21/11/2012 09:50 GMT | Updated 20/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Karma Yoga: What Is It And Why Does It Matter?

"I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy."

― Kahlil Gibran

Say the word "yoga" and most people will think of people assuming strange shapes with their bodies to stretch and contort their muscles. While this is true, there are in fact four types of yoga, all of them designed to help the practitioner achieve oneness with a so-called Supreme Being or Supreme Consciousness (which is in fact the primal energy that drives us, the planet, the solar system and the whole universe - yes, heavy, I know!)

The modern practice of yoga as we know it is called Raja Yoga. First described in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali as an eight-fold path to awakening and eventually, enlightenment, it involves the stilling of the mind through meditation and asana practice.

But there are three other types of yoga, designed for different human temperaments:

Jnana Yoga - or the path of knowledge

Bhakti Yoga - or the path of devotion

Karma Yoga - or the path of selfless service

Karma Yoga is all about acting without expecting any fruits from your labour. It's about giving yourself fully to an activity for the benefit of someone (or something) else. All of the world's great religions encourage charity and altruism as a pillar of their faith, and it's no surprise. Acting selflessly gives us a feeling of bliss, pure and simple. It taps into our true nature; our desire to spread love and compassion. The Dalai Lama says "the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes."

With that in mind we set off to paint a school building here in Koh Samui, Thailand, as a form of service to the beautiful island that is our home during the month-long yoga teacher training intensive I'm attending at Samahita Retreat.

All 39 of us plus our fantastic yoga guru Stephen Thomas, his wife, and several others, descended on a small school tucked away in the jungle in the searing heat of the mid-afternoon.

Armed with rollers and brushes we got stuck in painting the outside of the school building blue and purple. It was a sweaty job, especially for those of us trying to paint the top half of the building with two-metre long paint-rollers.

But it wasn't a chore. And that's because we were doing it as a form of karma yoga, as a form of service for which we expected nothing in return. We did it for the kids, for the teachers, for the school, for the community, for the island. It was done out of love, and so we did with smiles plastered across our sweaty faces.

The school, before we got started


Hard at work


90 minutes later