In order to maintain our body, we take in food and eliminate it. In the same way, the things we absorb through the mind or inner life must also undergo a process of elimination. Does the food we eat come out the same way as it goes in? No. It comes out in the form of toxic waist, which has not been properly absorbed by the system. In a similar manner, we have to eliminate the negative aspects of our actions in life. This occurs through the practice of karma yoga, which activates the dynamic principles and aspects of the personality.

Karma yoga is an ongoing process. It is not a separate yoga that one can learn. It is the yoga of becoming aware; that is all. Karma yoga is necessary for everybody, because throughout life we perform karmas, actions and deeds, and this works strongly on the psyche also. These karmas influence our mind and the different areas of our perception and existence, and by coming to a deeper understanding of them through karma yoga, we can restructure our entire life and personality.

What is karma?
“Through karma one can change one’s destiny. In other words, through the proper performance of actions one can change one’s destiny. Through the harmonious expression of action it is possible to transform the quality of one’s nature.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati)

The Sanskrit word karma is literally translated as ‘action’, which is something everyone in this world performs, whether consciously or unconsciously. When the word ‘yoga’ is added, it means that karma yoga is any action performed with meditative awareness. So karma yoga is actually the yoga of dynamic meditation. The process of interaction in life happens through the aspect of karma. Harmony in action is karma yoga.

The concept of karma is that of cause and effect, and the ‘doer’. Three principles are involved here: karma the doer or individual, karma the action, and karma, the cause. The relationship between cause, effect and the doer is known as ‘karma’. When you look at karma with yogic vision it means having an understanding or realisation of these three principles.

Karma can mean many things. Every aspect of creation is governed by the law of karma, which is the basic pattern of one’s individuality, and of the knowledge that one experiences in life. It is also action performed by the intellect, the thoughts and the senses in order to enjoy the fruits of the material world. This relates to our desires, ambitions, circumstances, roles and other related items.

As we go through life our karma becomes an integral part of our nature, because karma is also an action of the non-manifest dimension. Karma is the primal seed of our desire, which guides our destiny, thought, action and behaviour. This has to be understood in relation to the ego, which is continually and perpetually seeking self-satisfaction and enjoyment, and becoming very disturbed when its expectations are not fulfilled.

Karma yoga and its aim
“Karma yoga is method by which we gain immunity from the cause and effect of our actions. Immunity from the causes and effects of our actions is the actual definition of karma yoga.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati)

Karma yoga is one of the main aspects of yoga described in the yogic tradition as a fundamental and essential part of yogic discipline. It is, in fact, a vital tool towards understanding the state of perfection of the entire integrated personality. This is the aim of karma yoga—harmonising the actions of the self in order to attain union with the higher self. When karma yoga is looked upon as a meditation it then becomes a process of awareness, concentrated action and the attainment of a one-pointed mind. Dissipation of energies and consciousness is controlled by karma yoga, which eventually brings about a state of purity and transcendence.

Karma yoga can be described as the true psychological aspect of yoga because in this process we have to become aware of the subtle areas of our personality. This dynamic aspect of meditation (which karma yoga is) involves the awakening of our latent mental faculties, as well as new dimensions of awareness hitherto unrealised by the yoga practitioner. By the practice of karma yoga we go through a state of transformation and eventually break down the old conditionings, which becomes the means of attaining balance and peace of mind. According to Swami Satyananda, “Without the help of karma yoga, the yoga aspirant cannot move a centimetre along the spiritual path.”

Karma yoga and the mind
“In karma yoga we try to awaken the strength of our mind so that it can handle different situations with joy and happiness, not, as is the general case, with frustration and anxiety. It is a method by which we change our mental attitude in relation to our desires and actions.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati)

Karma yoga is a way of cleaning the mind, because in this yoga the mind has to face many situations it has not had to tackle before. In the process of karma yoga we have to confront all the affairs and challenges of life head-on. Our body, mind and emotions are in demand and we have to interact with all types of personalities, and perform tasks that may not be to the natural inclinations of our mind and personality. Besides, our mind is so changeable and inconstant, and we are completely in its control. Now it influences us this way, now that, and we do not have clarity of thought, not to speak of action. Through karma yoga it becomes possible for us to take over the controls, see clearly and act appropriately and creatively.

