If you practice yoga, you’ve encountered the word karma at some point—in class, in the yoga texts, or perhaps on the label of a fancy bottle of water. It’s a simple concept: if you plug someone’s meter for them during the day, something nice will happen to you at some point. It’s a cosmic system of checks and balances, rewarding you for good deeds and punishing you for bad. If someone plugs your meter later in the day, congratulations! You’ve experienced Instant Karma: an immediate return on cosmic investment.
Which isn’t, of course, the original Hindu meaning of the word. Karma in Sanskrit means “action,” and the theory goes that the actions you take in this life will impact your next birth— which caste you are born into and the lot in life you’ll end up with in the future. From one perspective, yoga is the practice of burning karmas—managing the imprints of past life actions so you can speed up the learning process and escape the ball and chain of burdensome existence. Hardworking yogis, from this perspective, are rewarded with an escape from the incessant cycle of rebirths, or samsara.
The yoga practice has a long enough history in the West that’s it’s been reinterpreted and retaught through the lenses of Western culture and philosophy. We can’t help but think of karma the way we think of the Christian Heaven and Hell: Be a good boy and you get to Heaven. Do bad things and you will suffer an eternity in Hell. Actions have consequences.
Many worldviews offer a version of this checks and balances system, including the Wiccan law of threes, in which any action, whether good or bad, will come back to you threefold. Perhaps this idea is so widespread specifically because we don’t live in a just world. Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Instant karma, in which actions you take in this life have an immediate response from the universe, has a sinister underside: if you get cancer, or something terrible happens to you, it must be your fault because you must have done a bad thing. Victim blaming can come from the desire to believe that we live in a just world, and that we have control over our lot in life. Paired with the cult of positivity that can crop up within yoga circles, we are encouraged to feel as perfect as polished stones, bright, shiny, and hard. If we show weakness, anger, or meanspiritedness, we will be punished karmically, probably with cancer.
When a worldview provides a sense of an “or else,” we are given an external reason to be good in a world that probably won’t reward us. The truth is that we can’t control the external world or other people, but we can control our own karmas, or actions. Regardless of the story about the consequences of behaving a certain way, we all want to be good, and live in a world full of kindness and compassion.
So how can yoga help us find balance and harmony in an ultimately unjust world? Practicing asanas (yoga postures) and meditation help us become more sensitive. We get to know how we feel on very deep physical and intuitive levels. We need external checks and balances less, perhaps, because we get better at cutting through the layers of bullsh*t that we absorb from our societies and have a chance to own what feels right for us after contemplation. We get much worse at lying to ourselves, and feel the results of our actions internally rather than relying on an external karmic punishment or reward.
So we go back to the basics. We try to be honest, kind, and compassionate to ourselves and to others. We make mistakes all the time and we forgive ourselves and others. We have the gift, if not of eternal life or a blessed rebirth, of svadyaya, or self-study. The practice of yoga is a practice of learning about yourself and the world, including how the world influences you. Through this practice we can mindfully choose our actions with the best of intentions and the awareness that we don’t control the outcomes of our actions. That’s karma.