Tag ashtanga yoga fort lauderdale

Karma and the hope of freedom


The traditional notion of Yoga as liberation can hardly be understood without its counterpart of karma. Karma is the mechanism that keeps an individual consciousness at the core of the human personality bound to the conditioned cycle of existence called samsāra. Samsāra is the provisional reality that we navigate in the course of daily life. Samsāra is what Yoga seeks to liberate us from.  It is the field of our attachments and cravings, it is the place where we discover pleasure, but also where we find pain.  And in this world, our actions are never free, despite common and persistent feelings to the contrary.  For a Yoga practitioner it is worth investigating how the mechanisms of karma work, its underlying implications, and the practical application of working with it.

The word karma is an Anglicized form of the Sanskrit word karman which literally translated means action. Karma as a concept can be traced back to the ancient Upanishads and was originally considered to be amoral. This is distinct from the way that karma is typically understood as a form of moral retribution. In its most basic form, karma is a natural law of causality. Simply stated, any cause will have an effect, and any action will have a consequence. Causality is intrinsic to our understanding of the world and it is woven into the fabric of our decision making process. Society as we know it would cease to function without an understanding of causal relationships. If we have a problem, we seek a cause to formulate a solution. If we get sick, we seek a cause so that we can decide on a cure. If we are happy we identify the cause so that we can try to repeat the pleasure that brought it to us. If I hear a song that makes me happy, I am likely to purchase it so I can repeat the enjoyment by playing it over and over again.

Causality is not the same as meaning, however, and so identifying causes doesn’t necessarily give moral justification to why a thing happened, which can often be frustrating and unsatisfying. Especially when what I perceived as a cause of my happiness is no longer bringing me the same pleasure, or when the cause of suffering doesn’t have a morally defensible justification. How do we explain why random harmful events happen to innocent people. It is often a search for this “why” that we assign a moral dimension to karma.

Karma is often taken personally which leads to the belief that one’s circumstances are the direct result of their own volitional actions, and moreover, that a particular effect can be traced back to a single cause. But, events can only seemingly be traced back to a single cause, like when the wind blows and it causes the branches of a tree to move. Upon inspection this only leads to the question of what caused the wind to blow and what conditions caused the blowing wind to be directed towards the branch. Following the causal chain to its root is considered to be foundational to the yogic enterprise. We make a move from the complexity of causes that influence and largely control the events of a human life to gradually more irreducible causes. In the process we come to terms with the ways in which our perceptions of and attachments to an event largely determine our actions and their future effects. There is often a distinction made between a provisional reality that is the result of the complexity of causes and their effects and an ultimate reality that is considered as irreducible.

One of the root causes of karma is egoism and the belief in oneself as an agent of action. In Yoga philosophy, once the ego is involved, then karma is deterministic and ones actions in this plane lack freedom.  If our current actions and experiences will lead to future consequences, then our past actions and experiences must have led to our current circumstances and have conditioned us to react to it in particular ways.  This may sound like a negative view of action, but it is quite hopeful.  Yoga is traditionally considered the path by which we free ourselves from the conditioning influence of karma. While the notion of ourselves as an agent feels true,  it may only be a story that we tell ourselves after the fact.  Recognizing this is key to overcoming the powerful influence our karma.

If we are truly to act freely, then we should identify with the source of the will, which is transcendent to the ego. We can learn to watch our thoughts, motivations, and reactions without giving them power.  If we act out an agenda based on personal gain, then we are unlikely to consider the implications of our actions beyond our own personal desire. However, by inhibiting our impulses and reactions and instead reflecting on our circumstances and influences, we can begin to see the mechanisms that turn the wheels of fate.  It is through non-attachment to personal gain that ego driven action is transcended.

