II.55 ततः परमा वश्यतेन्द्रियाणाम्

tataḥ paramā vaśyatendriyāṇām
tataḥ paramā vaśyatā indriyāṇām

“From that, full resiliency of the senses.”

Pratyāhāra, the process of going in, the practice of separating from our habitual patterns of seeing and responding to the world (II.54), brings refreshment and a renewal of the powers of the senses. In Rohit Mehta’s words, the senses become more sensitive, pliable: the senses function more freely, perform, as it were, their right role. The senses, he says, in his commentary on II.55, develop “resilience.”

Resilience of the senses is Rohit Mehta’s translation of the Sanskrit phrase vaśyatā indriyāṇām, which other commentators render as mastery, control, or–most dramatically–subjugation of the senses. Let us look closer at the key word here: vaśyatā. It derives from the verb vaś, to will, wish, or desire. The addition of -ya makes the meaning passive, and so vaśya means to be subject to another’s will, to be responsive to another’s wishes, to be ready to do service. The -ta ending makes a feminine abstract noun. Thus, vaśyatā can be understood to be the state of being responsive.

My problem with using subjugation–and even mastery or control–in the context of today’s sūtra is that it suggests a spirit-mind-body organization that functions as a hierarchy, in a top-down way. It implies that the senses serve a lower function, can perhaps, even, be taken for granted. This runs counter to the very lesson that practice has brought me: that the human organism, and each cell in it–as B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on Life–is a great republic (p. 59).

As I mention in the discussion of II.54, recent trauma research indicates that many of us need to revive our senses, tune into body sensation more, not less, to heal and live more integrated lives. We need our senses to be active, fully functioning, and attuned to our surroundings (rather than the stories in our heads). Peter Levine titled his first book on healing from trauma Waking the Tiger. Not conquering the tiger, not controlling the tiger…waking. The tiger here symbolizes the power of the nervous system–that is, the unfrozen, fully functioning nervous system, the sensing, feeling self. This instinctive part of ourselves, according to Levine, is active, rhythmic; it flows from calmness to alertness to immobility then back to action. It builds and holds energy and will, in a burst, release it.

Modern society encourages the containment of energy–at school, at work, even in most social settings. There is little tolerance for release. Those of us, especially, who are drawn to following the rules may become stuck in a kind of grim purpose, out of touch with our own inner responsiveness. Persistent control can be a hard taskmaster.

Nineteenth-century author Anne Gilchrist, in an appreciation of Walt Whitman’s poetry, writes of the flow of life and of resiliency:

I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.

She further reflects on the importance of the body and considers what a non-hierarchical view of the relation of spirit and body might be:

I feel deeply persuaded that a perfectly fearless, candid, ennobling treatment of the life of the body (so inextricably intertwined with, so potent in its influence on the life of the soul) will prove of inestimable value to all earnest and aspiring natures, impatient of the folly of the long-prevalent belief that it is because of the greatness of the spirit that it has learned to despise the body….The great tide of healthful life that carries all before it must surge through the whole man, not beat to and fro in one corner of his brain.  –Anne Gilchrist, The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman. (Thanks to Maria Popova and her ever-inspiring blog Brain Pickings.)

Yoga practice has supported my own intimation of the greatness of the republic of the body, of the importance of each cell, and it has confirmed for me that it is through the resilience of the senses, their adaptability, flexibility–readiness–that I will gain greater wholeness, live more intuitively and more lovingly.

āpyāyantu mamāṅgāni vāk prāṇah cakṣuḥ
śrotram atho balam indriyāṇi ca sarvāṇi |
Make my limbs, speech, prāṇa, sight, and hearing strong–and all senses.

sarvam brahmaupaniṣadam|
All is Brahman of Upaniṣads.

mā’haṃ brahma nirākuryāṃ|
May I not deny Brahman.

mā mā brahma nirākarot|
May Brahman not deny me.

anirākaraṇam astu|
May there be no denial.

anirākaraṇam me’stu |
May I have no denial.

tadātmani nirate ya upaniṣatsu dharmāḥ
te mayi santu te mayi santu |
May those dharmas that are in the Upaniṣads be in me,
who am devoted to the ātman. May they be in me.

oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ ||
–mantra from Kena Upanisad


“The phrase indriyāṇām vaśyatā means the greater sensitivity of the senses. The senses become intensely pliable, casting away all dullness and rigidity. This is so because they come into their own and are able to function with freedom. It has to be remembered that there is nothing wrong in the free functioning of the senses. The functioning of the senses goes wrong only when the mind intervenes. … When that intervention is removed, the movement of the senses correspond with the flow of life.”  –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, The Art of Integration, pp. 230-231

