I recently came across a beautiful story that illustrates the yogic path. It is a Sufi story and therefore filled with awe, wonder, and mystery. We are guided to look within and purify ourselves, to be a reflection and perfect ourselves as mirrors to the world.
Seva: The Sanskrit word for service – to work selflessly without attachment or ego while holding the intention to face challenges and hardships in order to grow spiritually. This is the path of Karma Yoga.
The practice of seva helps us realize through our own experience that we are inter-connected in ways that reach far beyond age, race, class, and material wealth. This practice helps cultivate space and opening of the heart to give unconditionally. The challenge is to reduce the illusion of separation between self and other. What is the difference between you and the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk? Consider that person may have been just like you. Situations change quickly and here they are, without a roof over their head. Just a small turn of chance resulted in that person’s unfortunate situation. On first glance you may see a person with old or filthy clothing, perhaps in need of a bath, on the outside they appear disheveled. Look deeper. What is the expression on their face? Have they not experienced joy and sorry, love, and laughter just like you? Look deeper. What is the desire in their heart? Deep within every person is the desire to be happy, to be safe, to be free from fear and anger? Do you share this in common also? Look deeper. Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see the light within them? Who are they beneath the societal norms, behind the mask of a person with thoughts, memories, and habits? We are all divine. Infinitely capable of the greatest gifts of love and joy despite the harshest of realities.
In doing this work, certain qualities are cultivated that shape us. Practice humility, control the inner ego of striving and boasting. Be simple in your thinking and find solutions that are straightforward. Balance kindness and be firm when necessary coming from a place of love. You don’t have to be perfect to practice seva, know that you are ready anytime with whatever tools and resources you have available to you. Karma Yoga invites us to adjust our lofty standards and the harsh expectations that block the heart from opening and contort the eye from seeing clearly. We must forgive others that may have done us wrong in order to face new situations without resentment, greed, anger or delusion.
Make no mistake, this is not charity work! The practice of seva is as much for our own benefit as it is for those that we hope to serve. Seva is not about solving the world’s problems, rather, it is the practice of opening ourselves up to be available for the universe to use us! To be a humble tool for positive peaceful change. And holding this, in every moment can we focus our mind and heart on the thought, “How can I be most useful, how can I serve the greater good for all of humanity”. That is the greatest and most selfless thought we can have. It is this thought that liberates our egos and frees us from the grips of contempt and fear. This thought will never bring you suffering because even if hardship befall you, nature and the universe will witness that you are dedicating yourself to help all beings and you will be supported, you will be upheld and provided for. There is almost infinite inner and outer power available to those who giving of themselves to the world and ask nothing in return. Give of yourself and you shall have everything.
To practice of seva is to connect with people and look deeper. To look at the world through this lens is to embody an experiential mode of being that encourages growth of empathy and the practice of generosity. Consider practicing seva with everyone. Try not to limiting your practice within the confines of your comfort zone. Be like the water jug, full and ready to give unconditionally nourishing whoever is thirsty.
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broad concerns of all humanity.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I believe we live in an exciting time. A unique time in human history – we wield unimaginable power over nature yet have begun to gain glimpses of the equally unimaginable power within. This is a time where anything and everything could change in the blink of an eye based on the small choices that we as individuals make. One of my passions is to re-read ancient text and one of my favorites is the Bhagavad Gita, a timeless text of wisdom from India and the foundation of Yoga as we know it. I was deeply moved by the following passage, a forward to the Gita that I am re-reading.
An excerpt from Andrew Harvey’s forward to Bhagavad Gita Annotated & Explained
I believe that the whole of humanity is now in the thick of a battle whose outcome will determine the fate of the planet. This battle is between those forces of Life that want to see us living in harmony with the creation, inspired by divine love, and so able to re-create our devastated world with the powers of the Divine itself, and the forces of death – of ignorance, pride and greed – that have brought us to the moment where we have almost destroyed Nature and polluted the world’s min and heart with violence and materialist vision of humanity. The destiny of this vision is so reductive that it threatens us all with despair and meaninglessness at a moment when hope and resolve are crucial. This tremendous battle is being fought out in every arena of our life – in politics, industry, the arts, the sciences, the universities, the media, and in the depths of all our psyches.
