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”)

II.28 योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवेकख्यातेः

yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptir ā viveka-khyāteḥ
yoga-aṅga-anuṣṭhānāt aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptiḥ ā viveka-khyāteḥ

“From the devoted practice of the limbs of yoga, upon the destruction of impurities, a light of knowledge shines. That brings the realization of discernment.”

Chapter Two of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras is called “On Practice.” Thus far, Patañjali has focused on why we practice yoga, and on the most profound level, what is happening when we practice. Here, he turns to the presentation of the how of practice — the limbs of yoga.

The practice of the eight limbs of yoga might be called yoga discipline. It is the practical description of principles and techniques that address our relationships, our daily habits, our embodied self, our senses and awareness. This discipline, Patañjali says, removes impurities (aśuddhi-kṣaye), and this removal reveals the light.

So what are the impurities? It is a term we don’t use frequently in modern settings, and comes down to us with strong associations with ascetic and often misogynist traditions.

Geeta Iyengar, in her important and groundbreaking book Yoga: a Gem for Women, describes yoga not as a way of separating from the world but rather as a balancing of spiritual knowledge and material knowledge. It is intriguing to think of this balance as the discernment (viveka) that Patañjali describes. Geeta Iyengar references verses 9-11 from the Iśā Upaniṣad:

In darkness enter those who follow after material knowledge alone;
In greater darkness enter those who devote themselves to spiritual knowledge alone. But those who combine spiritual and material knowledge pass beyond death to   immortality.

Matthew Remski also reflects on the ascetic tradition in his personal and poetic translation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. He writes forcefully of the need in our modern world of embracing our physical life:

I offer this text and commentary as an alternative speculation on what Patañjali’s attention and incision might offer us today, within a far different social-philosophical context than his own. A context in which renunciate withdrawal will not heal our interpersonal pain nor speak to our social diseases. A context in which we desperately need to be reminded of our embodiment, and grounded in ecological awareness. A context in which the magic of bodily pleasure that got us practicing in the first place becomes the basis for reaching out with love into the world that made us, has always held us, and which we never wish to leave. –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 19

Matthew Remski translates aśuddhi as “alienation.” This resonates for me. I would say yoga practice brings me out of alienation. It connects: me to myself,  to my surroundings, to the source of myself, to–as Rohit Mehta says–the “natural flow of life.” The process of purification, understood in this way, is a restoration, a renewal.

The body itself, if given movement, good nutrition, rest, will effect its own cleaning and ordering process. Do we recognize that the body does this? Do we support it? Do we love it?

Geeta Iyengar taught respect for the body.  She insisted that by bringing our awareness to the body, to the “opening of the palms and the bottom of the feet,” by finding our courage to “move, stretch, twist, bend or balance and go topsy-turvy,” we “come close” to the body. Geeta Iyengar claimed yoga practice as a practice for women, a practice that strengthens, supports, renews, and realizes the body’s potential. Yoga makes us bigger, Geeta said. Yoga reveals who we are.

I have heard Geeta Iyengar talk about the importance of the word anuṣṭhāna. It is not just the repetition the word abhyāsa implies, but it carries a sense of devotion, commitment. The dictionary defines it as performance, undertaking, especially practice of religious rites. It derives from anu-, “alongside of,” + sthā, “to stand.” The image I get from this is a practice that we “stand by” but also that “stands by” us in and throughout life. The light is always there. Our job is to remove the covers.


“Notice the sequence of events: The practices of the limbs of Yoga remove impurities. Yoga practices do not bring anything new; they remove what is unwanted or unnecessary. As the impurities dwindle, wisdom emerges, indicating that wisdom is already within.” —The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.28

“The problem of discipline seems to be closely related to all questions pertaining to spiritual life, and yet there is no subject on which such confusion prevails as on this subject of discipline. It is commonly supposed that the purpose of discipline is to mortify oneself, i.e. to deny to oneself the normal expressions of living. … To accept suffering is one thing, but to crave for it for the purposes of spiritual recognition appears completely foreign to real spiritual living. Much of the so-called discipline on the path is associated with this abnormal factor of suffering. It is this which has imported into spiritual life such tendencies as mortification, austerities–almost spartan in nature–and a denial of all that appertains to joy and beauty. Needless to say, such notions of discipline do not harmonise with true spiritual life, for spirituality must have a quality of naturalness and spontaneity.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 139-40

• What is the interplay in your yoga practice between constraint, correction, and freedom?
• Does your practice have naturalness and spontaneity? Joy? beauty?
• What is a personally meaningful way that you would translate aśuddhi? What covers the light of your awareness?
• Does yoga bring you balance between the material and spiritual? What does that mean to you?


