Karma Yoga and the Ashram

Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati

Learning the art of detachment

Just as you learn the art of cooking, dancing or painting, in the same way, you learn the art of detachment. Nobody has ever told you to learn the art of detachment. You have always been told to learn the art of attachment, to become attached, to collect, claim, own and possess. You think that if you become detached, you have to leave everything behind, but that is wrong. In order to become detached, you don't have to leave anything. You can still own, possess and enjoy, but with an attitude of detachment.

Why is it necessary to have the idea of ownership, of my wife, my husband, my children, my car, my house, my job, my money, my wealth and status? You can enjoy and have it without that idea, but you have to learn the art. In Sanskrit detachment is called vairagya. It is one of the prerequisites of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1:12), it says that to become accomplished in yoga there are only two things you need, one is abhyasa, constant uninterrupted practice for a long period of time, and the second is vairagya. Vairagya does not mean renunciation. We have this misconceived notion that if we become detached, we have to give up the person we love and the things we own. That is a wrong understanding.


Vairagya means absence of craving. In the past, you have enjoyed and experienced good food, relationships and a good life, and there is a craving for it all the time. There is a craving to have it again. The mind lingers and goes back to it and if it cannot have it, then the mind suffers. If it can have it again, the mind becomes obsessed, neurotic and anxious that it may cease and you may lose it. In fact, you never really enjoy anything. You are always worried about losing what you possess or that it will end. However, if you have a sense of detachment and an absence of craving, you own, you possess and you enjoy.

Detachment is an important quality in order to improve the quality of your experience. If you have a negative approach to life and a negative experience of life, that is the quality of your mind. If you are unhappy, it is the quality of your mind. If you think everything is hopeless, that is the quality of your mind, and if you think everything is wonderful, that is the quality of your mind. If you cultivate detachment, you begin to enjoy life, because you don't have obsessions about things and you enjoy everything simply for what it is.

This is an art which you have to learn, and the earlier the better because as you grow older, it is difficult to cultivate these habits. For children it is easier to pick up this habit, because they have not yet become habituated to certain things. Therefore, children should be encouraged to develop detachment.

The role of the ashram

You cannot learn the art of detachment in the world because nobody talks about it and detachment is a most shunned word. Detachment is a state of mind. People say detachment is only for those who live in caves in the Himalayas. However, those people don't have to practice detachment because they are already in that state of mind. You can't pretend to be detached; it has to come to you and you have to evolve into that state. If you are convinced that detachment is a way to happiness, fulfillment and a higher quality of experience, then you have to find a place where it is practiced, where people live with that state of mind. That place is the ashram.

In the ashram people practice, live or try to live in a state of detachment. People who live in an ashram don't just drop from heaven. They come to the ashram out of society, but they have become aware that "No, this is necessary for me" and they work and try to achieve that state. Detachment has to be attained while performing, not by renouncing your duties. You have to practice detachment wherever you are. You have to live life to the fullest extent because that is what you are born for, but live it with a different attitude, so that every moment is a joy and a learning experience even in difficulties. Life is definitely a struggle. Difficulties follow you, but with detachment you have the strength to face them and they don't shatter, destroy or unbalance you. They become an experience like any other by which you rise, learn and become stronger.

The person who has found the joys of detachment and wants to practice them should come to the ashram, because the ashram offers that opportunity. When you are with your family, in society or in your job, you feel that you can never achieve detachment because the environment does not encourage it. In the ashram, detachment is offered to the people who live there, through interactions and karma yoga.

Harrogate, England, July 2009

How can I earn a living with a regular job and practice karma yoga?

The main attitude in karma yoga is that the karmas which you perform in life have a purpose, which is to teach you something and give you knowledge about yourself. Unfortunately, when you perform karmas, you are not so aware of yourselves, you are more aware of what you are going to get from the karma. You are result oriented. In karma yoga you are told to forget about the result and focus on the work that you have to do. When you focus on the task, then you can do it properly. Karma yoga is the yoga of action and perfection in action. In order to be focused on what you are doing, you have to achieve isolation of mind. Your mind should not waver. Isolation of mind is pratyahara, which you can achieve even through karma yoga. You are doing the action perfectly and in the moment. Then, when you are focused on what you are doing, that is dharana, and when you attain dharana that automatically becomes dhyana. You achieve the state of dhyana or meditation with your eyes open.

When you do actions in this manner, then release of karma takes place, which is called karmashaya. The karmas which cause anger, pain, suffering and pleasure are released from the causal body. The release is a non-intellectual process, and at the same time you are not collecting more karmas. Through karma yoga you feel happy and light, but if you do karma yoga with resentment, with a head trip or with ego, then you will not have this result.

A change of attitude

Karma yoga can be practiced, no matter where you are. You can do your job with the attitude of karma yoga. You will have your salary, maybe a promotion, maybe praise for what you do, and you do not have to renounce it. You can accept and enjoy it, but that should not be your motive or your expectation. It is a subtle difference, a new mental attitude, which you have towards your actions.

In the ashram we do everything that you do in your home - cleaning, cooking, banking and attending to sick people. However, there is no sense of attachment, no sense of ownership and no sense of expectation. We look after 1,500 children in Rikhia. They are taught English and computer skills, they are given what you give your own children _ beautiful clothing and accessories, toys and stationery, but not because they are our children. You do it because you have a sense of ownership; if that child is not yours, you will not do it.

Why is there this sense of ownership? You came with nothing and you will go with nothing. You are living on handouts: the air you breathe, the food you eat, the clothes you wear, everything is nature's gift. Enjoy it, but without the sense of extreme attachment, possession and ownership. Supposing I give you a luxury apartment and say, "Live here for ten years. It is not yours, it is mine, but I am giving you the place to live in." You are going to enjoy everything there, but you know that it is not yours. You know that after ten years you will have to leave it. We are in the world in the same way, because we have not come here permanently.

You don't have to renounce anything, but if you change your attitude, you can change your experience in life. You can enjoy everything and you will enjoy it even more, because when you have the sense of ownership, there is always fear and anxiety of losing it.

Karma yoga can be applied in your life, wherever you are, whatever you do, with regard to your family, your job and your possessions. The learning place is the ashram and the practicing place is in your own environment, home and society. Nobody lives in an ashram forever. People come to the ashram to learn the skills, tools and mental attitudes which are required to have a happy life.

London, England, July 2009