Karma is a word that comes up a lot in the yoga community‚ and yet it’s often shrouded in confusion and mystery. There’s a good reason we’re drawn to this intriguing topic. Karma is a basic concept in both the yoga and Buddhist traditions, and its foundational teachings can help us make sense of many things in our lives. Understanding karma can give us a fresh perspective on our most compelling relationships, our work and financial situations, and even our mental patterns and the habitual behaviours that arise from them.
Karma fascinates us. It mystifies us. And we all have some of the same questions about it. In this column, I’ll do my best to answer a few of these questions. But first, let’s look at some basic principles of karma from a yogic perspective.
The law of karma
Translated from its Sanskrit root, karma simply means “action”—anything we say, do or even think. However, the yoga tradition defines the word karma in three different ways: first, as the actions we are committing in the present; second, as the effect that our past actions have on our current character and life experience; and third, as what in the West we often call our destiny. When we say that something in our life is “our karma”, we are probably using the second meaning of the word to refer to the fact that we are currently reaping the results of something we sowed in the past.
Implicit in the yogic concept of karma is a recognition that thoughts and actions are transformative and that the world is made and remade by our actions and thoughts. This is the first principle of karma: actions have consequences. The law of karma, as the yoga tradition describes it, is basically the law of cause and effect. It’s like the biblical aphorism, “As you sow, so shall you reap”. And this, whether we realise it or not, is actually a big deal. The law of karma—the fact that every action creates an effect—is what lets us change, grow and evolve. In that sense, it is the force behind all change.
All change. Many of us in the yoga community tend to think about karma in a very personal sense—as our own actions and their consequences. However, we don’t live in isolation. According to the yoga tradition, we are affected not only by our individual choices but also by the collective karma of our time and place, as well as by the forces at play on the planet and even in the cosmos. On one level, this universe is a weaving of matter and energy. But we could also look at it as a weaving of karma—a tapestry of actions, intentions and their effects. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Hong Kong, to use the famous example, affects the hurricane forming in the South Atlantic. The Wall Street financial crisis of 2008 affects the life of a farmer in Argentina. Our personal life experience is inextricably entwined with the whole.
Change your habits
That said, from a yogic perspective, our personal choices matter most because that’s where we can use the laws of karma to create change and growth. This brings us to the second principle of karma: our past thoughts and actions have helped create our lives in the present, and our thoughts and actions in the present have enormous power over our lives in the future. You may know the saying: “If you want to know what you have done in the past, look at what your life is now. If you want to know what kind of person you will be in the future, look at what you are thinking and doing now.”
Here is where the subject of karma gets interesting and, arguably, somewhat mystical. The yogic and Buddhist traditions, along with orthodox Judaism, teach that our individual consciousness moves through many different lifetimes. In his seminal text the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali says that our past thoughts and actions leave impressions in our subconscious. These impressions, known as samskaras, are stored in our subconscious memory. They are like grooves or ruts in our unconscious mind, which manifest as our mental habits and tendencies.
Taken together, these mental habits and tendencies determine our character and create the lens through which we look at the world. Our past karma is expressed as these collected samskaras, which are sometimes called karmic tendencies, karmic imprints or karmic patterns. Our samskaras are an expression of our past karma, and they will also help determine the way we act in the future.
Changing our way of doing things will create new samskaras and hence new karmic effects. But it also works the other way around: changing our samskaras by shifting our way of thinking will also affect the way we act. As a modern saying goes, “Sow a thought, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny”.
In short, our stored impressions, which are the subconscious memory of past thoughts and actions, are also the root of our future experience. For this reason, when we want to change our lives, it’s wise to begin by looking into our habitual thought patterns.
Good karma vs. negative Karma
According to the yoga tradition, our samskaras from past lives determine the situation we are born into—what our parents are like, the kind of temperament we have, and so on. This, of course, hinges on the idea of reincarnation, which can be a difficult concept for some Westerners to fully accept. But even if you don’t believe in past or future lives, recognising the basic principles of karma can be enormously useful in helping you understand your life. Yoga teaches that your past actions and thoughts have created the template out of which you have the opportunity to grow and evolve—right here, right now.
