I was once interviewed by a yoga magazine about my thoughts on the difference between the traditional view of karma and the contemporary one. As I was ignorant of the contemporary view the interviewer informed me that the contemporary view is that if for example you are thinking badly about somebody on the next street corner you may slip on a banana peel. In yoga we would call this instant karma and it is considered extremely rare. The reason why it is rare is that for karma to have results (fructify) immediately the action that caused it must be performed with incredible concentration and intent. For most of us such concentration and intent is usually out of reach because our minds are scattered by the many, many sub-personalities that make up our psyche. Hardly anybody is for example 100% yogi or gambler or fearful but a mix of many different personality aspects. Yoga, all spiritual traditions and also the religions contain rituals and ceremonies that are intended to raise our concentration to such a level that instant karma becomes more likely.

The main reason why many of us fail the recognize the law of karma in work is that most of our actions are performed with such low intent (i.e. unconsciously) that their results take such a long time to manifest that we fail to make the connections. Patanjali says in sutra 2.12 that karma is encountered in seen and unseen existence. Unseen in this context means that either the results are so far in the future or the causes so far in the past that we do not see the connection.

Let’s have a look now into the three types of karma that yoga differentiates. Your karmic load is determined by the totality of your past thoughts, emotions, communications and actions. There are three forms of karma, of which Prarabdha karma is the one that has formed your present body, and situation. It is difficult to change this karma, as it has come to fruition already. If you want to change it you need to take extraordinary measures (such as very advanced pranayama practice), and there needs to be a significant benefit for your environment for such a practice to succeed. For most people, Prarabdha karma is what we need to come to terms with and accept. Because of Prarabdha karma some people will progress faster than others. If powerful obstacles to your spiritual practice become apparent, they are due to past actions. You need to accept the results of your past actions and proceed with your spiritual practice undeterred.

Sanchita karma, the second type, is the karma that you have produced by your past actions but has not yet come to fruition. It has not yet become active because the opportunity for its fruition has not yet arisen. But do not doubt that just because it has not become active your karmic storehouse (karmashaya) is brimming with karma that is waiting to come into action. For, as Lord Krishna said, ‘You and I are ancient beings and have lived many lives. The difference between us is that I do remember my past embodiments, you do not’ (Bhagavad Gita IV.5 ). This almost infinite number of past embodiments has given us ample opportunity to collect karmas and, as Patanjali says, ‘In the case of the average person these karmas are mixed, meaning they do contain a significant amount of demerit (Yoga Sutra IV.7).

The only reliable way of dealing with Sanchita karma is to intercept it before it comes to fruition. This is done by attaining spiritual freedom before it fructifies. When attaining spiritual freedom, the seeds of karma become scorched and cannot fructify anymore. Note that this approach works with Sanchita karma but not with Prarabdha karma. Fructification of Sanchita karma generally occurs during or right before one obtains one’s next embodiment. This means that, from the total amount of Sanchita karma in your storehouse, the part that needs to be attended to most urgently, converts itself into Prarabdha karma to form your new embodiment. From that moment onwards the Prarabdha karma will play itself out one way or another, whether the remainder of Sanchita karma can still be intercepted. If this is duly contemplated and truly understood, one uses this fact as a strong motor to increase the intensity and sophistication of one’s practice, as both factors will enable us to intercept Sanchita karma.

Kriyamana karma, the final form of karma, is what you are creating now that will bear fruit in the future. With your thoughts and actions today you are creating who you will be tomorrow. Contemplating Kriyamana karma will make you understand that you are creating now in this moment who you will be in the future. Whoever you have been in the past, whatever your limitations have been, leave it behind and boldly create through your spiritual practice the new person you will be in the future. This future does not have to be many years or even lifetimes in the future. It will start exactly in the next moment from now. Now!

