Karma Yoga is defined as perfection in action; action performed with meditative awareness; the yogic path of selfless service; or, as it's often expressed, work without thought of reward or considering the fruits of one's actions. It's one of the four yoga paths described in the Bhagavad Gita (approx. 500 BCE), an allegorical dialogue between Arjuna, the seeker of truth (aka us) and Krishna, the Lord. Down the millenia echoes the controversy as to whether it is better to retreat into silence and meditation or to stay and act in the world. The Gita says it's not either/or, it's both. Arjuna, a warrior, had quailed and become depressed, refusing to fight because it involved killing family members. Krishna points out that
"He who shirks action does not attain freedom, nor does he gain perfection by abstaining from work.......But they excel who control their senses through their mind and use them for selfless service. Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction."
"Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work a man attains the supreme goal of life"
Bhagavad Gita, chap 3, various verses
Mahatma Gandhi is a shining example of a karma yogin.
In June 2010 I was initiated into karma sannyasa - spiritual life for the householder - by Swami Satyasangananda. It was for me such a powerful experience that I can't remember as much of her talk as I'd like; but I recall she said that karma yoga is to do everything perfectly! I did know that becoming a karma sannyasin and receiving the geru (orange) dhoti was symbolic of renunciation (sannyasa) and dedication to leading one's life according to yogic principles. It was also a stage in the spiritual journey that began for me some years previously when I received the name Bijam. But you don't have to become a karma sannyasin to practise karma yoga. Or even a yogin.....ask any parent of young children, or other unpaid carers who do it for love, about selfless service! It's open to all of us to perform our work with a higher level of concentration and awareness. On any Satyananda Yoga retreat or in the ashram karma yoga is included in the programme; indeed, as in Rikhia, karma yoga is the programme.
A final quote:
"My mother was a teacher for 32 years and she said if you can help somebody, you do it. And it's free - no strings attached. That was the way I was brought up." From "They just say: there goes that crazy Scottish guy"
The Herald Magazine 01.02.14
"Karma Sannyasa" by Swami Satyasangananda
"The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living " by Eknath Easwaran