The signs are not encouraging. We have known about the progressive degradation of the environment for more than twenty years now, but almost nothing significant has
been done to counteract it. Two billion people are now living in poverty, yet our addiction to an economic system that thrives on such desolation continues unabated. Much of organized religion continues to be largely divisive, drunk on outmoded visions of exclusive truth, and wedded to a vision of the Divine that obsessively restricts transcendence at this moment when the entire immanent body of God-Nature is in mortal danger. The majority of modern seekers in the so-called New Age who pride themselves on participating in a mystical renaissance are in fact largely trapped in a narcissistic coma, apolitical, unconcerned by and blind to the approaching potentially terminal tragedy of the destruction of nature.
Despair, however, is a luxury those who are growing awake in this darkness cannot afford; all those who see the extent of the potential danger and tragedy threatening humanity and nature are compelled to respond with the deepest of themselves. In the Bhagvad Gita, thos who long to know how to fight wisely for the future will find a handbook of spiritual warriorhood and divine realization that will constantly inspire and ennoble them and infuse them with divine truth and sacred passion.
Our society is sick. We have a disease. It ravages our lives, steals our time, and makes us greedy and selfish. That disease is called productivity and it is deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. We work, striving for more money, better benefits, better relationships, the perfect home, the perfect life. But is there such a thing as perfect? Are we simply waiting for the right alignment of many small pieces to fit into place – all the time knowing that we are not in control of most of the pieces? What is the cost of this hunger? We are like a hungry ghosts, swallowing everything in our path, always hungry for more, never satisfied. All too often we get trapped by thoughts of grandeur, slaves to the disease of productivity, all with just one purpose in mind. To be happy.
This reminds me of the story about a Mexican fisherman who lived in a small village. He would wake up early, spend his morning hours fishing, catching just enough to sustain him and get his family by. In the afternoons he would spend time with his kids, his wife, and in the evening sit around with friends chatting away or playing music. Then one day a tourist, who turns out was a business professor at Harvard, came to visit the small village and became friends with the fisherman. During their usual afternoon conversation the Harvard professor said, “hey, you are extremely good at fishing, why do you stop when you have caught enough? Why not fish for longer and catch more fish?” The fisherman replied, “well, ok, then what?”
Plans unraveled forming dreams of grandeur, the professor replied, “well, then you could hire some men to help you fish, buy some boats, and really grow a business.” Ok, replied the fisherman, and then? “Then, you could create a huge company, even a corporation and manage whole fleets of ships, move your company headquarters overseas even to make better business deals. After that, you could enlarge your company, grow rich, and perhaps one day when you are old and finally decide to retire you will be able to spend your time fishing for fun, have much more time for family, and friends.” The fisherman smiled, “ah my friend, I have everything I need already. Right here.”
When we are happy it seems that time flies, the world is a bright and sunny place filled with goodness, hope, love and many other warm fuzzies. When we are down, the opposite. So does that bigger salary make us happier, research on happiness says no. If we look far enough in our past we may come to the conclusion that certainly money can bring us comfort, but happiness – probably not. The trap is so easy to fall into because we compare, we plot, and we forget past lessons. How often have we heard that happiness is found within, probably everyone. And yet, we continue to make decisions based an belief system that assumes happiness comes from the outside.
This is where the practice of yoga and meditation come in. When we practice looking within, we see our beliefs, our desires, and our thoughts hung out on the film of our
awareness. The scene expands, time slows, and we are able to really look at all the ‘stuff’ that makes us tick. Examining, prodding, questioning, we bring into our consciousness not simply the notion but the understanding and the wisdom of the true cost of this disease. Thus we begin to unravel our assumptions, question our beliefs, and generate alternative thoughts and behaviours.
Can we cure ourselves of the productivity disease. Maybe, or perhaps it can be transformed. There are many types of hunger: physical, emotional, sexual, but the one that interests me the most is the spiritual hunger. The kind that consumes our selfish desires, our personal sense of me and mine. This hunger is the fire in our bellies that makes us question everything we value down to the very bones of the meaning and purpose of our life. Make this the hunger that keeps you going in your practice, in your search for wisdom and peace. This type of hunger is safer, causing less harm to others. Let us be more gentle with ourselves, with the expectations we put on our lives and the lives of others and practice every moment giving instead of taking.
In a large gymnasium on the UC Berkeley campus, every Friday dozens of students and people with mild to severe disabilities gather to be in community to practice yoga. The lead instructor is Saraswathi Devi: tall, with long flowing white hair, she has the air of someone that is comfortable being in charge while being completely present with an open heart and helping hands. Being in the class fills me with a sense of gratitude and appreciation and thus inspired I decided to interview Saraswathi about her work.
