II.48 ततो द्वन्द्वानभिघातः

tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ
tataḥ dvandva-anabhighātaḥ

“From that, non-affliction of the pairs of opposites.”

Patañjali makes a third statement on āsana that flows out of the first two. From that (tataḥ), meaning from āsana, he says, the practitioner is un-afflicted (anabhighātah) by the dualities (dvandva). The dualities could refer to any pair of opposites: up/down, hot/cold, pleasure/pain, good/bad, success/failure.

The suffering that arises from the pairs of opposites–and our perception of them–is basic to Patañjali’s definition of spiritual suffering (he begins this chapter with his discussion of the five klésas–the universal afflictions). In II.5, he asserts that the foremost affliction, the field out of which other affliction arises, is avidya (not-knowing). He then, interestingly, defines avidya as an assertion of knowledge where there is not knowledge: “naming permanent what is impermanent, pure what is impure, happy what is painful, and self for what is not-the-self.” (See II.5.)

The practice of yoga asks us to suspend our certainties, our conceptual orthodoxies, and to direct our awareness to a point of focus. In āsana practice, the point of focus is often the sight, sound, sensation of the moment.

Sanskrit teacher Vyaas Houston (II.11) describes the significance of the yogic discipline in how he teaches, and how, after decades of experience, he came to appreciate the amount of fear driving most students’ learning (or not-learning):

The inherent logic behind the fear of not getting it right, could be roughly represented by a set of subliminal beliefs: “I must get it right, If I don’t get it right, I will fail. If I fail, people will neither love me nor respect me. I am powerless to get free from the confines of my own limitations. I will never succeed. I am a failure. I cannot survive.” The other side of the illusion is that “if I get it right I will be liked, respected, successful. I will have money, power and happiness.” … Sanskrit is learned by immersing yourself in its pure and ever blissful vibrations, and seeing, only seeing, and hearing, only hearing, the consistent and symmetrical patterns of its grammatical structure.” –Vyaas Houston, Devavāṇī, pp. 21-26

Real learning, says Vyaas Houston, comes from only seeing, only hearing.

Some commentators (see Edwin Bryant) have asserted that the transcendence of the dualities comes as the practitioner detaches from body sensations and “loses awareness of the body.” B.K.S. Iyengar describes the process differently. It is the mind, he says, that creates duality. The physical āsana unites the mind, the body, and the soul. A joy and peace comes from this–a larger view. The mind, grounded in the body, locates itself in the soul.

In some sense, we enter and engage with the dualities in āsana practice. We press the feet down, stretch the arms up, come to the mid-line, spread to the East and West. We discover the space around us, the space within us, experience all as space (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, IV.55). Furthermore, we test the limits of our discomfort. Is this a good pain or a bad pain? many of us have asked. We pretty much have to find the answer to this ourselves. What will stretch and strengthen the body? What will harm it?

“The sun will not strike you by day. Neither the moon by night,” says Psalm 121, promising that the seeker who turns to the ultimate, the source, will find protection. The physical practice of āsana, done with love and heart, is such a turning. It brings strength and vitality that is sustaining.

The dualities represent the vicissitudes of life: gains and losses, delights and sorrows. Yet our perception of opposites is often off, reductive, tied perhaps to the nervous-system fight-flight response. Patañjali’s yoga is a successive process of being less certain of conclusions, of releasing black-and-white thinking that prevents us from seeing the grays, that closes our minds to depth, fullness, potential.

Our labels, our language, constructs our sense of the world. They also limit it. Last week, I attended a lecture by author Ibram X. Kendi and was profoundly affected by his message. Current genetic research, he explained, shows that 99.9% of humanity’s DNA is held in common. The concept of humanity having separate “races” of people is relatively new. It was born in the fifteenth-century, and it served to justify the burgeoning European slave-trade of people from Africa.

In his must-read book How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kendi tells his own story in relation to the idea of race. He describes how we are all soaked in the concepts of racism; our society is structured around it. He urges us to strive to be anti-racists. This means that we commit to learning. We pay attention to racial inequity and injustice, open our eyes to the effects of the social policies we support (or ignore). We can be racist by what we don’t do.

Our yoga off the mat calls us to be curious about our world, to be learners, to be participants. To do so, we will probably have to let go of a lot of old labels, of old certainties and illusions. We do so to make room for the bigger idea, for the possible.

And then I was answered in my mind, as if by a kindly go-between: “Look for the courtesy of God–and see it–in things in general, as [she] has already shown you. For it gives more praise to God to see [her] in all things than in one special thing.”

I accepted this, and by this I learned that it is more praise to God to understand all things in general, than to set your heart on one thing in particular.