masculine noun in compound

yoga (from yuj, “to yoke, to connect”)


noun in compound

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


neuter noun, 5th case singular, “from”

doing, undertaking, practice–of religious rites, especially (from anu-, “alongside,” + sthā, “to stand”)


feminine noun in compound

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


masculine noun, 7th case singular, “on”

destruction (from kṣi, “to destroy”)


neuter noun in compound

knowledge (from jñā, “to know”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

light, brilliance (from dīp, to shine, to be alight)


preposition, takes 5th case

up to, as far as


masculine noun in compound

discernment, awareness (from vi-, “distinct” + vic, “to examine”)


feminine noun, 5th case singular

naming, recognition, realization (from khyā, “to name”)

II.27 तस्य सप्तधा प्रान्तभूमिः प्रज्ञा

tasya saptadhā prānta-bhūmiḥ prajñā
tasya sapta-dhā prānta-bhūmiḥ prajñā

“The wisdom that comes from this [discernment] is sevenfold–it reaches the innermost ground of one’s being.”

Patañjali reintroduces the idea of prajñā, the special knowledge “that carries truth in it”; we might ask–what is the truth of ourselves? what levels of truth are we aware of within ourselves?  We may adhere to spiritual principles on an intellectual level but find no connection to them in the day-to-day. How do we come to know through and through ourselves, as Mr. Iyengar might say, on a “cellular level”?

Mr. Iyengar seems to enjoy the various traditional interpretations of “sevenfold” knowledge. He cites the classical commentator Vyāsa’s seven divisions of consciousness, and he muses on other layers or spheres that one might see in a sevenfold way. (See tables 10-11 in Light on the Yoga Sūtras.) Mr. Iyengar’s seven “levels of knowledge” speak to modern yoga practice in a recognizable way. They are: knowledge of body, energy, mind, intelligence, experience, absorption of flavor, self. The sixth level,  absorption of flavor–rasātmaka jñāna–is especially intriguing. Rasa is taste; rasātmaka is “taste of the essence.” How wonderful to recognize taste as a form of knowing. Do we taste our lives? Do we allow for the absorption of experience? How far does our awareness extend?

Rohit Mehta is not concerned with the number seven per se: he asserts that sevenfold is a traditional way of referring to the totality of existence. He interprets prānta-bhūmiḥ (literally, “up to the most inner place”) to mean the emotions and senses as well as the intellect. In this sense, his interpretation of the sūtra is very similar to Mr. Iyengar’s. The knowledge that comes from yoga is a knowledge that permeates, it is a way of knowing that comes from permeation, from processing, from tasting.

Whether I like it or no, life takes me through the layers of myself, the “spheres of knowledge,” as Mr. Iyengar says. Yoga practice brings greater awareness of body, breath, consciousness, yes. Yet practice becomes significant in the living, in relationship–to the world around me, to people, to nature. It is there that reality presents itself, the reality in me, the reality around me. Rohit Mehta says, “To be a participant and yet to be a witness, this alone can be called total awareness.”

The “totality” that this sūtra suggests leads me to reflect on a difficult challenge in practice: the experience of disappointment, loss, failure. These have confronted me with the limits of my insight, the precariousness of my serenity.  They have also helped me know the truth of myself better. Pema Chödrön, in her jewel-like book Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better, says one way to understand failure is “when things don’t turn out as we want.”  Contemplative practice might be considered, in its essence, as the action of holding the rawness of pain, a way of practicing failure.

There is a lot of emphasis on succeeding. And whether we buy the hype or  not, we all want to succeed, especially if you consider success as “it works out the way I want it to.” You know it feels good in the gut and in the heart because it worked out. So failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.

And failing is what we don’t usually get a lot of preparation for.

I think in college or university, if there is one thing that prepares you for having some idea of how to work with the rawness of things not working out the way you want them to, it would be contemplative education. As I listened to all the other speakers, it reinforced what I already thought was true, which is that you have gotten a lot of instruction and encouragement and support for feeling how things impact you and not just going down the tubes with it, but actually taking responsibility for what is happening to you and having some tools about how to work with painful feelings, raw feelings.

So fail, fail again, fail better. It’s like how to get good at holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart. Or how to get good at “welcoming the unwelcome.”

–Pema Chödrön, Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better (commencement address, 2014, Naropa University, Boulder Colorado)

Yoga practice is a practice in feeling, in “tasting.” The wisdom that yoga brings, as Patañjali expressed in I.48, is of the heart, through the heart. It comes through the senses, through experience, from connection, from life.


