Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali

Ashtanga Yoga

by Jayaram V

He who can withdraw his senses completely from the sense objects the way a tortoise withdraws its limbs , his intelligence is firmly established. (Bhagavad gita 2.58)

What is yoga?

Yoga means union.

Yoga also means state or condition. For example, subha yoga means an auspicious state, dhana yoga means a state of prosperity.

Thus, yoga is used to denote both the means and an end.

Through different yogas or states of awareness, one achieves the highest state of yoga, which is self-absorption or union with the inner Self.

Hence you have different types of yogas named after the yogas used in them to achieve the highest union, such as karma yoga, bhakti yoga, buddhi yoga, sanyasa yoga, jnana yoga and so on.

In all these, the names, karma, bhakti, buddhi etc., denote the principal method or state used by the yogis to realize their highest purpose.

What is the purpose of yoga?

The purpose of yoga is liberation, which arises from the union between the seer (the Self) and the seen (the mind and the body).

When the mind and intelligence are clogged with impurities, the seer (the seeing one) cannot see himself clearly. Instead of seeing himself, he sees the mind and body, known as field or Prakriti, and their modifications, and mistakes them for himself.

This state is called avidya or ignorance, which, according to yoga tradition, is the root cause of suffering (dukha) and which gives rise to duality, attraction and aversion and delusion.

Technically, we all are ignorant because we do not see ourselves but our nature which we mistake for ourselves. As long we experience the duality of the knower and known we cannot escape from this state of ignorance.

When the intelligence of a person becomes as pure as the Self, then it becomes a pure mirror. In that pure state, when the seer goes into meditation, he sees nothing but himself and realizes his true identity.

Thus the highest purpose of yoga is clarity of vision through self-purification, which leads to liberation.

Yoga aims to accomplish this through an intense and systematic cleansing of the mind and body with the regular practice (abhyasa) of various techniques until they cease to bother the seer in his meditative state of self-absorption.

In truth there is no union, just the removal of the impurities and obstacles that are present between the seer and his vision and transcendence of duality between the knower and the known, which, under normal circumstances, prevent him from knowing his true nature.

A true yogi is awake while his mind is asleep, in contract to ordinary people whose minds are awake while they are asleep.

This is the fundamental difference between a yogi and a bhogi (worldly person).

What is the result of yoga?

What stands between the seer and the truth regarding himself is the mind itself.

When it is impure it becomes like a thick wall and prevents the seer from looking beyond the activities of the mind. When it is transparent, it becomes like a glass or mirror and enables him to see his own reflection.

The yoga tradition identifies such activities of the mind as modifications or vrttis. They are like the waves on the surface of an ocean.

You may also compare them to the winds and the clouds that flit across the sky or to the images and action that appear on the surface of a screen.

They distract us from seeing clearly.

Yoga aims to suppress all these movements and motions of the mind so that one see clearly, without distractions, the true nature of oneself.

Thus, the end result of yoga practice is the emergence of a whole new person resulting from the following.

  • Complete cessation of the modifications of the mind
  • Enhanced physical and mental abilities (siddhis)
  • Sharp and pure intelligence (viveka khyati)
  • Absence of negativity (vitarka)
  • Purity (sattva)
  • Indifference to gunas (guna vaitrsnya)
  • One-pointed mind (ekagrata)
  • Detachment (vairagya)
  • A resting and transparent mind (samapattti)
  • Complete peace and equanimity (samadhi)
  • Sameness (samya)
  • Pleasantness (saumanasya)
  • Happiness or bliss (sukha or ananda)
  • Self-realization (svarupa jnana)
  • Liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (kaivalya).

You may practice yoga for any number of purposes, to realize your essential nature or to be what you want to be.

You may use it to explore your inner world, overcome mental and physical suffering or gain control over your actions and reactions, or experience greater calm and peace.

Whatever may be your purpose and worldview, and whether you believe in soul or not, or in God, overall yoga is a beneficial practice, well within your means, inexpensive, and time-tested, which can help you to become a better person and express the highest vision and virtue that are hidden in you.

Yoga is a purifier. It removes the dirt clogging your outer personality to show you your own hidden personality, your diamond body.

When you practice yoga regularly, you become observant and thoughtful. You become the seer.

There is a lot you do not know about yourself either because you never paid attention to it or your mind is filled with many assumptions and preconceived notions about the world and yourself which do not let you think clearly or live in peace.