If you want to explore how this works on a practical level, jot down three of your major skills, abilities or areas of good luck. (The yoga tradition defines these as your good karmas.) Now write down three of your major life challenges—emotional or mental blocks, areas where life has been difficult (for instance, your health challenges or family issues) or other areas of suffering or discomfort (in other words, your negative karmas).
Now, consider how the interweaving of these positive and negative aspects of your life have spurred your personal growth and transformation. How have your struggles and wounds helped you grow? How have the easeful areas of your life helped you to experience success or flow? In other words, how have your negative and positive karmas been woven together to help make you who you are in the present moment?
Although karmic theory suggests that your present is affected by the thoughts and actions of your past, your future has everything to do with what you do now. In fact, the yogic sage Vasistha summarised the deepest truth about karma by saying, “There is no power on earth greater than right action in the present moment”. This is the third principle of karma—and the most important: you always have a choice about how you think or behave. Even if things aren’t working out the way you’d like at the moment, the law of karma says that the positive effort you make now will inevitably come to fruition.
This is true on both a mundane level and a spiritual level—whether you’re trying to break a habit or awaken to your essential Self. If you understand the law of karma, you know that if you keep making an effort in a certain direction, you’ll eventually master it. Your past actions may create some obstacles for you, but your present actions can help you overcome them. So according to the teachings of karma, every moment is both the result of your past and a seed of the future.
Q When something bad happens to me, does that mean I’ve done something to deserve it?
A Unfortunately, people who have a simplistic idea of how karma works tend to use the teachings of karma to blame the victim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone tell a friend who has suffered a run of tough circumstances in his or her job or personal life, “You must have done something to bring this on”.
Of course, if you text in traffic, you could very well cause an accident, just as if you persistently snack on junk food, you’re likely to gain weight. But in many situations, the workings of karma are not so cut and dried. There’s no simple answer to the question of why bad things happen. Sometimes we are simply caught up in the collective karma of our time and place. For example, if you live in a war-torn country, you will be affected by the collective karma of that place. If you live in a prosperous country, you will have opportunities that aren’t available in other parts of the world. Some things that happen to us are simply accidents or are the result of interweaving circumstances involving other people, political or economic situations, environmental factors and so on. Any sensible understanding of why bad things happen has to take into account many factors, including events of weather, other people’s mistakes, genetics and, quite simply, sheer bad luck.
That said, our internal attitudes—whether conscious or unconscious—do affect our external experience. From a yogic perspective, most of us carry memories of being wounded or of suffering harm or injustice in the past. We also carry samskaras from having wounded or caused hurt to others. These samskaras, which are buried in the unconscious, can make us more susceptible to being victims or victimisers in the present.
The good news is that the more we bring our fears and buried tendencies to consciousness through our yoga practices and other tools for personal growth, the better chance we have of changing these attitudes and deep-seated beliefs. Changing our attitudes is the first step toward changing our behaviour, which will eventually have an effect on the circumstances of our lives.
I find that sometimes it can be freeing to assume that some of my difficult circumstances are the result of past actions. In fact, one yogic perspective says that when you have an accident or experience a loss, you should look upon it as a clearing of some negative past karma.
I first learned about this concept 25 years ago when I was travelling in India and my shoes had been stolen from outside the doors of a temple. When I complained to my Indian companion, he said, “Instead of being upset, be grateful. Think, ‘One less piece of negative karma!’ ” In other words, he explained, one of my previous negative actions was being balanced out by my having to suffer the loss of my shoes. You don’t have to go so far as to be grateful for a negative event, but recognising that an unpleasant event could be resolving an old karma can make you feel less like a victim.
