III.4 त्रयमेकत्र संयमः

trayam ekatra saṁyamaḥ
“The three [dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi] are one thing: saṁyama.”

Patañjali introduces one word to describe the three-fold process of dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhi. The three are one, he says. And he calls the one thing saṁyama.

Saṁyama repeats as a refrain through Chapter Three, as Patañjali goes on to describe the abilities and understanding that come from contemplation of the world around us.  Saṁyama brings integration within and more accurate perception without. It mends the different parts of ourselves and opens up for us insight into the experience–the being–of others. Yoga is a “science of purification of perception,” says Vimala Thakar (Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 95). We must base our actions in the world on truth.

Saṁyama derives from sam-, which here has a sense of “all” or “complete,” and yama, “rule” or “discipline” (same word as yama, the first limb of yoga). It is used in many contexts to refer to spiritual discipline or religious vow. Here, Patañjali has defined it in a more precise way–it is dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhi. Mehta translates saṁyamaas Patañjali uses it, as “meditation.” And this seems the best translation to me–in that it corresponds to the way so many of us today use the term “meditation.” Other commentators translate saṁyama as “perfect mastery,” “perfect discipline,” “integration.” Yet those translations seem incomplete. The discipline of saṁyama is specifically a discipline of perception. The mastery is a mastery of observation, of sensing. Saṁyama is integration–and healing–of consciousness.

Patañjali has emphasized the three-fold aspect of meditation, and in so doing, he has highlighted the cyclical, rolling, ongoing aspect of practice. The practice Patañjali describes allows for movement–and for the natural cultivation of our abilities. Samādhi–complete absorption, union, deep insight into the nature of things, or as Rohit Mehta says, a vision of the Formless–occurs as a moment in time. Just as the eye shifts its gaze, so does citta move again. To demand that the eye stay fixed is to harm it. In the practice of saṁyama, we return to dhāraṇā (choosing a focal point), to dhyāna (observing the distractions of our mind), to samādhi again.

The threefold aspect contrasts in an interesting way with the either/or, dual nature of our conceptual process. We tend to conceptualize in terms of good/bad, hot/cold, pleasure/pain (see sūtra II.48). The yogic practice, however, is an ongoing emptying of such conclusion. It is an effort to see without labels.

In some sense, our tendency to good/bad thinking is an attempt to exert control over circumstances. To freeze reality in certainty. To not know, however, is an essential yogic intention–to be curious and to be ready to learn. This is what we practice.

Last week, I attended a Black Lives Matter demonstration. I was moved by a tall white woman who held up a sign that read #whitewomanlistening. As a white woman, there is much for me to listen to and learn from at this time. Our nation is overdue a reckoning with its history of racial violence and injustice. We need this reckoning to move forward.

The great science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler has, in her important novel Parable of the Sower, called us all to see ourselves as agents of change. “All that you touch you change; all that you change changes you,” declares Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine of that book.

As much as we may desire to fix things, to keep them as they are, to stay with what we have known, to assume we already know–the nature of our world and of ourselves is change. Patañjali’s saṁyama can help us come un-fixed in ourselves, free us, perhaps, from our too-narrow ideas of God.

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
that God has provided.
They are everywhere,
in everything.
God is Change–
Seed to tree,
tree to forest;
Rain to river,
river to sea;
Grubs to bees,
bees to swarm.
From one, many;
from many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving–
forever Changing.
The universe
is God’s self-portrait.

–Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower


“Meditation [saṁyama] comprises this threefold process of awareness, attention and communion [dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi]. The three together constitute the wholeness of spiritual experience. They are a whole. It is only for the clarity of mental understanding that one may examine the three separately…. Samādhi or Communion is indeed the experience of the Formless. But such an experience comes only in a flash, in the Timeless Moment. It is in the vision of the Formless that one sees the quality of things, the intrinsic significance underlying all manifestation. There comes a perception of what is. This is right perception and this alone is the starting point of right action or right communication.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 281-2

•What is your experience with meditation? How do you define it?
•What do stillness/movement feel like to you in practice?
•What does integration mean to you?
•How do you respond to change? Do you see yourself as an agent of change?


neuter noun, !st case singular

group of three, triad (from tri, “three”)



in one place; together as one (from eka, “one”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

meditation, integration of the senses, regulation of citta, direct observation (from sam + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)

III.3 तादेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिव समाधिः

tad evārtha-mātra-nirbhāsaṃ svarūpa-śūnyam iva samādhiḥ
tat eva artha-mātra-nirbhāsaṃ svarūpa-śūnyam iva samādhiḥ

“That–when the object alone shines forth, as if [citta] were empty of its own identity–is samādhi.”

The word samādhi comes from dhā, to hold or put. Sam means “with” or “all,” ā is an intensifier. Thus samādhi is “putting all together.” Patañjali defines samādhi as a kind of pure perception–the object alone is seen. One’s own form is “emptied” (śūnya). It is as though the perceiver has no identity.

As I have said, citta (sometimes translated as mind, sometimes as consciousness) is the apparatus by which we perceive. Our experience shapes citta, leaves patterns of thought, preconceptions, ideas that then affect what we see (or don’t see). Despite this inherent limitation, samādhi is the remarkable moment in citta when artha-mātra-nirbhāsaṃ– “the object alone shines.” Artha is the object one focuses on and mātra is “measure”; the phrase artha-mātra means something like the thing itself, the thing alone, or even the essence of the thing. Patañjali suggests that samādhi is an insight into the totality of a thing. It is, in Rohit Mehta’s words, a vision of Reality. (Here mātra is neuter; the feminine form of the word also means measure and is used to refer to sound or vibration–its cognate is our word meter. In an ultimate sense, the sound, the vibration, of a thing is its essence.)

Samādhi has been translated as absorption, union, communion, integration. It comprehends a quality of immersion or flow, in which a kind of natural curiosity and alertness operate. This is not a state that we perfectly control. It is certainly not a state that we can force. It is also not something out of the range of ordinary experience. As a mother gazes at her child, absorbed in the child, she is in samādhi. When a musician, as B.K.S. Iyengar says in his commentary on this sūtra, becomes engrossed in her playing, that is samādhi. The love of the thing brings us to its contemplation, holds our attention, and supports the liveliness of our engagement. It is “as if” (iva) the limitations of our form–the habits of mind built from fears, disappointments, obsessions and preoccupations–fall away, and we see, feel, hear anew.

It is not, however, a negation of self that leads to integration, that allows us to be in communion. Patañjali’s threefold process of dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhi assist the self in telling her story. In dhāraṇā, we choose a focal point (and a marginal area around it, as Rohit Mehta says). In dhyāna, we steadily observe the movements of our mind away from the focal point and back. The distractions of the mind themselves tell the story of the mind, of the self.

I have described the importance of the body in this practice of hearing one’s own story. Indeed, the mind makes itself known, powerfully and primarily, through the body. Trauma therapist Peter A. Levine calls the body experience, sensation, feeling, and motor response, “the unspoken voice.” By staying tuned to the body and breath as we practice, we hear this voice. We hear ourselves. When working with trauma patients, Levine helps them “uncouple” sensation from image and thought. To hold, to contain our impressions, make no conclusions, this is a yogic act. This is what happens as we observe the movements within us. In some sense, in dhāranā, we come to hold ourselves.

The emptying of dhyāna, which brings us to samādhi, is an emptying of memory (see I.43), of past preoccupations and present certainties. It requires a relaxation of hyper vigilance and a lowering of the defenses. It requires a willingness to not know, to be, simply, curious. The body shows us the way to this, in a “bottom’s up” way (Levine’s phrase). Breathing, sensing, feeling, the body moves instinctively toward balance, a balance of self and other, of autonomy and connection. Many of us need to come out of a kind of physical frozen state, a fear state, in which the brain is super-charged with image and thought, the life force itself suppressed. (See Peter A. Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.)