In yoga, you resolve such problems. With each foray into your inner world, through concentration and meditation, you become conscious of the hidden aspects of your personality. You discover yourself.

Yoga as a cleaning mechanism

Parisuddhatma, a pure soul, in a pure body is the result of yoga.

The Self is always pure. It is the body which needs to be purified to achieve that exalted state.

Yoga works like a dredge. It dredges out a lot of dirt hidden in the substratum of your consciousness through systematic cleaning.

It removes the toxins and blockages present in your body.

It cleans and purifies your breathing channels.

It wakes up your senses and invigorates them with clean energy.

It clears the channels of your thinking and perceptions, which gives you a unique opportunity to see things differently and experience life differently.

It removes the delusion and ignorance enveloping your soul by resolving the gunas that are responsible for it.

Your consciousness is not a product of one lifetime. It is an accumulation of countless lifetimes, which you carry in you in the form of latent impressions or past memories (samskaras).

They are like your mental DNA. They shape your personality, thinking and behavior from deep within, as your hidden program. You cannot just get rid of them by merely scratching the surface.

Yoga gives you an ability to arrest the formation of your future karma and resolve past karma by realizing the hidden forces that are at work in influencing your thoughts and actions.

The roots of Ashtanga Yoga and connection with Hinduism

There are many types of yoga and many ways to practice yoga. Most of them are variations of the ancient yoga known as Ashtanga Yoga which is described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Anga means limb. Ashta means eight. Ashtanga yoga means eight limbs of yoga. These limbs are the means to practice yoga and achieve self-absorption. Of them the first five are external and the last three are internal.

There are some who argue that yoga is a secular tradition.

Yoga, can be used for secular ends, just as you can use a ballpoint pen to scratch your back.

Just as one can practice Hinduism for one or more of the four chief aims of human life, namely duty (dharma), wealth (artha), sexual pleasure (kama) and liberation (moksha), one can practice yoga for any of these four aims.

Indeed, yoga has been practiced for one or more of these four aims for several centuries. Yoga has been used since the earliest times to perform religious duty, earn wealth, indulge in tantric sex and achieve liberation.

However, those who try to argue that yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism, would be disappointed to know that Yoga is an ancient school of Hinduism.

Its roots are firmly found in Hinduism in general and the Vedic and Saiva traditions in particular. Both these are very ancient traditions of Hinduism, stretching back to prehistoric times, which used yoga and its variants and prototypes for spiritual liberation.

Until the system was reinvented in the west, there was never a tradition or school in India, China, Japan or elsewhere in the oriental world, that advocated the practice of yoga or its variant forms purely for material and commercial ends.

People did use yoga for livelihood, but they also respected its spiritual purpose.

India had a long tradition of ascetic movements. The Rig-Veda refers to a special class of ascetics called kesins, the long haired ones, who had the ability to fly in the air with the help of their breath.

The tradition of yoga in Hinduism originated with the internalization of sacrificial rituals, with the body being elevated as the place of sacrifice and the Self as the sacrificer.

What the Vedic priests tried to accomplish through sacrificial ceremonies on a temporary basis, the seers and yogis tried to accomplish through internal rituals on a lasting basis.

The symbolic performance of the ceremony in the form of a mental sacrifice, with the purpose of the sacrifice remaining the same, made more sense, proved less expensive and easier to practice in all seasons.

Therefore, they integrated the dynamics of speech, breath, sacrifice, mantra, tantra, tapa, dhyana, manana, pranava and Nidhidhyasana into the practice of yoga and made it the focal point of spiritual practice and means to liberation.

Yoga was a revolutionary step in the progress of Hinduism, which transformed it fundamentally and radically from a purely ritual religion into a spiritual religion of great depth.

We can find this transformation within Hinduism, when we compare the older Upanishads, such as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya with the Upanishads that were composed later, such as the Aitareya, Katha, Kausitaki, Kena, Prasna and Svetasvatara Upanishads.

Comparatively they were later than the first two, but contained verses that were composed long before the birth of the Buddha, and nearly a thousand years before the birth of Patanjali, if we accept the date of Patanjali around 200 A.D.

Yoga as a system found ready acceptance in Saivism. Siva was worshipped in ancient times as an ascetic yogi seated in meditation.

The Puranas and the Saiva scriptures consider him as the originator of yoga and yoga postures practiced by his followers in different schools of Saivism.

