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HOW YOGA CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER

A balanced combination of asanas, breathing techniques and meditation can not only fix your body and improve your mental health, but also unlock hidden talents and increase happiness levels.

Divya Kanchibhotla

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Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “union” or “coming together”. Dating back more than 5,000 years, it is a powerful practice that can create synergy in the mind-body complex. This synergy is important to maintain a healthy, happy life. Yoga postures or asanas are the most well known aspect of yoga, but it also consists of breathing exercises, meditation and knowledge of ethical living practices. Together, all these can help with mental and physical well-being.

In today’s world, if there is an omnipresent phenomenon that affects people from all nationalities, ages, gender and races, it is stress. Stress has slowly become a part of the current human experience. Stress can be triggered by an unpleasant conversation with a co-worker, an impending deadline, traffic, family pressures, worries about the future or just by listening to the news. Chronic low level stress is a way of life for most adults. Chronic stress keeps the sympathetic nervous system active and depresses the parasympathetic nervous system. This imbalance creates a multitude of health problems like insomnia, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, obesity, mood disorders, digestive disorders and even cancer. According to a WHO report, these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for 41 million deaths, which is 71% of all deaths globally. The NCDs are difficult to manage or cure with just Western medicine. More people are now turning towards holistic techniques for well-being, and yoga is amongst the most popular. In 2015, the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 21 million or 9.5% of all adults in the US used yoga as a complementary health approach. This number has grown since then as thousands of people are discovering the benefits of yoga each day.

Here are six ways in which yoga can change your life:

YOGA REDUCES STRESS

Yoga has been shown to increase heart rate variability (HRV). Increased HRV is a sign of increased relaxation and reduced stress. Yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol, the hormone indicator for stress. The components of stretching, deep breathing and meditation relax the body and calm the mind. They bring one to the present moment and moderate the incessant flow of the thoughts which creates stress. Pranayama and breathing techniques like Sudarshan Kriya have also been shown to reduce stress significantly.

YOGA HELPS YOU SLEEP

With the constant pressure to manage responsibilities and be “on” at all times, most of us have trouble sleeping. Many illnesses and health problems are associated with insomnia, including cancer, chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, and depression. Several studies have been conducted on the impact of yoga on sleep, including one by Harvard Medical School. Yoga has been shown to improve sleep, impacting its onset, duration and quality. Simple techniques like savasana and yoga nidra can be highly beneficial for sleep.

YOGA MAKES YOU YOUNGER

A recent study published in JAMA Dermatology showed that practising face yoga postures for 20 weeks made women look three years younger. The good news is that yoga also makes you younger at a deeper level. Yoga has been known to reduce inflammation and improve circulation in the body which slows the aging process.

YOGA MAKES YOU HAPPY

Yoga can boost feelings of happiness not only by making you feel like you did something good for yourself, but by also impacting the neurochemical pathways of happiness. Researchers at the Boston University Medical School found higher levels of the amino acid GABA in people after practising yoga for just one hour. People who suffer from depression and anxiety have very low levels of these amino acids in their bodies. Yoga is also shown to release oxytocin, which is an essential hormone for social bonding and happiness. When oxytocin levels are high, one feels a greater sense of connection with others and themselves. A study in India showed that yoga also increases levels of serotonin, the hormone responsible for making one feel happy and regulating mood. Thus, yoga impacts the brain in wonderful, positive ways and makes us healthy and happy!

YOGA KEEPS YOU HEALTHY MENTALLY & PHYSICALLY

An amazing thing about yoga is that it is highly customisable. There are postures and breathing techniques specifically for conditions like diseases and pregnancy and for purposes like increasing creativity and focus. A good yoga teacher can help you tailor your practice to focus on areas that are important to you. Current research has also found yoga to be an effective tool to reduce depression and anxiety. Yoga can also increase endurance for pain. Numerous studies have shown its benefit in managing NCDs like diabetes and obesity. In an increasingly stressful world, yoga is an easy, effective and economical way to keep oneself healthy.

