where there is tension or a need and putting my energy there without getting caught up in needing a specific result. This is what the Gita refers to as “skill in action.” 

Nina: For those of us who are considering following the path of service, why do you recommend that we do this practice? Is this just because it is the “right” thing to do? Or would engaging in service or social activism as our yoga practice help us improve our lives and enable us to find meaning and inner peace? 

Jivana: Service and social justice are two distinct things, but it can be helpful to look at where they intersect. Personally, social justice is where I see my work in the world and where I get to practice service. But social justice may not be everyone’s path. Each of us has our own battles to fight, and the question is, can you be happy whether you win or lose that battle? 

I think this is the missing piece of contemporary yoga practice. Right now, it seems like most yoga practitioners are using their practice to feel better, get healthier, and build energy. The question is, what do you do with all that energy? If you don’t work on the mind, then that extra energy from your practice may just amplify what’s already going on inside of you. 

Service is an outlet for your energy. It allows the energy that you build in your practice to be used for the greater good—not just for your own personal benefit. This focus on others—and not simply expanding your own ego—is really at the basis of spiritual practice. So, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but a question of effective vs. ineffective spiritual practice. It’s a paradox: the more I serve you, the happier I will be (as long as I’m also taking care of myself). 

I would also say that social justice is a natural outcome of service. As we shift our attention away from what we want or need out of every situation, we can begin to see ourselves in others. That connection is the key to social justice and to spirituality. It’s a practice of finding unity in diversity. 

Social justice is about caring for others, and putting that care into action to create equality and opportunity for all. It’s about lifting up those who have been marginalized, abused, and discarded. It’s about sharing opportunities with others. 

Nina: When many people in the yoga community think of “service,” they tend to think about teaching yoga as the way of providing it, whether that means teaching yoga in prisons, in hospitals, to children with special needs, or for any underserved populations. But you can practice karma yoga by providing any kind of service to your community as long as you do it with the right mind-set, right?

Jivana: Yes. I see so many examples of service in the world around me every day. I look at people in the service professions who are committed to their work. I remember years ago, I was in the hospital for some minor surgery, and I was blown away by the way that the nurses and staff took care of me. I could feel that they authentically cared for me. It changed my experience of being so vulnerable, and allowed me to relax. They were acting with love and compassion, which is the heart of service.

Service can also be practiced outside of obvious service jobs. I used to be a professional gardener, and I remember how gardening became a practice for me. I would try to focus on the benefits of the plants: were they in the correct location, where they getting the right amount of water, were they in the right kind of soil? Some days I felt present with the plants in a way that’s hard to describe. I think that is service as well—acting with present moment awareness. 

I would say that most yoga teachers that I know are practicing service when they teach, whether it’s to special populations or a studio class. Most of us know that teaching yoga isn’t really a very profitable profession, but we do it for the love of yoga and the love of other people. Teaching yoga is a great way to love other people, and service is love in action. 

Nina: For me, a couple of very different examples come to mind of people who practice karma yoga who don’t do it through teaching yoga. In my post The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga, I wrote about how Mohandas K. Gandhi performed his service in the form of non-violent activism to achieve the independence of India and later by working for religious harmony in India. I also think of my yoga friend Melitta who says that her work as a diabetes advocate (working for improved diagnosis and treatment of type 1 diabetes because many adults are misdiagnosed) is her “karma yoga” practice. What do you think of these examples? 

Jivana: I love those examples, but I think it’s a little subtler than that. Karma yoga isn’t something we can see or judge in others. It’s a way of doing things, not the result. I’m sure there were times that Gandhi was doing karma yoga and times when he wasn’t. 

It’s interesting, because some people think of karma yoga as volunteering, but that’s not the same thing. You can get paid for a job and it can be service if you have the right attitude. In fact, you can volunteer and it isn’t service if you expect that “thank you” afterwards. The ego’s needs are tricky and it can find its way into almost any situation! That’s why karma yoga is an entire path of yoga, a lifelong practice. 

What comes to mind from the examples of Gandhi and your friend Melitta is the passion that they have for their service. I’m interested in understanding what is at the root of their passion for service, and the state of mind that is the key to service. In my experience, that state of mind is transitory but profound. It’s a feeling of openness and connection with others. 

Nina: I think that some of our readers might wonder if this is a path that is open to everyone. If you’re poor and struggling or have a chronic illness or disability, is there some way you can still serve?

Jivana: Yes, we all have the opportunity to practice service in every waking moment. As I mentioned before, it’s a state of mind more than a specific activity. Service is acting without a selfish motivation. But—and this is where it gets tricky—we can also think of self-care as service to ourselves. 

If you have a chronic illness or disability, then self-care can be your service. Taking care of the body may be a full time job for some people and that can be their service. 

Or if you have limited energy or means, you can also offer service by thinking of the benefit of your actions for others or the world around you. Can you walk across the room in a way that respects your body, your shoes, the floorboards, and the space above and below you? Being present in your body as you move in the world is an important service. 

Nina: What about people who are super busy with families, jobs, mortgages, and so on? Does your whole life or your full-time job have to be about service or social activism? Or is there some way to balance performing service with the other things you are doing in your life? 

Jivana: Remember service isn’t what you do so much as how you do it. It’s a personal internal practice that no one else may be able to see from outside. It’s a self-awareness that comes through yoga and other kinds of inner spiritual work. By being conscious of yourself, how you act, and what you say, you can be of service to other people and to the whole world. 

Nina: In that way, it really is householder yoga. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about the path of karma yoga? 

Jivana: Service is a subtle concept and one of the most challenging practices of yoga. This is because your mind always wants to make it about you. What will you get, what will people think of you, and so on. In order to be of service you can start with self-awareness. Notice your thoughts as you are doing a simple action. As I sweep the floor, am I aware of the way I am sweeping or caught up in my mind? If I can focus on the work in front of me with all my attention, that is service. 

My favorite form of service is listening. When someone talks to me I try to notice my mind’s tendency to start coming up with answers before they’re done or to think of how what they’re saying affects me. I practice service by listening to what they’re saying and giving them my full attention. It is also a beautiful practice to simply put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Next time you’re having a disagreement with someone try to pause and think about how they feel and why. Working with our minds in this way is a subtle and powerful way to practice service. 

Nina: Thank you, Jivana.

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