Karma Yoga as Interpreted by “Karma Yoga Studio” in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Is there influence from Christianity?
North American society is heavily influenced by the Christian religion. Is it fundamentally possible for someone to open a yoga studio dedicated to karma yoga as laid out in the Bhagavad Gita? More specifically, is “Karma Yoga Studio” in Cambridge, MA running their studio based on the tenants of karma yoga or the ideals of Christian charity? With Christianity having such a strong hand in the society of North America I argue that “Karma Yoga Studio’s” interpretation of the idea of karma yoga is strongly influenced by Christianity.
THE GOLDEN RULE AND KARMA YOGA
The idea of doing well unto others is one that was written in the Bible in the 60’s A.D. (“Slick”, 1995). Found in Matthew Chapter 7, Verse 12 of the Bible, The Golden Rule is often viewed as the essence of Christ’s teachings, the summation of everything that he wanted to get across. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (“The new oxford”, 1991) seems to be a pretty straightforward explanation of how to treat one another. However, treating one another this way is not always so simple. There is an expectation of receiving something in return packed into those eleven words. Matthew 7:12, simply put, states that you should treat someone the way you want to be treated with an expectation that they treat you the same way in return. The Bible is not saying that you should treat someone kindly despite how they treat you. On the contrary, the Bible is saying that the way you treat someone is based solely on how you want to be treated. You are treating someone based on an outcome from them that you cannot control. In other words, your intention must be clear and your actions will carry an expressed expectation. This idea of expectation is not shared by all, however.
Enter the four yogas of the Bhagavad Gita; Raja yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, and specifically Karma yoga. Karma yoga translates as the yoga of action. The Bhagavad Gita states that karma yoga is the yoga of selfless action performed with inner detachment from its results. This inner detachment is what makes the action of karma yoga so different than the action of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is all about your intention. The phrase “Do unto others as you would have other do unto you” signifies a great intention on the outcome of your action. There is no mindless action going on here. The Golden Rule is filled with both intention and attention towards other human beings. You are not doing a good deed for another human being for the sake of doing a good deed. That type of action would be considered karma yoga. Karma yoga implies doing an action (any action will do whether it is riding your bike, walking a neighbor’s dog for them while they are out of town, or letting the person behind you in line go ahead of you) regardless of what the outcome may be. Having an intention is the major point of difference between karma yoga and Christian charity. Intention is also what gives “Karma Yoga Studio” its strong Christian charity ideals as opposed to having a more prominent leaning towards the more Eastern teaching of karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.
KARMA YOGA AS STATED IN THE BHAGAVAD GITA
The Bhagavad Gita is the story of Lord Krishna’s persuasion of Prince Arjuna to fight in the battle of Kurukshetra. Prince Arjuna gets pretty shaken when he sees many of his very own kinsmen, friends and teachers scattered throughout the opposing army and only when Lord Krishna educates him of spiritual wisdom is he persuaded to continue on in the battle. One of the main doctrines of the Gita is karma-yoga, the yoga of selfless action performed with inner detachment from its results. (“Bhagavad Gita”, 2009) In the Bhagavad Gita karma yoga is spoken of as the path to understanding the secret of life (“Saraswati”, 1998). The author, Saraswati says that Lord Krishna holds the subject of karma yoga very dear and that it is not merely the act of doing some good deed for another person or animal. According to Saraswati everybody performs karma through the senses, mind, emotions and physical interactions and that life without karma would be non-existent. (“Saraswati”,1998). Simply stated, karma exists in every action that you do; each and every move you make, whether in your mind, body, or spirit is dripping with karma.
From the outside “Karma Yoga Studio” in Cambridge, MA seems to be living by the very principles of karma yoga as laid out by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Their website states that their yoga teacher training program will actively incorporate the principles of karma yoga’s literal translation of union through selfless action (“Karma yoga teach”). The studio holds a weekly “karma” yoga class when students have the opportunity to donate their class fee towards an animal protection program. “Karma Yoga Studio’s” website also states that they provide the mats and props that every student shall need for yoga classes within both of their studio locations. Their Twitter account regularly updates its followers with information about their good karma footprint. Without question each of these actions would be considered good deeds though not all of these actions would be considered good karma or good karma yoga practice. Karma yoga is action without attachment to the outcome. On February 28th “Karma Yoga Studio” provided a space for a fundraiser for Haiti and in the process forgot about the very meaning of karma yoga. The idea in and of itself was noble. It was not until almost a month later on March 22nd that they posted the total amount of money raised for Haiti on their Twitter account. They had intention behind their fundraiser for Haiti and they shared it with their Twitter followers. Having intention is not bad but it is not keeping with the basic ideals of karma yoga.
