what is karma yoga?
“the first step in the spiritual path is the selfless service to humanity”
– swami sivananda in “sivananda upanishad”
karma yoga is the yoga of action done with awareness, detachment, and love.
the law of karma is the law of action and reaction;- “what we reap is what we sow”, and also the law of retribution:- “what we receive is the result of what we did in the past”. nothing is by accident, merit, demerit, honor, or dishonor; all events in our lives are the result of karma.
karma means “action” which we perform consciously or unconsciously. when we add yoga to the word, it means an action performed with meditative awareness. so karma yoga is actually the yoga of dynamic meditation. karma yoga has been brought in to bring about balance in a person. it is the taking of the things you do every day with other people, of service, and making those all into an offering. and so, it is an attitude that one has. it’s an attitude of offering, and it’s an attitude of seeing how the actions you are performing mean so much more.
karma yoga has unfortunately been described as service, but it is not so. it is a way of undoing the impressions that you have gathered. if you can joyfully involve yourself in any activity without the devotional component, but doing it from a meditative point of view(meditation in action), that is karma yoga. for example, “when i’m practicing asana, i don’t practice asana as an offering to the teacher or god. i just come into the process of practice until i’m fully in the moment, and i quiet my mind into my practice until the practice doesn’t have a goal”.
“karma yoga is the selfless devotion of all the inner and outer activities as a sacrifice to the lord of all works, offered to the eternal as master of all the soul’s energies and austerities.” – bhagavad gita.
“work done in the right attitude becomes consecrated; becomes a sacred act. a life consecrated in doing selfless acts will become a divine life.” – swami sivananda.
generally, it is through various activities that you perform that you get entangled and meshed with life. but if the activity becomes a process of liberation instead of entanglement, it is karma yoga. whether it is work or walking on the street or talking to someone, the nature of the activity is not important. when you do something only because it is needed, where it does not mean anything to you but you are capable of involving yourself as if that is your life, it transforms you and action become liberating.
vedanta suggests karma yoga for those who are of a busy, outgoing, or community-based nature. karma yoga as the path of action is the intention woven within our actions, which perpetuates more actions and the ongoing state of our minds (also known as karma). when we act, we often do so with the underlying question, “how will this benefit me,” expecting results or appreciation of our efforts.
what is the role of karma yoga in your sadhana/practice–
weave intention into small actions
in today’s busy society, which is often built on results and outcomes, it can be very challenging to let go and act with no expectation of results of any kind. karma yoga suggests that we eliminate that attitude and act with an attitude of selfless service, without any anticipation of credit or result. in other words, we act simply for the delight and joy of being able to act, with no attachment to a particular outcome and no sense of a “me” actually doing the action.
according to the bhagavad gita, those who act in this way transcend the cycle of karma and the momentum of cause and effect which perpetuate the life situation of our perceived identity. this frees us from the bondage of suffering because there is no expectation of how things “should or shouldn’t be.” there are only “things as they are.” when there is no expectation, there is peace. as taoist text states, “the great way is effortless for those who have no preference.”
start with small acts that you do every day, like washing the dishes. or do something kind for someone else, without any expectation of thanks or reciprocity. build on these small acts, letting go of expectations gradually. after a while, you may notice that the intentions woven into your actions start to transform. a connection to the deep truth in your heart becomes re-established, and perhaps your whole experience of living becomes more vast and expansive and less dependent on the identity that your mind wants you to be, as you reunite with the direct experience of the consciousness that we all are.
“the one who sees inaction in the midst of the action, and action in the midst of action is wise and can act in the spirit of yoga. with no desire for success, no anxiety about failure, and indifference to results, this person burns up their actions in the fire of wisdom. surrendering all thoughts of outcome, unperturbed, and self-reliant, this person does nothing at all, even when fully engaged in actions. there is nothing this person expects, nothing that this person fears. serene, free from possessions, untainted, acting with the body alone, content with whatever happens, unattached to pleasure or pain, success or failure, this person acts and is never bound by those actions. when a person has let go of attachments and is grounded in wisdom, everything this person does is an act of sacred joy, and all actions melt away.” – bhagavad gita ch. 4 v. 18-22
what is right action?
right action is what we called living one’s dharma.
it means an action that does not have associated with its attachment or aversion. and therefore it does not create karma in and of itself.
karma yoga has a special position and significance among all fundamental kinds of yoga. the yoga of action is a path that somehow links all the other forms of yoga. it creates an essential connection between formal practice and daily life. it is a way of bringing awareness, sacredness, and spiritual significance into any moment of our life. all other kinds of yoga rely on karma yoga because the action is not something that can be avoided in the material world.
when we meditate, we can be in a state of peace, of equanimity. but, what is a spiritual attitude when we eat? or when we walk? or work? “right action” is an action that is not only morally correct but also conducive to spiritual transformation. otherwise, the action is karmically binding—that is, it reinforces spiritual blindness (avidya/ ignorance) and, thus, leads to suffering.
therefore, karma yoga is, at least from this perspective, the most complete of all branches of yoga. it incorporates the mindful attentiveness of raja yoga, the discriminative capacity of jnana yoga, and the heartfelt devotion of bhakti-yoga. our entire being, with all its levels and structures, is engaged in this practice in all circumstances of life. another virtue of karma yoga is that it serves to refine and validate our progress in all the other branches of yoga. thus, life itself becomes karma yoga.
