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Karma Yoga: Everything You Need To Know

If you’re a keen yogi, you’ll probably have heard of Karma yoga. It has so many benefits, but it is an often overlooked form of the practice.  

If you’ve ever wondered what exactly Karma yoga is, its history, and how to practice it, then look no further. Here at OriGym, we’ve curated a guide on everything you need to know about Karma yoga! 

This article will cover:

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What Is Karma Yoga?

You’re likely to already be familiar with different types of yoga such as hatha, vinyasa or yin. But did you know that the many different types of yoga can be split into 4 main branches:

  • Raja – yoga of the mind and body
  • Bhakti – yoga representing devotion and worship
  • Jnana – yoga of wisdom
  • Karma – yoga of action

With this in mind, one way to define Karma yoga is to say that it is one of the four branches of yoga. Like all of the branches, Karma yoga is about unifying the mind and body, with the ultimate aim of reaching spiritual enlightenment. 

But what is the meaning of Karma Yoga?

Sanskrit is the ancient language in which the earliest transcriptions of yoga were written. ‘Karma’ in Sanskrit translates as ‘action’.

This idea of ‘action’ refers to the duties and activities in our daily lives. But most importantly, they are actions that benefit others in the community. Karma yoga is all about being selfless and giving to the world around us without expectation of reward or gratification. 

As such, Karma yoga is a highly spiritual practice in which you selflessly provide your service for the benefit of others, in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. If you like this more spiritual form of yoga, you might be interested in Kundalini yoga, which is also about reaching a higher state of consciousness. 

So now you might be wondering, what is Karma yoga in Hinduism and why is it significant? 

Many of the principles of yoga derive from Hinduism. For those who practice Hinduism, Karma yoga is a core aspect of their religion. It is a way of distancing yourself from the ego, purifying the heart and cultivating a sense of unification with others. 

This sense of connection with others is also a key part of laughter yoga, which is another of the less mainstream forms of yoga. 

The History Of Karma Yoga

The earliest transcriptions of the concepts of yoga and Karma can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a 700-verse Hindu scripture and is the longest poem ever written in Sanskrit. But what exactly is Karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita? 

According to the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna (a Hindu God) said that Karma yoga is:

selfless action performed for the benefit of others… do your duty without concern for the fruit of it.

In other words, karma is the idea that by doing good deeds for others without expectation of reward, goodwill will find its way back to you!

According to the Bhagavad Gita, having a Karma yoga practice will guide you on the path to reach moksha (spiritual liberation). It describes how the combination of yoga and karma duties helps to diminish the ego and purify the heart. The more that you practice Karma yoga, the closer you get to achieving this state of enlightenment. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Karma yoga, why not add one of these yoga books to your bookshelf?

You may have come across the term Nisham Karma when reading about the history of Karma yoga. But what exactly is Nisham Karma Yoga?

Nishkam Karma is a philosophical concept which is part of Karma yoga. It is simply the idea of doing something without expectation of personal gain. In Sanskrit, ‘Nishkam Karma yoga' translates to “action without motive”. 

As such, Nishkam Karma Yoga is essentially the core principle of Karma Yoga and is the central theme in the Bhagavad Gita.

How Does Karma Yoga Differ From Other Kinds Of Yoga?

As mentioned previously, the 4 main paths of yoga are Bhakti, Raja, Jnana and Karma.  

Bhakti is the yoga practice of devotion, raja is yoga that connects the mind and the body and jnana is the yoga of wisdom. And as we now know, Karma is the yoga of action.  

It is arguably one of the most accessible forms of yoga, since it is mostly a spiritual rather than physical practice. You can practice Karma yoga in daily life simply by adopting a selfless mindset and doing actions that benefit others.  

Most other forms of yoga solely exist within a yoga classroom, with fellow yogis and a yoga instructor. With Karma yoga, however, there is more focus on self-practice and working within the community. It is more of a lifestyle choice, compared to a 45 minute flow that ends when you step off the mat!

One of the main features that most forms of yoga share is that they all incorporate some form of pranayama practice. This is simply breathwork that helps to calm the mind and body, and it is often part of the start and end of a Karma yoga class. 

Karma Yoga Principles

 

There are four main principles that make up a Karma yoga definition: duty, ego, attachment and expectation of reward. 

Duty 

When you think of duties in terms of Karma, your first thought might be tasks like cleaning the dishes, running errands and holding the door open for someone. 

However, a common misconception of Karma yoga duties is that each and every task has to benefit another. In fact, in relation to Karma yoga, these kinds of tasks are not duties, they’re just chores. 

