As I prepare to record my reflections on my LOAY 500 hour teacher training experience, I am at once filled with a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness. To be able to relive those days spent immersing ourselves in the practise would indeed be a great gift; I cannot conceive of ever falling short of new things to learn!
I can clearly recall the gamut of emotions as I read through the Registrar’s acceptance letter: elation and excitement at the forefront, with a twinge of apprehension and self-doubt lurking in the background. Would I, with my limited background in this style of yoga, be able to keep up with my fellow sadhakas, most of whom would have already grown solid roots in the Dharma Yoga tradition, through the LOAY 200 hr TTC program and regular attendance at the yoga center? Nonetheless, it felt like the right time to embark on this training initiative…
From the first moment I ventured into the Dharma West yoga studio, I was in awe. I could see how the term ‘Temple’ came to be chosen; such a strong sense of tranquility and reverence hung in the air, it could never be anything other than a sanctuary. As I stepped inside that first time, I was greeted with such open and welcoming smiles, that I felt immediately right at home. This feeling of belonging and being nurtured prevailed throughout the entire stay, and was elemental in enabling me to develop a deep trust towards my teachers and fellow sadhakas. Their support and encouragement made it much easier for me to share my thoughts and questions, and to be more receptive to feedback; this is often a stumbling block for me, as I am timid by nature, low on self-confidence, and frequently harbour fears of being judged.
That first module exceeded the bounds of my imagination, in terms of the diversity and depth of topics covered, but this also gave rise to very long and demanding days. The addition of more frequent or longer breaks between the sessions would have greatly enhanced our ability to stay focussed and alert, as well as given our bodies more of an opportunity to recover from back-to-back asana practises. Our mentors had given us numerous warnings to pace ourselves; however, in the presence of a guru, the tendency is to offer up one’s best efforts by way of demonstrating devotion, even at the cost of personal comfort. In the end, I think most of my colleagues would agree that the gains far exceeded the pains!
I remember leaving New York City after the January session feeling considerably less confident of my aptitude for completing the program. The feedback that I had received from our small group teaching clinics reflected the insecurities that I was trying hard to keep from adversely affecting me. How, for instance, would my students react to this new class format and teaching style, which employed less verbal cues, hands-on assists and a pronounced spiritual slant (ie: the emphasis on devoting oneself to God)? Would I be able to keep my students engaged if I were to revert back to a more beginner level class that would not change appreciably from week to week? Most importantly, would I be able to let go of my attachment to my usual style of teaching, and embrace the Dharma Yoga style? I wasn’t convinced that I was completely receptive to this changeover yet, and was concerned that this would come across in my teaching as stiffness, unfamiliarity with the practise, and lack of genuine belief in this new style. Fortunately, though, I still had some time to absorb the information and explore my feelings: I expected that I would feel much more secure about this new practise by the end of the next in-class module.
It took even less time than expected. As I worked through the daily practise plans – which encompassed asana, pranayama, japa, dharana, dhyana and journaling – my appreciation for the Dharma Yoga method grew ever stronger. Within a few days, I had already begun to notice improvements on several fronts. The feeling of ease and lightness that had suddenly manifested in my asana practise during Dharma’s master classes did not diminish as I had expected; this phenomenon, I presumed, drew from the collective energy of the Dharma Yogis that permeated the space within the Temple. Furthermore, I noticed a significant increase in my alertness and concentration: for once, I was able to meditate without falling asleep, I was no longer plagued by grogginess at the usual times of day, and I was enjoying a quietness of mind that enabled me to become more self-introspective. These new-found qualities effectuated a calmer demeanour, which was, according to my students, reflected in my teaching.
I believe that these changes were largely brought about by the ahimsa diet. Prior to embarking on the training, I had admittedly been rather sceptical upon hearing the claims that such a diet could literally transform one’s practise; now, I had no cause to doubt. I had become a believer, and hoped that I could find the willpower to adhere to this diet long after internship period ended.
Once back at the Dharma Yoga Center for the second in-class instalment, I noticed a distinct shift in the group dynamic, particularly within our small teaching groups. There was a quietness and calmness in the atmosphere that everyone worked hard to maintain. I very much appreciated this observation of mouna, as it really did seem to help us to conserve energy and to turn our thoughts inward. At the same time, we became more conscious of the moods and mindsets of our peers. There was an intimacy within our group that developed to the point where words were no longer necessary for communicating. This was most apparent when we were taking turns teaching: we moved in union with each other like a well-rehearsed ballet chorus and remained attentive to one another’s needs by adjusting the level of intensity of the physical practise higher or lower as required. During the feedback sessions, the comments were delivered openly with the utmost respect and care; it was obvious that everyone took this duty very seriously and made their best effort to come up with meaningful remarks. In truth, however, no one should have been worried about receiving a ‘bad review’…every class that was delivered was a veritable gift.
On the whole, everyone seemed significantly more self-assured and relaxed. Evidently we had all benefitted from having those 2 months between the sessions to immerse ourselves in the Dharma Yoga practise, and to apply our knowledge through teaching a few classes. We had come to realise that we could still deliver a class that reflected the Dharma Yoga style, values and traditions, without having to imitate Dharma exactly. This knowledge was very reassuring to me personally, since I now knew that, even if I were to switch over to teaching Dharma Yoga exclusively, I could exercise my creativity to impart a hint of my own flavour to my classes.