And if I am to live wisely by this teaching, not only should I not set too much store by any one thing, but I should also not be too distressed by any one thing, either–“for all shall be well.”   –Julian of Norwich, from The Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 35, translated by Sheila Upjohn


“When body, mind and soul unite in a perfect posture, the sādhaka is in a state of beatitude. In that exalted position, the mind, which is at the root of dualistic perception, loses its identity and ceases to disturb him. Unity is achieved between body and mind and mind and soul. There is no longer joy or sorrow, heat or cold, honor or dishonor, pain or pleasure. This is perfection in action and freedom in consciousness.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.47

“It must not be just your mind or your body that is doing the āsana. You must be in it. You must do the āsana with your soul. How can you do an āsana with your soul? We can only do it with the organ of the body that is closest to the soul–the heart. …Many people try to think their way into an āsana, but you must instead feel your way into it through love and devotion. In this way, you will work from your heart, not your brain, to create harmony. The serenity in the body is the sign of spiritual tranquility.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 63

“Stillness is a reflection of our growing openness to the unpredictable unfolding of the world as it is, a freedom from the constant effort to bend things to our liking, to make them conform to our conditioned notions of good and bad.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 39

• What  pairs of opposites are active in your āsana practice?
• How well do you accept difficult things?
• What is your experience of doing āsana from the head? The heart? How do you move toward serenity in a pose?
• Has yoga practice helped you become a better learner? Participant?



from that


neuter noun in compound

duality, pairs of opposites (from dva + dva , stem form of dvi, the numeral two)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

non-affliction, non-attack (from an-, “not,” + abhi-, “upon,” + han, “to strike, to hurt”)




II.47 प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम्

“[Āsana becomes steady and happy] from the relaxation of effort and an intimation of the infinite.”

Patañjali has told us that āsana is stability and happiness (sthira-sukham āsanam). Here, he elaborates. Sūtra II.47 connects to II.46 by its grammatical construction, that is, by its noun-ending. The string of four words form a compound of two parts, and the entire compound is governed by the fifth-case, dual ending: -ibhyām. The fifth case describes causation. What brings the qualities of stability and happiness to āsana? They come from prayatna-śaithilya (the relaxation of effort) and ananta-samāpatti (intimation of the infinite).

In chapter one, Patañjali defined abhyāsa as the effort to maintain focus (see I.13). Perhaps for this reason–though śaithilya literally means relaxation or loosening and prayatna is effort–B.K.S. Iyengar emphasizes a dynamic tension between the two values with his translation of śaithilya as “effortlessness,” setting up the koan-like and beautiful expression “effortless effort.”

The phrase “effortless effort” comes up often in Iyengar Yoga classes, and it has intimately shaped my sense of what the yogic enterprise–and the spiritual path–is about. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” says Jesus. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.29-30.) The discipline, the effort of practice, brings relief, lightness.

Āsana moves toward effortlessness when we release unnecessary actions and locate the necessary, when we balance, in other words, our various parts and bring them into harmony. Āsana practice often reveals the grace of the body, as the practitioner, bit by bit, activates dormant areas, relaxes tense or overworked ones, liberates the integrity of the whole. The body often feels lighter, the effort feels less–yet effort  has been made, is being made, will be made again. The non-effort and the effort appear at once.

Ananta means infinity (“not-ending”); it is a name for Vishnu, and it is a name for the snake that supports Vishnu in the cosmic ocean of being. The sage Patañjali is said to be an incarnation of the snake Ananta; according to Hindu myth, Ananta asked to be born. He brought to humanity the supports of yoga for consciousness, medicine for the body, and grammar for language.  The Invocation to Patañjali, often chanted at the beginning of Iyengar Yoga classes, alludes to these gifts. (Find my literal translation here.) The pose anantāsana is often called Vishnu’s couch. It can also be considered the pose of infinity. In this āsana, the practitioner lies on her side, balanced, not dropping to the front body or back, making a line in space through herself, resting, observant, supported in flux and flow–in infinity.

Samāpatti, a term Patañjali uses in chapter one, is full perception, direct experience, union. I have translated it here as “intimation” to emphasize how subtle, how delicate, our experiences of the ineffable, the infinite, often are. Many commentators (including the foremost Vyāsa) have emphasized that the practitioner must keep his or her focus on the divine. B.K.S. Iyengar has taught that the āsana itself, in its very finiteness, its material definitiveness, reveals the infinite within–the space between the molecules and atoms (see quote below). The infinite moves through and through every part of our lives. What brings us to the perception of it?

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


“In āsana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within. . . . Initially we need to exert ourselves more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of āsana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our minds is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat. When effort becomes effortless, āsana is at its highest level.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 45

“It is difficult to speak of bodily knowledge in words. It is much easier to experience it, to discover what it feels like. It is as if the rays of light of your intelligence were shining through your body, out your arms to your fingertips and down your legs and out through the soles of your feet. As this happens, the mind becomes passive and begins to relax. This is an alert passivity and not a dull, empty one. The state of alert repose regenerates the mind and purifies the body.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 32

• What has been your experience of effort and relaxation in āsana practice? Has it changed over time?
• How would you describe effortless effort?
• In what way do you experience the intelligence of the body?
• What connects you to the infinite? What does the infinite mean to you?


masculine noun in compound

effort (from pra-, prefix that here gives a sense of excellence or completeness, + yat, “to try”)


neuter noun in compound
relaxation (from the adjective śithila, “loose”)

neuter noun in compound

the infinite (from an-, “not,” + anta, “end”)

feminine noun, 5th case dual “from”

full perception, apprehension


II.46 स्थिरसुखमासनम्

sthira-sukham āsanam
“Steadiness and happiness–[that is] āsana.”

