II.18 प्रकाशक्रयास्थितिशीलं भूतेन्द्रियात्मकं भोगापवर्गार्थं दृश्यम्

prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti-śīlaṁ bhūtendriyātmakaṁ bhogāpavargārthaṁ dṛśyam
prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti-śīlaṁ bhūta-indriya-ātmakaṁ bhoga-
apavarga-arthaṁ dṛśyam

“Illumination, activity, stability characterize the seen. They are manifest in the elements and sense organs. Their purpose is pleasure and fulfillment.”

Yoga might be described as a search for what is real. It is a search that connects us to the world around us and that takes us inward. It teaches us the apparatus that we perceive with. It shakes up our preconceptions and challenges our ordinary perceptions. Āsana practice literally turns us upside-down. We go into handstand kicking our legs over our head, lifting our pelvis over our chest. Where is gravity? Where is lightness? Where must we be strong? Where relaxed? Can we see with our feet as we reach them to the ceiling? What are we seeing?

In a practical, palpable way, all is changed. Our assumptions are unsettled. Our fixedness moves.

Yoga practice brings us into a more vivid, closer attunement to natural phenomena. Attentiveness is central to its method and its purpose. Here, Patañjali describes dṛśyam, “the seen,” in lyrical, celebratory terms. What we see, he says, is luminescent, active, and stable (prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti). These three qualities could be considered virtues of the guṇassattva, rajas, and tamas. They are essential, necessary, positive. Prakāśa, which means light, space, shining, corresponds to sattva guṇa; kriyā, action or activity, to rajas; sthiti, steadiness, to tamas. Each of these aspects also corresponds to goals of yoga: the light of understanding, right action, emotional stability (the definition of practice given in I.13 is to be steady in one’s focus: tatra sthitau yatno ‘bhyāsaḥ).

Indeed, the adjectives that Patañjali has chosen are particularly relevant to yoga practice. For example, in āsana and prāṇāyāma, we explore stability and mobility. We soften, release, fix, firm, flow. We create a dynamic of the press of the feet (or sitz bones if seated), lift and extension of the arms. We engage with and explore space. We discover lightness, support, ableness.

In sūtra II.15, Patañjali has referred to the “collision of the guṇas,” and as we discussed there, the guṇas are in ever-changing, re-mixing relationship. Every practice is itself its own orchestration of the guṇas, and the practitioner comes to know more fully, more experientially, the nature of nature.

The guṇas express themselves, this sūtra continues, in bhūta-indriya-ātmakaṁ, in the form of the elements and the senses (indriya, for brevity translated as the senses, means the instruments of perception and action). In other words, the gunas manifest themselves, are embodied, in the natural world. Yet they are active below the surface of what can be seen as well (Patanjali will discuss this more in the next sūtra). It is through the senses that we encounter the elements and come to know the gunas, and thus practice is, in Rohit Mehta’s words, an awakening of the senses. It refreshes, it clears, it sharpens the perceptions.

Mr. Iyengar has emphasized the quality of touch and the feel of the skin in his teaching. The use of blocks itself is a form of touch. A block placed between the feet, for example, brings awareness to the skin at the inner foot. Touch attract awareness. The breath, too, can be used as a kind of inner touch. By feeling the breath on the back ribs, for example, one can sense the tissues in the back body, perceive the back space of oneself.

Finally, Patañjali says, the seen, the observable world, is for the purpose of enjoyment (bhoga) and fulfillment (apavarga). Though apavarga is often translated as liberation in this context, the word itself refers more to completion, bringing something to an end. How much does a failure to be present to our lives cut us off from potential? The greater connection to nature–and to our own selves–that yoga practice brings is inherently joyful. To feel this joy is its own kind of completion.

As the mantra Purṇam Adaḥ says, out of fullness comes fullness. The yoga path invites us to step into ourselves, to stand, to act, to discover our purpose in the fullness of the real self.

You must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe–that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.  –Mary Oliver, Upstream, pp. 19-20


“The commentators correlate the illumination, prakāśa, noted here, with sattva (the light inherent in buddhi); activity, kriyā, with rajas (all movement and effort); and inertia, sthiti, with tamas. These three guṇas are always in flux, as long as the world is manifest, and their nature is to assert themselves in various proportions and then ebb away, thus giving rise to the ever-changing world of manifest forms. … Hariharānanda correlates sattva  with the knowledge or awareness aspect of any entity, such as a tree’s impulse toward the source of light; rajas as the factors that cause any activity or motion, such as a tree’s growth toward the source of light; and tamas as when any potentiality is retained or stored, such as the winter season for trees, when sap descends to the roots and is stored (or hibernation for animals).” —Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.18

“The interplay of these three guṇa forces is of crucial importance in your yoga practice. You have to learn to identify and observe them in order to be able to adjust and balance their proportions and as you penetrate inward, bring the beauty of sattva to the surface. You are like an artist with three basic pigments on his palette, forever remixing and blending them in order to express the right combination of color, form, and light on your canvas. It is through the ability to do this that you can also avoid pain and heal diseases whether they are at mental, emotional, or physical stages of manifestation.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, pp.46-7

“The phrase that ends this sūtra offers an answer to a question that has intrigued humanity from time immemorial. What is the purpose of life? Our lives are played out on the material stage of the universe. Why should it be so? Why have we been put here?” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.18

• How do light, activity, steadiness, inform your āsana and prāṇāyāma practice?
• Can an understanding of the flux of nature and its constituent parts bring
equanimity? What is an example of this in your own life?
• Is enjoyment a value for you in practice? What is the interplay between enjoyment and discipline?
• Where do you find meaning? Is there anything you long to complete in your life?


masculine noun in compound

light, brightness, illumination (from pra-, “forth,” + kaś, “to shine”)


feminine noun in compound

action, activity (from kṛ, “to do”)


feminine noun in compound

steadiness, stability (from sthā, “to stand”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

character, nature (from śīl, “to practice, repeat”)


neuter noun in compound

element (from bhū, “to be”)


neuter noun in compound

organ of sense (from Indra, name of lord of the atmosphere,  + –ya, suffix that designates belonging)


neuter adjective, 1st case singular

composed of, having the nature of (from ātman, “soul, self,”  + –ka)


masculine noun in compound

experience, feeling, perception of pleasure or pain (from bhuj, “to enjoy”)


masculine noun in compound

completion, fulfillment (from apa-, “away,” + vṛj, “to avoid”; apavṛj, “to conclude”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

meaning, purpose; here would be translated as “for the purpose of” the preceding elements of the compound


neuter noun, 1st case singular

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

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