In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali teaches us that yoga can liberate us. It gives us tools for overcoming attachment, aversion, and egoism. If we don’t practice yoga, that is, if we don’t find a means of liberation, we will continue to suffer. For classical yogis, continued suffering means an endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth — the cycle of karma.
In Sutra 2.12, Patanjali tells us the impressions of works have their roots in afflictions and arise as experience in the present and the future births. In other words, if you don’t work out your karma now, you’ll be back to work it out in another lifetime!
If you think about karma and reincarnation in Western terms, it sometimes seems appealing. Maybe because in the West, the concept of sin has a more permanent consequence with only one chance (one human life) to get it right. If this is your tradition, the chance to come back and have a different (presumably better) experience may be attractive.
But yogis don’t want this. Yogis hope that living a life devoted to the practice of yoga—that is with the goal of union with God—will liberate them from the cycle of karma and the human experience.
What, exactly is the cycle of karma?
“Karma is a cosmic law that makes learning possible,” says Reverend Jaganath Carrera. In Patanjali’s world, it was as familiar as the concept of sin is to Judeo-Christians. Karma is living in harmony with nature and understanding cause and effect. If attachments, desires, and egoism cause pain, the way out is detachment and overcoming the ego. Karma, then, is living for a higher purpose: union with the divine.
To me, the goal of yoga is a lot like the goal of Christianity, though admittedly Christians approach the goal in a different way. Union with God is the goal of all spiritual practices, even if the word God isn’t used. Religious people speak of doing God’s will. In the East, God is not seen as a personal being, so transcendence is described differently. If God is not understood as a personal being, the focus is more on moving beyond our individuality and smallness to become one with all that is.
Once we’ve broken the cycle of karma, we’ll understand truth in a way that none of us can understand now. This is true regardless of the religious or spiritual practice we use to move closer to it. Until that time, as Patanjali goes on to explain in the next few verses, cause and effect continue to govern life. Sutra 2.14 says: They have pleasure or pain as their fruit, according as their cause be virtue or vice.
They in this case refers to each cause—action, situation, circumstance—that in turn has an effect. In general, the idea is good follows good, and evil follows evil. Is it that simple? I’m not sure. For yogis it may not matter, since in the end, the goal is to break this cycle of karma entirely.