Karma Yoga: Definition, Principles & Benefits

Here’s the thing: The world would be a better place if we all practiced more Karma Yoga.

But what exactly is Karma Yoga and how can its principles benefit us?

What is Karma Yoga?

To answer the question how Karma Yoga can change your life, let’s first take a quick look at the definition of yoga.

Yoga is the science of uniting the mind, body and soul. It’s about each individual being part of a universal consciousness.

There are four main paths of Yoga in spiritual practices of Hinduism:
Bhakti Yoga (Path of Devotion), Jnana Yoga (Path of Knowledge), Raja Yoga (Path of Discipline), and Karma Yoga (Path of Action).

Karma Yogis practice unselfish action as a form of prayer. They act according to dharma (regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order), without expecting to gain anything from it.

While other forms of yoga focus on self-development and self-realization (typically with isolation and meditative introspection), Karma Yoga is about dedication to meaningful connections and selfless devotion with a pure motive.

do dharma good karma

When we truly unite with our karma, we eliminate egoism, hatred and jealousy from our hearts and replace it with love, joy and compassion.

What are the Principles of Karma Yoga?

The Law of Karma is one of the fundamental doctrines not only in Hinduism, but also in Buddhism and in Jainism.

Karma Yoga in Hinduism

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the primary holy scripture for Hindus,

“Karma Yoga is the selfless devotion of all inner as well as the outer activities as a Sacrifice to the Lord of all works, offered to the eternal as Master of all the soul’s energies and austerities.”

This can be based on several principles:

Principals of Karma Yoga

Principles of Karma Yoga
  • Have the Right Attitude: What you do is not important – it’s about how you do it. Work is worship.

  • Separate Motive from Action: Motives require attachment in some form and attachments stem from desires, which are rooted in our egos. Let go of your ego! Realizing and understanding the danger that ego-driven decisions pose is a helpful step on your way to overcoming it.
  • Do your Duty (Swadharma): We all have duties in life. Some are given to us (duties as a citizen of society, a child, a sibling etc.), others we have chosen (duties as a partner, friend, employee etc.). Do your duty with enthusiasm and attention.

  • Serve Yourself: The most important duty we have is the one towards ourselves. Only once we have taken care of our own well-being, we can help those around us.

  • Do Your Best: Whatever you do, do your best. The Law of Karma states that everything you do today is reflected in the future. Loving the work you do prepares a firm foundation for tomorrow (agami karma).

  • Forget About Results: Work for the work’s sake and forget about the results. Devote yourself to the action – the journey is the goal.

  • Respect the Consequences: Step back, observe and accept consequences as they come. Respecting the consequences of a result and again doing karma with the same enthusiasm means respecting God’s offerings to Karma Yogis.

  • Follow the Discipline of the Job: Every job requires different levels of time, energy, patience, concentration and experience. Learn us much as you can.

In a nutshell: The essence of Karma Yoga is that you should wish to live in the service of God and as an upholder of Dharma.

If you follow the principles of Karma Yoga, you take full responsibility for your life and actions and accept whatever consequences that may arise from them. This will give you the freedom to live your life according to your own will or vision.

What are Benefits of Karma Yoga?

woman doing yoga poses

Practicing Karma Yoga benefits us all and – like mentioned above – could make the world a better place.

“There is no loss of effort here, there is no harm. Even a little of this service delivers one from great fear.”

Gita: Chapter II-40.

Benefits of Karma Yoga

benefits of Karma Yoga
  • New skills: By doing your best, you will quickly learn new skills and become better at what you do. There is no loss in devoting yourself to a task.

  • Activeness: Being alive means being active. Activeness is the key to self-development. You alone can decide how those actions will affect your present and future.

  • Achievement of Goals: Practicing Karma Yoga will help you achieve your goals – professionally and personally. Think about it: Loving the work you do and giving it your all will prove your ambition to your employer, colleagues or partners. Doing the same with your duties in your personal life will strengthen your relationships.

  • Calmness: As your mind becomes more flexible, you will be more tolerant and calm, eliminate prejudices, broaden your outlook on life and spiritualize your activities.

  • Joy: Removing selfishness and achieving purification of the heart leads to experiencing unity and joy. This positive thinking will help your personality to grow, which in turn allows you to practice Karma Yoga with enthusiasm and energy.

  • Positive Energy: What goes around comes around..

How to Practice Karma Yoga

In case the principles of Karma Yoga still feel a bit abstract to you, don’t worry. There are a couple of easy things that you can do to include Karma Yoga in your life.