As I consider the importance of samādhi in our world today, at a time of climate crisis, of pandemic upheaval, of ongoing, even worsening, racist violence and injustice, I look to the words of adrienne marie brown, writer, healer, doula, and social justice facilitator. In her prophetic book Emergent Strategy, she describes a personal transformation needed for our times and declares that we are all “the protagonists” of a great turning, a change that we must envision into being. She writes:

Many of us have been socialized to understand that constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass are the ways to create change. But … adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience.

Resilience comes from, is made possible by, a connection inward as well as out. It is through our senses–not in spite of them–that we integrate within, that we free our curiosity and unleash our deep desire to connect, that we become quiet and more attuned to the other.

I am listening now with all my senses, as if the whole universe might exist just to teach me more about love.

(Both quotes are from Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by adrienne marie brownpp. 10, 14.)


“If the goal of the practice of meditation is to gain knowledge of the object of meditation that is immediate, unbiased, and whole then the mind has to reach a state where it completely, even if temporarily, gives up whatever form it is holding in favor of that of the chosen object.” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, p. 168

“To watch the movement of inattention is to watch the activity of the knower of the field. It has to be understood that the thinker can be watched only in the movement of thought and not away from it. In this watching the thinker relates his own story, and when it is heard without any interruption then the thinker comes to a state of quiet. It is in this quietness emanating from the focal point, that there comes a deep silence which is indeed the condition of total attention. It is only in such a state of attention that seeing is possible. This seeing or right perception is described by Patañjali as Samādhi or communion… In this awareness, and there alone, one communes with the intrinsic significance or the quality of things or persons. The timeless moment is a flash…. The next moment the stream will move on. But it is in that timeless interval that one can have the enthralling vision of Reality, a regenerating touch of the Intangible. This is the moment of Love, of communion, or Samādhi. Love and Samādhi are not two different things.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 274-79

• In your experience, how does the “emptying” of the mind happen?
• How do you know when you come into a true perception of things?
• What does it mean to you, to listen, with all your senses, to a message of love? What is your understanding of why Rohit Mehta says, Love is Samādhi?
• What are conditions in you that lead to not listening, not sensing or feeling?
• What activities engross you most completely?


neuter pronoun, 1st case singular




specifically, so, just so


masculine noun in compound

object, aim


neuter noun in compound

measure; the one thing and no more (artha-mātra = the “object alone”)


neuter participle, 1st case singular

shining forth (from nir-, “forth, away from,” + bhās, “to shine”)


neuter noun in compound

identity, essence, natural form (from sva, “own,” + rūpa, “form”)


neuter adjective, 1st case singular




as though


masculine noun, 1st case singular

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

III.2 तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम्

tatra pratyayaika-tānatā dhyānam
tatra pratyaya-eka-tānatā dhyānam

“There [in the state of dhāraṇā], a singleness of attention to arising thoughts is dhyāna.”

The word “meditation” is so widely used, it has become loaded. The outer form sometimes seems to stand for the thing itself. What is meditation? We all agree that specific practices taught by specific lineages–perhaps Tibetan or Zen Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation or Vipassana–are meditation. There is a common understanding as well that meditation involves some form of sitting (the Bhāgavad Gītā, indeed, describes sitting on an antelope skin in a clean place, not too high, not too low, holding the body, the head and neck upright). Yet when we consider, really, what is meant by meditation, we might ask, does it require one to sit? Could one perhaps do it lying down? Must one be still? Could one do it walking? Or dancing? Singing? Rock climbing? Author Julia Cameron describes her morning practice of writing to be meditation. Catholic priest Thomas Keating teaches a meditative technique he calls Centering Prayer. Are meditation and prayer two different things?

