4 (New) Hard Lessons I Learned From Karma Yoga
In 2014, Katie Papo (Ambika) wrote Three Hard Lessons I Learned from Karma Yoga, describing the culminating lessons of her experiences in the Karma Yoga/Residential Study Program at the ashram. After several more years in the karma yoga program, here she shares part two.
I realized the tremendous depth of value in the ashram’s yoga teachings as my years in the karma yoga program progressed. Karma yoga, known as the path of action or selfless service, is an integral part of the Sivananda organization worldwide.
The Sivananda organization is run by devoted karma yogis and volunteers who serve yoga’s mission. Both Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, the masters at the heart of the organization, practiced selfless service constantly throughout their lives and demanded the same of their disciples. They taught that by purifying our actions through selfless service, we can come to know real love for humanity.
Despite the common perception of many residential volunteer programs, karma yoga does not mean simply “working for free.” Karma yoga is a full yogic path on its own — the masters taught that it even leads to self-realization, divine love, and deep meditation. It is an endless stream of opportunities to weaken your ego and strengthen your soul. It is the mirror that shows you where you need the most polishing.
The swamis and senior staff at the ashram taught me not only how to live more spiritually, but how to navigate the more prickly parts of myself. I loved most that even my worst days brought me invaluable learning. The hardest challenges delivered the greatest rewards — not the kind of rewards you get in the material world — rather an inner knowing that you are constantly evolving, growing, and progressing as you navigate your inner world.
Immersing myself in the ashram lifestyle consistently broadened my perspective and reminded me of what’s truly important—to live selflessly and compassionately no matter the cost.
Here are my top four (new) lessons that I learned from practicing karma yoga in recent years at the ashram:
4. It’s better to be harmonious than to be right.
I grew up with the understanding that in an argument or debate, it’s important to assert yourself as being dominant, or right, so that way others will conform to your side. At the ashram, I learned differently. I was taught it’s more important to work harmoniously with others than to prove your way is best. This doesn’t mean you become a doormat — rather, the opposite. When you achieve the right balance, you can be a strong, active voice that brings people together. You then earn trust, learn new ways of looking at different situations, and allow others to be right. It wasn’t easy for my ego, but when I could gently set my own “wants” aside, my relationships improved and my spirit thrived.
3. Aim for steady progress, not perfection.
I noticed at the ashram when I tried to be perfect, I got trapped in the world of extremes. Swami Sivananda teaches moderation — to eat a little, sleep a little, practice asana a little, meditate a little, and so on.
In situations when I operated on the ends of extremes, such as forbidding myself from eating sugar, I’d soon enough find myself eating an entire cake. (Yes, there are many birthday celebrations at the ashram.) In yoga, progress is important, not perfection. Finding moderation and balance in all your daily actions — from eating cake to meditating — is a discipline in itself.
Now I aim to meditate for 30 minutes a day. If I miss it, I don’t self-sabotage out of disappointment and throw away my whole week’s practice like I’ve done in the past. I’ll meditate for 10 minutes instead. When I make a mistake, I’ll still try again. Perfection does not exist in the way that we think it does. When you focus on making steady progress, you’ll always improve.
2. Criticizing others does not make you feel better about yourself.
I found myself butting heads even with the people I loved the most. The more I butted heads with others, the worse I felt. With practice, I was able to refrain from arguments, but I still found myself criticizing others in my mind. This felt even worse.
The karma yoga program gave me countless opportunities to address my habit of negative thinking, of criticizing others. The less I criticized, the happier I felt. If I made a mistake, I knew apologizing would make me feel better.
I once thought apologizing was a weakness. Now that I’ve practiced it, I see it as tremendous strength. It also helped me learn about forgiveness. Apologizing and forgiving are both harder than they look, but they are two worthwhile skills to heal your heart.
1. Don’t get too comfortable — your life can change in a second.
After spending nearly my all of my twenties in the Sivananda organization, it felt increasingly comfortable for me to commit to future seasons of karma yoga. Just when I started to get really content living at the ashram, my “future” husband appeared.
I no longer reside in the ashram, but I still serve the mission as best I can from my new home with my new husband. Even though my surroundings have completely changed, it is still possible to keep a dedicated yoga practice until my next visit to the ashram when I can sharpen my skills.
I hardly expected a “householder” life so soon, so part of my transition involved getting over the shock. Life does that to everybody. What I learned in the transition is that karma yoga isn’t just a program — it’s a mentality. Even though I no longer reside in the ashram, I look at the world differently than I used to — I carry myself differently, I value different things, and all my actions are still rooted in spiritual practice.
The karma yoga program helped me to shape my mind in this way. You can’t help but be changed by an immersion like this. The teachings are timeless and invaluable.
If you have the opportunity to practice karma yoga at the ashram, dive in with an open mind and heart. When you’re open to transformation and dropping negative habits, you’ll progress quickly on the path.
Spending six seasons in the karma yoga program was the most transformative period of my life. I’ve never grown so fast, and with so much support. I recommend it to all earnest spiritual seekers. As Swami Sivananda says: Strive, strive, strive!
Experience transformation through selfless service? Find out more about our Karma Yoga/Residential Study program here..
The Karma Yoga Program is designed as a full immersion into the path of yoga called Karma Yoga. As with all paths of yoga, success in the spiritual path of Karma Yoga requires discipline, self-scrutiny, selflessness, and love. Karma yogis are required to attend twice daily meditations and satsangs, once daily asana classes, and a full day’s worth of selfless service in their assigned department.