Category Archives: 2. Yoga

Swami Vishnu-devananda

Born as Swammy Kuttan Nair on December 31, 1927 in Kerala, Swami Vishnu-devananda did many different things before he achieved this name. After school he was an engineer in the Indian army during which he stumbled upon the ideas of Swami Sivananda who was one of the most prolific yoga teachers who ever lived. He then left the army to find the ashram of Swami Sivananda and became a school teacher. Within a year he became a monk and was given his name Swami Vishnu-devananda. For ten years he lived at the Sivananda Ashram before he was given the position of a Professor of Hatha Yoga. Hatha yoga is the use of various postures for exercise to control the body and maintain unity within the Self and the Being (Devananda 155).As described in his book The Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master the Mind and Achieve Transcendence, aside from his position at the Ashram and his eventual voyage to the Western world, Swami Vishnu-devananda was renowned for his piece in peace: “In 1969 he founded the True World Order to create unity and understanding between the peoples of the world”(Vishnu-devananda 155). Two years later he flew a small plane over troubled countries and dropped flowers and leaflets of peace from the plane and to the people on the ground below (Vishnu-devananda 155).

Swami was a professor of Hatha yoga at the Sivananda Ashram in India, but he was also a master in Kundalini Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. Respectively each are described in Hinduism The eBook An Online Introduction by Hillary Rodrigues as such: Hatha is “ Yoga involving the performance of specific yogic postures and breathing techniques” ( Rodrigues 549), Kundalini Yoga is “the path of awakening latent cosmic energies within the body”(553), Raja Yoga is “Royal yoga; Pantijali’s yoga”(560), and Jnana Yoga’s focus is transcendental knowledge(550). By combining these different styles he was able to create a yoga that is suitable for many and achievable by anyone who put in the time and effort.

In The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda it is said that yoga “balances, harmonizes, purifies, and strengthens the Body, Mind, and Soul of the practitioner” (Devananda x). These are achieved during the growth period known as the “anabolic process” (x). Devananda believed in a triangular model of life. The first point of the triangle is birth, the second growth, and the third death(x). Yoga is to be practiced during the growth cycle. It is through 5 basic yogic principles anyone can achieve balance, harmony, purity, and strength. They are: “(1) proper exercise; (2) proper breathing; (3) proper relaxation; (4) proper diet; and (5) positive thinking (deep philosophy) and meditation.”(xi). Exercise forces the body to be limber and flexible as well as increases circulation. Proper breathing: “connects the body to its battery, the Solar Plexus, where tremendous potential energy is stored” (xii). This energy can then be released for rejuvenation of mind and body. Proper relaxation cools down the system after it has been over worked and allows the body and mind to go to a calm serene state (xxi). Proper diet is for fueling the body. Yogic diets are typically vegetarian and are foods that are easily digested (xiii). Positive thinking: “(deep philosophy) and meditation put you in control. The intellect is purified… nature is brought under conscious control through steadiness and concentration of the mind” (xiv). Together these elements form the basis for Swami Vishnu-devananda’s yogic principles.

Meditation is a key factor in yoga. Vishnu-devananda said much of mediation in many texts. In one such text Meditation and Mantras he describes just how important he believes meditation is in accordance to a person:

Without the help of mediation, you cannot attain Knowledge of

the Self. Without its aid, you cannot grow into the divine state.

Without it, you cannot liberate yourself from the trammels of

The mind and attain immortality.

Meditation is the only royal road to attainment and freedom. It is

a mysterious ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, from error

to truth, from darkness to light, from pain to bliss, from restlessness to

abiding peace, from ignorance to knowledge. From mortality to

immortality.( Devananda 1)

Swami Vishnu-devananda brought this idea of meditation as well as his other ideas over to North America where his practices would slow down the hectic lives of the citizens down.

In 1957 Swami Vishnu-devananda arrived in America. He saw a people who did not take the time to relax and live healthily. As a Professor of Hatha Yoga he desired to do something for these people and their hectic lives. This is why he developed the idea of the “Yoga Vacation” as described in the Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master Mind and Achieve Transcendence by Swami Vishnu-devananda. The idea was to allow people to come to a place to rest their body, mind and spirit (Devananda 155). According to the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres the hectic lives we live today can be improved through simple daily activities: silent meditation and mantra chanting and spiritual lecture (Sivananda 1).

In Devananda’s book Meditation and Mantras he states that people search for happiness in external objects for satisfaction. These satisfactions are only short term though. The challenge to attain full happiness is to gain access and control of one’s internal world. Swami Vishnu-devananda believes that by slowing down all the internal conversation we are having at any given moment and focusing on the good things, that is how we can live a more effective peaceful life (Devananda 2). This is where meditation comes into play. Meditation channels positivity and rids destructive thought. Meditation loosely, is invoking a certain feeling, while remaining conscious. A feeling such a compassion is focused on and all negative thought is pushed out in order to allow it to take complete precedence (4). Mantras are used to develop the ability to concentrate while mediating. “OM” is sometimes recited by the practitioner during meditation (6). Devananda believed the optimal time to practice yoga is dawn and dusk because the atmosphere is charged with spiritual force at these times(10).

Swami Vishnu-devananda was a great teacher and writer on yoga and its practices. He supplied many places and many people with the knowledge of Yoga and also a knowledge of peace. His teachings of Hatha yoga were only a small part of his contribution to mankind. He will be regarded for years to come as a master of yoga and of peace for his plights against the angst of mankind.






Related Readings

Thomas McEvilley (1981) An Archaeology of Yoga. Harvard Press.

