You may practise raja, hatha, kundalini, mantra and bhakti yoga, but if you underestimate karma yoga then all these yogas can lead you to a dissipated and dispersed state of mind. Everyone who is practising yoga should transform their daily activities through the philosophy of karma yoga. The purpose of your daily work should become spiritual, or rather you should realize nature's spiritual purpose behind your karma. If you renounce your karma, your mind will not find a basis for evolution.
Before you can realize the role of karma yoga in relation to spiritual evolution, you must first understand that the purpose of karma yoga is to create a stable base for the mind. In meditation the mind has to remain constantly on one object without the intervention of another idea. But if you keep on practising this without having attained the state of sattwa, without having purified the mind, you will only fall back into a tamasic state. In order to prevent this, the practice of karma yoga was designed by nature for everyone, because we all have ambitions, desires and passions.
If you don't have any desires, you definitely will not make any karma. If desires were to be eliminated, then man's psycho-spiritual evolution would come to a halt. Therefore, desires must not be curbed. You should either fulfil them completely or else realize their uselessness.
By curbing your desires you are killing your opportunity to act. Say you have a desire to have a child. To fulfil this you need to have a wife or husband, a home, a job, shop or business, and then so many things follow. These things are what keeps this untrained mind busy all the time. This is how karma keeps the devil beat. The mind is a great force, a supramental force, and if this force is not properly utilized, it will feed the wrong centres in the mental personality and perhaps become destructive. Therefore, nature has created karma.
In the Bhagavad Gita it says that every action produces a threefold reaction - desire, aversion and a mixture of both. If you receive something that you want very much, that makes you happy. However, if you receive something that you don't want, it makes you very unhappy. If you receive something that you like and dislike, you will be both happy and unhappy. When the mind is affected by negative reactions, it often becomes depressed or deranged, thereby allowing such diseases as asthma, cancer, hypertension or diabetes to take hold. At these times one may even commit suicide or divorce one's wife or husband. Anything can happen because the karma affects the personality and the behaviour. So we have to find a way of creating karma whereby the consequences do not affect us. That path is known as karma yoga.
In the pursuit of our day-to-day lives, our attitudes towards karma have become purely materialistic. Every time we think about spiritual life, we think in terms of renouncing karma. In the ashram also, if you ask anyone to do some work, they invariably refuse on the basis that all actions are maya, and by this man is bound. But it is not true; karma can never be a cause of bondage. Nature has created karma as a scheme for man to evolve and to know the behaviour and deeper stages of the mind, and through the mind to achieve spiritual awareness.
Mind and spiritual awareness are not two different things. At one stage there is milk, at another stage the milk becomes curd, at a third stage the curd is churned into butter, at the fourth stage it is clarified into ghee, and finally at the fifth stage it becomes part of your curry. In the same way, at one stage there is the gross body, at another stage the vasanas or passions, at the third stage the psychic experiences, and at the fourth stage the supreme reality.
Atma, or the supreme reality, manifests itself at different stages. The mind is one of these stages and you cannot obliterate the mind. You can only purify the mind and remove the dross, the samskaras. Then, at the very nucleus or basis of the mind, atma, or chaitanya, will be revealed. Therefore, karma yoga is any action done with higher awareness, for the sake of the work, because work keeps the mind and body occupied. Even if the work does not pay you in terms of money, still you do it. In the same way, if, as householders, you try to transform your daily karma into karma yoga, then first of all you have to accept the role of karma in spiritual evolution. Then whatever work you do, you will feel grace and bliss.
First of all you must remember that it is not meditation which is the beginning of yoga, it is the training of this undisciplined, uneducated, powerful mind which flows like a river in full spate. This mind cannot be controlled at different points. It has to be educated. Education is most important and this education is provided to the mind through karma. This means that everything you do, right or wrong, is karma, and that karma can be transmuted into karma yoga provided there is enlightenment in you.
Why are you bored with your work? It is due to your attitude. If the attitude is correct, you can go on doing the same work for fifty years. When you consider your work as a duty, a way of serving others, it never becomes dull. It is only when you think of it in terms of your own development or pleasure that work becomes intolerable and monotonous.
It is actually far easier and more motivating to work for others than for yourself. This is the secret of karma yoga which few understand and are able to apply. This is the difference between karma and karma yoga. You create karma when you act with yourself in mind, with your personal desires and problems as a motivation. When you act, not for yourself but as a service, an offering to others, the mind is freed and you experience the benefits of karma yoga.
Karma yoga can be practised anywhere at any time. It is not necessary to live in an ashram to practise it. But few understand the basic principle behind it and the necessity of it being performed with the correct attitude. In the ashram you learn how to practise karma yoga and this is very important. Otherwise you may spend your whole life working for yourself and increasing your suffering, rather than working for others and ending your suffering along with theirs.
So karma yoga is a necessary part of life. It is as necessary as eating, talking or walking. For you must go on creating karma as long as you are alive. You cannot live without action. Therefore, let your actions be performed as a service to the evolution of all beings and you will enjoy a life of utter freedom, simplicity and bliss. All your needs will be bestowed on you as if blessings from God. You will never be lonely or suffer any ills. When the mind is at peace with itself, the body attains health. People are drawn to such a person like bees to nectar. It is impossible to keep them away.
Once when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I was looking out of the window. By chance I saw an old greyhaired woman who looked as if she worked as a labourer in one of the coalmines. She had a very ugly and coarse face and the thought came into my mind, "This old woman is useless, incapable of accomplishing anything; her life is valueless." She passed out of sight and I left the window.
Time passes. One day I was playing gilli danda, an Indian village game, with many boys. The game went on and on until I was accused of making an unfair move and a quarrel broke out. Eight or nine boys, all of them older and stronger than me, grabbed my hands. What could I do?
With a strong tug, I pulled myself free and ran away. Some of the boys became very angry at this and chased after me. I ran and ran until I got around a bend in the road and was out of their sight. Then I quickly entered the gate of a nearby house where some boys and girls were talking together on the lawn. As soon as one of the girls saw me she cried, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" "I got into a fight with some big boys," I murmured humbly, "they were chasing me so I ducked in here to get away from them."
Immediately they all shouted, "Get out of here! If those boys find you here they might burn the house down." Then the girl called the gardener and told him to put me out. In the light I could see her face; she was incredibly beautiful. I can still remember her lips and features.
As soon as I was inside the gate, the boys saw me and the chase was on again. I ran with all my strength until I saw a small hut and quickly entered through the low door. I was just standing inside wondering what to do when an old woman came out of the kitchen. I told her everything. She heard my story and then took a stick and went to the door while I stayed inside. She started abusing those boys in villager's language. They couldn't see me inside the hut and, dumbfounded at the old woman's anger and the stick in her hand, they ran back the way they had come.
After a while I came out of the hut and when I saw the old woman's face in the light, I recognized her as the very same old woman I had seen one day through the window. I was surprised and remembered that I had said to myself, "This ugly old woman is useless, her life is of no value."
After this I changed my previous conceptions about beauty and ugliness. They are not those qualities we see with our naked eyes, but rather what we perceive with our heart.
From Teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Volume II (1982), Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India