The Shift Network Blog

What Karma Yoga is REALLY About

Kelle Walsh
By Kelle Walsh
Shift Team Writer

While the masses flock to yoga studios to perfect their poses, some Western yoga practitioners have been embracing karma yoga — one of the 5 branches of yoga often defined as “selfless service,” or the yoga of work.

As a result, yogis are engaging in random acts of service — painting schools, teaching free yoga classes in poor communities, and picking up trash along the beach.

For others, however, the concept feels loaded with obligation, a far-away ideal that has little to do with the personal reasons that initially drew them to the practice.

It’s understandable: It’s pretty daunting to think that in order to be a “real” yogi, you’ll also need to become the next Mother Teresa.

It might not be such a reach, though, considering what karma yoga is truly about.

According to Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul and The Surrender Experiment, karma yoga is one of the most misunderstood aspects of yoga — and is, perhaps, the deepest yoga of all:

“It’s not about your relationship with your body, your relationship with your heart, your relationship with your mind, or even your relationship with your higher bodies. It’s about your relationship with everything else, and with what’s unfolding around you.”



In fact, karma yoga isn’t really possible until one has dealt with the disruptions and incongruities in their inner world.

Following the 8-limbed path outlined in the Yoga Sutra, the yogi engages in specific behaviors and practices to heal the body, steady the emotions, and still the mind.

As a result, she naturally experiences a sense of connection, of oneness, with the world outside of her.

That’s when karma yoga comes in....

You do your work on yourself so that you can stand in the presence of the world, be at one with it, and serve it,” Singer says.

Yoga masters explain that when you touch the truth that we are all one, you can’t help but become a karma yogi, regardless of how that manifests.

“The moment I awaken even a little bit … service is going to be a natural byproduct,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, president of the Divine Shakti Foundation based in Rishikesh, India. 

“Not because you want to win some humanitarian award, or because you’ve got a sticky note that says ‘Remember to do random acts of kindness.’ “Not because compassion is the word of the day. But because the borders and boundaries between the self and the rest of the world dissolve.”

“Real” yogis serve from this place of oneness. And all acts of service, big and small, make the world a better place.

One smile at a stranger can be as powerful an act of service as working for hours for a charitable cause.

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