Swami Karma Karuna Saraswati
Favourite yoga style:
Bihar School of Yoga; an integral approach with equal weight on Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Kriya Yoga. Grounded in the ancient wisdom yet a modern approach with scientific backup.
What is your relationship to Anahata?
I am a founding member of Anahata Yoga Retreat and have been part of building it from the ground up. I always feel that the land drew us to the area and it unfolded in its own natural rhythm with a lot of sweat and effort, joy and inspiration, developing over time into an internationally recognised and visited eco-yoga retreat.
Anahata is located on top of a crystal mountain, overlooking the whole of Golden Bay and adjacent to the Abel Tasman National Park. The natural beauty, potent energy and pristine environment feed my soul and support my sadhana as well as nurture and transform in some way all that come there. As we are off the grid and somewhat remote it is not always an easy life, but I have found that the challenges that arise have been the most incredible food for growth and evolution.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
I work with the individuals in front of me and their needs at the time. There are always alternatives for differing health needs and I am present with the students watching and listening for cues, so I can support them wherever they are at. Yoga is for everyone and I aim to make my sessions accessible to all whilst still giving a challenge for those who need that.
I approach yoga as a lifestyle and thus share inspirations and education to support clients to understand their own bodies and minds more deeply and give them take away tools that can be used wherever they go and whatever they do. It is very much about inspiring people to take yoga off the mat and into their daily life.
I also feel very grateful to be part of a tradition with roots in ancient so my teaching is from a very authentic place. Yet I really value modern science and psychology and thus sprinkle whatever I share with emerging science to support people’s understanding of the how’s and why’s of the practices.
Whatever I teach, it is integral. A class would include a theme to support education in that area, some inspirational words on the topic and then practices from different branches of yoga. For example, using mantras, then poses, breathing techniques and ending with meditation or Yoga Nidra, so that the student receives a session that touches their body, mind and energy systems.
Could you explain what is behind your beautiful name?
I received my name from my Guru when I was initiated into my yogic path. My Sanskrit name is a mantra and when it is said it creates a vibration which supports me at a subtle level and helps me to identify with a positive inner aspect of myself. It translates as Karma meaning ‘action’ and Karuna signifying ‘compassion’. When I received the name, I was given the instruction to “step into the shoes of others, to act and serve from their perspective”. This is, of course, easier said than done, but the name provides me a pathway to work out my karmas, express my positive aspects and help me evolve. The Swami indicates my dedication to this yogic path and translates as ‘one who is on the path to knowing themselves’ which is part of my life purpose.
What advice would you give someone new to yoga?
Yoga is for everyone, despite size, sex, nationality, religion, physical or mental limitations. Yoga in the media is often depicted as only for the bendy and beautiful or an over spiritualised approach.
New people to yoga should also understand that there are so many branches of yoga which cover the different layers of human experience and that there are practices for everyone, so it is about finding an approach to suit individual needs and goals.
I think it is really important to find an experienced teacher, so check out their background. A 200-hour course is just a beginning, the tip of the iceberg. Use some discretion in choosing your yoga teachers so that you get the right support for your needs.
Although yoga is at least 5000 years old, modern science is gradually proving what the Yogis have said for centuries and showing the benefits of mindfulness, gentle movement; the importance of stimulating the relaxation response, the power of the breath, chanting to activate the vagus nerve, gratitude to turn on our feel-good hormones and so much more. In this day and age of stress and fast-paced life, yoga and similar techniques are becoming a need.
Yoga is a life journey and way of living, not just a practice on the mat. As they say, the journey starts with the first step.
What impact has yoga had in your life?
I don’t think I can answer this in just a few sentences! Yoga has impacted every aspect of my life, supporting my mental, emotional and physical health and resilience. It has given me tools to manage the challenges of life, have more conscious relationships including as a mother, wife, colleague, teammate on sports teams and as a Swami dedicated to my spiritual path since the age of nineteen …
You name it, yoga improves my experience of it!