“Its area or prāntabhūmi has to be saptadhā or sevenfold. The word saptadhā  really indicates a totality, for when one speaks of the total nature of man or of the universe, one speaks of it as sevenfold. Patañjali says that this awareness has not only to be uninterrupted [II.26] but it has also to be total. This means that one has to be aware of the totality of one’s being. This awareness has to be not merely with cold intellect, but with emotions and also the sensorial mechanism of the body. It must penetrate the entire fibre of one’s being. It must not be that of a witness who looks at the flow of continuity from a distance. A witness can be aware only from the outside and such an awareness from a distance is of no avail. To be a participant and yet to be a witness, this alone can be called total awareness.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on II.27

“There are seven states of awareness of the human consciousness, which are dealt with differently by different traditional authors. For me, the seven states of knowledge (prajñā) are either on a perceptible level or on the levels of integration (saṁyama). On a perceptible level are: knowledge of the body, including organs of action and senses of perception (śarīra), knowledge of energy (prāṇa), knowledge of the mind (manas), clarity of intelligence (vijñāna), experienced knowledge (ānubhavika), absorption of the flavour of experienced knowledge (rasātmaka), and the knowledge of the seer (puruṣa). On the levels of integration are: the body, senses, energy, mind, intelligence, consciousness and self.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.27, p. 139

•What would you consider to be knowledge that comes from the totality of yourself? What is it to know the totality of yourself?
•Do you taste your āsana practice? Your prāṇāyāma practice? Your relationships?
•How does failure affect you?
•What does it mean to you “to be a participant and yet to be a witness”?


pronoun, 6th case singular

of that (referring to “the path” of previous sūtra)



seven-layered (sapta, “seven,” + dhā, often used as a suffix with numbers to give the sense of having or holding; here, “having seven aspects”)


masculine noun in compound

border, edge, end (pra + anta, “end, inner part”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

ground, place (from bhū, “to be”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

wisdom, knowledge (from pra- , “forth,” can suggest completion, fullness, perfection + jñā, “to know”; the verb prajñā means to discern, especially in reference to required action)

II.26 विवेकख्यातिरविप्लवा हानोपायः

viveka-khyātir aviplavā hānopāyaḥ
viveka-khyātiḥ aviplavā hāna-upāyaḥ

“Discernment is realized and does not drift. This is the path of leaving.”

The divine one is a negation of negations and a denial of denials.
–Meister Eckhart

Upāyaḥ is a path or a way. Hānam is leaving, abandonment, cessation, dissolution. In sūtra II.25, Patañjali has described the Via Negativa, letting go to uncertainty, perhaps darkness, a practice of releasing preconceptions, conclusions, of conceptualizing itself. This path requires a willingness to not know, certainly to not know as the mind knows. It is hāna-upāyaḥ, the path of leaving.

Though there is a not-doing in the renunciation of the path of leaving, there is an active component as well. Viveka-khyātiḥ aviplavā, says Patañjali, “Discernment is realized and does not drift.” The practitioner grows in understanding of her own consciousness, of the patterns of her mind, even the quality of her temperament. She separates the vehicle of understanding from understanding itself, or, perhaps more to the point, she separates the means of knowing a thing from the thing itself.

A good translation for viveka is “discernment.” Khyātiḥ, literally “naming,” is trickier. The word gets at an idea of ownership, realization, embodiment. Viveka-khyātiḥ is a process–ongoing, dynamic–not a completed state. We don’t have to “accomplish” it. It is enough to begin to “not drift.” Krishna tells Arjuna: On this path no effort is wasted” (Bhagavad Gītā, II.40).

Yoga practice requires much ongoing humility and practicality.

As yoga practitioners, we do not become all-knowing, but we do learn to discern our own role in things, our own limitations–our own abilities too. We learn we are connected to a great source of life, and that we are part of that life. In this sense, possibility is limitless.

Meister Eckhart has said, “The path of which I speak is beautiful and pleasant and joyful and familiar.”  (As quoted in Matthew Fox’s Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, p.xxiii.) This seems both encouraging and true. The yogic process of removal brings us into the fullness of the day, to our own physical self and to the natural world around us. Practice offers a revelation of beauty. It returns us to a state we perhaps knew only when very young–to the wonder of our creation. And it is in this sense that the path is familiar. I have been here before! How good to come home.