The Saivas perfected the art and practice of yoga and the use of chemicals and even sex to enhance the effects of yoga practice and simulate various states of consciousness.

The tantras provide elaborate commentary upon the methods of internal worship and the means to escape from the bondage and delusion of the mortal world. The approach of various schools of Saivism is more or less the same. The jiva is the starting point. Yoga is the means. And union with Siva is the end.

The Katha Upanishad suggests how to withdraw the senses and restrain the mind to experience the Self. It defines yoga as the condition in which the senses are restrained. The following verses illustrate the point.

"Only when the five senses and the knowledge (they bring), together with the mind, come to rest, and the intellect remains unwavering, that they say the highest state is reached." (2.3.10).

"That (state) they consider yoga which is stable with the senses firmly restrained. Then only one becomes mindful, for the (state of) yoga comes and goes." (2.3.11).

The Mahabharata mentions ashta-guna yoga or yoga that results in eight distinct qualities in yogis, which Yajnavalkya explains to king Janaka. According to their conversation, when a yogi dies he wanders with his subtle body in the worlds with these eight qualities. Yajnavalkya also refers to pranayama, concentration, restraining of the senses etc. He explains that the practice of yoga makes a person stable as a rock.

Scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita and the Ashtavakra Gita reflect the importance given to Yoga in Hinduism.

The doctrine of self-realization proposed in the Ashtavakra Gita is essentially the same as proposed in the Yoga Sutras, but more emphatic, specific and devotional in character than what Patanjali suggested.

The Bhagavadgita goes beyond the classical yoga and gives a much wider interpretation to the meaning and scope of yoga on the path of liberation. The title of every chapter in it contains the word yoga.

These and other references establish beyond doubt that yoga was practiced in ancient India long before Patanjali. It is very likely that he codified an existing body of yoga philosophy and instructions in the form of the sutras.

The manner in which the scripture was composed in the form of short aphorisms indicates that it formed part of an elaborate spiritual discipline and its students were familiar with the terminology of yoga. They might have used the sutras either as mental hooks for meditation or for discussion and deliberation. The following points are worth noting.

1. The technical words used in the Yoga Sutras bear an uncanny resemblance to the words used in the Vedas and Upanishads both in their meaning and application.

2. The philosophy of liberation is essentially the same as that of the Upanishads.

3. The concepts of detachment, bondage, phenomenal world, rebirth, duality, pairs of opposites etc., are essentially the same concepts found in many Hindu scriptures.

Therefore, it is hard to believe that Patanjali would have been ignorant of the Vedas or the Vedic tradition of ancient India and invented a whole philosophy and set of instructions entirely on his own.

While skeptics may argue that Patanjali did not mention God or Brahman, His teachings can be perfectly justified and explained from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta with no duality between the Individual Self and the Universal Self. The same Lord (Isvara) rules both the microcosm and the macrocosm. If you are a seer, brought up on the Vedanta tradition, you will not see any duality between the individual Self and the Supreme Self.

Sakrama Yoga

The Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali is the most systematic practice of yoga found in the ancient yoga systems. I prefer to call it Sakrama Yoga,1 meaning yoga in the right order (sakrama) and for a right purpose, since it aims to bring about an enduring transformation of the mind and body through a gradual and systematic transformative process involving an eight step traditional program.

Fortunately, this program is in the public domain and you can practice it anywhere, without any permission.

In this age of instant gratification, people have pulled apart this system and picked its juicy elements. To use an analogy again, using yoga purely as a physical exercise is like eating the banana peel and throwing away the banana!

The ultimate aim of yoga is to set you free from the shackles of your own mind and conditioning.

It is not meant to find acceptance and approval in the world but to become indifferent to the trappings of the world, accepting it for what it is, a field of experience.

If you are aiming for instant results through the practice of yoga, unless your aim is very limited and low, you will be disappointed.

The effort involved in practicing yoga is similar to the effort involved in cleaning a river, such as the present day river Ganga, a sacred river, which flows in India and which is polluted heavily with waste of all kinds.

In terms of the impurities accumulated over several lives, our minds are not less impure. The substratum of our consciousness is clogged with the waste of all kinds.

Therefore a great effort, indeed, is needed, in the right way, to clean it and experience clarity, stability and purity in your thinking and behavior.