In some sense, yoga is meditation, and meditation is yoga. And though, traditionally, many have translated dhyāna, the seventh of the eight limbs of yoga,  as “meditation,” this obscures the specific definition Patañjali has given dhyāna here. The word “meditation” better applies to the entire process of dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhi.  (This will be discussed more in sūtra III.4.) It is not a separate practice from the rest of yoga. It is also not a fixed state, nor an endpoint, nor one unchanging thing. Meditation is process, a process of awareness and attention, of presence.

Dhāraṇā, making the choice of a point of focus and–as Rohit Mehta describes it–setting a marginal area of awareness around that point, is the first step in that process. Dhyāna is the second step; it is, Patañjali tells us, pratyaya-eka-tānatā, a singleness of attention–an observation of all arising sensations, feelings, thoughts–the repeated return to the focal point and the movement to what Mehta calls the marginal area as well.

The word pratyaya, which could be translated as idea or thought, comes from prati-, “towards,” and the verb i, “to go.” It thus describes movement (in a way that neither “idea” or “thought” do). It is a movement of citta towards an object or image or sense impression. It is not static, but rises, subsides. Eka is one, and tānatā, derived from tāna, thread or sound (itself derived from tan, to stretch) is extension or expansion.

The extending, expanding thread or sound of dhyāna is the inward sensing, feeling attentiveness of observation. As we choose the point, we also allow the movement of mind, feel the mind in the body and return our attention to the point. The ongoing presence to movement, sensation, feeling allows us to listen–as Rohit Mehta says–to the story of ourselves. Distractions from the point of focus, indeed, tell a story, and pratyaya-eka-tānatā suggests receptivity, sympathy to that story.

To come into right perception of the world around us, we must come into right relationship with ourselves.

Thus the importance of the body in dhyāna. Whether by attending to the breath, the position of the spine, or holding any part of the body as a point of focus, we feel the body more, we inhabit the mind that is in the body more fully. B.K.S. Iyengar describes eka-tānatā as having both a centrifugal direction from the center of self out to the skin, “the frontiers of the body,” and a centripetal one, which brings an experience of the whole body as one, which brings also subtle, inner sensations of self. The awareness centers. It expands.

As we listen to the story of the mind, Rohit Mehta says, the mind becomes quiet; our gaze, our attentiveness becomes more steady. This steadiness comes not from will power, but from a flow of concern, caring, purpose.

Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunlit one.
The way to it, barely begun, lies ahead.
So we are grasped by what we have not grasped,
full of promise, shining in the distance.

It changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something we barely sense, but are;
a movement beckons, answering our movement…
But we just feel the wind against us.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems, translated by Joanna Macy


“Eka-tānatā implies an unbroken flow of contact between the sādhaka‘s consciousness and her sādhana. … In āsana, there is a centrifugal movement of consciousness to the frontiers of the body, whether extended vertically, horizontally or circumferentially, and a centripetal movement as the whole body is brought into single focus.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on III.2

Dhyāna is the state of watching the flow of thought without any interruption. To observe the movement of the mind in a condition of extensive awareness is, according to Patañjali, the state of dhyāna…. It is necessary to realize that distraction is the language through which the mind tells its own story. We have never listened to the mind, in fact we have treated mind as something alien to us. The non-listening to the story of the mind makes distraction into such an enormous problem in all approaches of meditation…. Meditation is indeed the emptying of the mind of all its contents. But the mind cannot be emptied, it empties itself. And this emptying happens when the story of the mind is listened to without any judgment or evaluation…. When the mind empties itself, the thought process automatically ends. The cessation of the thought process is a state of silence. And it is only in the silence of the mind that the focal point can be looked at.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 259-65

• Do you watch the movement of your consciousness when you practice āsana? How would you describe that movement? Where does the movement go? What happens when you watch the breath?
• What happens for you when the mind drifts away from the area of focus? What is the nature of your response? What is your relationship with distractions? What is your relationship with your mind?
• After a session of practice, do you feel you have “heard” your mind? Have you “listened to its story”?
• Do you feel your practice has brought you a more direct perception of things?
• In what other activities in your life do you choose a focal point? What happens in that activity when you find that you have shifted away from the point?



