The concept of Karma is deeply interwoven in the teachings of yoga. This does not mean you
have to believe in karma, however it comes up all over the place in yoga study. It turns out that
different lineages of yoga have different beliefs about karma – there’s not one karma!
Some people believe Karma to mean re-incarnation. Hence the idea that karma connects with past,
present and future lives. However you do not need to believe in reincarnation to understand the
workings of karma in this present lifetime.
The theory goes that there are different types of karma. You’ve got your personal karma – that’s
the energy that’s all about you. You will also have karma with your family, community, city, country,
and planet. After all, we are all intimately interconnected and what we do affects others as well.
Over the years I’ve been trying to put something together that makes sense of karma to me.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
What is Karma?
I really appreciate how Nischala Devi describes Karma as a neutral energy. It’s not “good” or “bad”,
it is “neutral” and it simply is and flows – like electricity. We tend to layer our preferences and
perceptions on things, and as this happens we assign karma a value of good or bad or neutral,
depending how we feel and interpret the events that unfold.
So if I want to read at night and I am able to plug in a light, I am likely to perceive electricity/energy
as a “good” thing. If I stick my finger in the socket and get shocked, then I am likely to perceive it
as a “bad” thing. When the lights are on and I do not notice it, it will likely be “neutral”.
Karma is Action
The Bhagavad Gita states, “Yogah karmasu kaushalam”, which translates to “Yoga is skill in action”.
Karma translates to Action in English. Working to be skillful in actions, fully engaged in life and
living, is a huge part of the practice of Yoga.
Nicholai Bachman describes Karma as actions and their imprints. He explains that each time we
act (karma), there is an imprint (samskara – known as the “grooves in the mind”) that occurs or
embeds in the mind. The more we repeat an action, the deeper the imprint/groove in the mind becomes.
This is how habits are formed. Over our lifetime we have performed many actions (karmas) and therefore
have many imprints (samskaras). Eventually, the actions associated with the imprints become automatic
(and sometimes unconscious) reactions.
All this groovy-ness (samskaras) needs to be explored. We have some that serve us, and some that do not.
A big part of our Yoga is to become aware of these habit patterns and explore them. Does this habit pattern
serve me, or not so much? If not, we begin the work choosing new actions, setting new imprints, and
dissolving/filling in the old grooves of the mind. I like to think of this practice as “Finding my groove” :)
My meditation teacher Larry describes karma as dependent arising. What arises as your options in this
moment is dependent upon your actions (choices) in prior moments. For example, if I chose (consciously or
unconsciously) not to finish my undergraduate studies in university, then I cannot apply for post-graduate
studies. My choice in one moment, affects what choices I have available in the next moment. Another example
is if I choose to eat a food that my body does not digest, then in future moments I can expect the results of my
choice to manifest (ex: tummy ache, bloating, headache, etc.).
A common misperception is that the action and its consequence are linear – what happened at 1pm today
is the immediate consequence of what happened at 12:59pm. Not always so. This is why sometimes we get
Action and Consequences
There’s also much conversation about the consequences of the actions we perform. We know from experience
that there are consequences to our actions – how does this work in terms of Karma?
Geshe Michael Roach uses a simple analogy to explain this. He describes each action as planting a seed in
the deep garden of the subconscious mind. The type of plant that grows from these seeds depends on the
intention behind the action at the time it was performed (as Deepak says “Intention is subtle action”).
Whatever you do to/for others is what will come back to you. Another way to think about it is that whatever
energy/intention we put out into the world will make its way back to us, because “like attracts like”. I like to think
of it as the boomerang effect.
Therefore, if I’m snarky to the cashier at the store, at some point someone will be snarky to me. If I’m generous
to someone, at some point someone will be generous to me. As kids, my dad used to often say “do unto others as
you would have others do unto you”. Remember that the dependent arising is not necessarily linear. Different
seeds we plant in the mind can take different amounts of time to flower.
So, Karma is the energy of my actions. My actions are based on my choices (whether conscious of unconscious),
meaning my actions/choices have consequences. These consequences will not only affect me, they will affect
those around me (and the planet). The consequences of my actions will play a part in determining my future
choices. Intention is subtle action. Therefore I can choose to be responsible for myself, my choices, my actions,
and to a degree, the consequences of my actions.
Moving beyond the imprints
There are a few tools in the Yoga toolbox that can help us work with our Karma. Yoga is a tool to weed the gardens
of our subconscious mind in order to remove the seeds that cause suffering.
1. Awareness: Becoming aware of our habit patterns and discerning which ones are groovy and which
ones are not. If we do not realize we are doing something that is causing us (or others) to suffer, than how
can we change it?
2. Be Intentional: From what I understand, the intention behind the action is the most powerful part of the
action. Based on this, being intentional about what we say, do and think is paramount. Even if an action does
not unfold in the way we expect, if we are clear in our intentions then the seed planting will match the energy
of our intention. If we are not intentional, then we are acting from old habit patterns and who knows what kind
of seeds are being planted in the fertile garden of the mind?
3. Releasing the “Fruits of our Actions”: By acting without attachment to the results of our actions, by acting
simply for the sake of the action itself (releasing expectations) no imprint occurs. According to the scriptures when
we act for the sake of the action itself, the action transcends the self, and no imprint is made in the mind. This is
acting from our True Nature – beyond the place of ego, personality, or selfish desire.
Often action is multi-faceted. I might perform an action for the good of humankind, and derive personal gain
from the same action as well. My job is a great example of this. I do the work I do to help make the world a better
place (in the best way I know how), AND I collect a paycheck too. My primary intention is to do good, a secondary
intention is to make money so I can eat and pay my bills… I love it when action is win-win :)
4. Keep Trying: If a choice/action did not work, make another choice and try another action! Yoga and life is
not about perfection and acting perfectly. Sometimes we need to make a mess in order to figure things out and
get to where we need to be. So keep continue! The way I see it we have two choices: Either we act in the
world and own our actions and their consequences, or the world acts on us and we follow along reacting to life.
The choice is always yours to make.
Enjoy the groovy practice!
Om Shantih and Prema (universal peace & love),
Mona L. Warner, ERYT500
Janati Yoga, RYS500