Āsana, or posture (literally, “sitting”), is the third of the eight limbs of Patañjali’s yoga. In early usage, it specifically meant the seat that a practitioner would take to meditate. Over time, its sense expanded to include a large variety of body positions and movements that invite attention and inward awareness.

The thirteenth-century Hatha Yoga text Viveka Mārtaṇḍa states, “There are as many āsanas as there are species of living things.” (Viveka Mārtaṇḍa, verse 10.) The allusion to the natural world is important: often named after animals (dog, crow, frog, eagle, horse…) or plants (tree, lotus…), āsanas form a bridge for us to the natural world and our membership in it.  They encourage body experience and awaken the senses. In āsana practice, we experiment with gravity by balancing and inverting; we explore the dimensions of space vertically, horizontally, saggitally; we play with forces and enact shapes that expand our sense of self and open possibility.

Geeta Iyengar, the daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar, writes that the āsanas are “seemingly physical,” and I believe she means by this that the mental and the spiritual are expressed in the physical. We move our bodies and we affect our minds.

Yoga–as it is practised today by millions around the world–often begins with the practice of āsana. It is a practice that, though probably influenced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century forms of gymnastics and other movement, has various and deep roots that include the Hatha Yoga of the thirteenth- to fourteenth-centuries, Tantra (100 CE – 1300 CE), the classical yoga of Patañjali (100-400 CE), and the earlier Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā (dating back as far as 2500 BCE). (For a clear description of the literary sources of yoga, see Georg Feuerstein’s The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, pp. 64-69.) What many contemporary practitioners recognize as yoga (a practice referred to by some scholars as “modern postural yoga”) has been significantly shaped by the teaching of T.M. Krishnamacarya and his students B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Patabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

I was introduced to yoga in a New York Soho studio in 1988, when Iyengar teachers Judy Freedman and Peentz Dubble demonstrated Caturāṅga Daṇḍasana, a pose in which the torso hovers, crocodile-like, a few inches off the ground. It was eerily non-physical (as Geeta Iyengar suggests) and physical at once. Clearly, the pose took strength. But it took a kind of release of strength as well, a suspension of disbelief, an integration of being. I was entranced–and I began the practice from that day.

B.K.S. Iyengar has declared that all eight limbs of Patañjali’s yoga are implicit in the first Tadāsana a student does. He is a champion of āsana and of the significance, the impact, of “body knowledge” on every being.

In this first and very lovely sūtra of the three sūtras in which Patañjali describes āsana, he says that āsana is sthira-sukham, steadiness and happiness. We can interpret this to mean that āsana is an expression of these two qualities and/or that āsana brings them. Either way, they are integral to the purpose, the essence of āsana.

Sthira, “steadiness,” derives from the verbal root sthā, “to stand,” which not only is cognate with the English “stand,” but as in English connects to a family of  words with related meanings–steadiness, stability, strength. To come to stand is an underlying theme of the Yoga Sūtras. In sūtra I.3, Patañjali states that the purpose of yoga is to bring one to “stand in the identity of the seer” (tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam). Words derived from sthā  weave in and out of the text (see I.35 and II.28 as examples). But to get a fuller sense of the importance and beauty of the idea of coming to stand in the self, we might turn to the Bhagavad Gītā:

sthita-prajñasya kā bhāṣā
[she who is] steady of wisdom, what description [would you give]
samādhi-sthasya Keśava
[she who is] steadfast in samādhi, O Kriṣna,
sthita-dhīḥ kim prabaśeta
steady in thought–how does she speak,
kim āsīta vrajeta kim
how sit, how move?
Bhagavad Gītā, II.54

There are three words in this verse that derive from sthā, forming a kind of chorus of emphasis: the yoga endeavor is steadiness of consciousness, stability of mind and emotions. This inner standing is reflected in our embodiment, and vice-versa–the body that stands, that establishes itself in gravity and space, supports the inner being.

But āsana is not just steadiness; it is also sukha–happiness, sweetness, mobility, ease. Āsana, like the body itself, is not meant to be hard or fixed. As Meister Eckhart says, “The path is beautiful and pleasant and joyful and familiar.” (Meditations with Meister Eckhart, edited by Matthew Fox.) Perhaps it is a surprise that a path of discipline is a joyful path–that a steadiness of purpose might also be light and pleasant–that, as we approach the heart of things, we learn to be, in Mary Oliver’s words, “that wild and loving.”


