We joke about it so much that it’s become a cliché, but have you ever stopped to think about what karma really means? Derived from the Sanskrit term for “action,” karma is understood by both Hindu and Buddhist traditions to be the sum of a person’s deeds in past, present and future states of existence. Put simply, whether you have good luck or bad, everything that ever happens to you is a direct result of what you did in the past.

Although this may seem a little "out there," karma is not about retribution or punishment. There is no cosmic gold medal for good behavior, and the universe won’t smite you down if you act up. Karma is meant to be a natural progression, the simple result of an action.

(More on The Truth About Karma and How to Handle It.)

Karma is also considered to be a path of yoga. Alongside Jnana (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion) and Raja (meditation), Karma yoga is one of the four classical schools of yoga that aim to guide yogis to self-realization. Here I’ll delve deeper into Karma yoga, explaining the philosophy of the practice, its origins and some guidance on if it's the right path for you.

About Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is known as the yoga of action – selfless action, to be precise. In order to practice Karma yoga, you must simply offer selfless service to others from the heart, with full attention and awareness. This may sound easy, but for us mere mortals, there is a tricky catch. When doing things for others, we get all too easily caught up in expectations of the outcome, often inadvertently expecting something in return. Karma yoga doesn’t work like that. To truly practice Karma yoga, you must act with no expectations and serve without thinking of the results. Give it a go; you may find it harder than you first thought.

Origins of Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is an ancient concept first outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, an allegoric narrative estimated to date back to somewhere between the 5th and 2nd centuries B.C.E. The Bhagavad Gita offers several approaches to liberation from suffering, self-realization and connection with the Divine, of which Karma yoga is arguably the most practical. The text illustrates that whilst action is superior to inaction, attachment to the fruits of your labor brings suffering.

This is the subtle difference between Karma yoga and simply behaving well: we must be honest with ourselves about our motives for doing good. No one is exempt from action. Yet, if we choose to surrender our attachment to the results of what we do, we might find ourselves becoming a little less selfish in the process.

(More on The Practice of Surrender.)

A teacher once shared a cheeky analogy for understanding the difference between Karma yoga and virtuous action based on expectation: whilst many people do not sin because they believe God is watching, in yoga we are one with God. In other words, we always know our actions and should behave accordingly!

Practicing Karma Yoga

To Karma yogis, selfless action is a form of prayer. Weaving Karma yoga into your life is believed to remove ego, making it easier to merge with the Divine. Some teachings even suggest mantra chanting while practicing Karma yoga in order to purify the mind and develop a selfless mindset.

With the right attitude, even the most mundane of actions can become part of your spiritual path. And regardless of whether or not you end up with the hope that something good will boomerang back to you, simply becoming aware of the thought process behind your behaviors is a huge leap in the right direction.

Calling All Karma Yogis

You may already be practicing Karma yoga without even knowing it. Perhaps you look out for your elderly neighbor, go grocery shopping for your parents, volunteer at a homeless shelter or serve tea and coffee at church. If you give without the expectation of return, you are well on your way to becoming a Karma yogi.

If you feel a strong sense that the universe is one, united entity, Karma yoga might just be the right path for you. You can give it a try by starting small, perhaps devoting your entire awareness to the motive behind the next errand you run.

Though it may take a little practice, Karma yoga is thought to be the most effective way to aid spiritual development. Over time, selfless service to others slowly dissolves the sense of separateness from others.

Karma and the Cosmos

Surrendering attachment to the outcome of your actions isn’t easy – we simply aren’t wired to do so. It is human nature to desire. But rest assured that every step you take toward selfless action will guide you to a deeper understanding of the principles of Karma yoga, and of your place in the vast cosmos of life.

(Continue reading in The Freedom in Letting Go.)