II.35 अहिंाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः

ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ tat-sannidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ
ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ tad-sannidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ

“Upon the establishment of non-harming–in the presence of that–relinquishment of hostilities.”

Ahiṁsā, non-harming, is the first of the yamas and is the foremost moral injunction. A- is a prefix of negation; hiṁsa means “harming” (from han, “to hurt”). Patañjali begins each of the yama sūtras (II.35-39) with the construction “upon the establishment.” Here: ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ, “upon the establishment of non-harming.”

Pratiṣṭhā derives from prati-, “down upon,” plus sthā, “to stand,” and means standing still or the place that one stands still, the ground, the resting place. Our English word “establishment” is a nice translation because it contains a cognate of the same important root, sthā, “to stand.” (The base can be seen in the word sthiti, “standing,” a term Geeta Iyengar often uses for the yoga postures.) Pratiṣṭhā has a seventh-case ending in this phrase, which suggests location: it connects back to the image of citta, consciousness, as a field (see II.4). It is as though Patañjali says, “in that place where ahiṁsā is established,” or “in that resting place of ahiṁsā.” The next phrase, tad-sannidhau, “in the presence of that,” is also in the seventh case. There, Patañjali says, where ahiṁsā is established, in the presence of that, hostilities are relinquished.

It is a beautiful, fantastical promise. It suggests a powerful, transformative–perhaps a priori–force. Thus B.K.S. Iyengar insists ahiṁsā has the positive meaning of love and claims it as the principle of connection of all living things (Light on Yoga, p. 31). He writes feelingly of love in Light on Life, describing friendliness, compassion, gladness, presence (see sutra I.33) as essential to Patañjali’s yoga (p. 59).

If the yamas are not rules per se, not a list of specific dos and don’ts, but (to use Jaganath Carrera’s word) friends that assist and guide us (see II.30), then what does this friend say? What does this friend invite us to do? Perhaps it is indeed to consider connection, to check our empathy, our curiosity, our care–of others, of ourselves.

Matthew Remski, whose Threads of Yoga is a personal contemplation of the Yoga Sūtras, emphasizes the positive power of ahiṁsā when he translates it as “protection.” This accords with the sense of ahiṁsā as being parama dharma (the foremost of the dharmas, a term used in the Mahabhārata). Dharma refers to those actions that support life and the balance of creation–one might say, the common good. Remski considers crucial to the idea of ahiṁsā, and our human need for connection, to be politically aware and active.

In an essay on ahiṁsā in his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, writer and Sanskrit scholar Georg Feuerstein explores the implications of ahiṁsā for himself. He questions his livelihood, his family and social relationships, his responsibilities on a global level. He describes ahiṁsā as a manifestation of love, a presence–sannidhi. As yoga practitioners, he says, we must come to understand that “our field is interconnected with the fields of everyone and everything else.” He reflects too on the subtleties of how our inner attitudes and thoughts–the conditions of our field, as it were–affects others. “Even if we do not mean to harm another person, our coldness or indifference is a form of harming.”

The more I ask this friend, ahiṁsā, to teach me what it is (or what she is–ahiṁsā is a feminine noun), the more I am struck by this quality of positive power. Ahiṁsā, though expressed as a negative, shows up as is-ness. Non-harming does not come from the withdrawal of participation; it is not expressed by the mere absence of ill intent. For example, if I am responsible for a child, I must do more than suffer the child, withholding criticism or harshness. It is not at all enough for me to not be mean or bad. A child needs active care, involved interest. A child needs to feel that someone delights in her. The care of a child must come from the heart.

This friend ahiṁsā tells me to look at the condition of my field, to the state of my heart. I consider these lines from e.e. cummings:

you shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear
it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

Am I moving forward in my life with gladness and with the joy, the nimbleness, the curiosity of the young? Am I ready to learn from the birds?  Or do I–perhaps from fear or hurt–seek control, monotony, limitation? If I am engaged in “teaching the stars not to dance,” I am creating harm. Life calls for expansion. It calls for the dance. It calls for love.


