Karma Yoga: The Spiritual Practice of Service

karma yogaThe term “karma” essentially means the individual gets what he gives.  The future of that individual is determined in part by his actions and decisions.  Another common saying to describe karma, “what goes around comes around,” captures the term’s essence perfectly.  Translating this principle into a yoga discipline is exactly what’s behind karma yoga. If you practice with an intent to serve others for the truest selfless reasons, then you’re on the right track.

Karma yoga is a form of yoga based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred scripture of Hinduism. Of the four paths to realization, karma yoga is the process of achieving perfection in action. Karma yoga is derived from the spiritual life. It  is said to be the most authentic way to progress in the spiritual life. Found in the Bhagavad Gita karma yoga is a part of nature. Karma yoga is taught by teachers of zen who promote tranquility and is often understood as a yoga of selfless service.

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Serving others is at the core of karma yoga.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.

All major religious traditions stress the importance of service to others: being a companion to the sick and dying, cooking hot meals for the hungry, collecting warm clothes for the poor, and so on. But that doesn’t make karma yoga a universal spiritual practice. In yoga, service is not just a spiritual obligation or the righteous thing to do, as it’s promoted in many churches and synagogues. It is also a path to self-realization, making it a supercharged version of that saying that when you give, you also receive.

Ordinary volunteering can sometimes be confused as an attempt to fulfill the ego’s needs: to alleviate guilt, seek praise or respect, prove our power to “save” people, and so on. Inherently, it centers on unequal relationships—pulling someone up from the depths or fixing them in some way. It also involves a negative judgment, because a helper’s ego can only conclude, based on the evidence that egos understand, that the ego is superior to those who receive its help (they’re dirty, I’m not; they’re addicts, I have self-control). If those being helped sense that they’re being judged, it only increases their pain.

Although karma yoga is associated with selfless service, it can also be thought of as “should-less” service. In the Gita, Krishna describes the karma yogi as one who “feels pure contentment and finds perfect peace in the Self—for him, there is no need to act.” This, with classic yoga logic, creates the perfect foundation for acting: “Surrendering all attachments, accomplish life’s highest good.” But that’s the ideal. Along the way, most of us will butt up against what is known as “the shadow side of service”  (yogajournal.com). This takes several forms besides the above-mentioned need to “fix” people or situations. For instance, we may become service workaholics, neglecting our families or our own needs. The suffering we see may make us so cynical about the world’s condition that our service grows literally dispirited. Conversely, we may approach volunteering so arrogantly that we think we can save the world.

While the shadow can tear the heart out of ordinary volunteering, it plays a far different role in karma yoga. It’s engineered, brilliantly, into the process. “The same stuff that comes up in meditation—monkey mind—comes up in karma yoga,” Meredith Gould from YogaJournal says. “‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ ‘I hate this job.’ ‘I’m looking at the clock—that means I’m not a good person.’ That’s all grist for the mill.” Of course, that also means that because we aren’t perfect, we’re going to screw up sometimes and do harm instead of good. But again, in karma yoga, that’s by design. “The question is, when we mess things up, what do we do with that? Because there’s always growth in screwing up. How else does anyone grow?” Gould adds, laughing.

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Practical Application of Karma Principle of Service

Most places overflow with opportunities to make a difference, especially if, like a good karma yogi, you let go of the need to save humanity. For ideas, just flip through the volunteering pages in your local newspaper or type volunteering into your web browser. Scale doesn’t matter, Gould says; whether you work for world peace or find homes for abandoned cats, “I don’t think one gets more angel points than the other.” Nor does karma yoga have to be done through a formal commitment, she notes. It can even be an extension of your normal job—as with a dedicated science teacher who creates exciting projects for her students in her garage at night.

Keep in mind that acting with heartfelt concern toward others—is part of karma yoga too. When your service undermines other parts of your life, you’re bound to feel resentment and anger, and to spill some of it on those around you.While it’s true that karma yoga is a mysterious process that you can’t direct, that doesn’t mean you can’t help it along. The Gita advises us to bring balance to every situation. Apply that to volunteering and you’ll always bring your best self to the job. You’ll also make your service more personally sustainable. This means combining karma yoga with contemplative practices such as asana and meditation. When you do this you begin to see that not acting is a very important complement to acting, and that being still shows us the right way to act when the time is right to act.

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