Karma Yoga - Selfless Giving is the Art of Living

This week’s blog is all about a form of yoga called Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga is the yoga of action, it’s the path of selfless service to your fellow human beings. It’s one of the 3 paths to enlightenment that is based on the teachings of an ancient Hindu text called the Bhagavad Gita. In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna is on the battlefield in despair as he is about to go to war, he has friends, family and loved ones on both sides of the battle. He turns to his good friend and chariot driver (who happens to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna) for advice. Krishna explains to Prince Arjuna that he is a warrior and it is his job and duty (dharma) to perform his ‘work’ and not be attached to the outcome. The battlefield setting of the Bhagavad Gita is said to be an allegory for the war that goes on inside each of us, it’s the ethical and moral struggles of human life. Lord Krishna explains that you can obtain enlightenment by serving others and by not being attached to the fruits of that labour. To achieve detachment from the outcome of your work, Krishna suggests dedicating your actions to the Supreme (The Universe/God/Buddha/Allah, whatever you identify with). This is the most important aspect of Karma Yoga, to serve humanity but to do so without any attachment to the result. You must remain balanced in times of success and in times of failure.

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of how to be a Karma Yogi, let’s take a step back at look at what Karma actually is.

What is Karma?

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means action or deed. Anything that a person does whether physical or mental is Karma, so breathing, eating, seeing, hearing, thinking, etc, are all Karmas. It’s a Hindu philosophy and it is intertwined with reincarnation. The belief is that a person is born with certain tendencies or Samskaras. Samskaras are impressions in the subconscious mind from a past life, it can be defined as: "Whenever an action is performed with the desire for a specific result (whether for oneself or another), Samskara is created for that person. These accumulate and determine the situations with which we will be presented in the future and will influence the scope of future actions”. Therefore, Karma is the sum total of all of our acts, both in this life and in our earlier lives.

Karma relates not just to the action, but also the result of the action, the consequence cannot be separated from the action itself. Karma accumulates when actions are done with a selfish motive, when you expect something from the outcomes of the action. However, when an action is done without this expectation, it is liberating (no Karma is accumulated). This process continues until you attain a zero balance i.e. no Karma remains. Only then are you free, this means you break the cycle of Samsara (the cycle of constant death and rebirth).

How to Practice Karma Yoga

Two things are essential for the practice of Karma Yoga:

  1. Non-attachment to the outcomes of your actions
  2. Dedicating your actions to the Supreme

In order to free ourselves from the cycle of Samsara we must develop immunity to our reactions and negative components of our actions. Anyone can practice Karma Yoga, you don’t need to be rich, have a physical yoga practice or even have read the Bhagavad Gita. You serve others with your mind and your body. Here are some ways you can practice being a Karma Yogi

Serve Somebody

You can volunteer your time in service of others, working in soup kitchen, become a mentor for young people, or work with asylum seekers. There are many volunteer agencies out there; the type of work is limitless. You can help a person on the street in need by giving food, water or money, even the action of giving up your seat on the tram or train for an elderly or pregnant lady is a selfless action.

Karma Yoga teaches us that as we develop spiritually, we become more aware, our compassion grows making it easier to spot the suffering around us. It also makes it harder for us to ignore this suffering. The pain of others becomes our own and we are driven to help relieve it.

Serve with Soul

Don’t serve with the need to ‘fix’ a person or a situation. Try not to approach a situation from a position of arrogance, you can’t save the entire world nor are you better than the person you are helping. To help this process:

  • Involve yourself fully in the work, pay attention to the detail, but simultaneously cultivate the sense of non-attachment.
  • Develop a feeling of calmness regardless of what you are doing, leave behind preferences for particular types of work.

This is not to say that you will have challenges, you may think ‘I am awesome, I have just made this person’s life better’ or ‘I really don’t like this job’ or ‘I can’t wait to finish this and get home’. These thoughts may bring up feelings of guilt, but you are human; the question is what we do when this occurs. There is always an opportunity to grow, after all, mistakes are what we learn from.

Serve Yourself

The Bhagavad Gita advises us to bring balance and calmness to every situation. This makes your service more sustainable. It is true that not acting is just as important as completing an act of service, the ability to be still and observe can show us when it's the right time to do something. It's all too easy to burn out and drain yourself of compassion. It is important not to over commit yourself and neglect other areas of your life, as Mirabi Bush puts it: ‘Be brave, start small, use what you’ve got, do something you enjoy, and don’t over commit’.

The Benefits of Practicing Karma Yoga

Selfless service rids you of egoism, hatred, jealousy, ideas of superiority and selfishness; it develops within you humility, love, sympathy, tolerance and mercy. Gradually feelings of separateness from the world and others begins to disappear, you start to feel unity with all living things. Eventually, it is said you will come to know The Self (The Supreme). You will realise the One in all and All in one.

Karma Yoga is an ancient solution to the quest of spiritual growth. The benefits it gives to yourself and others makes it an attractive choice. We shall leave you with a thought from one of India’s most respected Gurus, Neem Karoli Baba. He gives just one instruction:  “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God (The Universe/Supreme)”. These six words encompass the whole tradition of Karma Yoga. 


Western Wellness Team

(Your friendly neighbourhood yogis)