om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Tag: yoga philosophy

What is karma?

Last night, I had an interesting discussion on twitter about the notion of karma. My friend suggested that making someone responsible for their current situation, by blaming the karma of past lives, is incredibly unjust. Of course, I completely agree about it being unjust. But it’s also a misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of karma. Which took me many tweets to explain (140 characters isn’t a lot for something so complex, and for someone as verbose as I am!), and which is why I’m now elaborating on my points here.

Many people think of karma as a kind of blame, or a way of deciding who ‘deserves’ what. As in: “You’ve done bad things (in this life or another, if you believe in that), so you deserve bad things happening to you”. I disagree wholeheartedly with this interpretation of the concept of karma. Karma is not about blame, it’s not about someone deserving what’s coming to them, it’s simply a description of a cause and effect relationship. As in: “You’ve done bad things, so chances are you’ll probably have to pay for them in some way, at some point”. Whether or not someone ‘deserves’ to pay doesn’t come into it at all — rather just that it’s likely they’ll have to.

The twitter discussion was really centred around the idea of people whose situation in life is less than fortunate, and whether this is of their own doing. The concept of karma might suggest that it is in some way related to things that have happened in that person’s past, and that maybe some of their past actions might have led them to this point, but that’s a far cry from blaming someone for their situation, or saying that they deserve it. I mean, that’s about as useful to anyone as saying that you deserve to miss the bus to work because you were tired and needed a few minutes extra sleep. Suggesting you deserve it doesn’t get you on the bus, and it doesn’t take into account any of the circumstances that might have led to your being tired enough to hit the snooze button once more than was necessary if you were to make that particular bus. The word ‘deserve’ and the concept of ‘blame’ are the application of judgment, and karma is a step before any judgement — it’s a simple observation of relationships.

Using karma to blame someone for their situation also forgets that the concept of karma applies to all parts of time — past, present and future — and that to dismiss someone’s problems by saying they’ve got ‘bad karma’ is probably not going to do great things for our own future karma. To respond with compassion, however, and an attempt to aid the person, should they need and want that aid, is sowing more positive seeds.

It’s worth remembering that, religious beliefs aside, karma, like all living philosophies, are about how to live a more fruitful life, and one that’s not at odds with the community in which you exist. As far as I can see, blame is not a particularly useful concept, and often bogs us down for longer than is necessary in the kind of emotions and emotional reactions that really just make us feel crappy. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a more useful concept. I think someone can take responsibility for something without having to take blame, and I think that taking responsibility without taking blame frees a person up to actually make changes to a situation that they’re finding unpleasant or harmful. It’s all semantics, of course. But words matter. (I’m a writer — can you tell?)

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If you’re interested in a much more eloquent teasing-out of this concept, this article by yoga philosopher, Sally Kempton, is a great start.

Yoga for Moving House

This last fortnight I’ve been using my Sydney yoga practice a little differently. I’ve been moving house. Reluctantly. As well as taking up all my time and energy, it’s been a sad experience for me.  The move was not a voluntary one – our landlord was returning from overseas and wanted to move back into her house. This house has been one of the best houses I’ve ever lived in; my housemates have become almost like family – and it’s the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left home all those years ago.

Unfortunately, it’s also taken up so many of my resources, material and otherwise, that my yoga practice has been substantially reduced. Again. It’s been frustrating.

Looking back through some of my Sydney yoga class plans, I came across one I taught on the theme of impermanence. The series of poses I’d chosen when planning the class seemed to accurately represent the process I felt I was going through moving all my things to the new house: physically demanding, alternately concentrating on balance, strength and letting go, and requiring high levels of concentration.

Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with this statement:

Atha yoga nushashanam

This translates as, “Now, here is yoga as I have observed it in the natural world.” Sanskrit is not a language in which there are superfluous words. Each word in this phrase is just as important as the next, including the word “now”.

Change and impermanence are a part of life. Moving house became a big, long extended reminder of this. As much as I am looking forward to new adventures in my new house, there’s also an underlying resistance to the change and a hesitation that I’m sure will take some time to fade.

But permanence is an illusion anyway, according to yogic philosophy. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and clinging to the idea of permanence will only cause us distress. My hesitation too will change.

The Buddha said, “This existence of ours is as transient as the autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” Buddhists argue that, because of the fragile impermanence in our lives, all we really have is right now. The “now” of Patanjali’s Sutras.

The brilliance of focusing on now is that it can both help you more fully enjoy moments of joy – make the most of them, because you cannot be sure how long they will last – and move through difficult times – they too will pass, you can focus on just getting through one moment at a time.

In a yoga class, we can practise what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’. In any pose, we can draw our attention to any areas of tension, as well as any areas where we might feel more flexible. We can notice those parts of our body that are touching the ground, notice how the ground feels beneath our feet at that moment. If a pose is particularly difficult, I often tell my students to focus on their breath, making sure they can still breathe fully; all they need to do is get through that one breath. After that, all they need to focus on is getting through that next breath, and so on.

Of course, the same practice could apply to me, settling into my new house and moving through my sadness about the end of the old house. Over the next few weeks I’m trying to focus on unpacking just one box at a time. I’ve unpacked all the major things; the boxes that are left are me settling in, like I might slow my breath down gradually in yoga asana practice.

Yesterday I went for a walk around my new neighbourhood; on Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market just around corner from my house, I found a new strip of cafes, and some interesting streets.

The frustration of moving has given me a chance to try and take what I’ve learnt about impermanence and change on the yoga mat into my life in a new way. On my walk yesterday I also came across the type of opportunity that often presents itself with an unwelcome change: just up the road from my new house is a beautiful new Sydney yoga studio space.