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Globalizing Karma Yoga!

July 19, 2009 by claire

ClaireGLightwaves editor Claire Gilmore has been living in her home town of Cumberland for the past 6 weeks.  She does the dishes, does some research, and exposes her passion for Karma Yoga as a mildly-stated manifesto.

It’s 12:30 am and I’m tidying up the house and doing the dishes. My sister and I are living together for the time being, in the house where we grew up – we just had a barbecue dinner with some of her friends, and they’ve gone out on the town embodying the blustery energy of a hurricane.

As I’m doing the dishes, I feel this strange absence… something has changed.  What’s missing? It’s the feeling of resentment I would have had in the past if I had perceived that I was ‘cleaning up after my sister and her friends,’ the careful weighing of who has done what lately, the mental score sheet, checking to make sure that we’re ‘even’ in our contribution to the household work.  It feels strangely empty – where are all the odious thoughts that would normally be taking up my mental space in this scenario?  There’s just space, and… peace.

I amuse myself, thinking that trickster Krishna has stolen my score card.  Another explanation comes in, though – Karma Yoga. What is Karma Yoga?  After having lived as a Karma Yogi for around a year in an Ashram where Karma Yoga is the primary practice, I feel like the truest explanation I have is to say that it has to be experienced to be understood.  The main idea is to act without being attached to the fruits of our actions, be they money, fame, approval, acceptance, even a feeling of having ‘done good.’  It sounds difficult and tends to be more difficult than it sounds. I discovered though, that with patience and practice, Karma Yoga paradoxically can bring an unexpected, different and subtly sweet kind of fruit.

When I first left the Ashram, I experienced a sort of culture shock.  I had become accustomed to a world whose very foundation is Karma Yoga, selfless service. People are giving, working, offering their energy and time and willingness out of devotion and commitment to their ideals.  I remember how strange that felt when I initially entered in – I was suspicious – ‘what’s this all about? what’s really going on here?’ I watched other people entering in with the same skepticism – natural, really, coming from a culture that, on the whole, holds tightly to a set of me-first, rugged-individual, ‘what-do-I-get-out-of-it?’ values.  After spending a year in the Ashram, a culture based on giving felt like the natural, truly human thing.  Why would it be otherwise?

I remember, years back, when I was first gaining a sort of political consciousness and world-view, coming across the idea of ‘gift economies’ in an anarchist propaganda newspaper. The article talked about economies based on giving, and gave examples, such as the tradition of potlatch among First Nations on the west coast. These economies were based on a perception of abundance, whereas our current exchange economy is based on a perception of scarcity.  We hold tightly to what we have, and only give if we are definitely going to receive something in return.

I recently did a bit of research on gift versus exchange economies, and came across the concept of ‘reciprocal altruism.’  According to Wikipedia: reciprocal altruism is a form of altruism in which one organism provides a benefit to another without expecting any immediate payment or compensation. However, reciprocal altruism is not unconditional. Firstly the act of altruism must give rise to a surplus of cooperation, in the sense that the gains to the beneficiary must be perceived to be meaningfully larger than the costs to the benefactor. Secondly the act of altruism should be reciprocated by the original beneficiary if the situation is later reversed. Failure to do so will usually cause the original benefactor to withdraw future acts of altruism.

It seems to me that Karma Yoga takes this one step further, and this was reflected back to me in my experience doing the dishes.  It was really interesting to watch my mind operating on autopilot as habitual thoughts came in… ‘well, this means my sister will have to pay me back by doing this or that…’  And then I noticed to my amazement that I genuinely didn’t care whether or not the ‘score’ was evened. On a deeper level, I was content to just do the work.  I was amazed and uplifted see what a positive change this is in me. It’s very subtle, but it feels very strong. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have built a foundation in the practice of Karma Yoga!

The article I read on gift economies was inspiring, but it fell short of offering a path to move from A (our current culture/economy of scarcity and exchange) to B ( a culture/economy of giving).  It’s clear to me from my own experience that Karma Yoga Brings contentment and other sweet fruits to the practitioner…  and I can’t help imagining what our world would look like if it was full of Karma Yogis and Yoginis.  Karma Yoga, the Yoga of action, looks to me like the bridge between the dream and the reality of a more just, compassionate, and joyful world. As a practice it has the power to transform us on a deep level, and could transform our world from the inside out.  It starts with us, just learning how to be less selfish, in our families, workplaces, communities, kitchens…

Swami Vivekananda says in his book on Karma Yoga:

“…we have to bear in mind that we are all debtors to the world, and the world does not owe us anything. It is a great privelege for all of us to be allowed to do anything for the world. In helping the world we really help ourselves.”

Share your experience of Karma Yoga! Are you an incognito Karma Yogi/ni? How have you experienced the practice, and what does it mean to you?


  1. this is so inspiring Claire. Clear, with a blend of the very specific along with a wider view. Makes me think about my own ‘score card’ and whether I give it too much attention.

    Comment by Faith Hayflich — July 21, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  2. Claire. Its was great reading this, and to see how connected you are staying with the teachings. See you soon. om om.
    Andrew B

    Comment by Andrew B — July 22, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  3. Thank you CLaire
    it is inspiring for me to know that we all are managing to bring the spirit of yoga to our everyday living
    Namaste my sister

    Comment by Jose — July 24, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  4. Karma Yogini Claire ki Jai!!!

    Comment by Anandrew — July 24, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  5. Reading this for the first time (April 2010)- it fits so well with what I need to attend to. Thanks for this reflection Claire. Thoughts about keeping score and having expectations of being recognized or rewarded for doing ordinary things always get me into a stew. Going to a positive place with the practice of Karma Yoga, is a good one for me. Energy follows thought.

    Comment by Judy Brooks — April 11, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

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