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Ever been to an ashram in India?  Many westerners are surprised to find that, far from being tranquil retreats where frazzled city dwellers find their inner zen, they are bustling community centres.  Ashrams provide the schooling, food, medical assistance and social safety-net that their communities would otherwise lack. I’m not idealizing the ashram system and I’m well aware of the unsavoury side of some of them. But the idea of yoga as central to a network of social projects that benefit the community resonates strongly with my personal philosophy.


One of my heroes is Jarrod McKenna. He’s not a yogi (that I know of). He’s a pastor. Do you know what he did? He successfully crowd-funded a mortgage. Then he bought a house for himself, his wife, his young son and 17 refugees in his Western Australia community.


Now there’s a role model. And somebody who understands the concepts of dharma and karma, even if he wouldn’t use those terms himself. As a Christian, McKenna embodies an aspect of karma that is often overlooked by secular western yogis – surrendering the fruits of your actions to God (or ‘the universe’ if that word makes you think of a bloke with a white beard sitting in the clouds).


The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important ‘yogic’ texts, explains this very clearly. Make decisions based on what needs to be done, rather than figuring out what you have to lose or gain from your actions. Then surrender the outcome of your actions to something bigger than yourself (God, the universe, nature).


This is what McKenna, and an increasing number of yogis, are doing.  Getting on with what needs to be done to relieve suffering without being afraid of, or attached to the outcome.


We can furiously sign online petitions and participate in endless yoga and personal development courses. But unless we take action without fear or attachment to the outcome –karma- we will never experience the richness of following our dharma.


In a church, ashram, or other spiritual community, there is a sense of common purpose and organization that supports this approach. And the central figures of God and Guru (whether it’s the Buddha, Jesus or the local guru in rural India) gives devotees something tangible to surrender the fruits of their actions to.


But outside of those institutions, how do we work together for the common good? Well. Imagine if yoga studio’s started to behave less like boutique gyms and more like ashrams (or churches). What if the racks of $150 designer pants were replaced with opportunities to engage in meaningful service instead of retail therapy. What if they found ways to serve all the members of their community, not just the ones who are young, bendy and affluent enough to buy a monthly pass.


There are plenty of yoga teachers working for little or no financial reward. And it breaks my heart to see them do it in the service of clothing corporations that exploit them to increase profits from retail sales. Then there are the teachers who work for peanuts at studios in swanky suburbs under the guise of making yoga ‘accessible’. Really, if you’re going to offer free and discounted classes in the wealthiest suburbs in the country, don’t pretend it’s to make yoga accessible. Go find the people who really don’t have the resources to practice and share your skills with them.


Imagine if every yoga teacher used those low and unpaid hours to do something that genuinely improved the wellbeing of the most vulnerable community members. We can’t all open our homes to refugees, but there are many ways that we can practice Seva (service).  We don’t even have to initiate our own projects - there are a number of yoga-based organizations that make it easy to give back (I’ve listed some at the bottom of this blog).


Many yoga teachers and studios are already starting to engage with community service programs. Like Jarrod McKenna, they see what needs doing and get on with it. They understand that the eight limbs of yoga don’t begin with asana (yoga poses). They begin with Yama and Niyama – ethics. And the first of these is Ahimsa – non-harming. When we don’t take action to reduce suffering, we become part of the system that creates it. Karma yoga – serving others with no expectation of reward – gives every yogi the opportunity to practice this first and most fundamental principle of yoga: Ahimsa. Try partnering with (non profit) organizations that are making a real difference to the global community and you’ll not only be contributing to the greater good, you might discover that some of the obstacles in your own path magically start to dissolve…..  

Yoga based service organisations in Australia

Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. Join her for Yoga Classes, Workshops, Training and Yoga retreats. Got a question about yoga or ayurveda? Ask Nikola here.


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