I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk
with its fragrance

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen

and easily
she adored
every blossom

not in the serious
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.

–Mary Oliver, “Luke”


“[The] process of relaxing the brain is achieved through āsana. We generally think of mind as being in our head. In āsana our consciousness spreads through the body, eventually diffusing in every cell, creating a complete awareness. In this way stressful thought is drained away, and our mind focuses on the body, intelligence, and awareness as a whole. This allows the brain to be more receptive, and concentration becomes more natural. How to keep the brain cells in a relaxed, receptive, and concentrated state is the art that yoga teaches.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p.15

“The seemingly physical āsanas have a great potential to change the behavioral pattern of the practitioner, which in turn changes the mental stature, enabling the practitioner to proceed further and remain on the spiritual path. This systematic classification is based on the anatomical structure and function of the body and a sequential progression of movement. It brings a progressive activation of the internal body so that one penetrates through the outer body to the inner one, and again, through the body and the mind to excavate the hidden energy of one’s very existence, to reach the source of being, the Soul.” –Geeta Iyengar, Yoga in Action, Preliminary Course, p.11

• How does stability and strength in the body affect your mind and attitude? When you have suffered injury, feel tired, stiff, weak, or unbalanced, what is the effect on your mind and spirit?
• Do you cultivate ease in your practice? A sense of play or fun? Love?
• Has yoga brought you greater stability in your consciousness? How would you describe that? What does it feel like, for you?
• What has āsana practice taught you about sukha (happiness, ease, delight)? What have you learned about duhkha (pain) through āsana practice?


neuter noun in compound

steady (from sthā, “to stand)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

happiness, ease (from su, “good,” + kha, “axle hole, space”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

posture (from ās, “to sit”)

II.45 समाधिसिद्धिरीश्वरप्रणिधानात

samādhi-siddhir īśvara-praṇidhānāt
samādhi-siddhiḥ īśvara-praṇidhānāt
“The ability to perceive directly and fully [comes] from turning toward the source within.”

Who or what owns it all? Who or what do I defer to, commit to, surrender to? What brings me the widest perspective that I can have? What support lies underneath the support?

Just as sūtra I.23 introduced īśvara-praṇidhana as the ultimate yogic act, implicit in all yogic practices, so does Patañjali’s discussion of the yamas and niyamas culminate with this same great injunction: turn inward, turn to the source.

As I have described, the word īśvara (from īś, “to own,” +   vṛ, “to choose”) can be an adjective that means powerful, capable. As a noun, it refers to one who is the owner, a rich person, a king or queen. It is commonly translated Lord or God. To understand Patañjali’s idea of īśvara, it is useful to return to chapter one and consider sūtras I.23-29. There, Patañjali describes īśvara as the self that is untouched by circumstances (I.24), a place within, beyond time, the holder of the seed of knowledge, the original teacher (I.25-26), understood by vibration, not concept (I.27-28). The sound of īśvara is OM, and OM takes us inward, to the connection to what īśvara is in us (I.29).

Praṇidhāna (from pra-, “towards,” + ni-, “under”, + dhā, “to place”) carries with it the sense of placing something down and before, turning something over, as it were. It is translated surrender, devotion, commitment.

In the context of the practice of yoga, and specifically, Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, what we surrender–what we lay down–is our preconceptions, patterns of thought, reactive tendencies. Rohit Mehta translates īśvara-praṇidhāna as aspiration to what is highest, orientation to ultimate reality. He says the yoga aspirant must be “poor and penniless in the psychological sense” to come to the view of reality, to “live in the open spaces.” (See quotation below.)

To view reality, to see clearly, is samādhi, and Mehta here echoes the definition of samādhi that Patañjali will give in sūtra III.3, where he describes an “emptying” of citta so that the object alone shines there. This emptying allows the fulfillment (siddhi) of what samādhi is. In today’s sūtra, Patañjali simply says, samādhi-siddhiḥ īśvara-praṇidhānāt, which I have translated: the ability to perceive directly and fully [comes] from turning toward the source within.

Patañjali will describe the turn inward, the how of it, in the following sūtras. It is worth pausing here to reflect on a quality that Mehta mentions in his discussion of santoṣa and that relates to īśvara-praṇidhāna as well: self-containment. The spiritual person, says Mehta, is neither a conformist nor non-conformist, but finds authority within. I was fortunate to see an interview with the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg this week. Greta is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and has chosen to be forthright about it. Asked how it affects her as an activist, she answered:

It is thanks to my diagnosis, my Asperger’s syndrome…because without that I wouldn’t have noticed this crisis…. Everyone else saw the same pictures and films that I did, the destruction of nature and what was happening with the climate, but no one of them seemed to really … I didn’t understand why their lives weren’t turned upside down like mine was.  —https://theintercept.com/2019/09/13/greta-thunberg-naomi-klein-climate/

Most of us gauge our responses based on what our families or neighbors or fellow citizens do. Greta Thunberg took in the facts of climate change directly and has directly responded. She is an exemplar of what we aspire to as yoga practitioners.

