What is Karma yoga?

As someone who grew up on a diet of ’80s and ’90s pop culture, the idea of karma is not new to me — but the first time I came across karma yoga at a yoga studio was when I saw a poster for Karma yogis—people to come and help out around the studio in exchange for free yoga classes. Only years later, on a yoga philosophy module during my Yoga Teacher Training, when we read the Bhagavad Gita, did I learn what karma yoga really is.

what is karma yoga

As I continue on my spiritual path and consider how to deepen my yoga practice beyond asana and even breathwork and meditation, I have been reflecting more and more on what it means to actually live yoga and honor its traditions. By incorporating a practice of karma yoga into my daily life, not only do I feel more spiritually fulfilled, but better overall!

Karma Yoga 101

Karma is the Sanskrit word for action. So, Karma yoga is the yoga of action.

Specifically, it is the yoga of selfless action, which means making choices with the right motives and for the interest of others and overall good, as opposed to yourself.

Nowadays, we associate karma with the idea of “what goes around comes around”: basically, according to the law of karma, if you do the right thing, the chain reaction of cause and effect works its magic and you can expect good things in return. But if you are an asshole, well, expect shit to happen.

And tbh, this isn’t a million miles from the traditional meaning in yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Albeit, karma yoga is more about eternal spiritual liberation than always being kind to your neighbors so they agree to look after your plants when you’re away…

What is Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita?

In the yoga tradition, the most important text for karma yoga is the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, literally the Song of God, is a 700-verse scripture, written between the 2nd century BCE and 4th century CE, and is a core Hindu text.

The Bhagavad Gita tells the story of Prince Arjuna, who is faced with a moral conundrum regarding the war he is waging. He seeks counsel from his charioteer, Krishna, who is Lord Vishnu in disguise. The two discuss many gritty, philosophical topics, but ultimately, Arjuna has a spiritual awakening. He determines that fulfilling his highest duty (his karma) as a warrior is the spiritual path to liberation (moksha). Arjuna is the OG karma yogi and everything he will do in life is in service of a greater spiritual order.

The Bhagavad Gita is about how to achieve the ultimate goal of spiritual liberation. Although Karma yoga is the most significant method cited in the text, it is definitely not the only path to liberation. These other forms of yoga are:

  • Bhakti yoga, which are devotional practices — chanting, Kirtan, spiritual offerings or rituals, and all forms of prayer count as Bhakti yoga.
  • Jnana yoga, which is knowledge or self-study, specifically attaining wisdom. It is considered to be the most challenging path.
  • And Raja yoga, which is the spiritual path to enlightenment through meditation. Not everyone includes Raja yoga as one of the specific paths to liberation, however, Raja yoga is incredibly influential on contemporary yoga philosophy and has roots in the Gita.

Whereas bhakti is the Sanskrit word for devotion and jnana means knowledge, Raja is the Sanskrit word for king. It means the ‘royal path’ and aligns with the Eight limbs of Yoga system outlined in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

(Trivia moment: the famous line “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” quoted in Oppenheimer, is from the Bhagavad Gita. When you understand more about the scripture’s themes, you can see why it is such a fitting quote).

The Bhagavad Gita Today

Given the importance of the Bhagavad Gita, why are karma, bhakti, and jnana yoga not considered core concepts of yoga today?

In part, this has to do with the secularization of yoga. The Bhagavad Gita is a religious text, and many contemporary yogis are atheists or agnostics — definitely not Hindu. But also, these yoga practices pre-date the traditions of Hatha yoga, which is the most direct influence on yoga asana and yoga-based movement classes today.

karma yoga

Karma Yoga Today: The Path of Action

It’s important to remember that Arjuna’s goal was complete spiritual liberation and release from the cycle of reincarnation… now, for many reasons, this may not vibe with you — but you shouldn’t write off karma yoga!

Karma yoga is a profound spiritual practice that is easy to do anytime, anywhere. Basically, being a decent human being counts as a spiritual practice. It’s even more accessible than the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs of the eight limbs system, because it is less specific.

Although mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, usually we have a formal meditation practice because it’s hard to remember to be observant and non-attached queuing in the supermarket. Similarly, we have to make an effort to take time for devotional practices, like gratitude journaling and mantras. Karma yoga, however, is practiced as we go about our daily lives.

In short, being a good, ethical person and making decisions that align with a higher purpose or for the best possible outcome for as many beings as possible is karma yoga. So, buying the palm oil-free peanut butter? Karma yoga!

However, this doesn’t make it easy.

Karma Yoga Challenges

Karma yoga is defined by selfless actions, i.e. the motivations for your actions shouldn’t be for your own personal gain. You need to be content with your good deeds going unnoticed — cleaning your neighbour’s paintbrushes at the art studio without being asked is an act of selfless service.

It also requires a non-attachment to the outcome. Remember that Friends episode about the selfless good deed? That’s karma yoga. Doing something with no self-interest or self-congratulations is hard.

Some people believe that their actions guarantee them good future karma, but that’s not how it works — a life of service doesn’t prevent you from getting fired or cardiovascular diseases. And, if something out of your control happens to you, it’s not because you somehow brought it on yourself!

A core part of being a karma yogi is having the right motives, regardless of the results of our actions, even if you get no acknowledgement or people disagree with you. It’s a misnomer that karma yoga is all about positive feelings and good vibes.

There’s also space for nuance, IMO. Life isn’t as black and white, so what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ isn’t always clear. There isn’t a definitive right way — you can only do your best! I look at karma yoga as one part of my spiritual practices, which means considering my well-being too. Spiritual growth is holistic after all, in the heart, body, and mind.

What Do Yoga Studios Mean by Karma Yogis?

Many yoga studios have Karma yogi programs whereby for offering a service to the studio — usually helping the yoga teacher set up the yoga studio or light cleaning duties — you receive free yoga classes or a gift certificate towards a workshop or equipment from the studio shop in return.

So, is this actual Karma yoga? Tbh, probably not. But it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement that makes practicing yoga more affordable and accessible! But I believe the karma yogis should feel like they are getting a good, fair deal.

So, a karma yoga practice is a great way to not only be a better human, but continue to grow spiritually!

Need more of a yoga philosophy fix? Watch these yoga movies or take a dive into the weird but wonderful world of chakras and nadis!