Self-Care

women yoga class

If you want to change the world, start at home.

We know now that the goal with all kinds of actions is to stay detached. This can be mastered through a daily yoga routine. Mindfully embracing certain poses (Asanas) allows us to feel the deeper aspects of yoga.

Jnana Yoga (Path of Knowledge) is helpful here, as the practice of each yoga pose will communicate different feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc., and Karma Yogis should be able to connect to these.

Yoga that is practiced on the mat with awareness and knowledge will benefit when practiced off the mat, and therefore encourages the practice of good Karma Yoga.

Meditation in Action

Meditation in Action

A lot of people think that proper meditation is done sitting down somewhere on the floor in the corner of a room. And afterwards, when you’re enlightened, you get up and go out and live your life.

However, Karma Yoga is about taking the things you do on a daily basis and doing them from a meditative perspective. For example: Don’t do the dishes and think about your plans for the rest of the day. Do and the dishes and immerse into just that. Quiet your mind and be in the moment. That’s meditation.

Appreciation

appreciation for nature

Take the mindfulness you get from your Asanas and meditation practice out into the world.

Be aware of the resources that you use in your daily life and where they come from. Respect nature and all living beings.

Read: How to Save Trees

Express gratitude to those around you.

Contribution

charity work

Doing charity work is the classic action associated with this path of yoga and Karma Yogis often volunteer for a good cause.

But you don’t have to spend giant amounts of money or time in order to be a good Karma Yogi. It’s all about turning your daily life activities into offerings.

Help an old lady cross the street without expecting to gain anything from it. Share your knowledge with someone who needs it. Be there for a friend that needs somebody to talk to and don’t let them say they owe you.

Positive Attitude

positive attitude

A positive attitude is contagious.

Don’t let other people’s bad mood bring you down – cheer them up instead! A smile can make someone else’s day.

Karma yogis believe that serving the society with pure intentions takes you a step closer to divinity.

What are the Laws of Karma?

Whether you are a believer in Hinduism, Buddhism, or no religion at all, understanding the laws of Karma and following its guidelines will help you become more mindful of your thoughts and actions, and create good Karma in your life.

There are 12 universal laws of Karma.

Benefits of Karma Yoga

12 Laws of Karma

  1. The Great Law
    Also known as the Law of Cause & Effect, the Great Law is what most people associate with Karma: As you sow, so shall you reap. If you want love and happiness, be loving and spread happiness. Put out into the world what you would like to get back.
  2. The Law of Creation
    The Law of Creation is all about – yep, you guessed it – creation. Life happens only with our participation. Make use of your talents and create, for yourself and others.
  3. The Law of Humility
    „Refusal to accept what is will still be what is“. In order to change something, you must first accept it.
  4. The Law of Growth
    The fourth law is all about personal development. Again, if you want to change the world, you need to start at home – growth begins within ourselves.
  5. The Law of Responsibility
    Don’t look outward to find the cause of your problems. You are the result of the choices you have made.
  6. The Law of Connection
    Everything in your life is connected, including your past, present and future. Or as Einstein said: “The ancestor to every action is a thought”.
  7. The Law of Focus
    “One cannot direct attention beyond a single task”. While you might think of yourself as a multitasker, this law encourages us to focus on one thing at a time. That way, we get better results. For example, if we only concentrate on growing spiritually, there is no room for anger and frustration.
  8. The Law of Giving & Hospitality
    Practice what you preach! If you believe in something, act accordingly. This law is about selfless actions reflecting your deeper beliefs.
  9. The Law of Here & Now
    Let go of the past and embrace the present. Looking back is not going to change anything. In fact, it prevents you from creating new dreams and experiences.
  10. The Law of Change
    This law states that history repeats itself until you stop the cycle, by changing your path.
  11. The Law of Patience & Reward
    Achieving great things takes time. We need to remind ourselves that rewards are claimed only through patience and persistence. So even if it doesn’t look like you’re making progress right now, don’t give up – hard work pays off.
  12. The Law of Significance & Inspiration
    Every contribution you make to the world will make a difference. Even if it seems meaningless to you at times, whatever you share can be of great meaning and inspiration to somebody else!

Bhagavad Gita on Karma

As already mentioned, the Bhagavad Gita is the primary holy scripture in Hinduism. Often referred to as the Gita, it is part of the epic Mahabharata, which describes the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kuru-kshetra.