The turn inward, the surrender or commitment to seeing as the seer within sees, is central to yoga practice. So, is īśvara-praṇidhāna–and therefore yogatheistic? Rohit Mehta argues that Patañjali’s īśvara is neither anthropomorphic nor a personal deity. And though religious practitioners can readily recognize the principle of surrendering to God, īśvara-praṇidhāna is a more universal expression of faith–non-sectarian, even secular. To not know, to let go, to trust, these are the attributes of Patañjali’s īśvara-praṇidhāna.

What supports me? What do I turn to? What is the support under the support?

There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts. Knock on the inner door. No other. Sloshing knee-deep in clear streamwater, you keep wanting a drink from other people’s waterbags. Water is everywhere around you, but you see only barriers that keep you from water. A horse is moving beneath the rider’s thighs, yet still he asks, Where is my horse? Right there, under you. Yes, this is a horse, but where’s the horse? Can’t you see? Yes, I can see, but whoever saw such a horse? Mad with thirst, he cannot drink from the stream running so close by his face. He is like a pearl on the deep bottom wondering, inside the shell, Where is the ocean? His mental questionings form the barrier. His physical eyesight bandages his knowing. Self-consciousness plugs his ears. Stay bewildered in God and only that. –Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks


“Patañjali says that while making effort, while training, while studying, become aware that there is a principle permeating everything. Toward It, have an attitude of surrender–otherwise you might mistake yourself as this master of your body and master of the cosmos or the universe. You are in a limited form and all your actions are limited. You have to work in a conditioned, limited structure, so whatever you do has limitation. But there is an unlimited, all-pervading principle that is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent–these three beautiful terms explain everything that is indicated by the word īśvara. There is no other meaning to the word īśvara as far as Patañjali is concerned.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 37

Īśvara or Reality is not in some one direction. It is all-pervading. So right orientation means opening oneself to Reality, and therefore living in the open spaces. It is a condition of an open mind, not open to something or in some direction, but just open. It is a state of openness. … To come to this state the mind has to be divested of everything. To be poor and penniless in the psychological sense is to know what non-possessiveness [aparigraha] is.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 183

“Pupil: ‘Sir, can one see God? If so, why can’t we see [her]him?’ Sri Ramakrishna: ‘Yes, [s]he can assuredly be seen. One can see [her]him with form, and one can see [her]him also as formless.'” –quoted by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, How to Know God, p. 158

• What are you committed to? Devoted to?
• In what ways is surrender a rhythm that underlies your practice? What is the interplay between effort and letting go, for you?
• Has yoga practice brought you to a state of openness? What is required of you to become more open?
• What form does God take for you (if any)? What is faith for you?


masculine noun in compound(I.41

absorption (from sam-, “with,” + ā, “towards,” + dhā, “to place, to hold”)


feminine noun, 1st case
power, ability, completion (from sidh, “to fulfill, to reach, to succeed”)

masculine noun in compound

owner (from īś, “to own,” + vṛ, “to choose”)


neuter noun, 5th case singular

devotion, surrender, contemplation (from pra-, towards + ni-, “under,” + dhā, “to place, support”)


II.44 स्वाध्यायादिष्टदेवतासम्प्रयोगः

svādhyāyād iṣṭa-devatā-samprayogaḥ
svādhyāyāt iṣṭa-devatā-samprayogaḥ
“From self-study, union with the beloved within.”

The spiritual path might be described as the journey to discover one’s self. The discipline (tapas) of walking that path includes bringing awareness and honesty to one’s tendencies, proclivities, limitations, adaptations of all kinds. It involves a willingness to observe, to test, to try new behaviors. In short, it involves study.

Svādhyāya, the fourth niyama, is self-study. It derives from sva, “self” + adhī, “to study, to go fully into” (the root verb of adhī is i, “to go”). But the English word self does not quite express the fullness of the expression sva as it is used in Sanskrit. Sva is a pronoun that means “one’s own,” and could be used to indicate anything that belongs to one. As a noun, it is often used to refer to the soul.  It is also a name of the god Viṣṇu, protector and preserver of life. So the word both refers to the individual and that that is greater than the individual–the source, the deep reality.

Mr. Iyengar writes that yoga is an inward journey, and in that journey we move through layers of our being, “from the world of appearances, or surfaces, into the subtlest heart of living matter.” There is a kind of excavation that happens as we go inward; we remove and release old ways of being and thinking; we move toward an innate self. Some describe this as coming into wholeness. In yogic terms, it is discovering the divine within.

The inward experience can happen powerfully in the seemingly “surface” practice of āsana. I may be especially aware of this because it is my tendency to separate from my body–to remove myself from felt experience and dwell on the intellectual or analytical layer of myself. To bring my awareness to the felt–to physical perceptions–acquaints me with me. I know then what I am feeling, what I am sensing around me, and I come alive, become more “sensitive,” as Rohit Mehta would say.

