Traditionally, yoga is the path of achieving union with the divine, which leads to enlightenment and the end of suffering.
And since we are all unique, it’s unlikely that there is a one-size-fits-all approach that is guaranteed to get us all to that destination.
Luckily, there are many different paths we can take!
Hint: the different types of yoga are the different paths.
So do you know which path of yoga you are following when you do postures on your mat? (Probably a form of Hatha Yoga)
But yoga postures aren’t the only yogic path that a practitioner can take.
In fact, there are even some types of yoga that don’t involve a mat at all, such as Bhakti Yoga.
Knowing about the different types of yoga helps us choose the best one (or ones!) for our personal constitution.
It’s like, maybe we’ve been bumping along on a winding back road when there’s another type of yoga that gets us cruising on the highway to freedom from suffering!
Read on to learn more about the principles and practice of another exciting path of yoga–Karma Yoga.
What is Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga is one of the traditional yoga systems outlined in the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita that describes the primary yogic paths as:
- Karma yoga – The yoga of action
- Jnana yoga – The yoga of knowledge
- Bhakti yoga – The yoga of devotion
It’s the “yoga of devoted action” where the karma yogi devotes the results of their actions to the divine. This removes karmic impressions and leads to the state of yoga, or oneness with god.
This path is great for “worldly” practitioners that are concerned primarily with the physical, human matters of the world because according to karma yoga:
Don’t have time for a long formal practice?…Not a problem!
Can’t leave your family to go meditate in a cave?…No big deal!
In karma yoga, all daily activities, from brushing our teeth, to taking the kids to school, to earning money, can be yoga practice.
The Principles of Karma Yoga
Let’s break this down into a few key principles that will help us better understand this rich and multi-layered philosophy.
The Sanskrit word karma means two things:
- Mental and physical actions (mental actions include intentions, thoughts, emotions, attitudes, desires, and attachments)
- The consequences of actions
In this sense, karma is both the deed and the consequence of the deed.
Together they give rise to “the law of karma” or the spiritual philosophy of cause and effect whereby one’s mental and physical actions (the cause) influence their future (the effect). So we are currently living out the karma or consequences of past actions, and what we do now affects our future.
Karma is linked to the idea of the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra) that is common in many Indian traditions. According to this concept, as we reincarnate we carry our karmic impressions with us (there are various takes on where it’s stored: our subconscious minds, our subtle bodies, our souls, etc.) As such, we can be living off karma created in our past lives as well as this one.
Until we balance our karmic balance sheet, we remain in samsara, which is considered to be a bad thing because most incarnations come with suffering. But once we clear our karmic debts, we attain self-realization, union with the divine, and liberation from samsara (moksha).
Two fundamental types of karma are:
- Nishkama karma – Activities done without expectations of a favorable result or fruit (“selfless action”) that LIBERATE us from karma and samsara.
- Sakama karma – Activities done with the expectation of a favorable outcome (“selfish action”) which BIND us to more karma and samsara.
As you might have noticed above, the difference between actions that free us and actions that bind us is our intention. Even if we do our duty or serve others (“right action”), if we are motivated by selfish desire it will add to our karmic debt. To clear our karma, our motive must be to serve the divine.
According to karma yoga, for our actions to liberate us from samsara, they must be performed with the “right attitude”, which is one of:
- Doing Our Best – When we think, speak, and act from the “right intention” of serving source, we naturally do our best which helps us progress on the yogic path.
- Joy – Performing our actions with force or effort adds to our karma while acting with joy removes karma.
- Non-Attachment – When our motive is only to serve god, we surrender the fruits of our work to the divine. This means we let go of the expectation of a reward, caring about the outcome, achieving validation, success, or fulfillment, and whether we like or dislike what we are doing.
We perform karma yoga by doing our duty with the right motive and attitude. Some say the term “duty” in karma yoga means specifically dharmic duty (dharma meaning the cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order).
Others say that since environments change, the nature of our duties changes, and so performing the duty that is ours in any particular moment is the best thing we can do in the world (this article is based in this perspective).
From this view, our duty can include most activities from showing kindness to another person, to maintaining our physical body, to “mundane” household chores, and nothing is considered too minor or unworthy to be devoted to god and aid in our liberation. This is principle is reinforced by the practice of ishvara pranidhana, the fifth Niyama comprising the second limb of yoga.
Modern psychology tells us that the ego is a helpful and normal part of the psyche of every human being. From the yogic perspective, the egoic “I-ness” has a tendency to lead to suffering by limiting our consciousness, blocking self-realization, and keeping us separate from others and god (which is why disidentifying with the ego is part of most yogic paths).
Acting from the higher motive to serve the supreme soul instead of the lower desire for self gain attenuates our ego, which strengthens our connection with others and source. The ego is also weakened through the concept of non-doership that says that god is acting through us so our ego can’t take credit.
Karma Yoga According To The Bhagavad Gita
Perhaps one of the most well-known texts on karma yoga is the Bhagavad Gita that teaches that we must do our duty without attachment.
This text captures karma yoga’s essence when Krishna says to Arjuna, “Do what you do, but offer the fruits of it to me.”
Other aspects of karma yoga illuminated by this text are:
- Karma yoga means “selfless service” but it means not just serving other people as is commonly believed, but doing all actions with interest only in serving god instead of the self.
- A karma yogi lives not for themself, but for the divine. They are not the center of their life, god is, and the culmination of this practice is union with god.
- Desire is the root of karma; actions performed without selfishness or desire do not accrue karma.
- All action and inaction creates karma. So neither by performing good actions, nor engaging in non-action, nor avoiding wrong action can one escape karma as it is not possible for humans to stay free from impurity. The only path to liberation is to perform our duty and surrender the results of all actions to source.
- Karma yoga is to remain engaged with life. It is to deal with pleasures and pains without escaping or making effortful choices.
- We aren’t the “doer” of our actions, they are generated by the divine acting through us (called “non-doership”).
How to Practice Karma Yoga Today
You might be thinking, okay, cool, so what does all this mean for me? How can I actually put this into practice in my life? Let’s take a peek at that, shall we!
Give Without Wanting to Get
When we do things for other people, from community service to paying somebody a compliment, we can serve from love without expecting something in return (including wanting to get good karma points!)
Do All as an Offering
Whether we’re eating a meal or mentally rehearsing a work call, everything can be a step towards liberation when we give up the goodness of what we do to the higher good or power that we believe in. (This also helps us embody the right attitude so we do our best with more joy–bonus!)
Once we’ve completed our duty and the ball is no longer in our court, we can practice staying neutral towards whatever outcome arises.
Don’t Take Credit
When we receive acknowledgment for our work, we can practice non-doership by internally giving up the credit to the higher power acting through us. (Externally we can still say a simple “thank you” of course because #manners #socialnorms LOL.)
Meditation in Action
As we go about our daily activities, we can be mindful of when we’re fantasizing about self gain or a particular outcome from our work. Since non-attachment begins in the mind, we can exit those thought streams and return our focus to the task at hand for a non-attachment meditation in action!
Choose Quality Over Quantity
Many cultures place importance on the quantity of work we do, but if we are “doing” a lot but with a lot of stress or resentment, we are adding to our karma. If we see our activities as burdens, we can take some things off our list until we can act from the heart with joy.
As the famous karma yogi Ram Dass says, “If you’re not doing service in such a way that at the end of the service you feel freer, higher, clearer, lighter, and more energized, you’ve got work to do.”