In the Name of Karma

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

The concept of karma is one that I have always struggled with.

Truthfully, I probably have a pretty immature understanding of it, as does most of the western world. But still, it is something that comes up in yoga often, and as yoga teachers, it is worth taking a look at.

The general gist of karma is that is that it is the sum total of one’s actions during every point of their existence, and those actions determine what will happen in that person’s future. It is cause and effect on steroids. In a karmic framework, whatever is going on in your life right now is the result of something you have already done, and whatever you are doing now will determine what happens in your future. Which makes pretty good sense, right?

Except for when your child gets cancer. Or you lose your home in a flood. Or you are born with a debilitating genetic disease. Or you live in a war zone. Or you get raped. Or, or, or. I just cannot swallow the pill that any of the above scenarios are the results of some previous action, in this life or another. That just seems too cruel to be possible. Of course I also don’t believe in reincarnation, which is probably the root of my trouble with karma. Karma just doesn’t hold up when you are looking at it through the lens of a single lifetime in which good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people over and over again.

But none of that really matters much anyway, as it is only my personal opinion. And I am definitely not trying to change anyone’s mind about matters of the spirit, especially ones that are so central to over 1.5 billion Hindus and Buddhists and many of my own beloved friends and teachers. Certainly, if we all conducted our lives with a greater attention to the consequences of our actions, the world would be in MUCH better shape.

But there is one thing I absolutely know to be true about karma; if anyone (employer, teacher, student, whomever) asks you to do something for them “in the name of karma,” RUN. Cuz ya know what? That is crap. It is yogic gaslighting. It is manipulation of the worst kind. And although I’m no expert, even I know that’s probably not how karma works.

In my experience, I have seen the karma card played mostly by yoga business owners trying to get people to do work for them for low or no pay. (Remember the boundary blog post? Here is yet another example of that). I am talking about a boss asking someone to work uncompensated while they themselves reap some sort of benefit, and using the concept of “karma” to pressure them into doing it. This line seems to occur mostly with new teachers and teacher trainees, although I have seen it used with experienced teachers as well. And it drives me up the freaking wall.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be many great reasons to work for free if you happen to be in a lucky enough financial position to do such a thing. I happen to be a modern dancer as well as a yoga teacher, and I can tell you that if I had never danced for free, I would never have danced at all. And volunteering your time to help someone (even yoga business owners!) in need, can be noble, humbling, and gratifying. But to use “karma” as means of persuading someone to do these things? That is just wrong. And it is also co-opting a spiritual belief for personal gain which is wronger than wrong.

The choice to engage in work for no or low pay belongs entirely to the individual engaging in it. Their “karma” is theirs alone. It is not a tool for negotiation, certainly not for manipulation.

I am curious: have any of you out there also had the experience of being asked to do something “in the name of karma?” If so, how did it make you feel, and how did you respond? If you are comfortable sharing, I would love to hear your perspective.

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