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!

The main principles of Yoga (session 2)

“Working in this state of Karma Yoga consciousness, there is no loss of good beginning or adverse result. Even a little effort saves one from great danger.” Gita 2:40

These are the words of Krishna to the prince and warrior Arjuna at the battlefield before the great battle of Kurukshetra according to the Bhagavad Gita. What we can retain from this verse for the purpose of this text is the fact that the practice of yoga is not dependent on any special place, special time or even special ritual. The sincere practice of yoga has more to do with a mindset rooted in several basic principles. A simple yet sincere practice is much more beneficial for the practitioner than getting lost in techniques and too much unassimilated knowledge, and most importantly, to practice yoga, you don’t need to be anywhere else than where you already are.

The Bhagavad Gita is a relatively short text composed of 700 verses (slokas) divided in eight chapters. It is part of a larger epic called the Mahabharata. It was written approximately around 200 B. C. in India, and it is one of the most important scriptures in the yogic tradition because it summarises the essence of the Yoga tradition. (You can watch this short video for a more thorough introduction) The Gita, is an invitation to observe, accept and reflect upon our perceptions, attitudes, actions and interactions, and thus through practice and patience, make some adjustments to cultivate a calm(er) mind. It describes the theories, methods, techniques and paths that can help us liberate ourselves from suffering.

You must know that disjunction from union with sorrow goes by the name of Yoga. That Yoga should be practiced with determination and unwearied mind. (Bhagavad Gita ch6 v23)

Yoga is detachment from sorrow through control of the mind and senses. Suffering comes from the misperception or ignorance (avidya) of who we are as well as our inability to see or accept the transient nature of the practical world. It is in avidya that we believe all our thoughts and perceived needs are the only reality. We identify ourselves with our limiting thoughts and desires.

According to the teachings of yoga, everything that we seek in the outside world is already inside us: peace, happiness, love, freedom, security... The starting point is therefore to gradually detach from the illusion that we are incomplete and that we need something outside ourself in order to be at peace. We practice vairagya or detachment to live life as it is, knowing that our inner self is independent and unaffected by the external transient world. Practicing vairagya allows us to live without experiencing the suffering that comes from the illusion of unmet expectations (towards ourselves, the fruits of our actions and other people), fear and unfulfilled or insatiable desires. The less we cling to, the freer we are, the closer we come to our true potential.

You can start by observing your own life and the material objects, relationships, ideas and expectations that create mental distress for you. Why do they create distress? Is it fear of loosing them? Is it frustration because of unmet expectations? Is it sorrow because of loss? What would happen if you decide to let go? It might seem like something very scary to do. You might even think that a part of you would get lost but if you let go of the fear, you might notice the feeling of freedom that letting go can bring. When it comes to relationships, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to cut people out of your life, it might only mean that you need to look at certain relationships from another perspective. What we often need to let go of in relationships is expectations. Expectations towards the other person, expectations towards ourself, and expectations towards how the relationship ‘should’ be.

Practicing vairagya can help us cultivate a state of contentment or santosha because our mental and emotional well-being is no longer subject to external circumstances. Santosha is another very important principle in the practice of yoga. Life still happens with its ups and downs, but we can be okay with both because, through practice (abhyasa) we learn to keep a steady mind. We are able to discern between what is transient and what is not (viveka).

‘Detachment brings discernment: seeing each and every thing or being as it is, in its purity, without bias or self-interest.’ Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 774-775).

The practice of yoga can at times feel lonely and frustrating. As we start learning how our limiting thoughts create distress in our life, we want so badly to change them, we want so badly to improve only to find ourself making over and over the same mistakes, falling into the same patterns of thought and behaviour. This is normal. The changes that living a life of awareness bring take time. We need to continue practicing, to continue falling and failing, to continue learning, and above all, to trust. To trust in the process, to trust in ourself, and to trust in the teachings that come from an ancient and still very relevant tradition.

‘Practice demands four qualities from the aspirant: dedication, zeal, uninterrupted awareness and long duration.’ Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 780-781).

In Spanish we say “cada quién habla de la feria según le fue en ella“, which basically means that we talk about something out of our own experience. In my spiritual path, the mentioned principles have been the most important for me to start cultivating inner peace so far, and I can honestly say that I am noticing the changes in my way of seeing and living life. So whatever resonates within you in this text, try to apply it to your own life, and see what happens. If nothing resonated, keep searching, you will find your way.

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.

Aversion, the other face of attachment

Abhyasa and vairagya are two very important principles for the yoga practitioner. Very simplified abhyasa means practice and this encompasses the daily sadhana, but also practicing the teachings of yoga at every moment in the practical life. Vairagya is often translated as detachment. The less we cling to, the less disturbances we create in our mind, the clearer we live our lives and most importantly, the closer we come to the core of who we are.

The principle of detachment really makes sense to me, and therefore during the last five years, I’ve observed myself, and tried to detach from what does not serve me in my spiritual path. I have had to be quite honest with myself and let go of what causes disturbances in my mind. I am constantly looking at what I do, what I want, and what I possess, and I ask myself if this is a priority, or if I can let it go. This can be things, activities, relationships, habits…

The idea of detachment is not that we stop engaging with the world, on the contrary, we engage maybe even more wholeheartedly but with awareness. Without clinging into it.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the other face of attachment: aversion, and I have discovered that this one causes maybe even more trouble in my mind and in my practical life. There are different levels of it, the highest probably being hate or resentment. When we go around thinking bad of others, we can physically feel how it affects us, our heartbeat increases, our body feels restless, we feel generally unwell. A dear friend of mine once said in one of her workshops, hate is like eating poison and hoping for the other person to die. It really eats us up.

Luckily for me, I don’t hate anyone, but I do have resentment towards things people have done that have hurt me. I have been aware of that kind of aversion for some time now, and I constantly work with it. It helps me to think that people act out of their own perspectives and needs, just like I do, even if this sometimes means that they hurt others, just like I’ve done.

When it comes to the ‘lower’ degrees of aversion, I know now for a fact that I have a tendency to panic in moments of unpleasantness, either created by my emotions, situations or people around me. This often leads to me acting impulsively to get out of the unpleasant feeling making things worse.

Reacting with aversion to unpleasant situations is, of course, part of our instincts, and it is useful when we are in danger, but let’s be honest, in our everyday life, how many times are we in real danger?

Form now on, I will observe myself in moments where aversion arises and try to work with it by 1) Not reacting impulsively to it 2) Being courageous and sit with the feeling 3) Trying to understand where the aversion comes from and see if I can make some small adjustments in my perceptions and life in general. My yoga teacher often says that it is the people and situations that challenge us that teach us the biggest lessons about ourselves.

To achieve this, abhyasa is a very important element. During my sadhana (=daily practice which for me is sitting with myself), I can practice sitting with the unpleasantness, by using my breath to calm the mind and not feed into the feeling with analyses and judgements. And for the rest of the day, remind my limited mind that it is ok, unpleasantness is not the end of the world, it is trying to tell me something about myself and the way I interact with the world.