Yoga as holistic science including the meditation practices has helped me to understand myself and unpack and grow from deep conditioning and unconscious traumas. It helps me to use every experience of my life to continue to transform. I have a pathway that helps me cultivate integrity, positivity and the ability to serve others.
I have a job that I love, which inspires me every day and supports me to continue to evolve no matter what I am doing. It prepares me for when it is time to let go of this body and guides me though the waves of life! I am so grateful to have found my yogic path and to get to share it with others.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
My Gurus are my greatest inspiration including being with them in person, listening to videos and talks, reading the several hundred books on every single topic of yoga by the Bihar School of Yoga.
I find group practice is really helpful. For example, at present, I meet once a week with other people in my yoga community online to chant the Thousand Names of the Goddess. It keeps me on track, to have points in my week where I practice with others.
I also get a lot of knowledge from the unfolding research into topics like mindfulness, yoga, gut biome, the vagus nerve, brain science and other areas. It is really exciting to see how it is proving what the yogis have said for thousands of years. It also gives me ways to express the techniques and philosophy to people in a way that they can relate to.
Over the years, I have found that the most important inspiration is to be connected to my own self. This is easiest when I am practicing regularly.
How do you prepare for teaching your classes?
I always have a class plan, which I often throw out the door if it doesn’t suit the present moment, but it gives me a foundation to work from. I often prepare a visual document which supports my deepening of the topic and gives students something to take away.
Before I begin a session, I arrive early, prepare the space, light a candle or incense if there is an altar or have my own symbol with me that connects me to my lineage. I close my eyes, connect to my teachers, do my personal mantra or sankalpa (resolution) and open myself so I can be a vessel for the teachings to flow through. I always start the classes (unless for some reason inappropriate ie. a corporate environment) with a mantra which creates a link between the teachings and the students and also brings me and the students into resonance and present moment.
What is the most exciting thing about the yoga and wellness world right now?
I love it that we are getting more and more proof scientifically of what has been stated for thousands of years by the Yogis. Areas like the vagus nerve, neuroplasticity, relaxation response, mindfulness in healthcare and yoga as therapy are coming into their own. This is really exciting.
It is wonderful to see how widespread yoga is becoming in modern times. It is no longer just a few hippies looking for enlightenment or a few stars trying to get a good body, but truly, yoga is on every corner, in every country and becoming more and more recognised as a valid method to support mental, physical and emotional well-being as well as a pathway towards higher consciousness.
I do worry though that the integrity in yoga and the roots are being lost and that there is a big misunderstanding of what yoga really is. The deeper purpose is often glazed over. Too many people take a short training, alter it to suit their own egotistical or financial goals, claim it as their own new style and propagate themselves. Yoga has a long and profound tradition behind it, and I would love it if this was honoured more in modern times.
What did your lockdown practice look like?
My personal practice was much the same which includes a little bit of chanting, hatha yoga, pranayama and meditation and a yoga nidra or restorative practice later in the day. Probably the most important aspect was staying as present as possible so as not to buy into the fear and panic.
But actually, we had twenty people from around the world locked down in our retreat centre! We did a lot of group practice during this time; guided classes, fire ceremony, morning chanting, yoga nidra and meditation sessions which both supported me to stay balanced as well as others at the retreat.
The most exciting thing we did was to organise an online festival called Raise Us Up, which was about keeping ourselves and our global community positive but also crossed as a fundraiser for Anahata Yoga Heath and Education Trust which was hard hit by Covid. Presenters, musicians and spiritual leaders from around the world donated their time and we streamed a 13-hour festival. It was an intense focus but kept us all positive. With 10,000 views over the day and a lot of generosity, it was highly inspiring!
What do you love about your part of town?
I live in Golden Bay, top of the South Island of New Zealand. We are surrounded by two national parks and the ocean, totally immersed in stunning, pristine beauty and so many ways to explore the outdoors. The community is strong, with many organic growers and people dedicated to important conservation principles, permaculture, art, health and well-being. I feel truly grateful to live in such a wonderful community.
Thank you so much, Swami Karma Karuna!
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© The Yoga Connection 2020