When most folks think about what yoga is, what most quickly comes to mind is the image of people moving on yoga mats in poses, breathing consciously. Sometimes the idea we have is someone meditating, engaging in the vast depth within. The Bhagavad Gita, a text dear to my heart and one I’ve been studying for over a decade, shares that yoga is really a triadic path of practice: the path of Wisdom (Jnana Yoga), the path of Love and Devotion (Bhakti Yoga), and the path of Action (Karma Yoga).
Karma has many meanings. One definition is Action. So Karma Yoga is the yoga of action, of doing, of being in the world and being part of its workings. Karma also has to do with our past actions, thoughts, conceptualizations, experiences and their effect on others and ourselves. Karma in this definition is not limited to individuals, but also communities, countries, even the planet.
The Path of Action, Karma Yoga, is the practice of walking your talk, aligning your actions and choices with your values. It is a path where one operates under the deep knowing that everything we do or say has an effect on the world.
When we engage in the practice of yoga in the studio or workout space, we are immediately learning how the shape of the body has an effect on our mind, our emotions, our well-being. So, after a strong warrior pose, there is often a strengthening, a building of endurance, with an effect on the mind of being challenged and yet also knowing one’s capacity to deal with difficulty. In another example, after and during a big heart-opening pose, we may feel shifted into more ease of breath, a sense of spaciousness internally, a lightness of being.
As yoga practitioners, we learn that all the parts of our body are interrelated. As one example, if the pelvis is tucked under, the outer hip muscles tighten and can affect the stability in the knee or lower leg. The tucked pelvis can impact the low back and the rest of the spine to create tightness or impaired mobility. This can lead to the shoulders rounding forward and the neck jutting forward, contributing to strain in the neck and shoulder muscles or even headaches. Conversely, when the pelvis moved into a neutral position, it can create more space and clarity internally for the organs to optimally operate, more balance and ease through the legs and upper body, and often beneficently affects the state of the mind as well. This is one of the reasons yoga asana is used to shift consciousness. When we start to feel how every part of ourselves is related to every other part and one shift can create either challenge or ease, we attempt to bring more awareness of our patterns. As we Act to shift them, we uplift the whole system of our body/mind.
The Path of Action takes it a bit further. As we learn these principles of cause and effect in our physical body, then we start to understand in a more tangible way, that these same principles of cause and effect operate in other systems: within our family, our community, our state, our country, our planet. The language of yoga does speak to this, even in yoga class. We are encouraged to remember that even welcoming each other with kind eyes makes a difference in someone’s day. We start noticing that if we put junk food in our body, it doesn’t feel good. If we start to eat better, we not only feel better, but we are supporting less chemicals in our food which means less chemicals in the soil to grow them, which means less chemicals in our watershed and tap water, which means a healthier planet. So, by changing our diet, we change the environment. Our actions have an effect- in a pose and in our world.
When we weave the Path of Love and Devotion (Bhakti Marga) with the Path of Action (Karma Marga), we are acknowledging our interconnection with others and choose to create the most optimal upliftment in our community that we can. If we can help, we do. And often it doesn’t take much effort. Sometimes though, we just need some support in figuring out how to make a difference. Sometimes the pain, the despair, the need, seems so great that we often feel paralyzed. There can often be the sense that the small effort we make is such a small drop in the bucket, that we wonder ‘why even try?’ I have often felt helpless, small, ineffectual, when I read the news and hear about the fires, the floods, the storms, the earthquakes, the flow of refugees and their struggles and needs. My $10, my donation of socks, seems so small and ineffectual in the face of what’s needed.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the protagonist, Arjuna, is having an epic discussion with his dearest friend, cousin, and guide, Krishna, who just happens to be Divine Love and Wisdom incarnated. In Chapter 3, Krishna tells Arjuna, “No one, not even for an instant can exist without acting…even the existence of your body depends on necessary actions.” He poetically explains that we are given so much: food, shelter, rain, sunlight, love, and so much more. Our work is to make offerings as thanks: as we receive, so we give. He implores Arjuna, and by proxy, the reader, to offer back without regard to how the work is received or how effectual the giving might be. It is through this generosity, that one offers a model for others to follow. What kind of world would it be if everyone thought that it was just too much to give, too small an act to make a difference? Krishna explains that it would be ruinous for humankind.
With luminous clarity for Arjuna, he reminds him that to choose not to act, is still an action. These teachings are throughout our modern life now. In the new Wonder Woman movie, Steve the pilots speaks to Diana about why he wants to go back to the battle even though it seems impossible that his presence would make a difference. He says that his father taught him that we have the choice to either do something or not do something. He wanted to try. This is the weaving of the Path of Wisdom (Jnana Marga) and the Path of Action. The path of wisdom is the clear understanding that we are entitled to our actions, but not to its fruits. We act because we are compelled. The effects are beyond our control.
In the Gita, in Wonder Woman, in our lives, on our yoga mat, we realize that we are stronger when integrated together for a common cause. If we are working on handstand, if all the parts and pieces work together, balance is more probable. If the hips are forward, the shoulders rounded, the core passive, then the parts aren’t working together and achievement of the pose is elusive.
To this aim, a teacher-led committee at All That Matters is launching a Karma Yoga program, a Seva program where teachers, staff, students, are supported in all working together, gathering our intentions to serve the greater community. Seva means selfless service. To move the teachings off the yoga mat into integration in our lives, we choose to create actions in alignment with our values, intentions and hopes for humanity. We choose Love in the way we relate to those we love. And together, we choose Love and support to those we wish the best for, but aren’t sure how to uplift. Together with these programs, we can make a difference. Together, with pooled resources, we act. We may not relieve all suffering and pain and need, but we make our effort. And together, we lift each other up. Together, things shift. Together, we are stronger.