Whilst chores can indeed be a part of your Karma yoga duties, they are not everything! Your duties are varied and include a range of physical and emotional tasks. 

Another common misconception of Karma yoga is that duties are an excuse for cheap labour and allow employers to exploit workers for their time and effort. But this is not the case! The idea of Karma yoga is that you are offering your services voluntarily to your community because you want to do so, not because you are forced to.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to Karma yoga is that the most important duty is the duty you have towards yourself. In other words, if you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot carry out your duties to others!

This can take the form of meditation and self-reflection, or simply just treating yourself to a nice dinner or taking yourself shopping! But ultimately, it is about making sure that you don’t sacrifice your own mental health at the expense of performing your duties for others. 

Put simply, duty in Karma yoga is all about actively going out into your community with the intent of selflessly helping others, whilst also taking care of yourself. 

Ego

When completing a task, it is natural to think “how will this benefit me?”.

Through Karma yoga practice, you’ll begin to think differently when completing tasks. For example, you will start asking “how will this benefit someone else?” or “in what way can my time and effort help someone else's day?” 

When we ask the question, ‘what is the meaning of Karma yoga’, it is simply to distance ourselves from our ego and make helping others second nature.  

Your ego is seen to be ‘cancerous’ in Karma yoga, in that it latches onto people and grows. The more it grows, the more that it begins to control your actions, perceptions and understanding of the world.  

Practicing Karma yoga is said to help control and eventually cast aside your ego. Since we are so conditioned to listen to our ego, this process can take time! But with enough practice, the aim is to be able to think without the ego hindering our actions. 

Attachment 

According to Karma yoga, attachment is the idea of completing your duties without any attachment to the result. You don’t think about how you might benefit from the duty or whether a reward will come of it. 

Even if you don’t like or enjoy a certain task, Karma yoga encourages you to not attach any value to it and embrace it instead. 

For example, your boss may ask you to do two different tasks, one of which you enjoy more than the other. In accordance with Karma yoga, you should complete them both equally and with the same amount of effort.

Expectation of Reward  

As mentioned previously, Nishkam Karma yoga is a philosophical concept within Karma yoga. It is the practice of doing something for others without expectation of reward. 

Most people rarely do something without expectation of reward. For example, we work with the expectation that we will get paid! 

But in Karma yoga, when you complete your various tasks, you shouldn’t think about how your service will be reciprocated. You should do your duty simply because it is your duty, not because you want to try to get something else out of it. 

The definition of Karma yoga says that you are to selflessly offer your services to others. So once you reach a point where you are acting without considering the rewards, you are truly practicing Karma yoga!

If these concepts seem confusing, don’t worry! The philosophical side of yoga is perhaps one of the hardest parts to grasp. Going to a yoga retreat is a good way to get to learn more about this side of the practice, as you can fully immerse yourself in it and learn from others. 

Karma Yoga Benefits

There are many benefits of Karma yoga in terms of both your mental health and general wellbeing. Here are the 5 key ways in which this form of yoga can enhance your life!

#1 – Brings You Calmness

By practising Karma yoga, it is thought that you will become a more calm and tolerant individual.  

Everyone experiences stressful situations throughout their lives. But, should you practice Karma yoga regularly, you will find that you will approach these stressful situations with a more neutral and calm perspective. 

Karma yoga helps train your mind to not think impulsively or irrationally during anxious times, and so helps you see the world in a more positive light! This means that over time, you’ll become a calmer and more tolerant individual.

With this in mind, a 2013 study discussed the calming effects that Karma yoga can bring to people with psychiatric disorders. It concluded that:

“Karma yoga may be a therapeutic method to reduce anxiety and apprehension to reduce morbidity associated with psychiatric and medical illnesses relating to it.” 

Whether you already suffer from anxiety and want to ease the symptoms or simply want to lead a calmer life, incorporating Karma yoga into your daily life will undoubtedly benefit you!

If yoga isn’t your thing, there are also a whole host of mental benefits of running and other more aerobic sports! 

#2 – Acquire New Skills 

According to the Bhagavad Gita, Karma yoga is “skill in action”. Throughout your Karma yoga journey, you will complete tasks and acquire new skills along the way. 

A definition of Karma yoga says that you selflessly complete tasks for others. This is therefore a new skill that you will learn as a result of the practice. 

Karma yoga also equips you with motivation and dedication. There may be times where you will be expected to complete duties in something you don’t have much experience of, but approaching it with a positive mindset and desire to learn is how you can really reap the benefits of Karma yoga! 