YOGA MAKES YOU SMART AND CREATIVE

Yoga has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in our body and the command central for the parasympathetic nervous system. Stress and anxiety suppresses vagus nerve activity, which makes us react rather than respond, in a state of fear, fight or flight, and make more mistakes and rash decisions. Yoga activates the vagus nerve, allowing us to access parts of the brain responsible for creativity, higher cognition and logical thinking. Yoga relaxes the body and the brain, allowing us to take actions from a calm space and bringing forth hidden talents.

 A beautiful and effective combination of yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation can be found in the Art of Living Happiness Program. Taking a few minutes to practise these effective yet easy techniques can truly transform your life!

 The author is a senior meditation teacher and the Executive Director, Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research.

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Spiritually Speaking

STILL YOUR MIND AND LET THE HEALING BEGIN

Prashant Solomon

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The world is going through a terrible crisis of Covid-19 pandemic and our beloved country of India is, in particular, going through a terrible second wave that is causing fear, sadness and pain in the lives of many. It is a good time to look inwards and realise who we truly are and try to do what we can to raise the vibrations of ourselves and in the process of the world and our country.

Through these raised vibrations we can do our bit in bringing healing to the world and the country. Having said that, we must continue to follow public health guidelines like wearing masks, using hand sanitisers and social distancing. Also, we must honour the rules of the land and avoid moving outside for some time unless necessary.

Now let us take a look at how we can realise who we are and through that become a force of positive change in our world and nation.

The stillness of mind is necessary for us to realise who we really are. “Be still and know that I am God”, says Psalm 46:10, clear advice in the Bible by the Lord to meditate.

When a stone is dropped into a pond of water, it creates ripples, which prevent a person from seeing his reflection in the pond.

It is only when the ripples subside and the water is still that you can see your reflection. Our consciousness is like the pond; if thoughts enter into our mind, they create ripples in our consciousness and these ripples prevent us from seeing our self in the pond of our consciousness.

Stubborn thoughts need to be stopped if true knowledge of self is to be gained. This must happen smoothly. A thought is like a fire, which is fuelled by attention.

By not paying attention to a stubborn thought, it can be made to pass through the mind unattended. Do not try to wrestle with your unwanted thoughts. Wrestling with them is giving attention to them and will make it difficult for them to go away.

A person can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. In today’s social media-dominated world, it is not easy to concentrate on one thing at a time and this causes our minds to be constantly in a state of flux – fluctuating from one thought to the other. Our constant bombardment with messages either on WhatsApp or Instagram or the like is something that can be considered like an addiction. Though these things have their uses, they must be controlled. We have developed a kind of dependency on these things.

You don’t have to respond immediately to every message or text that comes your way. Take a breather!

Negative thoughts are very natural especially in these testing times of Covid spreading like wildfire throughout our beloved country of India. But the spreading of negative thoughts must be controlled by each one of us to create a positive aura in our country. Stray thoughts of any kind are not welcome when we are trying to still the mind.

Focusing on our breath is a good way to divert attention away from stray thoughts.

Breathe in deeply through your nose and while breathing in, pay attention to your breath. Hold the breath inside you for just a few seconds, maybe five or six seconds, and exhale slowly paying attention to your breath as you exhale.

This technique will relax you as well as help in stilling the mind. After repeating this exercise about 10 times, say the word, ‘Om’, ‘Amen’ or ‘Amin’ — depending on your choice, they all refer to the creative word of God — three times.

Now focus your attention on the point between the eyebrows about one inch above the eyebrow level. This is the centre of Krishna or Christ Consciousness, which is called the Kutastha Centre by Paramahansa Yogananda.

In the Bible, this place is mentioned by Christ when he says in Matthew 6:22: “The light of the body is the eye: If therefore thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”.

The idea is to concentrate on this point without thinking or allowing thoughts to enter the mind. True meditation is the complete stillness of the mind.

Though thinking about God is a good thing and can help raise the levels of positive energy around you, while meditating try not to think of anything — not even God. Remember what the Bible says, “Be still and know that I am God”.

Though thinking about God is a good thing and can help raise the levels of positive energy around you, while meditating try not to think of anything — not even God. Remember what the Bible says, “Be still and know that I am God”.

