Karma Yoga in Daily Life

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Yoga has always been thought of as a series of practices to be done away from the situations of normal social life – in a classroom environment, or in a retreat in the company of 'spiritual beings'. We have thought that if we practise this or that yoga technique we will achieve this or that result. What we have actually done is to make yoga into a mechanical process leading to self-awareness. We have to move away from this idea and make yoga a part of our natural expression. Only then can yoga become a process leading to self-realization.

If we practise yoga as a technique to feel good, then we will definitely feel good for a little while. If we practise yoga in order to relax, then we will definitely relax. If we practise yoga to connect with ourselves internally, then that will also become possible. But whatever the attainment may be it will be momentary, a transitory phase, and when one has to confront life's realities, tensions and frustrations again, then the effect of yoga will take a back seat. Therefore, it needs to be understood that the real experience of yoga happens through karma yoga. Even if you practise hatha yoga, raja yoga, kundalini or kriya yoga you have to combine it with karma yoga in order to have a rich experience of the process.

Some people have the idea that karma yoga has no relevance in their lives, that it is only hard work. Some think that karma yoga is only service to guru, God or humanity. Some think of karma yoga as selfless service or selfless action. None of these definitions represents the real spirit of karma yoga, because karma is an integral part of our personality and life. People have translated karma as action. Some have defined karma as cause and effect. None of these definitions is true. You have to understand that the whole of life is karma and if you avoid karma then you do not exist.

Nature's expression of karma

Nature expresses karma through the elements. The heat of fire is the karma of fire. Expansiveness of space is the karma of space. The movement of the wind is the karma of air. The liquid nature of water is the karma of water. The solidity of earth is the karma of soil. Desires, expectations and thoughts are karmas of the mind. The expressions of the senses are karmas of the body. In fact, we are homogeneous karma. The whole world is homogeneous karma, the whole of creation is homogeneous karma.

Understand that karma is not only cause and effect, not only action. Karma is a subtle ripple-like movement affecting all dimensions of creation. Karma is movement that happens in the body via the senses and in the mind via the mental projections and experiences. If you practise asana, you are altering the karma of the body. If you practise pranayama, you are altering the karma of vitality and the brain. If you practise meditation, you are altering the karma of the subtle mind and of the spirit. This is the way to manage the karmas which influence us in either a positive or negative way. Karma is awareness of the movement of life. It is not hard work, it is not service, it is not cause and effect, it is an understanding of how we interact with ourselves and with our environment.

In the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that the subject of karma yoga has never been understood by people in the world. He said this 5,000 years ago and today it holds true because karma yoga is a subject which involves understanding of human nature, which involves developing awareness of the total personality. It is a process of observing our movement in life from gross to subtle to spiritual.

Becoming aware

There are five components of karma yoga. The first component is awareness. Becoming aware begins with the body when we practise asana. The awareness becomes part of the practice of asana and the physical movement. If you have to move a finger, you are aware of the movement of the finger, and also the pull of the muscles and the movement of the joints. The emerging awareness dissects the finger into bones, muscles and nerves. The muscles and bones move differently, the nerves and ligaments pull differently and the awareness continues to become more acute, more subtle. What you observed before is one experience, later you see it in its various components and forms. The aim of asana is to make you aware of your body and how it expresses itself in normal situations. Awareness in asana will lead to comfort and stability.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines asana as a posture in which you are comfortable and stable. You have been sitting here for the last twenty minutes. Are you stable and comfortable? Some of you are, some are not, and those who are at present comfortable will become uncomfortable after ten minutes. At present we are not connected with the body. We sit but we are not aware of sitting. We walk but we are not aware of walking. We move our body but we are not aware of the body's movement. The purpose of asana is to lead you to a state of comfort and stability. Recognition of comfort and stability will only come when you become aware.

Observing the reaction

The second component of karma yoga is mental, observing your reactions and inner behaviour. Someone says, “You are very beautiful and a great and wonderful person.” Someone else says, “You are hopeless.” These sentences affect your sensitivity and create a reaction. That reaction dominates your preconceptions, beliefs and ideas. You either feel elated or depressed. The mood changes. A single sentence has the force to alter one's mood. The first component of karma yoga is being aware, the second is observing your reaction.

Patanjali states in the third sutra, “The seer becomes established in his own nature.” Who is this seer, the observer? What is the role of that observer or seer? The first stage the seer has to experience is how the person is responding and reacting to people, situations and circumstances. This is one of the aims of meditation as well. Through meditation experience and observe the changes in the moods, consciousness and mind. When we are aware of the manifesting mental expressions, then we are able to direct and guide our mental expressions. Even meditation becomes a process of realizing the mental, psychological, subtle, emotional movement or karma.