Read more: Understanding the Bhagavad Gita: A guide for modern readers

The Gita basically describes a dialogue between the Hindu deity Krishna and his disciple Arjuna, who has a moral dilemma about the violence and death the war (against his own kin) will cause. As a response, Lord Krishna emphasizes the importance of karma in life.

Read the chapter below:

Arjuna said: O Janardana, O Kesava, why do You urge me to engage in this ghastly warfare, if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?

Chapter 3, Verse 1

My intelligence is bewildered by Your equivocal instructions. Therefore, please tell me decisively what is most beneficial for me.

Chapter 3, Verse 2

The Blessed Lord said: O sinless Arjuna, I have already explained that there are two classes of men who realize the Self. Some are inclined to understand Him by empirical, philosophical speculation, and others are inclined to know Him by devotional work.

Chapter 3, Verse 3

Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection.

Chapter 3, Verse 4

All men are forced to act helplessly according to the impulses born of the modes of material nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.

Chapter 3, Verse 5

One who restrains the senses and organs of action, but whose mind dwells on sense objects, certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.

Chapter 3, Verse 6

On the other hand, he who controls the senses by the mind and engages his active organs in works of devotion, without attachment, is by far superior.

Chapter 3, Verse 7

Perform your prescribed duty, for action is better than inaction. A man cannot even maintain his physical body without work.

Chapter 3, Verse 8

Work done as a sacrifice for Visnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.

Chapter 3, Verse 9

In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods, along with sacrifices for Visnu, and blessed them by saying, Be thou happy by this yajna [sacrifice] because its performance will bestow upon you all desirable things.

Chapter 3, Verse 10

The demigods, being pleased by sacrifices, will also please you; thus nourishing one another, there will reign general prosperity for all.

Chapter 3, Verse 11

In charge of the various necessities of life, the demigods, being satisfied by the performance of yajna [sacrifice], supply all necessities to man. But he who enjoys these gifts, without offering them to the demigods in return, is certainly a thief.

Chapter 3, Verse 12
offerings to the gods in Hinduism

The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.

Chapter 3, Verse 13

All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rain. Rains are produced by performance of yajna [sacrifice], and yajna is born of prescribed duties.

Chapter 3, Verse 14

Regulated activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas are directly manifested from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Consequently the all-pervading Transcendence is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice.

Chapter 3, Verse 15

My dear Arjuna, a man who does not follow this prescribed Vedic system of sacrifice certainly leads a life of sin, for a person delighting only in the senses lives in vain.

Chapter 3, Verse 16

One who is, however, taking pleasure in the self, who is illumined in the self, who rejoices in and is satisfied with the self only, fully satiated—for him there is no duty.

Chapter 3, Verse 17

A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.

Chapter 3, Verse 18

Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.

Chapter 3, Verse 19

Even kings like Janaka and others attained the perfectional stage by performance of prescribed duties. Therefore, just for the sake of educating the people in general, you should perform your work.

Chapter 3, Verse 20

Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.

Chapter 3, Verse 21

O son of Prtha, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I need to obtain anything—and yet I am engaged in work.

Chapter 3, Verse 22

For, if I did not engage in work, O Partha, certainly all men would follow My path.

Chapter 3, Verse 23

If I should cease to work, then all these worlds would be put to ruination. I would also be the cause of creating unwanted population, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all sentient beings.

Chapter 3, Verse 24

As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, similarly the learned may also act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path.

Chapter 3, Verse 25

Let not the wise disrupt the minds of the ignorant who are attached to fruitive action. They should not be encouraged to refrain from work, but to engage in work in the spirit of devotion.

Chapter 3, Verse 26
Hindu guru

The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.

Chapter 3, Verse 27

One who is in knowledge of the Absolute Truth, O mighty-armed, does not engage himself in the senses and sense gratification, knowing well the differences between work in devotion and work for fruitive results.

Chapter 3, Verse 28

Bewildered by the modes of material nature, the ignorant fully engage themselves in material activities and become attached. But the wise should not unsettle them, although these duties are inferior due to the performers’ lack of knowledge.

Chapter 3, Verse 29

Therefore, O Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me, with mind intent on Me, and without desire for gain and free from egoism and lethargy, fight.

Chapter 3, Verse 30

One who executes his duties according to My injunctions and who follows this teaching faithfully, without envy, becomes free from the bondage of fruitive actions.

Chapter 3, Verse 31

But those who, out of envy, disregard these teachings and do not practice them regularly, are to be considered bereft of all knowledge, befooled, and doomed to ignorance and bondage.

Chapter 3, Verse 32

Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows his nature. What can repression accomplish?