A feeling of complete relaxation and tranquillity is soon followed by joyous bliss that is all-pervading. When the eye is single — the single eye of intuition or the Kutastha Centre becomes the focus of attention — then the body shall be full of light.

When the attention is focused like a magnifying glass at the Kutastha Centre, the eye of intuition will see the divine light of God and the body shall be bathed by the Divine and Glorious light.

In that moment of blissfulness, direct that peace and light that you see towards the world and especially towards India. Imagine an India that is healthy and pandemic free. In your mind gently let go of any kind of anger, fear, resentment that you have towards anyone and forgive. Send thoughts of love and healing to India and the world. This will surely help to raise the vibrations of the world and the country. The more people who do this, the better it is.

It is a wonderful feeling to still the mind and see your true blissful self in the reflection of your pond of consciousness. Seek God within you now and ask that you be filled with love, light and the power of healing. With these things directed towards the planet and the nation, you will be doing your role in healing the planet and helping to bring brighter days ahead.

Prashant Solomon is a Delhi-based author and businessman.

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Spiritually Speaking

USING THE BREATH FOR BETTER MENTAL HEALTH

Divya Kanchibhotla

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According to WHO, depression will be one of the leading causes of global disease burden in 2020. Mental health experts are warning about a historic wave of mental health disorders post-pandemic. In this scenario, it becomes even more important to provide safe, natural ways of preventing and managing depression. One powerful tool that has been underutilised but is accessible is our breath.

Breathing is an exceptional function in the body. The functioning of most organs critical to survival and health, like the heart, stomach, pancreas, liver is involuntary, i.e not under our control. Breathing is unique as it is mostly involuntary, but can be made voluntary under our conscious control. The ability to switch between voluntary and involuntary allows breathing to impact the body-mind complex and gives us access to a slew of benefits that are now validated by scientific research.

Breathing forms the basis of a variety of relaxation and wellness techniques. Here’s why. Human ability to consciously regulate breathing has been explored for aeons, especially in the Yogic practices and tenets for its powerful effect on mind and body. From reducing clinical depression to correcting your circadian rhythm and managing symptoms of anxiety and stress, there is now available a growing body of research on wellness applications of breathwork.

REDUCES DEPRESSION

In one of the first research studies done on Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a rhythmic breathing practice, researchers at NIMHANS, India looked at a population suffering from depression. They found that two-thirds of people suffering from depression who underwent SKY had no symptoms of depression at 4 weeks of practising SKY- (remission rate of 67% at four weeks). SKY was found to be as effective as taking an antidepressant medication, minus the side effects of course. Another study at the University of Pennsylvania looked at people suffering from MDD (Major depressive disorder) who did not respond well to antidepressants. More than half (54%) of the population who learnt and practised deep breathing showed greater than 50% improvement in their symptoms.

REDUCES STRESS AND ANXIETY

Stress and Anxiety have become an integral part of the modern human experience, and also a cause of poor mental health and chronic diseases. Around 275 million people – 4% of the world’s population suffer from anxiety.

When we encounter a stressful situation, our brain triggers a cascade of neurochemical reactions that release cortisol, the primary stress hormone in our body. Overexposure to cortisol, like in chronic stress, can disrupt almost all of the essential processes in the body including digestion, immunity and sleep. A study conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences and NIMHANS assessed the stress level of employees at Larsen and Turbo (LnT) Limited and found that the cortisol levels in employees who learned breathing practices, reduced by 23% in three months and 37% over six months. Employees also reported higher levels of life satisfaction and emotional regulation with the practice.

Italian studies showed, within two weeks of practice, the anxiety scores in patients with Generalised Anxiety Disorder dropped by almost half (48%) in the population.

CREATES A STATE OF RELAXED AWARENESS

Our brain works on electrical activity. Neurons communicate with each other via electrical impulses and create brain waves. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that detects the electrical activity of these waves. One study, conducted on 43 practitioners of mind-breath disciplines found that long term practitioners showed a high increase in alpha as well as beta waves, implying a state of relaxed awareness.

HELPS THE BRAIN TO FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE

When things are good, we experience a good quality of life. It is during unexpected, unpleasant life experiences, that our brain goes into a tizzy. We experience negative emotions and feel sad and isolated. In those moments, it becomes difficult to maintain a positive attitude.