“If this awareness which clearly distinguishes things is kept uninterrupted then it will lead to the dissolution of avidyā. … It may be asked: What has one to be aware of?  It has to be with reference to the observer-observed phenomenon. This means one has to be aware of the whole process of continuity by which asmitā or the sense of I-ness keeps itself going. This demands watching the process of attachments and repulsions because they constitute the field in which there is to be seen the abhiniveśa of asmitā itself. In other words it is through rāga and dveṣa that the sense of I-ness seeks to continue itself.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, The Art of Integration, commentary on II.26

“Consciousness projects meaning onto things but then, forgetting its projection, assumes those given meanings belong to those things. … A king wished for the most accurate rendering of his kingdom, and so commissioned his cartographer to create a map on a 1:1 scale. The map was impeccably accurate. But of course its size demanded that it cover over the land that it depicted, denying it sun and rain. The king could then see an exact representation of what he possessed, but as he gazed at the picture of his land, the land itself perished, along with his wealth. In our context, the king might be consciousness, the cartographer his cognitive faculty, and the land he covers over and kills with his representational fetish is, tragically, his living world. This thread offers another possibility: if we recognize the difference between the map (projected meaning) and the land (the thing itself), the map will be lifted away to more clearly reveal what it was meant to represent.”  — Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, pp. 134-35, commentary on sūtras II.23-26

• How would you describe the discernment that yoga brings?
• In what ways do you “project meaning” onto things?
• Have you come to know your limits better? Your likes and dislikes?
• Do you experience your practice as a return?


noun in compound

discernment, awareness (from vi-, “distinct” + vic, “to examine”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

naming, recognition, realization (from khyā, “to name”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

not drifting (a-, “not,” + viplū, “to float, drift”)


neuter noun, 6th case singular, “of”

leaving, abandoning, cessation (from hā, “to leave”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

path, way (upa + i, “to go”)

II.25 तदभावात् संयोगाभावो हानं तद्दृशेः कैवल्यम

tad-abhāvāt saṁyogābhāvo hānaṃ tad dṛśeḥ kaivalyam
tad-abhāvāt saṁyoga-abhāvaḥ hānaṃ tat dṛśeḥ kaivalyam

“From the not-being of that [not-knowing], the not-being of conflation. This leaving [leads to] the oneness of seeing.”

In Sanskrit, a- is a prefix of negation, and abhāvaḥ means not-becoming or not-being. The dictionary gives the English translation as disappearance or absence, themselves words formed from prefixes of negation (dis-, ab-), but here in sūtra II.25 the play on negatives is best expressed, I think, by “not.” The first two words form a double negative: tad-abhāvāt, “from the not-being of that,” or, rather, “from the not-being of not-knowing (avidyā, threading through from last sūtra)”.

What is this negation? The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad defines Brahman as neti neti, “not this, not this.” The ultimate, in other words, is unnameable, beyond any idea. Theologian Matthew Fox says that the inner work of the spiritual journey is fourfold, consisting of

– awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva)
– uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
– birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
– justice, healing, celebration (Via Transformativa)

–from http://www.matthewfox.org

It is the second of these aspects, the Via Negativa, that Patañjali describes here. It is not comfortable to let things go, it is not easy to turn inward and discover the darkness of uncertainty. But an important part of the yoga process is experience of the unknowable, a suspension of conceptualization, conclusion, decision. The mind drives to form a new concept, to reestablish (in Rohit Mehta’s language) psychological continuity, and yet it is a yogic moment to not let that concept come into being, to not let that decision be made, to let go to what we don’t know. This is hānam, the abandonment of our old ways. The birth that comes from hānam is, says Patañjali–dṛśeḥ kaivalya, the oneness of seeing. (Kaivalya, from kevala, “alone,” could also be described as integration, wholeness, union, freedom. It is the subject of Chapter Four.)

Today, in my life, how does this ultimate unknowable speak to me? It is a time of environmental catastrophe and political malfeasance, and I am experiencing disillusionment, hypervigilance, despair. These are valid feelings and presentiments. Yet they can also catch me and hold me. Incapacitate me. Can I feel these things, know what I know, and let go–not hold on with such conviction, with such vehemence? Can I not try to argue against them? Can I let myself not-know? And if I can practice this abandonment, then what? What is left? According to thirteenth-century mystic and prophet Meister Eckhart–what is left is to sink into love, to be present to the creation that is before, within, around.

Matthew Fox says that we are all mystics. And we are all prophets. The Via Negativa leads us to our source, which is unknowable. Yet it is from here that we will move forward–in oneness.