This awakening of the senses has brought me up against hard truths about myself. It has led me to recognize my own self-defeating behaviors. It has revealed a definite inclination toward shame. Thus, a key tool of self-study, I would say, is curiosity. Can I be interested not in the success or failure of a pose, but in the how of it? If I become disturbed by a person or event, can I sympathetically say to  myself, Huh! What is that about? Can I be curious? Can I be loving?

Christian theologian Henri Nouwen writes of the spiritual journey in personal and psychological terms in his 1992 book Life of the Beloved. This work was an attempt to describe the spiritual life to a secular friend. He specifically addresses shame, which he calls “self-rejection”:

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…I am constantly surprised at how quickly I give in to this temptation. As as soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking: Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.”  (Life of the Beloved, pp. 31-32)

For Henri Nouwen, the quality of being turned against oneself, of rejecting oneself, is a trap. It delays and deflects from the spiritual path, the aim of which is belovedness.

It is not unlike what Patañjali says here. From self-study, Patañjali says, comes union with the beloved within (iṣṭa-devata). In Hinduism, the iṣṭa-devata is the representation of the divine that the devotee particularly connects with; it is the expression of the divine that one loves. In secular terms, we might understand this to be any symbol, place, or activity that connects us to what is beyond ourselves and what is within.

The key to the term iṣṭa-devata, I believe, is iṣṭa. It is the past passive participle of the verb iṣ, “to desire”–it refers to what is desired, longed for…what is beloved. The iṣṭa-devata (again, in secular terms) is the thing that excites us, brings enthusiasm, that supports us in our efforts; it is the habit or practice that holds our attention, that captures our curiosity, that draws us toward truth, toward insight, toward wholeness.

As we come to know ourselves better, we choose our individual path with more discernment. What is right for me may not be right for you. What you love, what connects you, is your guide.

B.K.S. Iyengar was known to say, “Be a learner.” I would add, Be curious. Be the Beloved.

Dear friend, being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit. I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of the truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth. From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. –Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p. 43


“Self-study refers not only to the regular, independent study and recitation of wisdom teachings but also more broadly to the way one applies them to one’s own life. It is not enough simply to arrive at an intellectual, conceptual grasp of the ideas associated with tradition. One must ‘walk the talk’ by actually taking action.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 36

“To a yogi … the path toward spirit  lies entirely in the domain of nature. It is the exploration of nature from the world of appearances, or surface, into the subtlest heart of living matter. Spirituality is not some external goal that one must seek but a part of the divine core of each of us, which we must reveal. For the yogi, spirit is not separate from body. Spirituality, as I have tried to make clear, is not ethereal and outside nature but accessible and palpable in our very own bodies.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 18

• Has the practice of yoga brought you greater knowledge of yourself? Has it brought you surprises about yourself? Has it affected your inner dialogue? Have you come to have compassion for yourself?
• Has knowledge of yourself helped you trust yourself more? Has it brought self-reliance? Responsibility?
• What connects you to spirit? Is there a place or an activity that centers you? What is your experience of spirit in the body?
• Is there a form of the divine that is dear to you? What is your source of inspiration?


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

self-study; traditionally, study of sacred books and repetition of mantra (from sva, “self, one’s own” + adhī, “to study, to go fully into”; root verb is i, “to go”)


past passive participle in compound
beloved (from iṣ, “to desire”)

feminine noun in compound

deity (derivation uncertain, possibly from div, “to shine”)

masculine noun, 1st case singular

connection, union (from sam-, “with,” + pra-, prefix that suggests auspiciousness, + yuj, “to join”)

II.43 कायेन्द्रियसिद्धिरशुद्धिक्षयात् तपसः

kāyendriya-siddhir aśuddhi-kṣayāt tapasaḥ
kāya-indriya-siddhiḥ aśuddhi-kṣayāt tapasaḥ

“Strength of the body and senses comes from tapas–the removal of impurities.”

Tapas is the discipline of spiritual practice. It is the discipline to repeat, once more, and once more, those actions that clear, clarify, transform. Tapas is the willingness to begin again. It is the acceptance of the slog. It is determination when encountering resistance.

The word tapas comes from the root tap, “to burn,” and like the word kriyā (sacred act, see II.1), it suggests the lighting of the fire that was central to Vedic ritual. This imagery is vivid in the Bhagavad Gītā, verse VI.1:

anāśritaḥ karmaphalaṁ
kāryam karma karoti yaḥ
sa sannyāsī ca yogī ca
na niragnir na cākriyaḥ

The one who does the actions-to-be-done,
without attachment to the fruits,
that one is a yogi and is free–
not the one without a fire and without sacred acts.

The actions-to-be-done vary for each of us, but we must each light a fire.