As well as the skills themselves, Karma yoga benefits the way in which you approach learning new skills. When we begin learning a new skill, our ego can often get in the way; we become preoccupied with the end result and can be hindered by a fear of failure. 

However, since Karma yoga encourages you to act without ego and without thinking of personal gain, learning new skills becomes more enjoyable! You’ll find that you can fully immerse yourself in the learning process without worrying about failure or what others will think of you. 

If you’ve just started practicing Karma yoga, now is the best time to learn a new skill, such as being a personal trainer! Don’t let your ego hold you back anymore and check out OriGym’s range of personal training courses today. 

#3 – Improves Your Relationships

Another way in which Karma yoga benefits you is that it can improve your relationships with others, both on a social and professional level. 

As we’ve already discussed, Karma yoga helps you to be selfless and have a more positive outlook on life. When you reach this state, you will start to exude positivity and good energy! This will subsequently improve your existing relationships and help you attract new people into your life too.  

However, you shouldn’t start Karma yoga purely with the intent of achieving this. If thoughts like “I’m going to complete this task so that someone thinks more of me” crosses your mind, then you’re approaching your duties with the wrong mindset!  

Strengthened relationships is merely a side effect of Karma yoga, so it is important to try and not let your ego get in the way of your intentions. 

Karma yoga can also benefit your work relationships and performance. A 2010 study looked at 205 individuals' abilities to think critically and be a good leader after taking a Karma yoga session. Since Karma yoga is heavily focussed upon the completion of duties, conductors wanted to establish the effects Karma yoga had on the participants’ leadership qualities and ability to maintain good relationships. They concluded that:

...a leader’s duty-orientation was related to a leader’s charisma and inspirational motivation. The relationship was strengthened when a follower’s belief in Indian philosophy was high. The findings support a model of Indian transformational leadership built on the fundamental beliefs in Indian philosophy and duty-orientation.

Who’d have thought that practicing Karma yoga could benefit your work life? 

#4 – Encourages Selflessness 

As we’ve seen, the definition of Karma yoga includes the idea that you do your duty without wanting a reward. The more you practice this mindset, the more selfless you will become. 

It isn’t often that you find someone who does something good for you and expects nothing in return. That said, there are some situations where this is the case – a parent feeding their baby, for example. You wouldn’t expect the baby to go out of their way to show appreciation for their parents! 

However, generally speaking, there aren’t many individuals in the world who go out of their way to selflessly help a stranger without any apparent benefit for themselves. It can be hard to get out of this mindset, but practicing Karma yoga in daily life is the best way to change it!  

An easy way to understand acting selflessly is to imagine that you have one slice of pizza left in the box. You would like to eat it but really, you’ve eaten enough to be satisfied. 

But if you are practicing Karma yoga, you would give the last slice to a friend who hasn’t eaten yet, or a homeless person in need. Whatever it may be, it is all about acting selflessly and thinking about how you can benefit another person. 

As soon as you start to think about others before yourself, you have cracked the meaning of Karma yoga! 

Thinking of others is one of the main skills needed to be a personal trainer. So if you think that’s one of your best qualities, becoming a personal trainer could be the perfect job for you! 

#5 – Become Dedicated and Resilient  

Completing tasks that you don’t have much experience in can seem daunting. But, learning new things and facing challenges is all part of Karma yoga and makes you more dedicated and resilient.   

When duties become difficult, Karma yogis don’t just give up. They push through, work hard and adapt their existing skills to complete the task. 

Determination and resilience are important skills in all aspects of fitness, not just yoga. If you’re a runner who needs a bit of motivation to keep going, check out OriGym’s selection of the best motivational running quotes. 

You should also remember that there are other Karma yogis out there who are also new to some tasks. Not everyone is an expert in everything! Know that helping others in your community is a tough and admirable thing to do, so embrace the challenge to become an all-around resilient individual.  

Want to read more about yoga? Here are 3 more articles we think you’ll love:

Karma Yoga Poses

Although it is not as physically demanding as power yoga for example, there is still a definite link between Karma yoga and fitness.

You may be wondering, what is the purpose of Karma yoga poses when it is a primarily spiritual practice? 

Well, the poses used in Karma yoga are all part of chakra sequences. In yoga, chakras are the energy points in the body, and each one corresponds to a different principle or quality such as love, communication and intuition. Practicing yoga is said to help ‘balance’ or ‘align’ the chakras, which leads to a better and more well-rounded life.

