Why Long-Term Karma Yogis Keep Coming Back
A spiritual center of learning, teaching, and practice, the Sivananda ashrams all run on service … and the Bahamas ashram is no different. Karma Yogis, practitioners of selfless service, go beyond the traditional definition of volunteer. The Karma Yoga Program is not a simple trade of work-exchange. Karma Yoga in itself is an entire yogic path, and the participants of the Karma Yoga Program practice this profound practice daily.
Karma Yoga is not only the external service toward others —it is the inner attitude of the practitioner. When we practice Karma Yoga, we let go of the fruits of our labors, or our expectation of the outcome, and we do our best with the task at hand.
The Karma Yoga Programs at the ashram generally last about month to three months … but there are some who offer even more.
Between April and September of 2017, there were 205 participants in the ashram’s karma yoga program, 43 percent of them returning karma yogis. Dig through those numbers a little more and you’ll find an interesting subset. Ten percent of those karma yogis opted to stay at the ashram for longer than three months — some for a year or more.
Does staying at the ashram mean putting your life on hold? How can someone manage to stay for such an extended time? It turns out that for these Karma Yogis, their reasons are as individual as their stories.
Mary Roberts (Padmavati), 64
Ashram stay: 2 years
Understanding and improving her body was the primary goal for Padmavati. A mother of two and grandmother of four, she arrived in January 2015 for an Ayurveda workshop, thinking she would find a yoga retreat with a small place for the spiritual practitioners on the side.
Instead she found a spiritual community that also served yoga vacationers, yoga teacher trainees, and course participants. “I had no idea what an ashram was,” she says.
She totally immersed herself, attending every workshop, two yoga classes daily, and every satsang. Near the end of that week she started noticing how good her body was feeling. This sense of peace was new to her.
“I knew nothing about the yogic lifestyle. The vacations that I once knew were filled with bad food, staying up late, the children, and go, go, go,” she said. “At the ashram I felt so relaxed and peaceful. I thought, I want more of this!”
She enrolled in the November Yoga Teacher Training Course in the Bahamas. At first she experienced many of challenges. “I was used to my nice condo on Michigan Avenue, and now here I was living in a tent hut, using communal bathrooms,” she says. “But the longer I stayed, the more my inner peace grew.”
Padmavati successfully completed her year in the ashram and then went home to help her mother, who suffered an injury. “She was someone I never got along with. We were always on opposite sides,” she says. “But after my year in the ashram, I could view the relationship as more important than taking a stand on anything. I took care of my mother for 14 weeks, and it actually felt good. I saw this as part of my Karma Yoga.”
Padmavati came to realize that in her previous fast-paced treadmill life, she led with her head and buried her heart. “Now everything has changed, and it took me 61 years to get here. “Peacefulness comes from your heart.”
Now Padmavati manages the ashram’s Well Being Center. Her first goal was to improve her health, so it fits. “I’m on a spiritual path and I’m happy about it,” she says. “I have more abundance now than when I had a six-figure salary.”
Sharon Stewart (Narayani), 41
Ashram stay: 1 year
Sharon Stewart, Narayani, was a teacher of English as a second language when arrived at the ashram mid-December 2016 for the Yoga Teacher Training Course. She lived in Japan for a decade and wanted to be a new kind of teacher.“I left Japan so burned out,” she says. She was in desperate need of change.
Swami Bramananda, the ashram manager, said to her, “If you want to see real transformation, I challenge you to be around devotees for a year and not change.” She immediately agreed and decided to stay the year. “I had planned nothing … I just decided!” she says. “When I think about that now, it’s kind of outrageous.”
During her commitment to this longer stay, Narayani was deeply affected by all the traditions — including at birthdays when a message from Swami Sivananda is read from the Sivananda Upanishads. At the halfway mark of her stay, it was her birthday. “I was really looking for a message to give me some guidance,” she says. “‘Be like a lotus in this world’ it said. That’s what my name means! It continued, ‘A glorious future awaits that illuminated being that you are.’ I couldn’t have chosen anything better.”
Narayani says she is now more tolerant and able to show compassion and awareness in even unpleasant situations. “I learned about not taking things so personally,” she says. “And at the ashram, resistance is futile. You just have to show up, and you’ll be lifted by the group energy.”