Developing immunity

The third component is developing immunity from the things that affect you. How do you develop immunity from situations or influences? By coming out of the self-centred perceptions in which other people or objects don't exist and only you are the centre and focus of your life. When you are able to move beyond the self-focused, self-centred awareness, then you begin to develop immunity to situations, events and ideas.

Managing emotional expression

The fourth component of karma yoga is releasing the emotional blockages. Emotions are very slippery things. Intellect is a straight path, a linear path. Through logic you can go from point A to point B to point C to point D, a continuous route, right to the end. Logic or intellect is a straight horizontal path, but the emotions are an inclined path, at least 45 degrees. It is difficult to climb up but it is easy to slide down. It is difficult to develop a positive and happy emotional identity, and it is very easy to fall or slide into the negative emotions. We have never been taught how to hate or how to be angry or jealous or aggressive. It has come naturally. But when we try to teach how to love, how to be compassionate and positive it doesn't come naturally. Therefore, emotions are a sloping path; we slide down most of the time and moving up is a big struggle and a long journey.

Becoming aware of how you are able to manage your emotional expressions is the fourth component. Can you maintain your serenity in success or failure? If you can do it you will have a very balanced personality. However, you need to have trust, faith and belief in yourself, and at the same time you need to believe or have faith and trust in some higher cosmic nature which guides your life.

The best example is the farmer. The farmer plants seeds and looks after the growth of the plants in the hope that one day what he has planted will give good results in the form of fruits and grains. But there is only so much that the farmer can do. Beyond that he has to wait for divine grace and the climate to be right. The rain must fall at the right time. The sun must shine at the right time. There is a limit to human effort. Then there is the emergence of divine grace. If the environment is not right, all the farmer's efforts will be wasted, and if there is too much divine grace in the form of rain it can also flood the entire farm. So up to a point you need to have that belief, trust and faith in yourself and beyond that you need to have belief, trust and faith in the cosmic force. There has to be a proper balance between the trust that you put in yourself and the trust that you put in the cosmic force. This harmony of trust is known as karma yoga of the emotions.

Letting go of the obsessions

The fifth component of karma yoga is letting go of the personal hang-ups, letting go of the obsessions we create within ourselves. This is known as surrender. Don't think of surrender in terms of philosophical or religious definitions, but as overcoming and releasing the obsessions and becoming free. The moment you are able to let go of your obsessions you become creative. Our obsessions do not allow the creative nature to come forth. Creativity does not only mean artistic expression. Creativity means mind and emotions in full bloom. This creativity is attained when we are able to release our obsessions and complexes. The next stage then becomes selfless action, which is spontaneous and natural. For something to become selfless, there is no desire, no attachment, no association with what is happening. Otherwise we all try to convert water into wine the first chance we get. Not because it helps us in any way, but because it boosts our ego. The selfish nature is usually the predominant one. To become selfless is one of the hardest things in life.

Once God decided to give a boon to a saint who had done a lot of penance. But the saint desired nothing more in life once he had seen God and refused to accept anything. So God gave the boon of peace, prosperity and health to the saint's shadow. The saint did not know about the boon, but wherever he went there was peace, prosperity and health. That is a selfless act.

Selfless service, the selfless act, is the final culmination of karma yoga. If you relate karma yoga to the other yogas, then you will see its relevance. Hatha yoga without karma yoga has no meaning. You also have to be aware that we are not talking about karma but about karma yoga. When the word yoga is added to karma, it means harmony in all the movements of life, harmony in all the expressions of the body, mind and emotions. This is the concept of karma yoga – internalizing the awareness, becoming aware and freeing oneself from obsessions and negativity.

Of course we have to start with something tangible and recognizable, and that is our body which we carry from the time of our birth to the time of our death. So, in hatha yoga and in raja yoga, association of karma yoga leads to deepened awareness. In relation to bhakti yoga, karma yoga leads to balancing of the emotions. In relation to intellect and jnana yoga, karma yoga leads to greater knowledge, perception, observation and wisdom. How does a perfect being walk, eat, live, sleep? Think about it. Even in kriya yoga and kundalini yoga, karma yoga has to be added. The experience you have with awakening of the subtle forces, the subtle energies, the psychic centres, has to be harmonized by letting of the negative tendencies and pulls of those centres.

How can we begin to understand and incorporate karma yoga in our lives? By changing our attitudes and perceptions through the practices and systems of yoga.

Barcelona, Spain, May 18, 2001