In this sūtra, Patañjali emphasizes again that spiritual practice works as an act of removal–aśuddhi-kṣayāt (by the removal of impurities, a phrase used to describe the eight limbs of yoga generally, see II.26). Yoga is not about acquisition.

And yet this process of removal, this lighting of the fire, unveils to us, unblocks in us, our natural potentials. Patañjali states that, by means of tapas, the body and the senses are strengthened; they are brought to fulfillment–kāya-indriya-siddhiḥ. In his recent book, One Simple Thing, A New Look at the Science of Yoga, Eddie Stern describes tapas as “a positive stress” (p. 119). Indeed, there is a growing recognition in modern medicine and psychology that the body and the nervous system need to be stressed to stay strong. We must move, be active, face challenges to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

Patañjali will elaborate on the powers (siddhis) in Ch. 3, the Vibhuti Pāda, “chapter of accomplishments,” but he suggests here that the powers of which the body and the senses are capable are not special or magical, though they may seem so at times. They are rather the abilities revealed when the obstacles to learning are cleared. The body, generally, is ready to learn–it is the mind that says no. The senses, often, are under-used.

Vimala Thakar emphasizes that the limbs of yoga educate the body and the senses and free us of “the clutches of conditioning.” Rohit Mehta, who often speaks of the re-education of the senses, describes in his commentary on this sūtra that tapas brings sensitivity. He considers tapas, essentially, to be an austerity of simplicity, a condition in which “all ostentation and sophistication are put aside.”

Pratyāhāra, the turning inward of the senses, the “bending inward”–as B.K.S. Iyengar says–is essential to this aspect of tapas. Doing nothing, being still, observing inwardly, these renew the senses. They heighten the awareness. They also require a kind of fire of attention. There is a not-doing to the doing that is yogic tapas. One might also say that there is a doing to the not-doing.

When I consider my own tapas, I ask myself, Am I willing to learn? Am I willing to have the conditionings that clutch me released (even if they don’t disappear)? Do I make time in the day for spaciousness? In the body? In the mind? Am I willing to listen, to receive? To be sensitive? I am pretty sure I do not free myself. Space does.

In a word, let this thing deal with you, and lead you as it will. Let it be active, and you passive. Watch it if you like, but let it alone. Do not interfere with it, as though you would help, for fear that you should spoil it all. Be the tree; let it be the carpenter. Be the house, and let it be the householder who lives there. Be willing to be blind, and give up all longing to know the why and how, for knowing will be more of a hindrance than a help. It is enough that you should feel moved lovingly by you know not what, and that in this inward urge you have no real thought for anything less than God, and that your desire is steadily and simply turned toward that. —The Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 34


“The third niyama, tapas, sustained practice, corresponds to pratyāhāra, the hinge between the outer and inner aspects of yoga practice. It implies that cognitive awareness is bent inward with a view to self-knowledge (svādhyāya). It directs one toward the core of being and, like the blacksmith’s bellows, it must always continue to heat the heart of the fire of practice, otherwise the alchemical transformation through extreme heat will never take place. The fire will burn merrily, but it will not turn lead into gold.”–B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 263

Tapas is not mortification. No suppression, no repression, no denial–but it is an austerity….Tapas is to educate the body–āsanas, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, etc. You educate the body in speech, in ideas, etc., so that it can set itself free of the clutches of conditionings. You cannot destroy conditionings, but you can release yourself from their hold, their domination, their clutches.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 28

“It would be well to regard tapas as simplicity, that condition of the body and mind where all ostentation and sophistication are put aside. In such simplicity there arises a great sensitivity in the functioning of the body and the mind. One is able to respond to the beauty of nature and man.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 179

• What role has discipline played in your life? What are the disciplines important to your life today?
• Do you consider sensitivity a goal of practice?
• What has brought you transformation–physical, psychological, or spiritual? What “conditionings” do you most need release from? How does practice help with that?
• Is a quality of fire necessary in practice? (How do you kindle that fire? How do you help it burn steady?)


masculine noun in compound



neuter noun in compound

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


feminine noun, first case singular

power, ability (from sidh, “to fulfill, to reach, to succeed”)


feminine noun in compound

impurity (from a-, negation, + śudh, “to purify, make clear”)


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

removal, elimination, destruction (from kṣi, “to destroy”)


neuter noun, 5th case singular, “from”

discipline, fire, pain (from tap, “to be hot, blaze, burn”)

II.42 सन्तोषादनुत्तमः सुखलाभः

santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
santoṣāt anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
“From contentment, incomparable attainment of happiness.”

The second niyama is santoṣa–contentment. It can be understood to come, like saumanasya (cheerfulness), from the first niyama, which is śauca, cleanliness. The health, vitality, and sensitivity that śauca brings do themselves give us a feeling of contentment. Yet in this sūtra, contentment is not described as a consequence. Like the other niyamas, contentment is an action.

