Embracing Karma | Sivananda Yoga Ranch


This Life is an opportunity to work through our karma. Everyone has challenges in life. In fact, character is defined by the way we meet our challenges. The ultimate question is, “To be, or not to be!” in the midst of those challenges. When we need help who do we go to? – A busy person who is skillful in dealing with challenges.

The most amazing people that we know are people skillful in meeting challenges. Think of the person who is physically or mentally challenged, rises above the challenge to greatness. Over amazing odds, a great person who embraces life reveals talents, art, wisdom, prosperity. Think of the blind or even deaf musician or Professor Stephen Hawking unraveling the mysteries of quantum physics from his wheelchair. Anyone who seemingly loses everything, then rebuild their lives, go on to become an inspiration of discipline, compassion and wisdom. It is not by attempting to escape karma that we escape suffering, but by transforming our attitude to challenges, adapting our lifestyle to the conditions we find ourselves. How able are we to care for our needs, adapt or needs, face our fears, clean up our messes, repair what is broken, to live simply and to think nobly? Success and happiness in relationships and in life in general depend on our ability to embrace our karma. To embrace our karma we need to understand it; and to understand our karma we need to understand our minds. The science of Yoga develops a discriminating mind that understands the mind’s habits. Which thoughts, feelings and perceptions lead to suffering, and which lead to freedom from suffering, and ultimately to the wisdom that embraces all life with unconditional love as sacred?

The Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest scriptures of Yoga, teaches the wisdom of embracing karma. It is a dialogue between Krishna, the Divine wisdom of the soul that exists within everyone, and the hero Arjuna, representing all spiritual aspirants who have the courage to confront their own inner demons of fear and desire that lead to confusion on the battlefield of life. The Gita teaches how to embrace karma and to battle those demons honoring the sacredness of all life. “Yoga is skill in action”.

Thou art Divine! Live up to it! This is the religion of life. This is a call not only to embrace karma, but to transform and finally to transcend karma. But first we must understand the mind and how we create and recreate our karma not only life to life, but moment to moment.

Yoga psychology recognizes that just as dreams are created completely by the mind, waking experience is also fundamentally a projection of unconscious desires and fears. What is the difference between the dream and waking states? During dream the mind attempts to digest unprocessed impressions from the subconscious mind. During the waking state the mind interacts with sense objects based upon subconscious impressions which the mind associates with those objects in the form of likes, dislikes, attachment, fears, etc. The subconscious mind is a vast collection of these, emotionally charged impressions of past experiences, called samskaras in Sanskrit. These samskaras actually define our present and future experience. Perception is colored by every subconscious impression providing references for categorizing and judging information coming from not only the senses and but also from the words we read or hear. This capacity allows us to solve countless mysteries by referencing bits of information with the vast database of subconscious samskaras, but it can also create a tight box of fear, attachment and prejudice that can condemn us to a life of suffering. (Letters put in random order or misspelled can still be read; we can recognize a friend from a crowd or at a distance because the mind fills in missing information with past impressions. Imaginary fears, prejudices, infatuations are all distortions projected from past impressions. The impressions which mark us most are those colored with likes and dislikes, attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain.

We call these emotionally charged samskaras, Vasanas, the seeds of desire which color all of our perceptions, feelings, thoughts and imagination. Vasanas are behind all attraction, attachment and craving, and pleasure as well as their opposites – hatred, anger, jealousy, fear and suffering. Vasanas are the seeds of likes and dislikes, stored in the subconscious awaiting the conditions of sense stimulation or memory to come to the surface of the mind in the form of vrittis, or thought waves. In dream the mind manufactures the conditions. In the waking state, the mind actually seeks the conditions in the external environment. We are consciously and unconsciously attracted to both what we like and what we fear or hate. Dream is an expression of the subconscious vasanas or samskaras. Waking state is an interaction between vasana/ samskaras and a world which reacts to our thoughts, words and actions. By embracing our karma we embrace life and transform the negative impressions into positive ones.

