This article on karma yoga is down to earth. I will be giving you practical advice on how to use selfless service as a precious addition to your regular yoga practice and how to start benefiting from it yourself. It isn’t all that complicated.
What is karma yoga
Karma yoga is about consciously turning your actions into a yoga practice. The aim is to elevate yourself above the small self and to connect with the bigger whole. You do that by carrying out your actions without attachment and without seeking to enjoy the results. You do it as a service without asking for anything else in return than the privilege of acting.
“Selfish action is far lower than unselfish action, O Arjuna. Seek refuge in the knowledge of equanimity. Pitiable are those who are motivated by results.“
Krishna talking to Arjuna about karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita (verse 2:29)
Can any action be karma yoga?
Some yogis say that only some types of actions can be karma yoga. They might, for example, say that karma yoga must be a service to humanity. However, by setting up such lofty restrictions, you run into philosophical problems. Who decides exactly what service to humanity is? Depending on our backgrounds, we are likely to have different opinions about that.
But I think we can keep it down to earth. I believe action is karma yoga if you are sincere about your intentions. In other words, what you do in the spirit of selfless service automatically becomes karma yoga.
So then, what is the karma yoga attitude?
The principles of karma yoga
These are the fundamental approaches that I think you need to get real benefits from karma yoga.
Perform your task at hand without thinking about other things. In today’s world, with communication devices and screens everywhere, this is an additional challenge. Turn off your phone and stay away from screens.
Do selfless work with a sense of devotion and personal responsibility.
Do your best
Carry out your job to the best of your ability, with the means at hand.
Don’t ask for anything in return
Do your task solely for the sake of doing it and not for enjoying the fruits of your work.
Be of benefit to others
Whenever it is possible, let your work benefit others.
Give credit to others
Whenever you have the opportunity, and it is justified, let others get the credit for what you do.
Stay detached from your karma yoga task. Even though you do your best, don’t worry about the outcome. Also, be ready to leave it to its destiny when you have finished.
“Whenever you do something, do it well.”
The benefits of karma yoga
I have already mentioned some benefits of karma yoga. But there is more to it since there are benefits on different levels. Let’s examine benefits more closely one by one.
A crucial benefit of karma yoga is that it purifies your mind because it draws attention away from worries and mind-chatter. Instead, your focus goes into physical reality and the present moment.
Dissolution of sense of isolation
Selfless service dissolves your sense of isolation and separation, reinforcing your connection with the field of universal consciousness.
Karma yoga trains satisfaction. You develop your ability to feel joy from the small things in life.
The yoga of action trains your ability to stay detached. You can think of it as a meditation in everyday life. You use your task to de-identify with thoughts, reactions, doubts and attitudes that arise as you carry out your chores. By meeting this mental content with a meditative mindset, you can let it pass through you all while staying focused. You can say that karma yoga exhausts your mental states and brings you back to harmony.
Balances effects of intense yoga practice
The last significant benefit of karma yoga is that it is a sure means to harmonise the effects of intense yoga sadhana.
If you are doing yoga and meditation several hours per day, you need to balance that with activity. It’s in your best interest to make sure the energy you awaken gets integrated and used. Otherwise, it can lead to nervousness and irritation and even depression.
Karma yoga is the perfect way to ground yourself; in my tradition and many others, karma yoga is a crucial component during yoga retreats and everyday ashram life. When I trained to become a yoga teacher at Haa International Retreat Center, I did selfless service all the time, except for when I was practising yoga.
When can you practise selfless service?
Some settings are particularly suitable for karma yoga. However, most people don’t have access to those settings all the time (or even at all). To benefit from selfless service, I suggest you adopt the karma yoga mindset even when conditions are less than optimal. Otherwise, you might not get around doing it much.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of situations under which you can easily incorporate karma yoga into your yoga practice.
Living in an ashram
In an ashram, a yoga community, a monastery, or other spiritual communities, karma yoga is an integral part of daily life. That means that you naturally have access to karma yoga. The community operates through karma yoga, and that creates an atmosphere of fellowship.
Running a household
Taking care of a household, raising children or caring for your elderly parents is another ideal setting for selfless work. However, it is more challenging to keep the attitude of selfless service than when you live in a yoga community. There are no fixed times for meditation and yoga that give you deep rest and higher energy. For example, when you take care of small kids, you are on duty 24/7. Furthermore, in a family setting detachment is more challenging because of the bonds between family members.
Taking on voluntary work for a non-profit organisation or something similar is another excellent example of an activity to make into a yoga practice. Here you have a perfect opportunity to use your unique qualities for the benefit of others.
Your profession as selfless service
If you have a paid job to go to, that is another situation in which you can take on a karma yoga attitude. Since your job is how you make your living, it will not only be selfless service, but with the right spirit, you can still get many of the benefits.
Taking care of animals
Taking care of animals can make for outstanding selfless service. One of the best proofs of the benefits of karma yoga I know of is from a horse keeper at a circus. By constantly putting his own needs aside in favour of his animals, he experienced a radical and permanent shift in his state of consciousness. If you are interested, you can read about it in the intriguing book, The Leap by Steve Taylor.
Best types of tasks for karma yoga
Any chore can become karma yoga. Nevertheless, I think specific tasks are better suited than others, especially if you use selfless service combined with your regular yoga practice.
All kinds of manual work is perfect because it helps you get out of the intellect and to ground yourself. In today’s society, most of us are intellectually overstimulated. Here are some practical tasks that I always try to propose whenever I organise yoga retreats.
Everybody likes to live in a clean place, and to provide that for yourself and others is a source of joy.
- Building and construction
Building and home improvement are suitable. It requires some knowledge and problem solving, making it a perfect mix of manual and intellectual work.
- Gardening and taking care of plants
There is nothing that connects you to the cycle of life more than seeing things grow.
Making sure that people get food is perfect karma yoga.
- Outdoor work
Outdoor work is excellent since it allows you to breathe fresh air and connect to nature. Most of us spend too much time indoors.
Taking care of others
Tasks that involve an instant benefit for others are perfect for selfless service. We are all connected, and by caring for others, the care you give automatically spills over to yourself.
Yoga teaching is perfect as selfless service. Your students get instant benefits, and as a teacher, you feel that tangibly which is rewarding.
Problems with selfless service
Sometimes you will come across those who warn against karma yoga. The reason is that corrupt community leaders could exploit you. That is a fair argument.
However, worrying about being exploited can be a real obstacle to selfless service. It has happened that participants on yoga retreats I have organised have left in anger because of karma yoga.
Any community work will inevitably involve some conflicts of interest and disagreements. Because of the nature of karma yoga, you could, in theory, both be exploited and get good benefits at the same time. If you are doing karma yoga in an ashram or something similar, my advice is to use your good judgement. Remember that ashram leaders and yogis are human beings and human beings have flaws. If it feels wrong, you can always walk away.
- Karma yoga can be a perfect complement to your regular yoga practice.
- Turning your actions into yoga has benefits on many levels. Ultimately it is about elevating you above your small self and connecting with the field of universal consciousness.
- Some settings are especially good for karma yoga. Still, with the right attitude, any work can be used as selfless service.
Featured image depicting myself by Turiya at Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School Stockholm.