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!

It’s unfair!

One thing that frustrates me to tears since I was a little girl is the feeling of being treated unfairly. I purposely say ‘the feeling of being treated unfairly’ because from what I observe in myself, it is often a matter of perception.

As a kid, I might have been scolded at for doing something I didn’t perceive as a fault but for the “scolding” adult, it was. I see that a lot as a teacher of young teenagers, when I correct a behaviour, my student(s) and I often move into a discussion about the unfairness of me pointing out at this action as inappropriate. This then leads to me explaining how the behaviour is against our school’s common agreements, or how it affects negatively the classroom/school’s environment, and the student in question seeing it as unfair because he/she wants or needs something different. There is a conflict between what the student in question wants or needs and what he/she can/should do at that given moment.

So, sometimes unfairness is a matter of perception, but what happens when we experience doing our best in something for then seeing it being taken away from us without clear reason? Some years ago, out of the blue, a friend that I considered as one of my closest friends, suddenly decided that she didn’t want me in her life anymore. When I asked for a reason to at least have the chance to apologise, my friend got even more angry and accused me of harassing her. We don’t live in the same country, so this made things even more difficult. I asked myself several times what was it that I did to be treated like this, and honestly, to the day today I really don’t know. In this friendship of so many years where we never ever had dispute, this really felt unfair.

After some days of reflecting, I decided that all I could do is to respect my friend’s decision. I sent her a message telling her that I love her and that I would be here in case she wanted to reestablish contact, and I let her go. From the yogic perspective, I went into this conflict with the intention to do my part to fix it, I measured my words and tried my best, her reaction to it was completely out of my hands. Why spend more time and energy thinking about the unfairness of the situation? Why make the situation even messier by engaging in negative thoughts and feelings when none of them would solve anything and just add distress for me?

If there is something I am more and more convinced of it’s the fact that even when it seems like people do things to us, it is all about their inner world. Why do I know this? Because I experience it myself. All my interactions with others and the world around me are a result of my way of perceiving myself and the outer world.

I guess at this point you are wondering if I mean that we should then just accept unfairness and let go. Not really, but like with everything, I think we do ourselves a favour when we peel off the layers of emotion in any given situation. I am not saying we shouldn’t experience emotion, but we should try to not feed into negativity and rather approach life in a practical way by seeking clarity in our mind.

I recently had the privilege to learn a big lesson from another friend. She lives abroad, has a child and is divorced. She was facing a trial about the custody of her child, and like in many trials, the lawyer in the opposing party had dug into her personal life to find aspects of her past and personality that could be presented in a bad light. It was very tough for her who has been taking good care of her child and taken every decision thinking of the child’s best, to be depicted in a completely wrong way. After the first emotion of unfairness and frustration had passed, she decided to stay calm throughout the whole process and not even respond to these accusations. She had prepared her case well, she had done all the right things for her child, and didn’t have anything to prove. She even had the compassion to understand the tactic, and let go of it in her mind. This, in my opinion is the big lesson for me to learn here. She let go for her own well-being. Thus, by letting go, she was able to stay calm in court, talk from reason, and go home with peace in her heart. She was, of course, nervous for the outcome but had the wisdom to see that she had done her part and the rest wasn’t in her hands.

This is the very principle of Karma Yoga. In her role as a mum, my friend did her duty by always acting with her child’s best interest in mind, she presented herself to trial well-prepared, the rest is not in her hands.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t fight when we perceive something as unfair? I don’t know for sure, but I think that we would benefit from asking ourselves what is it that we are fighting for and why are we fighting for it? What is required from us in that particular role? How much will this fight cost emotionally? What would happen if we let go?

This morning, I was reading verse 11 from ch2 in the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krisna says to the warrior Arjuna “The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead” which for me, in the context of spirituality, is a big statement. We don’t lament our losses, because they are losses in the transient world. The transient world is constantly changing and nothing that we acquire in it is really ours. What is even more important, no matter how much we loose ‘out there’, we don’t loose anything inside ourselves. Sometimes we even need to let go of something in order to learn a lesson, in order to be able to move on and win something that truly benefits us. If we are sure of our integrity, of our attitudes and our actions, no one can take that away from us. We can loose an unfair battle, but we can also rise tall, and move on to the next level.

