Over the weekend, I spent some time digging out silverleaf nightshade, a pretty plant that loves the hot, dry Arizona summers. It can quickly overtake other plants; hence, it’s largely considered to be a weed. Last year, it dominated an entire corner of the backyard, reseeded after years of benevolent neglect by previous property owners. This year, I’m continuing to battle the pesky plant.
Solanum eleagnifolium is popularly referred to as poisonous nightshade because its highly alkaloid leaves and fruits are toxic to livestock and humans. A member of the same species as potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes, its ripe fruits look like miniature yellow tomatoes. Any illusions I’ve had about letting it be and enjoying its lavender flowers and gray-green foliage are dashed by the memory of a child holding up a handful of the fruit, her mother asking me (I was then working as a docent at popular archaeological site) if it the little girl could eat the “pretty berries” she’d picked along the trail. Nope, not growing nightshade in this yard, thank you very much.
One way to get rid of silverleaf nightshade is to burn it, destroying plants and seeds, and that’s simply not an option in a residential neighborhood, especially when the humidity is low and the winds are high. That leaves digging it out, plant by plant, before the seeds have a chance to drop to the ground. When the sprouts reach a certain height, they fight back with sharp spines that penetrate gardening gloves. Digging them out of the dry, rocky soil is hard work and not especially pleasant, so naturally the mind wanders, and I find myself making comparisons to the yogi’s work of mitigating karma.
My teacher, Rama Jyoti Vernon, has often said that through our yoga practices we can scorch the seeds of karma before they take root. The cycle of karma, basically the law of cause and effect, has three stages: prarabdha (likened to dharma or destiny), kriyamana (the result of free will), and sanchita karma, the accumulated karma of this life and all previous lifetimes. The seeds of sanchita karma (our actions and thoughts) have been allowed to ripen and fall to the ground (the subconscious), where they will remain dormant until the conditions are right for them to sprout and reappear.
Our job as yogis (and gardeners) is to eradicate the seeds so that they can’t germinate and perpetuate the cycle. As householders, however, we must do this without withdrawing from the world of action, just as Arjuna chose not to withdraw from the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita. Like Arjuna, we can keep the karmic seeds from sprouting by following the karma yoga path that Krishna outlined in the Gita. Krishna (acting as Arjuna’s charioteer) instructed him to find the inaction within the action. This means going beyond what binds us to an action, i.e., performing an action in an egoless state, without attachment to praise or blame or even to results. We perform an action solely for the action’s sake.
This is harder than it sounds, and we need the fiery determination of tapas to practice karma yoga. It is extremely difficult to break free of attachment–or aversion, fear, delusion, separation. These are among the vrittis or mindwaves that Patanjali refers to in the second (and most definitive) yoga sutra: Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, or “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” In subsequent sutras, Patanjalini tells us how this is done.
We can certainly begin practicing karma yoga on the mat, noticing whenever we are “performing” asana for goals or rewards, or whenever ego (self-identification) is engaged through judgment, comparison, over-efforting, etc. But why stop there? Every word, every thought, every action presents us with another opportunity to practice. Yoga is in everything we do, from practicing Downward-Facing Dog Pose to pulling weeds.