“Older” Karma Yogis Find a Yoga Home
Service have been the mainstay of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat since it was founded in the 1960s by Swami Vishnu Devananda. Staying from one to three months — or longer — in a residential study program, Karma Yogis are assigned to service in the kitchen, garden or temple or doing maintenance, marketing or production, and to other roles in order to live in a spiritual environment, attend morning and evening meditation and chanting sessions, eat wholesome vegetarian meals. And, of course, enjoy the beach.
It’s safe to say that thousands of Karma Yogis have hauled their bags onto the ashram’s welcoming dock and made their way down the garden path into something new.
In 2018, 140 Karma Yogis gave their time at the Sivananda ashram on Paradise Island In the Bahamas. While the majority were between the ages of 31 to 50, a whopping 35 percent were over the age of 51. (Another 32 percent were 21 to 30.)
These older Karma Yogis, like their counterparts, come from all of the world, with a majority from the U.S. and Canada, each come for their own reasons and find that walking the yogic path works for them.
Here are the stories of five “older” Karma Yogis (and one guest who might as well be one!):
"I think part of being here is that people are healthier older. I think it’s so important to keep moving. I wanted to make sure of that. The yoga really helped.”
Robert Phillips, 77, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
“I came to the ashram over 35 years ago with my children for one-week vacations; we would come at Christmas and Easter. Swami Vishnu was here then, he was a fun-loving, adventurous guy.
Now the kids are all grown, I have eight of them, seven sons and one daughter and nine grandchildren, with lots more coming. I have always had fond memories of this place, the Swami, the Gospel Choir, the beach. The kids could roam free.
I still work. I restore heritage buildings and I’m a documentary and feature filmmaker. But I decided, if I don’t do it now, I will never do it. My wife wasn’t interested so I decided to come for 90 days.
It is paradise here for sure. I do get a chance to swim every day, even if only for 10 minutes. I go to a yoga class every day and I like kirtan. And there are a lot of fascinating people, both speakers and musicians. It’s a great holiday, even though you work hard here.
It’s challenging. I’ve always had my own company, and now people here are telling me what to do and some of the stuff I don’t agree with. But it’s all part of accepting what is. My job is laundry for the clients at the Well Being Center, to neatly fold fitted sheets. I turn it into a meditation.
Being in contact with my family is hugely important. After all, my grandkids change every day. I don’t have much time because of my work here, but I keep in touch with the kids and grandkids.
I find the diversity of ideas here fascinating. I’m impressed they invite people from different backgrounds, from a Christian missionary to Sufi musicians. This is my learning experience.
I think part of being here is that people are healthier older. I think it’s so important to keep moving. I wanted to make sure of that. The yoga really helped.”
"The kitchen gives you a chance to develop relationships with people. It was demanding, but every aspect was beneficial."
Bruce Grannan (Krishna), 65, Ithaca, New York
“This is my fifth long trip. I came to do Teacher Training Course (TTC) in 2014 and have been here four times since, from 2016 to 2019. It was for one month each time.
I first came with my wife Melinda, a Sivananda-trained yoga instructor, to celebrate her birthday. While I was here I got the notion to do the TTC. At that point I had done five to six years of yoga. I gave the deposit before I left.
It was a struggle, as I knew it would be. I wanted to improve my practice and challenge myself. At some point you’ve got to challenge yourself.
I had a long career in sales at printing companies and was then self-employed for nearly 15 years. My first time as a Karma Yogi I was in the kitchen, which wouldn’t have been my first choice but from a social standpoint I loved the fact you have access to everyone in the ashram. The kitchen gives you a chance to develop relationships with people. It was demanding, but every aspect was beneficial.
What’s nice is that now I’ve got time to do this. In a sense it’s a gift to be able to have that kind of time to be yourself. You’re removed from the daily grind and yet here you can accomplish something. I feel free and easy here. It’s strange, because your time is always in demand. Busy is good.
I have not thought about teaching. Doing the teacher training was my way spiritually, mentally, and physically to get started on my spiritual path. It’s how I feel about life and other people. It’s inward looking for me. I love the pranayama and asana more than anything. It feels like home.”
"I had been in a high-profile career, a top expert in women’s safety and urban planning, and there I was in the kitchen cutting carrots."
Anne Michaud (Andal), 62, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
“I came here first in the fall of 2014, when I was 58. I has been sitting at my desk, after two major depressions and I was very anxious. On the floor I saw a world map puzzle piece. I picked it up and it said Bahamas. I looked up the ashram and in two days I packed my stuff and stayed for a week as a guest. I had studied Taoism, did yoga, but didn’t know anything about the ashram.
One night at satsang I started to drum, and at some point I went to bliss. I had been medicated for my depression and I thought, ‘Something is here for me.’ I went back home and decided two months later to come for three months.
“It was an immersion. I worked in the morning kitchen and I struggled a lot. I had been in a high-profile career, a top expert in women’s safety and urban planning, and there I was in the kitchen cutting carrots. They were saying have no expectation of result of your action. My ego got totally slammed. It was really demanding.
In the fall of 2015, I came back for five months. It was exhausting work and I was tired all the time. Then I had an Ayurveda consult and stopped gluten and sugar. I took the Positive Thinking Course and I understood that I had looked at everything critically. One day, working for another chef who changed everything I did, I was struggling inside and I said to myself ‘You shut up and serve.’ It became a mantra. Let go of the outside.
Then I understood that every person who comes here gets triggered, buttons get pushed about trauma or personal history. For me it was that for my mother, nothing I did was good enough. It was a big realization.
I had taken a Yoga Nidra class when I was a vacationer, and on medication. It made a difference. So right after TTC, I took the iRest, Level 1 Training, then two iRest retreats and then Level 2. During my time here, I’ve been to every workshop. My thirst for knowledge was so big. The ashram enabled me to teach as soon as I did my Level 1. The ashram supported me totally.