It is interesting to use the Gita here, since it is a song about the dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna at the battlefield right before a big battle Arjuna needs to fight against, among other things, injustice. But I think the key here is to remember that Arjuna should engage in this fight following his duty as a warrior, and not driven by his own negative emotions…

Convictions and Perceptions

I cherish those devotees who are ever content; who, through meditation, are steady of mind; who control themselves; whose convictions are consistent and strong; and who offer their hearts and minds to me. The Bhagavad Gita ch12 v.14

Since I work as a teacher, I have breaks throughout the school year at the same time as the students. During the last years, it has become a habit that every time I have a break, I spend some time reflecting on the period between the last break and this break. I reflect on how I felt, how I interacted with everyone, and if there were tensions, conflicts or challenges, I reflect on my part in them and try to make the necessary adjustments. Not only in my work but also in my personal life.

When I am on a break, I also have more time to go back to my Yoga studies, and that is why there have been so many posts this week.

Talking and writing are the ways I internalize things and my intention when I post texts is to share my reflections and even invite to a discussion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that my thoughts are “done”, I am in a way, thinking aloud.

Yesterday, I posted a text about perceptions. I had been trying to organize these ideas for some days now because as I wrote before, I’ve noticed how sometimes I am so convinced about my perceptions that I push too hard, spending unnecessary energy in unnecessary things.  But one thing was bothering me, the word convictions. I was thinking that all the people in the world that have fought for a good cause had the conviction that they were fighting for something important, going often against the mainstream.

Then, this morning, I read the quote that opens this text from the Bhagavad Gita, and if you see, Krishna mentions the word convictions. This text is a further reflection on the topic of convictions and perceptions.

Perhaps we can say that perceptions are a combination of expectations according to what we imagine is “good” or “bad” and opinions that we have forged through experience.

I have an example. During many years, my birthday was a difficult date for me. I often experienced that day as the proof for people around me not caring enough for me. I had a double set of expectations. Negative expectations as  I expected my loved ones to forget or not care, and hopeful expectations as I was hoping to be surprised by the same people with I don’t even know what that would make me feel special and loved. Since I already had a pre-made idea of how everyone was going to behave, whatever happened on that day was a confirmation of the negative expectations and a disappointment related to the blurry hopeful expectations.

Until one day, I decided to stop and reflect a little on this mini-drama. Are things really how I perceive them? What is the real problem here?

If I make a real effort to remember my birthdays as a kid, most of my memories are good. I think that we often went out for dinner somewhere with my family and have a good time. I think I also had some birthday parties like any other kid. Actually, this is even irrelevant, the point is that whatever happened once, or twice in the past is already gone, I have to let go of it.

So perceptions were not allowing me to interact in a skillful way with the practical world since they were distorting my vision of what was happening and how people were showing their care.

The cited verse from the Bhagavad Gita allows me to take this reflection even further. Whose responsibility is how I spend my birthday? I know it’s a pretty banal example, but I’ve realized that my mind operates a lot in this way. At the end of the day, the only person responsible for my well-being is me. Why do I expect others to guess? It is my responsibility to cultivate my own happiness. Ideally, by being satisfied with the fact that I have one more year of life to share with the people I love, and if I really want to feel like a superstar that day, I have no choice but to organize my day and invite the people I love.

Further, Krishna talks about the steadiness of the mind through meditation, and it must not be misunderstood with sitting for some time every day in a specific position and “clearing the mind”. Meditation in the Yoga tradition is much more than that. It is the attitude with which we live our lives, through, among other things, the detachment from fixed and erroneous perceptions.

Then he talks about strong and consistent convictions, but how can I know which convictions I should cultivate? The only answer I can find is those convictions that are based on universal values such as nonviolence, love, and compassion towards every being without exception.

This means that to achieve a steady mind I must make sure that my words, attitudes, and actions are in accordance with these values regardless of how  I perceive the practical world.

I am too used to living in a give-and-take system where if I give this, I should receive that.  Maybe if I leave aside my expectations and opinions of what it is to “receive” something in exchange for my actions, I will see that I receive much more than I imagine when acting according to these convictions. I receive inner peace and spiritual freedom although the practical result of my actions might not be as I expect it to be.

The last lines of this verse are a subject that I know is difficult for many: faith in something bigger than us. Unfortunately, the idea of God has been distorted by institutions throughout history. For some of us it is hard to believe in the God we imagine based on what we learn from certain religions. I still don’t have a clear way to express this but the only thing I can say here is that, when trying to live a life based on universal values such as love, by setting us the goal to give the best of ourselves independently of the result, it is necessary to offer our thoughts and actions towards something greater than ourselves. We do not need to call this something God, but we can call it the well-being of the whole, or universal love. A form for energy that is there for us and that we have to feed into with same energy.