I first learned about karma yoga in my 200 hour yoga teacher training outside Bangalore, India at Shrimath Yoga.
Every day, the yoga students walked along the dirt road in the heat of the Indian summer to the village school.
The school wasn’t much more than a room with a porch and an adjacent dirt play yard with a couple trees surrounded by a stucco wall.
For an hour, we interacted with the students, most of whom were elementary school-aged.
We played games as a big group, and broke into smaller, more intimate groups.
The kids loved it when we taught them Western games!
Rock, paper, scissors was a big hit in the small group time. My group loved when I drew pictures for them, and helped them with spelling and naming words.
In turn, they helped me realize how much of my Western, materialistic, privileged upbringing I took for granted.
What is Karma Yoga?
My teacher taught us that karma yoga is “to experience union in the field of action or day-to-day life.”
The law of karma (action) teaches that every action will produce a result.
Action gives rise to emotions, which are energies in motion.
The results of an action can be:
- good – exceeds expectations
- neutral – meets expectations
- bad – below expectations, triggering negative emotions, which are attributed to the circumstances
The solution is to focus on the process to optimize the results of our actions.
It’s ok to fail.
It’s ok to have expectations.
We are free to have expectations, but we are not free to bully ourselves.
We are just a speck in the scheme of things, my teacher said. And, expectations need not be fulfilled 24/7.
Our scope is only to do the best we can do, and leave the result to the divine/God/the universe.
Ultimately, we are not in charge of the results of our actions.
God/the universe/the divine is.
He/she/it/they is/are in charge of dispensing the fruits of our actions.
Karma is impartial.
Karma is objective.
It’s not trying to get us, or do us in.
Nor, is it beneficent and trying to help us.
It just is.
Sometimes our actions produce desirable results. Other times they don’t.
My teacher urged us to take the results of our actions as a sacrament.
The results of our actions help us to develop prasada buddhi, calm and collected intellect.
The objective of karma yoga is to develop prasada buddhi…this calm and collected intellect…this acceptance of what is…this ability to perceive what is, as it is.
My teacher explained that prasada means accepting the results of karma (action) in the same way that a Christian accepts Holy Communion without asking the priest for a fresher wafer.
Both are sacraments: the results of our actions and the wafer of Holy Communion that represents and is transformed into the body of Christ.
In both situations, we get what we get.
How I Practice Karma Yoga
Every week I volunteer at Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship. It is an amazing space dedicated to giving horsemanship lessons to individuals with physical and mental disabilities.
These can be ground lessons with basic horsemanship skills like grooming, bathing, walking on a lead, horse confirmation, breed information, etc.
These are also lessons under saddle in which riders are assisted to varying degrees. Some riders can ride independently. Others need side walkers and horse leaders who lead the horse on a lead rope.
We do different activities and patterns from all kinds of horse disciplines in the lessons under saddle.
It’s really amazing. The instructors and volunteers work with students of all abilities to do what they can and facilitate positive interactions amongst people and the horses.
I love the work there, because I am a happy bee just grooming a horse’s mane and tail. I get to ride most weeks too, which is a huge bonus!!
The best part is the community. Students, teachers, and volunteers are very kind, compassionate, playful, and safety and service-oriented.
The students are so strong and inspiring.
They remind me that no matter how challenging I think my life is, there is so much I take for granted being in a healthy, able body.
My life experience could be so much harder.
There are so many people struggling with things I cannot even imagine, based on my privileged experience as an able-bodied person.
I get a fantastic reality check and shift in perspective every time I go there.
And that, my friends, is the point of karma yoga.
Karma yoga helps me to rise to a level of service and realize that I do have a lot to give and a lot to be grateful for.
I find myself appreciate the very most basic things–like walking, seeing, hearing, clear speech, having enough to eat and access to healthy food, having clean clothes to wear, having a stable place to call home, having transportation, etc.–instead of taking them for granted.
They are all great gifts.
Each breath is a great gift.
The practice of yoga off the mat is just as important–if not more important–than the practice of yoga on the mat.