•Do you value logic over sensation? One sensation over another? Has yoga practice increased your appreciation of the senses?
•What might it mean for the senses to be more “resilient”? What might it mean for them to “move with the flow of life”? Where in your life do you experience freedom of the senses?
•How do you experience the storms of adversity? Happiness?
•Is it possible to sense and not conceptualize? What helps you sense more fully? Does metaphor play a role in helping you see, hear, smell, feel? Does music? Art?



from that


feminine adjective, 1st case singular

ultimate, most excellent  (superlative of para, “other, higher, next”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

the state of being responsive, pliancy, resilience (from vaś, “to wish, to will”)



neuter noun, 6th case plural, “of”

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

II.54 स्वविषयासम्प्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकार इवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇām pratyāhāraḥ
sva-viṣaya-asamprayoge cittasya svarūpa-anukāraḥ iva indriyāṇām pratyāhāraḥ

“Withdrawal of the senses is like an imitation of citta‘s own true nature–citta separates from its [accustomed] objects.”

Pratyāhāra, which literally means “withdrawal” (prati-, “back,”+ ā-, “near,” + hṛ, “to carry”), is the fifth limb of yoga. Like all the limbs, it is not discrete or separate from the other limbs. It is implicit in every act of yoga. Today’s sūtra makes this clear.

The withdrawal that Patañjali describes here might be accomplished with a physical removal of the body, as on a retreat or vacation. Indeed, the first dictionary meaning of pratyāhāra is “marching back troops” from the field of battle. A stepping back or down is a recurring part of the spiritual path–Moses visits the mountain top; Jesus goes to the desert; in the Indian tradition, sages withdraw to the forest. The change of scenery, new activities, the removal from regular social obligations, are surely a significant part of such retreats. All facilitate the act of pratyāhāra that Patañjali here describes.

Yet Patañjali is not talking about a physical removal. He specifies that this withdrawal is “of the senses” (indriyāṇām). This is a retreat that can happen anywhere, in one’s own city, on one’s own block, in one’s own home. It is an internal process. In pratyāhāra, Patañjali says, citta (consciousness, the mind) imitates (anukāraḥ) its own true nature (svarūpa). Citta, in some sense, becomes more like its own self.

Svarūpa  is an important word in the Yoga Sūtras. At the start of Chapter One, Patañjali uses svarūpa to describe the goal of yoga practice–“to stand in the true nature of the seer” (I.3, tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam). Sva means self and rūpa means form, and svarūpa, then, is one’s own form: it comes to mean identity or essential nature. Yoga leads us to ask the question Who am I? and prompts us to let go of our fixed ideas of self, certainly definitions of self established by external values, by concepts like good/bad, honor/shame, worthy/unworthy–all of which could be considered identification with the vṛttis (thought patterns). See I.4 and II.48.

To imitate svarūpa is to see, sense, feel directly, not through the screen of past conceptions. When does this happen? When citta (consciousness), Patañjali tells us, separates from its objects (sva-viṣaya-asamprayoge). Traditionally, commentators have defined sva-viṣaya, “its objects,”  to mean things of the material world, and have considered the senses and the attraction to objects of the senses to be almost dangerous. This does not fit with my experience. I would rather explain sva-viṣaya to be the accustomed objects of my senses, the objects I have limited myself to witnessing.

Generally speaking, the mind does limit what we see. As legendary vision therapist Richard S. Kavner explains in Total Vision, the eye is not a camera. The mind decides what is important; it makes categories to sort and order our impressions into a kind of hierarchy of interest.  In yoga practice, we “separate,” make space, distance ourselves, you might say, from our habitual hierarchy of importance. In that space, we see more like the essential self, with the freshness of our original nature.

There is another important aspect to self and the practice of pratyāhāra, as relates to all the limbs of yoga but perhaps especially āsana and prāṇāyāma. When we turn our awareness to the body and breath, to the subtle sensations of physical responses, to the body in space, engaged with the elements, we may begin to sense our selves differently. I have previously written of psychiatrist  Bessel Van der Kolk’s work with traumatized patients and how significant a role the practice of yoga can play in their healing. He writes: “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on these sensations to navigate safely through life.” (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, p. 274; also see earlier postings on II.3 and II.7.)

Turning inward, says psychotherapist Peter A. Levine, is how we come to a more instinctive and fuller understanding of our lives. He helps his patients pay attention to their inward “felt sense,” not their feelings or thoughts per se, but their direct experience. He quotes Eugene Gendlin to define felt sense: “A felt sense is  not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time–encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail.” (See Waking the Tiger.)

The felt sense, according to Levine, is pre-verbal, instinctual; it is not conceptual. Indeed, Mr. Iyengar might describe it as the sensing of the subtle body and the locating of the deep intuitive self–buddhi, or intelligence, the aspect of self said to be closest to essential self.