There are some fundamental aspects of the yoga of action in the Bhagavad Gita; (“Ravindra”, 2006) two renunciations that, if followed will help to better lead a life of karma yoga. The first of the two renunciations that Ravindra talks about is the renunciation from inaction. The whole of life is a field of action and we cannot avoid responsibility for our actions (“Ravindra”, 2006). Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna that just because he may not be clear on the right action it is not reason enough to withdraw from the war altogether. Lord Krishna reminds Arjuna that while in life no one can refrain from action. As stated before karma is every action that we do. Rishi Nityabodhananda Saraswati explains that even the cyclical way in which we feed ourselves is karma. He states that every action has a consequence (“Nityabodhananda”, 2002). Author Nityabodhananda says that the consequence of eating is having to consume food, digest the food, take in the nutrients, excrete the waste, and then eventually be hungry all over again. We cannot stop action because it lives in the very basic nature of our being. Lord Krishna was telling Arjuna that no matter what you do in life you cannot give up action. Action is within you. The second renunciation, in connection with karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, is the renunciation of attachment to any specific kind of activity and to the fruits of action (“Ravindra”, 2006). Regardless of what the outcome may be or what you want the outcome to be you must do what needs to be done according to Lord Krishna. Arjuna continued to fight in the battle of Kurukshetra regardless of his anxiety of the outcome. The same can be said of an individual’s daily life. Lord Krishna was saying that someone should not stop opening the door for others because the door is never opened for them. “Karma Yoga Studio” continues to provide yoga mats, blocks, bolsters, and blankets despite the fact that they could be making money from renting out each of props necessary for a yoga class. They have followed in Arjuna’s footsteps and are going forward despite the anxiety of not necessarily knowing the outcome of what they are doing. This lending of yoga props is true karma yoga. They are doing something despite the outcome. Or perhaps they are hoping that in providing the props for free they will entice yoga students to their studio. There action may have more of an intention than it seems.
THE CHRISTIAN INFLUENCE
John Chapter 13, Verse 35 says “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (“The new oxford”, 1991) Christ was stating that if a man were to have love for one another that he would recognize each one who did so as his follower. By taking the time to care for another human being Christ would name you as one of his own. The question is raised then; do Christians do charity for their own sake, for the sake of others or to be seen purely in God’s eyes? Mother Theresa once said “I think it is very good when people suffer. To me, that is like the kiss of Jesus…” Deep down people get the same feeling from helping someone out of a bad situation as they do in seeing them thrive. “Karma Yoga Studio” does not hide any of the positive deeds that they do. Their website touts the very fact that they donate 5% of their profits to environmental protection programs, donate their space to the community and non-profit organizations when able, and are active in supporting other organizations that represent a positive change in the world. “Karma Yoga Studio” jumped at the opportunity to help raise money for Haiti after the earthquake struck the country in January. They also note on their website that soon they will have a web page with specific information on charitable work and donations (“Karma about us”). The very idea of karma yoga is not about getting the word out about what you are doing but in the actual action itself. W.H. Willimon suggests that charity works the same way. He states that charity has little meaning if we are justifying it by its effect (“Willimon”, 1992) In essence he is saying that we cannot assume that we are going to radicalize the world and make it any less miserable than it already is by our simple acts of charity. Willimon poignantly says that “we live in a world in which charity always must choose between the lesser of two evils, where we cannot help some without avoiding helping others, a world of suffering and tragedy.” (“Willimon”, 1992, p. 78). A Christian provides charity for the sake of getting into heaven or making himself feel better or for someone else’s sake. What then is the point of performing an act of charity if there is always something more to be done? “Karma Yoga Studio” provides financial assistance to animal shelters but while they are they are not helping someone elsewhere. It is inevitable. With charity there is always an intention and with an intention there is always the possibility of letting someone down that could need your help. That person just may not be as destitute as the person you are currently helping.
“Karma Yoga Studio” pulls from the ideas set forth in the Bhagavad Gita but does not fully understand the complete concept of karma yoga. From their many postings on their Twitter account about how much money they had raised for the Haiti earthquake relief to the numerous times that they mentioned how socially conscious they were on their website; “Karma Yoga Studio” has the basic idea of what karma yoga is but has not yet fully grasped its concept.
North America’s heavy Christian influence plays a huge part in how the studio is run. The owner, Jesse Winder, would be hard pressed to raise money for Haiti and not tell anyone what the total amount was. The curious nature in everyone wants to know. The Christian influence of our society tells us all that if we were a part of that fundraiser we want to know how much of the total we contributed. Even if someone did not go to the fundraiser but is a student at the studio they would feel a connection to that total dollar amount raised. Good business practice and Christian society both influence Winder’s business decisions. Practicing the renunciation of attachment is the harder of the two renunciations in the Bhagavad Gita. Christianity teaches us to be attached to whatever charity work it is that we are doing. Running a business called “Karma Yoga Studio” makes that detachment so much more difficult. Karma yoga is more than just charity work though and that is what Winder does not get across on his website or within the walls of his studio. Karma yoga is practiced every day in everything that you do. Brushing your teeth is karma yoga as long as you are not expecting any sort of outcome from it. Jesse Winder misses this one massive point of contention. His intention is what makes “Karma Yoga Studio” so heavily influenced by Christianity.