“You have to create love and affection for your body, for what it can do for you. Love must be incarnated in the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so that they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 59

“If by behavior, by glances, by words you attack, invade the psyches of other people, you are not a nonviolent person. You may not kill physically, but you are killing psychologically, you are hurting by eyes, you are hurting by words.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 19

“Whenever we are not present as love, we inevitably reduce our own life and life in others. Hence we are responsible for how we are present in the world, even when we are on our own, because our field is interconnected with the fields of everyone and everything else.” –Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, p. 203

• What does ahiṁsā say to you? Has ahiṁsā affected any decision you have made? Has it affected the quality of how you engage?
• What does it mean to you to be glad and young?
• What are the subtle forms that harm can take?
• Have you discovered more love and affection for your body through the practice of yoga? Has the opposite sometimes happened? What do you do then?


feminine noun in compound

non-harming, non-violence (from a-, prefix that negates, + han, “to hurt”)


feminine noun, 7th case singular, “in”

establishment, resting place, ground  (from prati-, “down upon,” + sthā, “to stand”)


pronoun in compound



masculine noun, 7th case singular, “in”

presence (from sam-, “with,” + ni-, “down,” + dhā, “to place”)


masculine noun in compound

hostility (from vī, “to approach, attack”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

giving up, laying down, relinquishing (from tyaj, “to abandon”)

II.34 वितर्का हिंसादयः कृतकारितानुमोदिता लोभक्रोधमोहपूर्वका मृदुमध्याधिमात्रा दुःखाज्ञानानन्तफला इति प्रतिपक्षभावनम्

vitarkā hiṁsādayaḥ kṛta-kāritānumoditāḥ lobha-krodha-moha-pūrvakā mṛdu-madhyādhimātrā duḥkhājñānānanta-phalā iti pratipakṣa-bhāvanam

vitarkāḥ hiṁsā-ādayaḥ kṛta-kārita-anumoditāḥ lobha-krodha-moha-pūrvakāḥ mṛdu-madhya-adhimātrāḥ duḥkha-ajñāna-ananta-phalāḥ iti pratipakṣa-bhāvanam
“Thoughts that are harmful (and counter to the yamas, the niyamas) can result in actions done, caused to be done, or approved of; they may be caused by greed, anger, or delusion; and they may be mild, medium, or extreme. They bear fruits of unending pain and ignorance. Therefore, embody the opposite.”

If the practitioner does not already have a keen sense of the bad outcome that follows harassing, oppressing, “counter” thoughts, Patañjali elaborates here. He makes clear that actions will spring from such thoughts (whether one is directly involved, indirectly, or approves from a distance); he describes accompanying or precipitating moods (desire, anger, confusion); and he considers their degree, that is, the degree that one may suffer from them (mild, medium, excessive). The fruit of harmful (hiṁsa) thoughts, he asserts, are “unending” pain and ignorance. With a dramatic flourish, he concludes: iti pratipakṣa-bhāvanam, “therefore, embody the opposite” (the opposite being ahiṁsa and all the principles of the yamas and niyamas, see II.33).

The phonetics of this sūtra are stark: slow, dark vowel sounds; aspirated, voiced consonants; resonant, repeating nasals (m and n consonants); and undulating compound structures. It is daunting to chant. The grammar is also notable, essentially a list of predicate nominative nouns and adjectives, all plural, building a feeling, perhaps, of the ongoing effects of harmful thoughts, the long reach of violence.

As I mentioned in the last sūtra, B.K.S. Iyengar sees two aspects to pratipakṣa-bhāvanam: yes, practice the opposite, recommit to the principles of non-violence, truth, contentment, etc.; but also examine the behavior–“go deep into the cause.” In his commentary on II.33, he establishes that yoga is not primarily about will power, discipline, or just doing–though yoga includes those. Above all, yoga is about awareness. Yoga is about bringing presence. We bring our heart and our love to all aspects of ourselves.

Again, the word bhāvanam derives from bhū, “to be.” It is related to being rather than doing, just as feeling and emotions, to some extent, just “are.” We can’t, actually, just will them to be the opposite. As Mr. Iyengar says, “If a person is violent, he is violent. If he is angry, he is angry.” The immutable emotions–stubborn, resistant–do, of course, over time, transform. They move. They are meant to. Psychological health might be described as a person’s ability to have difficult emotions and allow them to be and to move–without harming others or oneself. Indeed, can one have those feelings and still be loving?

A friend of mine recently observed that he has always associated love with happiness, that he has always connected the feeling of love with being happy with a person. Now, as he grows older, he is beginning to question whether he can love when he is angry.

This is profound. I consider anger to be an important inner warning signal. Anger lets me know when something is amiss. It is a critical part of my ability to protect myself–which every creature needs. Anger can be a fuel for positive action. I see that it can also be destructive. I continue to learn this in my relationship with my husband. If he triggers my anger, it is best not to strike out. A mild bump back, fine. An assault on his purpose, his motives, or an accusation that overstates the case–not good. It harms the trust between us.

