By Natasha Friedman
Give Them Everything
It’s not about you.
Sun. Sand. Waves. Vast, open sky.
A simple place.
Do it for them. When you’re tired, when you’re vulnerable, when you’re ecstatic, and when you can barely pick yourself off the ground. Give them everything.
A simple life, waking in the magic hour before dawn to sit in silent awe. Chopping fruits and vegetables, stirring rice, washing dishes. Putting mantras and blessings and so much love into every bowl.
Last winter, I served as the Karma Yogi responsible for supporting the 14 students journeying inward in Hridaya’s 49-Day Pratyabhijna Retreat. It’s impossible to convey this experience using words, since there are no words that can take the truth of what happened, contain it, and deliver it to you in a form that we would both understand and recognize as reality.
Still, I will give you some words and I hope they inspire you on the path.
Karma Yoga: The Path and the Destination
Karma Yoga is often translated as the yoga of action: the path to direct recognition of reality through conscious activity in the world. Acting with love, detachment, and awareness. It is selfless service for the benefit of all sentient beings.
One of the fundamental branches of yoga (along with Jnana, Raja, Bhakti, and Tantra), Karma Yoga is both the foundation and the coronation of the practice—just another of those paradoxes in spirituality that can melt your mind a little bit if you try to hold such seemingly divergent ideas simultaneously.
From one perspective, Karma Yoga is the ground we’re standing on as yogis and spiritual aspirants. Serving others is how we learn humility, care, and devotion. It’s how we purify our intentions and deflate the overblown ego blocking our view. It grounds us, gives us stability, and lends authenticity to our efforts at transcendence.
Serving others is how we build a vessel to receive Light.
In another sense, a true practice of Karma Yoga is the end goal of the entire path. “Before enlightenment,” goes the Zen saying, “chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Being able to act fully in the world with complete detachment, holding the view of emptiness while busy accomplishing whatever mundane task the moment requires, is somehow the real practice for which all our eyes-closed-back-straight-awareness-turned-inward efforts is truly preparing us.
I would never say I am a perfectly accomplished Karma Yogi. Very far from it, actually! But, my experience in the 49-Day Retreat left me with so much reverence for this path that I have only just begun to explore.
Back to the retreat. So, there I was, living, along with the 14 angels in solitude, in a hotel on a remote beach halfway between Mazunte and Puerto Escondido. I served every day from days 11 to 49, on average five hours per day. My days started with fruit delivery at 5:30 am and ended with dinner at 6:00 pm, followed by evenings spent writing notes and planning meals.
When I wasn’t in the kitchen or taking my daily walk on the beach, I was practicing yoga and meditation.
I was in silence the whole time, although I had to write notes and send occasional texts to communicate with the retreat coordinator or make food orders.
I had help from Pedro and Isabel, the Mexican couple who manage the hotel. Isabel would join me almost every shift, helping to cut vegetables and clean up. This was a beautiful, wordless relationship. Before leaving on day 49, we both cried and hugged. Never speaking, never knowing each other as personalities, our souls knew the other.
And this was life for those 39 days. So simple, yet so incredibly rich and vivid, with so much more nuance and intensity than I have ever felt in the speaking world.
The Grace of Wanting Nothing
The idea of Karma Yoga in a retreat is that you are doing everything for the participants and the retreat is not yours. Even your own yoga and meditation practice is secondary. At least, this was how I conceived it. My intention was to want nothing from the experience, to achieve nothing, but to give the other yogis the best possible conditions for their immersion in Reality.
There is so much grace when you put aside your own interests and dedicate yourself to others. I’ve heard this many times before, but I felt this with absolute clarity in the retreat.
Working every day is tiring, especially when keeping to such a rigorous practice schedule. Cooking for 15 people means several hours of physical activity and the mental/emotional exertion of dealing with everything that can go wrong with kitchens and food deliveries in Mexico.
(Spoiler alert: everything can and will go wrong! The trick is that if you take a deep breath and trust—which can include knowing when to ask for help—problems somehow solve themselves.)
By the last weeks, my alarm would go off in the morning and I would have to just lie there for a minute silently groaning before finding the strength to get up and turn it off.
But, when I was busy serving, I didn’t experience even a trace of tiredness. I felt my daily consecrations holding a protective bubble around me and everyone in the hotel.
The more I put aside my personal wishes and desires—even the seemingly lofty desire to have more time to practice—the more this flow of cosmic energy moved through me and carried me through everything I was set to accomplish.
It’s a blessing to have the chance to serve others. It’s not a means to an end, but the highest grace we can come to in this life.
Of course, I went through my own processes during the retreat. Things surfaced and melted away, patterns flared and resolved, cycles completed themselves.
Sometimes, life seemed like a hall of mirrors. Sometimes, everything was so incredibly clear. And sometimes, there was nothing at all. Looking out the window at the sea and the waving coconut palms and seeing absolutely nothing. Cutting the peel off a ripe papaya and there is nothing there. Scooping hot vegetables onto plates and nothing. Catching, for just a moment, Isabel’s dark, luminous eyes and seeing that nothingness looking back at me.
In some ways, serving is a completely different experience than sitting a long retreat, and in another way it’s not different at all. I can’t say if I would have gone deeper or less deep had I been sitting, though several people have asked me this. It was exactly what it was.
There was less of that sense of absolute detachment, of being so far gone that not even your shadow flows into the world. There was more embracing of reality in all its mundane, incomprehensible detail. I am neither this nor that, but somehow I am all of it; I can recognize myself in every inch of this world; there is nothing that is not me.
At some level, this feeling has stayed with me since the retreat. At the moment of writing this, I am at a shabby-chic café in my New England hometown, where students huddle over their textbooks and loudly discuss their performance art pieces. It’s a world away from the deep silence of the retreat and the shifting patterns the waves left on the shore of that wide-open beach.
Still, there is something here that is the same. Patterns flow through my awareness—ah, here’s sadness again! Here’s self-doubt! Hello, fear of failure and financial insecurity! Welcome back, family conflict!—and I recognize them with love, with a huge sense of relief that finally these broken pieces of myself can come back into the whole.
I will leave you with a poem I wrote for my retreat angels, out of gratitude. They all thought I was serving them, but really they were supporting me in more ways than I could have imagined.
When you go down to the ocean,
I’m happy you know that sweet mystery.
I’m happy your hands are empty
and you, too, love to feel
that cool nectar pooling around your feet.
I’m happy you hear that purring
in the back of your ear,
an unknown music and words
that melt in the light of day.
Here there are colors for you
and they are deeper colors.
Here there is day and night and moon and sun
and thoughts and words and the morning
and it is, all of it is,
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.