A research study at National AIDS Research Institute, India found that those who practised rhythmic breathing techniques practice showed a significant increase in the Quality of Life amongst the population with AIDS. When experiencing untoward and difficult life circumstances, the technique provided resilience and strength to focus on the positive and respond effectively to the situation.

Divya Kanchibotla is a senior meditation teacher and the Executive Director of the Art of Living’s Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research.

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Seeking compassion and strength from Lord Hanuman

Prarthna Saran

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1981 saw me in Siddhabari propelled by an intense desire to visit this spiritual retreat in the lone serenity of the Himalayas. This retreat of the Chinmaya Mission was a small hamlet of a few humble cottages perched on a hillock with a dense pine forest on three sides, and a softly murmuring stream encircling the bottom of the hill. Though the place commanded a breathtakingly expansive view of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges, the hillock stood bare of bush or tree. The valley, as we were informed by the locals, was a strong wind tunnel, so nothing could grow there as it could not stand the fire of the fierce winds that swept the valley.

Swami Chinmayananda Ji arrived as a boon for this place. The Mahatma planted many saplings of trees and flowering bushes. A whole garden was being planned. “And now,” said the divine Mahatma, “We will worship Hanuman Ji here. He is the controller of the winds”. There are 49 different varieties of winds described by the Rishis of yore, that is why the plural. A highly skilled sculptor and temple architect from Shimoga, Shri Kashinath was given the task to sculpt the idol. He took about a year to translate the dream into a breathtakingly beautiful open-air reality. In October 1982, we attended the rare and unforgettable unveiling and Prana Pratishthan of the colossal idol. The kalashas (sacred pots) of the devotees glittered in the sun in resplendent beauty containing the holy waters of all the sacred rivers of India with which the Abhishek was performed. When the idol of Pavan Putra Hanuman (son of the wind) was unveiled, it stood in the arms of the wind as a jaw-dropping wonder. The octagonal pedestal of black granite is 8 ft high, and sitting on it is our rock-solid Lord Hanuman in Veer Asana (posture of the brave). This position is a yogic posture depicting a ‘ready to spring into action’ pose. In a sitting position, the idol is 23 ft tall. The nearer you get to him, the more humble and dwarfed you feel, literally and spiritually too. Even his exalted toes are beyond one’s reach unless one lifts himself to deserve this with great self-effort. It brought to my mind my teacher’s explanation of the fifth verse of chapter six of the Bhagavad Geeta:

“The higher you go, the greater the danger of the fall. So, if you don’t have the courage, just remain on terra- firma.“ The spellbinding idol has a soft benign look in the eyes bestowing grace and compassion on the devotees, yet each muscle in his body unmistakably declares his tornado-like physical strength.

To the surprise of the villagers around as well as the residents of the sadhanalaya, the winds henceforth controlled their might to adopt softer stances. Beautiful trees and flowering gardens came up all around. Surprisingly, even when the winds raged, nothing was uprooted. Another instance comes to mind of a Vishnu Sahasranama Archana being performed in the open courtyard before Hanuman Ji. The offerings of flower petals to the chants of mantras in front of a lighted lamp were in progress. The winds rose, as if from a deep slumber, they stretched and yawned, but slowly and surely they gathered a storm like quality. Dark clouds gathered and thunders rolled in the skies and lightning lit up our concerned faces. The winds grew strong and cold. The devotees glanced furtively at each other for some signs of a retreating stampede. Small lamps in front of us were struggling for survival, but the bare-chested grand Swami Chinmayananda was a dignified, composed, and peaceful presence. He turned his head and looked at Hanuman Ji, long and steadily. The storm unstormed itself. The miracle happened right in front of our eyes. The rain stopped, the unruly winds lulled to a gentle flow before this mighty Pavan Putra. The dark threatening clouds beat a hasty undignified retreat, and we could calmly go through the whole Archana. After we completed it we were asked by Swami Ji to prostrate to Hanuman Ji and chant the Hanuman Chalisa (prayer to the Lord). And, as we were chanting the last two lines, all hell broke loose. It was as if the heavens tore their heart and let burst a held back deluge on to the earth. Water and still more water, wind, hail and thunder, but by then we were watching this moment of nature’s raw passion tucked snugly into the warmth of our rooms, with a mug of tea for comfort.

