karma yoga

Karma Yoga: the Path of Selfless Action

Published on March 24, 2020

The yogic concept of Karma has become commonplace all around the globe. Most likely because the law of karma is simple and understandable–you reap what you sow. Karma yoga is one of the four main branches of yoga that uses the intent of one’s action to control the chain reaction of cause and effect. It is an ancient practice that uses the law of karma to make you a better person and to make the entire world a happier and kinder place. Karma yoga is best suited for persons who are naturally generous and kind, but anyone can easily start this practice. It can provide many of the same benefits as the other yoga practices without as much of the physical or mental challenges.

What is Karma Yoga?

Karma yoga is often defined as “the yoga of action” or “the path of selfless service.” The Sanskrit word “Karma” is derived from the root word “Kru,” which translates as “work, deed or action.” Yoga is a set of practices to unite the body, mind, and heart into a state of oneness. Karma yoga is a disciplined and conscious path to attaining this unitive state through unselfish, kind, and generous actions. This yoga of action involves renouncing the future fruits of our efforts as a spiritual offering rather than letting the ego to become attached to the results of our actions.

What is Karma Yoga’s Purpose?

Karma yoga’s primary goal is to attain moksha (enlightenment) through one’s actions and work in the world. One does not need to wish for wisdom in order to practice this yoga. This yoga is a way to help others while lessening our own suffering and our egoistic tendencies. When practicing Karma Yoga, one’s actions are viewed as a form of prayer or worship to deepen one’s spiritual connection to the Divine or to the oneness of all life.

Benefits of Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is said to purify the mind and cleanse the heart. It promotes positive feelings like humility, kindness, compassion, honor, gratefulness, generosity, love, and joy. Karma yoga reduces and removes negative emotions like envy, hatred, fear, greed, selfishness, and jealousy. As Swami Vivekananda writes, “Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction.” Karma yoga also has the power to transform your ordinary everyday actions into mighty acts of spiritual connection and mindfulness. It is also a great way to create and build a strong community of similar-minded folks around you.

History of Karma Yoga

The foundations of Karma yoga were laid in one of the first Upanishadic scriptures, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which was composed around 500 BCE. The yoga of action was further explained in the epic text, the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna explains the practice of Karma yoga and links it to one’s fulfillment of Dharma or personal duty. He associates this yoga as a form of worship when one’s actions are selfless, given to the right causes or like-minded others, and with a positive feeling and attitude.

How to Practice Karma Yoga

You often hear yoga teachers talk about taking “yoga off the mat” and into the world. Karma yoga is one of the easiest and simplest ways to practice yoga outside of the yoga studio. Ideally, any type of yoga practice will have the best success through constant and dedicated effort, but any effort that you can put towards this will move you towards attaining more unity and peace in your life. Karma yoga can be fun and easy, but if you are not a naturally humble, kind, and generous person, you will find it challenging. Notice where the practice feels challenging and difficult for you, as this is where you should focus your work.

You can approach the practice of Karma yoga in many ways. Big or small acts of kindness and generosity can be woven through our everyday work and actions. The size and frequency of your actions do not matter as much as having pure motives to help others with no expectation of receiving any benefits for yourself.

How to start

The best way to start is to look at ways to be kind and generous to yourself and your loved ones. Pay attention to your attitude towards chores and work duties. Try to approach all of these actions with a positive attitude. Realign your goals to be less focused on your ego and more centered on benefiting others around you. As you get comfortable with the practice, expand this circle outwards to include more people and organizations. Look for opportunities to volunteer or help out non-profits and charities. If you practice hatha yoga, your local studio may have Karma yoga classes and events you can participate in.

Reflection questions

It will be necessary to check-in and reflect on your intentions and attitude throughout your practice. Asking yourself, “What is in this for me?” will help root out any egotistical motives. Here is a list of other questions to help guide and refine your karma yoga practice:

  • How can I share my gifts and talents with others?
  • What would be most helpful to this person or organization?
  • What is most needed right now?
  • Who has the greatest need for help?
  • Are there any underserved places in my community that could use more help?
  • When do I have the most free time or feel the most ease to help others?
  • Who or what do I feel the most compassion towards?
  • What are my motivations and intentions in giving this help?
  • What actions will best serve all people everywhere?
  • Are my actions respectful and considerate to others?
  • Are my actions kind, loving, and generous?
  • How does my heart feel when I do this work?

Karma yoga is a powerful way to broaden your spiritual pathway. Rather than boxing yourself in with want, desire, and need, you can instead create freedom, ease, and joy through selfless action. If we focus on being genuinely good to all that is around us and consider how our actions affect each other, we will slowly make our way to being a better person and move closer towards enlightenment.

If you have given Karma yoga a shot, let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. We would love to hear how you are spreading your love and kindness out into the world!

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6 responses to “Karma Yoga: the Path of Selfless Action”

  1. Nagaraja S. Avatar
    Nagaraja S.

    The questions which guides and refines the Karma yoga practice is brought out very well and opt. In this modern days we cut our connections with our brothers and sister, relations and friends in the run for well being. I am trying to connect again but family members are hurdles. I request your guidance to understand whether family is first?.
    Your services in Karma yoga practice.is well spread. Thanking you.

  2. Devata Brahmachary Avatar
    Devata Brahmachary

    When we practice Karma yoga we need to primarily put our actions, words and thoughts in a same state. In short we must be openhearted in such three conditions of thoughts, words and actions. Then automatically positive feelings will be born.
    Those who are with positive feelings will definitely succeed in a peaceful way. They can live lives spiritually even though they are in such a perishable material world.

  3. Jamee Kortge Avatar
    Jamee Kortge

    Wonderful post! I have always believed that karma yoga is not only about doing good deeds but also about being good to others. There are so many people who do good things for others without expecting anything in return. These people go through life with a smile on their face because they know that what they did was good for them and everyone around them.

  4. Siva Avatar

    I think it would be very difficult to practice without some kind of reward or incentive. But what do you get out of karma yoga? Is there any benefit other than helping others?

    1. Amanda Fear Avatar
      Amanda Fear

      The reward is enlightenment.

    2. Andréa Watts Avatar
      Andréa Watts

      When we have previously evolved in an environment where the setting and achieving of goals (ego-based, scarcity mindset based thinking and acting) is applauded we may feel challenged by the concept of doing something for nothing.
      From another perspective, the taking of intuitively inspired action without looking for anything in return May in itself be considered an objective and as a result be flattering to the ego.
      From experience I’d say if an idea is born from the heart, then tempered by reason and carried out without expecting so much as a thank you in return, you are practicing karma yoga. Then if you do receive a thank you in some form it will be a bonus and feel all the more exhilarating for not having requested it. And that gratitude might appear in many forms other than that which you expect.

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Timothy Burgin Avatar
About the author
Timothy Burgin is a Kripalu & Pranakriya trained yoga instructor living and teaching in Asheville, NC. Timothy has studied and taught many styles of yoga and has completed a 500-hour Advanced Pranakriya Yoga training. Timothy has been serving as the Executive Director of YogaBasics.com since 2000. He has authored two yoga books and has written over 500 articles on the practice and philosophy of yoga. Timothy is also the creator of Japa Mala Beads and has been designing and importing mala beads since 2004.
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