Reflections on the Four Paths of Yoga, Part I: Karma Yoga

Classical yoga provides four paths to attain yoga’s ultimate goal: union with the true self. These are: Karma Yoga (yoga of duty or action), Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion), Gyan Yoga (yoga of knowledge) and Raja Yoga (yoga to tame the mind). Each yoga student will generally gravitate toward one of these paths, although many of us practice elements of all four.

During my teacher training at The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India, I was most drawn to Karma Yoga, the practice of striving for excellence in work without being attached out the outcomes. Or, as defined by my other teachers at Arhanta Ashram: “Doing your duty to the best of your ability without any expectations of extra reward or appreciation.”

The striving for excellence part wasn’t my issue. I had been an overachiever since childhood. What was new was the idea of letting go of results and more importantly, letting go of the ego identified with those results. Until I came to yoga, my sense of identity was intimately linked to my academic and professional achievements. I had a deep-seated need to achieve, which I now realize was motivated by poor self-esteem, yearning for approval and validation, and a desire to keep everyone around me happy.

With the zeal of youth, I also thought burn-out couldn’t happen to me. I pursued a career in the non-profit sector, working in roles from community organizer to grant writer. I thrived (or thought I was thriving) on the challenges and rewards of working to address poverty and social injustice. But over time, all the energy I was throwing at work became a drain and the lack of balance in my life began to catch up with me. Yet, even as I was aware that I needed to change, I struggled to find a way to address the inner void and low self-worth at root of the problem.

I found yoga, or perhaps yoga found me, in the midst of this quandary. Yoga teaches that we are more than what we attain or fail to attain out in the world. The true self is not actually associated with any of these things. We just think it is. It is part of the human condition to identify ourselves with things outside ourselves (such as our achievements) and see them as drivers of our self worth and happiness.

Alternatively, the true self is a place of abiding calm, radiance and compassion that is timeless and unchanging. With study, I gained an intellectual understanding about this true self and the idea that lasting contentment can only come from within, not from external validation or achievement. This enabled me to start correcting the course of my life. My experiences in yoga of deep relaxation, glimpses of clarity and peace in meditation and the joy of being fully present in an asana practice, helped me begin to make this intellectual understanding real.

I’m still recovering from burn-out. I’m cautious about taking on commitments and challenges. Sometimes I feel I’ve gone from an anxious overachiever to a content underachiever. I’m okay with that for now. For at least a little longer, my focus will remain regaining energy and deepening my connection to my inner life, rather than the outer one. And, striving to do what I do – at home, as a university administrator and as a yoga teacher – to the best of my ability, without attachment to the outcomes.