What Is Karma Yoga?

Everyone has heard of yoga by this point. But what many people are often unaware of is just how varied yoga is as both an art and a wider practice!

There are many different kinds of yoga that you can try out, from Buti, Tantra, Bhakti, and many other schools of thought and practice that have emerged over the years.

What Is Karma Yoga

However, when it comes to your spiritual development, as well as your physical health, there are few more well-known schools of yoga philosophy than Karma yoga.

Now, you’ve probably heard of those two terms before. But together, they mean something unique and offer a perspective to spiritual enlightenment that many people in Western Europe and the Americas may not be familiar with.

This guide is here to help solve that little gap in knowledge.

While we can’t give you a complete encyclopedic knowledge of Karma yoga (unless you have a lifetime spare), we can give you the basics of what it is, how it relates to both Karma and Yoga and how you might go about practicing it yourself.

What Is Karma?

Before we start discussing the intricacies of Karma yoga, it’s worth explaining what Karma is in its original context.

Because, while Karma is a concept that most people are familiar with, it’s lost a little of its original spiritual context, so understanding that will help us understand the practices involved with Karma yoga.

Karma is the Sanskrit equivalent word for ‘action’ in English (or at least, its closest comparable term).

In this context, Karma is understood as the sum amount that the deeds of your past, present and future (i.e. whether the ‘good’ deeds you have and will do throughout your life will outweigh those that hurt/harm others).

Even in the common version, this idea of someone ruining their ‘karma’ is still somewhat present.

In the original Sanskrit context, that ‘action’ that must be taken is done in the service of others.

Karma Yoga

So, with that understanding, we can start to piece together some of what makes Karma yoga distinct. Karma yoga is the path to finding enlightenment through your actions.

Karma yoga is one of the 4 founding or ‘classical’ spiritual paths of Hinduism. The 4 paths are:

  • Jnana yoga, the path of enlightenment through knowledge
  • Rāja yoga, the path of enlightenment through meditation
  • Bhakti yoga, the path of enlightenment through devotion (love) to a personal god
  • Karma yoga, the path to enlightenment through your actions

The 4 Principles Of Karma Yoga

So, we now have a little more context and understanding of what Karma yoga is about. But finding spiritual enlightenment through your action is just the goal, the path that you’re taking with Karma yoga.

What principles do you follow to get to reach enlightenment?

Ego

This is a concept that has been popular around the world for a while in Europe and North America, the idea of ego is how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. However, it’s been a concept in Karma yoga since at least the 1st millennium BCE.

In Karma yoga, our egos often tend to think about how our actions will affect us. And that’s the first hurdle that Karma yoga encourages you to try and overcome. 

Doing your duty, without thinking about how it affects you, is the best way to overcome your ego. If you can control your ego, you can fulfill your duty without thinking of attachments or personal, often selfish desires.

Right Intention

And speaking of intentions, fulfilling your job or duty with the right intentions 

It’s a concept that some people can often struggle with, especially in today’s world. It feels like so many people in the world today try and does good but for the wrong or selfish reasons.

Helping others will make them seem better in the eyes of others, or lead to better rewards for themselves later.

This is the kind of thinking that Karma yoga encourages you to discard. That doing good or right things, because they are the good and right things to do, is a cornerstone of enlightenment through actions

Attachment

Attachment is a difficult Principle to explain in Karma yoga, especially with the principles that we’ve already covered. However, it effectively means the ability to do your duty, without your personal feelings getting in the way.

Yes, that can mean doing a job that could be seen as bad because it is tedious, ugly, or boring, but it also means detaching your attachment to your job because you like it too.

When it comes to your duty to others, remember, it’s not about how it makes you feel. It’s about how you can do your duty for other people’s sake.

Expectation Of Reward

Arguably the biggest and most important principle of Karma yoga is the understanding that to achieve enlightenment, you also need to rid yourself of your attachment or rejection of the rewards.

Do not commit to your duty because you wish to reap the rewards, even if you are doing a good thing because it is the right thing to do.

At the same time, do not try and fulfill your role, just because you fear the consequences of not doing it.

Remember, it all comes back to your duty. Your duty is good to others, and that is a reward in itself.

Final Notes – How To Practice Karma Yoga Yourself

So, you’ll hopefully now understand the basics of Karma Yoga, and how exactly you would go about following enlightenment through this path.

So… how exactly do you practice Karma yoga in your life?

Well, it’s in doing good deeds. It’s in helping out your neighbor or community, not because you expect a reward from it, but because it is the right thing to do.

Get involved in local charity work, not because it makes you feel good, but because you are doing good by other people.

Heck, get to know the people that you’re helping out. Let yourself learn from other people’s experiences and wisdom, don’t allow your ego or image of yourself to cloud the fact that doing right and your duty to others is the most important thing in life.

Simple, really.

Laura Simmons
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