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What is Karma?

Updated: May 30

Karma and Karma Yoga

I'm sure you've heard the word Karma before - it's a word that comes up in everyday conversation, however, it's a word that's often misused and sometimes misunderstood. Karma is often thought of as sort of a balance sheet of rights and wrongs, and good and bad, and it’s sometimes used to explain why things are the way they are. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Karma’s a b#$%h”. But in reality, this understanding about what Karma is, is limited, if not slightly misinterpreted.

The word Karma is a Sanskrit word that is defined as Action. It is also defined as the Volition of Action, as well as the Results of Past Actions. 

One of my favorite books written on the subject of Karma was written by Sadhguru. It is an entire book in which he unpacks many different layers and dimensions of Karma. This blog post isn't intended to be an exhaustive explanation of karma, but we’ll go over some of the basics. 

Karma by Sadhguru

One of my favorite explanations that Sadhguru shares about Karma, is that by trying to use the concept of Karma to provide some explanation about why things are the way they are, is actually kind of futile. It's similar to having a debate with somebody about fate versus destiny, or the chicken and egg argument. We'll never actually have the answer to those questions, but even if we did, it wouldn't really affect what we do with that today.

Karma in Action

Here’s where Karma becomes more practical - instead of using Karma as a means of explaining past events that led to a current situation, if we instead shift the focus of Karma toward our ability to respond in the present moment, it is a fundamental shift in the way that we approach Karma. 

This phrase “ability to respond” is contained within the word Responsibility. Sadhguru says “Our life is our Karma.” So when you say “this is my Karma” what you are really saying is “I'm responsible for my life”. By shifting responsibility from Heaven to oneself, one becomes the maker of one's destiny. If Karma means “action,” who's action? It's my action. Who’s responsibility? My responsibility. 

So a really empowering thought here is that Karma means you can change your destiny, not simply be ruled by it. Another quote from the book “Karma” is:

“Karma means you are capable of being your best and doing your best in this very lifetime.” 

I love how this acknowledges that we can do our best in this lifetime, not irrespective of our current situation, but based on our current situation. Karma can be applied as a means of taking the best course of action that we have the ability to take. 


So the definition of Karma is action, the volition of action, and the results of past actions. Did you know that Karma Yoga is one of the primary paths of enlightenment through Yoga? Now, there's a a bit of a delineation between Karma and Karma Yoga, and the delineation between these two really has to do with our approach to the actions that we take, and our relationship to the results of those actions. Let's take a moment and look at the difference between Karma and Karma Yoga.

The difference really comes down to one simple question: Do the actions that we take result as a source of entanglement? Or a source of bondage? 

Another quote from the book Karma by Sadhguru is:

“Every single activity you engage in can be used as a process of entanglement or a process of Liberation. If your activity is a process of entanglement, it is karma. If you use the same activity as a process of Liberation it's karma yoga.”

So here we can see this delineation between Karma meaning the results of our actions as well as Karma being defined as the action itself, and the volition behind that action. 

Sri Swami Satchidanda speaks about a Sanskrit phrase which goes: 

“Mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha mokshayoho.”

According to Satchidanda, this phrase means, “As the mind, so the man. Bondage or liberation are in your own mind. If you feel bound, you are bound. If you feel liberated, you are liberated. Things outside neither bind nor liberate you, only your attitude toward them does that.”

Now I think it's fair to say when we're in challenging circumstances or in a difficult period of life, it can be a challenge to just choose in our own minds whether we feel bound or whether we feel liberated. This is where Karma Yoga becomes a practice. I mentioned how Karma Yoga is an entire path toward liberation (a Yoga Marga). The karma Marga is essentially describing the path of Union through action. It's about the volition and the quality of our actions with non-attachment to their outcomes. When actions are done without selfish desire, enlightenment is the outcome of all of our actions performed in this way. 

Non-Attachment to Results

Another important principle in Karma and Karma Yoga is our relationship to the results of our actions. Karma assumes a cause and effect relationship. Everything that we do will have some effect or some sort of outcome, but as a basis for whether something is a source of bondage or liberation, our relationship to that outcome is essential. 

“Action is never a problem it's the expectation of the fruit of the action that causes suffering. If you saw your life as an expression of happiness rather than a pursuit of it, you would have made a significant Paradigm shift.” - Sadhguru

A common source of suffering is when we compare our lives or circumstances to others, or when we feel disappointed when things don’t turn out a particular way. To the extent that we find contentment in what we have, and  joy in what we're doing, Karma and Karma Yoga are intricately intertwined with our own attitudes

Results of Past Actions

So karma and Karma Yoga describe the law of cause and effect.  Every action can have an equal and opposite reaction. We've looked at how Karma & Karma Yoga is delineated by actions that create bondage or actions that create Liberation. We've looked at how the way that we engage in actions or volition plays a role in whether it creates bondage or Liberation as well as our attachment to results being a source of bondage or Liberation.

Lastly, an important concept with Karma and Karma Yoga are the various ways that Karma can leave an imprint on us through something called Vasanas and Samskaras.


Vasana is a Sanskrit word that translates to a smell, an essence, or an imprint. In other words, the results of all of our actions can leave a particular essence. Think of your chopping board at home - if you cooked with onions or garlic the night before, if you didn't get the chopping board completely cleaned, there might be an essence of those foods left behind. Likewise, the essence of actions that have led to bondage or liberation, that essence may also be left behind in the mind, the heart, or our field of energy (Prana). The essence that we emit, can also become what we attract. 

A quote you might have heard from Lao Tzu is:

“Watch your thoughts they become your words, watch your words they become your actions, watch your actions they become your habits, watch your habits they become your character, watch your character it becomes your destiny.”


The second type of Karmic "baggage" is something called a Samskara, which is translated as an imprint, a groove, or a rut.

Similarly to how a Vasana leaves an imprint, you can think of a Samskara as a much deeper imprint. From Sanskrit, the prefix “Sam” means to collect or gather, and the second half of the word “Kara” means Action (related to the Sanskrit word Karma). Samskaras are actions, habits, or compulsions that are based on past conditioning - most often done unconsciously.

Karma Yoga

The tools and philosophy of yoga help us to not only notice the ways that we perform actions, and whether they are a source of bondage or liberation, but they're also tools intended to help us make unconscious behaviors more conscious. This is what describes the process of Karma Yoga as a pathway of yoga - a pathway toward liberation and enlightenment. By making the unconscious more conscious, we then have the opportunity to shift and transform.

About the Author:

 Jason Wright

Jason Wright Yoga Teacher

Jason has been teaching Yoga in Wollongong since 2019, and in San Diego California since 2017. He has been an educator for over 20 years and is passionate about the wisdom and transformational power of Yoga. Jason facilitates 200hr Yoga Teacher Trainings in Sydney, Australia, specializing in Yoga history and philosophy. As a lifelong learner himself, he has completed trainings all over the world including 18 months of full-time Yoga studies in college.

If you would like to learn more, Jason has published several online courses about Yoga Philosophy which can be found at

The topic of Karma and Karma Yoga is explored in more depth in the course The Wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita

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