Three Hard Lessons I Learned from Karma Yoga (That Were Totally Worth It)
By Katie Papo (Ambika)
I started off the New Year of 2011 pretty weak. Not sick. Just weak — little discipline, a few nagging addictions, and a hard time staying with my yoga practice, or any kind of healthful exercise for that matter. A friend told me about the Karma Yoga program at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas, and it felt right to go to a place where a disciplined lifestyle is required to earn my stay. I had experienced the Sivananda Ashram in California for three weeks, so I knew it was a valid organization. I pretty much had nothing to lose.
One month later, upon arriving at the ashram, I wrote just one request on my Karma Yoga form: “Anything outdoors.” I knew I’d be happy working outside, whether it was gardening, shlepping things from place to place — even the kitchen crew got to chop veggies on a table by the ocean, and any of those options were fine by me. Then at the bottom of the form, I added one more thing: “Anything but retail.” I hated shopping, shoppers, “stuff,” customer service, computers, being inside, and most of all, being harassed by the sight of ice cream and chocolate bars.
An hour later, I was placed in the boutique. Misery, I thought. But three months later, I started to realize why I needed to be placed there — that all of my best teachers in life were always my toughest teachers. And the boutique had been in the running for “Teacher of the Year.” Now, after nearly four years of traveling back and forth to the ashram and its charming boutique, I have come to learn three major lessons.
Lesson #1. You Can Run, But You Cannot Hide (from Yourself)
I thought Karma Yoga at an ashram would be a safe haven from all of my nagging addictions: sugar, cigarettes, overeating, poor health habits … When I first walked into the boutique, I was greeted by a lady standing in a tiny kitchen the size of a lunch table. “You’re the new karma yogi? Great! I’ll train you now — you’re going to make cookies, brownies, muffins, peanut butter fudge balls, grilled cheese sandwiches, and smoothies … every day.” I gave her my best phony smile, and wondered why God had to make it extra hard for me to break up with my two worst loves: sugar and cheese.
I won’t say that I overcame my sugar addiction instantly (unless you consider several years to be instantly), but I finally did. The ashram had a whole lot to do with giving me real tools to overcome it. I also quit smoking because of Swami Sivananda, the inspiration behind all the Sivananda ashrams. At first I thought that just being at a holy place would be enough to take away my cravings. I was sadly mistaken. But the night before my birthday, I had one cigarette remaining, and decided this would be my last one ever. I smoked it with great resolution, but after about five minutes, I wanted another. My brain started fighting with itself, “Am I really ready to stop smoking? Maybe it’s not worth the hassle. But I want to! Ahhh!!” I looked over at my night table and saw a tiny book called “Pocket Gems” by Swami Sivananda that I was given as a gift, but had never opened before. I held it to my forehead, and said out loud, “Swami Sivananda, please give me a clear message about whether I’m ready to quit smoking.” I opened the book to a random page, where staring me in the face were all capital letters that said, “SMOKE NOT.”
Lesson #2: I Judge People
This was a hard one to learn, since I found it more pleasant to think of myself as already perfect. Plus I didn’t consider it “judging” necessarily, as long as I was right. Which, according to me and my cute little ego, was always the case. When you’re in the Karma Yoga program, you meet lots of people, which equals lots of practice with that funny ego. After spending a total of 1.5 years practicing Karma Yoga at the ashram, I finally realized that not only do I negatively judge people, but I am wrong sometimes — okay, ALL the time. Many people I made instant judgments about ended up becoming my best friends.
The best part of this realization is now when my ego habitually makes a snap judgment on someone, I can remind myself that this is not the truth, and I have been wrong many times before. And even if it is the truth, who cares? I’m not perfect either, so at least we have that in common. My relationships are much more harmonious now, and honestly, I have a lot more friends.
Lesson #3. Discipline Really Is Freedom
I never thought I’d be one to say that, since I lived most of my life thinking that eating Cookie Crisp and Pizza Rolls in front of the TV was freedom. And I will admit, it took me some time (okay, a lot of time) to realize that the ashram’s mandatory full schedule is good for me. I spent a lot of energy fighting it — skipping yoga classes, hopping out over the back wall during satsang, sleeping in (sorry to all those Karma Yogis who were assigned to wake me), and just having the attitude of resistance. When I finally surrendered to the ashram’s schedule and attended everything — head and heart in full throttle — I finally felt good. I dropped my extra cookie dough weight, I was excited to wake up in the morning, I ate better, and I was better able to handle, well … everything.
Resistance is a major force that comes up in many Karma Yogis, because the discipline is a lot more than most of us are used to. My advice to anyone considering the Karma Yoga program at the ashram is to fully participate. Go to every satsang, practice yoga every day, and don’t you dare be late for meditation. Even if it’s a struggle, keep with it, and the freedom you’ll feel in the end will be worth every ounce of work.
A Final Note: To anyone who is able, try the Karma Yoga Program with an open heart and open mind. This program has not only changed, but saved my life. It is worth the time and energy spent, and serving others will open you up for the ultimate healing. It’s not easy, but you will come out feeling more whole, peaceful, and free.