When we serve others without the expectation of merit, we practice karma yoga, or the yoga of selfless action. The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “to do.” India’s ancient Bhagavad Gita describes karma yoga as one of the four paths of realization. The other routes to enlightenment are through meditation, devotion (bhakti), and knowledge (jnana).
Ironically, though we shouldn’t seek reward for selflessly giving; the observance of karma yoga can bear enormous gratification. Additionally, it can be a firm and humbling teacher. Likewise, it’s a path we can all observe in our daily lives. Starting today…
On the most rudimentary level, all it takes is refining our normal interactions with the world around us through the conscious, gradual addition of small, positive gestures. These actions can be as simple as holding a door open for a stranger, giving up your seat on the train to someone in need, or really making the effort to remain calm in the potentially stressful return back from the holidays and not take frustration out on those around us. The more we repeat these tiny, mindful actions, the more second nature they become. Over time, we might entirely overhaul how we deal with the world around us for the better and inspire positive action in others.
Regular volunteering is another way to observe karma yoga. In my personal experience, few things have been as perspective granting, priority shifting, and energy boosting as giving my time to others. As the New Year is here, find organizations in your community where you can volunteer your services. Can you serve food weekly at a homeless shelter? Or, help out once a month at a senior center or local library? Maybe you’re even inspired to become a community EMT! There are so many ways to give and countless nonprofit organizations in need of devoted volunteers.
So, how can karma yoga be humbling? More often than not, when we give of ourselves the action is acknowledged and appreciated. This is not always the case, however. If we are really observing karma yoga, we should not expect a receipt of gratitude, nor be affected when one doesn’t occur. If, for example, we hold a door open and the action goes unappreciated, we shouldn’t be critical or disappointed. There might be times when, out of the kindness of our hearts, we give in far larger ways and don’t receive the desired response. Please don’t fret. Remember that you gave to give and not receive. By doing so, and really placing the ego aside, much more will actually be gained in due time.
Yoga brings stability and calm into every discipline of Sophie Herbert's life. She is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student) and a Whole Living contributing editor. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art, where she nurtured her passion for documentary photography. It was during this time that she began her disciplined and diverse study of yoga in New York, Paris, and India.
Sophie has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India. She feels grateful to still visit and work regularly with the Deenabandhu Children's Home in Chamarajanagar, Karnataka. In November of 2010, she became an ambassador for Yoga Gives Back www.yogagivesback.org, a grass-roots nonprofit that helps destitute women and girls in India build more sustainable lives. Sophie has also shared her knowledge of yoga at the Prana Yoga Center in Astana, Kazakhstan. Currently, she teaches at the Park Slope Yoga Center www.parkslopeyoga.com in Brooklyn and privately. Sophie is also an avid cook.