there (refers to previous sūtra)


masculine noun in compound

arising thought, thought wave, movement towards something (prati-, “towards,” + i, “to go”)



one, single


feminine noun, 1st case singular

extension, expansion; having the quality of a thread, or a note of sound (from tan,, to stretch; tāna is “thread”; eka-tāna, is “directing the mind to one object”; -ta is feminine suffix that makes an abstract noun)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

observation, contemplation (from dhyai, “to think, ponder, reflect, call to mind”)

III.1 देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा

Vibhūti Pāda

Chapter Three is known as the Vibhūti Pāda, often translated as the Book of Powers, or Accomplishments, or Extraordinary Powers. B.K.S. Iyengar warns the aspiring yoga practitioner not to be sidetracked by personal attainments but to keep focus on the goal of the work, which he describes as inward. Various commentators seem alternately fascinated and embarrassed by this narration of abilities.

There is no denying that Patañjali has given a fair amount of attention to the attainments of yoga in this chapter, and it is worth looking a little closer at the chapter’s common name.  Vibhūti is a feminine noun. It derives from vi-, here an intensifier, and the verb bhū, “to be.” Vi-bhū means “to expand,” and so, one might understand vibhūti to be an expansion, an opening up of possibility, a widening of scope and agency. It can mean power; it can also mean magnificence or splendor.

Matthew Remski calls Chapter Three the Book of Wonders, and I like that name.  The Vibhūti Pāda leads us into a contemplation of the world in and around us–into the marvelousness of being.

Curiously, the chapter begins in the middle of Patanjali’s description of the eight limbs of yoga. Patañjali (or whatever editor divided the text into four chapters) has introduced the first five limbs in the second pāda and reserves the last three for the third. There are many ways to understand this division. Some commentators interpret the last three limbs to be the result of the first five, to be themselves accomplishments; others describe the first five as the outer limbs, the last three as inner.

In my view, Patañjali (or his editor) has chosen to begin a new chapter with another comprehensive view of yoga, another way to define what yoga is. Dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi are, one might say, the heart of yoga. They interconnect each with the other and they underlie, make possible, the practice of the other limbs. They are yoga.


deśa-bandhaś cittasya dhāraṇā
deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇā

“Dhāraṇā is the binding of citta to a place.

The subject of yoga is citta, our consciousness, mind, field of perception (see II.4). The last three limbs, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi, specifically describe a process of citta. They are a trio of events that work, as we shall see, inseparably from one another. They form a kind of wave pattern of citta activity.

None of our English words quite get at the sense of the Sanskrit citta (from cit, “to perceive”). It is the apparatus by which we observe and experience. It includes our nervous system, our senses and physiological processes, our thought patterns. It can be described as the field in which perceptions arise. My Sanskrit teacher Vyaas Houston once described it as in perpetual motion, and this has influenced my understanding of, my own observations of, my own citta. In many ways, the practices of yoga bring greater freedom to citta; thus, my translation of nirodha (see I.2) as the removal of patterns of mind that limit perception.

Dhāraṇā derives from dhṛ, to hold or to carry (also the root of dharma), and Patañjali defines it here as deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya, binding or connecting citta to a place. Yogic practice begins with the selection of a place–a focal point–to direct our attention to. My introduction to dhāraṇā thus began in an Iyengar Yoga āsana class, and I can still feel today the thrill in my cells at being asked to “circularize the thigh” (the thigh–how round it is!) or “lift the side ribs” (the side ribs, what are those?). One class that delighted me, in particular, began with standing in tadāsana for about thirty minutes, exploring the feet, the inner and outer edges, the ball mounds, the arch, the toes, the heel. To “hold” the places in the body had a profound effect on me–calming, anchoring, expanding.

