By Tasha Friedman
Few concepts in spirituality are so profoundly simple and dazzlingly complicated at the same time as Karma Yoga.
It is the beginning and the goal of the path, and the center of the wheel that brings it all together. It is the most concrete practice that requires the most refined understanding.
Almost every spiritual tradition in the world calls its followers to some form of Karma Yoga. At Hridaya, Karma Yoga is at the heart of our practice and our community.
What Is Karma Yoga?
Karma Yoga is one of the five fundamental branches of yoga, along with:
- Jnana Yoga: the path of direct knowledge
- Bhakti Yoga: the path of devotion
- Raja Yoga: the eight-limbed path of Patanjali
- Tantra Yoga: the path of sacred energy
Karma Yoga literally translates as “the yoga of action,” but it’s not just any kind of action. It’s action done with detachment, awareness, and love. In other words, we go about our lives with the same stillness and openness of the heart that we find in meditation, no matter what we are doing.
We can also understand Karma Yoga as “selfless service.”
It is “selfless” in two senses. First, because it is unselfish: we put our limited personal interests and desires aside to work for the benefit of others. (And ultimately, to support the Self-realization of all sentient beings.)
It is also “selfless” in that while we are acting, we remain grounded in the highest wisdom, remembering that all the phenomena we perceive lack an inherent reality of their own but are expressions of the one absolute Reality, the Spiritual Heart.
Karma Yoga According to the Bhagavad Gita
The most classical instructions on Karma Yoga come from the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna (an avatar–human incarnation of the Infinite–of Vishnu) teaches his friend Arjuna how to act from love and truth even in the most difficult circumstances:
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.
Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.
Seek refuge in divine knowledge and insight, O Arjun, and discard reward-seeking actions that are certainly inferior to works performed with the intellect established in Divine knowledge. Miserly are those who seek to enjoy the fruits of their works.
One who prudently practices the science of work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Yoga, which is the art of working skillfully (in proper consciousness).”
(Bhagavad Gita, 2.47-50)
While we act in accordance with the flow of life, with no resistance, we release the results of our actions, offering them instead to the higher reality in an act of surrender. This surrender is not passive but takes great courage and a desire to take part in the dance of life.
Maybe this sounds a bit abstract. Few of us are being asked like Arjuna to lead an army into battle against our own cousins, and also few of us can surrender our individual will into the Divine Will at the drop of a hat.
Karma Yoga offers us a practice and a path in itself so we can understand for ourselves what it means to surrender absolutely while being fully engaged in the world. More than just something we do for a few hours every day, it’s a way of turning our whole lives into a spiritual practice, bringing everything onto the path.
Life as a Karma Yogi at Longeval
At Longeval, everyone is serving in some way, from new practitioners in their first experience of Karma Yoga to seasoned teachers who split their time between the yoga hall and other commitments. This is part of our community’s guiding vision: complete integration, where the whole of daily life is embraced into spirituality.
Life at the castle is simple, sattvic and community-oriented. We serve together, eat together and practice together. Evening events like bhajans, heart circles, and ecstatic dance fill the schedule. But if you ever need some alone time, the castle is surrounded by miles of woods and fields to explore.
The effective practice of Karma Yoga has two sides: the service itself and the spiritual practice that supports it. This is why yoga and meditation are central to Hridaya life.
Morning Meditation: The Foundation for Karma Yoga
Morning meditation is a core part of the Karma Yoga experience. All Karma Yogis are expected to attend the morning session, not because our community is so interested in rules and obligations but because meditation is the foundation of the practice of Karma Yoga.
Meditation gives you a higher perspective. Sometimes when you’re wading through the tasks and requirements of daily life, even in a spiritual community, it’s possible to lose sight of the higher goal and forget why you’re there in the first place. I have seen many times in myself and other Karma Yogis that when the practice is weak, service starts to become just another job or a chore.
With daily practice, dipping yourself again and again into the vastness of Reality, there comes a more constant remembrance of why you are here, a stronger connection with that first inner impulse that led you to commit yourself to Karma Yoga.
That impulse was smart! Whether it comes as a considered decision or just a sudden feeling that this is something you need to do, there is something inside that can see the path ahead clearer than you can with your mind. The more you become quiet and empty in meditation, the more this inner wisdom will guide you through life.
Many things come up while serving as a Karma Yogi. Just because we’re living in a spiritual community, it doesn’t mean everything is sweet and easy all the time! If you aren’t careful, the same patterns that maybe you came here to escape will come again just in a slightly different form.
Meditation is our training ground for turning everything that happens in life into spiritual practice.
By resting in the Heart and witnessing, we expand our awareness to embrace everything that arises. We learn non-reactivity and detachment. We learn surrender.