Ian Whicher (1998) Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Sarah Strauss (2002) The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

k. Satchidananda Murty (1961) Yoga: Path to Freedom from Suffering. Philosophy Education Society Inc.


Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) HinduismThe eBook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (1995)  Meditation and Mantras. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (1988) The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. New York: Three Rivers Press. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami and Swami Sivananda (2012) Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre. Val Morin, Quebec, Canada. (Accessed March 24 2012).

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (2003) The Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master the   Mind and Achieve Transcendence. New York: Gaia Books. Print.

Related Research Topics

Swami Sivananda

4 path yoga

Pantajali Yoga


Article written by Michaela Thompson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Dhyana (Meditation)


Yoga is a very influential and important aspect of the Hindu tradition. There are very many different forms of yoga, some that focus more on strength, and other’s that are predominantly for the mind, and its control. The word yoga stems from the root yujir, which means to unite, or connect (Joshi 53). There are two reasons for the name of yoga; one, it brings about unity of the senses, the mind, and the vital force, and two, for the steadiness of contemplation by eliminating multi-pointedness of the mind (Joshi 57). All the different types of yoga stem from the classic eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are Yama (constraint), niyama (spiritual discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (mental concentration), dhyana (meditation), and  Samadhi (higher consciousness) (Varenne 99). Each of the limbs can be further grouped together in twos by how they are related to one another (Varenne 99). Dhyana is an important and very powerful limb of yoga, which many Hindus strive to achieve. Dhyana (the 7th limb), is usually paired with Samadhi (the 8th limb) (Varenne 127). It is argued that these two limbs are the final stages before achieving the final goal, which is a state of liberation (Varenne 127). [To read more on how Dhyana is paired with Samadhi, see Varenne (1976).]

As mentioned earlier, there are many different types of yoga. Hatha-yoga is also known as the yoga of strength, and puts its emphasis on the physical aspect of the practice, while tantra-yoga on the other hand is structured around understanding what is occurring during deep meditation (Varenne 83), also known as dhyana (Venkatesananda 387). Raja yoga is also focused on dhyana, and is even sometimes referred to as dhyana-yoga (Joshi 62). Joshi states that Raja yoga is believed to be the yoga of the few, beyond the reach of the common man (62). Dhyana is also perceived as part of the wheel of yoga in which it is not its own form of yoga, but instead, a form of “practice” (Feuerstein 2002:36).

Yoga is practiced all over the world today, to relieve stress, to mediate, and to gain strength. In the western world, the practice of meditation, or dhyana, does not receive as much emphasis in comparison to some of the other limbs of yoga – like the art of achieving the postures (asana), and being able to accomplish a steady, and controlled breath (pranayama) while in the postures. Although the focus is not usually on the meditation in the western world, it continues to be a pivotal aspect in the practice of yoga in the eastern world. Pantanjali defined yoga as the elimination of the modifications of mind (Joshi 57-58); which clearly indicates that he held the belief that the control of one’s mind should be the main focus of yoga.

Yoga is often paired with Sankhya, one of the six orthodox systems (Rodrigues 201). [See Rodrigues (2006) to read more on the six orthodox systems.] Dhyana, a Sankhya-yoga, is a yoga where the final truth could be known and is a method where a person’s thoughts are fixed on the “object” of meditation (Dasgupta 1979:39). As stated by Burley one endeavors to sustain this level of single-pointed concentration to the point where it becomes genuine meditation (dhyana)(130).

Meditation first stems from concentration (dharana), the sixth limb of yoga. Dharana is the advancement of the mind, when it becomes focussed on an object repeatedly, in other words, thinking of the single “thing” and nothing else (Dasgupta 1978:148). With the continuation of concentration, it may be followed by meditation, which is when concentration advances from focussing on a single “thing”, to flowing steadily without any interruption (Dasgupta 1978:148). Eventually, even the steady flow becomes an unconscious act (Dasgupta 1978:148). Concentration (dharana) is a creative act based on centering one’s mind, or consciousness, and must become incorporated in a yogin’s life to bring him/her full success (Feuerstein and Miller 1972:31). [For an example of concentration see Feuerstein and Miller (1972:31).] Feuerstein and Miller state that “the fruit of successful concentration is meditation or dhyana” (1972:31). To be successful in meditation, the practice of breath is needed in addition to concentration. With the control, or discipline of breath (pranayama), the mind becomes prepared for concentration, and therefore, can flow into dhyana (Dasgupta 1978:147). And in order to properly practice the pranayama’s, the mind must be in a state of dhyana (Dasgupta 1978:147). The yogi must fix his mind on an object (dharana), all the while steadying himself with the art of breath and posture (Dasgupta 1979:336). Breath and posture help to keep distractions at bay, and allow the yogi to centre himself on the attainment of deep mediation (Dasgupta 1979:336). Once dhyana is achieved, the mind is in such a deep state, it even fails to realize that it was once thinking (Dasgupta 1979:336). The final stage can then take place that is, Samadhi, or a state of higher consciousness (Dasgupta 1979:336). The combination of dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi becomes one state, known as samyama (Dasgupta 1978: 148). [See Dasgupta (1978) to read more on samyama.] These statements show how the limbs of yoga interact with one another, and how one is not truly attained without the others. It is illustrated with the noun “yoga”, which was originally used to portray union – the connection of various things, or the “tool of union” (Joshi 53-54).

The purpose of accomplishing the eight limbs of yoga is to gain a better understanding of oneself and to unite all aspects of your life together. Along with that, in the Hindu tradition, once dhyana is attained, nothing is desired and the true knowledge arises, which is what separates prakrti from purusha (Dasgupta 1978:117). [More on prakrti and purusha, see Dasgupta (1978), and Rodrigues (2006).]

