FEATURED TEACHER OF THE MONTH
Margaret Padma Tumelty
Interview by Sarah McElwain
Margaret Padma Tumelty is an occupational therapist who was introduced to Integral Yoga in 2005 when she became certified in Sonia Sumar’s Yoga for the Special Child method. She has continued her study of Integral Yoga over the years and is certified to teach Basic, Intermediate (2013), and, most recently, Advanced Hatha Yoga (2019). She is also trained in Yin Yoga (2018), Accessible Yoga (2017), Yoga of the Heart (2015), Yoga for Arthritis (2016), and Therapeutic Yoga Level 1 (2019). Margaret Padma is grateful to be a part of the Integral Yoga community.
What is Karma Yoga?
Karma Yoga is the serving of others without any expectation of reward or outcome. It is one of the branches or paths of Yoga. Among the other branches are Hatha, Raja, Bhakti, and Jnana. The ultimate goal of each path is to become one with the center of consciousness, where there is no separation between self and others. Karma Yoga offers an opportunity to lose one’s ego in the service of others. Its by-products include joy, peace, and profound gratitude.
The path of Karma Yoga is not necessarily easy. There is a lot of “rubbing and scrubbing of the ego” involved for those who endeavor to follow this path. Even when one is equipped with the best of intentions and a common goal, friction and challenges inevitably occur. I think these are Divine opportunities to burn away the parts of the ego that may perhaps be let go, so that one arrives at a lighter and more peaceful state of being.
Any action can be Karma Yoga. You don’t need special skills, degrees, or diplomas. All you need is a willingness to serve and a singular focus. Presence, mindfulness, and care are the only requisite skills for being a Karma Yogi.
What have you learned in your Karma Yoga practice?
I have learned a great deal about the power of Karma Yoga while assisting with the care of participants in a spiritual retreat at Yogaville. I have been volunteering at Yogaville once or twice a year since I took Intermediate Teacher Training there in 2013.
On a typical day, volunteers work long hours, often rising before the group to prepare for sadhana and staying up to clean and set up for the next day after the retreatants retire for the evening. About six days into one ten-day retreat, fatigue set in, and I was a little less patient with one participant. She kept locking herself out of her room and needed someone to walk her back and forth to the classroom. Some old, judgmental thoughts popped up in my mind: “Why is she so needy?” “Why can’t she keep a key under the carpet?” “I am a bit tired; sigh.” I didn’t like the thoughts, but I took notice of them and hoped they would eventually pass.
The next afternoon the volunteers gathered for a daily staff meeting. This was a time to bring up issues, solve problems, designate tasks, and so on. The participant I’d been with the previous night was mentioned by a few people, and it was suggested that one person volunteer to be her “buddy” for the rest of the retreat. A friend of mine responded without hesitation: “I will do it. I will be her buddy.
”Wow, I thought, that is amazing! Simultaneously I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to do it. Later that day I asked my friend in private, “Why did you volunteer so quickly to take care of her? I mean, she is very needy.”
“Oh,” she said, “yes, she is. And isn’t it a wonderful opportunity to be of service! In fact, I often thank her when leaving her room for giving me the opportunity to be of service to her. I am very grateful to her.” She smiled. In an instant, my ego was checked. That conversation really made an impact on me. I was humbled by my friend’s attitude. My perception shifted, and I began to see that some scrubbing on my ego was needed. I began to understand that the most difficult experiences, personalities, or challenges are really the best opportunities for rubbing and scrubbing that ego clean. It is only through our interactions with others that we have the opportunity to “see” ourselves, up close and personal. I have come to appreciate how Karma Yoga has helped me on my spiritual path.
I’ve also learned that the old stuff’s coming up is inevitable in any Karma Yoga experience. That is a good thing because then I can work through it and let it go and maybe discover a new way of relating to someone instead of just reacting on the basis of patterns from my past. To me that is an exciting part of Karma Yoga: the opportunity to grow through my own, habitual ways of relating to people and situations. Journaling as I go through the Karma Yoga experience has been essential for helping me realize these lessons. I highly recommend it.
Mantra repetition is also a very powerful tool when one is doing service. It helps to keep the mind focused on one point and bring in the presence of the Divine to whatever task you might be doing. During the silent retreats, the staff volunteers lead a group of retreatants in a Karma Yoga task. We begin and end by holding hands together and chanting together briefly. This sets the tone for whatever task awaits.
Some tasks are very humbling, such as scrubbing floor grout, cleaning shoe racks, wiping tables, and, my all-time favorite, washing the walls in the Yoga classrooms. While a task might seem mundane, it is the attitude and reverence with which it is performed that makes all the difference. Approaching the cleaning of tile grout with the attitude that I am doing this to serve others, so that when they arrive to eat dinner they will walk on a clean floor, transforms it from mundane to Divine. Later, when you see the group silently walking on the clean floor, joy just bubbles up inside. It is very satisfying to serve. Retreatants often remark afterward that Karma Yoga was a highlight of their silent retreat experience.
Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion and love) and Karma Yoga are intertwined for me. I suppose you could do one or the other, but the bringing of love and service together is where I meet the Divine.
Swami Gurucharadananda, or “Mataji,” as she is lovingly called, is a senior monk in Yogaville and an original disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda’s. She is pure Karma and Bhakti Yoga in action. I once assisted her in preparing for a puja (devotional service). The care with which she performed each task in the setup was in fact a meditation. First, we picked a vase. After carefully considering several, she would smile at me, point, and say, “That one.” We gathered flowers and cut them with the special scissors used only for a puja. Then the fruit, only the best-looking bananas, would be used as an offering. The entire process from preparation to cleaning up was truly a joy for me to observe and be a part of. The care and love in each step of the offering was palpable. There is no doubt in my mind that love is an essential ingredient in Karma Yoga.
How else have you practiced Karma Yoga?
I have been blessed to have many opportunities to be of service over the years, and I have gained much from these experiences. In my early 30s I was involved with the Christian Appalachian Project, an organization that helps to build and repair houses for people in the poorest areas of the Appalachian Mountains. For two summers, I traveled on a school bus from New York to rural Kentucky with a wonderful group of volunteers. I learned some useful skills, including how to apply vinyl siding to homes and how to paint around window frames. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy pummeled my home community of Rockaway Beach, in Queens, leaving the children with no real playgrounds to play on, I partnered with a local assemblyman to run a series of Yoga classes for young girls. The classes ran for six weeks and were a good way to help the girls relax and socialize with their friends. This was really a great opportunity for both the children and me to get some normalcy and routine back in our lives and to heal from the devastation from the storm.
In February, just before Covid struck New York City, Chandra asked me to gather teachers in the IYINY sangha to participate in a community service project at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen. The largest soup kitchen in New York City, it typically prepares more than 2,000 meals a day for people in need in the area. Nine sangha members participated in a day of service, and everyone was touched by this very humbling and rewarding experience. We hope to organize another day of service sometime in the future. (Details will follow in Namaste.)
I am so grateful to be a part of this beautiful sangha and community. This month, on November 14, 2020, I will mark my five-year anniversary of teaching at Integral Yoga in New York City. I consider it a great privilege to serve in this way by bringing the teachings of Sri Swami Satchidananda to my students. One of my favorite sayings of our beloved Gurudev is “The dedicated ever enjoy supreme peace, therefore live only to serve.” Jai Gurudev!
Ongoing class at IYI:
Sunday, 5:15 Level I-II