Every yogic path has its challenges, and in karma yoga, the challenge is to get through your daily life with your yoga intact. You might begin your day with a deep meditation or a wonderful practice, but before you are even out the door, you are wondering if your efforts will pay off, or what it will cost you, or how it will turn out. The wheel of karma is already spinning. The way to overcome these obstacles is to use your knowledge of your own perceptions and tendencies to create the practice that will move you towards your ideal.
Patanjali states “ Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.” It is through the practice of detachment that we become free from the confinement of habit and thought. If you want your life to change, you have to change your life. It’s the challenge that every serious yogi takes on, knowing that the way to freedom is through discipline. It’s a paradox. The more you push yourself to be mindful, to be conscious, the less your old patterns of thought pull you back. While we struggle with the concept of good karma and bad karma, we need to keep focused on the ideal of no karma, no attachment at all.
There are three qualities called gunas, and they are considered to be natural tendencies. These can be seen as different personality types or tendencies within personalities. Each one has it’s own place in nature, even human nature, but each one is also reflective of how we can use self knowledge to further our yoga practice can best work towards our goals.
SATTVA – Calm, gentle, sweet, light
RAJAS – Activity, energy, power, excitement
TAMAS – Slow, dull, heavy, lazy
According to Vivēkānada, “Karma yoga has specially to deal with these three factors. By teaching what they are and how to employ them, it helps to do our work better. Human society is a graded organization. We all know about morality, and we all know about duty, but at the same time we find that in different (cultures) the significance of morality varies greatly… yet we have the idea that there must be a universal standard of morality. So it is with duty. The idea of duty varies…in one country, if a man does not do certain things, people will say he has acted wrongly; while if he does those things in another country, people will say he did not act rightly- and yet we know there must be some universal idea of duty...The important thing to know is that there are gradations of duty and of morality – the duty of one state of life, in one set of circumstances, will not and cannot be that of another. “
By understanding where your own tendencies lie, you can understand how you can free yourself. If you are a sattvic personality, easygoing and sweet, you might commit yourself to your duty with a light heart and an open mind. This is the outlook that makes karma yoga a simple path to follow, and this kind of person is inclined by their own nature to take things lightly. If you are a rajasic personality, with a love of excitement and action, karma will be more challenging. Can you play the game without feeling the need to win? This is the challenge of freeing yourself. If you are a tamasic kind of person, you may feel that life weighs heavily on you. You are inclined to be slow and reluctant. Doing things without judging negatively is a great challenge for you. This type of personality may need to move from creating bad karma to creating good karma before the goal of no karma can even be seen on the horizon. Just as you would work with a yoga teacher to overcome challenges of doing some āsanas, your karma yoga should center on the challenges of your own nature.
It may not even be a matter of personal type, but of situation or circumstances. At a job you don’t enjoy, you may feel tamasic as soon as you sit at your desk, but the evening spent playing basketball with friends gives you a feeling of lightness, sattva. Perhaps the time spent alone is easy and sweet, sāttvic, with a good book to read or a pleasant melody to listen to, and the interaction with other people brings you a feeling of intensity and dynamic interaction, rajas. Each one of us can move through these different states in different situations. But for most people, there is one of these feelings that they consider to be their true selves, their most authentic and effortless attitude. Who are you when you wake up in the morning? That could be the key to your karma yoga practice.
Good and bad actions both produce karma, binding the soul to another space and time to achieve balance. The answer available to everyone is to release the bond of attachment, and allow the soul to do its duty without expectation. By fulfilling the tasks of your life without making them the measure of your success, you can work in freedom.
Being unattached is not the same as being apathetic. Doing the best job you can do is the way to leave the results free from attachment. Just as the work you love to do is so compelling and so pleasant it hardly seems like work, so the best efforts become their own rewards.
Iyenger carries this argument further- “ The reason behind our exploration of the elements and their subtle counterparts is to penetrate into the evolving heart of nature, ..beyond even that lies our wish to reconcile the gunas, the unstable qualities of nature that lend both its creative and transient characteristics. At the material level, inertia/mass (tamas) predominates, which is why it hurts when you stub your toe on a table leg. At the psycho-sensory level, dynamism (rajas) and luminosity (sattva) are predominant, which is why studying for an exam can be an exhilarating experience, shame over a mean action can be a fiery torture, and a job well done can be a source of sāttvic serenity. The yogi aims to be a ‘gunatitan’, one who can restore the gunas to their original proportions and then draw them all back up in a stable form into the root of nature and so transcend their vicissitudes. Henceforth he is unshaken by the turbulence of nature. “
In the Sanskrit texts, there are five stages of detachment, freeing oneself form the pull of karma.
- Yatamāna- disengaging the senses, but controlling them. In example, the smell of delicious food cooking reaches your nose and your body responds by feeling hungry. To be free of karma you would notice the smell, and feel the response without being pulled to the table.
- Vyatirēka- staying away from desire. The biblical phrase “lead us not into temptation” fits perfectly. When you know you have a weakness, don’t allow yourself to lean towards it.
- Ekēndrīya- stilling the mind. As with meditation, the habit of allowing the self to be excused from the thought process. Bringing the quiet mind off the mat and into daily life,
- Vasikara- overcoming all attachment. A complete release of all desires and habits of thought. Classically defined as the state beyond attachment, non-attachment and detachment.
- Paravairāgya- supreme detachment, free from all qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas, one is no longer caught in the wheel of karma.
It is with practice that we come to liberation, and the focus of karma yoga in daily life can be challenging and beneficial. Rather than see karma as unchangeable destiny, take on your own karma as a way to change the world. Every good example is a good teacher to all. Coming back to Patanjali, we find “The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.”
- Swami Vivekanada, Karma Yoga, Advaita Ashram
- B.K.S. Iyenger, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins,
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