Now I ask how that can be, this freeing of our knowing from all form and images and yet knowing things in themselves without hindrance from outside or change in oneself? I answer that it comes from the simplicity which is ours as human beings. For the more purely human beings are free from themselves and in themselves, the more simply they know all diversity in themselves and remain unchangeable in themselves. — Meister Eckhart

God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction. –Meister Eckhart (both quotes taken from Passion for Creation, by Matthew Fox)


“Pure perception indicates seeing things as they are. If we know life as it is at any moment without any projection of the mind then we shall know the secret of right relationship with that life.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on II.25

“If we want to experience heaven on earth, we have to grasp the qualities of nature, the guṇas, that is to say the polarity of rajas and tamas, the eternal pulse of nature between movement and stillness, and the higher balancing state of sattva. …If we understand the flow of these forces, we can reach balance, and from balance go on to true freedom. ” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on II.25

“We all feel the call, consciously or unconsciously, from Gaia, from Mother Earth, from our children and grandchildren and ancestors to come, from Spirit, to change our ways. To undergo metanoia — or conversion, rebirth, waking up, or all of the above. To do this we need to be lovers again who are more in love with the world than ever. More grateful for existence, for the nourishing and beautiful Earth, for her marvelous creatures, for her suffering, than ever before. More struck by reverence and respect for the miracle of our being here, the gift of existence in this amazing universe with its 13.8-billion-year history — ‘isness is God,’ says Eckhart.” –Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart, A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times

• How do you listen to those with opposing views? Are you able to know what you know when others disagree with you?
• Are you able to accept when you are wrong?
• What role does surrender play in your life?
• Has yoga helped you experience oneness in a new way? Has it freed you?


pronoun in compound



masculine noun, 5th case singular, “owing to”
not-being, absence (from a-, “not,” + bhū, “to be, become”)


masculine noun in compound
conflation, union (from sam-, “together,” “all,” “same,” + yuj, “to join”)

masculine noun, 1st case singular

not-being, absence  (from a-, “not,” + bhū, “to be, become”)
neuter noun, 1st case singular
leaving, abandoning, cessation (from hā, “to leave”)

neuter pronoun, 1st case singular



feminine noun, 6th case singular, “of”

seeing (from dṛś, “to see”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

oneness, aloneness (from kevala, “alone”)

II.24 तस्य हेतुरविद्या

tasya heturavidyā
tasya hetuḥ avidyā

“The cause of that is not-knowing.”

Sūtra II.23 spoke of the cause (hetuḥ) of the drive to possess; today’s sūtra says that the cause of that cause is the field where psychological suffering begins–avidyā, not-knowing, ignorance. Thus II.24 loops back to the start of the chapter, to II.4-5.

What is avidyā–for Patañjali? Though the word literally means not-knowing, Patañjali has not defined it as an absence of knowledge, per se. Avidyā is not blank nor empty. Rather, it is willful,  a kind of denial. It leads to reactivity and defensiveness. It is rigidity of thought. Patañjali’s avidyā is mis-identification of what is (see II.5).

In his discussion of possession and being possessed, Rohit Mehta points out that we create an image to stand in for the living entity. We identify with that. We hold on to that image fiercely to establish a fixed idea, to maintain a psychological experience of continuity. Likewise, Vimala Thakar states that we tend to identify with a part of ourselves, with something smaller than our actual self. We compartmentalize our self. We do not know our own wholeness.

The three words of II.24 form a lovely landing place, a reminder: coming into is-ness, coming to the ground of our being, is a simple business.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good…. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for. –Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “We Were Made For These Times”


“This urge to possess and be possessed is motivated by avidyā or ignorance. … Right relationship can arise only when the shell of avidyā is broken. It has to be remembered that the relationship of usage has its source in the desire for continuity. The question of usage arises for one’s own continuity. It is this which gives birth to rāga and dveṣa.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on II.24

Avidyā is ignorance about one’s own nature, ignorance about one’s existential essence, about one’s own being. Not ignorance about chemistry, physics etc.–that is not the meaning or the connotation of the term avidyā. Here in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or in Ishavasya Upanishad, the word avidyā refers to ignorance about one’s own nature, one’s own essence. If there is ignorance about the essence of one’s being, then one would identify and equate one’s wholeness with things that are smaller, that are compartmental, that are fragmentary. If I do not understand what Life is, what the Is-ness of Life is, what the Suchness of Life is, then I identify with things that are smaller.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 41-42

• Do you tend to overestimate or underestimate your role?
• Do you have confidence in yourself as one who takes action?
• How much do you rely on titles, possessions, or relationships to give you a sense of self? Is there some other way that you experience self?
• Does detachment, the practice of letting go, support you in taking action–participating in the world around you, finding right relationship? What does that look like? Feel like?


masculine pronoun, 6th case singular, “of”

that, it


masculine noun, 1st case singular

cause (from hi, “to incite”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

not-knowing (from a-, “not,” + vid, “to know, perceive”)