If you’ve never heard the term “karma yoga,” now’s probably the time to find a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and start reading. In chapter three, Krishna advises the young warrior Arjuna to “strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life” (translation by Eknath Easwaran).
What does this have to do with a week of yoga at Esalen, overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of Big Sur? Allow me to explain. First off, for the uninitiated, Esalen is the impeccably well-kept slice of paradise with unsurpassed ocean views and sounds, thriving organic gardens, sociable mineral baths, endless healthy food, and transformative massages. From June 11 to 16, it hosted the second annual Esalen Yoga Festival, featuring yoga led by Mark Whitwell, Shiva Rea, Thomas Fortel and Seane Corn. Did I mention Michael Franti playing an acoustic concert on the lawn? You might say, if this is selfless service, sign me up!
But the festival was more than just a week of great yoga and rejuvenation in paradise. It was an exploration of the interconnections between yoga and service. Festival organizer Amy Hanaughan said the karma yoga theme chose itself – it was that clear and obvious. “I’m observing in myself and others as western yogis the desire to take our practices to the next level,” explained Amy. “We’ve done so much internal discovery and healing that this amazing energy we’ve cultivated on our mats is calling us to reach out and serve others. We are a powerful community and can really play a part in raising the vibration of ourselves, our families and our communities.”
This theme set a powerful tone for the week, starting with the opening gathering on Sunday night. In the days that followed, each teacher wove the theme of seva (selfless service) through his or her three-hour morning asana classes in his or her own unique and inspiring ways. The 150 yogis and yoginis were divided up into four groups based on their self-described level of asana practice, and the groups stayed intact the whole week. Each of the four teachers led an asana practice with each group over the course of the week, so that all the participants could experience all four fabulous teachers.
Shiva Rea explained, “Esalen’s history from the Essalen Indians’ healing gatherings to its activation of the frontiers of human consciousness over the past four decades brings shakti to any visionary retreat, particularly this year’s focus on the Yoga of Action. I was transformed by every session that became one whole sadhana…The intensity of the focus was on clarifying one’s self and the collective as a conduit, a vehicle for living yoga in service to the One.”
Seane Corn commented, “For years, my yoga practice was ‘How can yoga change me?My body?My life?’I saw my individual healing as separate from universal healing, and it is this practice of separation that is the ultimate cause of our global dysfunction.The practice of yoga teaches us that we are all one, all connected.Therefore, spiritual activism, taking the yoga off the mat and into the world, is a way for all of us to serve, connect and reach – way beyond the stretch.
”One morning, everyone came to the lawn in a giant circle and shared a yoga mala – 108 sun salutations – accompanied by musicians Suzanne Sterling, Joey Lugassy, Amy Hanaughan, Christopher Morro and Shiva Baum. What a powerful wave of energy! The afternoons featured leisurely lunch conversations, an intriguing table of seva organization materials to peruse, restorative yoga, AcroYoga and plenty of time to soak up the magic of the land and sea.
In the evenings, the entire posse gathered. One night, we watched Michael Franti’s documentary I Know I Am Not Alone, about his trip to embattled Baghdad and Jerusalem. It provided a close-up view of one person’s journey into the effects of war and into the human heart. We started to see beneath the individual faces and stories in the film and into the human experience – the desire for peace, happiness and safety.
The next afternoon, Michael led an inspiring session on how to “speak your mind, sing your truth.” He shared personal reflections on peacemaking, being human, sustaining one’s self through personal practice and sustaining one’s community and the planet through service. Then several participants were randomly chosen from the group to get up and improvise their way through a little song-story, until the last person moved everyone to tears. And then we made commitments – our own personal commitments to sustaining ourselves, our relationships or community, and the planet.
What else could happen next except a fire ceremony led by Bhagavan Das and DJ Reverend Lance? Then, Shiva Rea led an explosive Yoga Trance Dance, in which she gave every man within range a painted chest, inviting him to be a peace warrior. Is it surprising that restorative yoga on the last afternoon was a highlight for many?!
While it may sound like an action-packed, exhausting week, most participants seemed to find plenty of time and inclination to relax and enjoy. There was talk of service – and of all the ordinary joys and challenges of being alive, here and now. At the end of it all, we headed home refreshed and inspired, our hearts open wider and our aspirations pegged higher. With these 150 people spreading peace across the continent – and countless more out there doing the same – how can there be room for anything but hope?