What is Karma yoga? How do we practice it on our mat?

Jim Tarran


The subject of successful yoga practice has first to deal with what success actually means in yoga.

In football, success is scoring more goals than the other team without breaking the agreed rules, but it could also be; to keep fit, to honour your family name, to prove a point to someone or yourself and so on. In cookery success can mean; you have made food that a certain target audience enjoy, the food is nutritional, you have been creative with the available ingredients and more. In art success can mean; to fulfil a brief, sell a lot of your work, represent a form/feeling/idea, gain respect among your peers or to communicate the common views of a particular milieu. With yoga it could be as complex as in football, cookery or art to identify a universal goal or objective.  This is particularly true if we look at all the multiple forms and methods which have come under the umbrella term over the centuries. It’s perhaps even more true if we look at how much diversity of method and motive has proliferated, using the term yoga to describe itself, in the last 10-15 years. Some of our aspirations around yoga do not reflect yoga’s chief objectives and purpose but are driven by subconscious values that have overlaid these fundamental aims. Parental expectations, social aspirations, cultural priorities and peer group value systems all play a part, not just in what we perceive yoga to be but also therefore how we practice it on the mat. 

It is worth stating that the main drive of traditional yoga is presented like this: 

  • There is suffering, malaise or disease. 

  • There is a cause of that malaise. 

  • The cause is a lack of freedom driven by a sense that nothing that we ordinarily think of as mine is stable (nitya), independently chosen or an expression of true free-will.  

  • We are therefore, in a cycle of internal and external circumstances (Saṃsāra) that fling us up and down pretty much ad-hoc (although we commonly retroactively claim agency). 

  • There is a solution; this commonly revolves around either successfully manipulating, negating or transcending (so as to be beyond the reach of) these causal cycles. 

The causal cycle here is the law of karma or in its it’s more correct Sanskrit form karman. It’s this law of karma that keeps us tossed along the currents of a strong flowing river sinking, rising, caught here for a moment on a shallow beach or bashed about in the rapids. The Sanskrit verb ‘to act, to do, to make’ has as its root kri and it is the same root that we find in words you might have come across in the yoga world such as kriya as well as in karma. The fruits (phala) of action or the ripening (vipaka) of action can manifest inwardly - I lied so I feel awkward - or outwardly - I lied, now I am less trusted - or bothIt is the understanding of this, seemingly, inescapable law of karma that drives yoga’s principal aim - Freedom (mokṣa). 

Different traditions have approached this in various different ways. The Jain tradition and others by negating the law of karma through non-action; an attempt to literally cause no ripples in the karmic field. This is done through extreme precaution and through stasis. The origins of tree-pose (vṛkṣāsana) comes from this kind of philosophy. The pose was originally an austerity (tapas) that has a practitioner standing, often for years (12 is typical) on one leg, which both burns up old ‘negative karma’ (through the austerity) and further causes no future accumulation of karmic fruit because of the immobility of the stance and the inability to interact with the world.  The Buddhists and others approach are through ‘winning’ - good behaviour leads to good results and ‘transcendence’ - the Buddha is sometimes known as the ‘trackless’ one, meaning he leaves no imprint in the karmic field because he is no longer identifying with this causal chain.  

There is also the approach of the Bhagavad-gita and other so called puranic works which is to act for God (Kṛṣṇa) rather than for yourself so that you are an agent as it were for Him not you (as in the you that is simply an association with casual chains). All your actions are answerable to Him not you and are done for Him and this has a purifying affect rendering you karmically neutral. This is where the BG has strong parallels with Christianity which has Jesus taking our sins that we would be otherwise helpless to overcome. ‘God’ then stands for inner knowing, that which is not you in the sense of; your story, your past, your future, your gender and so on. It is the part of you which is not causal not part of conditioning and therefore not caught it’s inevitable cycles. 

It is from the BG that we mostly draw the term Karma-Yoga.

The term has been slightly misrepresented as doing something for free (you won’t be rewarded fiscally) so that you will therefore gain some ‘good karma’ from doing so. The presumption is that this ‘karma’ will come to fruition for you either internally or externally at some point in the future. This good karmic fruit might be as simple as just feeling good from having helped out. There are profound yogic implications in kindness as it points to your ultimate identity as being wider than your own local thoughts, feelings, emotions and physical sensations. In fact, it is this expansion to include All, and to thereby not fixate on one particular chosen field, that truly constitutes yogic Freedom. It is freedom from the personal continuum

The sāṃkhya tradition which has had a huge influence on the much of Indic philosophies including the BG negates this personal involvement very simply by advocating discernment (viveka) and in a sense, that is all that is required - Recognition.  

By recognising that thoughts, feelings, emotions and even the material universe are all in some sense non-personal, we let go, we relax and in so doing become available to serve the way things are. This is harmony in the truest sense. 

There is a teasing out, a prising apart of what the sāṃkhya describes as the puruṣa (essence nature) from the impersonal continuum which leaves both as winners. The eternal play of ‘nature’ or cause and effect which is various ratios of the elemental constituents known as the guṇas (rajas, tamas, satva) is not ignored, repressed or bought into because it’s not ours in an ultimate sense. This conduces to greater honesty, transparency and greater freedom to respond appropriately. This appropriate response will be inherently intelligent, joyful and loving because that is the nature of the puruṣa. 
On the mat therefore, this is ostensibly an exercise in surrender. 

Recognising that practicing for me is in a way an oxymoron because the me that we presume ourselves to be is made up of cross-confluent, mismatching, bits and bobs. Things that neither belong together nor can be held in union in any meaningful way are temporarily cobbled together like a Frankenstein’s monster that is permanently cusping on falling to bits. The best that operating from that sense of I can do is approximation and guesswork. Its very creation stands as a barrier to the emptiness that is required to be able to respond to the way the body-mind continuum actually is. 

This whole paradigm is known as action-less action also known as inaction in action (naishkarmya karman). 
Later the tantrik texts reframed this as the unity of knower, knowing and known which we can reformulate for our practice as the doer, the doing and what is done. 

It boils down to the supreme act of magic that a yogin performs which is a disappearing act where the practitioner disappears (layanam) into their practice and realises thereby their True Form (svarūpa). This is the essence of the third aphorism from the first part of the Patañjali Yoga Sūtra. “Then the seer abides in their own form”. Own form here standing for essence form. In other words, it’s when you give yourself away that you reappear as the unconditioned and permanent layer of experience that is often otherwise veiled. Action from this layer is action that truly knows and responds to the way things are that makes practice feel like a spontaneous (sahaja) dance. 

The final words here should be from Krishna in the BG “This world is bound by action except when this action is performed as a sacrifice (yajna)”