Dhyana is an important aspect of yoga, and in order to achieve it, you must be fully committed to yoga, and open to learning possibilities about yourself, and more specifically, your mind.

References and Further Recommended Reading:

Burley, Mikel (2007) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. New York: Routledge.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1978) Yoga: As Philosophy and Religion. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1979) Yoga Philosophy: In Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Feuerstein, Georg and Miller, Jeanine (1972) Yoga and Beyond. New York: Schocken Books.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice. New Delhi: Elegant Printers

Joshi, K.S. (1965) “On the Meaning of Yoga”, Philosophy East and West, 15(1): 53-64.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Hinduism: The eBook Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd: ISBN 0-9747055-4-3.

Varenne, Jean (1976) Yoga: And The Hindu Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Venkatesananda, Swami (2008) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Related Topics For Further Investigation:











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Article written by: Lenae Olson (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

B. K. S. Iyengar


Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B. K. S. Iyengar, was born into an influenza epidemic on December 14, 1918, in the small village of Bellur, India (Iyengar 2000: 15). Iynegar’s mother, Sheshemma, battled with influenza when she gave birth, which threatened Iyengar’s survival as a new born (Iyengar 2005: xvi). Despite the odds, Iyengar survived the influenza. However, he was very weak and sick, and battled with malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis throughout his childhood; furthermore, he was often unable to attend school in his weakened states (Iyengar 2000: 16). At the age of nine his father passed away, leaving Sheshemma to take care of Iyengar.

Fortunately for Iyengar, his family’s Brahmin status resulted in the marriage of his older sister to Shriman T. Krishnamacharya, an honoured and highly revered scholar of Sanskrit (Iyengar 2005: xviii). At the age of fourteen, Iyengar was asked by Krishnamacharya to visit his wife in Mysore while Krishnamacharya was away. Upon his return, Krishnamacharya suggested that Iyengar remain in Mysore and begin practicing yoga asana (posture) to improve his health (Iyengar 2000: 17).

Iyengar studied under Krishnamacharya for many years, and thus Iyengar considers him to be his guruji, which is an honorable title a student gives to his guru or teacher (Rodrigues 549). At first, Iyengar struggled with his asana practice due to his poor health, but gradually his skill improved, as did his health. The pivotal moment that helped Iyengar become a guru himself occurred in 1936 when Krishnamacharya asked Iyengar to teach a class for women who wanted to learn yoga. As Iyengar was one of the youngest of Krishnamacharya’s students, the women were not as shy around him, and he was successfully able to instruct them (Iyengar 2000: 17). Not long after, Iyengar was sent to Pune to teach yoga to schools, colleges, and physical activity centres. While he was not at first accepted by his students due to his slight physique and difficulty speaking English, Iyengar put in a great deal of effort to instruct his classes for the benefit of his students. He remained teaching for the Deccan Gymkhana Club of Pune for three years (Iyengar 2000: 18).

During this time, Iyengar expanded his practice and started focusing on how his body responded to it. He stretched and breathed deeply in different postures, testing how his asana practice affected his own body. He learned by trial and error since his guru, Krishnamacharya, was nowhere near him. He felt as though he had no qualifications of practical knowledge to draw upon, so instead he chose to use his practice to teach him more about yoga. He felt pressure to master the art of asana for the benefit of his students, so he would practise for up to ten hours a day, and often until his body ached with pains and his mind felt fatigued. Yet he persevered, and after many years he developed what he considered to be a true understanding of asana. Moreover, Iyengar discovered that he could further his understanding of asana from his experiences teaching his students. One of Iyengar’s students was an eighty five year old professor of Ferguson College, Rajawada, who suffered from dysentery and could not even walk. From these experiences, Iyengar started to understand how asana could be adapted to both healthy and unhealthy bodies (Iyengar 2000: 32).

All these experiences helped Iyengar develop into one of the world’s most influential yoga instructors. Since Iyengar had received limited instruction from Krishnamacharya and was independently teaching himself about yoga, Iyengar developed a strong understanding of what it meant to be both a student and a guru. His teachings were very different from Krishnamacharya’s as he put emphasis on clarity of knowledge and purity of what one does to guide their students (Burley 69).  More importantly, Iyengar asks of his students a consistent and dedicated practice, claiming; “your guru is your practice” (Budia 16). This can be interpreted to mean that, while instruction and book learning are important, one’s self and practice are the most important aspects for a student who is learning yoga.

Iyengar also discovered the importance of being a good student in order to be a good teacher, and of being a good teacher to be a good student. It was only through close examination of his students and himself that he was able to breakdown the different postures and focus on proper alignment. Moreover, from the wrestlers that lived next door to him in Pune, Iyengar learned of the importance of balance in one’s life and physical activity. The wrestlers had developed such inordinately large muscles that they were unable to use the latrines without help from someone else in locking the doors to the toilets (Iyengar 2000: 31).While Iyengar was considered by many of his students to be physically inferior, he did not wish to be crippled by physical strength, and instead desired a well balanced and healthy body. As with the wrestlers, Iyengar used many common people in everyday situations to help him learn more about the body and yoga asana. His student Agens Mineur studied in Pune under Iyengar’s supervision for many years, and recalled how her guruji would turn everything into a learning experience by pointing out poor posture or indications of pain in nearby people (Busia 13). Another of Iyengar’s students, Marian Garfinkel, has noted that “Iyengar is always practicing and inquiring. He is focused on his study and learns from his practice … Iyengar is his own best teacher and his own best student. He has always remained a student – eager to learn, to find out, to question” (Busia 59).