How do I handle my anger? Can I make space for it? Can I, to use Bernard Bouanchaud’s image, “swim against the current” of the feeling to its source? Can I be in that current, the flow of my life, and let myself be lifted, buoyed up by the waters of awareness?

Rohit Mehta says, “When thoughts of hatred come it is essential for one to inquire into the nature of one’s love.” Can I love when I am angry? Can I love when I am frightened? When I or others have failed or done wrong? When terrible events unfold?

We live in a time of tremendous environmental and political challenge. We see the “unending” fruits of pain and ignorance from colonization, resource extraction, cultural domination and destruction. Pratipakṣa-bhāvanam has relevance here too. The yamas call us to take part in our world. Whether we have committed, been indirectly involved, or tacitly accepted injustice (kṛta-kārita-anumoditāḥ), can we name it for what it is? Can we take responsibility? Can we seek to be truthful, to know, to understand? Can we get involved and choose to have insight into the other? Can we bring love?

Well I burned in the heat of the summers of heartbreak,
And I heard the trees as they swayed in the wind,
And now I follow the heart and have no other religion,
And I do no other thing.
And I do no other thing.
The heart’s enough. That’s it.
–Jonathan Richman, “And Do No Other Thing”


“Some people give an objective interpretation to the sūtra and maintain that if one is violent, one should think of the opposite, or, if one is attached, then non-attachment should be developed. This is pratipakṣa-bhāvana. If a person is violent, he is violent. If he is angry, he is angry. The state is not different from the fact; but instead of trying to cultivate the opposite condition, he should go deep into the cause of his anger or violence. This is pakṣa-bhāva. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.33

“Turning the mental attitude in the other direction does not merely replace a feeling with its opposite (for example, replacing violence with nonviolence). Rather, it has us swim against the current to go back to its source and accept the evidence of its negative, perpetual effects.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 117

“When one is assailed by thoughts of violence, it is necessary to explore the content and implication of one’s own concept of non-violence. When thoughts of hatred come it is essential for one to inquire into the nature of one’s love. One is reminded here of the words of the great mystic, Mencius:

‘If you love men and they are unfriendly, look into your love; if you rule men and they are unruly, look into your wisdom; if you are courteous to them and they do not respond, look into your respect.’ ”

—Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp.156-7

• How might you adjust your practice to address being anxious, angry, depressed, tired?
• Does your practice bring you into more awareness of negative emotions? Is that sometimes difficult? Do you understand more about the sources of your pain because of practice?
• Has yoga helped you become a more responsible person? What does that mean to you?
• How are you guided by pratipakṣa-bhāvanam?


masculine noun, 1st person plural

belief, thought (from vi-, “distinct,” + tark, “to think”)


feminine noun in compound

harm, injury (from han, “to hurt”)


masculine noun, 1st case plural

beginning with, etc. (used to indicate a group, the first of which is named)


adjective in compound

done (from kṛ, “to do”)


adjective in compound

caused to be done (from kṛ, “to do”)


masculine adjective, 1st case plural

approved (from anu-, “after,” + mud, “rejoice”)


masculine noun in compound

greed (from lubh, “to desire”)


masculine noun in compound

anger, wrath (from krudh, “to be angry)


masculine noun in compound

confusion (from muh, “to be bewildered”)


masculine adjective, 1st case plural

preceded by (from pūrva, “front, East”; as in pūrvottanasana)


adjective in compound

soft, gentle, mild (from mṛd, “to rub”)


adjective in compound

middle, moderate


masculine adjective, 1st case plural

extreme (from adhi, which adds intensity, + mātra, “measure” )


neuter noun in compound

pain, suffering (from dus, “bad,” + kha, “space, axle-hole, aperture”)


neuter noun in compound

ignorance (from a-, “not,” + jña, “to know”)


adjective in compound

unending (from an-, “not,” + anta, “end”; as in anantāsana)


masculine noun, 1st case plural

fruit (from phal, “to bear fruit”)


conjunction (indeclinable)



masculine noun in compound

opposite side (from prati-, “in opposition to” + pakṣa, “side, flank, wing”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

feeling, realizing, cultivating, becoming, embodying (from bhū, “to be”)

II.33 वितर्कबाधने प्रतिपक्षभावनम्

vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam
“On [experiencing] the harassment of thoughts, embody the opposite.”