Every action that we take, conscious and unconscious have a bearing on future outcomes. Our personal actions not only influence our own future circumstances, but also the general circumstances of the world in which we live. The idea that our actions only affect our individual circumstances denies the interdependence of the world.  Recognizing this interdepence would naturally lead to an altruistic consideration for all actions in the social sphere, though ultimately the desire for freedom might be the driving force behind it.

-Greg Nardi



Kurmasana is known as the turtle posture. In the Hindu puranas Kurma is the 2nd avatar of Lord Vishnu, the maintainer, preserver, and protector. Vishnu is said to have 10 avatars or incarnations where he takes form to restore dharma or cosmic order. In several puranas, we see the story of the churning of the ocean of milk, where Vishnu incarnated as a turtle to support Mount Mandara as the rod that the devas and asuras use to churn the ocean of milk with the aim of recovering the elixir of immortality, or amrita buried deep in the ocean. This myth is thick with symbolism and worth studying. However, for today it is sufficient to know that it is an allegory for the yogic journey of consciousness. The devas and asuras represent two sides of the human psyche, the civilized and the natural respectively. In order for yoga to be successful, both of these aspects must be integrated into wholeness. Mount Mandara then represents a focused mind, which is a tool, and the product of an integrated self. With this tool, we can harness our desires and manifest the potentials that are latent, or in this case buried in the consciousness as illustrated by the ocean of milk. Kurma as a turtle represents the minds ability to draw inward as a turtle withdraws its limbs. This is known as pratyahara and is the support for meditative practices.

This posture comes at a point in the primary series after we have worked a series of asymmetrical poses that balance the limbs, affecting the large structures of the pelvis, shoulder girdle, and ribcage that influence the spine. It requires deep external rotation and flexion of the hip. In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois says that this pose purifies the heart and lungs, and the spinal column becomes strong. Gregor Maehle points out in his book Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philosophy, that the spinal strength gained in this pose is a necessary pre-requisite for learning to drop back to and come up from urdhva dhanurasana. This posture is said to purify the kanda, or nerve plexus from which all 72,000 nadis originate. Proficiency in the poses up to bhujapidasana should be demonstrated before attempting this pose. Otherwise, modification of the pose will be necessary. It is common to spend some time learning to do this pose properly and it is important to learn this asana through gradual, consistent practice.

This vinyasa sequence has two states of the asana that are held. The first part is kurmasana where the legs are placed over the shoulder as in bhujapidasana, and then the legs are straightened as we lower to the ground with the strength of the arms. The arms then reach to the sides and we extend the spine. If the shoulders do not come to the floor it is important that we don’t use the legs to force the shoulders down. If there is pain where the collar bones connect to the sternum, do not extend the chest or straighten the legs until this pain goes away.

Many students think that it is desirable to lift the heels off of the floor once the shoulders are down and the legs are straight, however, if we don’t have sufficient hip rotation, then the desire to lift the heels will oftentimes raise the seat off the floor as well. It is preferable to keep the seat grounded as lifting the seat can contract the back and result in disturbed bandha control and breath. However, with the seat grounded and bandhas properly engaged, one should extend the spine, perhaps even lifting the chin a bit. This will help to broaden the collar bones and open the chest.

The second asana state is supta kurmasana. In this position, the spine is rounded like a turtle shell, which gives the asana its name. The arms are brought behind the back to clasp the hands, and the ankles are crossed above the head. Again, many students believe that crossing the legs behind the neck is the objective of this pose. In their effort to bring the torso through the legs, they end up extending the spine. However, in this pose, the head is rounded forward and we rest on the forehead indicating further that the spine is in flexion. One should only cross the legs behind the neck if your flexibility, body proportions and strength allow you to do so while maintaining spinal flexion. It is this second asana that represents the turtle withdrawing its limbs. The soft under part of the body should be drawing inward and helping to support and strengthen the back body. In this pose the mind becomes deeply concentrated. If initially, you find this pose brings anxiety, then take is slowly.

The two asana taken together strengthen the spine in both extension and flexion and act as counter poses for one another.

-Greg Nardi