From his constant work to remain an attentive and critical student, Iyengar helps his students by allowing them to realize their full physical capabilities, while still remaining knowledgeable of their limitations. Agens Mineur recounted one time when she was helping her guruji Iyengar teach a class, and he told her “your pupil is your god” (Busia 12). Mineur took his words to heart, always remaining attentive of her students, and treating them as demigods. Similarly, Iyengar cherished his students, and learned as much from them as they did from him. From his years of work analyzing asana, Iyengar developed an unparalleled understanding of postures and the importance of body position and alignment. He could skillfully direct students into the most appropriate form for their specific bodies. Another of Iyengar’s students, Rama Jyoti Vernon, commented that when Iyengar would correct postures he “worked like a sculptor, moving bodies into exacting alignment, with or against the gravitational pull” (Busia 8).

However, possibly even more important than his understanding of asana and of teaching yoga, Iyengar began to learn the true meaning of yoga. Asana simply refers to the postures that are taught in yoga, but yoga is much more than that. Hatha-yoga, the type of yoga that Iyengar studied under Krishnamacharya, is a branch of Indian soteriology, which is the study of the means to attain salvation (Burley, 1). It is a form of self-realisation, and as Iyengar explains, “yoga is the process of stilling the consciousness and then merging the individual soul (jvatma) with the Universal Soul (Paramatma)” (Iyengar 2000: 69). The term yoga is derived from the word yuj, which means to yoke, and implies the binding of the individual with the Supreme. While Iyengar did not know this when he began to practice yoga, he eventually learned of it, and feels that through yoga he has achieved self-realization. He describes humans as a unit comprised of a trinity of body, mind and self, and that yoga practice helps to combine the three (Iyengar 2004: 12). Moreover, he explains that certain principles are important in this process, using the metaphor of an eight limbed tree to explain the core values of yoga. Iyengar places the values yama (ethical discipline), and niyama (restraint), at the roots and trunk of the tree, as they form the basis of yoga (Burley 190). Asana is placed as the third limb, and only comprises one out of the eight major values or limbs of yoga, demonstrating the postures are only a small component of yoga.

In its entirety, the type of Hatha-yoga that Iyengar constructed drew together all of the important aspects of traditional Hatha-yoga, with emphasis on asana and correct body alignment and position. This type of yoga consequently became known as Iyengar yoga (Burley 96).  Iyengar yoga has become more and more popular over the years, and while it is not always practiced to “still the conscious” as Iyengar would like, it is frequently used by people of various degrees of health as a form of physical activity. Often yoga is sold to the masses as a trendy new exercise for people wanting to get fit; however, Iyengar yoga can and should be practised by people of all levels of health, age, and disability (Garfinkel 6). Moreover, Iyengar Yoga has been the subject of many studies examining the effects of yoga on various health conditions. In a 2009 study on chronic lower back pain it was found that sufferers who performed Iyengar yoga had significantly greater reductions in functional disability and pain intensity when compared to the non-yoga control group at 24 weeks. Moreover, at the end of the six month investigation, the yoga group demonstrated an even more significant reduction in functional disability, pain intensity, and depression compared to the standard group (Williams et al. 2074).  Similarly, a 2005 study found that Iyengar yoga is effective at treating knee osteoarthritis symptoms, such as stiffness (Kolasinski et al, 692). The effects of Iyengar yoga on breast cancer survivors was also examined in 2008, and it was found that participants in a structured eight week Iyengar yoga program had improved quality of life, flexibility, balance, and cognition compared to breast cancer survivors that did not participate in the program (Galantino et al. 25).

While Iyengar never suspected that his developments in yoga would lead to such an incredibly diverse following and medical uses, he also never envisioned himself becoming a guru himself. Since Iyengar began on his yoga journey, he has traveled abroad, teaching yoga across the globe. He has written a multitude of books, the first being Light on Yoga, which took him six years to write and is considered by many to be a bible of sorts for modern hatha yoga practitioners (Iyengar 2000: 49). He has written several more books on yoga, which have examined the importance of pranayama (breath work), spirituality, and many more yogic concepts.

Through his work, he has improved the lives of many, both directly through his teachings, and indirectly through his development of Iyengar yoga. He has spread yoga across the globe, and has developed a safe and easily accessible form of yoga that can be practiced by people of any physical ability or walk of life. It would be difficult to argue that yoga would be the same without the contributions of B. K. S. Iyengar.


Busia, K. (ed.) (2007). Iyengar: The Yoga Master. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Galantino M. L., Cannon, N., Hoelker, T., Quinn, L., and L. Greene. (2008) “Effects on Iyengar Yoga on Measures of Cognition, Fatigue, Quality of Life, Flexibility, and Balance in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Case Series.” Rehabilitation Oncology. 26(1): 18-27.

Garfinkel M. (2008). “The Use of Iyengar Yoga as a Complementary Therapy to Traditional Medicine.” Frontier Perspectives. 16(2): 6-10.

Iyengar, B. K. S. (2000). Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Volume 1. Mayapuri Phase 2, Delhi: Allied publishers.

Iyengar, B. K. S. (2004). Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Volume 4. Mayapuri Phase 2, Delhi: Allied publishers.

Iyengar, B.K.S., Abrams, D. & Evans, J.J. (2005). Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness,      Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Pennsylvania: Rodale.

Kolasinski, S. L., Garfinkel, M., Tsai, A. G., Matz, W., Van Dyke, A., and H. R. Schumacher,   Jr.(2005). “Iyengar Yoga for Treating Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Knees: A Pilot Study.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. 11(4): 689-93.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003). Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books,   Ltd.