The limbs of yoga

The eight steps or limbs mentioned in the Yoga Sutras are: yama (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (control of breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration of mind), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (transcendental state). They are explained below.


Yama consists of the practice of five restraints: ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth) asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (disowning of possessions). Of these, non-violence is the foundation.

The yamas are what you would not do or avoid doing. The control for not to do comes from within. So the practice of yamas lead to self-control.

According to the Yoga Sutras (2.31), the yamas are absolute and universal. They are applicable irrespective of birth, place, time and circumstances and no one is exempted from them. You cannot divide them or dilute them or invent your own set of yamas.

They are the great vows (maha vratas) you undertake in the presence of your guru or your personal deity, before you begin the practice.

In others words you cannot take liberties with the yamas, tamper with them or practice them selectively.


Niyama consists of the practice of five rules: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self study) and isvara-pranidhana (divine worship).

In contrast to yamas which are concerned with what you do in relation to others, the niyamas are what do to yourself or what you should do actively to bring transformation in yourself.

The niyamas are essential for your spiritual growth and inner purification. They help you to deal with negativity, find balance in your thinking and actions and intensify your yearning for self-realization.

Their practice leads to self-discipline, strengthening of resolve and devotion to the inner Self.

Both yamas and niyamas are interconnected. You cannot practice one without the other. Both are important and foundational for the purpose and practice of yoga.


Asana consists of practicing different yogic postures for disciplining the body and making it as a fit instrument for further practice.

Patanjali states the asanas as an important part of yoga practice. But he does not specify many details about which asanas or postures are important. He only states that the postures must be steady and comfortable (2.46) and they must be practiced in a state of relaxation and with an aim to attain absorption in the infinite (2.47).

He might have omitted the details, since the postures were meant to be taught by an experienced teacher according to the specific needs of the practitioners.

The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita also specify a few details about the bodily postures such as keeping the body, the neck and the head erect and sitting in lotus position in a secluded place on a clean ground covered with a skin, cloth or grass.

Historically, asanas gained prominence with the rise of Tantrism and Hathayoga. Ancient commentators mentioned a few postures giving clues about what were traditionally practiced.

For example, Vyasa listed eleven asanas, such as padmasana, virasana, bhadrasana, svastikasana, dandasana etc.

They also stated that the posture must be firm and stable, but not subject the body to duress.

Asanas gained more prominence in recent times with the western world taking up yoga in a big way as a form of physical exercise.


Pranayama means restraining the breath. Patanjali (2.49) defines pranayama as the regulation of the incoming and outgoing breaths. It is practiced variously by changing the duration and pattern of the inhalation and exhalation.

In the same sutra, Patanjali further states that one should take up pranayama after doing the asanas. This may be because the asanas open up the breath channels and facilitate better breathing.

In pranayama a yogi consciously changes his breathing pattern until he achieves complete mastery over his breathing and able to hold his breath for longer periods of times.

In pranayama, inhalation is called puraka or svasa, and exhalation is called rechaka or prasvasa. The arresting of both and holding the breath is called kumbhaka.

The Yoga Sutras (2.50-51) speak of four types of breathing practices: the external, the internal, the restrained and the suppressed.

In the external, you exhale and wait for sometime before you inhale. In the internal you do the opposite. In the third, you restrain both exhalation and inhalation for sometime before you breathe again.

Each of them are in turn guided by three factors.

  • the place where the breath left out
  • Time or duration for which breath is exhaled, inhaled or suspended
  • Number of times the sequence is repeated.

In the fourth type of pranayama, the duration of the three types of breathing are considerably extended, denoting the mastery achieved in the other three.

Thus, the gap between exhalation and inhalation, and the duration of suspending the breathing increase considerably, often giving the impression that one is not breathing at all.

In India there are yogis who can bury themselves underground for days and weeks without breathing and still remain alive. They are able to do it because of the perfection they achieve in the practice of yoga, especially, breath control.


Pratyahara means restraining the senses. In pratyahara you withdraw or detach your senses completely from the sense objects and hold them in your mind.

The process of separating the senses from the sense object is called asamprayoga. The sense are responsible for the modifications of the mind. By nature, they are active and outgoing.

When you restrain them, you arrest the distractions of the mind, which is very essential for the next three stages in practice.

Regular practice of pratyahara leads to better control over the senses and the mind (2.54) which in turn helps a yogi to practice the next limb with better control.


