Our guru Swami Nirmalananda taught us a powerful mantra: Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu. “May all beings, everywhere, be happy and free. And may the thoughts and actions of my own life contribute, in some way, to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” In doing so, he encouraged us to perform actions that benefit all beings, human and non-human. This is the essence of Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga is selfless service. This practical method for reducing suffering in the world is the foundation of all yoga practice. When we are suffering from self-pity and loneliness, a surefire cure is to care more for others and the reduction of their suffering. When we shift our thoughts away from our own suffering, it diminishes.
Whatever yoga practice you undertake, make it Karma Yoga by devoting the fruits of your practice to God, as Patanjali suggests in the Yoga Sutras: Ishvara-pranidhand-va. Karma Yoga should not be confused with the law of karma, which is that every action causes infinite effects. The law of karma is the law of cause and effect. Karma Yoga, on the other hand, is a method for ensuring that the actions we take cause good karmic effects.
The law of karma is a universal doctrine, operating as surely as the law of gravity. You can observe it in the natural world, if you care to look. If you plant a seed in the ground, the karma of the seed is to grow. If you throw something up in the air, the karmic result is for it to come down.
Karma means action. It comes from the Sanskrit root kr, which means to act. It encompasses all movement, of the mind as well as the body. These movements can be conscious or unconscious; regardless, the karmic result is still ours.
The word karma is also used to refer to the accumulated results of past actions, present actions, and actions we will perform in the future. The karmas of the past, present, and future are of three types:
Sanchitta: This is accumulated past actions or karmas waiting to come to fruition. Sanchitta is the storehouse of every action you have ever done, in all the lifetimes you have ever lived. These are all of the unresolved past actions waiting to reach resolution.
Parabda: This is the present action: what you are doing now, in this lifetime and its result. You have taken from the storehouse, sanchitta karma, a certain amount of unresolved desires and ambition, and will try to ‘work them out’ in your present lifetime.
Agami: Future actions that result from your present actions are called agami karma. As you attempt to resolve past karma, you unavoidably create new karmas that you may or may not be able to resolve in your present life. If you don’t resolve them now, they will go into the storehouse to be resolved in a future life.
Every action creates a groove in the subtle atmosphere called a samskara. Samskaras represent your unfulfilled desires and ambitions, etched onto your soul by your actions. These must be fulfilled at some time, in this life or in another.
All karma results from ignorance of the true Self. Let’s say you smoke a cigarette for the first time. You want to know what it tastes like, so you take a puff. You like it and say, “Oh, I’ll take another,” and soon you are tied to the cigarette. What is fascinating is that it is not the cigarette that makes you feel good; it is the fact that as you take a puff, you have no other desire for that moment. In that moment you experience your real Self, which is happiness, freedom from desire. But you mistakenly associate that happiness with the cigarette, not the Self, which is the true source of happiness. Instead of going to the Self directly, you go to the cigarette. You are bound in the karmic cycle of action and the resulting attachment.
The only way to be freed from having to resolve every desire is for the soul to realize the Self. Through enlightenment, no karmas can bind you. You are unbound, liberated. When an action is selfless, it leads to future good karma and eventually to liberation. As yogis seeking liberation, therefore, we strive to perfect our actions. Most actions are preceded by a thought. To perfect an action, therefore, we must first perfect our thoughts. What is a perfect thought? A perfect thought is one devoid of selfish motive, free of anger, greed, hate, jealousy, and so on.
Most of us believe we can think any thought we like and be free of consequence, as long as we don’t act on it. Yet how many times have you had something on your mind and a friend has looked at you and asked, “What’s bothering you?” Our thoughts affect others and bear karmic consequences for ourselves. Our thoughts are significant even at the time of death, when a thought can propel us into the next lifetime- for better or for worse. Thought leads to action. The same action can be undertaken with a selfish intention or a selfless intention. The act of sexual intercourse is a good example. When intended to control, manipulate, harm, or humiliate another person, it is called rape and is considered a crime. When it is motivated by the intention to love, honor, or uplift another, it is called making love.
The intention behind any action is always more important than the action itself. The intention contains the seed of the action’s results. If you perform a good action but you have a negative intention, you will receive negative karma from that action.
Excerpt from Chapter 3, Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life