You’ve heard of Karma and you’ve heard of Yoga. But Karma Yoga? What is that?
While karma yoga means different things to different people, the general is taking the philosophy of yoga and transforming it into action. This implies stepping off the mat and stepping into the real world – by humbling your ego, serving your community, and getting involved in something larger than yourself. If you are trying to understand the basic tenets of karma yoga, perhaps you need a clearer answer to what is karma?
Yogic Philosophy on Karma Yoga
In its most traditional sense, yoga was never about asanas or poses. It is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘union’ in English. The essence of yoga is founded in the union of the mind, body, and soul, which indicates the union of the self with the divine. It’s the philosophy of oneness – of each individual being a part of universal consciousness.
There are four primary paths of yoga: Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, and Karma. Raja yoga involves mind and body control as it focuses on energetics and meditation. It is from this path of yoga that hatha yoga and modern asana practices developed. Bhakti yoga refers to the path of devotion and encourages you to focus on devoting yourself to the worship of the divine. Jnana yoga is the yoga of wisdom that urges you to study the ancient scriptures like the Upanishads. Karma yoga, is the yoga of action. It is about purifying your heart by training to act selflessly in the service of others.
Through karma yoga, we learn compassion and kindness without the expectation of gains. The idea is that when we learn these lessons, we are able to step away from our ego and free ourselves from moving one step further on the path to enlightenment. Service can serve as a powerful tool to release our ego and learn to act with pure intentions so as to connect with the bigger picture. In short, at the heart of karma yoga lies service – to self and others.
Karma Yoga – A Practice in Daily Life
There are several ways to embrace karma yoga in your life. Whether it’s traveling abroad to engage in service or giving your neighbor a helping hand, the opportunities of karma yoga are endless. Whatever you opt to do, incorporating service into your regular life is key to practicing this form of yoga. We suggest you make a weekly commitment to engage with a local charity by offering your time and effort to support the work they do. You can start with just that!
When it comes to karma yoga, it is imperative that the sense of service stems from a selfless place. It is about giving to those in need, spreading light, and sharing love. There are some ways to encourage this mindset, for example, you can practice chanting a mental mantra – anything that reminds you what the purpose of your service is and helps you stay grounded outside the ego.
Another helpful practice is to familiarize yourself with the people you are serving. Rather than thinking of service as an abstract concept, get to the ground and interact with those you serve. Allow yourself to be humbled by their experience and knowledge. Establish meaningful connections and let yourself be touched by their stories and lives. In this way, you will be able to make karma yoga more than just a practice – you will be able to make it a way of life.
Simple Steps to Start With
Action is to move with intelligence. The world is filled with movement at all times. What it needs is more conscious movement or action.
Traditionally, a yogi was known for renouncing the world and living in a community setting like a monastery or an ashram. They would dedicate their lives to yoga, spirituality, meditation, and to the service of others. By no measure were yogis socialites. This is possibly the most striking difference between the mystics of the past and the newly emerging urban mystics of our times. We are experiencing full-fledged social lives with families and jobs and we don’t necessarily need to renounce these factors to make any sort of a difference. We can simply make a difference by practicing karma yoga which translates to performing the right actions with the right attitude.
For some, karma yoga means sharing your gifts with those in need. It doesn’t imply giving away those gifts for free. It means that if you come across somebody genuine who could really benefit from your knowledge, you should find it in yourself to share it with them. That is how a person supports a mission and fosters a community. It could be as simple as teaching yoga to the vulnerable populations of our society or teaching English to a non-English speaking immigrant. In both situations, we are performing ‘right’ action to raise the morale of the world.
For most yogis, the aim is to connect with the individual consciousness and that is where their journey ends. But true yoga is unifying the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness. The practice of yoga is meant to teach us ways in which we can expand our individual consciousness to feel like a part of the whole. Narrow consciousness translates to narrow awareness. Once a yogi starts to see this, they attempt to live in tune with nature and in harmony with the universe. With this mindset, you would find your own worries too small and insignificant and all forms of life would appear valuable. This is where the practice of karma yoga commences.
There is a common misconception that in order to be a Karma Yogi, you have to perform a grand gesture. In our opinion, however, karma yoga can be as simple as breathing consciously.
So here are a few simple ways to practice karma yoga on a daily basis:
1. Start with self-service
If you wish to change the world, start at home – with yourself. Wake up to the ordinary actions of your life that affect everything you do – from household chores like washing utensils to more important duties like your job. When you live your life from a place of awareness, you carve a path to nourish the universe that in turn nourishes you. It is not selfish to be kind to ourselves or take care of ourselves. It is in fact critical to those things. If we are not healthy or peaceful, we cannot be expected to help others.
2. Be genuine
Take your authentic self anywhere you go. It’s easier said than done but you must do what you have to. In the current world, we are afraid to live our true nature for fear of being ridiculed or taken advantage of. But when we live our true nature without faking what society demands, we raise the bar for the collective, universal consciousness. The more people start being genuine in their relationships, the more kindness will be shared and fewer hearts broken.
3. Respect nature
People these days take nature and its resources for granted, often to the point of exploitation. If you had to grow up in a developing country with limited access to clean water, you would naturally be more cautious of the number of resources you utilize on a daily basis. Next time you leave the tap running while brushing your teeth, think about the people who have no drinking water but are part of the same world that you live in.
Who said you’d have to donate thousands of dollars or even give your time to volunteer activities if you wanted to contribute? While these are great ways to help out, the world can also benefit from us just being human. Just being there and listening to someone who is having a terrible day counts as a contribution too. Similarly, helping an elderly person carry groceries also counts as a contribution – and a rather huge one.
4. Practice compassion
On an everyday basis, we come across people who are constantly rude and agitated. They might honk at you for driving too slow, cut you off in a queue or even abuse you for no rhyme or reason. There is no way to know what the other person might be going through. So next time rather than getting triggered, try practicing some compassion by not reacting to and fuelling their anger or frustration. A smile can make a huge difference.
5. Have a positive attitude
Practice being positive on a daily basis because it is addictive. Let the transformative power of yoga pull you out of a place of cynicism and criticism, let it urge you to think about life’s events as initiations that can mature your consciousness.