Dharana means fixing your wandering mind in place or holding it with concentration upon an object or mental image for a prolonged period of time. The purpose of the practice is to restrain the mind, and stabilize it in the object of contemplation or concentration.

The mind is by nature fickle. You will not experience peace until its movements are arrested and it is withdrawn fully from the outside world. In dharana, you repeatedly pull back your mind to the object of concentration from the distractions until the it is fixed on it firmly.

With the help of dharma, you can concentrate your mind and make it one pointed. This ability helps you greatly in the practice of next two limbs.


Like dharana, dhyana is also an internal practice. Dhyana means one-pointed meditation upon anything of your interest or inclination (abhimata).

In dhyana, you focus upon the actions of your mind and the sensations in your body without trying to control them or getting swayed by them.

You may practice it passively, merely as an observer, without interfering with the activities of the mind or you may do it by channeling your thoughts in a particular direction to gain insight into the nature of things.

The Yoga Sutras (2.11) states that regular meditation eliminates the afflictions (klesas) of the mind.

It also states (4.6) that those perfections or spiritual powers (siddhis) arising from meditation do not produce karmic fruit.


Samadhi means the state of self-absorption. In samadhi you gain control over sameness (sama + adhi). Prolonged practice of yoga results in this culminating stage in which one enters into a state similar to that of deep sleep and transcends the duality of knower and the known.

In Self absorption only the witness remains without any otherness. In that state there is a particularity of what is experience in contrast to the generality arising from the study of the scriptures and inferences drawn from other sources. (Ys. 1.49).

Depending the level of perfection or absence of otherness, samadhi is classified as savikalpa and nirvikalpa. They are also called samprajnata and asamprajnata samadhi.

In the former, you may still experience some physical or mental awareness of the object of contemplation at the most subtle level and in the later your mind will be empty and completely free from all types of awareness.

Where awareness is present, it leads to some samskaras and resultant karma. Hence, it is called sabija (with seed) samadhi. Its opposite is nirbija samadhi, which leads to complete destruction of all past karmas and liberation.

The culmination of nirbija samadhi is Dharma Megha Samadhi, the highest state of pure consciousness.

Cocncepts of Yoga

Important concepts of yoga

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras contain many important concepts of yoga. Their knowledge is helpful in practicing yoga and understanding its full significance.

The following is a brief description of various yoga concepts and their significance found in the Yoga Sutras and other scriptures. (The numbers in the bracket indicate the chapter number and verse number from the Yoga Sutras.)


Abhasya means regular and consistent practice. Yoga demands a disciplined life. The full benefits yoga are realized only when the various limbs of yoga are practiced regularly.

The Yoga Sutras (1.12) says, the modifications of the mind can be stilled only by practice (abhyasa) and dispassion (vairagya).

Practice becomes perfect only when it has been done regularly and uninterruptedly over a long period of time, with resolve and right attitude (1.14)


Ahimsa in yoga parlance means not having any negative thoughts or intentions to cause hurt or disturbance to oneself or others.

Hariharananda, a traditional commentator of yoga, suggested that one should not use violence even in thought or word and in determining the nature of violence, intention was very important.

The Yoga Sutras (11.35) states that all enmity disappears in the presence of a person in whom non-violence is firmly established.


Aparigraha actually means not taking what belongs to others. It is usually translated as stealing but actually it has a much wider meaning than stealing.

It is also important what you claim in this world as your own. In truth you own nothing. You come empty handed and you go empty handed. If you claim ownership, mostly likely you will return with greater karmic burden.

In Hinduism, the whole world actually belongs to God. Therefore trying to own anything here or claiming ownership of things equals to aparigraha only.

According to the Yoga Sutras (2.39), when one attains perfection in this yama, one attains the knowledge of the why and wherefore of their past lives.


Atman means the inner Self, also described in the Yoga Sutras as Isvara (the lord of the body), Purusha (Person) and seer (drstr).

According to Patanjali (2.5), inability to perceive the Self arises from ignorance. The Self is unknown, but all that is knowable in creation exists for the sake of Self only (2.21).

The Self is perceived only when upon self-purification one attains pleasant nature, single-mindedness, control over the senses, and fitness in yoga.

One achieves union with the Self only when the mind ceases to be active (4.25).

Devotion to Isvara (isvara-pranidhana) is one of the niyamas which is an important practice in self-purification.