Having introduced the yamas (ethical observances) and niyamas (inner disciplines), Patañjali addresses failure: specifically, failure to follow the great vow that the yamas and niyamas represent. These are the times of oppressing or opposing thoughts (vitarka-bādhane), of counter, destructive behavior. Vitarka is “thought”; bādhane is an abstract noun derived from bādh, “to oppress, oppose, disturb.” The phrase is set in the locative case (which refers to location) and thus means something like, “when finding oneself in the place of harassment of thoughts.”

The observances and disciplines are more than ideas to be debated–they must be lived. It is in the living that they reveal themselves. In this living, then, one may know oneself to have acted violently or aggressively (for example)–to oneself or to others. What next? Pratipakṣa-bhāvanam, says Patañjali. Pratipakṣa means the other side (prati-, “opposite,” + pakṣa, “side”). Bhāvanam, a beautiful and important word in the Yoga Sūtras (see I.28), derives from the verb bhū, “to be,” and could be variously translated as “becoming, realizing, feeling, embodying.” It is more than intellectual conceptualization. Bhāvanam is the living of the idea.

So, in a most common-sense way, Patañjali tells us to think the opposite of the unwanted thought, to do the opposite of the unwanted behavior. Be non-violent. Act kindly. One cannot argue with this. There is a folksy wisdom to it: Fake it till you make it.

It is even possible that we underestimate the efficacy of “taking the opposite action.” Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has studied how the shapes we take in our body affect the chemistry of our brains. “We know that our minds change our bodies. Is it also true that our bodies change our minds?” she asks in her 2012 very-worth-watching Ted talk. Cuddy and her partner Dana Carney set up an experiment in which participants either adopted a “power pose”–such as legs wide, arms uplifted–or a smaller, deferential shape–chest dropped, perhaps legs crossed. The scientists took saliva samples before and after participants assumed these shapes, and they tested for and compared levels of testosterone (the dominance hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone). They found that after assuming the big, spreading poses, participants had raised testosterone levels and lowered cortisol. The opposite was true of the participants who had assumed smaller, narrower poses.

Cuddy’s research acknowledges what many of us experience in yoga āsana practice: a lessening of anxiety, a boost in confidence. Creating space in the body helps us find space in our head. It shifts our perspective and regulates our mood in manifold ways. B.K.S. Iyengar was known to say, “If you lift your armpit-chest, you cannot be depressed.” A bold claim–one that I have found it to be an effective guide in working with my own body-mind-spirit. I will often turn to a backbending practice if my mood has sunk low. Does it entirely remove my depression? Perhaps not. But it shifts the mood. Lets some light in.

Traditionally, commentators have emphasized this “do the opposite” or “contemplate the opposite” aspect of pratipakṣa-bhāvanam. Some modern commentators–like B.K.S. Iyengar, Bernard Bouanchaud, and Rohit Mehta, have pointed to an additional meaning. It is important, they say, to bring awareness to the negative states one is experiencing: “Work back to their source,” recommends Bouanchaud. “Explore the nature of the distraction,” suggests Rohit Mehta.

B.K.S. Iyengar, likewise, says to examine both sides, a process he calls pakṣa pratipakṣa. Just as in āsana  practice, we might contemplate the actions on the right side of the body and compare to the left side, developing sensitivity to these differences, so observing our behaviors, emotions, thought patterns, we develop discernment. We bring presence to our psyche. If I have become violent or angry, what is the root of that? What must I trace or discover–what must I uncover–to recover my calm and kindliness?

When I can bring compassionate attention to my own “other-sidedness,” to the painful and conflicting feelings of doubt, fear, disappointment–not to seek to alter them, but to name them, know them, hear them–that presence, that love, works its own power. This bhāvana–loving kindness and discriminating discernment–can bring remarkable change.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
— 1 Corinthians, 13:12-13


“Each āsana acts and reacts in its own way, cultivating health on a physical level, helping the organic systems (such as the lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines and cells) to function rhythmically at a physiological level, which effects changes in the senses, mind and intellect at a mental level. While practising the āsana, the sādhaka must carefully and minutely observe and adjust the position of the muscles, muscle fibres and cells, measuring lightness or heaviness, pakṣa or pratipakṣa, as required for the performance of a healthy and well balanced āsana. … The internal measuring and balancing process which we call pakṣa pratipakṣa is in some respects the key to why yoga practice actually works, why it has mechanical power to revolutionize our whole being. It is why āsana is not gymnastics, why prāṇāyāma is not deep breathing, why dhyāna is not self-induced trance.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.33

“This method does not lead us to suppress contradictory impulses, but to work back to their source, so we can understand them better, analyze them, foresee their negative effects, and start again on a healthier basis.” —Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on II.33