Generally, as a product of my society, I have viewed contentment as a result of action, as an object to be won. Enshrined in our Declaration of Independence is the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” and I am sure that has influenced me. Matthew Remski remarks that the American standard of living is based on “incessant appeals to our dissatisfaction” (Threads of Yoga, p.112). Our dissatisfaction drives the engine of our economy. I am so accustomed to it as part of life that I hardly know there is an alternative.

Patañjali challenges us to live in a different way. He tells us to practice contentment.

Santoṣa derives from the prefix sam-, “with or all,” and the verbal root tuṣ, “to be satisfied.” Tuṣ is a pretty verb: tuṣyāmi, “I am satisfied”; tuṣyati,“he/she is satisfied.” What leads me to be satisfied? What prevents me from feeling satisfied–even when circumstances are good, when I have much to be thankful for?

One summer when my daughter was in high school, she worked on a permaculture farm run by a family. Her employer, a man named Nick, gave her a list of tasks to do. When she had finished them, she went back to him and asked what’s next. Now, he said, you sit down and absorb what you have done. I always do that, he said.

Do I sometimes not feel satisfied because I have not let myself absorb what I have done? Or enjoy what is happening? Do I feel the water on my skin when I do the dishes? (See Thich Nhat Hanh quote on washing the dishes, II.40.) Do I taste my food when I eat? Do I notice the weather, the seasons, the sky? Do I let myself experience the fullness that is in each moment?  The awakened senses can lead us to be in our lives more.

Many spiritual traditions direct us to find contentment within. At the source of our self, within our self, we are told, we find our self. The Bhagavad Gītā expresses this beautifully in the following verse:

yatra caivātmanā ‘tmānam
where, and indeed, by the self, the self

paśyann ātmani tuṣyati
beholding–in the self, she is satisfied (VI.20)

The word for self–ātman–appears three times. “By means of the self, seeing the self, in the self, she [the practitioner] is satisfied.” To be in the self is to be satisfied.

This satisfaction means, to me, that I am attuned to my everyday self and with my everyday life. It means that I keep things simple. Can I be glad in the body I have, with its idiosyncrasies, strengths, and limitations? Can I be glad, even, in the peculiarities of my temperament? How much do feelings of not being good enough, even more so than not having enough, disturb the contentment that might come if I let it?

Rohit Mehta says the real meaning of santoṣa is “psychological self-containment.” It is a state, he says, in which we are not dependent on external happenings, but find instead a happiness that is incorruptible. I like Mehta’s definition, and it leads me to wonder if the independence that comes of establishing the self in one’s self, that comes of practicing santoṣa, isn’t itself significant.

Indeed, there is much to not be satisfied by in the state of our country. The world is in a climate crisis. Men and women and children seeking refuge at the U.S. border are detained and held in inhumane conditions. I believe it is my obligation to not look away, to be a witness, and to respond as best I can. I don’t always know what I can do, and I often feel deficient, but it does seem to me that the “incorruptible happiness” of santoṣa can strengthen my purpose. This moment in history calls for engagement. May the niyamas support me in that.

“I have no power of miracle other than the attainment of quiet happiness, I have no tact except the exercise of gentleness.” — Oracle of Sumiyoshi, Shinto prayer (thanks to Mark Nepo)

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii


“You know how electricity is produced: water flows like a waterfall onto turbines which rotate under the action of the water to generate the current. So also, when we are performing āsanas, we make the blood fall on every one of our cells like water onto a turbine, to release the hidden energy of our body and bring new light to the cells. When that light comes, we experience santoṣa–contentment–which is the second principle of niyama.”–B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, p. 50

“Contentment comes from mental well-being (saumanasya) that moves us to consider the positive in all beings and situations. Often our frustrations come from regrets, agitation, suffering, or comparing ourselves with others. Focusing on what others have–or don’t have, for that matter–instead of nourishing gratitude, leads to everlasting discontent. Contentment is a dynamic and constructive attitude that brings us to look at things in a new way. It calms the mind, bringing a flowering of subtle joy and inner serenity that are independent of all outside influences and perishable things. It is essential for self-confidence, for succeeding in our personal endeavors, and for relationships, education, teaching, and therapy.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 126

“So long as man thinks his happiness lies outside, in external happenings, he is destined to remain unhappy, for he can have no control over the external factors. To be psychologically self-contained is to find happiness within.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 178

• Do you practice contentment? How?
• Is adrenaline a fuel for you? Anxiety? Worry? Is there a way that contentment itself could be dynamic?
• Do you experience a link between self-confidence and contentment? (Do you compare yourself to others?) What supports, for you, feelings of satisfaction, abundance?


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

contentment (from sam-,”with or all,” + tuṣ, “to be satisfied”)


masculine adjective, 1st case singular
having no superior, highest, unsurpassed (from an-, “not,” + ud, “up, high”)

neuter noun in compound

happiness (from su, “good,” + kha, “axle hole, space”)

masculine noun, 1st case singular

obtainment, gain (from labh, “to obtain”)