Vlad: How did you get started teaching yoga to people with disabilities?
I would say that there is an underlying spiritual reason. Having been born blind in one eye with related neurological and biochemical disabilities that caused learning issues and other challenges, I was naturally inclined from earliest childhood to embrace anyone who was suffering or challenged.
I began to study with my teacher, Swami Vignanananda, in 1974. He authorized me to teach in 1976. At the Prana Yoga Centers, we teach asana, pranayama, meditation and yoga philosophy. In the very early days in the West, asana classes were not as compartmentalized as they are today. We had 20 something’s, seniors, pregnant women, children – everyone in one class – but, soon enough we were teaching classes at all levels and offering pre and postnatal yoga, children’s classes, programs for educators and psychologists and more. It continues to evolve.
Around 1988 or so, the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society invited me to a workshop given by someone living with MS who was a yoga teacher. I was inspired and encouraged by what he had developed, especially because it was so similar to the adaptations I was doing with some of our students whose needs were not being met in the standard ways. After that, the MS Society invited me to do workshops for them. The disabilities work expanded from there. A group of people with MS asked me to teach a weekly class and that lead to being invited in 1995 to teach at UC Berkeley, where we created a substantial program for people living with many varieties of physical and developmental disabilities. Also, I teach a similar class at the new Ed Roberts Campus and therapeutic yoga at Yogalayam/Prana Yoga Center, where I continue to teach in the classical manner – from asana to philosophy. Through Yogis on Wheels, our sister non-profit, we’ve begun serving disabled children in South India.
When many people encounter someone who can’t walk or who speaks with impediment or maybe can’t speak at all, whose body or face might be differently configured, who drives a wheelchair wired with all kinds of equipment, they usually don’t see a person in front of them. Instead of seeing someone with thoughts and feelings, a mind, a personality, they see a disease or a mobility device. In these classes, I’m interested in dissolving all such conventional societal membranes. We offer instant love and respect to very student who comes through the door – no matter who, no matter what. That process of entry into the spirit of any and every person fascinates and thrills me. A disabled person deserves that kind of communication as much as anyone. When I’m rolling on the floor with someone who has cerebral palsy or toning into the ear of someone with a serious brain injury or holding someone in Cobra Pose, while pressing my fingers deeply into acupressure points along their spine or applying Reiki energy to the muscles of their back, I feel that I am breathing right into the heart of creation with that person. For me, offering yoga to another is a very intimate spiritual communication more than it is a physical practice. I love doing that, being in that. I love the service of that.
No. Not disabilities yoga per se. Swami-ji was a great yogi in every sense of that word. Those of us who worked very closely with him received plenty of instruction in the physical skills, but the training was even more a very intensive spiritual guidance that was designed to awaken in each of us a fullness of character, a commitment to selfless service and an evolving Inner awareness. So, Swami-ji expected us to take the teachings and share them widely, telling us, “stay faithful to the practice, keep your balance and you will find your way.” That was a great invitation to me. I eventually found myself working from childbirth to the deathbed and everywhere else in between.
Vlad: The people who come to these classes at UC Berkeley – what do you think yoga does for them?
I can’t speak for them, but I can speak from what I observe and what they tell us. Each of the students has different needs and concerns, so the benefits are different. Some examples are improved circulation, loosening of joints, reduction in pain and stiffness, increased strength and balance, better digestion, improved sleep, increased ability to handle stress, enhanced self –esteem. Some of the students have progressively advancing disease. Progress may be retarded in some cases. But, the psychological effects may be more important. Some of the students tell us the class is the highlight of their week. Others say the class in one of the few places in the world where they feel loved and respected. Most of them acquire more joy and satisfaction in living. You can see this in their faces over time. Most of the students have been coming to class for years. Many have become my dear friends. There is a lot of laughter. We have fun.
Picture a room full of people with very limited mobility lying or sitting on the floor or propped against the wall, each one supported by two to six helpers, being held in yoga postures.
We make liberal use of the usual yoga props – mats, blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps, sandbags, eye pillows, chairs, benches, walls and an inversion table. We also use light free weights and massage tools. The students practice as independently or interactively as necessary. Most of them require a very high level of intervention. There are usually 24 to 28 students enrolled. They range in age from early 20’s to early 70’s. They live with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, multiple systems atrophy, advanced arthritis, spinal cord injury, brain trauma, severe birth disorders, down syndrome and more. Some cannot speak, think or see conventionally. Some are challenged psychologically.