My sense of dhāraṇā was further shaped by studying Sanskrit with Vyaas Houston. Vyaas began every class with an agreement on the ground rules of participation. The first and foremost was “I choose the point.” This sounds so simple, almost silly: he was asking us to agree to choose to direct citta–ever-moving, ever in flow–to the place of focus that the group was attending to. In Sanskrit class, the “place” might be the sight of Devanāgarī on a big piece of poster paper, the sound of a letter of the alphabet, the feel of that sound in the palate. When we recognize dhāraṇā is a choice, we also recognize that as much as we might fix the attention on a point, it will also at some subsequent moment move again. Choice is an intention; finding one’s attention off the point is an opportunity to choose the point again.

Rohit Mehta, whose commentary on dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi is well worth reading (see Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 233-282), calls attention to that quality of flow and argues that allowing flow is necessary to a relaxed, natural functioning of citta. He compares citta to the eye. When the eye focuses, he says, it establishes both a focal point and a marginal area around that point.  The eye keeps the focal point in sight but also moves in and out of the marginal area. That movement allows for a “normal” functioning of the eye, says Mehta, without tension. Likewise, the mind, when allowed to define its own marginal area, will move in and out. The choice to return to the focal point can be made in an easy, non-violent way.

If the marginal area is too large, says Mehta, the mind drifts and all focus is lost. If too narrow, the mind is strained.

Patañjali has previously described the practice of holding a point of focus. Indeed, he has specifically said, in sūtra I.32, that the obstacles we face can be overcome by “the practice of one thing,” eka tattva abhyāsaḥ. The contemplation of oneness, the “thatness” of what is, is not really dhāraṇā, and yet the act of choosing the point is a profound act–the intention to hold a single object or aim (artha), to let go of other things, perhpas temporarily, ushers us into an understanding that expands.

Kierkegaard said, Purity of heart is to will one thing. And in the essay of that title, he asserts that all roads can, potentially, lead to oneness, and that that oneness is the Good. Oneness beckons to us, he says, like a loving mother teaching a child to walk:

The mother is far enough away from the child so that she cannot actually support the child, but she holds out her arms. She imitates the child’s movements. If it totters she swiftly bends as if she would seize it–so the child believes that it is not walking alone. … So the child walks alone, with eyes fixed upon the mother’s face, not on the difficulties of the way; supporting herself by the arms that do not hold on to her, striving after refuge in the mother’s embrace, hardly suspecting that in the same moment she is proving that she can do without her, for now the child is walking alone. –Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, ch. 5


“Most people, even most yoga practitioners, are under the impression that āsanas are merely external and physical. This sūtra removes that misconception. Patañjali defines concentration as the focusing of attention either within or outside the body….. External objects should be auspicious and associated with purity. Internally, the mind penetrates to the soul, the core of one’s being: the object is, in reality, pure existence.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on III.1

“The mind is not in the habit of attentively focusing on one point. It wants to run here and there, and does. Many times during a meditation session, the mind will quietly slither away, initially undetected. Each time the mind’s wandering ways are discovered, the practitioner lets go of of the wayward thoughts and refocuses on the object of meditation.” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sutras, p. 166

“Deśa means a territory or an area, or in the present context a range. … Let the mind move freely in this realm where the focal and the marginal areas have been defined. Very often the mind will move on and linger in the marginal area. Let this lingering happen without losing sight of the subject of focal interest. It is not necessary to hold on tightly to the subject of focal interest. But if there is no resistance to the marginal stimulations then the mind will oscillate between the focal and the marginal. There will come into existence a right relationship between the focal and the marginal which will take away all strain and tension.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 236, 248

• Have you experienced strain or tension in efforts to hold your attention? What has helped with that? Have you experienced failure?
• How do you choose a focal point? (What are focal points in your āsana or prāṇāyāma practice?) What are objects or aims in your daily life?
• Do you experience dhāraṇā as constraint or freedom?
• What happens in you when your attention drifts?


masculine noun in compound

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


masculine noun, 1st case singular

binding (from bandh, “to bind”)


neuter noun, 6th case singular

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


feminine noun, 1st case singular

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


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”)