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Teaching Yoga as Seva

Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life.  Give freely.  Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving and full of the desire to serve.  Realize the truth of the scriptures; learn to be detached and to take joy in renunciation.  Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all.  Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride.  Then, Arjuna, you will achieve your divine destiny.

Bhagavad Gita, 16:1

Arjuna is a hero in the Bhagavad Gita.  He and his brothers are the rightful heirs to a throne, and their Uncle and Cousins stole the throne.  Arjuna and his brothers have to battle to get the throne back–a metaphor for the triumph of good over evil and balance over imbalance.  In the story, Arjuna is despairing at the beginning of the war, because he is aware of all the death and destruction that is coming, and he doesn’t know how he can possibly go on.  Kṛṣṇa pretends to be a human charioteer so he can talk to Arjuna and teach him the practice of Karma Yoga to help him find the inner strength to do the hard things he must do.  

Sevā (also transcribed as sewa), is the concept of selfless service that is performed for the benefit of others, without any expectation of reward or praise for performing it.  It is synonymous with Karma Yoga.

Service for others is a spiritual duty in many religions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, to name a few.  I am willing to bet that most human wisdom traditions recommend acts of service as a part of their spiritual system.

Seva can be performed to benefit other humans, animals, society, the planet.

True selfless service is done without any desire for praise, accolades or rewards of any kind.  True selfless service is not publicized on your instagram account.

Yet, when we perform selfless acts, we do receive benefits.  We receive the peace of mind in knowing we helped someone.  We get a sense of joy from it.  That peace of mind and joy help establish Upekṣā–Equanimity.  Remember Sutra 1.33–

My interpretation of this sutra:

We can cultivate an undisturbed calmness of mind by practicing: 

1)  genuine well wishes towards all

2)  compassion for the suffering of others

3)  sympathetic joy for the blessings and achievements of others

4)  focusing on our peace of mind and good works, even when others behave poorly. 

What others do is their business.

Have you ever held the door for someone, and they just walked right past you without acknowledging or thanking you–and then you got pissed off?  This situation is an opportunity to practice performing the act of service and letting go of expectations of the other person behaving in any way–for the sake of Seva and the practice of equanimity.

In addition to practicing the 8-fold Path and the Yamas and Niyamas of Patañjali, I also really like to work with the Buddhist list of Pāramitās (Sanskrit) or Pāramīs (Pali)–Perfect mindstates that help train the mind and advance towards enlightenment (or at least stronger equanimity, emotional regulation, and wisdom).

The first of the paramis is Dāna–generosity, giving of oneself.  That is Seva.

The 10 Pāramis:

1.  Dāna: generosity, giving of oneself

  2.  Sīla: virtue, morality, proper conduct, because we care about ourselves and others

  3.  Nekkhamma: renunciation, letting go, diminishing  the unwholesome

  4.  Paññā: transcendental wisdom, insight

  5.  Vīriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort

  6.  Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance,  acceptance, endurance

  7.  Sacca  pāramī: truthfulness, honesty

  8.  Adhiṭṭhāna: determination, resolution

  9.  Mettā: loving-kindness, genuine well wishes

10.  Upekkhā: equanimity, serenity      

If you teach a yoga class and you get paid for it–technically that is not pure Seva, because you are gaining a benefit of money.  However, teaching yoga is a service for the benefit of others, and it is a spiritual act.  We should approach our teaching in the spirit of Seva.

Many people come to yoga because they are looking for relief from some form of duhkḥa–suffering.  Sometimes people come to yoga because they want the physical benefits.  They come for the “yoga butt,” then find spiritual growth on accident.  (Perhaps their spiritual self is leading them to yoga under false pretenses!  Just as all trees grow up towards the sun, all souls yearn for spiritual evolution.)

I believe it is our duty as yoga instructors to be interested in the people we are teaching, and to want to receive them, make them feel seen, and be able to help them as best we can, within the scope of our practice.  

We are not physical therapists–but it is within the scope of our practice to educate ourselves about some common injuries and conditions so that we can help people modify in a group class setting.  There are simple things we can do to keep our classes challenging, but also accessible and inclusive.  

We are not psychotherapists–but feelings can come up in yoga classes.  It is within the scope of our practice to embody unconditional positive regard so that people feel safe to come to class, make mistakes, ask questions, and have human experiences.  We can familiarize ourselves with some of the common things that come up for people so that we can hold a steady, grounded space and show some nonjudgmental presence, understanding and empathy.

These practices will also help us regulate our emotions and strengthen our equanimity when situations come up in classes–which happens from time to time.  It is all opportunity to practice our spiritual goals:  Ahiṃsā, nonviolence/active kindness; Satya, truthfulness and kind speech.  Brahmacharya–continence and aligning our energy with the energy of the universe as we understand it so that all of our words and actions flow from our True Selves.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t hold boundaries.  It doesn’t mean that we have to be responsible for everyone else’s feelings.  It means that we respond rather than react, and we speak and act from a centered place of kindness and wisdom.

Practicing Seva, or Karma Yoga, helps us go beyond the dualities of like and dislike, attractions and aversion–it helps us to purify our minds and achieve the supreme goal of yoga:  true freedom from the bondage of Karma.

Free from anger and selfish desire, unified in mind, those who follow the path of yoga and realize the Self are established forever in that supreme state.

BG 5:26

In other words, it’s all Brahmacharya:  getting into the chariot with Brahma, the Divine.  

May this work serve for the awakening and peace of all beings.



Quotes from The Bhagavad Gita (Easwaran's Classics of Indian Spirituality Book 1) 

by Eknath Easwaran (Author) 

More info and to listen to the chanting of the 2 quotes:

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