III.18 संस्कारसाक्षात्करणात पूर्वजातिज्ञानम

saṁskāra-sākṣāt-karaṇāt pūrva-jāti-jñānam
“From direct observation of saṁskāra, knowledge of previous births.”

The idea of saṁskāra, imprints on the consciousness, is central to the yogic endeavor (see I.50, III.10). The yoga practitioner comes to see in herself the imprints that create patterns of movement and thought, as rocks on the beach will pattern the water flowing over them.  Dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi–the three components of saṁyama–are, in an essential way, a process of self-observation.

Here, in sūtra III.18, Patañjali explicitly says to observe “with your own eye” the imprints that pattern you. He uses a compelling compound word: sākṣāt-karaṇa (from sa, “with,” + akṣa, “eye,” and kṛ, “to do”), which might be understood to be “doing with the eyes” or “putting before the eyes”–direct perception. In Sanskrit, the word “eye” often stands in for all the senses. Thus the term for direct perception used in Chapter One, pratyakṣa, is literally “toward the eye” (from prati-, “towards,” + akṣa, “eye”), but refers to hearing, taste, touch as well as sight.

Directly observe the patterns in you, says Patañjali, see them, feel them, hear them, and you will learn of your past experiences (the term used is pūrva-jāti, literally “past births”). Knowing the past lessens its hold, helps untangle the pattern the saṁskāra create.

Yoga has revealed to me many patterns: in my body, a constriction here, a tightness there, perhaps a twist or drop; in my mind, a conviction, a false belief, a habit of thought still there though it is outworn. Yoga has brought before me old experiences, many of them from childhood. I can see better how I have been conditioned, and I am coming to understand, as Bernard Bouanchaud has put it, that conditioning is “atavistic, hereditary, family, educational, social, professional.”

I am considering this week a trait that I believe to be not just personal, formed by unique and individual experience, but is wide, formed by the society, the group of which I am a part.

In exploring the yama of asteya, non-stealing, I wrote of feeling “not enough.” I might describe this as a mood of insufficiency, of being found lacking. I recalled yoga teacher Matthew Sanford’s beautiful admonition: You are enough (see II.37).

Fullness, enoughness, is a spiritual value. The ancient mantra pūrṇam adaḥ sings of abundance: “Fullness there, fullness here. Fullness arises out of fullness. Take away fullness from fullness, fullness remains.” I have chanted this for many years, and I have practiced the principle of enough-ness. I begin to see that the economy I am living in, and the group that has formed me, operate on an assumption of scarcity, not abundance.

In her 1989 book Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich studies the middle class, or rather, as she puts it, the professional-managerial class. She observes that, despite enjoying the full benefits of modern society, this class is “insecure and deeply anxious.” Taught from an early age that education and effort is the path to security, its children steel themselves through years of school and advanced training and dedicate themselves to work life. The class is an elite, yet feels itself to be always on a precipice:

It is afraid, like any class below the most securely wealthy, of misfortunes that might lead to a downward slide. [And] in the middle class there is another anxiety: a fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. Even the affluence that is so often the goal of all this striving becomes a threat, for it holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence. Whether the middle class looks down toward the realm of less, or up toward the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling. –Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling

In the more than thirty years since Ehrenreich wrote these words, income inequality has increased, student debt has skyrocketed, and health care has become prohibitively expensive for those with no health insurance and who do not qualify for Medicaid Expansion (twelve states, mostly in the South, did not take federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act). Our public health infrastructure, like our other public systems, are crumbling.

I have become interested in looking back at our history, and how a sense of the commons, of security for all, of enoughness, has been established in the past. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt outlined four essential freedoms necessary to our society, the third of which is surprising to my ears today: freedom from want.

In 1948, the United Nations encoded freedom from want as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his/her control.” (Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

In the first part of the twentieth century, following the collapse of the stock market and the widespread misery of the Great Depression, progressives fought to put limits on the market and the influence of the wealthy on our society. Social Security, a massive, government-managed social welfare program–still popular today–was enacted in 1935, and then in 1965, Medicare followed suit. Both these programs recognize that the market does not provide for the necessities of life for all, but government, pooling the abundance of our resources, can. The idea is that our security, our stability and our freedom, come from our connection to others, not in spite of them.

Mike Konczal, in Freedom from the Market, describes how in the past forty years, we have suffered a reactionary re-assertion of the power of the market. Economists and pundits hold up the market–and its freedom–as the highest good.

The things we need to lead our lives are forced into markets where we are compelled to obtain them, at the mercy of private, profit-seeking actors and our own ability to pay. Many of our needs are left unmet or poorly provided for by the market—from health care to retirement security to providing for children—and more suffering is the result.

He continues:

It’s impossible to say exactly when it started, but viewing the market and our dependency on it as something that needs to be checked has dropped out of our politics. Instead, we’ve watched as the market has extended further into our lives and even further into how we view ourselves and our society.   –Mike Konczal, Freedom from the Market

The values of our society affect how we see ourselves, can even influence us to see ourselves as commodities. When might we begin to assert again that freedom from want is a human right? How can we know ourselves to be living in abundance when we have lost the sense of our common lot, our shared common purpose? Pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate.  “From fullness comes fullness.”


“By turning our attention inward, directly observing subconscious impressions, and noting when, how, and why they manifest, we will see themes, keynote thoughts–the essential plot line around which our current life was formed.” -The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sutras, commentary on III.18

“With this aphorism, Patañjali proposes we look our own conditioning squarely in the eye: atavistic, hereditary, family, educational, social, professional, and so on….Knowing more about our origins enables us to make new choices and get a fresh start.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on III.18

“The operative nature of the past resides not in events and happenings but in tendencies and reactions that are embedded in one’s consciousness. And so the past in its real sense is not away from us, but is there in the very situation in which we are. The past is in the present, and this can be comprehended by communing with the present. This means seeing one’s own tendencies, habits and reactions without any explanation or interruption. Then they themselves tell us the nature of our past. Once again it is only the new mind that can cognize the real nature of one’s past.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 318

• Do you look at the patterns of your mind without judging them? What do they teach you?
• How is your past in your present? Does practice reveal your past to you?
• In what ways do you work to stay open-minded, to see things with a fresh eye?
• Have the events of this year given you perspective on society’s influence on you–your values, your psychology, your spiritual struggles?  Have events changed anything about your sense of your role in society? What part do you play?


masculine noun in compound

transformation, change (from pari-, “around,” + nam, “to bend”)


adjective in compound (appears only in 5th case singular )

with one’s own eyes (from sa, “with,” + akṣa, “eye”)


neuter noun, 5th case singular

doing, making (from kṛ, “to do”); in compound with sākṣāt = direct perception, “putting before the eyes”


adjective in compound



feminine noun in compound

birth, circumstance of birth (from jan, “to give birth”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

knowledge (from jña, “to know”)


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