Tuesday, February 9, 2010


After a month of increasingly long work days that spilt over to the weekends, I feel like I'm emerging from a mental fog, a period of robotic routine—get up, go to work, work, go home, work, go to sleep, repeat. Working such crazy hours upset my routine and now that the assignment is complete, I'm lost, not sure what to do, stumbling around trying to re-establish my life. Would this transition have been easier if I had been more aware of my actions and thoughts, if I had been practising karma yoga?

Karma yoga is often translated as the yoga of ‘action’, action that is performed with meditative awareness.

I find it so much easier to practise karma yoga in the ashram. In the ashram, people understand or are learning the concepts of karma yoga—we're all working towards a common goal. The tasks tend to be more physical. There are no deadlines or expectations of an outcome; if a task needs to be completed, more people are assigned. Karma yoga doesn't mean that you don't work hard—you work hard towards an outcome but your best effort in the time you are given is all that is required.

Because the ashram is an environment that helps you reach your spiritual goals, I find it ‘unreal’; it doesn't reflect my world—a world of deadlines and expectations, a world where success and failure can determine your livelihood or affect your company's reputation, a world of words and design where tasks are more mental than physical.

In Yoga Darshan, Swami Niranjan lists the following as attributes of karma yoga:

  • Efficiency – effectively performing actions and minimising the amount of unnecessary effort
  • Equanimity – developing a balance in the mind between success and failure
  • Absence of expectation of an outcome – not expecting success or failure, renouncing the results of your actions
  • Egolessness – developing the qualities: “sincerity in our commitment, goal and direction, and simplicity in thought and action”[1]
  • Renunciation of limiting desires – renoucing those desires that hold you back, not those desires that motivate you. Swami Niranjan explains this attribute as a way to eliminate the negative attitudes and turn them into positives
  • Duty or dharma – seeing every action as a duty to engender a feeling of faith and trust in a ‘higher reality’

To practise karma yoga, all these attributes must be embodied in “one thought, one action, one moment”.[1]

No wonder it is so difficult to practise karma yoga in my world!

For example, I think I am most efficient when I am interested in a task, have had enough sleep, and the project is well-planned in terms of time and resources. If I'm disinterested or tired, my mind tends to wander and it takes me longer to complete a task—I'm a great procrastinator! (Oops! Is that a limiting desire?) When I feel pressured, I get flustered and cannot focus.

And how difficult is it to achieve equanimity, absence of expectations and egolessness?

For me—for so long a high-achiever—extremely difficult. How do you change your mindset, particularly in this performance-driven corporate world where the degree of success can affect your company's profits and reputation, your performance rating and salary? How do you manage the expectations of clients and your superiors who want a particular outcome from a task? How do you obtain emotional balance through the highs of success and lows of failure, especially when those around you are also celebrating or commiserating? And it is hard to not have some personal attachment to your work when you know the results can affect your career within the company, what assignments you are offered and where you go.

So how do we practise karma yoga? In the article Karma Yoga in Daily Life, Swami Niranjan talks about five components or steps:

  1. Becoming aware of your physical actions (although I seem to recall from lectures it is also your mental actions)

    What are you doing? How are you doing it? What are your thoughts? What are you saying?

  2. Observing the reactions

    How do you react to what someone has said or done? How do people respond to you?

  3. Developing immunity from the things that affect you

    When you know how you act and respond in particular situations, you can learn to modify your behaviour and develop ‘immunity’ from those situations.

  4. Managing emotional expression

    In developing immunity, you learn to balance your emotions, you do not experience the highs and lows.

  5. Letting go of obsessions

    Finally, we need to release those obsessions that hold us back, those aspects of our personality that have developed through our experience.

    For example, over the past two years my performance rating has dropped, and deep down, that niggles at me. On an intellectual level I realise the drop is a consequence of my new journey—the decision to not be a workaholic and work longer hours— yet I still need to purge that desire to achieve higher ratings. Is a higher rating and salary worth decreased family time and deteriorating health?

Although I find the attributes of karma yoga difficult to apply to work, I did see a change in how I was handling the pressure of deadlines and client expectations in my last assignment. My colleague and I were collating content from a number of people to create one document for a government tender. What was originally estimated to be a 100-page document became a 650-page document that was constantly changing right up until the last days of our assignment. Looking back, I think I was a lot more centred: I recognised that I needed breaks to re-energise to ensure I was working efficiently and I took them, I realised I was wasting energy complaining about the working hours and started to focus on completing the task, and I learnt a huge lesson in renunciating the results when work we edited was completely re-written and had to be re-edited. Maybe I'm not consciously practising karma yoga but yoga has certainly improved my awareness of my thoughts and actions.

I tend to associate karma yoga with work and people have translated karma as ‘action’ or ‘cause and effect’. However, Swami Niranjan says it is much more:

“Karma is a subtle ripple-like movement affecting all dimensions of creations.”
“You have to understand that the whole of life is karma and if you avoid karma then you do not exist.”[2]

So karma yoga is more than our attitude to work, it is understanding “how we interact with ourselves and with our environment”.[2] And to do that, we use the practices and systems of yoga (like hatha yoga) to change our attitudes and perceptions. So, maybe I have been practising karma yoga after all?


  1. Yoga Darshan; Vision of the Yoga Upanishads, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
  2. Karma Yoga in Daily Life, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

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