Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

On the Knitting of Socks: A Western Interpretation of Karma, Jnana, Bhakti and Raja Yoga

The yoga socks are coming along nicely, although the search for the elusive Noro Bonbori yarn is not. Helpful strangers have pointed me in the direction of various sources, but these stashes are only available in the United States or the shipping fees and extra charges applied at the border make the cost of the yarn prohibitive.  I've found a couple of substitutes, themselves discontinued. (Ah, Noro, you try my patience sometimes.) None of them are perfect; a few contain silk, which some people don't like to wear; others are just that much thicker or thinner that I have to rewrite my pattern for each yarn. I have a batch of another Noro yarn on its way, which may prove satisfactory, although I'm sure I'll have to modify the sock pattern yet again to use it.  It's keeping me busy sampling and the sock pile is growing quickly.

In my post containing the plea for more Bonbori, I mentioned that knitting these socks was part of my karma yoga practice.  Because of that offhand comment, I've had a few people mention that it was nice that I "knit for charity." I was surprised, because I don't see myself as a  charitable person, or at least, not as a person who does charity knitting.  I realize that the common assumption is that "karma" means doing good deeds or that the actions we take will bring about equal reactions or consequences in this life or another and that we need to concern ourselves with that. This is not quite what I had in mind when writing about a karma practice and it makes me realize that there are other yoga terms I use liberally which people might misinterpret.

My understanding of yogic terms come from my limited understanding of the Eastern roots of yoga, filtered through our Western experiences and minds. In truth, although I've studied yogic traditions and Eastern philosophies, I can only practice yoga through my own Western perspective. (I used to get annoyed when the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying that Westerners need to look to their own cultures for their belief systems, rather than looking to Buddhism, but I may be getting a glimpse into what he means.) I still use the terms "karma," "bhakti," "jnana" and "raja" yoga in my practice, partly because I appreciate the links to history and tradition and partly because these were the terms I was given to explain a deeper yoga practice. If I'm going to use those terms, it might be a good idea to explain what they mean to me and how they apply to what I do.

In Eastern philosophies (as I understand them), "jnana" is the yoga of knowledge. Someone who practises jnana yoga is a person who studies and researches, deeply and fully. In traditional yogic practices, this means studying philosophical and religious texts.  A jnana yogi may study yogic texts and practices, but at a deeper level, as in all forms of yoga, she is studying these things in order to study herself.  At its core, jnana yoga seeks to discover our true nature and its connection to all, which leads to contemplation and introspection.

For my purposes, jnana yoga means the study of my fields of interest.  If I am working on yoga, then I immerse myself in the texts of that practice, without attachment.  When I learned to weave, spin and knit, I absorbed every work I could find, taught myself as much as possible and took every class, every workshop I could manage.  At first, I did these things so I could Know, but gradually, it occurred to me that I can never know it all, so now practising jnana yoga means that I discover some things only to realize that there is so much more that I will never know.  Rather than letting that discourage me, this type of practice allows me to see that I am part of a larger whole. To give you a really simple example: those yoga socks I knit are worked from my own pattern, but a quick search turns up thousands of people knitting the same kinds of socks, in various ways. Although I cannot possibly knit all those patterns (nor do I want to),  knitting socks makes me part of a community of sock knitters, a tiny piece of a larger whole where people who may never know one another personally have connections beyond the personal.

"Bhakti" yoga is the practice of devotion, usually in service to the Divine, which may take the form of traditional god/goddess worship, service to a particular religion or cause. Bhakti is often spoken of as "Love," in the sense of a higher emotion, beyond our ideas of love of family, friends, country or wherever our attachments lie.  If I apply a bhakti practice to my fibre work, then I am devoted to that work.  I do it day in and day out. That practice alone is simply habit; bhakti applies when I realize that my ability to do what I do comes from something deep within and beyond me.  I'm not one who believes in higher powers in the traditional sense, so bhakti involves acknowledging all those who came before me and all those who will follow, each carrying the thread of our work through time.

The most common Western belief about karma is that "karma" involves judgement or values-"Karma's a bitch;" "That's some good karma she's got going there." In reality, "karma" simply refers to "action."  Karma is neither good nor bad; it simply is. We do something mindfully; we do our work, whatever it is, without concern for the consequences of our actions. (It may be that Newton's Third Law was pressed into play here:"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." If that's so, we could be in trouble, because, well, what is the opposite reaction to doing good? "No good deed goes unpunished?")

So, when I say that knitting is part of my karma yoga practice, I simply mean that I knit.  I knit, spin, weave, teach, because that's what I do, what I must do. The socks may warm my feet or someone else's; they may end up stuffed in a drawer or packed off to a thrift shop or even (although I hope not) in the landfill.  I knit and there are socks.  I teach and then I've taught things. I do these things to the best of my ability, mindfully. That is all. If pride or the urge for self-promotion sneaks into the mix (and it always does), then it's no longer a karma practice. These things mean the Ego has landed and I have to work to get it back in flight and on its way again.

Finally, "Raja" yoga is "the yoga of Kings."  The practice has a literal connection to monarchs and royalty, but beyond that, raja yoga might be thought of as the over-riding principle of all yoga.  If we practise to apply all of the paths of yoga to our lives-jnana, bhakti and karma-it may be that we are practising raja yoga, the yoga that will lead us to meditation, to glimpses of how all things connect.  If you are making an effort to "Live your yoga," or "Live your beliefs," or however you place yourself in the larger context of all things, then you are a raja yoga practitioner.

Whew!  I can see the eye rolls from my house-this is all deep stuff for something that involves sticks and strings.  If it reads as pretentious to you, I understand, because this is what happens when I write about things which can only be explored in action. What all this boils down to is that I am a perfectly human being attempting an imperfect yoga practice. What started out as an asana practice has grown into something larger, with many more paths to explore.  Most of the time, I don't think about the connections.  Most of the time, I just do my thing, knowing that I may be full of shit about all of it. That's how it should be. Most of the time.

In the mean time, I have socks:


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