Williams, K., Abildso, C., Steinberg, L., Doyle, E., Epstein, B., Smith, D., Hobbs, G., Gross, R., Kelley, G., and L. Cooper. (2009). “Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Efficacy of  Iyengar Yoga Therapy on Chronic Low Back Pain.” Spine. 34(19): 2066-76

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Shriman T. Krishnamacharya

T. K. V. Desikachar

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Article written by Beth Millions (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Asana (Posture) in Hatha-Yoga

Asanas and pranayama which are third and fourth limb of the eight limbed path that forms the backbone of Hatha-Yoga. They are: postures (asana) aimed at attaining mastery over the body, and breath control (pranayama) the power over our vital energy, which is our breath (Varenne 111-4). The goal of pranayama is to make ones respiration rhythmic and progressively slower, this is said to allow the practitioner to penetrate other states of consciousness through the harmonization with one’s life force (prana). Controlling the pranayama is done through the suspension of inhalation (puraka), retention (kumbhaka) and exhalation (recaka) and slowing of the overall breathing rhythm. Some yogis with practice can stop breathing for over five minutes (Jones 9895).

Whimsical bas-relief depicting a cat performing a balancing and stretching posture (asana), associated with the practice of Hatha Yoga; Mahabalipuram, India
Whimsical bas-relief depicting a cat performing a balancing and stretching posture (asana), associated with the practice of Hatha Yoga; Mahabalipuram, India

Hatha-yoga is the “physical yoga which teaches the aspirant how to control his body (Fuller 51),” It means the union (yoga) between sun and moon or the two different elements of the body-mind union (Feuerstein 38), and is the type of yoga most commonly known in the west. Although yoga is thought to have existed before Patanjali, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras form the foundation of yoga, along with the Hatha-Yoga Pradipika. According to scriptures there were believed to be originally 8,400,000 asanas, each representing an incarnation needed to be lived before liberation could be achieved; however, only around a few hundred are known today. In the Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha one of the most popular current yoga manuals, only 84 asanas are discussed (Saraswati  9). Animal asanas came about through the risis observation of animals; they saw how the animals lived and created these asanas based on their movements. They then discovered how a particular posture can affect certain hormonal secretions of the body which can therefore improve one’s health. For example, sharshankasana the hare pose may influence the flow of adrenaline such as in the “fight or flight” response, as seen in hares who are easily startled (Saraswati 10). The animal poses are believed to have been created to remind the practitioner that life is sacred and the world is full of living creatures (Radha 6).

Mastering any asana is the first stage in yoga. Poses aimed to increase strength and health can be done in many different ways based on the skill level of the practitioner. Asanas are divided into different categories depending on the text; Swami Sivananada Radha’s book: Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language divides them into categories of structures, tools, plants, fish, reptiles, insects, birds, animals, and finally shavasana, and the text by Swami Satyananda Saraswait: Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha divides poses into beginner, intermediate and advanced. Various poses overlap and many are included in both texts, different yoga sources however usually have different tips and information about particular asanas so many practitioners study a variety of yoga texts.

The Beginner Group according to Saraswati’s text consists of the pawanmuktasana series, exercises for the eyes, relaxation asanas, meditation asanas, varjrasana group of asanas, standing asanas, surta namaskara, and chandra namaskarais. The intermediate group consists of the padmasana group of asanas, backward bending asanas, forward bending asanas, spinal twisting asanas and balancing asanas. The advanced group does not have any subcategories and should be attempted only when the beginner and intermediate poses have been mastered (Saraswati 9-360).

Beginner’s yoga is done for a variety of purposes, whether the practitioner is just starting their journey through yoga, or due to illness or bodily constraints is unable to do more advanced poses. Although the beginner asanas may be simple, the health benefits are alleged to be numerous and should not be underestimated.  The pawanmuktasana series is believed to be very useful for the management of various disorders and maintaining health by developing awareness of the body (Saraswati  21). It is further separated into three groups of asanas: the anti-rheumatic group, the digestive/abdominal group and shakti bandha or energy blocking group (Saraswati 22).

The anti-rheumatic group of postures is aimed at a low level of physical exertion to loosen the joints and to help with ailments such as arthritis, high blood pressure and heart problems. A few examples are: janu chakra (knee crank) aimed at loosening the knee joints and poorna titali (full butterfly) which can alleviate tiredness from long hours of standing or walking (Saraswati 23-44).

The digestive/abdominal group is said to be helpful for people with ailments such as indigestion, reproductive disorders, diabetes, excess gas, constipation, acidity, and lack of appetite. By strengthening the digestive system and clearing energy blockages of the abdominal area these ailments can be relieved. A few postures are:  pada sanchalanasana (cycling) which helps to strengthen the abdominal and lower back muscles while also loosening the knee and hip joints and jhulana lurhakanasana (rocking and rolling) which massages the back, buttocks and hips (Saraswati 44-59).

The energy blocking postures are aimed mostly at improving energy flow. It is also thought to be useful for menstrual problems, a stiff back, toning pelvic organs and muscles, and to improve overall endocrine function. This series is also commonly done prenatally and after birth, as it tones the reproductive muscles and aids in child birth. A few common positions are; rajju karshanasana (pulling the rope), which loosens the shoulder joints and stretches the muscles of the upper back, the chakki chalanasana (churning the mill), which is believed to help regulate the menstrual cycle as it improves the function of the organs and nerves of the pelvis and abdomen. Chakki calanasana can be preformed up to the third month of pregnancy (Saraswati 60-73).

