Karma Yoga Can Transform Us In Unexpected Ways

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Karma Yoga Can Transform Us In Unexpected Ways


In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna yoga. If you’re not familiar with the epic tale, check it out. One of the great things about Krishna’s yoga lessons is there’s a practice for everyone. Better yet, there are four—jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, and raja yoga. We may gravitate toward one, but they’re all important.

We all have natural inclinations as well as areas we can work to develop. The four yoga practices connect us to our higher selves, and they change us from the inside out. Then, we can act as yogis in the world.

Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge. If you love to read and study scripture, philosophize, and ponder the meaning of life, you may gravitate toward jnana yoga. Study is the practice.

Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. This is the type of yoga you may prefer if you’re calmed, inspired, or comforted through worship. Surrendering to a higher power—a deity—through chanting and ritual is the practice.

Karma yoga is the yoga of service and the topic of this post, so I’ll get back to it in a moment.

Raja yoga refers to practices like meditation and yoking the mind. Raja means royal, and raja yoga is the point of departure where we leave the ego self behind and unite with the divine. Meditation is the practice.

Leaning too heavily on any one of these practices leaves out a lot of the important work. As yogis, we seek to understand ourselves, have reverence for something greater, and serve others. Only then can we be in union with all that is.

Karma Yoga Requires an Internal Shift

For some, karma yoga is the most difficult practice to get a grasp on. I think that may happen, because some religious traditions work from the outside in—by controlling behavior before there’s an internal shift. So, the focus may be on service without any true understanding of why and how service is a path to God.

How, then, does karma yoga—the yoga of service—create transformation? It’s easiest to understand how when we tweak the way we define service. Usually, we think of service or giving as external action—what we do. But what if we understand it as an internal attitude?

In a recent interview, Nipun Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace, described giving as “an internal shift from the me to the we.” To understand this from a spiritual perspective, we can look at the Buddhist concept of interconnection. When we understand — and more importantly experience — ourselves as more than individual beings, it’s clear that serving others means serving the whole, and serving the whole is serving ourselves.

Rather than something imposed from an outside source, service becomes an effortless extension of ourselves. Through that extension, we expand into a more joyful, purposeful way of being.

Karma From The Inside Out

Sometimes it’s tempting to use spiritual practices as blissful escape from the challenges and disappointments of human life. We can retreat from the world and maybe even stop caring about it. It’s a mess, after all, isn’t it?

But as we go more deeply within, we begin to recognize there’s still something missing. Until we return the peace we find through meditation, yoga, prayer, and other spiritual practices to the whole, we can’t be complete.

Again, we can turn to a Buddhist concept — bodhicitta, a mindset of kindness, compassion, and connection that stems from the idea that none of us can be free from suffering until we’re all free from suffering.

Karma Yoga is Acting With Great Love

With that in mind it becomes clear that, as Mother Theresa said, doing small things with great love is as important as doing great things. It may even be more important. We can’t all do “great” things, but we can all act with great love.

If we serve for the promise of reward or because we fear punishment if we don’t, we’re missing out on the transformative joy only giving from the heart provides. How, then, can we cultivate an attitude of service? A good place to start is with the practice of loving kindness meditation.

We can also be open to the possibility that, as Saint Francis of Assisi taught, it truly is in giving that we receive. Try it out and see. To receive, we need an open heart and true understanding of who we are. Specifically, we need to connect with the sacred spiritual aspect of being.

When we do, service becomes as natural and as necessary as breathing.



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