We have two assistant instructors, a few senior helpers and about 60 volunteer assistants. Many of our volunteers receive UC academic credit. The training is mostly on the job, but we also provide out- of-class workshops. Our approach combines modified techniques from Yoga Therapy and Thai Yoga Massage, itself a hybrid between held postures and acupressure. To that, we add a little bodywork, range of motion, muscle resistance and the gentle use of free weights. And, at the beginning and ending of class, we practice breathing, meditation and visualization techniques.
What is unique about this class is the generous number of people working with each individual student, allowing us to bring the students into positions that would never otherwise be available to them. The more helpers, the more fine-tuned and detailed the experience we’re able to offer. We hold the postures for as long as possible, sometimes for 5 to 10 minutes or longer. It takes time to move through thick barriers such as edema, spasticity, neurological damage, numbness, weakness, pain, fear. We fold, stretch, swing, rotate, twist, balance, and hang upside down. We emphasize working with each student as a whole person, rather than simply responding to a clinical picture. While we get to know the details of their bodies’ strengths, weaknesses and needs, even more importantly, we come to know our students’ minds and hearts.
The helpers derive at least as many riches from this experience as the students do. The class has social and political implications. Most of our assistants find their lives changed markedly by learning to unhesitatingly respect and value persons they previously thought were so different from themselves, only to find that the disabled are people just like themselves.
I learn a lot about how a person with disabilities copes with everyday living. Some of our students can’t feed or dress themselves and almost none of them can drive a car. Using a computer requires multiple adaptations. They need help with an infinite number of details the conventionally-abled take for granted. Everything has to be done at a much slower pace and with much greater complexity. There are accessibility, financial and housing issues. Health care provisions are limited and tedious. There is psychological strain within families and between friends. There is social and political prejudice to contend with every day. I am inspired by the incredibly beautiful humanity of these students – by a thousand qualities I see in them – their intelligence, perseverance, patience, kindness, cheerfulness, compassion.
I continue to learn about managing a lot of people in subtle detail, each one with unique and changing requirements, in a large room, all at once. We are attempting to provide each of the students a private lesson experience in a large group setting. I try to apply this skill to many other situations. There is a lot in the yoga teachings about keeping oneself very well balanced in health, perceptions and behaviors. An aspect of that is to move gracefully through certain periods of dis-equilibrium into periods of greater equilibrium. This class, with its moment to moment shape-shifting, its many bodies and personalities, is a very good place in which to fine-tune that skill. Filled with equanimity, we are free to love easily.
Brendan, about 30 years old and living with cerebral palsy, arrived in class about three years ago. Always quiet and shy, he was not easy to get to know. Speech issues made some of us wonder about his level of cognition. One day recently, he said”I’ve written a poem. Would it be all right if I read it to the class?” I said, “Are you kidding? Absolutely, please!”
The next week, Brendan came to class and I asked, “did you bring the poem?” He said, “Oh, I forgot, but I think I can speak it from memory.” We gave Brendan the floor and he recited the poem, but only after he gave us a fifteen minute introduction as to why he had written it. Most of us had only heard him say maybe five words in a row.
The basic idea was,”I am a fully grown adult and I still don’t understand why I was put on earth this way. I may never know. Society treats me like a lesser being. I get very angry, because I don’t deserve this. Much of the time, I don’t feel comfortable where I am, although I do feel comfortable when I’m with my family and friends who love and respect me. And, I do feel comfortable in my acting class. We were all thinking “acting class? Wow!” Then he said, “and you guys are like family to me. I feel safe expressing to you for the first time these deep parts of how I feel. By then several of us were crying. After the recitation, Brendan said, “would anybody like to ask a question?” Here is Brendan, who kind of slips through the cracks wherever he goes, invisible not just because of the cerebral palsy and the wheelchair, but because he is so reserved and quiet. And here we all are, raising our hands and asking him about his life and where he went to school. At the end, I said, “Brendan, you can see the tears in these eyes. Look at these faces. Every single person in this room will remember this moment for the rest of their lives, because you shared your truth with us. That is moving enough, but you also spoke for others with similar experience. And that has great meaning for people across the globe.”
For more info on Saraswathi and to visit her classes go to: http://www.yogalayam.org/