Yoga exercises for the eyes are done to improve visual health, and it is believed that through practice and patience one can improve or even reverse eye disorders such as glaucoma, cataracts and trachoma which are due to defective ocular muscles. An example of a yogic eye exercise is palming. This is done by placing warm palms (due to vigorous rubbing) over the eyelids to relax the eye muscles; the warmth of the hands stimulates circulation of the blood and other parts of the eye (Saraswati 74-8).

Asanas done either before or following yoga practice are typically referred to as relaxation asanas. One example is the shavasana (corpse pose) or death pose which would done by simply lying on your back with the palms facing upward. It is believed that it is useful in developing whole body awareness (Saraswati 85-7) and “the best sign of a good savasana is a feeling of deep peace and pure bliss. Radha the author of Hatha-Yoga: The Hidden Language explains savasana as a watchful surrendering of the ego. Forgetting oneself, one discovers oneself (Radha 254).”

Meditation asanas are done to allow the practitioner to sit still for extended lengths of time. The most popular example is the pasmasana (lotus pose). It is referred to as the “royal posture” as it is both glamorous and graceful. The Lotus symbolizes birth and death, the interaction of the created forces. To the Chinese it represents the past, present and future as the plant bears fruit, flowers and buds simultaneously (Radha 121). This asana creates a firm foundation to begin meditation as it allows the body to be motionless in a steady position. It also is said to relax the nervous system by putting a slight pressure on the spine (Saraswati 93-9).

The vajrasana group of asanas are easy to perform and are beneficial for many aspects of the body and spirit. They are believed regulate the sexual energy as well as reproductive and digestive organs (Saraswati 108-134). In India the simhasana (loin pose) is seen as the absolute representation of royal strength and majesty, it is believed to help one to discover the power masked within oneself and the danger it is to keep subdued pretending to be a mere lamb. Simhasana pose is explained by placing the right foot under the left buttock, and the left under the right. Bring the weight forward on the knees with the arms straight and the palms of the hands placed on the knees. Stretch the jaw wide open, and stretch the tongue out toward the chin. Forcefully exhale air out the mouth with the throat open (Radha 239-41).

Standing asanas are claimed to be very beneficial to those who have back pain or spend a lot of time sitting as they stretch and strengthen the back. The tadasana (palm tree pose) is believed to be especially helpful for stretching the back and loosening the spine; as it is done by reaching to the sky with both arms and raising the heels off the ground. It is said to increase balance both physically and mentally and can be useful during the first six months of pregnancy to keep the abdominal muscles strong (Saraswati 135-140).

Surya namaskara (salutations to the sun) is a group of asanas that were not originally in the yoga scriptures, but were later added on. Surya namaskara is thought to be one of the most useful groups of postures to aid in health yet at the same time is helpful in “preparing for spiritual awakening and the resulting expansion of awareness (Saraswati 159).” It incorporates pranayama, mantra and meditation and is said to be most beneficial if done in the morning. There are twelve asanas which represent the twenty-four hours of the day, the twelve zodiac phases of the year and the biorhythms of the body. The asanas in sequence are: 1. pranamasana (prayer pose), 2. hasta utthanasana (raised arms pose), 3. padahatasana (hand to foot pose), 4. ashwa sanchalanasana (equestrian pose), 5. parvatasana (mountain pose), 6. ashtanga namaskara (salute with eight parts or points), 7. bhujangasana (cobra pose), 8. parvatasana (mountain pose), 9. ashwa sanchalanasana (equestrian pose), 10. padhatasana (hand to foot pose),  11. hasta utthanasana (raised arm pose) and 12. pranamasana (prayer pose). Asanas 13-24 are a repeating of asanas 1-12 (Saraswati 160-172).

Chandra namaskara (salutation to the moon) are similar to the surya namaskara as they reflect the 14 lunar phases of the moon. Each asanas name represents a day of the lunar cycle and should be practiced at night when the moon is visible, or at dawn during a full moon. The sequence of poses for chandra namaskara are the same sequence as the surya namaskara however, the pose ardha chandrasana is added at position 5 and 11 in the first round, and in positions 19 and 25 in the second round (Saraswati 173).

The intermediate group of asanas consist of the padmasana group, backward bending asanas, forward bending asanas, inverted asanas and balancing asanas. According to Saraswati, the padmasana group is believed to help “clear physical, emotion and mental blocks, help awaken the energy centres of the body and induce tranquility (Saraswati 181).” However, they should only be attempted if the padmasana (lotus pose) can be done for extended periods of time with comfort and zero muscle strain. (Saraswati 181-7).

Backward bending asanas are claimed to have a variety of benefits for the torso, particularly the abdomen and back. They are associated with people who “bend over backwards” for others, so it is believed that people who have an apprehension of these asanas may have a fear of facing life or love (Saraswati 194-5). One well known asana is bhujangasana (cobra pose); buhjanga meaning serpent and, “like a snake [while performing the pose the] spine should be moved from end to end, when the head moves the movement is transmitted to the tail (Radha 146-8).” Many yogis believe to cobra pose to be helpful in relocating slipped disks, improving circulation in the back, and alleviating female reproductive disorders (Saraswati 198).

Forward bending asanas are similar to the backward bending in their difficulty, and such positions are claimed to give an insight into the individual psyche.  Some believe “An inability to bend forward may indicate a stiff, proud or stubborn personality (Saraswati 227),” and those that can are associated with; bowing and humility. Forward bending loosens up the back by utilizing gravity to stretch the muscles; it is typically done by bending from the hips and not the waist, which creates greater flexibility in the poses. The utthita janu sirshasana (standing head between knees pose) is pretty self explanatory, and is believed to help stimulate the pancreas and relax the hip joints and hamstring muscles. Like any inverted pose it is thought to supply the brain with rich blood, revitalizing the mind (Saraswati 227-247).

