April 6, 2012

What Does Karma Yoga Mean?

Photo: Your secret admiral

If we act with kindness and without focusing on ourselves, happiness will arise naturally, like a flower opening in the sun.

Some people think that yoga means stretching, bending and twisting like a pretzel, or sitting crossed legged with our eyes closed and chanting om. But if that is all we did we would be no use to anyone. We spent our honeymoon in India and lived at the Bihar School of Yoga, where the foundation of our training was karma yoga. This was brilliant, as it gave us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of what it really is.

Many great yoga masters have said that the greatest path of yoga is karma yoga, as it is the one that asks us to be the least me-centered. The teaching is very explicit regarding karma yoga, which is described as the path of action and selfless service, to renounce our own selfish pursuits and not to reap the fruits of our actions.

Brad Pitt’s selfless work building houses in New Orleans, or yoga teacher and activist Seane Corn’s work with Youth AIDS are expressions of karma yoga. “I realized that whether my yoga practice was fifteen minutes or four hours was irrelevant because it was not about how yoga can change me,” says Seane in our book, Be The Change, “but how I, through this practice, can begin to change the world. What I really felt was how dare I not step into the world and hold that space?”

Start by practicing selfless service for a day, giving in whatever way you can by offering kindness. How does it feel? Just one day of this can be transforming, so try doing it once a week. It doesn’t mean you have to deny or ignore your own needs—you are just as important as everyone else. But just for this time let it not be about you.

Tai chi teacher Arthur Rosenfield was in the drive-thru line at Starbucks. The man in line behind him was getting impatient and angry, leaning on his horn and shouting insults at both Arthur and the Starbucks workers. Keeping his cool, Arthur paid for the man’s coffee and drove away. When he got home later that day, he discovered that he had created a chain of giving that had not only continued all day but had been highlighted on NBC News. Within twenty-four hours it had spread around the world on the Internet.

“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve,” said Martin Luther King. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Karma yoga is creating goodness in the world. Do you treat your world with kindness or with aggression? Giving without any thought of getting is the most powerful act of generosity as it is unconditional, unattached, free to land wherever it will. But generosity can also raise fears about not having enough. Watch where resentment creeps in and remember that selfless action is just that: selfless.

On our morning walk through the alleys near our house we came across a back yard filled with used bicycles. Finally, we met the owner. He had a bicycle shop in town and was collecting all these used bikes, repairing them, and then donating them to an Indian reservation in Montana. His goal was that everyone at the reservation, young and old, should have a bicycle of their own.

We see it in author Marc Barasch, founder of Green World Campaign. He decided that, “instead of cutting down trees to put words on a page, I wanted to plant some actual trees in the ground.” This year the nonprofit will plant millions of trees throughout the developing world, revitalizing barren land, helping sustain poor villages and combating climate change. The slogan is, “It’s amazing what one seed can grow.”

And there is Aileen, a friend from England. In the last ten years she has created a farm in rural India. She sent us a photo showing her planting ‘flame of the forest’ tree seeds into starter pots. When these seeds become saplings they will be distributed to local school children so that each child will have their own tree to grow and tend.

Serving enables us to step beyond our own desires and to release any sense of separation. It takes us out of selfishness and neediness, and in the process we see our own self-centeredness in greater perspective. We discover that in giving we do not have any less. Rather, we gain so much. Let everything we do be of benefit to others.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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