Yoga and Service: A Practice for Self to Others

Photo: lwpkommunikacio

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a metaphor (or simile) many of us have heard more than once. When you are seated on a plan and get the pre-flight safety speech, you are told that – should you be seated next to a child or someone who cannot care for him/herself – you should put on your own oxygen mask before you attend to the needs of others. And, this applies in so many other situations. For the purposes of this post, the bottom line is that you cannot help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself, and yoga promotes and allows that.

I fundamentally believe this to be true.

I would say that I was a pretty good mother before yoga. But, I was a mother who raised my voice not infrequently. I was a mother who felt huge surges of frustration almost daily. I was a mother who often felt regret (and expressed it) over something I had said to, or in the presence of, my children.

Yoga changed me. While I’m certainly still imperfect (ask any of the six of them), I raise my voice pretty rarely. I am much more even-keeled about things. I don’t let my children push my buttons so easily and therefore I can respond to them with more equanimity. I still sometimes say things that I shouldn’t, but it’s much less frequent, and I still apologize when I do.

Maybe this is because of things I learned and embraced more fully having started my yoga journey: ahimsa, aparigraha, santosha, and so on. Perhaps it is partly because yoga also helped me to make my way more fully to Buddhism. But, some of it is because in caring for myself, showing kindness to me, I am better able to show kindness to others.

Family life and work, I think, for most of us are often more ‘winding up’ than they are calming. They combine with all of those expectations of self and others that we create in the social realm to create tensions and stresses that are felt in the mind and in the body. This is apparent after a tough week at work or at home when the body responds with back pain, tense shoulders, headache, and indigestion.

It’s not easy, in these environs to find a time or place to focus on letting some of that go – an indeed we may feel guilt if and when we do. Culturally, we are taught that our attention should be devoted to something beyond the self. For men, still, it is on power, success, career. For women, still, it is on the needs of children, of lovers, of family, and then of work. Even in a culture that is, in many ways, extremely individualistic, spending time on and for the emotional or spiritual needs of the self remains somehow suspect. But we need to be healthy in these ways before we can help anyone else.

By providing the time and place to let go of day-to-day obligations to other, the space to appreciate the basic abilities of the body, the room to embrace the connection to something larger than even our obligations to family, friends, and occupation, yoga brings us to a spot from which we can more easily heal the self. And from there, we have the mental, social, and physical resources to serve others. Obviously, that doesn’t always mean that we will, and an individual can do yoga asana with no intent to grow, change, or serve (though I sort of feel like if it’s done consistently and with others it might happen anyway), but it provides that opportunity.

Yoga can be the oxygen mask for the self. It may not be a sufficient condition to create service, but it makes it possible for service to others to develop.

So, maybe, on this day of service, you do a little yoga – of whatever form. And maybe you offer up the good energy generated by that practice to others. And maybe you remind yourself that what you do in practice, even when done all alone, can be toward the service of something greater.

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