Karma Yoga

I learn that there are four paths of yoga; Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga. The practice of Asana falls under Raja Yoga which also known as Ashtanga Yoga. Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga are almost unheard of by people who are not in tune with the concept of yoga. Jnana Yoga, on the other hand, is something that a few of us have been practicing without realizing it, that is through scholastic study about various disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology, science, mathematics, sociology and psychology. In this article, I would discuss about Karma Yoga and its controversies that have led or would lead to negative consequences (according to our common understanding). Also, I would include its relevance in this current age.

As the name suggests, Karma Yoga is based on the concept of Karma. In order for Karma to take place, four criteria have to be fulfilled. They are an action, the intention (or motive in some cases) that precedes it, (in most cases this often leads to having an expectation for a desired outcome), the reaction (whether it is what have been desired or not) and what would be the action (it could happen directly after, within this lifetime or even in the next life) that follows. Karma is understood to work in cycles, what goes around comes around, and so, in order to “break” the cycle, one of the criteria listed above (according to some beliefs) has to be removed. Obviously, the criterion that has to be removed is the intention (motive).  Is it even possible for a person to perform an action without an intention?

Humans are very complex creatures. According to scientific studies, one major difference that places us on top of the food chain, and at the same time, directly or indirectly making us to be the dominant species that inhabits the Earth and exploits its resource, is the superior evolution of the human brain. The human brain could be summarized in the following categories: brain stem, limbic system, cerebellum and cerebrum. The brain stem involves, the most basic but most essential and important functions in our lives, the bodily functions; regulating heartbeats, breathing, sleeping, food digestion and the continual working of the human body that are needed to sustain life. It is also involved in the autonomic system of the peripheral nervous system. Thus, fundamental (involuntary) continuous movement of the internal organs and systems such as respiratory and circulatory cannot be intentionally controlled by our mind. Thus, it is almost certain that Karma Yoga has little or is not concern about the function of the brain stem.

Cerebellum, on the other hand, is responsible for most of our psychomotor skills (movement coordination). Without it, we would not be able to even move in an efficient manner. Do not undermine the complexity of an ordinary walking action. Many muscular activation and nerve signals are sent to ensure that we have the appropriate gait in our movement. With regard to whether this part of the brain has any direct influence to our ability to observe karma yoga, the chances are almost close to non-existent. Like brain stem, the function of the cerebellum is almost similar to the mechanism of a mechanical toy. Its design and purpose are still pretty much primitive, with no indication that gives us the ability to perform more complex action such as reasoning.

However, the next part of the brain that may have a significant influence on our ability to observe karma yoga. The limbic system, which is made up of several brain components such as amygdala and hippocampus, is responsible for our emotions, behavior, long-term memory, olfaction and motivation. With respect to performing actions (particularly if the actions are repetitive) in karma yoga, memory can be a very usual tool to ensure that our execution of movement is smooth and highly efficient (there is no need for us to relearn when performing a similar action even if we are the regularity of the action is very rare. However the functions that would have a huge impact on our ability to observe karma yoga would be emotions, behavior (it could be a direct or indirect influence) and motivation. Since karma yoga requires the practitioner to perform his actions without even questioning the real purpose of it and having any sort of reservation or hesitation to do something, it means that the practitioner would not need any form of motivation. Motivation is a more complex concept than the involuntary movement of the internal organs or the coordination of the muscles. It involves a low level of cognitive processing. For example, a common motivation for a person to eat is to fulfill his hunger (the feeling of hunger is a direct and more obvious form of motivation). A subconscious motivation that drives him to eat is his continual survival. Of course, there are more complex forms of motivation. But these would require higher level of thinking/processing of information. These include ulterior motives and hidden agendas behind actions.

Emotions (or rather the absence of it) play a major part in karma yoga. From one perspective, emotions can be a form of motivation. A simple example of indirect form of emotional motivation would be the feeling of satisfaction (another form of happiness) after eating a nice, warm and delicious meal. The positive feeling would then be registered in the brain as a form of memory. This feeling could also be classified as positive reinforcement for that particular behavior. This memory would serve as a motivation for a person to repeat the action again at another time. However, it is not really clear whether emotions are acceptable (or whether there is any further guidelines that forbid emotions to become motivation) in the practice of karma yoga. If we ask ourselves what are the past actions that we remember, chances are they would be actions that are heavily linked to certain emotions. For example, we remember our wedding anniversary because the emotions of love and happiness are tied to the event. What was the main reason behind the communion? I hope you would say that you want to be united with the person whom you love. Some might say that love and happiness are merely by-products of the event. They were not intended to be experienced. But your desire to commit the rest of your life with a special someone is also an intention.