It is the predicament of many of us that we have been cut off from our physical, instinctive selves. Indeed, both Van der Kolk and Peter Levine describe how dissociation from physical experience can become a chronic condition in those who have suffered trauma.

Yoga has offered me a path of healing from my own dissociation. I turn to my practice in a regular way to help myself “hook up” again inside myself. The inward opening of the felt sense of myself allows me a retreat, a separation from my habitual ways of seeing and being. It helps me come into the integrity, the oneness of my own self. This brings with it a sense of responsibility–but also empowerment.

Our lives are intricately interwoven with others–parents, spouses, children, friends. Women, in particular, are raised to define ourselves by others. As yogis, we learn to let go of those definitions and experience self in a vivid, immediate way. Adrienne Rich speaks powerfully to this “burning” sense of self:

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

–Adrienne Rich, “Song”


Pratyāhāra is the culturing and civilizing of the senses of perception. In much of our life, memory supersedes intelligence. Memory triggers the mind, and because the mind is triggered by memory we go for past experiences only. Memory is afraid that it may lose its identity, so before the mind has a chance to call upon the intelligence, memory comes in and says, ‘Act! Now! Immediately!’ That is known as impulse, which commonly governs our actions. … [The] act of going against memory and mind is pratyāhāra. With the help of intelligence, the senses commence an inner journey and return to their point of origin.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Tree of Yoga, pp. 60-61

“In the above sūtra there is a clear emphasis on ‘withdrawal’. But this is commonly understood to mean the rendering of the senses unresponsive to the outer impacts of life…. One may ask: Does spirituality mean a state of insensitivity? Does it demand a deadening of sense responses? Does one go to the door of Reality with a consciousness that is dull and unresponsive? Surely this cannot be…. Our senses need to be re-educated so that they grow in extraordinary sensitivity, feeding the brain with innumerable sensations, thus enabling it to be greatly activised…. To put it differently, the senses must be re-educated to look or feel anew the flower and the tree, the cloud and the bird, the river and the sea.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 216-228

Pratyāhāra typically arises as one focuses on the indivisible sensation fields that were the objects in the two previous limbs of yoga, sitting (āsana) and breathing (prāṇāyāma). To maintain awareness of these fields, attention must narrow its scope from the kaleidoscopic panorama of multi-sensory inputs to just those impressions that evoke the felt sense of the body quietly seated in āsana, then in the more circumscribed field of breath energies.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, pp. 42-3

• Has yoga helped you be a better observer?
• Has yoga helped you become aware of habitual patterns of thoughts? Has it helped you recognize what objects tend to attract your attention?
• What do you experience when you turn inward?  What helps you most to do this?
• Does yoga connect you to nature?


adjective in compound

one’s own, self


in compound

object, aim (from viṣ, “to act”)


masculine noun, 7th case singular, “in”

disconnecting, separating (from a-, “not,” + sam-, “with,” + pra-, “toward” + yuj, “to connect”; samprayuj, “to join together”)


neuter noun, 6th case singular, “of”

consciousness, mind, life field (from cit, “to perceive, to observe, to know”)


neuter noun in compound

own form, essential nature (from sva, “own,” + rūpa, “form”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

imitation (from anu-, “after,” + “kṛ, “to do”)



as if, like


neuter noun, 6th case plural, “of”

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


masculine noun, 1st case singular

retreat, withdrawal (from prati-, “back,” + ā-, “near,”+ hṛ, “to carry”)


II.53 धारणासु च योग्यता मनसः

dhāraṇāsu ca yogyatā manasaḥ
“And a readiness of the mind for holding a point of focus.”

Prāṇāyāma connects one to the inner light. “And” (ca), Patañjali says here, it readies (yogyatā) the mind (manas) to hold a point of focus (dhāraṇā).

Just as the limbs of yoga are part of the same fabric, intertwine and support each other, so do the sūtras thread back and forth through Patañjali’s text. To follow the particular threads of the terms here can help us with a sense of the fabric of the whole.

Patañjali begins chapter three by defining dhāraṇā, which is, in his system, the fifth limb of yoga. The word literally means the act of holding (from dhā, to hold, support–same root as dharma), but Patañjali means something specific by it:  deśa bandhaś cittasysa dhāraṇā, he says in III.1.  Dhāraṇā is the fixing of the consciousness to a place. This moment of fixing the attention is fundamental to the process of yoga. (Patañjali’s definition of abhyāsa–I.13–is, likewise, the effort to be steady there, on a point of focus.)

In other words, dhāraṇā is the ability to hold an object in the consciousness. It is the ability to focus. In this sūtra, the word is plural. Patañjali seems to emphasize the repeated, ubiquitous, essential aspect of placing our attention. Indeed, in this moment of placing the attention, holding the awareness on an object of focus–what happens?  Generally the mind comes to some conclusion of one kind or another, forms a thought about the object, or perhaps associates to some other idea quickly–some other object or thought.

