Karma. The word is thrown around like tossed salad in modern culture and often mispronounced, too. In today's society (with its emphasssis commonly on the wrong sylabble), it is often mistakenly pronounced 'kaama', another Sanskrit term that means sense gratification or lust, but not action. For the budding yoga practitioner, it's helpful to make the distinction between Karma and Kaama - Karma Yoga verses Kaama Sutra, for example.
Demystified, karma is simply the relationship of cause and effect. Although it is commonly translated in yoga texts to mean action, its silent partner, reaction (effect) is implicit - for one rarely exists without the other.
Karmic Law or the 'wheel of karma' relies on the idea that an initial impulse at the beginning of time (often explained as God's desire to experience God) started a cascade of reaction that eventually produced the physical world, human relationships (everything right down to the guy with the free steak knives) and continues to evolve as the fluctuating continuum that we call life.
In contrast, Karma Yoga is intended to cultivate 'pure' action that is free of reaction. It can be viewed as the yoga of participating in activity from a surrendered state, where reaction is exchanged with egoless action, in order to stop the catalytic momentum of cause and effect that began at the dawn of time. An action that is pure (not motivated by desire, lust, anger, revenge, grief, confusion, fear and the like) fulfills itself and doesn't ignite reaction.
All paths of yoga and spiritual reintegration aim to turn the wheel of karma back on itself through repeated practices for the body or mind that are not contaminated by our base instincts and motivations. In this way, the karmic cycle of rebirth is eventually broken and a human being ceases to be reborn into a physical world - the realm of karmic resolution.
In many yoga texts, in particular the Bhagavad Gita, we find references to the importance of 'giving up the fruits of our actions' - being fully active in life without being attached to the outcome. Karma Yoga requires 100 per cent mindful effort in each moment - there is no room for laziness or complacency. Its signature is wholehearted effort for its own sake, not for any personal or spiritual reward.
Imagine viewing work as an opportunity to practise karma yoga... 'Today I will go to work and give 100 per cent of myself into whatever activities I am required to perform. I will employ all of my intelligence, knowledge, enthusiasm, attention and creative energy into each moment, regardless of the outcome. I will not fear that someone will steal my ideas, or benefit more than me from my effort. I will not give less if I am being paid less, or perform only for those who can elevate my position, because every time I do this I block my creativity and lose the art of living.'
If we reflect on how we currently approach all aspects of our lives (our relationships, our work, our duties, our finances, our hobbies and interests, our yoga practice) how often do we substitute the practice of Karma Yoga for dead habit? How often to we perform a yoga routine with 60 per cent physical effort and mental attention, even less during poses we don't like? If we are approaching yoga for genuine self transformation, what can we expect to achieve if we don't give fully to the practice? We are simply reinforcing bad habits that deaden our experience of life and we can't call this yoga. Trying too hard also misses the mark because it is not coming from a space of truth and acceptance. Instead of surrendering, we are striving - there is a sense of lack and a sense of longing for a different reality than the one we are in... no yoga.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna instructs that Karma Yoga is the greatest yoga for this age, because while we live, we are compelled to act.
"Not by refraining from action does a man attain freedom from action. Not by mere renunciation does he attain Supreme perfection. [3:4]...But great is the man who, free from attachments, and with a mind ruling its powers in harmony, works on the path of Karma Yoga, the path of consecrated action." [3:7]
We are often tired because we haven't spent enough energy and it is stored in the body, rather then used up fully in each moment. We feel frustrated that we haven't been able to express our inner yearnings, or misunderstood, or unfulfilled and we seek more experience or more material acquisitions to try to contain this feeling of dissatisfaction. According to yoga, we will remain unfulfilled until we greet every moment with the same awareness and give fully to it, no matter what.
Modern culture conditions us to believe that bigger assets, more prestigious jobs, important titles, social standing, fame and fortune are a measure of our worth and signs of successful living, even though many people with fame and fortune are not happy or satisfied either. Yoga reminds us that how we approach each moment, not the outcome of our actions, determines whether our lives will be rich and fulfilling.
And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another's, even if it be great. To die in one's duty is life: to live in another's is death. [3:35]
Breaking the karmic cycle is not easy. According to yoga, we have an accumulated bank of karma that has resulted in our current birth - the face we have, the parents, the friends etcetera are all the result of our karma. This past karma that has produced our current birth is known as 'praarabdha karma'. There are no victims in this school of thought and no free tickets home. Only through the process of mindful 'pure' action do we cease to create future karma (kriyamaana karma). Even then, we continue to experience the accumulated karmic residue of past action (sanchita karma), until it is exhausted.
It is said that once Buddha made a vow to find an antidote to the suffering of the world, it took him about 40 more incarnations before he realised his goal under the Bodhi Tree and attained enlightenment. The defining factor for enlightenment is freedom from reaction, or karma - a physical life becomes a choice not an obligation. Being free from the impulse to react to life, the enlightened being explores the truth of every moment as it is, without bias, and does not contribute to the suffering of the world.
Quotations taken from The Bhagavad Gita, translation by Juan Mascaro. Penguin Classics, UK 1962.
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