we are all karma yogis

Geeta Iyengar offers her classical yoga wisdom

charles green

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In April 2008, Geeta Iyengar was the honoured guest teacher at the bi-annual ascent intensive hosted at Yasodhara Ashram. The workshop was a rare opportunity for North American yogis to study with a living legend, and ascent was grateful to be present. It was a special time for two lineages ó Swami Radha and B.K.S. Iyengar ó to come together in unity.

Geetaís offerings inspired us to investigate the Iyengar legacy, and this special look at karma yoga, including a talk from Geeta, and a reflection from ascent writer and intensive attendee Juniper Glass, is the first in a three-part series about Geetaji and the Iyengar lineage.

Stay tuned for the rest of the series in our Memory issue (Winter 2008) and Union (Spring 2009), in which we feature a conversation with some of North Americaís leading Iyengar teachers and a special interview with Geetaji. We will also be featuring exclusive film footage from the workshop at www.ascentmagazine.com in the following months.

I have been asked to talk on karma yoga. Yoga is one. It is for our own convenience we divide it, give it names. After dividing it, we think that the yoga that has been explained by Patanjali is different from the yoga explained by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. Then we think that what has been said in Hatha Yoga Pradipika is something different again from Patanjali Yoga and what has been spoken by Lord Krishna in the Gita.

In a discussion that happened between Swami Sivananda Radha and myself, we agreed on this point: Yoga is one. Then why do people fight about my religion, your religion? Why do people differentiate between Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and karma yoga? They are not different.

If we study all those yogic and Vedic texts, we come to the conclusion that yoga is one. How is it one? We as human beings, though we may be from different areas geographically, we all have intelligence, we are emotional people, the anatomy of our bodies is the same. We may have different tastes in food, yet food itself is essential for everyone. Water is essential for everyone. So as human beings we donít differ as such.

As human beings we are one, so our problems are also one. Almost all of us have the same type of problems. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad. Other times you have body pains and aches. No person is left without disease: we get fever, cold, cough, everything is common. Is there anyone in this world who has said that we donít suffer at all? No. Nobody says that.

With any work that we undertake, problems are there, obstacles are there. If we say, let us forget about all the problems and let us live, still they are there. We have to know what creates these kinds of problems. To some extent, this looks to be negative. But when we penetrate deeply we will understand the depth inside these problems. It is not a pessimistic view; it is the true view.

When a human being is born, we are born out of our karma. That is the basic thing we have to know. We donít take our birth out of the blue. There is a definite link between our earlier lives and our future lives, and all are linked to this present life. If we think that we were born on such and such a date, and then later our life is going to end, and that is the end of everything, this makes no sense. There is a continuity in it.

There is a reason behind our birth. Birth is not just a physiological action taking place. We come into this life with karma, our birth is with klesha mulaha. What are these kleshas? Avidya: ignorance; asmita: ego; raga: attachment; dvesha: aversion; abhinevesa: clinging to life, having fear of death.

Now, all the actions we do are based in these five afflictions. And the lake of karma is created by our actions. We are born out of afflictions. If those afflictions were not there, there would be no reason for us to take birth. That is emancipation.

You know that when a child is born it cries. And when it cries we know that the child is alive. We want that sound to come. But why, when the child is born, does it begin to cry? It is a question. All this time in motherís womb and now it comes out. And when it comes out to this world, it remembers at the threshold, at that moment when it comes, it remembers its past life, Oh! What a fate, again I am in this world. This is why the child cries. The laughing, smiling, comes later.

The wisdom is there in the child at that moment to say, I should not come into this world with this fault. I should work toward emancipation. But then as we come to the world, we get involved so much that we just forget what we knew at our birth time.

So, our afflictions are the root. The karmas that we have done earlier yield fruit. If you have done good thing, good fruit. Bad thing, bad fruit. Virtuous thing, virtuous fruit. Non-virtuous thing, non-virtuous fruit.

Lord Krishna said in the Gita that there are two ways to be emancipated. Those who have the very strong intelligence will follow jnana yoga, and the others will follow karma yoga.