Citta (consciousness), as described in sūtra I.35, is in ongoing motion, has its own quality of flow, direction, interest. In Sankhya philosophy, citta is considered to be made of three parts, manas (mind) being one of them. Computer-like, it is the part of citta that processes the information of the senses. Thus, Patañjali here is calling particular attention to that function of citta. When, in practice, we choose to abandon our distracting thoughts and return to the focal point, we come into awareness of the patterns of thought, and we begin to sense more directly. We come to know these patterns, see them as patterns, admit that they might be obscuring our sight. Perhaps we don’t have control over ending them, but we notice, let go, then affirm, quite simply, that for this moment, we return to the point of focus.

In prāṇāyāma, the point of focus is the breath–its quality, its frequency, its placement in the body. Intimately connected to the movements of our thought, the breath itself can affect the thought. When we bring awareness to breath, the effects can be profound.

B.K.S. Iyengar states that prāṇāyāma bathes the inner body (see II.40), and a sensitivity to inner sensation, processes, grows. This inner feeling and sensing–interoception–is a key way the individual comes to know her own self, to experience identity, to see more fully and more truly. This is a process of transformation, though might also be described as a return, a recovery and awakening of our sensing, feeling self. Habitual thought patterns release.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s 2019 novel, Unsheltered, she tells the story of Willa, an unemployed journalist, once comfortably upper-middle-class, who now finds herself and her family living in a house that is falling down and that she cannot afford to repair. The house is cracking apart, rain leaking in, plaster and wood ripping apart, collapsing down, and Willa faces profound insecurity for the first time in her protected life–thus the title Unsheltered. But there is a larger meaning, both for Willa and for our modern society. Willa has assumed she would be affluent, and that her children would live as she has lived. Her daughter explains to her that the world cannot afford the ongoing expansion of the economy nor the exploitation of resources that have allowed Willa’s comfort. Willa weakly protests:

“I’m human, Tig. We live, we consume. I think that’s just how we have to be.”

The daughter chides the mother:

“Of course you think that. When everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in.”

Willa’s beliefs have prevented her from seeing the unsustainability of much of the American lifestyle–single-family home ownership, fossil-fuel use, throwaway consumerism. They have also prevented her from seeing another way of life that is possible. In the falling away of those beliefs, Willa comes to experience herself “unsheltered” in a psychological sense. She must let go of what she thought provided security and comfort, and re-find her values in the people, the life around her.

Sutra II.41 speaks of readiness to see the self, ātma-darśana-yogyatvā (ātma, “self,” darśana, “sight,” yogyatvā “ability”). I translate that phrase as receptivity. The letting-go process, the willingness to be unsheltered, helps us know ourselves better, receive the sense of our fullness, the abundance in our relationship to each other, to the earth. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika speaks to this deep and powerful process:

Center the self in space and space in the self.
Make everything space, then don’t think of anything.

Empty within, empty without, empty like a pot in space.
Full within, full without, full like a pot in the ocean.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, IV.55-56


“In the presence of something new the mind’s security is naturally threatened, for under its impact the mind is compelled to revise its own conclusions. And it is this which the mind all the time wishes to avoid. It is safe for it to remain entrenched behind its own conclusions and judgments….This process has become so much a part of our lives that the senses all the time depend upon intimations and directions from the mind. The intervention by the mind has resulted in the vast areas of the universe remaining shut off from our ken. We live in a universe which is stereotyped and monotonous. Through the intervention of the mind, we are allowed to see only that which the mind considers safe for us to see….To reeducate the senses is to allow them to function freely without the interference of the mind.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 225-226

“Perturbations usually arise from the activation of a latent impression, or saṃskāra, erupting into some sort of distracting bodymind state. Although it is an effect rather than the cause of this state, the breath’s agitation often creates or activates other saṃskāras, initiating a chain of rumination and body disturbance. One can see how any attempt to suppress the breath might perpetuate this cycle. Patañjali’s prāṇāyāma brings the cycle to a halt. Absorption in the breath flow, as toward any other object, moves consciousness in the direction of interiorization and calm. Increasing stillness brings about discernment of the subtle aspects of breath–its subtle internal feelings….” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Pataṇjali, p. 41

“Is there any substitute for the sigh? Or for the simple, deep, diaphragmatic breathing that remembers the peace of childhood sleep?” –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 122

• Has your practice affected your ability to focus? Has it affected your idea of what focus is?
• How willing are you to admit you have been mistaken?
• What belief systems keep you from seeing the truth?
• Are their ways that yoga practice has led you to feel unsheltered?


feminine noun, 7th case plural, “in, on”

holding a point of focus (from dhṛ, “to hold, support”)





feminine noun, 1st case singular

readiness, fitness (from yuj, “to yoke” + -tā, which forms an abstract noun; literally, fit for the yoke)


neuter noun, 6th case singular, “of”

the mind (from man, “to think”)

II.52 ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणम

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 depicted 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
our thoughts.
(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?



from that


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)

II.51 बाह्याभ्यन्तरबिषयाक्षेपी चतुर्थः

bāhyābhyantara-viṣayākṣepī caturthaḥ
bāhya-abhyantara-viṣaya-ākṣepī caturthaḥ

“Beyond the realm of external/internal [is] the fourth.”

