When I was eight years old, my parents decided to send me to a Vedic school for my primary education.
My father wanted me to learn about yoga, and at this school, it was one of our six main subjects. For the whole first year, we were taught about karma yoga—one of the four paths of yoga.
It was only a few years later that I realized the importance of starting our education this way.
Often people think that karma yoga is a free service or a free exchange of services where no monetary gain is involved. But karma yoga is more than volunteer work or social service.
Let us understand the concept of dharma.
In your life you have certain roles. For example, the role of a parent, a spouse, a friend, and so on. Some roles you choose, and some roles you are assigned without any choice. Whether you chose it or not, each of these roles brings you a specific duty. Doing your duty at your best capability and without ego or attachment is called karma yoga.
So, if you have the role of a mother, you have the duties of a mother. If you do your duty of raising the child without ego or attachment, it will become your karma yoga. So, when the child demands candy at the time of dinner, what is your duty? Should you give him the candy, or should you tell him that he needs to eat a healthy meal at this time? What if the child starts to throw tantrums? Do you give him the candy or stick with strictness?
Whatever action you choose, was it because of ego or attachment, or because you did what you believe is your duty or responsibility?
Karma yoga or karma marga is one of the three spiritual paths in yoga, and it focuses on bringing the yogic philosophy into the way that we do everything in life.
The philosophy behind karma yoga
The karma yoga is a very old practice in Hinduism dating back to the days when Bhagavad Gita was written. There are scripts of Bhagavad Gita that confirm that this was a common way of life in those days, and that this way of life continued throughout history.
According to the Hindu scripts, karma yoga is a way of yoga in which a person commits selfless actions and helps the people. Actions are neither limited to the self nor to others. Hindu beliefs express that karma yoga is the way to the Moksha or forgiveness. There are also some references related to the karma yoga found in the Bhagavad Gita as well.
The principles of karma yoga
There are four separate principles; these are duty, ego, attachment, and reward.
This principle centers around the need to perform our duty or do something that has been assigned to us. This will be the karma or action that we will perform. It is important that we perform our duty with a sense of selflessness.
We must not show or operate out of ego. Controlling it is the second most important part of a karma yoga practice. This principle tells us that we should decide or make decisions that are not based on the need or perceptions of our ego. We should do our duties without any ego.
This is a principle that says that we should perform our duty with any attachment to an outcome that might flatter our egos. We should complete our duties whether we like them or not. This is to say that our duty is bigger than our attachment.
This principle says that you must do your duty with a pure heart and without thinking of reward so that your karma or action is pure.
Types of Karma Yoga:
These are also multiple types of karma yoga, each of which has their own focus. Sanchitta focuses on past actions, parabda focuses on resent action (what we are doing now, in this lifetime, and its result), and agami focuses on future actions (these result from your present actions).
The benefits of karma yoga
When we practice karma yoga, we begin to become free from ego and gain clarity of mind. Ego is the attachment to our ideas. It creates suffering and illusion in our life. When we start to do our duties with the principles of karma yoga, it becomes easy to know the difference between right and wrong actions. We start to make better decisions and become free from the suffering and pain created by ego.
Karma yoga can:
>> Cleanse our hearts
>> Eliminate negative feelings like ego, hatred, and jealousy
>> Encourage the development of good qualities like love, tenderness, and tolerance
>> Lead to a wider and more liberal view of life
>> Allow us to focus on service and feel connected with all
>> Increase awareness of ourselves and increase feelings of contentment
>> Develop our inner spiritual strength and power
What karma yoga isn’t
Helping others without any benefit in return might be karma yoga. But not when it is done while ignoring our primary duties.
In karma yoga, it is especially important to prioritize our duties. For example, once I went to a medical clinic with my old neighbor to see a doctor. It was mid-day and the clinic was full of patients waiting to be seen, but the doctor was not in the clinic. When I asked the assistant about the doctor, he told me that the doctor is not available because he is helping in a temple with cleaning the floor.
Now the doctor was doing a free and beneficial service at temple, but ignoring his primary duty of seeing the patients who needed him. This was not karma yoga. He should have first completed his primary duty and then, in his free time, helped at the temple.
What a karma yoga practice should be
If you want to start integrating a karma yoga practice within your daily life, the first thing is to make a list of all of your duties.
Once you have made a list of all duties, you can prioritize them in order of importance. For example, your duty toward yourself is more important than your duty to your friend. But sometimes the priority may change due to circumstances.
If you come home late, tired from work, and your friend calls to ask you to come over and spend time together, you should say “no” because you need to take care of yourself so you can work efficiently and be of the best benefit to yourself and your coworkers the next day. But what if the same friend calls and asks you to come and pick him because he had an accident? Your duty to your friend would temporarily take priority over your standard duty to yourself.
Does paid work count as karma yoga?
I often ask my students if they think I am doing karma yoga by teaching them? Often, someone says no because I am getting paid to teach them.
Remember that karma yoga is about doing our duty without ego and attachment. It does not say anything about payment. Our professional roles and the associated tasks, once accepted, become our duty; these are duties that we get paid to carry out.
For example, if I teach my students as best as I can and without letting my ego or attachment affect those teachings, I am doing karma yoga.
On the other hand, let’s say that if I think that I don’t get paid enough I decide that I don’t have to teach my students everything I know, or maybe l tend to give more attention to a student who always greets me than the student who never does. These actions are not karma yoga. I am performing only part of my duties and am doing so at least partially out of ego.
See the difference? It’s subtle.
Karma Yoga can be practiced by everyone, and it becomes easier as you go. Start with your primary duties and slowly expand to those more minor. Practicing karma yoga will bring peace of mind and clarity to your life.