Work, Stress, and Karma Yoga (Part 2): What is Karma Yoga?
Audio version of Blog (10/6/19)
Contrary to popular experience and belief, work can feel easy and enjoyable! But often, we ride the roller coaster of business success, difficulties, and failures. At the end of that ride, we come home feeling drained or not looking forward to the coming workday.
Working as an engineer, an IT technician, and a yoga teacher I have experienced jump-for-joy success, teeth grinding frustration, and stomach sinking disappointment. I’m no different from any one else in this regard. You likely have many examples of riding that roller coaster. In writing this, my intention is to help us smooth out that ride by changing the lens through which we view and think about work so we can experience greater health, happiness, and productivity.
Before you go on:
Take your time reading. Feel free to come back to work on each section at a time. Talk it over with friends and family members, write out your own thoughts, or even write me an email to discuss. Reading is the first step. Actually integrating these practices in small ways will begin to really transform your experience of work and life.
What goes around comes around — now that’s karma!
Well, not exactly. In a yogic context, karma means action. Karma yoga is therefore the yoga of action or work. It is one of the six paths towards enlightenment and self-realization. While the idea of enlightenment (or whatever you’d like to call it) is a lofty goal, it’s one we all strive towards, consciously or unconsciously. Who doesn’t want to be free from suffering and feel at peace?
So why discuss karma yoga over the other four paths? I particularly picked this topic because it has to do with work! You can certainly weave the other paths into work, but not in quite the same way. Getting a solid grip on the philosophy and practices of karma yoga can take your negative work stress and make it vanish. We’re not talking about managing stress anymore, but rather preventing negative stress from ever appearing in the first place.
A quick aside:
For your reference, the other paths are that of Hatha (bodily health and purity), Bhakti (devotion and love), Tantra (sacred ceremony or ritual), Raja (psychology), and Jnana (knowledge and intellect). These will be fuel for more blog posts down the line.
The 4 Principles of Karma Yoga: Acceptance, Concentration, Excellence, and Non-Attachment
In the last blog post I defined stress, how all events are actually neutral, and that we can consciously decide how to view life’s events. Yes, that perspective is much easier to take in writing than in real life. To implement it can be challenging.
As a teacher of mine says, “It’s called yoga practice and not yoga perfect!” Mistakes and setbacks are inherent in the process, and so we return to our practice time and time again. Don’t judge. Just accept, be aware, and learn about yourself in the process.
When something dramatic happens to us, when we have a daunting task in front of us, or even when we’re doing a particular yoga movement practice, our natural tendency is to categorize that item as a like or dislike. Strong desires and expectations sustain this like/dislike paradigm. Furthermore, when faced with disappointment there will be great resistance in moving forward with our work. The positive flip side is also true, and there’s more discussion on this later. Ultimately, having a non-neutral judgment brings about emotions that cloud our perception and bring a little or a lot of suffering.
To remain neutral we must accept the reality of our situation. Acceptance is the first step in karma yoga because the best path forwards starts from a place of clarity and clear headedness. I used to think of acceptance as a form of submission, of giving up. However, the attitude we are seeking is the simple acknowledgement of reality and the bypassing of likes and dislikes that weigh on our psyche.
When my dog, Emmett, decides to get sick in the middle of my living room, my initial feeling may be one of disgust as I sarcastically exclaim how much I look forward to cleaning it up. I may also be upset as I think about how much I like the carpet and how I may never get the stain out! If I were to hold onto those feelings while undertaking the task, my mood would sour. Instead, I simply acknowledge the warm, slimey puddle of truth sitting in my living room and get to cleaning it up. Work becomes easier when unimpeded by strong feelings.
This attitude doesn’t mean one should have no emotions towards a task. Really, it’s impossible for human beings to be emotionless. Enjoy your favorite activity whether it’s TV, working out, or playing with the family pet. We want to avoid, though, the tendency to continue to do things we like and enjoy in spite of the other things we dislike that could benefit us in a greater or more holistic way.
In cultivating acceptance, we seek to have awareness around our emotions and to be able to accept any situation. We want to work through the like/dislike paradigm and simply do the things that need doing, that serve and benefit us, that keep us smiling, and feeling at peace.
When we have accepted our task at hand, concentration comes more easily. Sometimes we mistakenly think concentration requires us to furrow the brow and grit our teeth. Focus, we may have learned, requires great effort. So we create tension in ourselves while we work. This becomes tiring and brings dis-ease into our lives.
If concentration on your work is hard and effortful, take a step back and investigate. A short deep breathing practice can provide space and help clear the mind. What desires, expectations, likes, and dislikes are preventing you from accepting the task at hand? What emotions are your experiencing and where do you feel physical resistance in the body?
Concentration can also be hard when you are faced with interruptions. There are three ways our work can be interrupted: by a forceful external event that overpowers our attention, by an unconscious distraction that asks for our attention, or by our own conscious choice. Today, in the world of smartphone overuse, it’s very easy to be distracted by little things. Our attention is often bombarded. We have unconsciously trained ourselves to behave this way. If you’re interested, know that there are lots of tools out there that can help counteract this training like batching email and using a notification blocker.