Catur is the cardinal number four and caturtha is its ordinal: “fourth.” What is Patañjali describing here as being fourth? A fourth kind of movement of breath? A fourth method of practicing with the breath? A fourth experience of breath?

Classical commentators, beginning with the fifth-century Vyāsa, have asserted that this sūtra refers to an advanced technique of prāṇāyāma in which breath is entirely suspended. Edwin Bryant relates the story (from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa) of Dhruva, who is said to have suspended his breath for fourteen or fifteen days at a time, and explains that such stories are common in the lore of ancient India.

Notwithstanding, B.K.S. Iyengar says “the fourth” is something other than methodology. It is not a technique at all. It is a state beyond perception of external or internal, beyond the observation of  time, place, and number (as described in II.50). It is not something one does. It is a pause, not just of the breath, but of consciousness. A fourth part, perhaps, of awareness itself.

It is useful to turn to the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad for guidance on the significance of caturtha. That short and beautiful text identifies the sacred syllable OM as representing all that is–past, present and future, and whatever else is beyond past, present and future. It further says that OM has four parts, indicated by the letters A-U-M (the vowel sound O is a dipthong and can be considered a combination of  A and U). The first part, expressed by the vowel A, represents waking. The second, expressed by U, dreaming. The third, associated with the nasal sound M, with deep, dreamless sleep. The fourth part, caturtha, has no letter. It is beyond description–ungraspable, unnameable, the essence:

Not having inward cognition not external cognition nor having both … They (the wise) consider the fourth to be unseen, indistinguishable, ungraspable, possessing no sign, unthinkable, unnameable–the essence of the knowledge of one Self, the cessation of all phenomenon, tranquil, auspicious, non-duality… —Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, verse 7, translation by Vyaas Houston

The fourth part approaches the territory of what cannot be articulated. And yet, the fourth part is there, in every OM, between things–as it were–like the air (see Matthew Remski, below).

In today’s sūtra, Patañjali says that the fourth part is bāhya-abhyantara-viṣaya-ākṣepī, “beyond the region of external/internal.”  Ākṣepi (which I have translated as “beyond”) is derived from ā-, an intensifying prefix, and kṣip, “to cast”; it is literally “having thrown down” or “having cast over.” A thing that is ākṣepi eclipses, surpasses, overlays (perhaps underlies). The word reminds one of the opening of Genesis, where the spirit hovers over the waters. Ākṣepi suggests all this, including the idea that the fourth part “throws down” our ordinary perceptions–jumbles, jangles our assumptions. Tranquil, auspicious, non-dual–as the Māṇḍukya says–the fourth part surprises us, restores us.

Only by the the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness,
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not sty in place,
Will not stay still. –T. S Eliot, Four Quartets


“The fourth type of prāṇāyāma goes beyond the regulation or modulation of breath flow and retention, transcending the methodology given in the previous sūtra. … A state of pause is experienced, in both the breath and the mind. From this springs forth a new awakening.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.51

“The breath is a bridge between self and not-self. Crossing it with awareness will soften the boundary. It is impossible to say when air becomes you, but it does: feeding the metabolism behind all movement, tissue formation, and tissue repair. Simultaneously, air is ‘externally’ ubiquitous.  We wade through it as through water. We are pervaded by the source of our life: this breath-to-be. We think that the space between us is a mark of our separation, when in fact it contains what allows us to live. We are conjoined by the invisible source of life.” –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, pp. 119-120

“The fourth, caturthaḥ, type of prāṇāyāma, says Vyāsa, refers to the total suppression of breath. and so, like the kumbhaka mentioned previously, also involves the cessation of inhalation and exhalation. … The commentators are not overly helpful in clarifying the difference between the third type of prāṇāyāma, kumbhaka, and the fourth type, caturthaḥ. As is the case with so much of the yoga sūtras, it is clear these are techniques to be experienced by practice rather than understood intellectually.” –Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.51

“This generally misunderstood aphorism could possibly be a reference to a special phenomenon occurring in the enstatic state [samādhi], where breathing can become so reduced and shallow that it cannot be detected by unaided observation. … This fourth mode of breathing is thus, properly speaking, not a form of voluntary breath control at all but is simply the physiological correlate of an extraordinary state of consciousness.” –Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, commentary on II.51