Avidya means ignorance. It is identified in the classical yoga as one of the five afflictions (klesas) of the mind.

Avidya in the context of yoga is ignorance of the true Self, or as stated already, considered the lower self or the not Self (anatma) as the real Self (atma).

It is the same as the deluded state mentioned in the Upanishads. According to the Yoga Sutras ignorance is the breeding ground of all other afflictions. Patanjali identifies ignorance as the root cause of suffering and bondage.

It is because of ignorance the association or conjunction (samyogah) between the seer and seen happens which can be resolved only when their connection is broken (2.24 -25).

Only then one can experience absolute freedom (kaivalyam).


In the context of yoga, brahmacarya means the practice of celibacy in the pursuit of self-knowledge. It is the fourth of the five niyamas or observances prescribed in the yoga.

The Yoga Sutras (2.38) states that upon the practice of brahmacarya one gains spiritual power (virya-labha) which results in increased health, strength and mental brilliance.

This alludes to the traditional belief that when a yogi abstained from sex, the energy hidden in his semen (retas) transformed into spiritual power (ojas).


Citta is usually translated as mind but in a very accurate sense it means mind and body awareness arising from a very fine substance present in the body having the ability to reflect and recreate the objects perceived by the senses. In the process it undergoes many modifications (citta-vrittis) and disturbances or distractions (viksepas).

The purpose of yoga is to end the modifications and distractions of the citta and stabilize it in equanimity.

The distractions of the citta can be eliminated by means of concentration (1.32).

When positive qualities such as compassion, friendliness, and equanimity are cultivated, citta becomes clear and lucid (1.33) due to the preponderance of sattva in it.


Dukha means suffering. According to the Yoga Sutras (2.8) suffering arises from desires and the resultant aversion (2.8), and from negative thoughts such as violence (2.34).

It is one of the causes of mental afflictions (1.31). For a discerning person, everything is suffering since all our actions, latent impressions, mental modifications and the gunas result in pain only (2.15).

There is nothing much we can do about the suffering arising from our past actions because that karma has already been incurred. However, we can avoid future suffering (2.16) by overcoming the duality between the seer and the seen.

The scripture prescribes concentration (1.32) to resolve suffering. It also recommends compassion for those who suffer. When we cultivate compassion for others, it leads to clarity and lucidity in our consciousness (1.33)


Dvanda means duality or the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, pain and pleasure etc. Attraction and aversion to the pairs of opposites results in attachment, afflictions and instability of the mind.

The Yogasutras (2.48) suggest that when postures are practiced in a state of relaxation, one overcomes the dualities of opposites. This is possible because with the practice of postures one gains control over the body. When the body is firmly under control, one becomes indifferent to the conditions of life and succeeds in channeling the mind in the desired direction.


Gunas means modes or aspects of Nature. They are three in number, sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is responsible for illuminating (prakasa), rajas for activity (kriya) and tamas for inertia (sthithi) (2.18).

The gunas are present in every object and aspect of Nature. Their permutations and combinations result in the diversity of inherent nature (dharma), qualities (lakshana) and conditions (avastha), which in turn result in specific behaviors (svabhava) of beings and objects.

The results produced by the gunas exist in Nature in specific (visesa), generic (avisesa), gross (sthula) and subtle (linga) forms (2.19).

The distinction of past, present and future also arise from the gunas depending upon whether they are active or latent (4.13).

The gunas are also responsible for suffering arising from the modification of the mind (2.15).

One of the objectives of yoga practice is to cultivate sattva and gradually become indifferent to them.

Patanjali states (1.16) that indifference to gunas (guna vaitrsnyam) is superior to even renunciation.


Jnana means knowledge. Classical yoga recognizes two forms of knowledge, right knowledge (pratyaksa) and wrong knowledge (viparayaya). Right knowledge arises from perception, inference, and verbal testimony. Wrong knowledge arises from errors and mistakes in cognition.

Yoga does not favor either since both types of knowledge are responsible for the modifications of the mind, which yoga aims to resolve. Knowledge of the words is also not good since it leads to imagination (vikalpah), the third type of modification (1.9).

However, discerning knowledge (vivekam) or knowledge arising from discernment (vivekajam) is a liberator (3.54).

