In my children’s yoga classes I talk to the children about practicing Karma Yoga. The dictionary actually defines Karma as “(in Hinduism and Buddhism) the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.” That is a bit much for younger kids so I usually define Karma Yoga as a selfless act of doing something for another person without expecting anything in return.
For teenagers we can start to go a little deeper and tie Karma Yoga into the practice of Seva. Seva is a Sanskrit word for selfless service. Swami Satchadinanda had this to say about the difference between selfish and selfless: “Selfish means I want something in return…Selfless is doing it for the pure joy of doing, I am not expecting anything in return.” How do we get children in the teenage years to start thinking more about others around them than about themselves? As a mother of a teenager, I ask myself that a lot. I now have a child who is concerned with his hair, his physique, and his pimples. We have raised our children to have compassion on a community and global level, but now the challenge is to move him toward how the world perceives his character versus his outward appearance. This is where Seva comes in, to show him a world that has a need for his service through not only his actions but also his character.
When I was the Youth Director at my church, one of my jobs was to have a service project once a month. I had a great group of teenagers but I knew I had to find different projects to feed each of their passions. One of our projects was to make no-sew blankets for children in the foster care system. The project is called My Very Own Blanket and a label gets sewn on so the child knows that the blanket belongs to them and gives them a feeling of security and comfort. Not all the teenagers were onboard with this task of making blankets. They didn’t really understand the meaning behind it since none of them came from this place of need. They also were used to being out in a group for service projects where other people could see their actions. With this project, we didn’t get to meet or see the children we were making blankets for due to security and privacy reasons. It turned out to be a great way to demonstrate the selfless act of doing something for someone else without even expecting a “thank you” from the recipient. This project was more about their compassion, understanding, and empathy than about their actions or their time.
There are a lot of service projects out there that we can get our teenagers involved in, but I believe it isn’t Seva unless it is selfless. Our schools here used to have a requirement that one couldn’t graduate high school without a required amount of community service. I don’t know the real reason they decided to get rid of that requirement but maybe it was because someone realized that it was not teaching teenagers to give of their time freely. It was not an act of Seva. To do something for the pure joy of doing, as Swami Satchadinanda said, is a bit trickier for teenagers but it can be done. Our job as adults is to guide their passion toward that selfless service. Passion can mean joy. What brings them joy and how can that be used to serve others? Passion can also mean what moves them emotionally. Do they get upset about any injustices in the world: locally or globally? Channel that emotion into a passion for change. We also have to teach them that Seva isn’t about giving their video/social media time up for a service project or the act of other people seeing their good deeds. Their service to others has no strings attached and comes from their heart. When they do that, then the act of Seva is the joy of doing.
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