Karma Yoga has become somewhat of a buzz phrase at many local studios these days. People are trading their time in service for yoga classes. This is not true karma yoga. In fact, years ago at Kelowna Yoga house we had discussions amongst the teachers that touched on this very topic. At the time, we had a “Karma Yoga program” but realized upon reflection that it was merely an exchange of services with personal reward attached. We now call it “work exchange”. You may already be aware that the word karma means action. We are always in action. Even when seemingly doing nothing, we are thinking, breathing, sleeping etc. Karma Yoga is the yoga of action–it is the intentional application of action with a corresponding attitude. It is expounded on in many spiritual works; one of the most often quoted is the Bhagavad Gita. 3.19-20 “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind. It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; others, too, have followed this path.” (This is just a sample, the whole chapter is glorious)
Giving selflessly is karma yoga. If we are trading our time for money, there is nothing selfless about it, we are getting a reward. What makes any act one of karma yoga is the attitude and intention behind it. If we are serving others for the benefit of others, this is truly selfless service. Less self, more focus on the other. Personally, I have worked under the guise of karma yoga for many years. However, I must admit that not all of that work was done with the right spirit of selflessness. There are times when I took on projects that looked selfless but I must admit that there were some subconscious motives for doing that work. Our motivations can be very tangled and convoluted. It takes constant self-observation to reveal those hidden agendas.
We live in a time and culture that encourages us to do for ourselves, care for ourselves and indulge ourselves. Because we are conditioned to do so, karma yoga may seem very unnatural. Sometimes we find that we are waiting for someone else to tell us what to do. Karma yoga is a study of right action and we prepare to become agents of naturally-arising appropriate action. We attempt to align ourselves with what is wanted and needed in the moment. We deceive ourselves by thinking that if we give too much time to others we will not have enough for ourselves. We may feel that we will never get anything done. Karma Yoga is not becoming a slave or martyr. We have to be careful about working ourselves to the bone and then complaining or grumbling about it. Selfless service must be done with abhava (feeling) of delight.
When we are in the service of others, and perform that service without the hope of any personal gain, we are practicing karma yoga. Serving others dissolves the sense of separation that we feel. Always operating from a place of self-referencing is lonely and isolating. When we have the wants and needs of others in mind, we are connecting with the world and with God. Some of us have a very hard time extending ourselves in this way. However, I will speak from experience when I say it gets easier and more natural. In the beginning, it is like we are behaving out of character. I am so used to being selfish, how can I become selfless? As you make some efforts in the beginning to do what does not come naturally, you will find that a seed sprouts and grows inside to later blossom fully when in the service of others.
Suppose we take on a position at the food bank to “help others”. If we go around boasting about our “generosity” then the ego is being fed. Anytime the ego is being fed in free labour you can be sure that the spirit of karma yoga is absent. Swami Sivananda said that “Selfless service will make you divine.” LESS self is the key. What does it mean to be divine? The divine qualities that most would agree on are: compassion, understanding, patience, generosity, good-will, kindness, equanimity. Through selfless service we come to embody these qualities.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises not to be attached to the fruits of our actions. This is especially challenging, as even when we believe we are helping others we have a particular outcome in mind. We don’t really know what the best outcome is. We do not know the web of karmas that are involved and even if everything goes seemingly awry, this may be the right outcome. When there is an apparent failure, lessons may be learned, revelations unraveled. Our job is to work without grasping for ideals or outcomes. In other words, we take out the struggle, the worry, anxiety and weariness from our work.
It was said that Jnana Yoga (the yoga of wisdom/knowledge) does not begin until one is well-versed in karma yoga. Eknath Easwaran says that “Spiritual wisdom always reveals itself in our actions.” Knowledge of life comes from performing action. Through activity our character is tested and our mind is purified. So much is learned about oneself in the process. We see how we are self-centered, judgemental, or how we are lazy or inefficient when working for others. There are however, ways we can stay on track. When we have agreed to do work for others and we find the work especially mind-numbing, we can find ways to stay engaged. Be present with the bodily sensations. Transform a tedious task into a gift by singing a song or chanting a mantra (internally or externally) or simply keep the person whom you are working for in mind. This can convert a miserable mood into a devotional one.
When performing service do not have fixed ideas about how you can serve. Maybe I have a particular talent: I am a fine manicurist for example, but if that is not what is needed at the time, I should be prepared to scrub the toilets. If we are picking and choosing (I am willing to do that paperwork, but not the toilets) then that is really just volunteerism. Volunteerism is wonderful and absolutely holds together the fabric of any community. In fact, for many people, volunteerism is a gateway to karma yoga. In fact, we can turn any activity in our day into a path to God. Know that Karma Yoga acts need not be grand. You might start with some random acts of kindness to get you into the mood. Pick up a piece of garbage on the street when no one else is looking. If you see something that can be done, do it; do not leave it for the next guy. Ask yourself, what you are willing to give, to whom, and why?
I leave this for the last, as it is a little secret that all karma yogis know….you will benefit greatly from selfless service! This little secret should not be your motivation, but it is a wonderful by-product of your work. You will delight in the work in its myriad forms. But as Lao Tzu said, “Before receiving, there must be giving”. Swami Adiswarananda parallels this thought: “Doing good is never possible unless one is good, but no one can become good unless one does good. Karma Yoga is the only yoga where this paradox is reconciled.”