The Yoga Sutras (3.16-29) also lists different types of knowledge that may arise from the practice of yoga, such as knowledge of past and future, knowledge of the language of the creatures, knowledge of previous births, knowledge of others' minds, knowledge of when on may die, knowledge of subtle, hidden and remote things, knowledge of different worlds in creation, knowledge of the planetary objects, knowledge of the different parts in the body etc.


Kaivalya means aloneness or the state of liberation. It is the ultimate goal of yoga. It happens when the mind is free from modifications, ignorance, impurities (dosa bija) and bondage (samyoga).

The means to attain it is undisturbed viveka-khyati or discerning wisdom (2.26) arising from purity or sattva (3.55) and returning of the gunas (pratiprasava) to their original state of equilibrium, where by one remains established in one's own consciousness (4.34).


Karma in a general sense means actions and in a specific sense means desire-ridden actions having consequences which bear fruit. Karma is the cause for bondage and rebirth. Karma and the fruition of karma apply to the living being (jiva) but not to the Self (1.24).

Liberation is not possible until karma is neutralized. Karma is passed on from one birth to another in the form of latent impressions or samskaras that are ready to bear fruit.

Until they are completely burnt away one cannot escape from the phenomenal world. From the state of samadhi arises cessation of all karma (4.30).

According to the Yoga Sutras, past karma cannot be removed, but one can arrest the development of future karmas through perfection in yoga. At the root of the karma are the klesas or afflictions of the mind (2.12).

Some karmas fructify quickly and some slowly (3.22). The karmas of ordinary people are white (good), black (evil) and white and black (mixed).

On the other hand, the karmas of yogis are neither white nor black, because they do not bear fruit (4.7).


Klesa means afflictions of the mind which act as obstacles self-absorption (samadhi). As in case of karma, klesas are applicable to the being (jiva) but not to the Self (1.24).

They are responsible for our karmas and bondage (2.12). The klesas arise from past karmas and latent impressions. When the karma is resolved both are resolved.

The purpose of Kriya Yoga, which will be explained later, is to bring about Samadhi and weaken the affliction (2.2). The Yoga Sutras (2.3) identifies six klesas, namely ignorance (avidya), egoism (asmita), passion or desire (raga), aversion (dvesa) and clinging to life (abhinivesa).

Of them the first one, ignorance, is the cause of others. They exist in us in three states, latent, weak, divided and active (2.4).

Kriya Yoga

Kriya means action. Kriya yoga means yoga of action. The karma yoga of the Bhagavadgita also means yoga of action, but in technique and approach it is different from the kriya yoga mentioned in the Yoga Sutras.

Karma yoga in the Bhagavadgita is prescribed for the householders and involves selfless performance of duties. In the Yoga Sutras, kriya yoga is prescribed for the ascetics who have renounced worldly life.

Patanjali (2.1) defines kriya yoga as the practice of austerity (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya) and devotional service (Isvara paridhana) to the Self. It leads to the removal obstacles (klesas). Kriya yoga is mentioned by Patanjali only once, at the beginning of the second section called Sadhana Pada.

He does not explain much what it mean other than what he states in the first verse. However, we may infer from the rest of the teachings that Kriya Yoga encompasses the whole yoga system proposed in the Yoga Sutras.

It is an alternate word for the Ashtanga Yoga or Patanjali Yoga.


Purusha means the inner Self. He is different from Prakriti or Nature which is represented by the mind and body in a person. The Person is the seer. Prakriti is the seen.

The seen exists solely for the sake of the seer (2.24). The Self is imperceptible, transcendental and cannot be grasped through the senses.

The Self can be seen only in a state of self absorption when the mind and body are completely purified and filled with sattva resulting from the practice of the eight limbs of yoga. When the Self is perceived, one becomes indifferent and impervious to the play of the gunas (1.16).

The Self is untouched by karma, the afflictions, the fruit of karma and latent impressions (1.24).

They belong to the domain of Nature. In an impure mind the Purusha cannot perceive Himself. He mistakenly thinks that the intelligence in him is the Purusha.

When the intelligence is purified, it becomes like a mirror and reflects the Self back to the Self. The seer then sees himself instead of the seen. From that comes the knowledge of the Self (3.35).

In other words, for self-realization, discernment between the Self and the intelligence is essential. From that distinction arises omniscience and omnipotence (3.49).

This is possible only when the purity of the intellect is the same as the purity of the Self (3.55).


The Yoga Sutras (1.41) defines samapatti as the state of complete absorption of the mind when it is free from the modifications and pure like a jewel.

