Karma Yoga

In the Yoga tradition, there are different paths, all with the same end goal: to clear the mind so we can see our true potential. Karma Yoga is one of my favourite paths because it is for the practical life. Through the practice of Karma Yoga, you can continue living the life you are living and still live a spiritual life. It is all about changing the attitude you bring to your actions. I sincerely believe that if we all were familiar with the basic principles of Karma Yoga and tried to follow them in our everyday life not only we would be able live more peacefully and relaxed, but we would also make this world a better place.

To begin with, we need to look at the importance of the intention behind our actions. In order for an action to be liberating, it needs to come from a space of clarity as opposed to a state of selfish desire or neediness.

What Karma Yoga is trying to teach us is that since everything we need is already within us, we don’t need to seek for it in the external world. Therefore, we can detach from the fruits of our actions. We are responsible for the intention behind our action and the action in itself but we are not to worry about the results because they are out of our control. We all have experienced doing something for someone with the best of intentions to then be surprised and maybe even frustrated by the reaction of that person. For example, you make a nice dinner for your family putting your heart into it, spending time planning and preparing but nobody likes it. Your kids even make noises of disgust while eating. A common reaction would be to get upset, right? You put all this effort for ‘nothing’. But, is it really for ‘nothing’? You had a clear and pure intention, you did your best, whether your family likes or not the dinner is out of your hands. You can either spend time and energy getting angry and frustrated, or you just decide that either they need to be exposed to this dish several times to like it (do you know about the 10 times rule?), or you won’t make this dish anymore. That’s it. No drama, no unnecessary use of your energy.

It is important at this point to say that it is not about suppressing your emotional reactions to situations, it is about taking time to observe them and learn something about yourself. You are ‘allowed’ to get frustrated or angry, but you can try not to react to this in a way that is draining both for you and those around you. What was the real intention behind your action? Was it to do something nice for your family (in the dinner example), or was it more about wanting to get some sort of recognition? If it is the latter, ask yourself, do you really need anyone to tell you that you are a good cook? Can you acknowledge that yourself? If you really need the recognition, then say it clearly, ‘I made this dinner with the best intentions and I would appreciate some recognition, even if you didn’t like it’. You are then being very clear both to yourself and those around you.

To summarise: Intention and action are your responsibility. The results are out of your hands and therefore you would benefit from detaching from them to avoid unnecessary worry and/or frustration.

Another important aspect in the practice of Karma Yoga is the concept of svadharma, or personal duty. Swami Satchidananda has a good explanation for this:

“What you’re truly called to do is your dharma. It fits your aptitude, your capabilities and your natural inclination[…] No two snowflakes are exactly the same. As such, you are also unique, you have been created unique with certain abilities that no other person can do. That’s your svadharma, your individual duty[…] Find out what your svadharma is. Ask yourself, how do I feel when doing certain things? Does something come easily? Is it natural for me or am I trying to imitate somebody? But remember, that svadharma is different just an action based on a selfish interest. Svadharma is something righteous. The word “dharma” always implies the benefit of others.” From Sri Swami Satchinanda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita ch.3 v.33, 34, 35

This is such an empowering concept! We all are born with a set of qualities that makes us unique, and our duty is to use them in every action we take for the benefit of the whole. This is very important, you don’t need to resign your job, or neglect yourself and/or your family to go help others, you can contribute to the well-being of others by doing what you already do with the intention of doing what is most skilful for you and those around you. You can also stop comparing yourself with others or trying to imitate others. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, but the only one you need to compare yourself with is yourself. You can ask yourself, am I a better version of myself today than last year? How does this make me feel and those around me? If the answer is more peaceful, you are then in the right direction.

Connected to the concept of clear intention is the importance of asking yourself ‘why do I do what I do?’. This can help you get to know yourself better and decide: 1) What am I doing just to do and I can let go of? Make a list of your priorities, if that list is very long, you might need to consider shortening it. 2) What am I doing with a ‘hidden agenda’ that I can stop doing or do with a “clear agenda”? What I mean by ‘hidden agenda’ is that sometimes we do things believing that we want to benefit others, when in reality we are looking for recognition. There is nothing wrong with wanting recognition, but in order to achieve a real state of peace of mind, in the yoga tradition, we are encouraged to start looking inwards for our value. All we find in the external world is transient, and therefore will never fulfil our needs completely. 3) What am I doing out of obligation?

