Yogapedia: What Is Karma Yoga?

The yoga of selfless action and service

Origins:

Experienced yogis know that practicing asana without diving deeper into yogic philosophy and spirituality is like painting by numbers: you may be going through the physical motions, but you’ll be missing the richness that understanding yoga can bring to your practice and your life. Karma Yoga is selfless action and service (or seva), a key concept that the sage Patanjali wrote about in the Yoga Sutras, which also appears in the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita.

Molly Lannon Kenny, founder of the Seattle-based Samarya Center, devotes her entire studio to Karma Yoga. In order to spread the benefits of yoga to as many people as possible, the Center offers many classes tailored for students with special needs, and keeps its prices well below the city norm. Although peers warned her this was a risky management strategy, Lannon Kenny’s choices have helped turn her studio into a thriving business. “We have been culturally engrained with a feeling of not having enough, and not being enough,” she writes. “It is part of our practice, then, to observe and overcome these fears, and to learn to live in the freedom of trust and perhaps karma.”

What to expect:

That’s a trick question! The key to practicing true Karma Yoga is to free yourself of expectations, and do good deeds simply to bring more good into the world. It’s tougher than you might think. We’re conditioned to be wary of “giving away” acts of kindness, particularly when they feel like work. Many yoga studios motivate students to help around the studio by giving them free classes or other rewards. While there’s nothing wrong with arranging a work-class trade, Lannon Kenny says it’s important to remember that this isn’t true volunteering. To strengthen your Karma Yoga muscles, make time to do tasks — even small ones — without expecting any reward, including recognition.

Signature poses:

You can practice Karma Yoga anywhere, at any time, whether you’re helping a friend or family member in need, or volunteering your time and services to the community. Next time you’re in yoga class, stay a few extra minutes to help put away mats, sweep the floor or otherwise lend a hand without being asked, and start to cultivate an appreciation for the sweet pleasure of helping others. Nurture this subtle feeling, Lannon Kenny says, and it will begin to nourish you in return: “In the Buddhist view of karma, whatever we do now creates subtle imprints on our psyche and life’s path. Positive deeds beget more positive opportunities.”

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