Eventually she will go back to Japan, and is curious to see how the Vedanta teachings apply. “I want to see God in everyone,” she says.
Claudia Maggiotto (Mangala), 37
Ashram stay: 1 year, 3 months
“I love my life at the ashram,” said Mangala, who came for the first time in December 2016 to take her Advanced Teacher Training. “I had planned to come for three months to do both the training and Karma Yoga, but I stayed from December until June 2017.”
After another three months, this time at the Yoga Ranch in New York, she returned to Italy before heading back to the Bahamas ashram for another three-month stay. “Being a karma yogi is a good way to go deeper into the practice and into yourself,” she said. “To serve others gives me the feeling of being universal, of doing something good. Everybody has problems, but I’m grateful for what I have here and I want to give joy to others.”
Mangala has grown since the ATTC, with its deep dive into Vedanta. “The ATTC changed my feelings,” she said. “I established a relationship with my breath that I didn’t have before. It’s your best friend, Swami Sivananda would say. And all the satsangs, teachers, great knowledge, and the energy here are all very special.”
Mangala began teaching at the ashram and is now thinking about bringing yoga back to Italy. “It’s really important for the world. There’s so much love and compassion here.”
Jennie Hastings (Sri Devi), 39,
Maine, United States
Ashram stay: 6 months, plus two previous stays
“I first decided to come here because I was not really enjoying my work,” said Jennie Hastings, Sri Devi “For two winters I was a massage therapist and would spend the whole time daydreaming about doing yoga on a tropical island. I was married, had a business, and was living in Maine.”
It was a very conventional life, and then everything changed. She split up with her husband, and on the last day of December 2015 she arrived at the ashram for a three-month stay that turned into four, then the following December returned for the Yoga Teacher Training Course. Her most recent stay, during which she has also assisted at the Teacher Training Course, is planned for six more months.
“I can’t think of anything better to do, in a good way,” she says. “It’s a way to fast-forward my spiritual evolution, but in other ways as well — physically, mentally, socially.”
She works in the programming department, where she utilizes her organizational skills, administration and creativity. “Plus I get to teach, practice, and learn how to play the harmonium and to chant,” she says.
Sri Devi has some uncertainty about the future, but the time at the ashram is well-spent and full of benefits. “My spiritual practice is always getting deeper,” she says. “All I know is the more spiritually secure I’ve become, the more beautiful things have opened up for me.”
Paul Cooper (Ganesha), 50
Ashram stay: 7 years
Ganesha first arrived as part of a trip for a vacation. “We had come here on a yoga holiday and also visited the ashrams in Val Morin and New York on weekends,” he says.
He had been going to Sivananda Yoga studio in Gatineau, a relaxing break from the grind of his work as a translator. He was glad to give up the work and when he committed to his first three-month stay ― nine years ago. For the most part, he’s been at the ashram ever since.
At the beginning he enjoyed it immediately from the spiritual side. “But the best for me was the sense of community. There were a couple of people I really connected with,” he says.
Over his extended stay at the ashram, Ganesha started to feel shifts within himself. “It changed my life. I know it sounds dramatic, but I wasn’t on the right path before. This place showed me I need to be looking. What other place asks you to look for your higher self?”
He now works as senior staff, assisting the operations manager. “I handle the physical space, everything from maintenance to tents and the boat,” he says. After so many years, he’s a constant at the ashram, striding along the paths followed by his trusty Boston terrier, Napoleon.
Ganesha’s stay hasn’t only benefited the ashram. His practice has made a huge difference in his understanding of self. “I attend satsangs, though it took me a long time, and I practice yoga daily,” he says.
Even his meditation work is improving. “When I first came, it didn’t appeal to me, but now I can see it becoming more important than asanas,” he said. “I do meditation now and I think things are happening. I’m starting to see the physical health benefits.”
Now he’s contemplating his next move outside the ashram. “I could be wrong about that, but I do see myself as someone who’s out in the world,” he says. “But I won’t go to a big city like I did last time. I learned that I’m not that guy.”
“My next exit is to a small town in the mountains of British Columbia. I feel I’ll be much more successful in keeping my practice. As someone once said, ‘It’s easy to be a yogi in an ashram.’”