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Chapter 31: Make An Offering: Karma Yoga

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
 —Muhammad Ali

Back in 2004, my asana practice at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, was focused on standing up from backbend. Sharath Jois, then assistant director of the institute, had told me that once I could do this consistently, I’d be able to practice Ashtanga’s intermediate series.

So, every day I’d practice primary series and try to stand up from backbends. One day, when this was exceptionally difficult, I found myself repeatedly falling down and was about to give up.

Then I looked over at the large images of Lord Ganesh and Lord Ram on the shala (studio) windows and silently addressed them: “This one is for you.”

Next thing I knew I was standing up, as if propelled by an unseen force.

On another day in Mysore, I felt like I was getting sick and went to my pharmacist for some medication. He gave me some digestion medication and said it should work within 24 hours. It did, and when I went back to thank him, he gestured towards the sky and said, “I did nothing.”

In other words, he was acting as an instrument of God—or the universe. Something similar had happened to me with backbends; on some level, I’d stopped struggling and let go of focusing on the outcome. I’d surrendered.

This is the path of Karma yoga, or selfless action, as outlined in the Bhagavad-Gita, which says, “To work, alone, you are entitled, never to its fruit. Neither let your motive be the fruit of action, nor let your attachment be to non-action.” This means that we should perform our duties without attachment since the outcome is not in our hands. It is similar to the Christian idea of “Thy will be done,” or aligning oneself with the universal or divine will.

Karma yoga is one of the four main paths of yoga and the easiest to follow for householders (lay persons) and those who are active in the world. It is said to be the quickest way to dissolve the ego or sense of separation, which is one of the things yogis believe keeps us from experiencing lasting peace and happiness. On a practical level, Karma yoga takes us out of our own heads and helps us see the common thread that binds everything together; it moves us from aloneness towards oneness.

In class, we can do this by offering our asana practice to something unselfish, such as dedicating it to someone who is suffering or to an ideal—or the highest practice of all: dedicating it to God or the Supreme Self (the spark of the divine that resides in every
living being).

“If you practice any aspect of yoga for selfish reasons, it’s not really yoga at all, according to the Bhagavad-Gita,” my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, said in a February 2017 interview with
Yoga Journal magazine. “Anytime we are able to make our practice an offering, our practice becomes really powerful. Experiencing this leads to lots of enthusiasm to pursue and keep at it. The secret of success in yoga practice is constant practice. Success in practice will lead to inner peace, which will have a great effect on everything, eventually leading to peace for all, everywhere.”

I once explained this concept to a group of yoga teacher trainees, and one of them jumped in with a personal example. A criminal defense attorney, he said that he practices a version of Karma yoga every day: he makes the best case he can before the judge and jury, and then must let go of the outcome, or verdict.

“The difference between regular action where there is always expectation and Karma Yoga is truly the mental attitude,” Sri Dharma Mittra said. As he explained in a 2012 interview, “When I first began doing Karma yoga, I had already heard that it had to be offered as a completely selfless action. In the beginning, even though it looks from the outside as though we renounce any physical benefits or rewards inherent in the actions we are supposedly offering to others, deep down inside we are always interested in spiritual rewards and there is always a ‘little string’ attached. As we grow and evolve spiritually,
spend time near the Guru, gain more knowledge and are engaged in constant practice, we come to realize there should be no string at all. We expect nothing and hope to receive no spiritual benefits. With a little bit of Self-Knowledge and as we get a little bit closer to
Self-realization, the ego disappears and automatically the Karma yoga becomes perfect and is performed without any expectation. We do everything because it has to be done for the sake of the Self, not expecting anything.”

There’s a wonderful story about oil magnate John D. Rockefeller meeting Swami Vivekananda in 1894. The swami said that the money Rockefeller had earned did not belong to him and suggested that he use it to do good in the world. Initially annoyed at the
swami’s brashness, Rockefeller returned a week later and showed him his plans to donate a large sum of money to a public institution— his first such effort—then waited for the swami to thank him. Instead, Swami Vivekananda said, “It is for you to thank me.”

In other words, Karma yoga does not mean making grand gestures and boasting about them in your bio or doing good for a tax deduction or to secure a wing of a hospital in your name; rather, service is done for the sake of service. My spiritual mother used to tell a story about waiting for a flight at the airport with Sri Dharma when someone near them became ill and began to vomit. Sri Dharma was quick to offer help before anyone else acted.

If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself or have a strong sense of entitlement, volunteering or donating money or helping someone in need can quickly transform those feelings into gratitude.

Karma yoga can also mean helping a spiritual teacher, fellow aspirant,
or organization. On a very basic level, Karma yoga means serving others anonymously
in small ways, whenever possible, such as letting someone go ahead of you in traffic, giving up your seat to an older person, blessing someone when they sneeze, giving a compliment, or praying or doing your spiritual practice for others.

Any activity—including one’s job—can be a form of Karma yoga. The important thing is to do it to the best of your ability and without attachment. (This does not mean you should stagnate in your work or not stand up for yourself or not ask for a raise or promotion when it is due; it means doing what is right and letting go of the results.)

Karma yoga has many benefits. Sri Dharma says it can be even better than meditation and is an essential step on the path towards liberation. “Acting in this way, one gradually loses all selfishness and notions such as: ‘I am the doer,’” he explained in a 2010 New Year’s message. “Thus comes total surrender of the ego. Why do selfless service? Because without it, there will be no union, absorption or Self-realization….”

In addition, according to the laws of karma and reincarnation, selfless action creates no new karma that must be paid back later. The Bhagavad-Gita says, “He who does actions, offering them to the Absolute and abandoning attachment, is free from error.” You may find that the more you give up doership of your actions (having the feeling that you are acting alone), the more the universe will start to work with you (rather than against you).

“There is nothing chaotic or capricious in this world,” said Swami Sivananda. “Things do not happen in this universe by accident or chance in a disorderly manner. They happen in regular succession and events follow each other in a regular order. There
is a kind of definite connection between what is being done now by you and what will happen in the future. Sow always the seeds which will bring pleasant fruits and which will make you happy herein and hereafter.”

Additional Resources
The Bhagavad-Gita translated by Swami Nikhilananda
Karma Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
Practice of Karma Yoga by Swami Sivananda
How Can I Help? by Ram Dass
volunteermatch.org or idealist.org