In this article, Swami Ramananda explores the issue of spiritual activism as a form of Karma Yoga. In 2015, Swami Ramananda participated in an online course called, “Ethics and Vows for the Modern Life,” led by Michael Stone, a teacher of Buddhism and Yoga. This course served as a catalyst for Swami to consider deeply the application of ancient Yoga teachings to modern social problems. He summed up Michael’s approach to Yoga practice as, “very oriented around the idea that our practice is vital and meaningful when done in the context of the world we live in right now.” This is a constant and evolving process.
“The goal of Integral Yoga is to have an easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.” Of course these are just words on a page, given to us by Swami Satchidananda—that is, until we begin to reflect and to practice. We practice asana, pranayama, and meditation. We transform our relationship with our bodies and our minds. We ask, “How can I be useful? How can I serve? What can I offer?” When our reflection becomes an intention and the intention becomes an action, we can answer with love and compassion, which is at the heart of real spiritual activism.
At a satsang in New York I raised the question, “What matters most to you?” I spoke about the importance of clarifying what we value and reflecting on the ultimate purpose of our lives. Speaking to a group of yogis, I was not surprised that someone suggested right away that moksha, or spiritual liberation, was most important. We all might understand liberation, or Self-realization, to be the goal of Yoga, but what does that really mean to us? It remains a vague and distant idea that may have little relevance to our daily lives. How do we actually go about pursuing enlightenment?
We often think of Self-realization as something that happens passively when we still the mind, as the Yoga Sutras imply. But it is better understood as an active response to life—a way of bringing to life, or embodying, the qualities we associate with our spiritual nature: compassion, peace, joy, and so on. True awakening is not something that happens in isolation. It takes place as a product of both our Yoga practice and our conscious choices in relation to one another and our environment.
Imagine how it would feel for the spiritual Self to be as tangible and active as the body and mind when we are pursuing our goals. Every time we are fully present to life and act with mindfulness, we take a step toward that reality. Our true nature is expressed each time we recognize, with gratitude, all the ways we are blessed and allow that sense of abundance to overflow in the form of generosity with others.
Pausing and breathing to allow a sense of peace to arise in a quiet moment marks a beautiful step toward liberation. Bringing more compassion into an interaction while we are standing in line at the store or waiting in heavy traffic is a genuine stride in spiritual growth. Taking the time to be fully present and experience the joy of playing with children or listening deeply to a friend who needs to talk is an enlightened choice. These are examples of how spiritual realization is pursued in each moment that we act while holding in our hearts a clear vision of what matters most to us.
Michael Stone powerfully articulates the importance of bearing witness to the world we live in, with all its injustice, suffering, and corruption—as well as its magic and majesty. He describes, in detail, how a committed spiritual life includes taking responsibility for our participation as a member of this planet. In his book, Yoga for a World Out of Balance, he writes, “It’s hard to wrap our minds around the way transportation patterns, digestion patterns, pollution, consumption, even the dinner table itself, impact the web we call life. Without attention to such connections, choices become life-destroying rather than life-affirming.”
I believe that our spiritual practice is much more potent when seen in the context of the condition of our world, our communities, and our homes. Everyday choices, as well as our long term goals, take on new relevance when we realize that each action and every focused thought represents a tangible contribution to the collective consciousness of our planet. Our science-oriented culture does not appreciate the power of the subtle energies we generate in our hearts and minds, yet how many times has a gesture of generosity had a ripple effect that touched many hearts? How many prayers for healing have brought soothing relief to someone who is suffering?
Each time we disengage ourselves from the grip of habitual ego-driven thought, we bring a greater awareness into presence. Sri Swami Satchidananda strongly affirmed that each time we pray for peace in the world, as we do at the end of each Integral Yoga class, we send profound energies out into our world. Even though we may not see the effect, each instance of mindfulness, every act of kindness, is a significant act in co-creating reality.
On a larger scale, we are systematically destroying our home, Mother Earth, and our response to that crisis is a crucial element of spiritual life. Thus, spiritual practice can also include promoting green energy, conserving water, and taking concrete steps to withdraw our support of the wasteful culture of consumption we live in, as well as the mass production of harmful chemicals that pollute our environment.
We might feel that the full experience of enlightenment—a kind of infinite bliss—is far away from us, but we experience a taste of it when we serve, love, and give. It is our nature to give in response to all we receive. Swami Satchidananda articulates that idea beautifully in his book, The Golden Present: “If you think in terms of how much benefit we get just by being here on the surface of the earth, how much we get from nature, how much we get from people, how much we get from association, we receive constantly. Even the smile from a baby is a gift. You don’t have to give it back at the same place . . . if you get a smile from a baby, do something to help a poor person somewhere on the road, or a sick person. Somebody who needs a little help. That will balance it out.”
When we sincerely reflect on all that we have been given, we cannot help feeling abundance. We can reflect further on how the United States and other western countries have taken advantage of less powerful countries and how that dominance has contributed to the imbalance of wealth and justice in the world. In a magazine article I read, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, “The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. We have to see that and wake up.”
Those of us who live with material security and abundance easily take those benefits for granted. I feel we have an obligation to serve those less fortunate in any way that we can. That is why we have started a new initiative at the San Francisco IYI, inviting all our students, teachers, and staff to participate in selected community service projects.
We want to develop a network of people to identify specific projects, as well as those who may volunteer their time to meet those needs. We envision forming groups, when appropriate, to serve together. We see service in our community as an important aspect of our spiritual practice, and we want to model for our members the need for us to act on that understanding.
We may not be able to negotiate peace settlements or end world hunger, but each of us can take measures to volunteer our time right where we are. We can offer free Yoga classes, serve in a soup kitchen, tutor disadvantaged children, or reach out in myriad ways to those in need. Serving in such ways is a natural expression of gratitude and arises from the recognition of our interdependence with all of life. Actions performed with genuine care for others are healing for our hearts, and we find joy in giving rather than looking for a reward or a self-serving outcome. That is how we can bring our Yoga practice to life.
Every choice we make, everything we do, can be guided by either a me-centered or a we-centered mind-set. Understanding how our daily actions are the moment-to-moment expression of what matters most to us can transform our lives, bringing meaning to their every aspect. May we all learn to see how awakening our inner light is actually the same as manifesting that light in our world.
Swami Ramananda is the president of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco and a greatly respected master teacher in the Integral Yoga tradition, who has been practicing Yoga for more than 35 years. He offers practical methods for integrating the timeless teachings and practices of Yoga into daily life. He leads beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level Yoga Teacher Training programs in San Francisco and a variety of programs in many locations in the United States, Europe, and South America. Swami Ramananda trains Yoga teachers to carry Yoga into corporate, hospital, and medical settings and has taught mind/body wellness programs in many places. He is a founding board member of the Yoga Alliance, a national registry that supports and promotes Yoga teachers as professionals.