“Pitiful are those who, acting, are attached to their action’s fruits. The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad, and is focused on the action alone. Yoga is skill in actions.” - Bhagavad Gita 2.49-50
Some of my favorite karma yoga role models are Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and––the mythical monkey––“Hanuman." To me, they exemplify the meaning of karma yoga. Their actions were done out of love and for the welfare of others. They saw a bigger picture and acted from a place of authenticity, truth and love.
What is karma yoga?
The true practice of yoga is much more than sixty minutes of asana. “Yoga is skill in actions,” says the Bhagavad Gita. This proclamation indicates that yoga can be practiced in every action you take, moment to moment. This practice, formally called “karma yoga” or “the yoga of action,” helps purify the mind by releasing selfish motives and attachments. Karma yoga suggests you give up thinking whether or not there will be a reward or recognition for your actions and instead devote yourself to the welfare of others.
“The whole world becomes a slave to its own activity, if you want to be truly free, perform all actions as worship.” - Bhagavad Gita 3.9
The Bhagavad Gita teaches that the practice of karma yoga will bring “equanimity of the mind” and reveal our “deepest truth.”
Don’t let the word “worship” confuse you, what it refers to are actions done out of love.
Freedom is something everyone desires and no one wants to be a slave, especially to dark thoughts in the mind. When you perform actions out of love and let go of your ego’s expectations your mind will become peaceful, calm and joyful. This creates radical presence and truly frees you from mental suffering and the physical diseases that would inevitably follow. Simply give to give.
Karma yoga is about practicing actions of love and compassion even when life seems dismal and bleak. There is no doubt that bringing love to the table when you are down and out is challenging. It means you must get out of your head in order to perform actions or service. Stop dwelling on your problems and help someone else. This practice can be very healing, especially when unexpected difficult challenges and inevitable decline occurs.
I was especially drawn to the “things that inevitably decline” category because this is the hard truth we will all eventually have to face. The idea of “impermanence” can lead to terrible unhappiness if one fails to prepare. Think about it, the longer you live, the more you will experience a decline in physical health and cognitive ability. Nothing in your “outer world” is permanent, including your body.
One evening just before bed, my husband asked me to read an article from The Atlantic called “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think” by Arthur Brooks. The article talks about how to turn a professional decline into an opportunity for progress. It discusses the waning ability of high accomplished people and how the decline can be psychologically brutal.
“Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to becoming successful. There is no section marked ‘managing your professional decline,’” writes Brooks. There is often an emotional attachment to prestige and accomplishment that comes with someone’s career. Take for example, olympic athletes. For them, maintaining peak performance as they age becomes impossible and inevitably their abilities will decline. If they are not prepared mentally for this, the aftermath can be heartbreaking.
Along these lines, Brooks also wrote that there is “strong evidence suggesting that the happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s.” When qualities such as: self-worth, happiness and steadiness of mind can only be achieved through "attachments" such as the approval and recognition of others, a bank account or “sense objects” ––objects that are obtained through your five senses––the Bhagavad Gita says we will find ruin.
“If a man keeps dwelling on sense-objects, attachment to them arises; from attachment, desire flares up; from desire, anger is born; from anger, confusion follows; from confusion, weakness of memory; weak memory—weak understanding; weak understanding—ruin.” - Bhagavad Gita 2.62
So how do you turn a professional, or any other type of decline, into an opportunity for progress?
I believe you can do it by finding your “service”––the essence of karma yoga. If it is true, that for the majority of us unhappiness begins to decline in our 30s, then a practice like karma yoga should be installed now, so that overtime you can hardwire the new neural networks that will help you when you need them the most.
In a world of impermanence, it is wise to build ever increasing amounts of mental stability and ease. So practice, practice, practice.
I am passionate about karma yoga because I have experienced the joy and freedom it brings. But, be aware, karma yoga is a 24-hour a day practice.
Here is a list of practices that will help you keep your internal compass calibrated.
How to practice karma yoga:
Pay attention and ask yourself, am I acting from my highest self? Am I free from expectations, free from attachments, free from needing rewards?
If a reward happens, great, but if it doesn’t, keep moving forward to the next action.
Let go of that notion, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
Keep checking in with your ego––it desperately wants to be noticed, acknowledged, approved of and stroked.
Let go of past glories and regrets as well as the fears and fantasies for future moments and be as present as possible.
Be patient and compassionate with yourself.
Strengthen your devotion towards a higher meaning of life.
Keep remembering that the great worldly seducers such as power, fame, money and status are dead ends and they can never bring sustainable happiness, love and inner peace.
Don’t be complacent or lack ambition, but live as selflessly as possible and remember to insert love as part of your actions.
All of these checkpoints are easier said than done. I am nowhere near mastering them. Nevertheless, I keep practicing. Karma yoga keeps me paying attention and in alignment to the truth that resides in my heart—the greatest reward worth working for.
A Yoga Unplugged collaboration - written by Jennifer Reuter, edited by Sarah Burchard