One of the lessons I take from here is that this process of putting the ego aside and surrendering to serve is one of the most efficient ways to get to yourself. The ego is out of the way. You’re getting back to your own true nature. I’m Pitta, the feminist, in battle mode. Being here enabled me to put my armour down, to find my inner peace. I found my true self by accepting to let go of this identification with personality.
My name now is Andal. The spiritual name is very important. I was brought here by this total divine thing. I hadn’t planned a new career at 60. It unfolded. But my work hasn’t been just at the ashram; I’ve been to the Himalayas and I’ve walked part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. This year there is a sense of being where I was longing to be, a state of being in gratitude. Life is good, I feel in total surrender.
As the ashram, one can have the most healing adventure. It’s a place of teaching and learning and sharing and finding my sense of self worth and being able to help others. The job is not the task. The job is to look at yourself with other people, to face your demons.”
"I feel like I’m home here. I have this community of like-minded people, so loving and accepting. No judgment."
Cynthia Foster (Lakshmi), 60, Rock Hall, Maryland
“I was 54 when I took my TTC. It was my first time ever in an ashram. I’d been doing yoga, weekly, for about 14 years and loved it so much. I started looking for a training course on the internet and I would always see the Sivananda name but I never opened it. I looked at many others but they didn’t appeal.
Then my friend was on the internet and he opened it. He said, ‘Cindy, this is the one. It’s got your name written all over it.’
I was hesitant. Subconsciously, I knew it was going to change my life. Within a week I had signed up and everything fell into place. Even my arrival. The flight was cancelled and I ended up one day late. I had a round-trip voucher from the airlines, but I was going to miss the afternoon initiation. But when I walked up the path at the ashram, the sign said: ‘TTC initiation has been moved to tonight.’
At that point I was an administrative assistant at a college and worked weekends as a waitress. Here I am taking the TTC and during the three days after when I stayed, I saw people taking the Thai Yoga Massage course. I was drawn to it, though I had never done any body work at all.
Remember, I had a free round-trip voucher, so I came back in November and did Thai Yoga Level 1 and Level 2. When I went back home, I started teaching yoga on weekends and a year later, 2015, signed up for Karma Yoga for three months. It was good, challenging. I loved greeting guests, seeing them transformed by the time they left.
I had seen the Ayurveda Body Treatment course and I asked Lalita Devi, who ran the Well Being Center at the time, about it. She said, ‘It will change your life.’ So I signed up for it, came back later in the year and took the course. Then I stayed on to do Karma Yoga as a therapist at the Well Being Center.
I learned all those skills here. I decided to be a yoga teacher. And, they have the fountain of youth here. Because of yoga, I’m in better shape that I’ve ever been. I just dropped my body fat, my body changed. Physically, mentally, my outlook on life — it changed all that. And I’m still learning.
I feel like I’m home here. I have this community of like-minded people, so loving and accepting. No judgment. At home, with my five grown children, it’s much harder. That’s my challenge.
My goal is to stay here for a full year when I’m 65, to do the Advanced Teacher Training Course, then go to India.”
"I work cleaning the temples and preparing the flowers. There are average days, easy, nice. Then there are days when my heart is heavy."
Eva Korfmacher, 58, Aschaffenburg, Germany
“This is my first time here. Last year, I stayed for five days in the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, India. So the idea was born, because over the last few years my life has completely changed. My husband left four years ago, my children are grown, the family dog died.
I thought it was a good time to take a new life, close up the old one. I left my old job in Berlin as a pre-school teacher, and will be starting a new job in September in this town where I moved.
Being here, I feel different. I work cleaning the temples and preparing the flowers. There are average days, easy, nice. Then there are days when my heart is heavy.
It’s the challenge here, cleaning and putting flowers in the temple. It’s not so easy for me. All my thoughts are about getting the job done. I like the satsangs, the meditation, and yoga classes, the sea. But I’m sad I can’t get to any workshops because of my schedule. Physically I feel good, I swim nearly every day, except when it rains or if the water is rough.
Now in my life, I have never been such a long time free. I moved from my house with a garden to a small flat. And now I feel free. I can do what I want.
With my temple work it’s a great gift. I polish. It’s like a meditation, it looks nice, it keeps me busy. New things are happening. I’m opening the door and saying, come in.
It wasn’t my choice to change my life. I was very sad. Now, slowly, I get an idea. I have two great kids and I’m healthy. I’m not through with this, though some days my heart is still heavy.
But here, there are many gifts for me.”
"I’ve been coming here for 12 years every February as a guest, for one month. And during that month, I do Karma Yoga duties wherever I’m needed ..."
Marsha Banks, 75, Santa Rosa, California
“I’m not officially a Karma Yogi, but I’ve been coming here for 12 years every February as a guest, for one month. And during that month, I do Karma Yoga duties wherever I’m needed: I help set up the garden platform for satsang, I help the housekeepers fold towels, I sometimes serve meals. I try to give relief to people.
I don’t do the beach and being here for a month, these jobs are good for me. I can make my own schedule, then I just find a need and fill it.
I travel quite a bit, and I had gone to the Sivananda Ashram in Neyerdam, India, for a Yoga Vacation and liked it. I come here in February for the weather, and I like the meditation, the speakers. This chanting is my favourite, and I love the togetherness here and people caring for each other. I also like the schedule that makes me go to yoga.
I have good friends here. I feel very connected. I feel people’s caring. I live alone and it’s really nice that people like me here — and it’s mutual. I just feel so comfortable here.”
We are grateful to "older" Karma Yogi, Kumari (Donna Nebenzahi) for writing this piece and many others the last several years as a regular Karma Yogi.