If you find out that you do things out of obligation, can you change the mindset? Can you do things out of love? With your heart put in action? One example is parenting and spending time with our kids. Some parents experience certain aspects of parenting as an obligation, making this task more heavy and energy draining than it needs to be. If you rather see the whole picture and realise that you do everything out of love to your children, out of love to all children, the task will be less heavy and you will feel better. If you cannot find the joy in it, can you drop it? We sometimes feel that we are ‘obligated’ to do things that we really aren’t obligated to do.

All or some of these concepts might sound too difficult to live up to for you right now, and that is ok. You don’t need to apply everything at the same time, reflect on what is achievable for you. It might be enough to observe yourself in action and to note down where you meet distress and stress, and reflect on whether any of the described concepts would help you unknot some knots. Remember that one of the most important aspects in all yoga paths is practice. You need to practice, practice and practice more. Sometimes, you will feel the freedom, love and bliss that right action bring, sometimes you will feel that you keep giving with ‘nothing in return’. That is normal, but the more you advance in the path of yoga, the easier it gets, and I honestly can say that changes do start happening. It works almost like magic but you need patience and resilience and good guidance. Good luck!

You CAN make time for yourself

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of balance between responsibilities towards the outer world and towards myself. It seems like, a lot of people struggle to find this balance. I know that I am constantly trying to find the right balance between responsibilities and myself. Sometimes, I am good at it, sometimes my responsibilities take over, sometimes I exaggerate on what I want for me. I have come up with some points with suggestions that might help you if you feel that you aren’t good at balancing between you and the rest of the world.