• How does attention to the breath affect your body, mind, emotions?
• How does breath connect you to others? In movement? In stillness?
• What might it mean that “the end precedes the beginning”?


adjective in compound

exterior (from bahis, “outside”)


adjective in compound

interior (from abhi-, “to,” + antar, “inner, within”)


masculine noun in compound

realm, sphere, scope; object (from viṣ, “to act”)


masculine adjective, 1st case singular

overshadowing, eclipsing (from ā-, prefix that intensifies meaning, + kṣip, “to cast”; ākṣip = “to throw down”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

fourth (from catur, “four”)

II.50 बाह्याभ्यन्तरस्तम्भवृत्तिर्देशकालसङ्ख्याभिः परिदृष्टो दीर्घसूक्षमः

bāhyābhyantara-stambha-vṛttir deśa-kāla-saṅkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭo dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ
bāhya-abhyantara-stambha-vṛttiḥ deśa-kāla-saṅkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭaḥ dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ

“[The breath consists of] external, internal, paused movement; observed–by means of location, time, and number–[it becomes] long and subtle.”

As we continue to explore the relation of citta to breath, and breath to the body, it is important to consider the complexity of the nervous system itself. It is shaped by and–then in turn–shapes physical condition, individual experience, patterned behavior. As neuroscientist Stephen Porges says, “The nervous system is not solely a brain independent of the body, but a brain-body nervous system” (see The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory, by Stephen W. Porges).

In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar describes his personal journey in working with the breath. After much frustration in attempting techniques of breath regulation–“I would start gasping and have to stop” (p. 69)–he came to appreciate that he must work with his body more and seek to “control” his breath less. Āsana itself strengthens the pathways that allow breath to move, he came to believe, and in his teaching of breath practice, he emphasizes support of the body and surrender of the will.

Patañjali here tells us that the breath has three parts–bāhya (outer, or exhalation), abhyantara (inner, or inhalation), and stambha (paused)–and that prāṇāyāma involves the observation (paridṛṣṭa) of these parts. He also suggests how to witness the movements of the breath: by means of places (deśa) in the body where one can feel the breath, duration in time (kala)–is the breath quick, slow?–and number (saṅkhyā) of cycles of breath (or the count of the duration of a phase of the breath). The presence brought to the breath anchors our awareness inward; the breath becomes, says Patañjali, long (dīrgha) and subtle (sūkṣma).

The two terms dīrgha and sūkṣma are rich in allusion and significance. Dīrgha means long as well as tall and so could be breath that becomes longer in time–calmer, steadier–but also breath that is more expansive. The “tall” breath–felt perhaps all the way to the feet–becomes a support within.

Sūkṣma refers to fineness of breath. It is also perhaps subtlety and sensitivity in the perception of breath. In sūtras I.44-45, Patañjali uses sūkṣma to describe the layer of matter that is below the most obvious, what “under-weaves”  the surface of things. The suggestion–throughout Patañjali’s prāṇāyāma sūtras, is that as we become more sensitive to the movements of our breath, we will attune ourselves more clearly, more perceptively to the world around us.

The sensitive attunement to the natural world is illustrated most beautifully by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. A devoted Jesuit priest, whose poems were unpublished in his lifetime, he kept through his life journals of his observations of nature. His eye to the particular, and his surprising use of sound and word combinations, bring a power and freshness to his writing (see “Pied Beauty” or “The Windhover”). Here is a sample of one of his journal entries. How fine it is. How expansive. How focused.

The winter was long and hard. I made many observations on freezing. For instance…the garden mould very crisp and meshed over with a lace-work of needles leaving (they seemed) three-cornered openings: it looked greyish and like a coat of gum on wood. Also the smaller crumbs and clods were lifted fairly up from the ground on upright ice-pillars, whether they had dropped these from themselves or formed them from the soil: it was like a little Stonehenge–Looking down into the thick ice of our pond I found the imprisoned air-bubbles nothing at random but starting from centres and in particular one most beautifully regular white brush of them, each spur of it a curving string of beaded and diminishing bubbles.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins, Journal, 1870, found in A Hopkins Reader, edited by John Pick.

I have heard it said that each breath is unique, no one like another. Can I turn to my breath with the curiosity, the interest, the pure observation, that Hopkins gives to the air bubbles in ice? It is in the subtlety that breath work happens–not by forcing or pushing or willing–often by releasing. It is an interplay between the voluntary and involuntary, between control and no control, between conscious intention and automatic response, between being and doing.