Patanjali Maharishi explains clearly in the Raja Yoga Sutras that “The cause of future karma is the identification of the experience with the object that is being experienced,” (II, 17). The causes of suffering and the means to liberation are revealed in the Yoga Sutras. This knowledge helps us to understand how the mind gets trapped in its own wrong understanding, as well as providing the knowledge to dispel that ignorance and to control the mind. Patanjali’s famous definition of Yoga as the restraint of the thought waves is the key to this understanding, (Yogas Chittavritti Nirodhah). When the distractions and the agitation of the mind are removed, the perceiver rests in his own true nature, as spirit or consciousness. When the mind is not quiet or concentrated, the perceiver identifies with the modifications or thoughts. Raja Yoga teaches us to not only take responsibility for our karma, but also the experience and even the identification with our karma through the practice of abhyasa or concentration on the real; vairagya or detachment from the false identification with the objects; and viveka the discrimination between the real and the unreal. If we know who we are as pure conscious being and recognize the world as the manifestation of that pure consciousness associated with ever changing diverse manifestations of Divinity, the restless mind will become quiet, and “the perceiver will rest in his own true nature”,(I,3).

For this we need to understand the causes of suffering and the practices that will free us from the suffering. Patanjali calls these causes of suffering, Kleshas:

  1. Avidya – ignorance
  2. Asmita – ego, false self based on identification with objects
  3. Raga – attraction, attachment, desire, pleasure. Conditions for happiness
  4. Dwesha – repulsion, aversion, hatred, pain. Excuses for suffering
  5. Abhinivesha – clinging to life; fear of death. Hurls us back into ignorance, ego and raga/Dwesha

Wrong action chooses pleasant over good or dharma. To embrace karma is to follow dharma, or (that which sustains life, increases sattwa, and leads to liberation).

To remove ignorance and the subsequent kleshas we need to cultivate sattwa. The unstable, changing nature and karma is propelled by force of changing three gunas, (sattwa, rajas, and tamas). Sattwa is clarity, universal vision, dharma, maturity. Rajas is agitation, desire, attachment, activity. Tamas is darkness, ignorance, inertia, fear, negativity. Practice of yoga transforms tamas to rajas, then rajas to sattwa; and ultimately transcends sattwa and all karma by identification with unchanging Purusha or Atman or Spirit.

The first step to cultivating sattwa is to embrace our karma and to look for our swadharma, or our personal dharma. Each person has lessons to be learned for our spiritual evolution from every challenge life offers him or her. The real world offers us opportunities that we could never imagine in our wildest dreams. The karmic reactions to our thoughts, words and actions give us the feedback we need to remove tamas and rajas from our perceptions.

In fact the Yoga of discrimination looks at karma for opportunities to avoid the suffering that has not yet manifested, by changing the wrong thinking and actions that have created those conditions of suffering. Karma manifests in three forms:

  1. Sanchita karma is the collection of all of the samskaras or impressions and vasanas or seed desires that we carry with us in our subconscious mind. Many of these impressions are carried collectively as a family, a community, a race, a religion, a gender, a nation, and a species; and many are unique to individual attitudes, traumas, addictions, fears, imagination, prejudice, or other “issues”. Our character is defined by these impressions.
  2. Prarabdha karma is that portion of the vast collection of impressions that propel the individual into a set of external conditions of time, space and causation that manifest as fate or destiny. This is the karma we either complain about or feel that we have earned. Body, mind, family, community, class, race, religion, gender, personality, education, work, health, etc., are all manifestations of Prarabdha karma. These all change with the changing nature with time. Prarabdha karma, or our individual destinies and even collective fate is generated by our desires, fears and prejudice; and by every thought and action based on those expectations. For example, a person that we admire, respect and trust is likely to become a friend, (unless we are attracted to people who disrespect and fear us); and conversely a person who we fear, disrespect or hate will very likely become an enemy. In a dream friends and enemies are completely fabricated by the mind. In the waking state friends and enemies are made by our thoughts and actions. We normally dislike and are disliked based on fear and distrust.
  3. Agami Karma constitutes our present actions that create new impressions in the mind and set off forces that will define future conditions. Think of a gardener working now with the soil, the plants, the insects, etc. for the future harvest. Conversely, our present pollution, waste, fears and cruelty will create imbalances and negative reactions which we will need to experience in the future as both physical reactions and as impressions in our mind that will affect our ability to relate functionally to our world.

