Karma yoga is the first yoga or spiritual practice in the process of Self-inquiry. It comes before two other yogas, upāsana yoga (meditation) and jñāna yoga (Self-knowledge). In the West, it is often taught in a non-secular way, but traditionally, karma yoga is done as a sort of devotional practice (bhakti). Either way works. One focuses on developing a harmonious relationship with the field of experience, while the other focuses on one’s relationship with Ishvara (Īśvara) or God, which is defined in Vedanta as the creative principle (māyā) plus the consciousness principle (Brahman).
In general, karma yoga is the acceptance that, looking at it from the bigger picture, the doer/enjoyer isn’t in control. It’s the recognization that there are fundamental principles at work and that by keeping them in mind, we, as individuals, have a better chance at leading a happy and satisfying life.
Karma yoga can be expressed in different ways, but each point the way to recognizing one’s connection with the field. Technically, karma yoga is defined as proper action (karma) plus proper attitude/discipline (yoga). Proper action emphasizes sattvic karmas such as worship of family, wisdom, nature and humanity, while proper attitude emphasizes mental balance, acceptance, humility and gratitude.
Karma yoga is the attitude that we are not separate from or outside of nature, we are nature and for that reason, should be appreciative of whatever it has to offer and teach us. This perspective tends to neutralize the ego, which is often found lurking behind binding likes and dislikes. As such, karma yoga is important for refining our outward behavior and minimizing conflict with the world. For this reason, karma yoga as a sādhana is viewed as the most pragmatic. It’s where we begin our journey away from samsāra.
In Vedic terms, karma yoga helps to purify the mind in preparation for the last phase of spiritual development—Self-knowledge (Vedanta). Below is how the practice of karma yoga is traditionally taught. However, in general, it involves the consecration of all action to the field/Ishvara and the acceptance of all results as a blessing. Both are tied to the understanding that I am not the doer.
Worship of Ishvara (God) / the dharma field / the field of experience. As jivas, we recognize Ishvara as our greatest benefactor. Why? Because we are totally dependent on Ishvara. Ishvara has given us everything, including this body-mind. We also worship Ishvara because no action takes place without the blessing of all things in the field. Even the smallest of actions requires the cooperation of a million other things.
Worship of parents and forefathers. Scripture tells us we should have unconditional reverence toward our living parents and show that by respecting and taking care of them, because for better or for worse, our parents will always be our first teachers.
Worship of scripture. We honor and show respect for the great wisdom teachings when we study and make them accessible to others who wish to know.
Worship of service to humanity. This includes any kind of social work, such as the donation of our time and/or money in an effort to elevate society. We need to contribute to the good of society in order to help cultivate one worth living in, as well as stand up to that which threatens it. This also includes fulfilling our duties to ourself, family, community and society.
Worship of service to all beings. Part of ongoing worship is the realization that we have a symbiotic relationship with all beings including plants, insects and animals. When we needlessly abuse the environment, we only end up hurting ourselves. Proper action also extends to maintaining our surroundings, sustaining life’s balance, and protecting our neighbors and other species with whom we share the planet. It’s living in alignment with the cosmic order.
Attitude of appreciation/gratitude. This means learning to appreciate what we already have and accepting the results of our chosen actions without attachment. By understanding this and standing up to our binding likes and dislikes, we can be more at peace with ourselves and the world.
Attitude of non-comparison. When we constantly compare ourselves with others in regard to appearances, personality, size of bank account, etc. we put ourselves in conflict with those around us. We needn’t play the ego’s game of thinking we are better (or worse) than anyone else.
Attitude of humility. We should accept success with gratitude and humility remembering that no action takes place without the blessing of all things in the field. There are countless forces that make even the smallest of successes possible everyday.
Attitude of devotion. This type of devotion is one where I accept all the results of my actions as a gift (prasad). Even our failures are accepted as a gift due to their often unnoticed ability to teach and help us grow.
Additional attitudes and actions related to karma yoga include:
Giving more than you take. We appreciate what has been given to us and reciprocate by giving back. In today’s hyper-consumer society, the environment is on life-support because as a society, we are only focused on what we can extract from it. Most of the world’s problems are based on this simple oversight.
Fulfilling duties to family and community. For example, employment needn’t always be about following our passion, building a career and squeezing maximum pleasure from it. Sometimes we must do things because others depend on our actions for their well-being. It’s not about sacrifice (giving up something), it’s about duty (responsibility/role/purpose/service).
Being an example to others. Even Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita is reminded by Krishna that his actions are imitated by others and for this reason, he must follow through with his duty. The best way to teach is through example.
Work as offering. We do work as an offering to God/the field/the world. We do it in the spirit of giving and taking care of ourselves, the environment and other beings. This can apply to all actions, however small, and helps prevent our actions from binding in negative ways through association with the ego.
Not owners, caretakers. It’s all God’s stuff. Nothing belongs to us, not even the body. We should be grateful we’ve had the opportunity to use and enjoy whatever has been temporarily provided.
“Do your best and let it rest.” We are mindful that ultimately, Ishvara is in charge of any and all results. As much as we’d like to have the results always be in our favor, we understand it’s not possible.
The benefits of karma yoga are many:
It helps to purify the mind and prepare it for Self-knowledge
It teaches us that ultimately, we are not the doer
It neutralizes stress with the knowledge that everything is a gift and that we’re not in control of the results. It helps us to let go of attachments
It cultivates gratitude which counteracts harmful emotions such as pride, fear, resentment and bitterness
It helps create a calm and peaceful center
Its attitude is contagious and raises the spirit of those around us