“Patañjali does not say that when the mind is distracted it should be forcibly brought back to the point from where it was distracted. He says that one must inquire into the nature of the opposite. Here he suggests that one must explore the nature of the distraction. The term used is pratipakṣa-bhāvanam. One of the meanings of the Sanskrit word bhāvanam is observation or investigation.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on II.33

•How do you cultivate the qualities of yama and niyama in your life? How do you relate to yourself when you are having counter thoughts and feelings, when you are feeling chaotic?
•Does body sensitivity developed in āsana and prāṇāyāma practice affect your awareness of your emotions and your mind?
•What does it mean to you to “work back to the source” of your behaviors and motivation? Is this useful?


masculine noun in compound

belief, thought (from vi-, “distinct,” + tark, “to think”)


neuter noun, 7th case singular, “on”

harassment, opposition (from bādh, “to oppress, harass, disturb”)


masculine noun in compound

opposite side (from prati-, “in opposition to” + pakṣa, “side, flank, wing”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

feeling, realizing, cultivating, becoming, embodying (from bhū, “to be”)

II.32 शौचसन्तोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः

śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni niyamāḥ
śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāya-iśvara-praṇidhānāni niyamāḥ

“The niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the source.”

The niyamas are the actions of self-care. They are the habits of our daily life that we establish to support ourselves. They are psychological, emotional, spiritual maintenance. They are personal. Rohit Mehta emphasizes that the niyamas are unique to the individual: “There can be no rigidity in this,” he says.

As with the limbs of yoga (II.29), many commentators reflect on the inter-relatedness of the niyamas. A process of cleaning (śauca)–sweeping, brushing, moving (perhaps in a figurative sense, perhaps literal)–leads to a clearing, an experience of contentment (santoṣa), of light, of space. Likewise, the principle of contentment can support a habit of discipline (tapas) and the commitment to a routine.

The study of the self (svādhyāya), traditionally associated with the study of sacred text, is the exploration, examination, discovery, of “all that belongs to me.” Questions of identity, meaning, purpose are inherent in this study, but are not more critical than the ordinary aspects of self–the body, behaviors, thought patterns. Surrender and devotion (iśvara-praṇidhāna) are a kind of mainstay of the niyamas, a root support.

At the start of this chapter, Patañjali introduced tapas, svādhyāya, and iśvara-praṇidhāna as the threefold actions of yoga. There, they correspond to the three paths of yoga: karma (action), jñāna (knowledge), and bhakti (worship). Their presentation here, as niyamas, can be read as a looping back, an opportunity to take a second look, to contemplate their personal –and universal–significance.

We will look at the individual niyamas in upcoming sūtras. Here, it is worthwhile to pause and consider self-care generally. The yamas and niyamas shine a light on the quality of relationship to self. Am I living in a peaceful, loving way–toward myself? Am I living in an autonomous way? Am I living in integrity?

In the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna tells Arjuna to “lift the self with the self”:

uddhared ātmanātmanaṁ
lift the self with the self
nātmanam avasādayet
the self do not degrade
ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur
the self indeed is truly a friend of the self
ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ
the self indeed an enemy of the self
Bhagavad Gītā, VI.5


Atman, translated here as self, is a word that both means ultimate spirit and individual self. The word repeats in this verse as a challenge. What self is it that can uplift me, care for me? Am I living in connection with that self? What self is capable of degrading me, putting me down, oppressing, depressing me, perhaps doing self-harm? Am I a friend or enemy to myself?

The answer to these questions is not intellectual. It demands an exploration of my own inner workings. It is approached through experience, not rigidity–through practice and awareness–with love, in quotidian time.


“The first principle of niyama is śauca, which means cleanliness. …When both sides [of the body] bend harmoniously they are properly cleansed and irrigated by the blood, which carries with it the biological energy known as prāṇa.  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.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, p. 50

“Patañjali tells us that certain…habits need to be eliminated and certain others maintained so that the body and the mind may function in a healthy manner. What to eliminate and what to keep is a matter regarding which each man has to decide for himself. In order to come to a right decision, one must observe oneself–one’s bodily tendencies as also one’s mental reactions. From such an observance one will be able to decide as to what hampers the healthy functioning of the body and the mind and what is conducive to healthy living. So yama and niyama have to be in terms of one’s own observation….There can be no rigidity about this.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 150

•What are your habits of self-care? What process has helped you develop these habits?
•Do you trust your own observation of yourself?
•Do you gain energy from your yoga practice? Clarity? Emotional support?
•Are you a friend or enemy to yourself?



masculine noun in compound

cleanliness (from śuc, “to be radiant”)


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

neuter noun in compound

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


masculine noun in compound

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”)


masculine noun in compound

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


neuter noun, 1st case plural

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


masculine noun, 1st case plural
personal rule, inner discipline (from ni-, “in, down,” + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)

II.31 एते जातिदेशकालसमयानवच्छिन्नाः सार्वभौमा महाव्रतम्

ete jāti-deśa-kāla-samayānavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumā mahā-vratam
ete jāti-deśa-kāla-samaya-anavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumāḥ mahā-vratam

“These are universal, unlimited by birth, place, time or circumstance. They are a great vow.”

