Many of us imagine ashram life as difficult, emptied of the worldly delights of meat, alcohol, and sex, and solitary, a place to hide from the world by silently meditating through the day's long hours. Perhaps there are ashrams like that, but I am not at one of them. True, there is no meat, booze, or sex here at Sri Jasnath Asan (at least none that I know of!) but here our meditation is neither silent nor solitary. We meditate through karma yoga, the yoga of doing our work.
Because the word "karma" is slippery in meaning, it deserves some attention. In Western pop culture, "karma" has come to signify a cosmic payback, used in this sort of context: you steal a pen from work, and then someone steals your pen from you. "Instant karma," you might say, chiding yourself that you never deserved to own a stolen pen.
This understanding, though useful in stopping us from stealing pens, is a bit shallow. I deepened my understanding of "karma" by reading Swami Vivekananda's book Karma Yoga as recommended by the ashram. In his book, Vivekananda points out that "karma" is derived from the Sanskrit root "kri," which means to do. "All action is karma," he says, and the effects of all actions are also karma." Thus, says Vivekananda, "we are doing karma all the time...Everything we do, physical or mental, is karma, and it leaves its marks on us." (4)
Yike! This idea of karma--that everything counts--could easily keep me up all night, worrying about the terrible marks left by my various lapses: sleeping through the 6:30 am yoga class, drinking several unnecessary cups of chai tea, and maintaining a running interior monologue of bitchy commentary about the day's minor annoyances. And that's just when I'm confined to an ashram; I shudder to think of all the marks I got back in the world of meat, sex, and booze.
Fortunately, Vivekananda quickly puts this concept of karma into a broader perspective. In the same paragraph where he defines karma, he also points out that "the goal of mankind is knowledge...Pleasure and pain are great teachers and (man) learns as much from evil as from good." So even if we behave badly, if we are learning, we are doing our work. Vivekananda continues to say that this knowledge "is all inside" us, that what we call "learning" is actually an "uncovering." The external world, filled with its overindulgences, its nastinesses, its torpor, is "simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to study your own mind." (4).
Instead of losing sleep, then, I can relax into the knowledge that this world is here to teach us about ourselves. Hence our ashram tasks of digging rocks out of the desert soil to prepare the garden, or shelling a mountainous pile of peas for the group lunch of aloo matar, or trying to teach English to grown men who have never been inside a schoolhouse, are all ways for us to uncover truths about ourselves.
Last week, I taught my first yoga class to the village children who come to the ashram each afternoon for our children's program. Around 15 children came and circled around me for yoga asana. When I sensed they were getting bored, I had a sudden insight into a fun way to build arm strength:
The class was a joy for me, the students, and onlookers, and I felt as if I was doing good karma yoga. A week later, when I was due to teach my next children's yoga class, no one showed up. When I went out to the yard to find a handful of children playing soccer, I was told that most of the children were at a special after-school math class that day, and the soccer players were not interested in yoga. I knew not to see their choice to play soccer over yoga as a personal rejection, but the situation evoked a sadness in me. I went to the rooftop to do my own yoga practice, and after my sun salutations, I began to cry. I had to abandon my physical practice for a long session of weeping on my mat. The small sadness of being rejected in favor of a soccer match brought up a deeper sadness of a very personal nature, a sadness which prevented me from eating dinner or teaching my evening English class to adults. I had to text Shreejan, the director of the ashram's Karma Yoga program, and tell her that I could not teach English class because I couldn't stop crying. Having taught no one that day, I felt like a karma yoga failure.
The next morning, I learned more about karma yoga when I spoke with Shreejan about my sadness, which she saw as a cause for celebration. "This is the work you are to do!" she said. For karma yoga is not always what has been planned or assigned, but the work that is right in front of us. Whether we are physically at an ashram or not, sometimes our work is to respect our feelings and face them, to cry through them, to live them. To take the time to understand why they are there and what they can teach us. Vivekananda backs this up:
With all our feelings and actions--our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter...every one of these we may find, if we calmly study our own selves, to have been brought out from within ourselves by so many blows. The result is what we are. (4)
Of course, our work is not restricted to our sadnesses. Quite the contrary. The lineage of this ashram has us following the teaching of Guru Goraknath, one of the founders of Hatha yoga, who said that we are to "Laugh, play, meditate. Such people manifest the truth. Laugh and play with a unified mind. Such people are always in bliss."
Today one of my karma yoga duties was to visit the village schools to generate interest for the ashram's upcoming Talent Show. Instead of silently meditating in retreat, my ashram work had me surrounded by a hundred curious schoolchildren who stared and timidly waved hello. At the government-run school, our karma yoga involved being treated to chai tea and an impromptu show of aspiring talent-show participants.
Last weekend, our Guruji took us out to the sand dunes for a satsang, or spiritual discourse. Since he had been away all week, we were looking forward to hearing his wisdom. We got there and the guys immediately started leaping off a high dune to see how far they could land in the sand. That was our first practice.
Next, we had a photo shoot of various group yoga poses, accompanied by much laughter. And finally, we did a silent meditation as the sun went down. Some of my fellow ashramites may have been disappointed that Guruji didn't give a talk, but I thought it was the best satsang ever: play, laugh, meditate. Allowing these actions to remind us of the blissful beings that we are.