Unpacking Karma: a (badly) illustrated philosophy lesson

 If there is any sanskrit word that has become completely mainstream in western culture (other than yoga, of course!) it's probably karma. We use it in everyday conversation and we think that we know what it means. We interpret karma as an invisible force that ensures that "what goes around comes around:" Like, if you throw your gum on the street and then the next week you step on gum - karma, right? We tend to see Karma as some type of avenging angel who will mete out justice to those who have done us wrong, or we believe that karma somehow explains why bad things happen to people: "you get served what you deserve."

Once you start on the yoga path, however, it's useful to back away from our Hollywood appropriation of Karma as a stiletto-wearing-bad-girl-avenger type, and dig a little deeper to understand how yoga and karma are linked together. To help with this, I've created some little drawings, which if nothing else clarify that I do NOT have the karma of an artist. :)

What is karma?

Karma in sanskrit means action.  At the most basic level then, our karma is simply the sum of our actions, thoughts and words. And like any moment in time, our thoughts/actions/words don't exist in isolation, but they build upon what we have already done/thought/said, and play a role in creating our future thoughts/actions/words. In modern behavioural science, we call this habit formation, and it's an essential part of being a human being - on a basic level we use our talent for habit formation to learn language (associating words with objects or feelings), remember people's names, pick up essential motor skills like walking, or learn how to do new things, like swimming or standing on one leg.

In yoga philosophy, every action leaves an imprint, like an echo or a small seed planted as a result of this thought/word/action. These imprints are called samskaras, and they accumulate in our subconscious. The more we repeat a particular type of thought/word/action, the more seeds are sown, and similar seeds group together to become clusters. These are called vasanas, and as you might imagine, the bigger the cluster, the more ingrained the habit.

These patterns begin forming from the time we are just infants. As children we are not born into a neutral environment: we are born into a family, a place, a culture, and the karma of the world around us begins to imprint on us from a very early age. As we grow up, we emulate the actions/thoughts/behaviours that we see around us, thus planting the first seeds and starting the accumulation of samskaras.  In traditional philosophy, we are also born with vasanas that we have inherited from our previous incarnations, and we take them with us into the next incarnation.

You are creating your karma every day

The key thing to understand is that karma is not some scales-and-balances system, with all the vasanas waiting passively around to be weighed out on a final judgement day. The cycle of karma is an active, ongoing, day-to-day process. Our samskaras and vasanas manifest in our daily lives as subconscious desires, and around these desires we form habits that, over time, become deeply engrained patterns. As we act out these patterns over and over, the vasanas grow and become like powerful magnets: we become subconsciously attracted to people or actions of the same nature, and go around the wheel again. The bigger the cluster, the more powerful the attraction. As the saying goes, "like attracts like." The vasanas are so powerful that they become compulsions: we think we are making choices, but in fact our lives are being directed by our subconscious impulses.

It's important not to immediately attribute judgement to this picture. Some of our vasanas are our highest qualities, and these increase our joyfulness. But we also have vasanas that manifest in ways that make us unhappy, too. Have you ever found yourself emotionally over-reacting to something small, and taking it out on others? Do you make poor choices and then wonder "why did I choose that?" Have you ever mused to yourself "why do I always do this to myself or to others around me?" Do you freeze when you wish you had acted, or act impulsively and then wish you had not? Do you constantly revisit a choice you made and hold on to regret or bitterness about that situation? These are some of the symptoms of vasanas that are NOT serving you. When these vasanas hijack our choices and our relationships, it causes us suffering. This is samsara - being stuck in the endless wheel of karma, hostage to our own subconscious.

Anyone who has dealt with addiction (theirs or someone else's) can probably relate to this. Or, just watch any soap opera ever made!

Yoga helps us become aware of our karma

There are two things that are important here. One is to understand that our "karmic" addictions here are not just physical, but they are mental, behavioural and emotional patterns as well. The second is that karma is not an external force striking blows for or against us: we actively create our karma every day, through our thoughts, our actions and our words. This is fantastic news, because it means that by changing our words/actions/thoughts, we can sow new seeds, and grow new clusters, and create new magnetic forces that attract happiness instead of suffering. But of course, first we have to become AWARE of our subconscious habits, which is trickier than it sounds.

This is where yoga comes in. The practice of yoga is the practice of self-awareness. What we are learning through yoga is to observe ourselves so that we can become aware of our vasanas, our deeply rooted patterns. What we encounter on the yoga mat is ourselves: our thoughts, our emotions and our reactions to our practice are a mirror for our everyday lives. We seek to become aware of ourselves so that we may  transform our thoughts, actions and words, and create new habits, new patterns, that don't cause us pain.

The eight limbs of yoga are a roadmap for this transformation, with the ultimate aim being liberation, moksha, to free ourselves from the wheel of karma and from the compulsions of the subconscious. To be self-realised is to be mindful of our every action, thought and word, allowing us to create our own destiny.


Readers, was this interpretation of karma useful to you? Has your yoga practice helped you let go of any habits or break out of any patterns? I'd love to hear about it!