The ones who have this kind of intelligence are very sure that there is a Lord. There is no doubt. So their concentration is only on reaching God, they have unwavering devotion. There are very few of us who have this. And since the karma is bothering us all, in that sense, we are all karma yogis.

We are born with desires. When we are born with desires, this is the thing that comes in the way of our emancipation. We do karma yoga and immediately our question will be: What am I going to get out of it?

Lord Krishna says, you do the work, but behind that work, the intentions are not pure. Out of jealousy you act. Out of pride you act. It is my honour to do it, you say. So you act, a good action perhaps, but the mental background behind the actions is full of these enemies. But outside action looks very well.

Do karma in such a way that it is an offering to the Lord. You have to think twice about doing any karma. For what reasons are you doing it? What is your idea behind it? Is it serving this purpose, the purpose that you think?

We have to see that our mind is on the karma, perfection in that karma, and not on the fruit. If you are asked to tend a garden or water the plants, see that each plant has been watered. That is karma. Not thinking: O, this is somebody elseís garden, why should I bother? What are they going to give me when I water these plants?

To do karma yoga, your mind should be clean, your intention pure. You should not think of the results of it. You should not have a hankering that ďI have done this work, so let me get this.Ē To act dispassionately, your mental background has to be different.

Lord Krishna says you do karma but there is ambition in that karma. You do action with ambition; sometimes wrong ambition. You will even pray with ambition. But there should not be that ambition.

If your actions are always tainted with all kinds of mental disturbances, then this is not karma yoga. It may only look like karma yoga from the outside. So the polishing has to occur, the cleansing has to happen.

Iíll give you a simple example because we are doing asana and pranayama class: You do the asana and you donít know whether it is right or wrong action. The sensitivity has to come, the feeling has to come. Until that time, you wait. Donít think that because you avoid action, that this will make you free from karma bandha, the bondage of karma. On the contrary, you are creating more karma.

You have to cleanse yourself doing the karma yoga. Do virtuous acts without desire. Do karma for the sake of cleansing yourself. All those impurities have to go. With the karma, you have to clean it. The purification process has to continue.

So to conclude this, I will say that karma yoga has to be done by everyone, without desire. Because we should not demarcate what is the Patanjali Yoga, what is the karma yoga, what is the jnana yoga, what is bhakti yoga.

Sri Krishna never divided it. He says: Know very well that I exist. I am the Lord. I exist in you. I am in everybodyís heart. And I am moving this machine. If your machine is moving with the karma, with the jnana, with the bhakti, with your body, your physiological functioning, anatomical functioning, he says, I am here.

So if you feel the Me existing within, He says, I will guide you. If you completely surrender, I am there within you, I will help you. But as long as you differentiate yourself from Myself, the Lord within, that will not be solving the problem.

And that is why I started my talk with the fact that we are born with this karma. The purification process has to go on. And if you do that, a time will come when you know you have no vasanas, no desires.

Only when desire is gone is there freedom from this cycle of birth and death, birth and death; doing the karma, getting caught in the karma; doing the karma, getting caught in the karma.

The web of that karma has to be broken. To do that, you can have no attachments to anything. If that is the aim, at every level you have to begin to follow it.

And one cannot reach the end straight away. If you want to go to Mount Everest, every day youíve got to practise some mountaineering. At every altitude, your body has to get accustomed. You should be able to breathe, you should be able to tolerate. We have to gradually progress, get acclimatized. That is the sadhana [the path to freedom]. And that is how purification happens.

Do not differentiate your actions. Thatís why at the end of the day we have to pray, ďLord, whatever karmas I have done, the wrong I have done unknowingly, the correct I have done, let me surrender all to the Lord.Ē

Karma begins when we get up in the morning. So before getting up from the bed, think of the Lord. Hold up your hands and say: Let me have a darshan of my hands. Let nothing happen wrong with these hands. Let me realize my hands, because in these hands I am going to do the work. Let nothing go wrong, or God you save me.

So surrender to the Lord Sri Krishna. But if Iíve done unknowingly wrong, right, whatever happens, Sri Krishna Paramaste. He protects us.

God bless you. All the best. I hope you have understood.

Iím not a big lecture speaker. But whatever comes to my heart I have spoken. Thank you very much.†\

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life