Note: The sounds of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras are generally melodic. Composed before a widespread availability of written texts, they originated in an oral tradition. Their inner rhythms and euphony made them easier to memorize and pass on. This sūtra has an especially onomatopoetic sound–with many long vowels, stressed syllables, and aspirated consonants. It has a lot of breath in it.


“By prāṇāyāma Patañjali probably means something much simpler than the complex, occasionally strenuous patterns of later tantric practices. In light of these, prāṇāyāma (literally, ‘breath energy’ plus ‘discipline, restraint’) is generally regarded today as a set of practices in which one consciously directs the breath and its energies in deliberate patterns. Patañjali’s emphasis, however, is different: he describes instead the process by which sustained observation of the breath without deliberation brings about natural and spontaneous changes in its qualities, enabling the deepest levels of focus and bodymind stilling, or nirodha.” —Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 40

“Breathing itself gets longer with regular, continuous practice over a long period. Subtlety intervenes on two levels. On the external level, the absence of disturbance is reflected in fluid, fine, regular respiration. On the internal level, a greater perceptual acuity appears, and one develops a sort of intimacy with oneself.” — Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on II.50

“Philosophically speaking, inhalation is the movement of the self to come into contact with the periphery: the core of being moves with the breath and touches the inner layer of the skin–the extreme frontier of the body. This is the outward, or evolutory process of the soul. Exhalation is the return journey: it is the involutory process, where the body, the cells and the intelligence move inwards to reach their source, the atma, or the core of the being….In kumbhaka, the self becomes one with the body and the body becomes one with the self.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Tree of Yoga, p. 57

• What is your experience of inhalation, exhalation, the pause between the two? What has helped you lengthen or expand your breath? What has helped you bring greater calm to your breathing?
• What has been your experience with exercising control over the breath vs. letting go of control and volition? What is the interplay between effort and non-effort when bringing awareness to your breath?
• What places in the body do you feel the breath? What different qualities do you notice in your breath?
• How does your breath affect your perceptions?


adjective in compound

exterior (from bahis, “outside”)


adjective in compound

interior (from abhi-, “to,” + antar, “inner, within”)


adjective in compound

paused (from stambh, “to stop, fix, prop, uphold”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

movement, pattern of movement (from vṛt, “to abide, to move, to turn, to condition”)


masculine noun in compound

place, location  (from diś, “to point out”)


masculine noun in compound

time (from kal, “to drive”)


feminine noun, 3rd case plural

number (from sam-, “with, all,” + khyā, “to declare”)


masculine past perfect participle, 1st case singular

observed, seen (from pari-, “around,” + dṛś, “to see”)


adjective in compound

long, deep, tall



masculine adjective, 1st case singular

subtle (possibly derived from sūc, “to pierce, point; hint, intimate”)

II.49 तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः

tasmin sati śvāsa-praśvāsayor gati-vicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ
tasmin sati śvāsa-praśvāsayoḥ gati-vicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ

“Being in that [āsana], prāṇāyāma is the interruption of the [ordinary] movements of inhalation and exhalation.”

I spoke with a friend, a woman I study Sanskrit with, and I asked her, what teachings about breath have been important to her. She immediately mentioned her first yoga āsana class. She said, “It was the first time I had ever been asked to breathe differently. The teacher asked me to feel my breath in different parts of my body–like my belly or back…. I had never brought so much awareness to the breath before. I had thought it was just something you did.”

Patañjali will describe prāṇāyāma in the next five sūtras (II.49-53). This first sūtra connects back to II.46-48. Tasmin sati, “once doing that,” meaning āsana, he says, there is an interruption (viccheda) in the normal movements (gati) of inhalation and exhalation (śvāsa-praśvāsa). That interruption is prāṇāyāma.

Traditional commentators, beginning with Vyāsa, have interpreted viccheda to mean suspension of the breath, holding the breath, as in kumbhaka. Yet a larger meaning looms up. In an important way, āsana interrupts–changes, transforms–our ordinary breathing. Whatever state we are in when we begin practice, whatever pattern our breath is in, practice marks the start of paying attention. It is the time to feel the breath in the body and feel the body through the breath. We may direct the breath, or we may just watch it. Either way, the breath is affected. And we are affected by it.

My first experience of attending to the breath came not by means of yoga but was in body and movement classes at New York’s Laban Institute of Movement Studies. There, I was encouraged to feel the expansion and contraction of inhalation and exhalation, the biological rhythm of life in my body, and to connect my movements to that breath. (See quote below by Peggy Hackney, who describes principles developed by Irmgaard Bartenieff.) The observed movement of my breath softened and collected disjointed parts of myself; it freed up range in my stiff and guarded body. It was a profound thing for me. It led me to live in a more felt way, and to respect the body’s essential connection to mind.