Described in the Ramayan as having a golden-hued body, (Swarna shailabhideham), he displays in his person the indestructible quality of gold. Gold cannot be destroyed by fire, instead, fire acts as a catalyst to bring more purity and brilliance to gold. So, this ‘golden limbed might’ burns Lanka to ashes without getting singed himself. As gold from fire, he rose from the city’s ashes with more brilliance than ever.

This Pavan Putra was air- born and air-borne. Flying at high altitudes he was the only one who could airlift himself to Lanka, to find Sita Ji, then to the Himalayan mountains to bring Sanjeevani (the herbal medicine) for Lakshman Ji, and then to Ayodhya after the war. He is ever unbound and uncapturable as air. He alone could perform Herculean tasks for his master Ram Ji as they all involved flying nonstop by night. He also represents in his person the life-giving quality of air. The air which as Prana energises the body. He comes as life air to save many lives in the tale of the Ramayan. Singhika, a monster could not grasp him as air cannot be captured, no matter how powerful the enemy, it is too subtle an element. The demons of Lanka committed suicide by suggesting igniting his tail. Heavily oxygenated air + fire was = total destruction.

Sound travels on air. Hanuman Ji’s battle cry or thunderous roar of victory was not only nerve-shattering but struck such terror into the hearts of the Sri Lankans that they were rendered deaf. His victorious roar when he leapt back from Lanka sent such tremors of fear into the wombs of the demon women that they were compelled to abort their unborn. There was also a slow-release effect of this shattering roar. Even the future remembrance of it was shattering enough to make them drop the foetus from their wombs. Thus he ensured the destruction of the yet to be born demons also, helping in the fulfilment of his master’s vow to “rid the earth of all demons”. According to past karma as Vishnu, Ram Ji was entitled to get help only from monkeys, bears, birds, and squirrels. So Hanuman Ji took on this form to serve his Lord.

Ram Ji is forever indebted to Hanuman Ji, what more could one ask! Hanuman Ji alone is acknowledged and addressed as “son” (Suta) by both, Ram Ji and Sita Ji. Ever ready to help those in need and distress is our compassionate and mighty Lord, and it is to such a God that we turn for strength.

Prarthna Saran is the President of Chinmaya Mission Delhi.

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STOP PROCRASTINATING, ACT PROMPTLY

B.K. Mruthyunjaya

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In our efforts for self-improvement, we sometimes fail to attain our objectives despite having the required knowledge and understanding of what we need to do and what will be achieved if we put in the necessary effort. We recognise the problem, know how it can be resolved, but are still unable to do it.

The reason is a common habit that is quite strong in some people – of procrastination. When we get the thought of doing something, it carries with it the energy of newness and some zeal and enthusiasm. All these provide us with a psychological boost if we act on the thought immediately – of course, after due consideration. That positive frame of mind lightens the burden of the effort we put in.

However, if we put off implementing our ideas, due to inertia or laziness, their freshness is soon lost, and so is the spirit that comes with a new thought. Later on, when we decide to act, we may find the effort tedious because the initial vigour is missing. Our exertions may flag and the result we achieve might be well short of what it could have been had we acted immediately. The difference is similar to that between eating fresh fruit and having that same fruit after it has withered and become stale. How much energy and nutrition will it provide then?

We say: “I will do it… it will happen… it has to happen… yes, I want to do it…” By thinking in this way and endlessly making plans, we allow the fresh fruit to wither. Acting without delay brings greater success, and with it more happiness. But we are robbed of both by the habit of putting off things and coming up with excuses such as, “once this happens, then I will do it…” And then, when we are disappointed by the results of our belated efforts, we think, “Well, I did it the right way, but it did not work.”

Fortune is connected to time. Once the time has passed, the atmosphere, the attitude, the vibration… everything changes. Even the best seed planted at the wrong time will not produce the desired result. Just as eating fresh fruit is invigorating, prompt and spirited action brings greater success, joy, and a feeling of progress and power.

