Why Paying it Forward is the Yogic Way of Life

We’re interconnected by the kindness of others. Keep the connection alive and pay it forward.

“Paying it forward” is far from a foreign concept among yogis. Both on and off our mats we strive to repay the kindness that has been bestowed upon us. We pay it forward with love in our hearts, expecting nothing in return. The ways in which we pay it forward may be simple, but they are sure to make an impact. To pay it forward through acts of kindness is to practice yoga. And to think about how to do so is to meditate on love.

The first-ever text referencing the concept of paying it forward is thought to be within a play called The Grouch, performed in Athens in 317 BCE. Despite its name, the key theme was the passing on of kindness. Since then it has also come to be equated with generosity of money. For example, Benjamin Franklin apparently wrote to one of his debtors and told him not to repay the debt, but to instead lend it on.

But at its core, the roots of paying it forward go much further back, and stretch far beyond money alone. It is born of the hypothesis that we are all connected. Many ancient spiritual texts, like yoga’s Bhagavad Gita, comment at length on the fact that each of our lives impacts one another, and—given we will never be able to pay everyone back—we can instead pay it forward…

We Are All Interconnected

When we start to contemplate our existence, we realize just how much we are dependent upon others. Kadampa Buddhist teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, explains the extent to which we “owe” everyone in his book Transform Your Life. “Our body, for example, is the result of the kindness not only of our parents, but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter, and so forth… Even simple pleasures such as going for a walk or watching a beautiful sunset can be seen as the result of innumerable beings,” he writes.

It is a practice of living always from the heart, keen to give back by giving to all.

When you slow down and think about it, it’s almost unfathomable just how interconnected we all are. For example: How many people over countless generations has it taken for you to be here, right now, reading this on a computer? We often lose sight of the innumerable people involved who thought of all of the ideas that were then built and tested, building upon the creations of others, to eventually form a product that made it into a store and onto our desks.

As we contemplate this further we can be blown away. How many people, for example, played a part in us having the money to buy a computer? There are those who have provided us with a job, those who have helped educate us, and also those who provided them with an education. There are the authors of every book we have ever read, and—when we dig even deeper still—we see that without those who created language itself, education would not even exist. People were paying it forward long before 317 BCE—they’ve been paying it forward ever since time began… Which means we better get started.

Paying It Forward

Never in our lifetime will we be able to pay everyone back, but what we can do is pay it forward through acts of kindness towards others. While we are doing so we are practicing yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches warrior Arjuna about Karma yoga—living a life of selfless service by dedicating each one of our actions to the happiness of all beings. It is a practice of living always from the heart, keen to give back by giving to all. As we see from contemplating how many lives have impacted our own, when we pay it forward we are not just touching one person with our kindness, we are impacting perhaps hundreds, or even more.

Whenever we take the time to think of how to pay it forward, or to wonder how we can bring kindness to another being, we are essentially meditating on love.

So how do we pay it forward? That is the beauty of kindness—it is wholly creative. A friend I know takes $50 worth of $5 bills every month, picks up her daughter from school, and drives around their town taping the bills to random places with a written note on them saying “This is for you.” Personally, my boyfriend and I derive a ridiculous amount of joy from looking at pictures of cute animals, so our “pay it forward” is often printing them out and leaving them with our bill at restaurants along with a note highlighting something we treasured about the service. Another friend likes to draw chalk scenes of forests on city streets to give urban commuters a more peaceful journey on their way to work.

Kindness is also simple. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Perhaps the best way to pay it forward today is to simply open a door for another person, or to send an email to someone who might enjoy hearing from you. But as you go about paying it forward, the intention behind your action is also important to note.

Expecting Nothing in Return

Whenever we take the time to think of how to pay it forward, or to wonder how we can bring kindness to another being, we are essentially meditating on love. And for those minutes that we are fully absorbed in the joy of bringing to the world new and touching ways to warm another’s heart, we are engaged in a practice of loving others.

There is also the intention that comes with paying it forward: We are not expecting anything in return. Rather we are just trying to even the score of all that we have already received. So if you hold the door open for someone who doesn’t respond, it doesn’t matter. You’re not looking for a thank you, because this act of kindness is yourthank you” to them. However they receive your kindness is merely their version of a “you’re welcome.”

And like this we begin to let go of any demands we have been carrying about being paid back for our good deeds. We begin to let go of any ideas that we’ve been shortchanged somehow in our lives. We start to feel lighter and more joyful. And as we practice paying it forward we become deeply humbled.

Luckily for us the opportunities to practice this kindness are endless. All day long we have the chance to show our gratitude to those we share the planet with. If we choose to we can make our whole life a “thank you.”

Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.