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Karma Yoga and The Joy Project

Posted Apr 19 2011 10:42pm

One of the requirements of this yoga teacher training program was to work with my peers to complete a Karma Yoga project.  For the purposes of this training curriculum, “Karma Yoga” meant identifying one under-served population (i.e., people who would not have access to yoga if it weren’t brought to them, free of charge), then planning and delivering a 6-week class series to that group.

There are many reasons why this training program believes that Karma Yoga is an important component of the teacher preparation experience.  One line of thought is that the 8-limb path of yoga is a system of ethics, integrity, compassion, and (ultimately) liberation; as such, these concepts should be applied not only to ourselves, but to the world as a whole.  Another rationale is that as brand-new yoga teachers, we are likely learning more from our students than we are giving to them – so our first teaching endeavors should be free of financial compensation, as we are already receiving benefits from the experience of getting to instruct them.  (And to receive monetary payment in addition to experiential benefits would be “double-dipping.”)  I suspect another reason for implementing this requirement in the program is that the administrators of the teacher training experience believe in social justice, and want to use every opportunity available to them to help improve society at a micro- and a macro-level; and having groups of able-bodied people at the ready to do whatever is asked (required) of them is a resource that is quite difficult to overlook or pass up.  And there are likely even more reasons why Karma Yoga is a required element of this training program; but these are the ones that I am able to see at this point in my journey.  At any rate, my group was charged with identifying, initiating, planning, and implementing one Karma Yoga project.

In our first official “Karma Yoga” meeting, the training program coordinator explained what the project needed to be at a very high level (i.e., read the first paragraph of this blog post), then basically said, “Okay, go!”, and sat back.  No one said much of anything.  A few tentative, clarifying questions were asked by a few of my peers, and then once again the room fell silent.  Oh Lord…. At this juncture, I knew exactly how this whole project was going to go down: I was going to end up being in charge.

Throughout this training program, I have actively worked to be a participant instead of a leader; to be ‘one among many’ instead of one who stands out up front.  I ‘lead’ in nearly all other facets of my life; I was looking forward to having the opportunity – nay, to creating the opportunity – to be a follower instead of a forerunner.  But.  When literally 60 seconds passed, and no one in the group was willing to make eye contact, much less utter a sentence fragment, I knew that if this thing was going to get done, I was going to have to suck it up, and do it.  Be a leader.  And by this point in the training, I was getting kind of ready for this thing to get done.  So I did it.  I opened my big mouth, and I led.

By this point, I suspect you have a sense of my emotional/feeling state as I engaged with this Karma Yoga project.  And this was how I felt throughout the duration of the initiation, and planning, and implementation.  Now, to be clear: I do value volunteerism/service work/karma projects – a lot.  As a child (ages 9-18) I volunteered for various organizations for an hour a week, minimum.  From ages 9-13 I sat with a 98-year-old woman in a nursing home for one hour every Sunday, for five years (until she died at age 102).  In college I was a member of a volunteer fraternity ( Alpha Phi Omega ) all four years in school, and spent literally hundreds of hours doing volunteer work.  Three years ago I took a 40% salary reduction so that I could open my work schedule to make room for volunteerism (I gave hand massages to patients in the oncology/hospice ward at a hospital for 18 months; then spent the past year volunteering several hours every week at an elementary school, supporting both kids who needed more individual/intensive academic help, as well as kids who are ‘gifted and talented’ and needed to be challenged more than their peers).  When I finish this yoga teacher training experience, I am considering bringing a yoga program to the local women’s prison, or finding some other truly isolated population that I believe could deeply benefit from yoga and that really wants such an experience.  I say all of this to emphasize that I genuinely believe in the need for people to engage in community/social work in a volunteer capacity – and the actions I have already taken in my life over the past 20 years “proves” this.  What I did not like about this “Karma Yoga” project was that I was, by default, being ‘forced’ into the role of Project Manager.  It’s a role that I do well (indeed, I get paid by my employer to do this exact type of work professionally), but it’s a role that I had wanted to keep at work, not integrate into what was supposed to be a fun, personally fulfilling endeavor.

So.  I could go on in this blog post, and give the blow-by-blow details of how elements of this project were personally annoying, frustrating, irritating, etc. etc. etc. – but I don’t want to do that:

1) I don’t want to be overly negative in this space.  I do want to be honest, which is why I’ve shared as much as I already have; but I don’t want to be any more pessimistic or critical than ‘needed’ in order to convey my truth.

2)  I don’t want to hurt other people in this space.  Again, my intention is not to be either vindictive or self-promoting; rather, I just want to document my journey (both the factual content and my own personal emotional context) so that I can reflect back on it.  Learn from it.  And by making it public, maybe encourage/support/assist other people who might be having similar experiences or feelings, too.

What I will do is give a high-level overview of what our Karma Yoga group did do, and share how the project did turn out.  Here’s that part:

Nine of my peers and I partnered with a local non-profit organization called The Joy Project ; their mission is to “use real-world, workable solutions to end the epidemic of eating disorders…. (including) supporting and conducting research, education, and support programs.”  I contacted the staff at The Joy Project, and confirmed their interest in our Karma Yoga offering.  (They said they were very interested.)  I then coordinated the logistics of my peers’ availability with the most likely availability of the various Joy Project clients/program participants (which was a feat – trying to get multiple different people with wildly different schedules to come to agreement on a common meeting day/time is a difficult task), and once a day/time was finalized, I secured a location for our yoga classes to take place.  After all of that, I created communications/PR collateral (posters, emails, Facebook posts, etc.), and marketed our Karma Yoga class offerings in every way I knew how.  And then, I crossed my fingers.  Waited for the first class to take place.  And hoped that people came.

At the end of our six class sessions, we had reached two people.  Two.  And while I wasn’t surprised (people who are active in addiction and/or who are mentally ill [depending on your point of view of how you classify an eating disorder – an addiction, an illness, or a disease] are not always the most reliable folks), I was disappointed.  My peers and I invested a lot of time and effort in this project, for not much return on our investment.

But I kind of knew that’s how this was going to turn out.  As far back as Orientation Day, when the Karma Yoga project was first mentioned in our overall course curriculum and program documentation, I vividly remember thinking, “Hmm, that’s not going to be much fun”, because I knew – I just intuitively, instinctively knew – that I was going to lead the project, that it was going to be a hassle, and that we wouldn’t really be helping very many people.  We were going to get a project done to check a box, to fulfill a requirement, to finish our training.

And that’s what we did; and that’s what happened.  But I tried.  We all tried.  And while the results were less than ‘stellar’, I can honestly say I did my very best.  I think we all did.  And that’s all anyone can ask.

So, onward.

Stef


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