The yamas (ethical observances) are–this sūtra tells us–a great vow. We might think of them as a seal, a bond that acknowledges relationship between ourselves and our world. Rohit Mehta emphasizes that this bond is not imposed by an authority, but comes from a “realization of self-responsibility.” Vimala Thakar, likewise, says the Sanskrit word vratam (vow) carries with it a sense of a “choiceless” choice. Once the truth is experienced, once we know ourselves to be in connection to all living things, then the heart, as it were, makes its own bond.

Patañjali emphasizes the universality of the ethical observances–they are sarva bhauma, “at all levels of being or ground.” They relate to all life. No circumstance–birth, geography, time–not culture, gender, or race–affects their importance or renders them irrelevant. They are, in short, a tie that binds all.

One meaning of the word yoga is “connection.” The practice of yoga connects us inwardly–to our musculo-skeletal frame, to the rhythms of the organic body, to the electrical impulses of our nervous system, to to our imagination, thought, psyche–to our soul. With this inward unfolding comes awareness of the web of life that supports us and that we participate in. The yamas make explicit that what we do in the world matters.

Rachel Carson, the great naturalist and progenitor of the modern ecological movement, said, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” We depend on the rich balance of soil, water, plant, animal life for our welfare. In the 1950s, at a time when most Americans were dazzled by the powers of new technology and all the good that they promised–the end of war, the mastery of disease and hunger–Carson raised a clarion call about how we were affecting the natural world. She recognized that the relation of life to its environment was a complete system, and that we disturb its balance at tremendous risk. A half-century later, as we face irreversible climate change, her words are prophetic: “This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” (Silent Spring, p.12.)

Silent Spring communicated the science of connection, the biological truth of inter-relatedness. It led to a ban on DDT and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Water Act. It galvanized the awareness of a generation.

Carson was ill in the years that she worked on this classic book. In a letter to a close friend, she tells of the difficulty of writing and of the imperative she felt to finish: “I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could.” (Letter to Dorothy Freeman, January 1962.) She died two years after the publication of Silent Spring.

“To listen happily to a thrush song”– this says so much about Carson and about her deep-held belief that experience of the natural world sustains us. She writes about the education of children:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years…the alienation from the sources of our strength. ― Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Yoga has powerful tools to help us come out of alienation. It connects us to our natural being, to nature around us. It connects us to the source of our strength. May it also help us know our responsibility.


“The external disciplines, or yamas, are the way we yoke ourselves in relation to the world. This includes not only objects but also beings. Thus, the yamas guide our actions toward the benefit of all life.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 33

Vratam does not mean a vow intentionally, purposefully taken and followed or practiced. … I cannot translate–I would love to give you the nuances of that beautiful word, which is generally used to describe marriages that take place–the fusion, the blending that take place–out of choiceless acceptance. As in love, in vratam there is a choiceless acceptance by your whole being of the truth that was perceived….If there is resistance, if there is an imposition from outside, then it cannot be called a vratam. It is not a vow, it is not an imposition, it is not an imitation, a conformity. Please do see this–otherwise, the whole charm of the yamas would be lost upon us. Once you see them as absolute truths, because of the organic wholeness of Life, the Intelligence, the sensitivity within you accepts those truths choicelessly. They become a way of living, they become incorporated into your way of living, which becomes a holistic way of living.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 26

“Only he who is completely free can be truly disciplined. Without freedom, discipline is an imposition whether from outside or inside. Often a person says that he does not accept any discipline that is imposed by an external authority, but such a person forgets that the so-called internal authority is also a product of conditioning factors. The inner authority is really a product of social and cultural forces that impinge upon an individual either from society or from the ideological group to which one belongs. Freedom demands a complete elimination of authority, external as well as internal. It is only then that the individual, being on his own, takes complete responsibility for all that he does.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp.139-41

