What goes around comes around. But karma isn’t simply an “eye for an eye.” Nor is it about getting a gold star for good behavior. Rather than thinking about karma in terms of retribution or reward, or as being “naughty or nice,” consider karma to be as neutral as cause and effect, or as my teacher defines it: “Doing or acting within the play of nature in this world.”
This definition of karma comes from the word’s Sanskrit roots: Kar is from kri, meaning “to do” or “to act.” Ma means measure; additionally, ma is another name for the feminine, creative aspect of the universe. In yoga philosophy, there are three stages of karma. Together, they create a cycle, like a tree bearing fruit that ripens and falls to the ground, scattering seeds that take root and grow anew. The first stage is sanchita, the accumulated karma we are born with. Prarabdha (i.e. destiny) is the karma that ripens during our lifetimes. Then there is kriyamana, the karma that we are creating daily with our words and deeds. Kriyamana karma may remain dormant—or bear fruit very quickly, like the “instant karma” that John Lennon added to our cultural zeitgeist.
As yogis, we’re karmic gardeners. Our job is to destroy the seeds so that they can’t germinate and perpetuate the cycle; in doing so, we reach moksha or liberation. We might scorch karmic seeds through tapas or eradicate them through shaucha, purifying our thoughts and motives, like pulling weeds from the field of the mind. The one thing we can’t do is avoid karma by refusing to act, a lesson Arjuna learned in the Bhagavad Gita when he hesitated on the battlefield. Seeing his reluctance, Krishna (disguised as Arjuna’s charioteer) instructed him to seek the inaction within the action. In other words, we can go beyond what binds us to an action by acting without motive or ego, without attachment to praise or punishment or even to results.
Though this level of selfless non-attachment may sound too perfect to sustain in the real world, the fundamentals of Karma Yoga offer are actually quite simple and helpful for coping with everyday challenges. To paraphrase Swami Sivananda, do your best, whatever job you undertake, because even the most mundane task has something to teach. Don’t get hung up on results and don’t latch onto praise or blame. Remind yourself that you are not the doer, merely the instrument. Some take this to mean offering up each action (yes, even asana!) to God, even repeating the mantra, “Thy will, not my will.” Practicing Karma Yoga this way, according to Swami Sivananda, purifies the heart—the ultimate expression of shaucha.
Most of us associate the Karma Yoga path with good works, usually in the spirit of seva (selfless service). This might look like volunteering at a shelter or food bank, or helping out at your local yoga studio. Closer to home, it can mean being more self-observant in your interactions with co-workers, friends and family. Can you release the impulse to judge or criticize? Can you listen with an open heart and not contract out of hurt or anger?
Considering karma in this way makes it easier to navigate the bumps and bruises of everyday life. Our thoughts and deeds ripple outward, affecting others, adding to the collective karma of families, communities and nations. Because we are all connected, creating a more harmonious world begins with each of us.
How has your yoga practice helped make you aware of the karmic currents running through your life?