In that state it takes on the form of whatever object is super imposed upon it whether the object is the knower, the means of knowing or the object of knowledge.

Thus, in the presence of the Self, it reflects the Self back to the Self.

The scripture identifies two types of samapatti, savitarka and nirvitarka, followed by two other type of samadhi known as savicara and nirvicara. Technically the four represent the four states of samapatti or self-absorption, in which some kind of physical, mental or subtle awareness is present.

In the savitarka, the vrittis are absent, but the mind still retains some physical awareness of the object contemplated. In the nirvitarka, the mind is completely empty and the object of meditation alone shines in the consciousness (2.43).

In this state there is no physical awareness, but mental awareness of the object still exists. Hence it is not considered complete self-absorption. In savicara samadhi, there is no physical or mental awareness, but some subtle awareness is still present.

In the nirvicara samadhi, physical, mental and subtle awareness are absent, but awareness of bliss (ananda) and awareness of the ego-sense (asmita) stated in reference to the Samprajnata Samadhi (1.17) remain.

The Yoga Sutras (1.46) states that all the four states constitute samadhi with seed (sabija), which means karma is not yet fully arrested and latent impressions are sill active in the consciousness.


Samyama means simultaneous practice of concentration, meditation and self-absorption (3.4).

It is an advanced state of yoga practice. Regular practice of samyama leads to discerning wisdom (prajna). Samyama is practiced in conjunction with different states of samadhi (3.3).

When Samyama is performed on various objects one gains supernatural or mystic powers (siddhis) which are described in the section dealing with the Siddhis. Samyama is also the key to attain liberation.


Siddhi means result or success in some endeavor. Perfection in the practice of yoga results in enhanced powers of the mind and body, some verging on the supernatural.

Such powers are also called siddhis. Vibhuti Pada, the third section of the Yoga Sutras, lists several siddhis, which arise from perfection in the practice of yoga. In yoga tradition, siddhis are considered a distraction and a potential source of moral degradation.

The Yoga Sutras (3.37) states that the powers are good for the outgoing nature of the mind, but they are obstacles to samadhi. Such powers may also arise from causes other than perfection in yoga (4.1).

The purpose of yoga is to become free from all attachments and worldliness, whereas prolonged use of siddhis may strengthen them and lead to one's downfall.

Hence yogis tend to stay away from them. Some of the siddhis mentioned in the scripture are: knowledge of the past and future, knowledge of language of the creatures, knowledge of previous births, clairvoyance, ability to fly and so on.


Vairagya means detachment of dispassion arising from absence of desires and separation of the senses from the sense objects.

Patanjali (1.15) describes vairgya as controlled consciousness which arises in the absence of desire or craving for the sense-objects.

With the regular practice of dispassion, concentration and uninterrupted devotion one can still the modifications of the mind (1.12-14).

It eventually leads to the seeing of the Self (purusha-khyati) and indifference to the gunas (1.16).

True liberation comes only when the Self (Purusha) is completely detached from the body (Prakriti), even from the intention to achieve liberation (3.50).


Vritti means activity or modification. After calling the attention of the students in the first aphorism, the Yoga Sutras begins with a statement (1.2) on the vrittis, declaring that the purpose of yoga is suppression of the vrittis.

When they are suppressed, a yogi abides in his own nature. Otherwise, he remains absorbed in the modifications of the mind.

The scripture (1.5) identifies five types of modifications based on what causes them. They are: right knowledge, wrong knowledge, imagination, sleep and memory.

Each of these may cause modifications that are either harmful or not harmful. Right knowledge is direct knowledge arising from perception, inference and verbal testimony.

Wrong knowledge is knowledge arising from errors in perception, thinking or understanding. Imagination arises from the knowledge of objects when such objects are actually absent.

In sleep also the mind is subject to modifications due to the activity of the mind due to dreams and subtle awareness. According to some, dreams arise from memory and hence may not be correct to describe them as modifications of sleep.

Finally memory, which consists of copies of images and objects retained from the past, is a potential source of disturbance for the mind.

From the above it is clear that the mind is disturbed by almost everything. Both right knowledge and wrong knowledge lead to mental disturbances. The mind is not free from modifications even in sleep.

Patanjali suggests that the modifications cease only through detachment and the practice of yoga (1.12)

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. I have coined the world sakrama yoga to denote the right way to practice yoga.


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