  1. Make choices with a clear mind and try to be at peace with what they bring by accepting, adapting and letting go of what you can let go of. One example is motherhood. I wanted to have kids but I didn’t know what I was signing up for until, in the lapse of three years, I was suddenly standing there with three kids aged 0, 1 and a half, and 3 years old. It was hectic, it was tiring, and it was amazing at the same time. We didn’t plan to have them so close to each other, but we were actually told we couldn’t have children in the first place, so we were happy to prove the doctors wrong. Having three young kids meant that we had to think differently, at least for some time. The main focus became to take care of and enjoy them as much as we could. I am not saying that this should be everybody’s main focus in life, but I do believe we need to be clear about our priorities so we don’t get overwhelmed. I stayed home for five years from the day our oldest was born and until our youngest was two to avoid the stress for us and for the kids of everyday life. This meant less income, and therefore we had to change our lifestyle. This meant balance for us back then. But I do remember that in several occasions, I had to remind myself of the choices we had made and their consequences. I remember so well the year we decided to sell our apartment to buy a house. It was the same year I went back to work . I dreamed of a big house which we obviously couldn’t afford because of our reduced income the last five years. I was frustrated, and I was angry at ourselves for some days until I reminded myself why we had made the choices we had made and what they had meant for us and the kids.
  2. Be brutally honest with yourself: the world will not go under without you, especially if you are only taking two minutes to drink water. You think I’m exaggerating? I’m not! Some years ago, I read an article about an American mum of three that had to be hospitalised because she forgot to eat and drink during two days because she was too busy taking care of her kids. This is, of course, an extreme case, but I know by own experience that I believe I need to do everything around the house so my family can thrive. The truth is that they enjoy the freedom of being left to their own devices from time to time, and most of the time, I am the one putting pressure on myself. This applies to work, extended family and friends too. It is not possible to be at my 100% all the time everywhere.
  3. Ask yourself, what is the priority now? And let me drop a bomb on you, you can’t prioritise everything if you don’t want to end up exhausted. I have (or hopefully I can say ‘I have had’…) fixed ideas of how my house should look like, so for some strange reason, I have always had the habit of tidying up before I leave the house. Maybe for the mice to have a cosy time while we’re away? I clean the kitchen, I arrange the pillows on the couch, take dirty clothes to the washing room, make beds, open curtains, and if I have time, clean the bathroom sink and mirror and sweep the floor under the dining table and in the kitchen… All this until this summer. When I’m alone with the kids during the summer, I plan some sort of outing with them everyday but since we all like taking it easy in the morning, I spend a good amount of time doing things that I enjoy and I allow my kids to do the same. We then eat breakfast fairly late so if we want to get somewhere, we need to be efficient after breakfast. This means leaving the house in what I see as a mess. It is a good compromise with myself in order to be able to spend time doing something that I enjoy, that gives me energy and that gives me the feeling that this is my vacation too. I would lie if I said that the outings with my kids are some sort of sacrifice, but it is slightly different because I am ‘on duty’ then. The aim is to have a good time, but the focus is them.
  4. Make your well-being a priority above all priorities. If you aren’t doing well, if you are ill, or if you are struggling in any way, you need to take care of yourself first. Actually, I believe you need to take care of yourself no matter what, but especially when you’re not doing well. A very important thing in this point is that you need to be very honest about what is good for your well-being. You might need more physical activity and a walk would benefit you more than going on social media before bedtime, or you might need to spend some time in silence for your peace of mind instead of going to a party. I remember some years ago, a friend of mine was having problems in her marriage. The good news was that she and her husband agreed on what the source of their struggles was, the bad news was that none of them knew how to get out of the hole. When I asked if they had considered therapy, she said yes, but that they didn’t have time for it. What can be more important at that moment in their life than saving their marriage? I hear things like this all the time. A friend that is stressed and would benefit from doing some sort of physical activity, but she ‘doesn’t have time for it’. A friend that has a pain somewhere but he never takes the time to find a good doctor. I don’t know why we do this. For some, it might be cultural. You feel that you are selfish when you let go of some obligations in order to do something good for you. For some it might be frightening to take care of themselves. Others might have become consciously or unconsciously accustomed to the role of victim and can’t get out of it. Whatever your reason is, try to find it, don’t judge yourself, and change this negative pattern of thinking.
  5. Organise your time. It might be a good exercise to spend some days, at the end of your day, writing down everything you did that day. Not in detail, but for example: waking up at 7am and describe your morning routine: breakfast, shower… Work from 8 to 4:30, lunch from 11:30 to 12, what you did after work, what you did during the evening. Do it for at least three days, and look for things you spend time on that are not your priority, that are stealing your time and you can let go of, that you do but could ask someone else to do, that you do and don’t even know why, etc. This will allow you to make some time for yourself. For example: instead of going to bed at 12 because you were watching a TV show, go to bed at 11 so you can wake up earlier to go for a short walk before your morning routine, or meditate, or read, or whatever you know would help you feel better. If you are not a morning person, use your evenings instead. Talk with people around you to support you. You need to be systematic and disciplined to manage this, but you also need to show yourself compassion when you skip out. Try to set yourself small goals instead of big goals. For example, if you want to start running, start with 15-20 minutes two or three times a week instead of dreaming of running for “at least” half an hour five days a week. When life is very hectic at home, I sometimes eat lunch while working, and then take a 10 minute pause to meditate, or to go for a short walk. This really helps me rebalance. But it requires some planning, some discipline and the mindset of doing something good for me is not selfish.

I hope this helps.

Silence. How and Why.

Please note that meditation and silence are not advisable if you are under extreme mental stress or emotional distress.

[…] Those with agitated, uncontrolled minds cannot even guess that the Atma is present here within. Without quietness, where is meditation? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness? Bhagavad Gita 2:66

Cultivating silence is gradually becoming part of my yoga practice. It can be for a short period of time like some hours during a day, or in the form of one to several days retreat where I spend time on my own.

The way I see it, spending time in silence is like an extension of my daily sadhana which is basically doing simple breathing exercises for ten minutes, and sitting in silence between 10 and 20 minutes. I sometimes write for fifteen minutes instead and sit in silence for five minutes. The purpose of sadhana is to get into the habit of calming the mind, and the more I practice the easier it becomes to keep a calmer mind in my everyday life. This doesn’t mean that when I sit, I don’t think. More often than not, I engage in planning, evaluating, analysing, ruminating, etc., but when I notice that I’m engaging in my thoughts, I slowly and gently let the thought go and focus my attention on my breath.

Why cultivate silence? I have noticed, since the very first time I was in a silent retreat with my teacher Prasad Rangnekar, that when I go into silence, my body starts slowing down and this has an effect in my nervous system reducing stress. When in silence, I am also able to observe my thoughts easier. It is very useful to know what is occupying my mind and work with it either practically by making some adjustments in my life, or by letting go of thoughts that don’t serve me and only create internal noise or even distress.

