Why Karma Yoga Goes Beyond "Selfless Service"

Growing up in the U.S., I was raised to believe that the workweek was the heartbeat of American life. Morning commute, lunch break, rush hour, and overtime were terms I heard constantly, as if my family’s existence might very well disappear without the economy’s demands driving us. Somewhere along the way, work became synonymous with jobs, paychecks, five-year plans, and financial security; promotions and raises, power and control. It quickly lost its plainspoken meaning of activity and performing actions. Perhaps as a result of this, in Westernized yoga studios I have seen an uptick in karma yoga being conflated with the “free” work we do on the side, sometimes repackaged as selfless service or volunteerism.

But in order to understand karma yoga (the yoga of works) in the context of India’s yoga tradition and meaningfully apply it to our contemporary lives we must rethink the capitalist notion that work has to be defined by money. 

Spoiler: It doesn’t.

Defining Karma Yoga

While today’s yoga teacher trainings often define karma yoga as sevā (the Sikh practice of selfless service), complex meanings of karma have evolved over millennia. These range from causality (our actions are ruled by cause and effect) all the way to free will (none of our actions are the result of prior causes, events, or divine intervention). Karma’s more conventional definition is “action,” “work,” “motion.”

In the studio yoga world, the interpretation of karma yoga as a selfless act is also influenced by consequentialism, and typically goes something like: “Doing good deeds in the world will bring me good karma, and doing bad deeds in the world will bring me bad karma.” This misunderstanding sets the following false precedents:

  • That we are the doer, aka the one in control, performing “good” and “bad” deeds.

  • That our judgments on what is just and unjust accurately reflect the subjective nature of reality.

  • That our actions are inherently designed to bring us either punishment or reward. 

According to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā, the literal book on karma yoga, walking the path of karma yoga means we must disabuse ourselves of the false notion that we are 100 percent in control and know what’s best for us, the earth, and other people (I’ll explain this in more detail soon). 

By immersing ourselves in this sacred text, we come to learn that karma yoga is all about praxeology, or the nature of human action. Praxeology is based on the premise that our actions have a purpose—and the potential to recast not just our own conditions but also the systemic conditions of our entire planet. What is that purpose? The pure enjoyment of the actions themselves. And those actions are rooted in what we most value. 

The Self in Yoga

Perhaps equating karma yoga with selfless service, doing “good” deeds, and working for free is a well-meaning response to the structures of inequity and inequality inherent not just in the yoga and wellness industry but in our communities at large. However, “giving back” to those in society who continue to be exploited or marginalized by the very structures that have normalized the upper-income “whiteness” common to yoga studio and wellness culture is not karma yoga. Studio owners who ask their teachers to work for free under the guise of “karma yoga” are also missing the mark.

If we are practicing karma yoga from this vantage point, we are still assuming we know what’s best for others and have control over whether our well-intentioned actions may potentially harm them. Furthermore, if we are coming from a place of privilege, that does not mean we get to freely immerse ourselves in the struggles of others in order to spur our personal or “spiritual” transformation.

As we contemplate the role of karma yoga in our lives through the lens of the Gītā, we see that the path is all about performing works in accordance with dharma (the law of being or fundamental action) without attachment to their “fruit”—aka results. And the text’s extraordinary underlying message, as Kṛṣṇa spells out to Arjuna, is that the Self in all beings is the one who is actually in control: 

He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me, to him I do not get lost, nor does he get lost to Me.

The Yogi who has taken his stand upon oneness and loves Me in all beings, however, and in all ways he lives and acts, lives and acts in Me.

(Bhagavad Gītā VI.30–31) 

As you can see, this teaching hinges on the concept of a micro-macro connection in consciousness, of Self within and without, of universal oneness. According to the text, realizing the relationship between our inner self and the outer world is accomplished by naming our values and embodying them through our actions. And we can support this inner investigation by looking to the liberatory paths of jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge) and bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), which Kṛṣṇa wholly encourages synthesizing together with karma yoga. 

Enjoyment at the Core

By harmonizing our daily actions, we align with purpose rather than reward, and the path of karma yoga gradually becomes a way of life that can provide enjoyment.  

This is the reason you’d be hard-pressed to find iconography of Bhagavān Buddha without a smile on his face. Indian philosopher, sage, and enlightened yogi Sri Aurobindo translates bhaga as “enjoyer” or “enjoyment.” The word itself, he states, is an allusion to the ancient Vedic god Bhaga, “the godhead who brings this joy and supreme felicity into the human consciousness.” Both bhagavad/bhagavān mean “possessor of bhaga” and are used freely in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism texts as an epithet of great respect.

In essence, so long as you recognize and trust that your actions are in right relationship with what your inner self knows to be true, you are well on your way to embodying the enjoyment of karma yoga, even if you have yet to realize (like me) what the ultimate outcome (or fruits) of your actions will be.

The Power of Svadharma

Understanding the connection between our core values and the work we choose to pursue is now more important than ever, given the systemic conditions that have ruptured our society: racism, income inequality, inadequate education, disparities in health care and health outcomes, climate change… the list goes on. For many people, addressing these disparities is their true calling or life’s purpose, regardless of whether they get a big paycheck for their efforts. The Gītā recognizes this as svadharma (dharma of the self), or pursuing purposeful action in the world in accordance with each person’s unique nature and spiritual compass.

Better is one’s own law of works, svadharma, though in itself faulty, than an alien law well wrought out...

(Bhagavad Gītā III.35)

Ultimately, working to selflessly serve others, even when we have mastered yogic detachment, captures just one side of the coin, and can (again) be problematic, and potentially even reinforce systems of oppression. For example: In what ways do yoga programs for police officers and prisoners mask structural and racial systems of oppression? Where’s the “liberation” in this act of “service”?

By opening to our inner self, by continually pursuing work filled with purpose regardless of recipient or reward, we cease placing the cart before the proverbial Vedic horse and simply enjoy the effort put into our interconnected journeys. 

So while I can’t tell you what core values you should hold (nor should anyone for that matter!), what I can leave you with is this: When you survey the choices you are making, the big and small ways you are living your life, ask yourself whether they are an extension of your inner self and your true purpose, your svadharma. Do they accurately reflect the person you know yourself to be at heart? Or are you acting based on a problematic cultural drive to be “selfless.” By asking yourself what work truly needs your attention, you may be surprised to recall you’ve known the answer all along.

The path of karma yoga is not one of life negation, renunciation of action, and escape from the suffering-inducing cycles of karmic rebirth; it is a path of life affirmation, renunciation in action, and realization of enjoyment through the work we’re meant to perform. We can’t know how our actions will affect others, and we can’t presume to know what others need. But we can look within and know who we are, and where our core values are leading us.

So trust your compass, let your inner self determine the work to be done, and please, enjoy the ride!

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About the teacher

Alicia K. Gonzales writes about yoga, philosophy, and spiritual practice in South Asian traditions. She... Read more

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