With this in mind, Karma yoga poses are said to help achieve this state of ‘balance’ in the chakras which in turn helps you to perform your actions and duties with a more positive outlook. There are different types of Karma yoga poses that target different chakras. 

Below are 3 common Karma yoga poses, some may be if you already practice hatha and vinyasa yoga, but there are also some variations that are specific to Karma yoga. 

#1 - Wide-Legged Child’s Pose 

First up on the list of Karma yoga poses is the wide-legged child’s pose. It is a common pose in yin yoga when held for several minutes, as it really helps to open up the hips.   

If you’re not already familiar with this variation of child’s pose, or want to brush up on your knowledge, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perform it.

  1. Start by kneeling down on a yoga mat, sitting on your feet with your toes pointing backwards and your knees facing forward.
  2. Inhale. As you exhale, reach your hands out in front of you onto your yoga mat and open your knees out wide each side. Touch your toes together.  
  3. Slowly reach your hands forward until your chest is touching your yoga mat- or as much as you can depending on the range of motion in your hip flexors. You should feel a nice stretch in your inner thigh and back muscles.
  4. Hold the position for 3 sets of 30 seconds, inhaling and exhaling to go deeper into the stretch. 

#2 – Forearm Downward Dog Variation

Next up we have a variation of downward facing dog, sometimes also known as dolphin pose. This can be quite a challenging pose as it relies a lot on upper body strength, however, that does make it great for building muscle in your arms

Again, the standard downward dog is a staple in most types of yoga, but this is a slightly different variation. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Start in a crawling position with your forearms on the yoga mat facing out in front of you and your knees hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale. As you exhale, tuck your toes out from under your feet and slowly push your legs upwards so that your body forms an upside-down ‘V’ shape.
  3. Relax your shoulder blades and feel the stretch through your arms and shoulders. Engage your leg muscles and try to press your heels down towards the floor as much as you can. 
  4. Stay in this position for 20-30 seconds, inhaling and exhaling to get deeper into the stretch. 
  5. To finish, bend the knees back down towards your yoga mat and untuck the toes. 

#3 – Extended Side Angle Pose 

Last on our list of Karma yoga poses is an extended side angle pose. This is a great pose for engaging your core! Here’s your guide on how to incorporate it into your practice. 

  1.   Start with a Warrior 2 pose, with your front heel forwards and back heel horizontal. Reach your arms out to the side at shoulder height with one in front and one back. 
  2.   Rest your front forearm on your front thigh. Put your other arm’s hand on your waist.
  3.   Turn your head so that you look upward over your back leg, and move the arm so it faces upward and open up your chest.
  4.   Slowly move the hand which’s forearm rests on your forward thigh down to your yoga mat. You can also rest it on a yoga block if it doesn’t reach the floor. 
  5.   You can move the hand either inside or outside of your front thigh to work your inner/outer thigh. 
  6.   Hold for 30 seconds, inhaling and exhaling deeply then switch sides.

Here we have 3 different types of karma yoga poses that you could implement into your daily practice. Next up we’re going to cover some of the risks involved with karma yoga to bear in mind before starting.  

Risks Of Karma Yoga

As with anything, there are some risks as well as benefits to consider before starting Karma yoga, both physical and mental.

At a physical level, there is of course some risk to performing the Karma yoga poses described above. For example, taking a stretch too far can result in pulling a muscle. To reduce the risk of this happening, it is strongly encouraged to listen to your body throughout your practice. If something doesn't feel right, stop! 

If you have an injury, don’t put pressure on that area of the body and seek medical advice if you are unsure whether any of the Karma yoga poses are suitable for you.

As with any form of exercise, there is also a risk of dehydration and fatigue. Drink plenty of water and make sure you fuel yourself before a workout. Taking yoga supplements are a great way to enhance your practice. 

Aside from potential physical risks, there are also some mental side effects to consider. Whilst it can help reduce anxiety if practiced correctly, some people can get overwhelmed and stressed about fulfilling their Karma yoga duties. 

Try not to take on too much or put too much pressure on yourself to do Karma yoga. Remember that it can take time to learn how to act selflessly. After all, your own happiness should always be a priority. You cannot help other people if you aren’t happy yourself!

How To Practice Karma Yoga

If you think that you want to do Karma yoga but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered! Here are some basic steps to follow to begin your Karma yoga journey. 

#1 - Begin with Basic Karma Yoga Poses

In regards to the physical aspect of Karma yoga, you should begin with the easier poses and work your way up to more challenging asanas once you feel confident doing so. 