•What helps you know you are part of a web of life? (Do you take time to go outside? Do you visit a park, the country, bodies of water?)
•In what ways does “the common good” have meaning for you?
•What are you committed to?
• What guides you in your practice? An outer authority? An inner authority? No authority? What guides you in your relationships?


masculine pronoun, 1st person plural



feminine noun in compound

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


masculine noun in compound

place (from diś, “to point out”)


masculine noun in compound

time (from kal, “to drive”)


masculine noun in compound

circumstance, condition (from sam-, “all,” + i, “to go”)


masculine noun, !st case plural

irrespective of, unlimited by (from an-, “not,” + ava-, “away,” + chid, “to cut”)


masculine adjective, !st case plural

relating to the whole earth, universal (from sarva, “all,” + bhu, “to be”)


adjective in compound



neuter noun, 1st case singular

vow (from vṛ, “to choose”)

II.30 अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः

ahiṁsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ
ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ

“The yamas are non-harming, truth, non-stealing, connection to spirit, non-acquisitiveness.”

The yamas are ethical principles: they address our relation to the world, to other people, to our own selves. Jaganath Carrera and other commentators emphasize that the yamas are not rules per se–they express an attitude toward living that informs and assists us. They grow out of yoga practice but also shape, deepen practice. We may, says Carrera, come to know them as friends. Patañjali will elaborate more on the yamas in the following sūtras, but let us make an initial acquaintance with them here.

The first, ahiṁsā, literally means non-harming. It can be translated as non-violence, non-hurting; B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on Yoga that ahiṁsā is more than a negative–its positive meaning is love.

The second, satya, is truth. The word comes from the participle sat, “being, existing.”  Satya is what actually exists. It means more than being honest, telling the truth (though it does mean that).  Satya is a commitment to reality.

Asteya is non-stealing. Georg Feuerstein (in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga) writes movingly about the political, global implications of non-stealing. What do we make of the wealth inequality in our country today? What does the affluence of this society, our style of life, cost other peoples? What does it cost the planet?

Brahmacarya, traditionally understood to mean celibacy, is now often translated as continence. The term comes from the description of the period of a young man’s life devoted to study of the Vedas, before he is of the age to marry and take on the responsibility of earning a living or caring for a family. It literally means “walking with Brahman,” a beautiful phrase, and an important one. I have defined it here as “connection to spirit,” which I believe leads to an attitude of respect for the body, the person, including oneself.

The literal meaning of aparigraha is evocative as well–“not-everywhere-grasping.” It conjures an image of the demon Rāvaṇa, with his ten heads and ten arms (see discussion of sūtra II.6), never satisfied–ravenous. Classsical commentators understood this yama to mean owning nothing, that is, renunciation of possessions; I have translated it as non-acquisitiveness.

The traditional interpretations of the yamas are not to be disregarded, and it is a good thing for me, a modern yoga practitioner, to grapple with them. At the same time, I am aware that I do not fit the traditional idea of practitioner. I am a woman and a householder. To return to Rohit Mehta’s image of the river (from sūtra II.29): the life lived cuts the banks.

The poet Mary Oliver recently died. Revisiting a collection of her poems, Devotions, I was struck by her yogic attitude: how she grappled with spiritual ideas, ethical quandaries, with her own sense of the good (“I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment …”) and how she came–again and again–to value the power of paying attention and knowing awe.

Paying attention. Knowing awe. How much might these two intentions fill us and heal us, heal our world, if we could do just these two.

The Sun

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?
–Mary Oliver


“The yamas do not give you a code of conduct–they give you a perspective on life, an evaluation of life, they give you  an attitude toward life. I hope you see the difference. They give you guidelines for life, because, after all, [yoga] is a transformation of the perspective on life–from a fragmentary, compartmental perspective to a holistic perspective. It is a transformation in the content of consciousness. Instead of being always filled with thought and knowledge, it is now in the excellence of emptiness.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, pp.20-21

“The principles of  yama might not satisfy someone fond of a dos and don’ts list. They are more properly understood as preparations for actions–attitudes that bring clarity, focus, and objectivity to bear on all situations. If we allow these principles to guide, cajole, and correct us, we will gradually know them well enough to call them friends. We will be privy to their nature, intent, power, and significance–their spirit. The yamas can be truly understood only when we perceive the spirit behind the ‘letter of the law.'” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.30

“True ethics are not absorbed from outside conditioning. The innate goodness of a
horse, for example, or a dog, derives from its nature, although some training and
guidance are necessary especially during youth. Morality and ethics come from inside
ourselves and are a reflection of consciousness. … Spirituality is not playacting at being
holy.”—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 250-51