your karma defines your dharma. the situation you find yourself in defines a condition under which there are appropriate actions to be done. the place you do those appropriate actions from is a place of rest inside your being. then the actions occur and the outcomes happen. and you stay at rest. that’s the pure act of karma yoga. specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves. what we experience today is the result of our karma—both good and bad—created by our previous actions. this chain of cause and effect that we ourselves have created can be snapped by karma yoga: fighting fire with fire, we use the sword of karma yoga to stop the chain reaction of cause and effect. by disengaging the ego from the work process, by offering the results up to a higher power—whether a personal god or to the self within—we stop the whole snowballing process.
all of us tend to work with expectations in mind: we work hard in our jobs to get respect and appreciation from our colleagues and promotions. we work hard in school to get good grades, anticipating that this will bring us a fine future. we cook a splendid meal with the expectation that it will be received with praise. we dress nicely in anticipation of someone’s appreciation. so much of our lives are run simply in expectation of future results that we do it automatically, unconsciously.
all these expectations and anticipations will bring us misery sooner or later. misery is inevitable because our expectations and desires are unending and unappeasable. we will live from disappointment to disappointment because our motivation is to gratify and enlarge the ego; instead of breaking the bonds of karma, we are forging fresh chains. no matter whether we are devotional, intellectual, or meditative by temperament( even those who lead a predominantly meditative life benefit from karma yoga) for thoughts can produce bonds just as effectively as physical actions.
#1 right attitude
it is not what you do that counts, it is the attitude while doing it that determines whether it is a job or karma yoga
#2 right motive
this is similar to the right attitude; it is not what you do that counts but your real motive behind it. your motive must be pure.
“man generally plans to get the fruits of his work before he starts any kind of work. the mind is so framed that it cannot think of any kind of work without remuneration or reward. a selfish man cannot do any service. he will weigh the work and the money in a balance. selfless service is unknown to him.”
— swami sivananda says
#3 do your duty (swadharma)
often our specific duty in life is referred to as “dharma”, which means righteousness. performance of duty frees the soul, and non-performance of duty keeps the soul in bondage.
#4 do your best
whatever you do, do your best.
if you know of a better way to serve then you must make use of it. you cannot hold back from fear of the effort required or from fear of criticism.
do not do work in a sloppy manner because no one is watching or because the work is not for you. give your best effort.
do actions that can bring maximum good and minimum evil.
#5 give up results
the way to realize this truth is to constantly work for work’s sake and to let go of the outcome, good or bad.
it is the desire for action that binds the individual. it is detachment from the action that will dissolve the karmic seeds.
detachment from results also means detachment from the type of job itself. there are neither inferior nor superior jobs.
don’t be attached to your job and be ready to give up your job when necessary. note that karma is always working. you will always be drawn to things that you need to learn.
#6 serving god or the self in totality
do unto others what you would like to have done to yourself.
love thy neighbor as thyself. adapt, adjust, accommodate. bear insult, bear injury.
unity in diversity.
we are all parts of the same body. practice humility in action. beware of power, fame, name, praise, and censure.
#7 follow the discipline of the job
each job involves different requirements in terms of time, degree of concentration, skills or experience, emotional input, physical energy, and will.
every work experience has something to teach you. try to do your best and the lessons from your work will be rich.
#8 qualities of a karma yogi
“a karma yogi should be free from lust, greed, anger, and egoism. he should try to remove these. he should be humble and free from hatred, jealousy, harshness, etc.
a karma yogi should have an amiable, loving, and sociable nature. he should be able to move and mix with everybody without distinction of caste, creed, or color. he should have perfect adaptability, mercy, and cosmic love.
he should be sympathetic and tolerant. he should be able to adjust himself to the habits and ways of others. he should always have a cool and balanced mind.
he should have equal vision. he should rejoice in the welfare of others. he should lead a very simple life.
a karma yogi should have a sound, healthy, and strong physical body. he should do regular pranayama, physical exercises, and asanas in order to keep up a high standard of health. he should have the power of endurance.”
the attributes of a karma yogi
/absence of expectations: renouncing the results of action
/naturalness: expressing simplicity in actions and thought, sincerity in our commitment, goals, and direction
/equanimity: maintaining a balance of mind and openness of the heart in success and failure
/response-ability: the non-reactive way of acting
/efficiency: being completely present, having a lucid and focused mind, not distracted (based mostly on naturalness, awareness, and love)
/it is not enough to just do something to promote our health and peace every day, because this can still reinforce the ego and the identification with the body and mind.
/we should do something for the welfare of others every day. never let a day go by without serving others. it could be a humble act: donating to charity, calling on a sick friend, or praying for the welfare of those who are suffering. dramatic actions, or quiet, hidden ones—it doesn’t matter, as long as it is done mindfully and without any personal expectations attached.
/we should never miss an opportunity to serve. we should meditate on the ways we can serve other people and the environment.
/practiced in the correct way, karma yoga is sufficient to create the proper conditions for supreme self-revelation.
“the one who has trained the mind to stay centered in equanimity in life has cast aside both good and evil karma. therefore, by all means, practice yoga; [karma] yoga is perfection in action.”
–bhagavad gita (2:50)
the art of giving back (our actions) is karma yoga.