All major religious traditions stress the importance of service to others: being a companion to the sick and dying, cooking hot meals for the hungry, collecting warm clothes for the poor and so on. In yoga, service is also a path to self-realization and leads to the adage “when you give, you also receive”. Karma yoga is usually translated as “the yoga of action”—that is, using the ordinary actions of your life as a means of “waking up.” Essentially, everything you do becomes a way of nourishing the universe that nourishes you. Yoga enables our awareness and compassion to grow, making us more alert to suffering around us and less able to turn away from it. The pain of others becomes our own and we feel driven to relieve it, much as we’d instinctively act to end pain in our own body or heart.
Serve the Soul
Ordinary volunteering is often performed, despite the volunteer’s altruistic cover story, to fulfill the ego’s needs: to alleviate guilt, seek praise or respect, prove our power to “save” people, and so on. Inherently, it centres on unequal relationships—pulling someone up from the depths or fixing them in some way. We all want to fix because it gives us a sense of control over something we have no control over but we can’t eliminate all suffering. It’s a Hindu and Buddhist idea that there will always be immense suffering in the world. All we can do is offer kindness.
Although karma yoga is associated with selfless service, we need to ensure we don’t meet the “shadow of service” though and neglect our families or our own needs, become dispirited and cynical about the world’s condition and let our compassion dry up. It also means that because we aren’t perfect we’re going to screw up sometimes and do harm instead of good but remember there is still growth in screwing up. We have to learn from our mistakes. We can make things easier on ourselves by remembering you can’t save the world and use common sense as to how much we can give. Scale doesn’t matter. Keep in mind that lovingkindness—acting with heartfelt concern toward others—is part of karma yoga too. You can only give what you have time for without jeopardizing your family, your work, and your own inner balance. If one afternoon a month is all you can manage, that’s just fine. Be brave, start small, use what you’ve got, do something you enjoy, and don’t overcommit.
You need to combine karma yoga with contemplative practices such as asana and meditation to ensure you don’t suffer from “compassion fatigue” when you work so hard at caring you empty your energy tank and the caring stops. Balance is a messy business. The key is to listen to the rhythm inside us, which yoga practice helps us do. You can be enormously engaged at one point or need to go inside and take care of yourself at another and sometimes balance both.