Summarizing, while there are certain aspects of karma that are difficult to change, the overwhelming thrust of the teaching of karma goes in the direction that we need to take responsibility for who we are and, if our ship is drifting towards the shallows or rapids, then it is our responsibility to change its course and not that of our parents, teachers, governments, unions, churches or whoever else. As it is inherently difficult to determine what exactly our karmic load is, we need not be deterred by it and, despite its existence – or better, precisely because of its existence – move forward with confidence and enthusiasm. Karma teaches us a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Consciously choose today your thoughts, emotions and actions to create who you want to be tomorrow.
  2. Take responsibility for your actions performed in the past.
  3. Work towards spiritual liberation in this life.

How does this transference of karma then take place from one life to the next? Yoga teaches that this transference happens by means of the subtle body, which is called ‘linga’ in some texts and ‘sukshma sharira’ in others. This subtle body is not destroyed at death of the gross body. So says for example the Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad, “Like a caterpillar upon reaching the end of a blade of grass reaches out to the next blade and draws itself across, so the linga when having reached the end of life of gross body, draws itself across into the next gross body.

Other texts use the simile of changing ones clothes. ‘As you cast off a worn garment in the evening to put on a fresh one next day, so do you cast away this body at the end of your life only to choose a new one at the dawn of the next life’.

Karma is stored in the so-called ‘karmashaya’ (karmic storehouse), which the Yoga Sutra mentions in sutra 2.12. We are slowly working through the content of our karmashaya by choosing embodiments according to their propensity to supply us with the right cocktail of pleasure and pain to evolve us, to move us forward.

I found it helpful for modern yogis to look at karmashaya as the deepest layer of the subconscious. About 98% of our mind is subconscious. If all of our mind was conscious we would not be able to survive. For example see how fast your subconscious mind learns to drive a vehicle all by itself whereas your conscious mind can talk to your passengers. Now, whenever you think, say or do something it forms a subconscious imprint (samskara). This is the surface layer of the subconscious mind. At this level you still have choice. You feel inclined to enact on samskaras but your conscious mind can still override them. If you keep enacting upon them subconscious imprints densify to become vasana (conditioning). At this level it seems to us that we do not have choice anymore. For example a murderer may say they did not have a choice but ‘had’ to kill that particular person. A judge however, from the birds-eye perspective may see how the whole biography of a certain perpetrator may have programmed this person to act in a particular way. This then is called conditioning, the second layer of the subconscious. To underline how powerful it is some teachers call it robotic conditioning.

Also at this layer of conditioning we can still wake up and override our tendencies, but it takes more effort than doing so at the more superficial layer of subconscious imprint. According to yoga philosophy the entity to which we can wake up and realize our unlimited freedom and luminosity is called purusha (consciousness) or atman (self). It is the awakener.

The third, deepest and most powerful layer of the subconscious is the karmashaya (karmic storehouse). Here even more we feel as if we are at the ransom of forces that create our destiny, that we ‘are meant to do’ things in a certain way. Truth is it is merely ourselves who have set these forces into motion. However, at this deepest layer of the subconscious, the juggernaut of tendencies set in motion by us has built up such momentum that we find it hard to change its direction. There is a karmic inertia similar to the movement of the Titanic heading towards the iceberg. We can change this direction only through a course of action (karma comes from the verb root kr- to do), rather than through mere thought. Such action must involve all layers of the human being, including body, breath and mind and involve asana, pranayama and meditation to address these respective layers.

Finally we have to look at what identifies karma as ‘our’ karma as in opposed to somebody else’s and as a matter of fact what actually is it that identifies ‘our’ body or even ‘our’ thoughts as ours. In yoga we call this entity ahamkara (I-maker). It is ahamkara that will own a sensation or thought and say, ‘this is mine, ‘this is me’. Yoga aims at purifying the ahamkara to the point at which we only say ‘I am’ rather than saying ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’. When reaching this pure beingness, any identification with karma ceases. It is this state of which Patanjali in sutra 4.7 says, ‘karma is good, bad or mixed, that of the yogi is neither’.

Summarizing, karma is a form of physical therapy whereby we are living out the content of our subconscious mind in physical form. By consuming the result of our poor past choices (through suffering) we become enticed to and therefore learn to make higher quality future choices.