Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Part I in a series examining nonprofit service and "doing good"

What does karma OR yoga have to do with nonprofits?" If you think of yoga as an exercise class with a bit of de-stressing meditation, then the answer would seem to be "nothing". Bear with me on this one.

I think we'd all agree that nonprofit work is based on the principles of doing good.  The reality is that our work may be driven by political goals, seeking funds, getting paid and getting noticed (publicity).

Where does Karma yoga (Sanskrit: कर्म योग) fit in? Karma Yoga is one of the four pillars of Yoga, consisting of entirely selfless service, in which the Ego is given up. It is the path of doing the right thing, of following ones' personal Dharma and accepting destiny.

In less abstract terms, Karma Yoga might be cleaning toilets or washing dishes. Doing any type of service without seeking any remuneration in the shape of wealth, satisfaction, name or fame.

So this got me thinking about "the work", whatever you call it: a "calling", a purpose in life, all the stuff that "do what you love and the money will follow" philosophy is based on.

Karma Yoga is done without concern for whether the money follows or not.

I have been mentored by selfless teachers, who always bewildered me: one who loaned me his car when mine broke down and I had no money to fix it. He rode his bike to work and gave me his car. I thought he must be crazy or just wanting to prove how "politically correct" he was. But now I see that he was doing "right action", he knew I lived many miles from the nearest public transportation, he knew he lived close to work; I also think he did it selflessly and expected nothing in return. That was Karma Yoga.

The questions I'm asking myself today are: Can I do my Karma Yoga? Can I kill that ego? Can I accept that I give my service without expecting recognition, without even expecting to be satisfied? I've always expected to be satisfied. That was the GOAL I was after: to do my life's work by definition included some kind of trade "I work hard and deliver the required work AND I get a sense of meaning and purpose". What I've found out the hard way is that expecting the payoff (meaning and purpose) meant a lot of painful disappointment.

Want to know more?

The Four Paths of Yoga:
  1. Karma
  2. Bhakti
  3. Jnana
  4. Raja
Karma: the Yoga of Action, the path chosen primarily by those of an outgoing nature. It purifies the heart by teaching you to act selflessly, without thought of gain or reward.

Bhakti: the Path of Devotion or unconditional love.  This path appeals particularly to those of an emotional nature.

Jnana: the Yoga of Knowledge or Wisdom This is the most difficult path, requiring tremendous strength of will and intellect. This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination. The Jnana Yogi uses his mind to inquire into its own nature. Jnana dissolves the veils of ignorance. Before practicing Jnana Yoga, the aspirant needs to have integrated the lessons of the other yogic paths - for without selflessness and devotion, strength of body and mind, the search for self-realization can become mere idle speculation.

Raja: the Science of Physical and Mental Control Often called the "royal road" it offers a comprehensive method for controlling the waves of thought by turning our mental and physical energy into spiritual energy.


Anonymous said...

This is my all-time favorite of your blog posts, Pam! Check out a little site I'm fond of that is related to this topic: http://www.yoga4good.com/

Anonymous said...

I have come to enjoy the physical practice of yoga. I love your application of yoga practice in the work place and the break down of the different paths. Thanks for the quick lesson.

I daily strive to practice elements of yoga paths in the work place. So in my opinion, you are certainly on the right path seeing how the principles of yoga should be common practice especially in the non profit arena. These paths and practices should be like a river flowing at the core of our existence.

janet said...

Ah grasshopper, and with the dawn of awakening knowledge comes the morning fog of obscured certainty save for one truth: all is karma. Or, as they put in the Fram oil filter commercials: pay me now or pay me later.

It may be possible to use a Calvinist metric to evaluate one's life choices: those who make the best choices are demonstrating their closeness to nirvana. Or not. Is the path to enlightenment so easy to discern? If only it were so.

We look at choices others make and then compare our own actions and motives. It is strangely remarkable that very few of us, in our own estimation, ever live up to the standards we esteem in others.

We mistake the simple answer and the shortest route as the one true path: the person who washes the dishes or cleans the toilets without concern for payment or fame will 'get to heaven' sooner than the person who wants a task that offers both a paycheck and a sense of satisfaction from the work. If it were that simple then the entire 'untouchable' class in India would self-evidently be far closer to enlightenment than the entire Brahman class.

In our not for profit universe we over-value the volunteers for this very reason: they toil for nothing. Meanwhile, the paid staff falls into two categories, those who work for very little in the form of salary and or benefits, and those we pay reasonably well for their expertise. We do not esteem the lower orders of paid staff any more than we do in the for-profit sector. We highly value those we pay well.

The real hypocrisy in all of this is that in the end it is a matter of class, not of cosmic or any other form of reward. If one is wealthy enough not to require payment then that person's toil is worth so much more than if one needs to be paid in order to live. If a wealthy person volunteers his or her time it has greater intrinsic worth than if that person was of modest means.

In the end, after a lot of hard work, one might know one's own mind and heart; but can never truly know the heart or mind of another. That ultimate truth does not free us from the responsibility of flesh and blood humanity. We do not only live on an astral plane, despite what many of us would prefer.