Most of us live quite busy lives with work, family and other obligations. This keeps our mind going on all the time. Then, when we have some spare time, what most of us do is to “relax” by going into our phones, reading a book, watching TV, meeting friends, etc. None of these activities are bad but they do not allow our mind to relax completely.

In the yoga practice, it is known that a relaxed mind is a clear mind. Cultivating a calm mind is the means of the yoga practitioner towards self-realisation. Seen it in a more practical way, when we take time to quiet the mind, to observe our thoughts and emotions, we gradually get a better understanding of how we function, and we are able to make adjustments to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Thus we live a more skilful and harmonious life following our real priorities and not making decisions by impulse or because everybody is doing the same.

Going into silence can sometimes be unpleasant because as we finally slow down we might be confronted to difficult thoughts and/or emotions that we have been pushing away in our business. It is important in this cases to receive these thoughts/emotions with an open heart, with a calm attitude, observe them and not try to push them away again or run away from them. It is also important not to engage with them either. This means that we allow them to come, but refrain from analysing, justifying and/or judging them or ourself for having them. When we try to cultivate stillness, we avoid solving problems, otherwise, we are engaged again in too much mental activity. This said, I have experienced that after a period of silence, solutions to problems come almost by themselves precisely because my mind becomes clearer.

There are different ways to cultivate silence, one doesn’t necessarily need to go hide in a cave. The simplest one is, as mentioned at the start of this post, to create the habit of sitting down in a calm place for some minutes and do nothing other than breathing slowly and deeply. When you notice you’re engaged in thinking, gently let the thought go, and go back to your breath. It doesn’t need to be for a long period of time. You can start with two or three minutes and as you get used to it, increase the time.

Another way of cultivating silence is by being aware of all the sometimes unnecessary noise we bring into our life. Maybe next time you sit on the couch to catch your breath after a busy day, you just do that, sit and observe what happens with your mind. Or whenever you are doing some chores where you usually would turn on the radio, turn on the TV, listen to a podcast, be completely present with what you do instead.

I had the habit of listening to music when going for a walk or a run. I still sometimes do, but I often chose not to, so I can try to be in silence. This one is very challenging because I always end up engaging in some mental activity, mainly planning ahead. But I’m working with it. Whenever I notice I’m again mentally “busy”, I try to let go.

And there are, of course, the retreats. If possible, leave for a place where it is calm or create that calm space at home. Decide how long you want to be in silence. Maybe it is a good idea to start slowly, with one day, and increase as you feel more comfortable with it. Tell those around you that you want to be in silence, so you don’t need to worry about feeling that you are rude. Slow down, try not to make much eye contact with those around you. Don’t talk. No reading, no music, no radio, no phone. Just you and the gradual peace that silence brings. It might feel very difficult, and that’s ok. Try not to engage with your thoughts. Thoughts will come all the time, the key is to try to let them go when we notice we’re engaged in thinking. It is very important not to be judgemental of your own process. If you feel your mind is all over the place, don’t add distress by judging yourself. Just observe with curiosity, and after the time of silence, decide what changes you need to bring into your life in order to help your mind quiet down. This is where one of the most important principles of yoga steps in: vairagya or detachment. The more we attach our thoughts to, the less our mind is calm. Find out what is it that you are clinging to that doesn’t serve you in life. What is it that you can let go of.

When I go into silence, I like to create myself a routine. I wake up at a specific time, I choose a time to do my asana (sometimes twice a day), I do breathing exercises and sit in stillness several times a day. I also go for walks, and since I am a Yoga student, I usually study the Gita under the guidance of my teacher. While in a retreat, I spend more time reflecting on how the verses I am studying apply into my life. I also write, and I rest. If I feel like taking a nap, I take a nap but beware of not falling into drowsiness, that is why the walking and the asana. If you’re not a yoga asana practitioner, just some mild movement of the body would do.

This is the stage I am at when it comes to silence. I guess the more you practice, the more you can sit in complete silence, and the less you do but remember, we all are where we are in life and we need to take that into consideration when practicing yoga. Often, what we want or think should do is not necessarily what we need or benefit from. If you’re in doubt, seek for some guidance.