When we are forcefully removed from concentration, perhaps by someone physically interrupting us, we have little choice in breaking our focus. We can be aware, however, of our attitude and response we give this interruption. The more peaceful we can remain, the easier it will be to return to a state of concentration. Similarly, we can consciously break from our work. We may choose to do so at certain intervals or when our productivity feels to be declining. Wisely used breaks are revitalizing!
A final word on concentration is about making mistakes. As an example I’ll share with you my newest hobby: practicing Spencarian script. I have these drill books that do a great job training my lettering. When starting these books, one has to cover the basic characters which means several hundred repetitions of the same letter per page. As I would get comfortable with a particular letter, my writing would flow and I would be totally absorbed by the practice. Sometimes, though, for no apparent reason, I’ll completely goof a letter or two. When I paid attention to my own response I noticed times when I would get flustered. Id’ think, “concentrate harder!” and proceed flub the following batch of letters too! But on other occasions, I simply just kept writing without a shift in attitude. I kept the same level of focus and absorption in my work. The result was more consistent and better handwriting!
In other words, making a mistake is not synonymous with a lapse in concentration! Rather, allowing our mistakes to distract us is a mistake in concentration. Making mistakes is also a great way to better understand the idea of excellence.
Saying the word excellence is often immediately followed by the silent thought of perfection. We are rewarded for excellence and punished for mediocre performances by our friends and family, superiors, and by ourselves. Rewards and punishments can look as trivial as praise or as serious as physical reprimand. This is not to knock the feedback process. How can we improve without some kind of stimulating feedback?
Unfortunately, as a result of getting feedback in the typical manner, we embellish and showcase our natural talents while dismissing the lesser ones. We shy away from practicing and doing things we would like to improve or learn and deprive ourselves of the experience of learning, growing, and mastery. For example, I would like to play piano because I enjoy being able to make music. However, I find it hard to motivate my own practice because I am not yet proficient. I criticise myself for stumbling, not understanding, and not playing well.
An important paradigm shift is recognizing that this feedback system is primarily focused on the external and material outcome. When we do experience a feeling of achievement from external excellence, it lasts for so little time. This leads us to chase outcomes and the continuous raising of the bar to outdo ourselves. This kind of reward system is not sustainable. Yes, we should strive for external excellence, but this is only one axis on a two dimensional graph.
Rarely do we give credence to our internal state of mind. We may yet lack external excellence, or measure up to some standard, but we can work to cultivate an internal sense of excellence. For example, someone who feels sincerely good, greets customers or coworkers with kindness and a true smile will not only positively impact their business, but will feel more uplifted throughout the day. You will feel whatever action you perform.
Being true to one’s own values is a form of practicing internal excellence. The person in the example above values relationships, personal warmth, and kindness towards others. Most of us would attribute these traits to ourselves, but chances are we have different values weighted in unique ways. Continuing to uncover, clarify, and elaborate your own values is life lifelong process. There will always be a need to play and tweak things to balance competing values and needs. As you do, though, keep balance in mind. Ask yourself these two questions:
- What am I sacrificing for the sake of excellence?
- How can I maintain balance in my work while achieving both internal and external excellence?
Ultimately, the true striving for excellence is about the process and not the actual result. This leads us to the last principle of karma yoga.
If you’re like me, you might discredit your achievements in excellence because results are less than perfect. To do so, though, is self-deceiving. To believe that you have complete control over anything is delusional. Recognize that your actions indeed influence certain outcomes, but ultimately you cannot control outside influences. For example, you cannot control certain interruptions while working, how people interpret or receive your work, or the weather’s impact on your much anticipated outdoor event.
When we aim for excellence in work, we must refrain from judgement against ourselves. When we produce a less than ideal outcome, our best course of action is to proceed with acceptance and return to our work with focus and concentration. The practice of karma yoga is a cycle: accept, concentrate, excel, stay non-attached and then return to honing the process. If you continue this way of working, you may get the feeling that the bulk of the reward is actually in doing the work. Your achievements or failures can be seen as ways to measure and obtain feedback about the process itself.
Celebrate your victories for sure. But be wary of becoming attached and dependant on positive results for your sense of self worth and measure of success.
Part of our work at Find Your Yoga is to help share and spread these ideas so that our workplaces become more peaceful. If you’re interested in exploring these kinds of transformational ways of living and working, we offer trial classes so you can see the effects for yourself without any commitment.
This is just a primer on karma yoga. To really instill and internalize this philosophy requires action. There are physical, energetic, and mental practices we offer as part of a karma yoga package.
The next blog post will dive into what work really is. If you’re someone who has strong negative emotions towards your work, you’ll want to read my next post!
Much of the lessons I share in my writing and teaching are lessons I learned through my ongoing training under the education and mentorship of Dr. Bob Butera and all the staff at YogaLife Institute in King of Prussia, PA. Please visit their website and all the publications surrounding the people that work there. A quick google search will yield some great reading material, but I can specifically recommend The Pure Heart of Yoga for those who want even more pragmatic yoga philosophy.