Karma yoga for Christmas

Life speeds up in December, as we rush to get things done before going away, connect with colleagues and family in new ways, and try to create happy memories for those we love. Pace and heightened expectations can bring stress, because it’s harder to perform well and deliver quality under pressure — or with a fuzzy head…

One of the central lessons we learn in yoga — and in Vedantic scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita — is to loosen our investment or attachment to the results of what we do. Doing asanas (yoga postures), we realise that hatha yoga (the physical yoga we teach) is not at all competitive, and it doesn’t matter how far we come in poses or how long we can hold them. We get the feelings of peace, freedom and satisfaction just by doing them. That progress comes is awesome, but in fact ‘progress’ is hindered by straining or trying too hard. When we relax into postures, our muscles loosen, our balance sharpens, and the postures sit more steadily in us. We’re not trying to get somewhere with them, we’re trying to relax into them.

Similarly, in ‘karma yoga’, or the yoga of action, we also loosen our focus on the result of our actions. We still do action, but we do it without a ‘me and mine’ attitude — instead with the quality of service.

The Bhagavad Gita (chapter 3 verse 19) describes the essence of karma yoga:

Bhagavad Gita verses 3.19 and 3.20

Therefore without attachment do the work that is to be done. For by doing work without attachment, man reaches the heighest good.

Everyone has to find their own way to action without attachment to the results of action. Perhaps bringing the same intention to relax, to let go, that we invoke as we hold asanas, can provide the model for how to let go, mentally and emotionally, of that quality of clinging to, trying to control, or caring too much about the results of the work we do.

But doesn’t this mean I’ll become lazy and quit my job?

In order to be motivated to do something, we often buy into or create within ourselves a sense of the stakes involved in our work — ‘if I don’t do it on time, we’ll lose the pitch,’ ‘if I mess up, we could get sued,’ and so on.

But there’s a difference between doing something well — caring about the quality of what we do — and doing something in order to validate our sense of self, our personal value, or to give ourselves a feeling of security. Maybe, if we’re holding tightly onto those motivations, we are setting ourselves up for a rollercoaster of reactions — we feel like we’re great when things go well, and like we’re stupid or worthless when things go badly.

In reality, much of the consequences of our actions are not in our control anyway. And even if they are, does an event or thing transpiring in one way or another change who we really are, and how much we value?

Sometimes our minds resist this train of thought with an objection that goes — ‘if I ascribe to this, I’ll never do anything, I’ll lose my job and become a bum (or hippy).’

In fact, in the verse above from the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna the God is telling the warrior Arjuna that he must go out onto a battlefield and fight — “do the work that is to be done”.

It doesn’t mean we become lazy or ineffective.

It means we direct our attention to what really matters — doing the work well, with others in mind, and doing it with concentration. What we’re trying not to spin our wheels about is thoughts about how others will see us as a result of the work, or worry over what will happen if the work is not well received. We’re doing the work without attachment.

We’re trying to hold this in December, as we teach and live. We invite you to a spirit of karma yoga as the busyness of the holiday season takes hold.