Chapter 3, Verse 33

Attraction and repulsion for sense objects are felt by embodied beings, but one should not fall under the control of senses and sense objects because they are stumbling blocks on the path of self-realization.

Chapter 3, Verse 34

It is far better to discharge one’s prescribed duties, even though they may be faulty, than another’s duties. Destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.

Chapter 3, Verse 35
Hindu monk

Arjuna said: O descendant of Vrsni, by what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force?

Chapter 3, Verse 36

The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.

Chapter 3, Verse 37

As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, or as the embryo is covered by the womb, similarly, the living entity is covered by different degrees of this lust.

Chapter 3, Verse 38

Thus, a man’s pure consciousness is covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire.

Chapter 3, Verse 39

The senses, the mind and the intelligence are the sitting places of this lust, which veils the real knowledge of the living entity and bewilders him.

Chapter 3, Verse 40

Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin [lust] by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization.

Chapter 3, Verse 41

The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence.

Chapter 3, Verse 42

Thus knowing oneself to be transcendental to material senses, mind and intelligence, one should control the lower self by the higher self and thus—by spiritual strength—conquer this insatiable enemy known as lust.

Chapter 3, Verse 43

In a nutshell, chapter 3 of the Gita teaches us that a true karma yogi controls their desires through wisdom and discipline and commits to selfless actions (sacrifices). This will allow them to “always remain unattached”.

Karma Yoga Quotes

Let’s get inspired and take a look at a couple of Karma Yoga quotes outside of the Bhagavad Gita.

“The very reason for nature’s existence is for the education of the soul.”

― Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga: the Yoga of Action

“Peace is the foundation of yoga. Karma yoga is the effort for bringing peace and happiness in the world.”

― Amit Ray, Yoga The Science of Well-Being

“It is a very hard thing to understand, but you will come to learn in time that nothing in the universe has power over you until you allow it to exercise such a power.”

― Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action

“Be kind, be loving, be generous. Give of yourself, give of your time and you’ll be free. It’s the oldest secret, the one that’s most often forgotten – and that is to have fun through giving.” ~

Frederick Lenz
buddha statue

“It is a weakness to think that any one is dependent on me, and that I can do good to another. This belief is the mother of all our attachment, and through this attachment comes all our pain. We must inform our minds that no one in this universe depends upon us; not one beggar depends on our charity; not one soul on our kindness; not one living thing on our help. All are helped on by nature, and will be so helped even though millions of us were not here. The course of nature will not stop for such as you and me; it is, as already pointed out, only a blessed privilege to you and to me that we are allowed, in the way of helping others, to educate ourselves. This is a great lesson to learn in life, and when we have learned it fully, we shall never be unhappy; we can go and mix without harm in society anywhere and everywhere.”

― Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action

“The purpose of karma yoga is to transcend the bondage of selfish genes through the service of others.”

― Amit Ray, Yoga The Science of Well-Being

Give up your selfishness, and you shall find peace; like water mingling with water, you shall merge in absorption.

― Sri Guru Granth Sahib

“When you do something for someone else, it’s for you. When you do something for yourself, it’s for someone else.”

― Frederick Lenz
buddha statue in the mountains

“It is the worker who is attached to results that grumbles about the nature of the duty which has fallen to his lot; to the unattached worker all duties are equally good, and form efficient instruments with which selfishness and sensuality may be killed, and the freedom of the soul secured. We are all apt to think too highly of ourselves. Our duties are determined by our deserts to a much larger extent than we are willing to grant. Competition rouses envy, and it kills the kindliness of the heart. To the grumbler all duties are distasteful; nothing will ever satisfy him, and his whole life is doomed to prove a failure. Let us work on, doing as we go whatever happens to be our duty, and being ever ready to put our shoulders to the wheel. Then surely shall we see the Light!”

 Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga

“The thing you know as Karma, does not really exist the way you think. It can only exist through the law of causality, which means, when you make efforts to achieve something, the results do indeed occur, given enough time, resources and above all, perseverance.”

― Abhijit Naskar, Lord is My Sheep: Gospel of Human

“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt”

― Frederick Buechner

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

― Anne Frank

Contrary to popular misconception, karma has nothing to do with punishment and reward. It exists as part of our holographic universe’s binary or dualistic operating system only to teach us responsibility for our creations-and all things we experience are our creations.

― Sol Luckman

Are you ready to follow the principles of Karma Yoga? And if you’ve been practicing Karma Yoga for a while already, what experiences have you made?

Let us know in the comment section below!

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