• How does yoga practice affect your behavior toward others? Do some types of practice have different effects?
• Has yoga practice led you to a sense of greater responsibility? Justice?
• Does yoga separate you from others? Bring you into more connectivity? Describe what your experience is (not what you guess is “right”).
• Do you experience ethics as innate in you?


feminine noun in compound

non-harming, non-violence (from a-, prefix that negates, + han, “to hurt”)


neuter noun in compound

truth (from sat, “existing, being”)


noun in compound

non-stealing (from a-, prefix that negates, + stā, “to steal”)


neuter noun in compound

connection to Spirit (from Brahman, the name of the ultimate Source of all, + car, “to move, to walk”)


masculine noun, 1st case plural

non-acquisitiveness (from a-, prefix that negates, + pari-, “around,” + grah, “to grasp”)


masculine noun, 1st case plural

ethical observance, interpersonal discipline (from yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)

II.29 यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणा-ध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि

yama-niyamāsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo ‘ṣṭāv aṅgāni
yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayaḥ aṣṭau aṅgāni

Yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi are the eight limbs.”

Here Patañjali lists the parts of yoga. the “limbs” (aṅga), which he says are eight (aṣṭau) in number (thus the term aṣṭaṅga yoga, “eight-limbed yoga”). The imagery of “limb” speaks to the interrelation of yoga’s parts. We use our limbs to move, to make, to do; they are meant to work together. They form a whole.

The parts of yoga, most significantly, are not a ladder. They are not sequential. B.K.S. Iyengar teaches that they are like the petals of a flower, and–like petals–they bloom together.

The attention, compassion, and love of the three last limbs–dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi–are not the final stages of yoga. They are implicit in the first Tadāsana a student does. “Open your feet,” says yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, “and you will open your heart.” Feeling one’s feet is a way in to feeling one’s whole self. Āsana (postures), prāṇāyāma (breath awareness), and pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses) lead us out of numbness. We are awakened to our role–in relationship to others, in our treatment of ourselves. We question our automatic behaviors. We choose how we show up in the world.

Rohit Mehta describes a process of  “living into” spiritual life. True spirituality, he says, must have a quality of “naturalness and spontaneity.” Spiritual discipline is discovered from within. Mehta uses the metaphor of a river. The banks do not exist in advance of the flow. The moving water, the flow of life, cuts the banks.

The yamas (ethical observances) and niyamas (inner disciplines) are like the banks of the river. As the banks contain, direct river current, so do the yamas and niyamas conserve our energy and support our health.

It is beautiful to consider that the spirit, like the life force itself, requires movement. What if ethics grow out of our well-being? In the Book of Hours, Rilke writes of the desire “to free what waits within me,” to recover his own spontaneity, to sing his life, to flow.

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels into the open sea.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, I.12


“I call the aspects of aṣṭāṅga yoga petals (dalas) because just as a flower unfolds all its petals simultaneously, so the eight aspects of yoga have to bloom at the same time. This makes the flame of the soul light the mind, intelligence and consciousness so that they bloom together.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.29, p. 143

“[Spiritual life] is like the river which, in the very act of flowing, creates its own discipline in terms of the two banks. The banks are not created in advance. One may create such banks and may find that the river has taken a different course altogether. This is equally true of the river of life. If its flow is kept uninterrupted then that very flow creates its own discipline. When the flow is obstructed, disorder starts. It is the mind of man with its conclusions and vested interests that creates obstructions in the flow of life.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp.139-41

• How would you describe the parts of your yoga practice? (Not necessarily Patañjali’s eight limbs–a description in your own words.)
• What do you do that brings you into the flow of your practice? What does your practice allow you to flow into?
• What is your lived experience of discipline? Are there disciplines you once practiced that you have now relinquished? What disciplines are important to you today?


masculine noun in compound

ethical observance, interpersonal discipline (from yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)


masculine noun in compound
personal rule, inner discipline (from ni-, “in, down,” + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)

neuter noun in compound

posture (from ās, “to sit”)

masculine noun in compound

regulation of the breath (from prāṇa, “breath, life force,” + yama)

masculine noun in compound

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

feminine noun in compound

placing one’s point of focus (from dhṛ, “to hold, support”)

neuter noun in compound

keeping focus (from dhyai, “to think”)


masculine noun, 1st case plural
absorption, union (from sam-, “with,” + ā, “towards,” + dhā, “to place, to hold”)


neuter adjective, 1st case plural



neuter noun, 1st case plural

limb (from aṅg, “to walk, move about”)