Karma Yoga in the Age of Zoom

When the world shut down last March, like so many other yoga teachers, I turned to Zoom. Unlike most teachers, I wore my pajamas and led a 30-minute chair class from my desk. That was eight months ago. It feels like eight weeks. Or maybe eighty years.

Now my classes are an hour long and have moved to a light filled corner of my home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. And, to the relief of all, I’ve changed from my pajamas to my yoga duds which, truth be told, feel a lot like pajamas.

I’ve come to realize, after all these long COVID months, that my reasons for holding Zoom classes were never about maintaining an asana practice. I began the classes to hold the community together. To keep those who chose to attend energetically connected. I began the classes so we might breathe together. Move together. So that we could have one thing that felt almost normal. 

Asana is what brings us together three times a week but it’s not what holds us together. Yoga holds us together.

When I first began leading classes 27 years ago it was all about asana. I taught the same sequences and told the same jokes as my beloved teachers, who were students of BKS Iyengar and who studied with the Iyengar family in Pune. It took several years before I began to trust my own voice, my own intuition. It’s only now, in these past few years, that I’ve learned who I am – and who I am not – as a teacher.

In these extraordinary times it doesn’t feel right to root the classes I teach in strong, challenging work. Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in healing, restorative practices. Practices that are more about how the body feels and less about what it can do. 

Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in truth. 

What do I mean by that? Beats me. I think what I mean is that in this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year we would do well to think less about ourselves and more about others. Maybe what I mean is that we need to move beyond just thinking about others to doing for others with no expectation of what we might receive in return. What I am trying to express is that we need to practice Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga is one of four schools of yoga. The other three are Jnana (self-study), Raja (meditation) and Bhakti (devotion). Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. It is selfless service towards others. That means cultivating the correct attitude and right motives. To release, as one text explained, ‘selfish desires’.

We should always be prepared to practice Karma Yoga but it seems more important than ever right now. 

Two things happened this morning to bring that point home to me and to bring this post to a close (thank goodness!).

Fareed Zacaria had Jose Andres, a chef and founder of World Central Kitchen. His organization is shining a light on food scarcity and the hunger crises in part caused by the economic challenges created by the pandemic. He spoke so eloquently and with so much passion that even the stoic Zacaria was verkelmpt. Andres is practicing Karma Yoga. Selfless service.

And then Sunday’s Brain Pickings landed in my inbox featuring poet Robinson Jeffers and his thoughts on ‘moral beauty’. It included several quotes but this one, I think, speaks to the practice of Karma Yoga.

“I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy,

and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole.”

If Jeffers is right, and we are all connected, then selfless service does not serve one person, or one group or one cause. It serves us all.


Ahimsa

Images from the 1970’s have been running on social media in response of PBS’s series on the decade.  One image inspired this poem:

Local Graffiti

Ahimsa

Violence is a small thing.

It is a girl child running through the jungle, arms stretched out

mouth open in silent cry, clothes seared from her body.

It is a small thing.

Violence is an act of war.

It is a jetliner ripping a skyscraper in half. It is men detonating the bombs they strap to their bodies. It is women being gang raped on the back of busses.

Violence is the sting of a mother’s slap on her young son’s frozen cheek.

Non-violence begins when I remember that violence doesn’t ask for much.

Because violence is a small thing.  

Violence begins when I wake to curse the haggard reflection staring back at me.

Violence ends when I wake and offer thanks for my humble life.

Violence begins when I whisper secrets that belong to someone else.

It ends when I sit in quiet contemplation.

Violence begins when I fill my eyes with gratuitous images.

It ends when I change the channel.

Violence. Non-violence. Ahimsa. Himsa.

Two sides of the same coin that we toss into the air without a second thought.