If you’re wondering how to practice Karma yoga, a pose to start with is the Wide Child’s Pose, as detailed above. 

Karma yoga and fitness go hand-in-hand, so it’s always good to start off steady and work your way up to reduce any chances of injury.

If you’re new to the world of yoga, using yoga equipment is a great way to build up your flexibility and balance. 

#2 - Start with Small Duties

When starting anything new, you should remember that learning is a process and skills take time to master. And the same goes for Karma yoga. 

Your journey towards a completely ego-free lifestyle won’t happen overnight. Starting by doing small tasks in your community then work your way up to bigger gestures when you feel ready.   

Karma yoga involves selflessly giving your time and effort for someone else’s benefit, no matter how small that benefit may be. It is about letting go of the ego, so don’t focus on huge, dramatic gestures just so that you look good to others. This goes completely against the principles of Karma yoga! 

#3 - Try to Adjust Your Mindset

One of the fundamental aspects of Karma yoga is to think selflessly, and adopting this mindset can take time.

The key is to not be too hard on yourself if you struggle to convert to this way of thinking. In many ways, we have been conditioned by society to think only for ourselves and not of others. So breaking out of this thought pattern won’t be easy!

Again, it is best to start small and work your way up when it comes to changing your mindset. Start by practicing Karma yoga just once a week, then a few times a day, then once a day. Eventually, you will find that you are practicing Karma yoga everyday as a matter of instinct!

Changing your mental mindset is arguably more difficult than mastering the physical poses of yoga, so don’t be disheartened if it takes a while until it becomes a natural state of mind. 

FAQs

How Often Should I Practice Karma Yoga?

It is entirely up to you how frequently you practice Karma yoga; it depends on how much time you have to commit, your experience, your goals, and your fitness ability.  

The same goes for any sport. For example, some people benefit from running every day, but for others, this is too much! 

Karma yoga poses require a good level of strength, stability and flexibility and so it is important that you listen to your body when determining how often you practice. If your muscles feel a little sore or a certain Karma yoga pose feels uncomfortable, then don’t push yourself to practice.

Since you can do Karma yoga in daily life, practicing it everyday is certainly possible. In fact, the goal of Karma yoga is arguably to become so used to acting selflessly that you do it everyday without thinking twice about it. However, the physical side of the practice should certainly be taken at a slower pace. 

It is also a good idea to complement your Karma duties with other forms of yoga such as rocket yoga, which is a much more physically demanding practice. It is beneficial to have a balance of different forms of yoga in order to reap the full benefits of each one! 

Does Karma Yoga Mean I’m Not Allowed to Think About Myself?  

The short answer is, no!  

There is a common misconception that to practice Karma yoga correctly, you cannot think about yourself and your own needs. There are times where you will need to think for yourself, such as what you want to have for breakfast, what clothes you’re going to wear, how you’ll get to work. These are things we all have to consider on a daily basis.  

As we’ve covered previously, when we define Karma yoga, it means to selflessly provide your services for the benefit of others. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of thinking about yourself. 

It is important to not neglect your own personal roles and responsibilities because you are thinking about others! This is why you should incorporate Karma yoga slowly into your life, so that you can learn how to integrate it into your current lifestyle. 

What kind of duties will I be doing?  

The type of duties that you will do as part of Karma yoga depends on your current set of skills. For example, if you are an active individual, you might be asked to complete tasks that are more physically demanding, such as building things or cleaning. 

On the other hand, you may be more suited to doing less physical tasks, such as administrative tasks or simply talking to someone. 

In short, there is no set list of Karma yoga duties. Karma yoga should be seen more as a way of life, rather than a strict set of duties.

Before you go!

From its history and religious origins to how to do it and its benefits, we hope that you now have all you need to know about Karma yoga.

So, what are you waiting for? There’s no better time than now to start your Karma yoga journey!  

Feeling inspired to start a career in health and fitness? Taking a personal training course with OriGym is the perfect way to break into the industry. Enquire today, or download our free prospectus to browse the full range of courses.  

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705674/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/097168581001500207

Written by Emily Evans

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Emily studied English Language and Literature at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 2021 with a 2:1 BA honours degree. Alongside her degree, she also gained experience in student publication as Forge Press’ Lifestyle Editor and Deputy Editor for Post-Production. This is where her love for content writing stemmed from, which also led her to OriGym. Outside of her work, Emily will either be found on a long hike, at the gym or making a mess trying new healthy recipes in her kitchen!

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