The internship period that followed the March session proved to be a very valuable learning experience for me; however, it was not without some difficulties. As experienced during the waiting period between the in-class training modules in New York City, I had to rearrange my already packed schedule to squeeze in an extra 2 hours, minimum, of activity per day related to the daily practise plans. Failure to do so, without incurring noticeable impact to my family, would have been indicative of problems to come, since I also had 36 Dharma Yoga classes and 20 hours of karma yoga to complete; hence, time management was of the essence in order to maintain the balance between these activities, my day job and family life. It was, in my view, a good test in regards to observing the yamas: ahimsa (by helping people to recognise the greatness that lives within them, as well as avoiding the tendency to self-deprecate), satya (by being honest with myself with regards to my availability for all my tasks/activities; I tend to be over-optimistic with regards to time allocation), asteya (by putting my family’s needs at the top of the priority list to ensure that they did not feel deprived of my love and attention), bramacharya (now was the ideal time to apply what we had learned and adhere strictly to our yoga practise, as per Dharma’s direction), and aparigraha (by renouncing my own desires and hobbies and setting higher priority to the needs of others. In addition, I was reminded of the importance to let go of expectations, especially in regards to people’s willingness to explore an unfamiliar style of yoga, and their availability to commit to a regular practise. To illustrate, I had to teach more than the required number of classes for Level 4 certification, to make up for those that did not draw enough students).
The LOAY 500 hr program was, in a nutshell, life-changing. Never could I have anticipated the extent to which my yoga practise would transform. The training program was certainly intense, maybe even gruelling at times. However, now that I have witnessed, through Sri Dharma Mittra’s example, the incredible amount of resolve and faith that is required to become a true yogi, I know enough to recognise that the real challenges lie ahead of me. Who knows how far I will get in his lifetime? I accept that I may never attain self-realisation, but I am most humbled and grateful for having had the opportunity to study with an incredible guru who has worked through his own struggles, and who is undeniably as close as one can possibly get on this earth to become an enlightened being. Armed with the tools that Sri Dharma Mittra and his exceptional staff shared with us, I feel more confident now to set out on my path and embrace my own challenges…
What is Karma Yoga?
Karma Yoga is manifested through the practise of selfless service, and is one of the key components of the Dharma Yoga tradition. Born from the years that Sri Dharma Mittra spent at Yogi Gupta’s ashram, the spirit of giving generously of one’s time and effort appears to have permeated the Dharma Yoga community. Dharma himself performed countless acts of karma yoga as a means of demonstrating his devotion towards his guru.
Today, the practise of karma yoga continues to be prominent amongst Dharma Mittra’s followers, and, in fact, forms an essential part of the Life of a Yogi teacher training programs. The intent is to highlight the importance of devoting the fruits of our labours to a higher purpose; that is, no act should be committed solely for personal gain. The ability to perceive each action as an offering to God reflects the willingness to renounce the ego. Only once we let go of our ego can we conceive of establishing a connection with the Supreme Self.
Karma Yoga helps to rid ourselves of the ego by cultivating humbleness. When we serve others, we are demonstrating our acceptance to lower ourselves. Our station in life is no longer of consequence. This is critical if we are to enter into the full spirit of Karma Yoga.
The significance of selfless service is even highlighted in the ancient sacred texts of yoga. The Bhagavad Gita, for instance, contains several mentions of karma yoga throughout the text:
“Both renunciation and yoga lead to the Highest Good; but of the two, performance of action is superior to renunciation of action.”
[Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 5, verse 2, p. 60]
Further on in the same chapter – entitled ‘The Way of Renunciation’, Lord Krishna reveals the true essence of karma yoga:
“He who works without attachment, resigning his actions to Brahman, is untainted by sin, as a lotus-leaf by water. Only with the body, the mind, the understanding, and the senses do the yogis act, without attachment, for the purification of the heart. A selfless man who has renounced the fruit of his action attains peace, born of steadfastness. But the man who is not selfless and who is led by desire is attached to the fruit and therefore bound.”
[Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 5, verses 10-12, p. 62-63]
The message is therefore clear: practising karma yoga represents one of the methods for attaining self-realisation. However, we must be sincere and steadfast in our efforts in order to advance along our paths; occasional benevolent deeds, executed casually/dismissively, are not sufficient. One must be whole-heartedly immersed in one’s work.
Devoting the fruits of all our labour to a higher purpose demonstrates karma yoga. Small actions can be meaningful, if carried out with reverence and mindfulness. Even offering up our daily asana practise to God as a gesture of love and devotion is a simple yet effective way of preparing ourselves for the higher limbs of yoga. The key is to enter into that widely known mindset that giving is better than receiving, and will ultimately bring us more self-satisfaction. Hence, in becoming ambassadors of generosity and self-sacrifice, we will reap the rewards, through our acquired ability to express compassion towards all beings and recognise the divine nature of each individual. This, in essence, signifies self-realisation, that of which leads to bliss.
“With sacrifice shall you nourish the gods; and may the gods nourish you. Thus nourishing the One Another, you will obtain the Highest Good.”
[Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 3, verses 11 & 12, p. 38]
The above directive from the Lord Krishna to Arjuna reflects what our unwavering intention should be. As we engage deeper in the practise of karma yoga, we eventually cease to perceive our deeds as acts of self-sacrifice; it becomes as natural as any other daily ritual.
On a personal note, my yoga practise has brought about a deep sense of gratitude – not only for all the physiological and mental benefits, but for the opportunities that it has opened up for me, as a practitioner and teacher, to serve the Highest Good. My LOAY teacher training experience has cultivated in me a distinct longing to give something back to a community that has offered me so much; karma yoga represents one way of reciprocating. I feel most honoured to continue rendering loving service to Dharmaji and his worldwide community of followers.
Swami Nikhilananda, The Bhagavad Gita, New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1987.