II.17 द्रष्टृदृश्ययोः संयोगो हेयहेतुः

drastṛ-dṛśyayoḥ saṁyogo heya-hetuḥ
drastṛ-dṛśyayoḥ saṁyogaḥ heya-hetuḥ

“The cause of the [pain] to be abandoned is the conflation of the seer and the seen.”

Yoga presents us again and again with the question Who am I? In Chapter One, Patañjali has defined yoga as a process of coming to “stand in one’s own true form,” of coming to know one’s own original self.

The word yoga means union, and we could describe the goal of yoga to be connecting to that original self, finding oneness, coming into integration. Yet Patañjali tells us here that on the way to the experience of oneness there must also be a disconnecting, a taking-apart, as it were, of the very ways that we perceive the world. In practice, we are challenged to let go of assumptions, labels, conclusions. We try to see, to experience directly. We open our senses and seek to know and understand from, as B.K.S. Iyengar would say, “the intelligence of the heart.”

Sūtra II.17 continues Patañjali’s discussion of pain. Though all is pain (II.15), there is pain that can be prevented (II.16). That pain that can be prevented (heyam) has a cause (hetuḥ). The cause is the conflation (saṁyogaḥ) of two things–the one who sees (draṣṭṛ) and what is seen (dṛṣyam).

The classical commentary understands draṣṭṛ here to refer to awareness in its purest sense. The lesson taken is non-attachment to the material world. Importantly, this non-attachment must include foremost the mind itself, which in yoga philosophy is part of the world. Citta, for Patañjali, is both an instrument of seeing and an object to be seen. Yoga practice teaches us to observe the observer.

Rohit Mehta, interestingly, understands draṣṭṛ to be “the human individual,” not pure awareness. In other words, the individual citta is fallible, and what citta sees is limited. What we see is shaped by who we are, formed by preconceptions, the patterns in the mind (citta vṛtti). There are realities we do not know. The yoga practitioner seeks to remove the limitations of citta–that is what yoga is (citta-vṛtti nirodhaḥ)–but it is important to know they are there, shaped by apprehensions, fears, judgements. The mind is stuck.

I am fascinated by Patañjali’s use of the word saṁyogaḥ. Yoga is union. The prefix sam- (which can mean “together,” “all,” “same”) adds emphasis. But here, saṁyogaḥ means a union that is negative. I think of the English words for things stuck together that should move freely: enmeshment, fusion, entanglement, adhesion.

In āsana practice, adhesion will often come up. Following an injury, the connective tissue of the body hardens, become sticky, as it seeks to provide stability for the injured area. To get to full recovery, there comes a time when mobility must be restored (orthopedic medicine is moving that time earlier and earlier post-surgery). To regain mobility that has been lost, adhesions must be broken down. One must separate the pieces that have gotten stuck. One must dismantle the components with one’s awareness to regain the rhythm that is integrated movement. One must come to know the pieces and parts to feel the whole.

Citta, in a similar way, gets fixed in its assumptions and adaptations. The psychologist Alice Miller argues that many in our modern society suffer from the tragedy of a “loss of self.” There is, she says, “a fragility of self-esteem because of a lack of confidence in one’s own feelings and wishes.” This is striking. Lack of confidence, she says, comes from not knowing one’s own lived experience. Loss of self is not the loss of a concept of self, a fixed construct of identity, but the loss of a moving, flowing, feeling of one’s own impulses, joys, sorrows, disappointments. (Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child.)

Yoga practice has woken up my feeling self.  It has lessened my tendency to intellectualize, rationalize, manipulate, control. What do I do instead? Well, just sense and feel. Through an “intimacy” with my body,  this practice has helped me know my self better, the self with a small “s,” the ordinary, day-to-day, quotidian me.

How does Alice Miller’s “loss of self”–and her description of the construction of a false identity to present to the world–fit with the classical teachings on the seer within? It seems to me that they connect. The Bhagavad Gītā speaks of the spirit that inhabits every sense–every hand, foot, ear, eye–every being:

Having hands and feet everywhere,
Eyes, heads and faces everywhere,
Having ears everywhere,
That stands, enveloping everything in the world.
Bhagavad Gītā, XIII.13 (translation by Winthrop Sargeant)

The spirit that is in the world and that enwraps the world is provident. It restores. It heals. When we bring the light of the spirit to our knowledge of ourselves and to our observations of the world, citta is freed. It flows. We see, as it were, “face to face.”

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
–W.B. Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren”


“It might seem paradoxical that Sri Patañjali cites ‘the union of the Seer and seen’ as the cause of pain. After all, isn’t union—Yoga—what we’re seeking? This sūtra seems to suggest that Oneness, instead of bringing the end of ignorance and pain, is the cause of suffering. It might be clearer if we replace the word ‘union’ with ‘confusion.’” —The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.17

“Your intelligence should have an intimacy with your body. It should be in close contact and know it well. When there is no intimacy between your mind and your body, there is duality, there is separation, and there is not integration.”   –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 49

“Yoga is a journey from the acquired nature to the original nature of the consciousness. All through the Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali uses the term ‘seer’ for the human individual. Since yoga is fundamentally a right perception of men and things, the term ‘seer’ is most appropriate. If the seer could see things rightly then he would become naturally and spontaneously a performer of right action.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on I.3

• Has yoga brought you “an intimacy with your body”? How has this affected you?
• Has yoga helped you become more compassionate–to yourself, to others?
• How does practice affect your sense of who you are?
• In what ways, in your experience, have old patterns in your perception created or magnified pain?


masculine noun in compound

seer, one who sees (from dṛś, “to see”)


neuter noun, 6th case dual

a visible object, the visible world, what is seen (from dṛś, “to see”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

union (from sam-, “together,” “all,” “same,” + yuj, “to join”)


neuter noun in compound

the thing to be forsaken, avoided, ended (from , “to abandon”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

cause (from hi, “to incite”)

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