Behavior has been a subject of debate on whether it is already been predetermined in the genes that we inherit from our parents. But it can also be formed through conditioning and learning. Thus, the type of behavior that a person has depends on the kind of experience (whether it is negative or positive) and the regularity of the experience (the higher the frequency, the stronger the behavior will be ingrained in the person). Within our body, behavior is also under the influence of the endocrine system via the secretion of hormones from various glands. To really pinpoint the cause of the formation of behavior is like a “chicken and egg” situation. If we were to consider from the biological point of view, it would have to be the genes, inherited from our parents that had fundamentally predetermined our basic behavior. “Like father, like son” as the saying goes. What is the relevance of behavior in karma yoga practice? Since behavior is considered to be voluntary or involuntary response of an external or internal stimulus, when we are either in conscious or subconscious state, it would have an influence on our practice of karma yoga. In this case, behavior is more of an unfavorable effect. Genes and DNA aside, the ongoing formation of our behavior is a result of constant response and reaction to things around us. Behavior is closely related to emotions. So, it is not surprising that the development of our behavior centered in the limbic system, particularly the amygdala.

Behavior also includes our natural instincts, the flight or fight response to a situation that threatens our survival. If we subscribe to Darwin’s theory of evolution, we would believe that one of the main reasons for our existence is because our primitive ancestors, thousands or even millennia years ago, survived many life-threatening situations through subtle but crucial behavior in response to related situations. These survival skills were passed down to the next generation and so on via heredity. Scientists have conducted studies that prove we possessed an almost immediate involuntarily response to certain situations. Within a split second, our endocrine system experiences a sudden influx in activity: sensory neurons sending signals to the brain, followed by brain sending commands to activate endocrine and cardio-respiratory systems, hormones are released, our heartbeat increases, our breaths become shallower, brain sends signals to motor neurons to activate our bodies. Decisions were made almost subconsciously at that critical time. Every second counts. Thus, with respect to this explanation, I do not think that karma yoga would ensure the basic survival of mankind.

What sets us apart from the rest of the life forms on earth is the advanced and superiority of the development of our cerebrum which includes the parietal, occipital, frontal and temporal lobes. Traditionally, these lobes had been associated to different sets of our bodily functions. The temporal lobe archives memories, manages emotions and processes auditory information, and processes language. The occipital lobe involves processing visual data and linking them to memories and for identification. The parietal lobe receives and processes sensory information and creating spatial awareness. The frontal lobe handles the most complex tasks, reasoning, rationalizing and analyzing information. Higher order thinking is done here. This lobe would decide tasks that allow more time for contemplation, processing and consideration. This is also where intentions, ulterior motives and hidden agendas are often crafted. Ulterior motives and hidden agendas demand higher precision and discretion in planning. But the frontal lobe is not only limited to such cases. It is automatically activated in any kind of scenario as long as it does not require a split second reaction.

Karma yoga does not require us to have any intention in our actions. This is fundamentally impossible simply because our brain itself has evolved beyond the basic functions of our limbs and internal organs. Emotions are bound to behavior, which is a result of a continuous response to external and internal stimuli. Any living organism has the capacity for emotions. An insect or a deer would experience the same type of emotion when faced in a life-threatening situation. The emotion activates the behavior, the actions that would bring it out of the situation. Subconsciously, the intention is to survive. If anyone practices karma yoga, the person’s usage level of the cerebrum for information process, intelligence quotient and emotional quotient would be low. Like our skeletal muscles and internal organs, our brain also makes adaptations to suit the daily demands. Thus, the limbic system and cerebrum have a high probability of regression. It would not be surprising if future generations would have a smaller development of these two brain parts. It would then be a miracle if mankind would still be able to be the dominant species on earth. Therefore, karma yoga is not relevant in today’s context.

 

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