Things will go wrong! Soups will burn and pipes will burst and someone you work with will trigger you. It will happen. But if, in that moment, instead of going into contraction you can open your heart and offer yourself to the needs of the situation, these problems become the most incredible opportunities for learning.
The ability to transform difficult situations is at the heart of Karma Yoga, and it starts by sitting quietly with the eyes closed and the back straight.
A Few Common Concerns:
- “What if I don’t know how to meditate? I don’t understand this practice!” If you’re new to Hridaya meditation, then first rest assured you’re not alone. Every single one of us starts as a beginner. (If we’re lucky, we stay a beginner our whole lives!)
At Longeval, we are blessed to have many teachers and experienced meditators in the community. Whenever you’re confused or feeling stuck, don’t hesitate to speak to your mentor or anyone else with more experience in the practice.
- “Meditation is nice but I’d rather do it on my own.” While it’s better to meditate on your own than not at all, part of the power of spiritual community is exactly this shared practice. By coming together every day, we remind each other of why we’re here and support each other.
- “But it’s just so early!” Yes, not all of us are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 7:00 am. But if you make it a habit, waking up early will soon feel natural.
Also, building discipline is part of the beauty of the practice. When you can do something consistently even when it’s hard, you become strong inside. Eventually, this inner commitment becomes a power that will support you and carry you through anything.
Hridaya Karma Yoga Retreat: Merging Stillness and Action
Once a month, Hridaya holds silent meditation retreats and the whole center goes into mauna for ten days.
Mauna means “noble silence.” When we participate in a retreat, this is an absolute silence: no talking, passing notes to other participants or using body language.
When we serve a retreat, mauna means communicating only when necessary.
As a Karma Yogi, it’s unrealistic to expect complete silence while serving, especially if you are in the kitchen or working with a team. Taking care of the guests comes first and things have to flow.
However, we can cut out all social interactions and become extremely aware of how we use language. This allows us to go deep into ourselves and our practice even while acting in the world: the epitome of Karma Yoga!
So during hours of service, you can speak to your co-Karma Yogis as needed, but outside of that time, the invitation is to turn inwards and keep full silence. This includes no texting or media and having the awareness to support your colleagues in their practice of mauna.
As part of the Karma Yoga retreat, you are invited to attend a two-hour meditation every morning and Hatha Yoga plus a short lecture in the afternoon. These sessions help give structure and support, the feeling that we’re all going in together.
Beyond the formal practice, this period of silence is an opportunity to be with yourself and explore the beauty of the world without distractions or social obligations. You are welcome to take long walks in the forest and experience nature with greater openness and intimacy than we usually allow ourselves.
Selfless Service for the Benefit of All Beings
As I have found, there are two main factors to having the best experience in Karma Yoga. They may seem contradictory, as do so many things in spiritual life, but when you have the flavor of Karma Yoga you will find they flow together naturally.
- Healthy boundaries
Learn to say no with love! This can be very difficult, especially in spiritual communities
where most people are very giving and want to say yes to everything. It’s all too easy to pick up more and more tasks and responsibilities until suddenly you are overwhelmed.
As Sahaja teaches, we can say “no” to a situation while saying “yes” to life. This is a key skill for Karma Yogis.
Of course, we have commitments that must be honored, but before you agree to extra tasks, check in with yourself and make sure you will be able to take it on while keeping your energy and enthusiasm.
With practice, we can give everything all the time, but practice is the key word. Until that point, we need to care for ourselves and respect our own limits. (This is also a practice of humbleness!)
- No expectations, no agenda
The single most powerful way to dive into yoga is to drop all your goals and expectations.
There are always things we want to get out of any experience. Maybe going into Hridaya Karma Yoga you’re hoping to learn some yoga, get a more solid meditation practice or set some healthy lifestyle habits.
This is great. It probably will happen. Now forget about it.
“Detaching from the fruits of our actions” is the essence of Karma Yoga and it means everything. Leave it all behind and trust that whatever you find through your time as a Karma Yogi, it will be exactly what you need.
With the trust that all will come to you, you can relax into any effort and respond directly to any moment.
And one more factor for good luck: love! Always more love!
Whatever you do, bring love to it. This is all you need to do. Love will guide you and teach you.
We are always learning. Serving others, especially in a community, is a constant reminder of this. Usually just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, life pulls the rug out from under you. It keeps things exciting!
The path of Karma Yoga is a journey of expanding more and more into the untouched edges of ourselves, finding the places where we hold patterns and contractions and bringing light there. It is the fullness of life embraced within the void of consciousness.
The experience brings to you what you bring to it. If you bring your stories and your projections, you’ll go home with more stories. If you bring your emptiness, your openness, and your intuition, you will find everything there.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.