Looking at a negative event in your life from a karmic perspective doesn’t mean that you should assume you are being punished. Nor should it keep you from trying to change an unjust situation or from recognising that other players in the situation are responsible for their own actions. But understanding that a situation has past karmic roots can help you accept something that might otherwise cause you to act in ways that create more negative karma.
Q What is a karmic relationship? How do I know I’m in one?
A In one sense, everyone who comes into your life is someone you have karma with. But a truly karmic relationship is one in which you have a powerful, almost fated sense of connection with another person. You may feel you know the other person well—even if you’ve just met. You know you’re in a karmic relationship when you feel obligated toward someone or inexplicably drawn to them, when a person has a powerful influence in your life, or when you try to extract yourself from a relationship and find you can’t.
When it comes to romance, sudden and swift infatuation can be a signal that a karmic relationship is at play. More often than not, the falling-in-love feeling is the hook that puts you in place for the karma to work out. Several years down the road, when the in-love feeling has worn off, you may wonder how you got into this situation with your partner. The answer is, you had something to work out together. From a yogic point of view, karma is the magnet that brings people together and the glue that holds them there.
Another sign of a karmic relationship is a natural feeling of obligation. Sometimes you feel as if you owe something to the other person. At other times, you feel that the person is obligated to you. One of the old definitions of the word karma is “debt”. Something is owed.
For example, a student of mine named Jenny tells me that for years she felt compelled to help out her younger sister Lisa—including lending her money and letting Lisa stay with her for months at a time. Then, at a certain point, Lisa said to her, “I think you’ve done enough for me, and I really appreciate your generosity. From now on, I want to be the one who takes you out to dinner”. Lisa had been studying the yogic teachings about karma, and she had intuited that, in some sense, the karmic debt between her and Jenny had been paid. Now she wanted to recreate the relationship on equal terms.
If a relationship feels karmic to you—whether it’s a relationship with a parent, a child, a partner, a boss—try to understand the underlying dynamic at play. In the sisters’ situation, Lisa realised that her feeling of helplessness had been fed by Jenny’s need to feel powerful and helpful. But Lisa also recognised that if the two of them were going to have a genuinely adult relationship, they were going to have to change these tendencies.
If, like Lisa and Jenny, you recognise that the underlying dynamic in a particular relationship has some negative aspects, you can start making choices that let you break the old cycle. Begin by setting a strong intention to make a shift in your thinking or behaviour, and then figure out what steps you can take to start to implement that shift.
Q I have a problem making money, no matter what I do. I’ve been told that this is the result of negative “money karma”. What can I do to change negative karma?
A From a yogic point of view, each of us carries inner impressions (or samskaras) of past thoughts and actions that were unskilful or unconscious. These samskaras can create patterns in the field of our consciousness, which are then mirrored back to us through our external circumstances. That is what we usually mean when we talk about negative karma in any area of life.
Changing negative karma involves working with both your attitudes and your behaviour. Yogic teachings suggest that you begin by behaving as ethically as possible because ethical behaviour aligns you with the positive forces in the cosmos. From a practical point of view, it’s important to acquire the skills you need in the area where you’re experiencing negativity. In your case, you could study helpful skills such as budgeting, financial planning and job training. Then, rather than beating yourself up for any financial mishaps that arise, why not simply remind yourself that you’re learning how to handle a part of life that’s been difficult for you? Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I have negative money karma!‚” say to yourself, “This is an area where I’m in training”.
It’s also important to look carefully at the internal factors at play. For example, you may want to do some inquiry into your beliefs and attitudes about money, and you might also work on letting go of any myths or self-defeating assumptions.
Q Can yoga help me change my karmic patterns?
A Your mental and emotional habits and tendencies—your samskaras, in other words—determine how you interact with others and how you react to the events of your life. The more you can clean away or change your samskaras, the easier it is to change your behaviour. Yoga and meditation practice can be powerful tools to help you change these inner tendencies, which are the root of karmic patterns.
