What is Karma Yoga? Part 1

by Beth Daugherty

Karma means action. Yoga means union of things which have never been separated in the first place, such as the body, mind and spirit. Karma Yoga is a path of yoga where these concepts of action and union are combined in a unique way. This yoga path has nothing to do with fitness, but for those who practice, it is a form of meditation.

Where did it come from?

The Bhagavada Gita proposes a three prong approach to liberation. These three paths can be very meditative for people:

  1. Karma Yoga, the path of service. In the beginning, your personality traits may play into which path you are drawn to. People who love to work, volunteer and manage a million projects tend to try Karma Yoga.
  2. Jnana Yoga, the path of wisdom or knowledge. Brilliant introverts, writers, or philosophers may be drawn to Jnana Yoga.
  3. Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion. Artists, singers and actors may prefer the beauty and soul of Bhakti Yoga.

Just like we often gravitate to a particular asana style that is best for our physical body, we often gravitate to a Kriya Yoga (Jhana, Bhakti or Karma) best for us. Karma Yoga can be a very difficult practice so it is important to know the bumps in the road are completely normal and they are all instructive.

Is it like practicing asana (postures)?

In asana practice we hit an edge. When you hit your edge in asana practice you do not give up asana all together and run screaming from the mat. Imagine you are in Triangle and you find your edge, you stop and you realize your hand is a foot from the ground. This is not where you wanted your hand, you want your hand smack down on the floor. Everyone else looks better in Triangle. You think why me, this is embarrassing. But you probably do not run out of the yoga studio, tell the teacher you are never coming back and yoga is not for you. In fact, sometimes you love the edge. It shows you where your personal work is. As hard as it may be, you accept “my hand is a foot from the floor.”

It is exactly the same practicing Karma Yoga. We will hit an edge. Let me explain.

How does Karma Yoga begin?

A task is selected or assigned. This may be something you volunteer for or something your teacher or director asks you to do. This is probably something you are not being paid for and something that will take your time. So the first mental obstacle people encounter, if the job does not meet their expectation, is, “I am better than this. I am not going to do this. My time is much more valuable. Maybe they should ask someone else.”

A volunteer job is a great place to begin because these thoughts come up quite naturally right away and it gives you something to work with. All your excuses are front and center so you can begin practicing yoga.

Imagine you volunteer to teach a yoga class at the shelter. No one arrives for your karma yoga class after you gave up your time, gas money and paid the babysitter? You are mad. You do not want to do this “volunteer work” any more. You doubt your ability to do this work. Now you have found your edge. Just like in asana practice, take a breath and know this is where your work is. There is no sense comparing your self to someone else who has a full class. This situation is completely yours and your practice is dealing with what is.

Another common first stream of thought is, “I do not want that task. Can you give me something else? Could you relocate me to another area? I do not like doing that sort of thing. That is not what I really signed up for. I want something more perfect for me.” It is another wonderful set of thoughts to work with. It is a way of your mind trying to get out of actually taking the action you originally agreed to or signed up for.

I was in a Karma Yoga Program once and we were divided into two groups – half were asked to clean and the others were asked to cook. Immediately people in the cleaning group began to try and get switched to the cooking group because it was perceived that cooking was a better assignment. They came up with every reason in the book why they should be in the cooking group; they were experienced, they needed to learn cooking skills, they had allergies to cleaning agents. The exact same thing happened in the cooking group. People started whining, I don’t know how to cook, I hate the smell in the kitchen, or I have food issues. These people got their first introduction to Karma Yoga and did not like it- accept the role. Some people quit the program and paid for airline tickets home because they did not want to be in the group they were assigned, they thought they deserved more, different, better. They gave up the opportunity.

Read part 2 at www.lifespanyoga.com


©Beth Daugherty, 2013. Email questions to lifespanyoga@gmail.com. This blog was cross posted at www.LifespanYoga.com. Lifespan Yoga is located in Jacksonville, FL.