tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśāvaraṇam
tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśa-āvaraṇam
“From that, the covering of the light is destroyed.”
Sūtra II.52 contains one of the few verbs in The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, and the rare occurrence lends gravity to this short aphorism and important idea: prāṇāyāma, breath practice, is a key way to find inner light, to move toward greater calm and clarity. As Mr. Iyengar has said, prāṇāyāma is like the hub of yoga, where the individual and the cosmic meet. In II.28, Patañjali declared that the eight limbs of yoga bring one to the light of knowledge. Here, he specifically connects prāṇāyāma to that aim, stating that from prāṇāyāma practice, perhaps especially the experience of the fourth part (II.51), the cover that obscures light, prakāśa-āvaraṇam, is destroyed, kṣīyate.
Prakāśa means light, clearness, brightness, and particularly refers to revealment, to something being visible. In many contexts, it is translated “understanding,” much as in English we use the term enlighten or “see the light.” The ability to see, and see clearly, is implicit.
Āvaraṇam means cover, and commentators have variously described the cover as a veil, a net, or clouds. Whatever the image, the cover obscures the light, hides it. The cover can be considered to be the mind’s patterns of thought and feeling (vṛtti, see I.2); it could be be any strong story or belief that leads to denial. The cover keeps the light, the truth, hidden from us.
In yoga, the heart is often described as the abode of light (see I.36), and, similarly, is considered the seat of the intelligence–of spiritual understanding. In Iyengar practice, much attention is given to how one physically supports the space of the heart–whether indeed one hangs on the heart, depresses it, or uplifts it. Thus, B.K.S. Iyengar emphasizes that āsana is key to prāṇāyāma, and, in his method, formal techniques of prāṇāyāma are first taught lying down, the heart and lungs supported by blocks, blankets, or bolster. The shape the body is in affects the consciousness–and the experience of prakāśa.
Light is intrinsic to nature, to our natures, and pervades our lives in every conceivable way. The sun itself, source of light, could be considered the life-giver. In the early days of January, as I write, I am especially aware of its slanting light, its play over the hills, its early setting and late rising. The earth seems to be turning a bit back toward the sun each day. It cheers me.
Light as spiritual value is expressed powerfully in the Gayatri Mantra, most ancient and sacred of verses (from the Ṛg Veda, perhaps as old as 1700 BCE). The mantra is both a hymn to light and to the sun and a contemplation of creation and the source of creation.
bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tat savitur vareṇyam
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt
Earth Atmosphere Heavens
We meditate on the sacred light
of the effulgent source.
Let that inspire
(translated by Vyaas Houston)
Christopher Key Chapple, professor of theology and yoga practitioner, has written an essay tracking the images of light and luminescence in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. Interestingly, he questions whether enlightenment–in the yoga tradition–leads the aspirant away from the world or into engagement with it. He looks to an Indian political movement–Chipko–that I never heard of before. In the 1970s, in Uttar Pradesh, the Chipko activists, led largely by women, protested the destruction of forests in agrarian areas. Their movement grew and was successful in pushing for new policy that prohibited the cutting of trees. The understanding that guided them was the value of “soil, water, and pure air.” See Chapple’s Yoga and the Luminous, pp. 81-82, and India Today.
The Chipko Movement, photo from India Today
It is stirring to learn of an Indian environmental movement in the context of honoring light, aspiring to clarity and truth. The most terrible example of denial in my lifetime is the denial of the climate crisis–the ongoing, unsustainable exploitation of earth’s resources is now having a catastrophic effect on countless ecosystems. The 2019 United Nations IPCC report made clear that action must be taken within the next few years to avert worse-case scenarios. Yet our society–the U.S. government in particular–is in a state of inertia, as though business can go on as usual.
I have translated kṣīyate as “it is destroyed,” rather than “it is removed” or “it is dispersed,” because I am struck by how painful it can be to let go of a story that has made us safe, that has kept us happy, even when it has prevented us from seeing what is real, from taking action that will save us. Letting go of a story can be a significant disturbance to the system of our lives. Part of the practice, perhaps, is to be willing to be disturbed.
“The purpose of prāṇāyāma is to bring a clarity of perception. Patañjali says that prāṇāyāma enables one to dispel the clouds which prevent a clear perception to arise. The word used is prakāśa āvaraṇa, meaning the clouding of perception. Now it is the function of of the brain to form clear percepts just as it is the function of the mind to form clear concepts. It is quite obvious that prāṇāyāma renders the perceptive work of the brain smooth and efficient. Under this, the brain feels lighter, being free from congestion. And it is this which enable it to come to a clear perception of things.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 207-8
“Life has been made complex on account of our behaviour. But truth is simple, hence life can become simple. To bring back the complexity of mind to simplicity is the aim of yoga, and that simplicity comes by the practice of prāṇāyāma.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, p.120
“Yoga does not reject the reality of the world, nor does it condemn the world, only the human propensity to misidentify with the more base aspects of the world. The path of Yoga, like the Chipko movement, seeks not to deny the beauty of nature but seeks to purify our relationship with it by correcting mistaken notions and usurping damaging attachments. Rather than seeking to condemn the world to a state of irredeemable darkness, Yoga seeks to bring the world and, most important, the seers of the world, to a state of luminosity.” –Christopher Key Chapple, Yoga and the Luminous, p. 82
• Has yoga helped you move to more simplicity of thought?
• What tends to cloud your perception?
• What is the personal meaning of light for you?
• Do you experience spiritual awakening as a spur to political engagement?
• Is there a story that you are telling yourself that makes you feel safe but that does not make you safe, that keeps you from acting on the truth?
|present verb, passive voice, third person singular
is destroyed, is dispersed (from kṣi, “to destroy”)
masculine noun in compound
light, clearness, brightness (from pra-, forth, + kāś, “to shine, be visible”)
neuter noun, 1st case singular
cover, concealment (from ā-, prefix that intensifies meaning, + vṛ, to hide, cover)