The qualities of our thoughts and actions are sattwic, rajasic and tamasic. Fundamentally these qualities are attitudes of our mind. Rajas and tamas are bi-polar passions or attraction and hatred; “I love you honey” and “Go to hell honey”; excitement and depression; superiority and inferiority; pleasure and pain; beauty and ugliness. Sattwa sees the one in all; Thou are Divine! Live up to it!

Except for the very highest states of Super conscious realization, the practice of Yoga is cultivation of sattwa. Only when the mind becomes purified of rajas and tamas, desire and fear, is sattwa or the pure mind transcended. Karma Yoga purifies our selfishness by making our actions dharmic. Bhakti Yoga purifies the heart by adding the nectar of loving devotion to all of our thoughts and actions. Jnana Yoga purifies the mind by removing ignorance through correct knowledge. Raja Yoga generates sattwa and removes rajas and tamas through a series of self disciplines known as Ashtanga Yoga:

  1. Yama restrains negative habits of violence, deception, stealing and cheating, lust and gluttony, and greediness and covetousness.
  2. Niyama cultivates sattwa through purity, peace and contentment, will and inner strength, knowledge of Self, and surrender of ego or devotion to Ishwara.
  3. Asana generates sattwa by removing physical tension and energetic blockages, building strength, flexibility, and steadiness and releasing negative emotions held in the body, allowing body and mind to relax and to experience the infinite. Asana removes tamas and rajas.
  4. Pranayama brings clarity and balance of mind while increasing energy and the capacity to concentrate, the will power, and the awareness of the present moment. As the mind moves through the power of prana, control of prana helps control the mind. Pranayama burns tamas and calms rajas.
  5. Pratyahara is the practice of abstraction of mind from the senses so that concentration can take place. Pratyahara is essential for both concentration and vairagya (detaching from thoughts).
  6. Dharana or concentration steadies the mind, overcoming obstacles and generates clarity, enthusiasm, sattwa and knowledge of the Self.
  7. Dhyana or meditation generates sattwa through the direct experience of silence, bliss, peace and intuitional knowledge.
  8. Samadhi burns samskaras, vasanas and karma through direct experience of the Self or Atman – Self-realization.

Karma is our teacher. The knowledge that Karma teaches through direct experience burns the ignorance of erroneous understanding and the kleshas (roots of suffering) generated by Avidya or ignorance. The practice of Yoga is the Agami karma or self-effort that generates sattwa and destroys the ignorance of ego, desire, and fear. Through the practice of yoga embrace your karma burn your negative samskaras and the infatuation of vasanas, and be free.

Kaivalya (perfect independence) comes when the gunas (qualities), devoid of motive (the kleshas), become latent, (vasanas are burned). The power of consciousness gets established in its own nature. (IV, 34)

You may also like


  • Laurie (Sita Lakshmi) April 2, 2017   Reply →

    Om Namo Narayanaya! Sri, dear teacher, I just wanted to drop you a short message of thanks for this article. It came to me at a very timely moment during struggle and striving to right my course back to where I was a month or so ago. I thought I had lost my way but kept up Bhakti and meditation as well as Master’s recommended series of asanas. Yours words here have given me a much-needed reminder and boost. I am divine! I will make the most of it.

    Hope you and the others at the ashram are well. How I miss being there!

    Thank you again for everything.

    With Om and Prem,
    Sita (TTC 2001)

  • Paula May 5, 2019   Reply →

    Having a ‘lifeline’ to stay connected to the realities of who we are and what are dharma is, manifest as sacred spiritual readings and texts. Translating them so they have more meaning to our personal and individual lives is key to understanding them and sitting listening to our teachers also helps.

    Thank you for sharing.

Leave a comment