Derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj, which translates to attach, join, harness, or yoke, Yoga means union or coming to oneness, and speaks to how our personal experience intrinsically intertwines with the diverse realities of others. Karma means action, act, work, or deed, but differs from Kriya, which also translates as action, deed, or effort. Whereas Kriya refers more to an activity, practice, or technique in terms of applying effort and taking steps in action, Karma ecompasses a broader view of an action’s impact, accounting for the actor’s intention, and the action’s effect and result. Karma Yoga means approaching oneness through how we act with awareness around our intent and our impact.
Ram Dass taught that, “We are complex entities in the fact that part of us is separate from everything else, and part of us is not separate from everything else. That is, we are both a group of separate entities, and we are an awareness that is manifested as many entities but it is only one.” Ram Dass said, “One could interpret life as an awakening journey back to unity, not to unity as opposed to diversity, but to the unity where unity and diversity are each contained in the other.” This understanding requires our practice with Santosha, as we need to entertain in our minds a sense of unity and a sense of diversity, not as poles in opposition, but as elements like yin and yang, each contained within the other.
As we allow for both diversity and unity to coexist within each other, karma yoga asks us to honor our separateness while we invest our attention in our sense of unity-consciousness. It’s a question of whom we see when we look at others: Them? Us? Me? There’s a difference in our intention and our impact when we act from a place of separateness than when we act in an attempt to return to the one; both the way in which we perform the act changes, and the way in which the act affects us changes. We still act from a place of ego, and we still must honor our distinct differences, but when we start from a place of separateness and act in order to return to a unity experience, we begin to apply our actions as an offering. As Ram Dass said, “I work on myself as an offering to you. I serve you as a way of working on myself.”