The Fourth and final of the major paths of yoga is Karma Yoga, or the yoga of action. My understanding of the word karma is that it translates most literally as “habit.” You do not have to believe in reincarnation or anything like that to look at this principle because it really doesn’t need to be related to that. This path, karma yoga, involves doing actions in the world that benefit others. Plain and simple, it is about allowing yourself to do things you might not normally do, to offer service. Placing ones primary attention on the giving of all actions to the benefit of others is a path not entirely foreign to those outside of India. It could be said that Mother Teresa was a karma yogini, or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was. It is the level at which a person performs selfless service. Many people around the world have demonstrated inspiring acts of service to others without regard for themselves.
One can perform actions of any of the various paths (raja, jnana, bhakti, karma) of yoga without needing to dedicate oneself solely to that path of yoga – as a way of directing the whole life.. Raja Yoga seems to be a blend of all the various paths, and includes hatha yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti and karma yoga for sure. When I was in my studies for becoming a yoga teacher, we were taught raja yoga and about the other three. Bhakti yoga was offered as an option without pressure to actually participate, though we were given the opportunity to ask questions and be taught by those who have chosen bhakti yoga as their path.
Karma yoga often takes the form of doing actions that others may not want to perform, but would appreciate your doing. Opportunities for karma yoga at the ashram where I studied included washing dishes, cooking, cleaning the dorms, gardening and weeding, cleaning, and repairing various equipment or facilities. Karma yoga could mean offering ones life to serve others in any way that you can see. Holding the door for someone when you are in a hurry, cleaning the bottom of the trash can when the bad has ripped and it is smelly, mowing the lawn and fixing the plumbing all can be acts of selfless service. You can offer these, without complaint or even a discussion, by simply seeing it as a moment to act for the good of others, with no desire to benefit yourself.
That is the key. It is meant to be giving up your own desire to benefit from your action.
Swami Satchidananda, the root teacher of Integral Yoga, talked about how the apple tree is a good example of a karma yogi. It offers so much fruit and never complains that others are the ones who receive the benefits of its fruits. He suggests that we also should be able to give of the fruits of our actions without thinking we should be the ones benefiting. “Don’t eat the fruits of your life. Instead, offer them to others.” He suggests that we are not meant to be the ones who benefit from the fruits of our actions.
So, even if you do not choose to dedicate your whole life to the path of karma yoga, you can offer an action each day. Choose to do something you wouldn’t normally want to do, and offer it selflessly. You can also choose one thing that you want, and decide to refrain, selflessly, as an act of giving to others.
To see more about karma yoga and the other paths of yoga:
Yoga pose of the Day: Do something nice and don’t wait to see how it is received.
Yogic thought of the Day: I allow my efforts to go out and be in the world. I do not need to benefit from my own efforts.