Inverted asanas, similar to utthita janu sirshasana mentioned above, are believed to cause rich blood to flow to the brain which may therefore cause a change in thinking. They are thought to improve health and reduce anxiety by slowing the breath and creating a better exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (Saraswati 258) helping bringing clarity of mind in emotions and in language. These asanas should be done with caution and not preformed around furniture; after vigorous exercise, and should not be attempted by people with high blood pressure or back conditions (Saraswati 259). One of the more difficult inverted asanas is the sirshasana (headstand pose). It is done in six stages working up to the final position with the forearms on each side of the head, interlocking fingers at the back and the rest of the body straight upwards towards the sky. Sirshasana is considered to be the greatest of all asanas (Saraswati 279-283) as it represents: struggle, rebellion, awareness and learning (Radha 44).

The last group of intermediate asanas is the balancing asanas. These poses can be difficult for many if they have not previously developed a good sense of balance. However, with practice they are said to develop the cerebellum; the part of the brain that controls the motion of the body. It can also be helpful when practicing these to find a spot on the wall to focus on to help with balance (Saraswati 290). One example of a balancing asana is the vrikshasana (tree pose) which is done by placing one foot against the opposite legs inner thigh, with the knee facing outwards, and the arms stretched over the head (Radha 102). It is believed that “trees, like people have their destiny, and much of the survival of the tree depends on the sturdiness of the trunk and the branches, sturdiness that must be balanced with flexibility (Radha 109).” Vrikshasana is thought to represent: destiny, firm attachment, seasons of human life, beauty in death and the tree is the symbol of man and the cycle of life (Radha 110).

Advanced asanas are reserved for serious practitioners who have mastered the beginner and intermediate asanas, and should only be attempted when the body is flexible enough and one’s concentration is strong. Any strain in these postures can result in injury (Saraswati 325). Vrishchikasana (scorpion pose) is believed to represent danger, pain, balance, strength, reward, compassion, sexual activity and it is alleged to entice the practitioner with a taste of the nectar of consciousness making them long for more. The scorpion pose is accomplished by resting the forearms on the floor and raising the legs up while the head and chest are lifted, bending the legs at the knees so that the feet slowly lower until they rest on the top of the head (Radha 174-8). [See Saraswati and Radha for an extensive list of yoga asanas with techniques, legends and benefits].


Bernard, Theos. (1982) Hatha Yoga. London: Hutchinson Group.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books & Prints.

Fuller, J.F.C. (1988) Yoga. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Jones, L. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Religion. (2nd ed., 15 vols.) Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets and Metaphor. Idaho: Timeless Books.

Saraswati, Swami (1997) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. India: Bihar Yoga Bharati.

Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. India: Divine Life Society.

Varenne, Jean (1976) Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. Chicago: Chicago Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation













Raja Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Karma Yoga

Bhakti Yoga


Eight Limbs of Yoga

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jillian King (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Vibhutipada

The origins of Yoga are unknown, however, researchers date the Vibhutipada’s composition to around the second century CE (Rodrigues 201).  Some scholars believe the great grammarian Patanjali can be credited for writing it, however, it is sometimes thought a different man by the same name created the metaphysical text (Rodrigues 202).  This text is contained within the Yoga Sutras, which is one of the most influential systems on yoga.  Yoga is just one of the orthodox systems within Hindu philosophy; yoga is a psycho-physical practice of attaining unification with absolute reality (Brahman).  The word Yoga stems from the Sanskrit word, yuj, “to unite” (Rodrigues 202), which “implies union or unification of the body, mind, spirit, and divine” (Feuerstein 35) and Sutra means “aphoristic verses” (Rodrigues 565).  Therefore, the Yoga Sutras contain rules or guiding principles to ultimately liberation (moksa) through uniting “a spiritual path to self realization and the goal” (Rodrigues 570).

The Yoga Sutras consists of four chapters (padas).  The first being called Samadhipada (a chapter on concentration), the second Sahanapada (a chapter on practices), the third Vibhutipada (a chapter on supernatural powers), and the forth pada is called the Kaivalyapada (a chapter on liberation).  These four chapters are collections of aphorisms or formulas in the form of a manual to guide one’s journey to self-realization. [For more information on the Yoga Sutra and the other padas, see The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali].

The Vibhutipada is a text regarding “marvelous powers” and contains fifty-five Sutras (Eliade 13).  This pada starts with the “last three sutras of the Eight-Faceted Path (Asthaanga Yoga): Dharna (contemplation), Dhanya (meditation), and Samadhi (union with Divine Consciousness)” and are known as Samyama (fusion)(Devi 249).  Samyama allows one to find knowledge of the divine self (Devi 249) and believed to channel our conscious thoughts to spiritual powers.  Spiritual powers are believed to be gained through none other than “the hard way of sacrifice, of trial, of renunciation, of selfless self conquest and genuine devotion” (Johnston 90). When considering these spiritual powers, there are things that must be first understood and kept in mind (Johnston 26).  These powers are believed not to be gained until the first and second books are fully attained.  “When the commandments have been kept, the Rules faithfully followed, and the experiences which are described have been passed through,” is it then that marvelous powers are mastered (Johnston 87).   This means to fully obtain powers, one must ultimately understand citta (thoughts), and how vritti has the inclination to stop the mind from finding one’s true nature.  This is included in the first chapter samadhipada, where it also establishes a means to have power over the mind and circumvent diversions.  It helps to “distinguish between the mental process of prediction, and observation, induction or testimony (Johnston 13) that is thought to facilitate in finding one’s self and one’s thoughts.