In his Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama begins his chapter on prāṇāyāma emphasizing the connection of citta (mind or consciousness) to breath:

cale vāte calam cittam
disturbed the breath, the mind disturbed
niścale niścalam cittam
undisturbed [the breath], the mind undisturbed
yogī sthānutvam āpnoti
the yogi stability reaches
tato vāyum nirodhayet
therefore, breath practice

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, II.2

In clearer English: “When the breath is disturbed, the mind is disturbed. When the breath is undisturbed the mind is undisturbed, and the yogi reaches a stable state. Therefore, one should do breath practice.”

Svatmarama does not here seem to be describing stopping or suspending the breath (though he does include specific practices that do that later in the text). Instead, he addresses disturbed breathing. He says, Work with the breath to help the mind in a disturbed state (he uses the word cala, “disturbed,” from cal, “to tremble, shake, be agitated”).

Breath is core to the work of āsana. We work with the breath to find stability and ease (II.46) and to release unnecessary tension (II.47). With the breath, we anchor our awareness–we open ourselves to experience.

B.K.S. Iyengar describes prāṇa as the hub of yoga (see I.34) and says that it acts as a bridge to the inner body and to the soul. In Light on Life, he discusses the link between breath and the emotions, and in all his writings, he highlights that prāṇāyāma must not be forced. Prāṇa cannot be willed to steadiness.

What is a good translation for prāṇāyāma? Prāṇa is breath, life force, cosmic energy. Āyama means discipline, restraint–also, extension, expansion. This variety of meanings is often expressed by this fourth limb of yoga as “breath regulation.” One could also say breath restraint, breath control, or breath expansion. But words almost fail to describe the intimate, delicate process of breath awareness. In the end, I prefer “breath practice” (a term used in the Śiva Samhita). Do we sometimes direct the breath, locate it in one part of the body or another, alter its course? Yes. We do interrupt our ordinary breathing pattern. We tie our awareness to the breath, and the breath takes our awareness inward, to our inner weather, our inner state, our inner being. It is a kind of tender connection to our selves, a connection of love.

It is time to put up a love-swing!
Tie the body and tie the mind so that they swing between the arms of the Secret One you love.

–Kabir (interpreted by Robert Bly)


“The body grows and shrinks as a single undifferentiated mass, as an amoeba, the simplest form of life, the most basic sense of being. The most fundamental movement, lungs and also oxygen in blood flow and saturation of cells (cellular breathing), moves through a rhythm of expanding and condensing. When breath is integrated throughout the body, then all parts of the body will move at least slightly in coordination with the in / out breath rhythm. Use the breath pattern to recuperate and get in touch with one’s own ‘internal state’, with one’s body self, ‘proprioceptive self’, ‘where you are in the moment’, to find your entire body connected through your internal core.” –Peggy Hackney, Making Connections – Total Body Integration through Bartenieff Fundamentals, p. 53

“All vibrating energies are prāṇa. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism, and electricity are also prāṇa. It is the hidden and potential energy in all beings, released to the fullest extent as a response to any threat to one’s survival…. [It] is usually translated as breath, yet this is only one of its manifestations. According to the Upaniṣads, it is the principle of life and consciousness….We live with our individual consciousness with its limited intelligence, often feeling lonely and puny, when there is a conduit available directly to cosmic consciousness and intelligence. Through this conduit flows prāṇa, joining each individual among us to the highest original principle of Nature.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 66-68

“Our breath is interrupted and flows in a zigzag manner. Patañjali suggests the sādhaka [practitioner] regulate the in-breath and out-breath by listening to and maintaining a smooth, steady sound along with a soft flow” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sūtras, p. 155

“Steady observation alone is enough to bring about unforced changes in the breath’s shape and texture. Indeed, no form of conscious, deliberate effort can make the breath as soft and unhurried as it becomes spontaneously through sustained mindfulness. And as respiration grows inconceivably spacious and subtle, it ceases to be a suitable environment for agitated mental states.”  –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali,  p. 41

• What teachings on breath have been important to you?
• Do you remember your first experience paying attention to the breath? What was the setting? What were you doing?
• What does awareness of your breath bring to your āsana practice? How do you use breath in your practice?
• What do you learn from pausing in your day and noticing your breath?


neuter pronoun, 7th case singular



neuter participle, 7th case singular; here, part of an absolute phrase: tasmin sati

existing (tasmin sati is literally “upon that existing”)


masculine noun in compound

inhalation (from śvas, “to breathe)


masculine noun, 6th case dual, “of”

exhalation (from pra-, “forth,” + śvas, “to breathe)


 feminine noun in compound

movement, gait (from gam, “to go”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

interruption (from vi-, “away,” + chid, “to cut”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular
breath practice (from prāṇa, “breath, life force,” + ā, an intensifying prefix, + yam, “to regulate, extend”

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”)