Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
By Rebecca Tolin
When I hauled my backpack off to a country ashram in Northern California, I imagined myself perched in full lotus atop a mountain peak for vast swaths of time. I’d open my body in wholly new ways through twice-daily Sadhana. My heart would soar with the eagles after jillions of Daryurasanas.
But here I was, cleaning bathrooms—scrubbing showers, scouring sinks, sanitizing toilets and scraping bits of toilet paper off linoleum floors. Week after week at Ananda Village, our karma yoga scheduler Trimurti repeated these words like a mantra, “Rebecca, shower house morning, guest bathrooms afternoon.” I strived to embrace my assignments, imagining their Guru himself would use the freshly scrubbed facilities–no matter he was no longer in the body. When my mind spun its reels, I’d return to my senses. I watched scrub bubbles whirl down the drain, listened to the water’s swoosh, felt its warm waves through my rubber gloves.
Secretly, I pined to chop vegetables, even rinse lemon-mustard tofu off plates. After bathroom duty, I was often too pooped for afternoon Sadhana. I’d shine the shower house and collapse under an oak.
One steamy afternoon, I hiked to a ridge overlooking this verdant mountain village to steal a few moments of cell phone access. I needed mom.
“You’re doing what?” she asked. “You don’t even clean your own bathrooms back home!”
She had a point. My trusty cleaning woman did my dirty work.
“Yes, but this is Seva,” I explained. “It’s not just cleaning, it’s serving the divine.”
To which she wanted to know the difference between work and seva–besides the fact that room and board was my payment, instead of dollars and cents. After all, people clean bathrooms all day everyday and don’t call it spiritual practice.
“It’s your intention,” I told her, watching the day’s last sunlight undulate through bluffs of darkening green forest. “The idea is to release our ego’s desire for recognition, and return to our real nature of giving.”
Trimurti continually inspired me. A 60-something, longtime resident of the ashram, he worked non-stop–mixing cleaning solutions, hauling out trash and counseling us karma yogis with the dignity and grace of a saint. He never showed signs of tiring despite at least 108 things to do each day. Whenever one of us wilted from homesickness or the rigorous schedule, he’d open his sky blue eyes to our soul, and truly listen. After a few minutes in his presence, you could no longer remember your problems.
One day I asked Trimurti how he made everything so easeful. “No matter what you do, you can see it as service. You can say ‘I’m a machinist, I’m doing it because God needs holes to be drilled.’ It’s the intent you bring to it. Everyone has that potential.”
Theoretically, even me. But as the weeks wore on, my body felt sorer and stiffer. In a twist of irony, I was practicing less asana at the ashram than in my workaday world back home.
As I washed and wiped, I’d imagine the divine moving my arms and legs. I’d observe my resistance to yet another day of bathroom duty and offer it into the bubbles. One thing became clear, I was here to shine up my inner grime more than expand my asana practice.
After about six weeks, I reached a truce with the toilets. Perhaps it was daily meditation, morning discussions on opening our heart to the infinite, communal living with people committed to the good of the whole, acres and acres of wild golden grasses and conifer forests. I was no longer grasping (much) for things to be different. The work became rhythmic, like a moving meditation.
And that’s when things shifted.
“You’re being drafted,” Trimurti chirped. “With your background as a television news reporter and producer, you can best serve on a very special project. Our swami wants a series of yoga programs for Indian television.”
I feigned nonchalance as I did cartwheels inside. In my final weeks, I ran cameras, practiced asanas off stage to prompt the on-air talent, and on my last day I was recruited to perform in front of the camera. Our crew dusted my cheeks pink and dressed me in a sparkly purple tunic. The lights shone, the cameras rolled, and I bowed, twisted and arched in ecstatic movement.
I felt the affirmations dancing in my trillions of cells. “I rise joyfully to meet each new opportunity. I soar upwards on wings of joy!”
In daily prayers, I’d asked that my skills and passions be used for a higher good. And here I was, helping make media to uplift consciousness from the East to West. The essence of the ashram’s teachings–attunement to the divine and non-attachment to outcome–didn’t escape me. And, oftentimes, life dreams up something even grander than we can.
Rebecca Tolin is a writer, reporter and documentary filmmaker living in San Diego. You can find her at http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.tolin and http://www.facebook.com/chicksinthecitymovie?ref=hl