Flip through a newspaper or turn on the TV, and you’re bound to see evidence of suffering. Many of the problems that we see are beyond our control, and it can be frustrating and sad to witness. Even though many of the world's problems seem bigger than us, it doesn’t mean that our hands are tied when it comes to making things better. Through Karma Yoga, we can all make an impact.
What is Karma?
In popular culture, Karma seems to get the short end of the stick. It’s often viewed as the thing that will get you if you do something bad. Understanding what Karma is makes it easier to understand how Karma Yoga works.
The first thing you must know about Karma is that it isn’t inherently good or bad. It simply is. It’s the sum of all your actions in this lifetime (and in previous reincarnations, if that is your belief). Your Karmic load isn’t just determined by whether you’ve done something wrong, and it isn’t precisely like a bank account. You don’t cancel the bad karma of tripping someone on purpose by helping someone else get up. You carry a running record of everything you’ve done and experienced – good, bad, and neutral.
How Karma and Yoga work together
Karma is an inherent part of the yogic experience, and Karma Yoga is the fully-realized manifestation of the connection between Karma and yoga. Karma Yoga involves making selfless service a part of the journey to self-realization. Life is full of suffering, but through Karma Yoga, we can use our energy to decrease that suffering.
The selfless part of selfless service is crucial in Karma Yoga. Sometimes people volunteer for personal gain. Seeking recognition, looking to add a line to a CV, or trying to make oneself feel better are all forms of personal gain. While these things can be natural outgrowths of service, volunteering solely for personal gain can backfire.
Karma Yoga requires you to separate ego from the act of service. A self-centered motive for volunteering can harm the people enduring the most suffering. If someone volunteers because they want to “save” someone, for example, they’re thinking of themselves as better than the people they are trying to help.
So much of Karma Yoga depends on the intentions of the person serving others. Cultivating a true sense of selflessness paves the way for making positive change.
The way you do anything is the way you do everything
For some, Karma Yoga is entirely devotional. They do what they do to honor the Universe. For others, Karma Yoga becomes a meditative experience in which they complete every action in a mindful way.
In both cases, whether the practitioner is motivated by devotion or meditation, the result is the same. The individual acts without attachment. The person puts something into the world that is beyond them. The Greek proverb/ Nelson Henderson quote says it all:
"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit."
Karma Yoga is all about planting trees without worrying about whether you'll be there to watch them grow up.
Selfless service requires mindfulness
Seva (service) is one of the most important aspects of Karma Yoga, but Karma Yoga also involves training your brain and developing mindsets. Just like the mind can run wild when you sit for meditation, the monkey mind can crawl up the walls when you're trying to serve others.
That's why you have to practice the mindsets necessary for service every day. It’s not just how you serve others. It’s how you fold your blanket at the end of class. It’s how you wash your dishes. It’s how you move through the world.
When it's time to serve others, the act of service can become as natural as breathing. In this state, you are unattached to accolades and feelings of self-righteousness. When you've reached this state, you're embodying Karma Yoga.
This quiet state necessary for serving others takes time to develop, and the only way to do that is to practice. Practice at work by checking reactive behavior and doing your best. Work on this as you do things around the house. Be present for the people around you, regardless of the situation.
When you serve others, notice the types of thoughts that come up. Is your mental chatter selfless or self-serving? Learning selflessness is a journey. Keep showing up for yourself and others as you learn. There's no time like the present.
We're all connected
Yoga gives you all the tools you need to engage in selfless service. When we practice yoga, we recalibrate the mind-body connection, and we take stock of how we are in the present. This keeps us from falling into the trap of doing too much and feeling burned out.
At the same time, Karma Yoga enables us to see that we are all connected. We're all here having an experience. It’s this recognition of oneness that pushes us to spread loving kindness and have compassion for others.
How can you make a difference?
The world is full of need, and even small gestures can have a profound impact. You can’t end all suffering in one fell swoop, but you can decrease the amount of suffering through your efforts. Give kindness freely, and when you see a way that you can help, act. That could be as simple as helping someone with the door or as grand as founding an organization to address a need that you see.
There are many established organizations in need of more resources to complete their missions. At Mindful Balance Retreats, we’re excited to partner with a few organizations that are making a big difference.
We will donate 10% of each retreat's profit to one organization of choice. So far for the upcoming year we have chosen to help support the Chanda Plan Foundation, Live + Breathe, and The Barrio Planta Project. By supporting their efforts, we hope that we can help to fill a need and put some love and light into the world.
Check out our Karma Yoga page to learn more and see how you can get involved.