Most of us will be aware of how the mind tosses us about from day to day like a paper boat on the high seas. Sometimes we are full of passion, doubt, remorse or guilt. Our moods swing erratically and lead us into all kinds of trouble. We react negatively and are influenced and perplexed by the situations around us. Sometimes we are arrogant, proud, boastful, and sometimes we are just idiotic. Sometimes the demon of anger overtakes us and at other times we behave with calm rationality. The universal nature of man, with all its hidden turmoil and conflicts, can be understood and harmonised only through karma yoga, where we confront the content of our mind and personality. Through the process of karma yoga it is possible for the mind to achieve absolute tranquillity within and without, and we can be at peace with ourselves and with everybody else. So, we should try to grasp the important role of karma yoga in our lives, because it can be practised throughout the normal working day in all circumstances.

As we can see, karma yoga plays a vital role in the sublimation (not suppression) of the mind. The idea is actually to eventually free the mind from the limitations of time and space in which it is trapped, so that we can merge with the super-consciousness mind, which is the ultimate aim and purpose of all the so-called ‘different’ types of yoga. In order for this to take place, one has, while performing any action, to develop the attitude of a mere observer, witness or seer—drastha in Sanskrit—even during the most menial tasks. In this way, the personal ego factor will come into play less and less, and as a consequence, so will our reactions and resultant conflicts. By developing the witness attitude, experiences will eventually cease to have any effect on the mind at all. We will then stop becoming a victim of each and everything that is happening around us. Furthermore, if we are able to always observe your actions, good or bad, without involving the ego, we can begin to understand the principles of cause and effect and overcome the duality of mind.

Many people undergo great conflict and confusion when they come to the practice of karma yoga. They feel they can never submit to anyone’s will telling them what to do, especially in an ashram or a yoga centre--and for no remuneration! People cannot accept the idea of doing work without the expectation of a reward! This is because they do not understand the beauty and greatness of karma yoga, the profound science behind it. The reality is that we are not actually submitting to anybody’s will. Rather, we are submitting to our own whims by not wanting to do a particular work. There are things we like to do and so many other things we do not. The mind will always complain about certain tasks and play its games. It is during these times that we must watch the mind very carefully. What we want is to develop a transcendental state of mind, and this state of mind eventually transforms each and every action into harmony and bliss.

Selfless action
A yogi performs actions through body, mind and speech with the attitude of non-attachment for the purpose of self-purification. The concept of action here belongs to the whole personality, gross and subtle. In the process of karma yoga the idea is to change one’s attitude towards the actions performed. The self-satisfaction attitude must become the unselfish attitude. We are attached to our actions and now we must become non-attached. Previously, we expected a result from everything we did, and now we must have no expectation. Instead of doing things with ego, we now perform actions with the intention of helping others. Everything actually remains the same as it was before; it is only the attitude of mind or the intent behind the action that changes.

Karma yoga brings about a change in behaviour, attitude and expression. Any action performed with clarity of mind and emotional balance is karma yoga. Our total personality is performing actions all the time, and ninety-nine point nine percent of these actions are done for the fulfilment of a personal desire, and for our own satisfaction. Karma yoga involves action performed with selflessness. Even one working to support a family, should have an attitude of selflessness if they want a different form of understanding, a deeper understanding of the mind, and a better quality of life, while developing our creative abilities and faculties.

In karma yoga you should remain focussed and observe the inner process along with the outer action. Do not allow yourself to be disturbed by the inner weakness that manifest in the personality, or the reactions of others with whom you are interacting. Try not to become caught in the pull of like and dislike of the mind, but continue to have equilibrium, and hold the idea of attaining self-purification always before you, no matter what kind of karma you are performing. This will give you the ability to observe your own nature, and guide it into transforming itself into pure awareness. If you can do that, and learn how to identify with yourself, not the external situations, you will definitely find joy and happiness and a sense of inner peace.