Doctors often advise people to have fresh food. “Don’t fry it, roast it, or change its form before you eat it: have it as it is to get the maximum benefit”, they say. Similarly, acting quickly on a good idea, without adulterating it with our weak thoughts, leads to fast progress. We not only succeed but also set an example that inspires many others.

B.K. Mruthyunjaya is Executive Secretary of the Brahma Kumaris.

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THE TASTE OF HONEY THAT SWEETENS LIFE

NEVILLE HODGKINSON

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A child born and growing up in difficult and even terrible circumstances can survive and thrive, providing they have a glimpse of something better. A teacher, parent or other relatives who gives genuine care and encouragement can serve as a small light in the darkness, and as the child grows up, they always know it is there.

In our lives generally, tough things happen that can lead us to put up protective barriers around our hearts and minds. This is an understandable step taken for survival, but there can come a point where it does us more harm than good. It holds us back, prevents us from fulfilling our potential. We may refuse to accept love and care even where it is freely offered and available. Or we may refuse to listen to signals that we are off track, and persist in acting in ways that harm ourselves and others. In time, this constant fight with life can take its toll on us physically, leading to ill-health and premature ageing.

Something that acts as an antidote to this tendency is what I like thinking of as a taste of honey. It first happened to me 40 years ago, when I met some experienced yogis from India. Yogis do not just have a taste of honey, they live in a honey jar of sweetness. They spend a lifetime remembering an inner dimension of our being that has kindness as its essence. This practise enables them to give a taste of it to others.

There are many ways of reviving our awareness of this inner dimension. However, an attitude of “seeing life as a drama” offers a way of finding sweetness even in situations that might otherwise have a bitter taste. It takes me into inner awareness of myself as an actor, playing out my part on the stage of life, rather than thinking that I am that part.

When I develop this knack of standing back, I do not feel I have to withdraw from the play. I can continue with the game of life, but refreshed and strengthened by developing a wider, wiser perspective. I am much more likely to become aware of benefit being hidden in every scene, so even an apparent failure brings progress, and I am soon ready to engage again. As I become more detached about the scenes that pass, I also have a better chance of staying in the sweet awareness of the inner being – the soul.

Neville Hodgkinson is a UK-based author and journalist, and a long-time student of Rajyoga.

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SOMETHING TO LEARN FROM LABOUR DAY

Judy Johnson

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Labour Day celebrates the achievements of workers. On this day, we honour workers and their importance to our society. Its origins are in the labour union movement focused on balancing a worker’s day; with eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.

Labour Day acknowledges the value of this work-life balance. This balance can be attention to apportioning equal time to work, recreation and rest. In spiritual terms, balance is about being centred. A fulcrum is a stable midpoint between two equally balanced weights. When we live from our spiritual core (the soul) we live on the fulcrum or centre point. Here, in this state of mind, we are most stable and find we do not tip back and forth and lose our balance.

Labour Day reminds us that nothing, no matter how big or small, is achieved without effort. In fact, the greatness is in the effort. Karma dictates that every action we perform produces a return. One form of spiritual effort is the practice of remembering that we are peaceful beings living in a peaceless world and making an honest effort to live our values practically. The return of this effort is a clean conscience and a trustworthy character. Society benefits from those who make these spiritual endeavours.

When there is love in a task, there is no labour. A story is told of a group of workers with a pile of bricks and mortar. Each was asked what their work was. The first worker said their job was to move the pile of bricks to another location. The second worker said their job was to build a wall. And the third worker said their job was to build a house of worship to honour God. Same bricks, same project, different story. When we genuinely love what we are doing, and it has meaning and value, it does not feel like labour.

This Labour Day let us do what we love or find a way to love what we do. Let us value the work we do, in whatever field, knowing there will always be a return for honest effort. And most of all, let us enjoy the sweetest, simple effort possible for a human soul – to remember God, the One we love. Then we will enjoy the peace, happiness, and love that return to us.

Judy Johnson coordinates the activities of the Brahma Kumaris meditation centre in Halifax, Canada.

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