What does Karma really mean?

Many of us come to yoga because we are searching. We might be looking for greater physical well-being, for more relaxation in our busy lives or for a way to calm our mind. Sometimes we simply feel a sense of seeking within us, without knowing exactly what we are searching for. At some point in our practice we begin to realise that while we start to feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally, Yoga is actually about so much more than just that.

Through our practice we might slowly begin to wake up to the knowingness that there is something greater than just our “small” ego selves, that we are indeed connected to something greater of which we are an important part. Perhaps we start do get a glimpse of our true essence and with that we slowly start to discover our dharma; that within us that gives us our purpose. That, which calls us to action in our lives. From a yogic perspective, when we begin to act on our dharma, we are no longer striving for recognition, praise, approval, or material and other successes. The fruit of our labour – so to speak – is shared with others. In fact, the only purpose of acting on our dharma is so that we might better serve others.

In a way, the ultimate goal of yoga – the stilling of the mind, the absorption in and experience of complete oneness – can be attained through service to others, which is the true meaning of Karma. By serving others we let go of all selfish attachments. The lower ego loses its sense of the “I”, and the mind becomes still because we are no longer wrapped up in thoughts of how we can get what we want, and how we can arrange the world, other people, and even ourselves to our liking.

The Bhagavad Gita, for example, teaches us that Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless action, dissolves the identification with body and mind by identifying with the whole of life and so in service of others we forget the finite self. One of the most beautiful passages of the Bhagavad Gita tells us to “renounce the fruits of action”, when Krishna tells Arjuna, his disciple:

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Ajruna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. (The Bhagavad Gita 2:47 – 48)

While this passages bears so much beautiful spiritual truth, our western way of thinking might distort the idea of selfless work. We might claim that we already give so much: as parents, children, friends, workers, teachers, etc. etc. We try to help others, be there for our loved ones, listen to their sorrows, help solve their problems, provide support in whichever way we can and end up feeling completely “burned out” because we do so much. That, however, is not actually what Karma means. In the true practice of Karma, all our actions are free from motives and free from our desire of the outcome.

Especially when we are already doing so much that is seemingly only for the benefit of others, it is easy to be blind to our own selfish attachments of our actions. Maybe we secretly hope to be recognized as a “good person”. Even if our work is actually really benefiting other we are not practicing Karma Yoga if we are still invested in the “fruits of our labour”. A beautiful way to purify the mind of selfish motives and not detach from the outcome of our actions this is to do something nice for someone and not get found out. This is yoga off the mat in action!

by Carina Hilmar

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