One woman shares her top four lessons learned from practicing Karma Yoga.
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Katie Papo (Ambika) shares insights based on many years of serving in the Residential Study/Karma Yoga program at the Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas.
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 Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas 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.
Here are my top four lessons that I learned from practicing Karma Yoga in recent years at the ashram:
Lesson #1. 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.
Lesson #2. 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. 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.
Lesson #3. Criticizing others does not make you feel better about yourself.
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.
Lesson #4. 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 hardly expected a “householder” life so soon, so part of my transition involved getting over the shock. Life does that.
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’m still using the lessons that I learned, both from the Karma Yoga program and the Yoga Teacher Training Course. Both experiences engrained the lessons of yoga in me. You can’t help but be changed by immersions like these. The teachings are timeless and invaluable … perfect for anyone who wants to spiritualize their life for the better.
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat Bahamas is located on Paradise Island on one of the finest beaches in the world. For nearly 50 years, the ashram has been a leading destination for people seeking a spiritual environment to study, practice yoga, and develop a healthy lifestyle. The ashram offers immersive, month-long Yoga Teacher Training Courses and Karma Yoga/Residential Study Programs.