Karma Yoga – Freedom in Action

Karma YogaHere’s a challenge for you. For the rest of today pay close attention to what your motives for action are. What motivates you when you’re at work? What motivates you to do chores at home?

Recognition? Praise? Obligation? Love?

Do you ever remember a time when you did something that was completely selfless?

The word ‘karma’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘kri’, which means ‘to do’. Karma yoga is therefore the yoga of work or action. All action is karma in the broader sense. By this I mean that all action has a karmic cause or effect (every action has an equal but opposite reaction). All of our experiences leave traces on us. Be they pleasurable or painful, loving or hateful, Swami Vivekananda said that each of these marks are responsible for building our character; but character doesn’t develop solely from those things that happen to us. Our thoughts leave traces too. Thoughts are actions as well.

So, think for a moment about what you do in the world, how you respond to things, how you think about the the things that happen to you and what you expect the world to give you. These thoughts, and the actions they precipitate, are responsible for the development of your character. We sometimes associate good character with virtuous action. The problem with this is that we are all inclined to act virtuously when we know someone is watching. Rather, Swami Vivekananda says that the true hallmark of good character is someone who acts virtuously when no one else is watching; when we do good for goodness’ sake!

Karma and the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that being a karma yogi means studying ‘work’ as though there was a science to it, because there is. When we work because we hope our actions will bring us recognition or praise, we are being driven by our ego. If we don’t get the recognition or praise we’re after we’ll feel that the work was a waste of our time, however, when we work with pure intention, free from our desire for recognition of whatever kind, work becomes a cleansing bath for the mind, washing away our ego and the attachment it creates.

When we begin our effort to work selflessly we begin to notice our selfish tendencies, we notice when the ego is trying to captain the ship. When we realise that this is what is happening we are in a position to release ourselves from the limitations of an I-centered existence and open ourselves to the broader matrix of life.

Like an archeologist, we work to chip away the egoic debris until we uncover the treasure underneath – our spirit – our sense of connection to the natural world. What a relief! Because let’s face it, there will never be enough praise or recognition to satisfy the insatiable demands of the ego. It will always want more, so when we shed the cloak of the ego and instead, work for work’s sake, we feel free, which is why karma yoga is described as freedom in action.

This seems hard. And it is, so start small. Shine the light of awareness on the attachment you have to the fruits of your labour. Notice each time you act with a specific payoff in mind and see if you can let it go. Gradually introduce a practice of acting selflessly instead. Start with five minutes a day and work up from there.

Shades of Yoga is a yoga teacher training company running year-round yoga teacher training courses in Bali and Costa Rica.