The Yoga of Action at the Bahamas Sivananda Ashram
Coming from a place where we are selling our Zen center campus, I am impressed by what is essentially a small yet vibrant and gorgeous Caribbean village dedicated to rigorous spiritual training. Teacher trainees with yellow shirts and white pants sit huddled around picnic tables cramming for their final exam. Trainees rise at 5am to do the day’s first round of meditation and chanting before their first asana and pranayama class. Worldwide, the Sivananda centers have graduated over 27,000 teachers.
Because I came to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat Bahamas assisting Zen Master Bernie Glassman, who was invited to teach on social service as a spiritual practice last week, we talked a lot about Karma Yoga, the yoga of action that is the topic of the Bhagavad Gita. Karma Yoga was an important focus of the teachers who established this lineage of yoga. The Sivananda Yoga Ashram was founded by Swami Vishnu Devananda, who was sent by Swami Sivananda from India to spread yoga through the West. Of Swami Vishnu, the current director of the ashram, Swami Swaroopananda writes in their latest catalog:
“Whenever a student came to him, describing some profound spiritual experience he had, Swamiji’s immediate response was to assign to that student a big karma yoga project. Swamiji believed that a true spiritual experience must result in a desire to serve others. His own life was a perfect demonstration of this principle. The intense yogic practice he did in the Himalayas during his early years resulted in profound spiritual attainments and a tremendous amount of spiritual energy. These were utilized entirely for the service of humanity.”
The primary usage of the term Karma Yoga at the ashram refers to work-exchange students who have committed three months of “selfless service” in exchange for the opportunity to participate in ashram activities. Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda also understood the term to mean service to humanity at large. In Practice of Karma Yoga, Swami Sivanda says:
“Why do you serve the poor and the needy and the suffering of humanity at large?…By doing service, you purify your heart… the sense of separateness will be annihilated. Selfishness will be eradicated. You will get a broad and liberal outlook on life. You will begin to feel oneness and unity. Eventually you will obtain knowledge of the Self. You will realize ‘all in one’ and ‘one in all.’ What is society after all? It is nothing but a collection of units or individuals. The world is nothing but a manifestation of God. Service of humanity and country is, in fact, nothing short of service of God. Service is worship.” (33)
This resonates a lot with Bernie’s message: that if we are dedicated to realizing and actualizing the oneness and interconnectedness of life, then we must do that within our relationships and society. Swami Sivananda was also known as “Givenanda,” because he gave so much to the poor and Swami Vishnu was a peace activist. For example, he famously flew his plane over the Berlin wall dropping flowers.
Bernie will be returning to the Asrham in May for the Yoga for Peace Symposium: Changing the World from the Inside Out. This Symposium overlaps with their Yoga Peace Ambassadors Certification Course and f0llows the Yogis Without Borders training in April. These trainings team up with a UN director who is dedicated to applying Yogic practice to humanitarian efforts.
The Yoga Industry
Having experienced financial uncertainty, I have to be impressed with the yoga industry for being just that- an industry. They have a business model- a structure that works for sustaining their contribution to reducing suffering. People complain about how unspiritual it is to pay for Buddhist teachings, but they are surprised when the Zendo can’t make rent. I think the commodification of yoga has good results. By expecting to pay for a yoga class, people implicitly acknowledge that it takes time, work, training, overhead and marketing for that class to serve them.
But there is a difference between a profit-driven business and a mission-driven organization operating on sound business principles. Swami Vishnudevananda set up this ashram to train people to reduce suffering and spread peace and not as training for a job. As I complete a yoga teacher training of my own, I am interested in exploring the following questions:
- How can I offer yoga in a way that contributes to my livelihood?
- How can we make yoga accessible to everyone?
- How can I integrate my yoga practice on the mat with Karma Yoga off the mat?