In yoga, the operative principle for changing karma is called tapas, which literally means “heat” or “friction”. Tapas is like a subtle fire that dissolves the inner karmic patterns—and the underlying samskaras—locked in the body and mind. Asana can clear out blocks in the body; mantra practice can clear out mental patterns such as negative self-talk and deeply rooted beliefs about yourself. These deep patterns often surface as repetitive thoughts such as, “I can’t succeed”, “I’m alone in the world” or “It’s unfair”. A mantra will replace these thoughts and create new grooves or mental patterns that eventually become stronger than the old ones. These new, healthy samskaras have a powerful influence on our moods and on the way we interact with the world.
Meditation can open you up to the level of your being known as the true Self—the pure awareness that is intrinsically joyful and free. When you connect with your Self in meditation, that recognition gives you a different perspective on yourself that, over time, will help you stop identifying with your limiting ideas and negative habitual patterns. As many meditators can attest, this sometimes can lead to deep and spontaneous changes in your thinking patterns, your relationships and even the course of your life.
At the same time, changing your karma includes changing the way you live your day-to-day life. That’s often a matter of making small, incremental choices to shift out of patterns that may be keeping old karmas in place. For example, a student of mine named Kelly, who comes from a judgemental family, has always had trouble maintaining close friendships. A few years ago, she began to wonder why she often felt lonely. When she reflected on it, she recognised that her relationship problems were somehow connected to her lifelong habit of gossiping, so she decided to deliberately curb it.
After restraining herself from gossiping for a year, Kelly began to notice that more of her old friends were calling her. People in her life were nicer to her. Even her yoga teacher was paying more attention to her in class. She realised that by actively choosing to correct a negative karmic pattern of speaking harshly, she had effected a major change in her ability to attract friends and maintain close relationships with them.
This story illustrates one of karma’s primary themes: your actions count. In the end, who you are is the result of what you do. Actions matter not only in your own relationships and in your personal and spiritual journeys, but also in the great karmic interweaving that is life on this planet. Every choice you make for compassion and every moment you pause to consider how the consequences of your actions affect the greater whole actually does affect the greater whole. As you apply the lessons of karma to your own journey of transformation, you help transform the consciousness of the people around you—your family, your social circle and even the world beyond.
These practices, drawn from the yoga tradition, can sow the seeds of positive change in your life.
1 Start the day with a positive intention
It could be something like, “I nourish the lives of the people around me” or “I am totally present with everyone I meet” or “I get my work done efficiently so I can spend time in nature”. Notice how your intention guides your day.
2 Get clear about your motivations
One key to creating positive karma is to act with a positive motive. For example, when you’re about to make a critical comment about someone, check to see why you’re doing it. If you discern a hidden feeling of envy or self-righteousness, consider buttoning your lip or offering a compliment instead.
3 Act for the good of others
Certain acts and thoughts create positive samskaras—which ultimately result in positive life experiences. Decide to do something kind every day for a week. Give up your extra latte and put it into a personal fund to donate to a charity. Have lunch with the person in your office whom everyone ignores. Pick up litter on the nature strip. Recycle. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Each day, jot down in your journal what you did and how it felt.
4 Break a bad habit
Sometimes just letting go of a minor habit can shift a karmic pattern and make a subtle but profound difference in your life. For one week, decide that you won’t give in to one of your indulgent or unproductive habits. Begin with something fairly simple, such as noticing your inner state at the moment you reach to turn off the alarm instead of getting up to practice. Choose to do something different, such as getting out of bed and rolling out your yoga mat. Be gentle with yourself as you work with your habitual patterns. If you slip up, forgive yourself and try again next time!
5 Make an offering
The root of most negative karmic patterns is some form of selfishness. One antidote to this tendency is the practice of offering. When you do something positive, take a moment to inwardly offer it for the benefit of others. This helps ensure that your action is surrounded by beneficial motivation. It’s one of the most powerful ways there is to create positive samskaras for yourself and for the benefit of the world around you.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognised teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy.