Sacred Service & The Four Paths of Yoga
I’ll never forget the first time I heard about Karma Yoga, the yoga of service. I was in a yoga class taught by the fabulously healing and transformative Marla Wedge, and was holding one of my favorite poses, Half Moon, which involves balancing on one foot and one hand. And on this particular day my body found its way into what felt like a perfect expression of the pose.
Marla reminded us that when in proper alignment in Half Moon Pose, it would be as if we could slide between two floor-to-ceiling pieces of glass, one on the front and one on the back side of our bodies. On this day I could imagine the coolness of two large sheets of window glass, holding me snugly on each side. I even leaned into them slightly and suddenly had a moment of dropping into my body like I hadn’t felt in years. It was a place of balance, grace and divinity from which I felt I could right any wrong, bring peace to the world, transform the planet.
I knew I wanted to feel that way every day.
While I was there, in that sweet spot, balancing and breathing, Marla talked about The Four Pillars of Yoga and the Four Paths of Yoga and I had an insight that has been shaping my life ever since. She spoke about the importance of balancing the physical asana practice with meditation, the yoga of the mind (Raja Yoga); with Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion; and with Karma yoga, the path of selfless service. She spoke of them not as four separate paths, but intertwined and all part of a balanced way of being in the world.
I recognized that day on the mat that in my work as an activist I’d become too focused on the yoga of service, only to neglect my own body, mind, and spirit. I realized that only by devoting time to cultivating all four of these paths of yoga would I be able to experience that powerful balance and grace every day.
This insight inspired a re-imagining of how I lived my life. I moved yoga, meditation, and play to the top of my list, scheduled them into my calendar first, and then added work meetings and calls with clients into the spots that were left. I started approaching the other three paths of yoga with an urgency and dedication, as if my activism and indeed even my life depended on it. And it turned out that actually, it did.
Instead of driving myself to work more, harder, faster, I began seeking ways to work less, and to be in that divinely connected place while working. It felt scary at first, and I even found myself feeling guilty that there was so much work to do to make this world a better place, and yet I was planning to work less. But it didn’t take long to feel the change in the quality of my work when I was logging fewer hours at the keyboard, computing for social change, and more hours dancing, singing, playing outside, doing art, sitting in meditation, and moving on the yoga mat.
Soon it was also clear I needed to cultivate a kula (community) that shared a vision of this re-imagining with me. The culture of social change-makers I’d been immersed in was one of overwork and imbalance. I began searching and quickly found other activists in the midst of a similar inquiry. It was heartening to know there were many more out there and to know I could call on these allies for support in finding and maintaining balance.
They call it a practice for a reason, and I get many opportunities each day to recommit over and over to this quest for balance. Sometimes it means choosing despite the evidence that warns me of the increasing urgency of our world’s challenges. But I continue to learn and relearn that in this commitment to balance and the Four Paths lies the perfect expression of not just a pose, but of my life itself.