One may well choose between the 'vita activa' and the 'vita contemplativa' as the path we think might be best suited to our own spiritual journey, but in the end we must do both. It isn't enough to only think great thoughts or do great deeds. Nor is it enough to sit by the road and observe, (and perhaps teach.) I cannot believe the universe credits us for getting it "right" only between our ears.

(I would like to take this moment to suggest a look at The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt.)

Not that they agreed on substance, the great masters of the east and the west required right action, not just right thought. This is evident in every permutation from the Vedas to the Old Testament, the Tao to the Koran; in the handed down words of Jesus, Confucius, Dr. Strange, Emma Goldman, or Eliza Doolittle: "...don't talk of love, show me!..."

Anonymous said...

Here's a story from today's Palo Alto Weekly - love to see another instance of yoga for good!



Trucha said...

Wow, Janet, your post should have been a blog all by itself (that's a compliment, by the way). Very challenging and cynical stuff (right up my alley). Let me challenge you back on something, however.

While I find your point about over-valuing volunteers because they toil for nothing versus the value of the paid work of highly paid staff to be a sad truth, I'm having trouble with your similar statement about the value of wealthy folks' volunteer time being greater than the value of modest folk's volunteer time. Both toil for nothing, per se, so it would seem at least that both are equal in value. However, one might argue that the volunteer time of a poorer person is more intrinsically valuable than that of a richer person, because the poorer person gave up more (i.e., the need for paid hours) than the richer person (who gave up nothing because he/she could afford not to be paid).

My biblical upbringing can't help but draw me to "The Widow's Mite" parable (Mark 12:41-43). To wit:

"And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the multitude were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums.

And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent.

And calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, "Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors in the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.""

janet said...

ok, Trucha, I accept your challenge, but decline to credit the scriptural arena as anything more than the face we show to visiting strangers. In the intimacy of our own organizations we behave very differently. If we happily, graciously, and honestly accepted the donated time and/or money using a classic Marxian "from each according to his ability" (and did not give any more public appreciation to one volunteer or donor than another,) I would credit us for rising above our base, though unsurprising tendency to fawn over the heavy hitters. In fact the opposite is the case.

I absolutely agree that relative value and functional cost to the donor is meaningful, and I am sure that the tradition of tithing was intended to reflect that. We typically evaluate the cost to the donor on the basis of percentage of income or net worth, and rightfully expect those with greater resources to factor that concept into their giving. But the simple truth is that the creation of a $35 billion foundation by a person with a net worth somewhere near $50 billion (or even $100 billion) is still a very large percent of his resources even when made in $5 billion quarterly chunks. No one in their right mind thinks Bill Gates (who by the way earns about $350 million/year just in Microsoft dividends) has given more than he can afford and still be able to buy his kids new Nikes (when the old ones get dirty.)

If I liquidated half of my net worth I would have to figure out how to pay the rent and eat at the same time (and might muster just enough cash to pay the phone bill at the Gates Foundation for a month--if that.) Would I get any philanthropist of the year nominations? Hardly. Would someone call DCFS to find out if I was starving my kids to do this ‘meaningful’ act? Possibly.

I presume the ‘he’ in your parable who called his disciples to point out this laudable act by the impoverished widow, was a notable person in history who had a perspective so unique as to seem god-like. As a result, I am pretty certain it would be fair to infer that such behavior would be considered especially exceptional because it stood out to this notable person. For that reason, people who give so much they put their own wellbeing at risk stand out as saintly examples far beyond the rest of humanity. This being the case, we of course accord this behavior much more value than the wealthy person writing the check, when this person is Mother Theresa. When you or I do it, we are carted off to a supported living center and our kids are put in foster care.

We are asked for our Board rosters all the time by people or entities who are judging the quality and involvement of our critical volunteers. We are frequently asked to demonstrate that our board membership reflects in some significant way the population we provide services to in line with our (c)3 'charitable' mission. Then a short time later we are being asked by someone else to demonstrate through the roster our Board's active involvement in fund raising. Best of all, no one ever seems to want to see a Board roster that reflects both concerns. Clearly each set of volunteers in these two cases are important, but we all prefer to keep these two classes of people separate, and are able to do so with the use of an easy sort of apartheid mechanism called an advisory board. The Advisory Board is in contrast to ‘THE BOARD” of Directors and its use allows us to put the rams and the ewes in separate corrals (or paddocks, if your metaphor of choice is to envision these sheep being sheared or ridden) because we do not think they will play nicely together.

I defy you or any other person raised on the scriptures or any secular humanist equivalent (hmm, that’s a tough one to guess: “The Family of Man?” “The Little Prince?” “The New York Review of Books?”) to demonstrate to me an example of these two separate boards being conceived of and treated as equals in any legitimate sense of the word. We don’t even order the same food (or beverages) for their meetings. We do not accord them the same deference to their thoughts or opinions. If they have significantly different competing positions on the exact topic, do I need to ask in any seriousness which group wins? Ever?

Kathy said...


I am the assistant editor for Healthyoga.com, whose sole purpose is to offer a free informational resource to the public for those seeking advice on a variety of yoga related topics from professionals.

I've found your blog through a few of our mutual online affiliates and would love to work with you as well. I have interest in being included within your blog roll and would love to explore possibilities. Thank you for your time, I look forward to your response.

Please email me back with your URL in subject line to take a step ahead and to avoid spam.

Thank you
Kathy Ray