In 2016, I had the privilege of spending two weeks at a Sivananda yoga ashram in Western Australia. Although everyone who entered the ashram were initially strangers, we quickly formed a tight knit community based around morning meditations, shared meals and through daily karma yoga, or volunteering freely and without expectations. We were assigned daily karma yoga duties on a whiteboard in a common area. For five hours in the morning, we were required to take on these duties to serve the ashram, as well as the other people living there. Some of the duties felt like traditional chores: cleaning the rooms, bathrooms, and doing laundry. Others felt more freeing and joyful-cooking vegan food the ashram or working outside in the garden, weeding and staying warm in the sunshine. Even though I like certain tasks more than others, I found a similar feeling by the end- a sense a of connectedness, pride in fulfilling a duty that serves others, and a sense of flow in my actions. Karma yoga just felt good.
What is Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga is the yoga of unselfish action. In Hinduism, it is a spiritual practice along with Raja, Bhakti and Jnana yoga. Sometimes it is described as serving others, but it can be more widely considered as any action you become engrossed in (think similar to finding your flow). The concept of karma yoga highlighted in a section of the Indian Mahabharata epic known as the Bhagavad Gita, or simply “the Gita” in yogi slang.
The story focuses on Arjuna, a prince and warrior preparing for battle. As you can imagine, Arjuna was feeling conflicted about going to war, particularly because he was set to fight against friends and family. Just as Arjuna is set to give up, the God Vishnu in the form of Krishna, his chariot driver, begins to speak with him about the importance of action, of duty, and of karma yoga in Arjuna’s situation. This is only a small nutshell of this story- definitely take time to read and study it!
Now most people won’t have to go through the difficult choices that Arjuna had to face on the battlefield. But karma yoga has a place in our modern lives as well.
What does Karma Yoga Do?
Karma yoga satisfies an integral part of being a human-our need to be a functional member of a community. Humans are inherently social animals, and community is gives us the sense of belonging, support, and way to navigate the world that we have evolved for.
Karma yoga also helps you feel connected beyond yourself by turning your focus into the present moment through action. Have you ever felt like you are so in tune with the present activity that you are it? This feeling is similar to finding your flow or getting lost in your work, is a form of yoga through action by being completely and totally present.
Karma yoga also gives us a sense of balance. It helps you find your ultimate center and stasis in the body and mind by becoming action. Explore the tips below and reflect on the power karma yoga has in your life.
Karma Yoga: Tips to Try
Have the Right Attitude
To carry out karma yoga, you need to have the right attitude. Focus on making a difference and doing it we care and compassion. Give your focus to your work.
Check Your Motives
We all have motives or drives for doing something. When I was applying to universities, teachers advised me to volunteer to make my application look better. While this did get me involved in volunteering, it didn’t do it for the pure motive of helping others, but rather to enhance my university application. Reflect on your motives, and consider if you are looking to make yourself look better or actually serve others.
Do Your Best, Do Your Duty
When you think of your karma yoga as a duty, you tend to take it more seriously. Take responsibility for the actions and the duty it has to others. Do your best not to make yourself look good to others, but rather to serve others.
Karma yoga does not always come easy. It is important to discipline yourself to keep going once you have committed. Instead of looking toward the end goal, focus on the present and the actions you are taking. Our actions have effects on others, even when we don’t see them.
Find Your Flow
If I understood how to find my flow, I would be in it all the time. It is an elusive state that completely invests you in your work, your action. When you find your flow, reflect on what it felt like to be in it. Write down your thoughts. This reflection will help to understand the power of action, and of karma yoga.
One of my favorite quotes is the famous “actions speak louder than words”. Karma yoga embodies this quote, and the power it can truly bring into our lives.