What is Karma Yoga?

Karma Yoga


While karma is one of the Sanskrit words used most often in English, it also one of the most misunderstood. Karma comes from the word “kri,” meaning “to do.” It means action as well as the result of action. The work of our lives, the simple daily responsibilities of preparing food, paying bills, weeding the garden, reading the email - all this is karma. Karma yoga is the practice of doing all this work with reverence, keeping one’s mind on the divine while enjoying the ritual of labor and activity. Being present in daily life, working without anxiety over what the work will bring to you, taking it as it comes, and offering it up. It is working without being attached to the results or the rewards of you efforts.


Karma is defined as “The universal law of cause and effect”. Karma yoga is the yoga of action.


We have a mistaken notion in American culture that karma is something that accumulates, relentlessly, lifetime after lifetime, into a huge pile of psychic debts that must be paid with unhappiness.  We toss around terms like karma and dharma without a proper context. We tend to assume that karma is “destiny”, or, even worse “doom”. Donating to charity? That’s good karma, right? Taking home office supplies? That’s bad karma, isn’t it? The basic precepts of right and wrong apply. But the idea that all of your actions follow you forever without respite is not true. Like the Christian concept of grace, yoga is a way to free yourself from the effects of these actions, and achieve a state of liberation. When we excuse ourselves from being compassionate over someone’s misfortune by deciding “It must be their karma,” we are passing by an opportunity for our own spiritual growth.  Karma does not grant us the option of not interfering with someone else’s problem. In fact, karma may require that you take action. Your destiny is the creation of your choices. You are not a puppet of fate.


Swami Vivēkānanda, the great master of Vēdānta says that -“Like fire in a piece of flint, knowledge exists in the mind. Suggestion is the friction that brings it out. So with all our feelings and actions. Our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter, our curses and our blessings, our praises and our blames, every one of these, we shall find, if we calmly study our own selves, to have been brought out from within ourselves by so many blows. The result is what we are. All these blows taken together are called karma- work, action. Every mental and physical blow that is given to soul, by which, as it were, fire is struck from it, and by which its own power and knowledge are discovered, is karma – this word being used in it’s widest sense. Thus we are all doing karma all the time.”


While one may work towards any end- A great project, a big promotion, a good paycheck, a level of status or security – the way of karma is to do your best work without considering the reward. The work in itself is the reward, and by doing it simply because it needs to be done, you are freeing yourself from the wheel of cause-and-effect. No matter how lovely the carrot at the end of the stick is, it is only a carrot. If the only reason you are doing the work is because of the carrot, practice giving yourself to the task at hand without calculating what it will return to you. The only way to see freedom is to imagine what it looks like.


In his autobiography, Light on Life, the yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar uses this illustration on karma- “Yoga considers actions to be of four kinds-;black- those that bring only ill consequences; grey- those whose effects are mixed; white- those that bring good results; and a fourth, those that are without color, in which action brings no reaction. These last are the deeds of the enlightened yogi, who can act in the world without further chaining himself to the karmic wheel of becoming, of causality. Even white actions, performed with good intent, bind us to a future in which we must harvest the good results. An example of a white action might be that if a lawyer, for the sake of justice, were to struggle to save an innocent man wrongly accused. But if a child were to dash into the road in front of an oncoming car, and you, in a flash, without a second’s reflection, snatched the child out of harm’s way, it would be like a yogi’s action, that is to say, based on direct, instantaneous perception and action. You would not congratulate yourself by saying “How well I saved that child.” That’s because you would not feel yourself to be the author, but rather the instrument of something that was simply right, existing purely in the moment, without reference to past or future.”


The practice of karma yoga is a matter of being aware of one’s actions, and the effects that those actions have, both within the self and in the world. As awareness becomes habit, detachment becomes possible. As detachment becomes habit, the freedom of non-attachment becomes clear.


The Fifth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā deals very specifically with karma. In the following verses,  Krishna points Arjuna towards the path of karma yoga by explaining  the rewards of action without attachment.



“Relinquishing attachment,

men of discipline perform action,

with the body, mind, understanding and senses,

for the purification of the self.


Relinquishing the fruit of action,

The disciplined man attains perfect peace.

The undisciplined man is in bondage,

Attached to the fruit of his desire.


Renouncing all actions with the mind,

The masterful embodied self

Dwells at ease in its nine-gated fortress-

It neither acts nor causes action



In Vivēkānanda’s text on karma, he observes “Whatever work we do, the mind is thrown into a wave, and after the work is finished, we think the wave is gone. No. It has only become fine (subtle), but it is still there. When we try to remember the work, it comes up again and becomes a wave. So it was there-if not, there would not have been memory. Thus every action, every thought, good or bad, just goes down and becomes fine, and is stored up there. Both happy and unhappy thoughts are called pain-bearing obstructions, because, according to the yogis, in the long run they will bring pain. All happiness which comes from the senses will eventually bring pain. All enjoyment will make us thirst for more, and that brings pain as a result. There is no limit to man’s desires. He goes on desiring, and when he comes to a point where desire cannot be fulfilled, the result is pain. Therefore, the yogis regard the sum total of impressions, good or evil, as pain bearing obstructions. They obstruct the way to freedom of the soul.”


As the goal of yoga is freedom, the path of karma is a means of using daily life to offer up to the universe all that you are. The simplicity or complexity of your task is not the standard, only that you perform with awareness and reverence the work before you. Karma can also encompass āsana and meditation, as a part of the practice. Do them without attachment, and they can open the way. It is when you are washing the dishes with the same mindfulness as in meditation that your past actions dissolve like soap bubbles in the water. As you realize there is no chore so mundane that it cannot be considered sacred, you may notice that all the other people around you are engaged in equally wonderful tasks. You might even be surrounded by the miraculous vision of human beings, creating the world. By opening yourself to the simplicity of working without calculating the cost or the reward, you can be present. This can liberate you, not only from the distraction of the results of the task, but from the wheel of karma itself.




1. Vedanta, the Voice of Freedom, Vivēkānada, Vedanta Society of St.Louis

2. Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar, Rodale Press


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