Most people have their first experience of yoga by joining a yoga class and practising asana and, if it is a Satyananda Yoga class, pranayama and yoga nidra. Initially, these form the basis of our understanding of yoga. Yet, in a Satyananda Yoga ashram, the majority of the daily schedule, whether it be for a swami, a resident, a student or a visitor, is occupied by the practice of seva yoga. This can be a paradoxical and confusing situation, if we neglect to think about and appreciate seva yoga correctly.
When we begin yoga, it is often the physical body that is the centre of interest and priority. Hence yoga classes are oriented around the physical practices of asana and pranayama. Asana and pranayama are components of systems of self-purification that utilize awareness, the body and the breath. We combine awareness with manipulation of the body and the breath to purify and liberate the energy that supports the embodied state. We approach these practices with the understanding that they are going to be beneficial for the body. However, as we progress in yoga, we realize that the benefits from the practices are not restricted to the physical body alone. Seva yoga, practised with awareness, is also a practice of purification and transformation, but the focus is different. In seva yoga the focus moves from the body (although the body is certainly utilized) to the mind, particularly the aspects of mind involved in that construction that we identify with as our 'personality'.
Seva yoga is usually described as service, but this word does not quite capture the essence of seva. Swami Niranjan has explained that the word seva is made up of two words, 'saha' and 'eva'. Saha means 'with that' and eva means 'too'. The word seva means 'together with' and is describing those actions that seek collective upliftment through an understanding of the needs of others and are based on togetherness and integration. Seva is an expression of compassion, of the desire to uplift and assist people. Ashram life offers an opportunity to practise seva yoga because it requires the harnessing of many diverse individual efforts in order to provide upliftment to many through the furthering of the guru's mission.
Yet, this same process is also, simultaneously, a strong practice of self-purification. The practice of seva yoga transforms the personality in the same way that the practice of asana can transform the physical body. Initially with asana, we confront an image of the body that the mind has created. This image persists due to a lack of awareness and understanding about the reality of the physical manifestation that is the body. This image that we have of the components of our bodies and what we can do with them, their mobility, flexibility and strength, is mostly illusory.
The Pawanmuktasana I series with its challenging simplicity is a beautiful example of how we confront this image in the practice of asana. In goolf chakra, the practice where the foot is rotated from the ankle joint in a smooth controlled circular motion, there is usually a marked discrepancy between the teacher's instructions, how we imagine the foot to be rotating around the ankle joint, and the actual movement of the foot. Our ability to control the movement of the foot is a limited ability. Not only is it a challenge to create the smooth, even circular motion required, but we also have limited awareness of what is actually going on. Holding awareness of all the components of the movement, the bones, ankle joint, tendons, ligaments, muscles and synchronizing these with the breath is beyond the grasp of most, let alone awareness of all the pranic components of the movement. Instead, if we remain aware, we are given an understanding of the reality of the body at that moment. The foot is moving around the ankle like this. This is the reality at this time. The image of the body, the illusion that the mind has created is being diminished.
Similarly, with the practice of seva yoga, we confront the image that we have of ourselves, and begin to juxtapose it with the reality. The image is created by mistaken identification with the outside world, and is also illusory. Identification with such things as culture, nationality, gender, socialization, education, career and reputation creates what we attach to as our 'personality'. This artificial construct called personality is the illusion that the practice of seva yoga begins to dissemble and purify. Many times during the practice of seva yoga we are asked to do tasks that are not in accordance with our way of thinking or behaving. This creates an internal friction, as the limiting and illusory aspects of the personality are challenged and it is precisely at this point that the practice really begins.
In the practice of asana, we learn how different conditions have different effects upon the body, and how to adjust accordingly, so there is minimal tension and conflict. The way the body performs a posture at 5.30 a.m. on a cold Munger winter morning is not the same way it performs the asana at 5.30 p.m. on a warm afternoon. The differing external conditions over which there is no control influence the physical body and it is through experiencing these different conditions and remaining aware of the responses that we can learn to adjust, and thereby minimize conflict and suffering. Seva yoga is exactly the same.
Ashram life provides the conditions and circumstances over which there is no control, and it is under these conditions that we practise seva yoga. Our responses to these factors broadly fall into two categories, like and dislike. Some things we like and want more of, others we dislike and want to be rid of. The intensity of either of those responses, attraction, raga, or repulsion, dwesha, will determine the degree of resistance and internal conflict that the practitioner of seva yoga experiences. Yet these responses, if we can become aware of them, also provide the opportunity for transformation.
When we progress into an understanding of asana, we being to hold postures for longer, feeling into the particular posture and its effect on the body/mind. During that interval, the awareness is directed to the sensations in the body, and to any mental and emotional reactions to those sensations. The awareness becomes sensitized to the lighter, tingly, transient sensations as well as the heavier, solidified, gross sensations such as tension, tightness or resistance. But it is precisely at these moments of awareness of these sensations that we are beginning the work in the posture, holding the position, using the breath to release the physical area and calm the mental responses. It is at these points of friction that the process of self-purification that is asana is really active. It is not that this posture is not right for you or not suited to your body, or that the teacher is bossy, or that the room is too hot. The reactions, the sensations arise because the asana is purifying the body and this is the aim of asana, and the reason why people practise asana and go to yoga classes.
Similarly, during the practice of seva yoga, we experience and confront those same sensations and reactions, except this time in the mind. These moments of internal friction and resistance caused by the reactions of like and dislike can be transforming, in exactly the same way as resistance and tension in physical postures are opportunities for removal of pranic blockages and liberation of energy. It is in these moments that we can actively work towards purification of the mind, by remaining aware of the responses within us and yet still doing our best to act appropriately. It is not that the seva yoga assigned to us is unsuitable, or the in-charge is bossy, or that some other external condition is at fault. Paradoxically, the reverse is true, these reactions are a definite sign that the practice of seva yoga is ideally suited to the practitioner, and is actively working. It is here that seva yoga becomes a sadhana.
Usually when confronted with an unpleasant experience or circumstance, such as a painful sensation in the body, or a painful emotional reaction during seva yoga, the reaction is aversion. We endeavour to run away from the pain as quickly as we can, by tensing all the other muscles and areas of the body, or by barricading ourselves emotionally against onslaught. Yet this serves only to intensify the suffering. The pain in the body becomes more intense, the feelings and emotions become more intense. The situation escalates. Instead, with seva yoga we are learning to observe the 'unpleasant' situation, as it is, without compounding it through reaction. We learn to adjust to unpleasantness and thereby diminish any effect upon us.
Patanjali, when describing asana, states: Sthirasukhamasanam, meaning 'steady and comfortable should be the posture'. Initially, when students are practising asana, especially sitting postures such as siddhasana/siddha yoni asana, the posture is not steady and comfortable, there is tension and resistance and it cannot be held for any length of time. Yet, with repeated practice, the body will become accustomed to the pose and as awareness increases, tensions will be transformed and released. Similarly, with seva yoga, great difficulties can be encountered. The mind is not steady and comfortable in the practice, it is restless and dissipated, chasing thoughts and fantasies. With repeated and constant practice, the same rule applies. The awareness increases and slowly the mind and personality are transformed.
Through repeated practice of seva yoga one can become aware of all the facets of the personality and begin to surrender those patterns and identifications that are no longer helpful. Regular practice of seva generates an inner immunity to external factors so that the challenging and confronting situations in life can be faced with ease. Ashram life can certainly provide all the conditions that one needs to practise seva yoga, but the rest is up to you.