A Life in Yoga: Karma Yoga and the Ashtanga Yoga Practice
The Inevitability of Action
Welcome to the karma-cycle. In Indian philosophy, karma means both action and the results of action, dictating the seemingly endless cause-and-effect cycle of reincarnation that the yogi strives to escape. Arriving on the planet in human birth, and deciding that it’s time to exit the cycle, one might think to simply abstain. Choose inaction, refuse to play the game, and break free. Right?
Wrong. Unfortunately for the aspiring yoga practitioner, action in inevitable. Even choosing to not act is an action in itself. What’s left to do then? Do we just give up, surrendering to the endless, eternal cycle of action-and-reaction? Of course not. The Bhagavad Gita offers a solution – karma yoga, the yoga of action, turning the very cause of our affliction into a means of its transcendence.
The meaning of karma, of action, Krishna says, is in the intention. While we cannot escape the inevitability of doing, we can control how we approach our actions. “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of their action are miserable,” the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” Act without attachment to the results of your actions, he advises, and karma will roll right off of you. Yoga, after all, is “perfect evenness of mind,” so to “perform work in this world… without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat,” is to make every action a practice of yoga in itself.
Like most things in yoga practice, however, this is easier said then done. This renunciation of the fruits of our actions is a habit we must learn and cultivate. The physical practice of Ashtanga yoga offers the practitioner the opportunity to experiment with and evolve within the practice of this yoga of action.
The Lessons of a Daily Practice
Ashtanga yoga asana practice is unique in its daily return to a set, familiar sequence of postures. The sequence is prescribed rather than chosen, a series of actions the devoted practitioner performs as a daily discipline. There is an implicit surrender in the adherence to this practice, an unspoken contract between the tradition and the practitioner in which the practitioner agrees to give up their right to choose. The very nature of this practice, then, lends itself to the cultivation of karma yoga.
Mindset, however, remains key. While the practice can be used to learn surrender, it can also be used to invite the opposite effect. To move through the postures every day with an attitude of achievement or performance is to take a step backward, away from the yoga of action. It’s not easy, however, for a daily practitioner to last long without stumbling upon the necessity of detachment. In a lifelong practice, the body is bound to experience changes. The physical practice will fluctuate. Postures will come and go, difficulties will arise where there was once ease, and contentment will replace discomfort. Every day on the mat is different. To remain attached to one result is an exercise in futility.
The physical practice, then, becomes one of acceptance. In “success and defeat,” no matter how the postures manifest on a given day, the practitioner offers up the action with complete commitment. The ever-changing nature of the practice means one must strive to be unattached to the results of one’s action or suffer, as Krishna warns, never-ending frustrations. Practice to attain a material result and suffer. Practice simply to practice, and find surprising freedom.
All of this time on the mat is called practice for a reason. There’s no use in cultivating something through two hours of hard work every morning if it’s not going to carry over into your every day life. Learning to ride the waves of practice sans attachment is an excellent lesson in learning to enjoy process as much as result. Slowly and carefully, the mental habits we foster through the physical practice of Ashtanga trickle down into our day-to-day actions. We can invest in every moment without seeing it as a means to some other end, learning to focus on action itself, rather than some endgame. There is a mindfulness to this approach that enriches life, removing the constant frustrations and anxieties of constantly striving for the next big goal and replacing them with an appreciation for the journey in between.
Through asana practice, it is possible to learn the yoga of action. Through the yoga of action, every thing we do becomes and opportunity to practice. When everything is an opportunity to practice, we live a life in yoga.
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