The Vithutipada is claimed to relate to techniques to control the conscious mind. This can be done through concentration, which  “is attainable when all the modifications of the mind-stuff are set at rest is called Asamprajnata (super-conscious)” (Gopalananda 2).  Staal (1975) relates that the Vithutipada contains information about various powers such as sidhi or vibhuti, and how to attain a high state of concentration known as samprajnata samadhi. However, asamprajnata is considered the highest state of yogic attainment (Feuerstein 96). Nevertheless, the Vibhutipada concentrates on techniques to learn concentration (samadhi), which include both asamprajnata and samprajnata Samadhi (Gopalananda 3)

Knowledge of the Vibhutipada is required to fully gain understanding of the second Sutra.  The sadhanapada is the “practical way” and is concerned with spiritual training, which “like every true system of spiritual teaching, rests on this broad and firm foundation of honesty, truth, cleanness, obedience” (Johnston 44).  These teachings are explored through the eight limbs of yoga, which ultimately leads to the acquisition of siddhi (supernatural powers).  Once the first two padas are attained then one is entitled to the Vibhutipada chapter and what it holds.  The Vibhutipada explores meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana) and Samadhi (contemplative union), collectively known as Samyama (attention, awareness, and energy).  [For more information on the eight limbs of yoga, see Development of Psychic Powers in Yoga]

Dhyana (meditation) is the idea of attaining an unbroken, steady flow of awareness.  This awareness is trying to go beyond reflexive thinking, to a profound state of relaxation, which will lead one to self-realization.  In other words, it is attempting, through self-regulation, a special form of insight.  The technique of Dharana (concentration) includes the idea of attaining one-pointedness of focus (Rodrigues 206).  This can be reached through acts of sacred utterances (mantras), breath control, icons, diagrams and or prayer beads (mala) (Rodrigues 182).  Samadhi is also an essential system in the Vibhutipada, and it opens up the ideas around contemplative absorption and insight into the nature of awareness (Rodrigues 206).

Johnston (127) also makes it evident that unity is the reality, and the closer one comes to reality the closer one finds unity of the heart.  This results in feelings such as sympathy, compassion, and kindness.  Knowledge and power are also gained through concentration and some of these powers include, “divine power of intuition, and the hearing, the touch, the vision, the taste and the power of smell” (Johnston 127), as well as, learning languages of animals, reading thoughts, and levitation.  However, Nischala Joy Devi points out that “these are not practices in themselves; rather, they are progressive internal “states” that evolve through the influence of conscious living and the other practices, which preceded them (Devi 264).  They allow oneself to fully encompass the pathway to love, which is accomplished through reaching the full essence of all senses (Devi 264).  Supernatural powers and spiritual progress are deemed to then be attainable.

Ultimately, the mind and body become one, and once one has conquered these techniques, liberation can be reached.  Moksa (liberation) “is freedom from sorrow and suffering and their twins, sensuous pleasure and happiness, and the one pair is never without the other” (Chennakesavan 129), and is the goal of the forth chapter of the Yoga Sutra. The Kaivalyapada is believed to give one the abilities to become free from bondage, pure awareness, and finally liberation, yoga’s ultimate goal.


Chennakesavan, S  (1992) Yogas sutras. Asian philosophy, 2(2), 147.

Devi, N. J (2007) The secret powers of yoga. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and yoga. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Feuerstein, G (1998) The yoga tradition: Its history, literature, philosophy and practice.

Arizona, AZ: Hohm Press.

Johnston, Charles (2006) The yoga sutras of patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man. Kensinger Publishing.

Rodrigues, H (2007) Hinduism: The ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Staal, F (1975) Exploring mysticism. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Yoga Sutras







Eight Limbs of Yoga


Article Written by: Megan Horsley (April 2010) is solely responsible for its content.



Samyama or “perfect discipline” is the collective and seamless integration or fusion of the three practices of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (contemplative absorption) (see Miller 46).  The goal of samyama is essential to, as well as, parallel to the goal of yoga: “to eliminate the control that material nature exerts over the human spirit . . . through introspective practice” (Miller 10). According to yogic philosophy, as an individual manoeuvres through daily life by use of his or her sensory engagement, he or she identifies and attaches with material phenomena; thereby, because of ignorance (avidya) the individual is not aware of the true nature of things (svarupa) (Kesarcodi-Watson 3), and the individual does not observe true spirit or purusa. Inherent in the practice of yoga is the attempt to remove the veil of ignorance and return the consciousness to the source, which is purusa. In a similar fashion, the yogi/yogini attempts to withdraw from the interplay of material manifestation in the form of the three gunassattva, rajas, and tamas—in order to observe the world from a transformed state of consciousness (Dasgupta 92). The yogi/yogini carries out the process to liberation through consistent and continual practice (abhyasa) (Saraswati 58), and through a total detachment or dispassion from desires, accomplishments, and cravings (vairagya) (Saraswati 62). Practice and detachment are said to result in greater insight into the mind, and clearer knowledge of the spirit.

The student begins the yogic journey by first cultivating the external limbs of Patanjali’s eight limbs; namely, niyama, yama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara (Devi 252), and then developing the internal (antaranga) (Vasu 9) limbs—dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. The limbs are not thought of as mere stages or individual practices, but processes that are interconnected and dependent on each other. Spiritual progress in samyama is said to result in supernormal powers or siddhis. For instance, if samyama is done on the strength of an elephant this same strength may be gained by the yogin/yogini (Saraswati 236). However, Patanjali emphasizes that for the yogin/yogini to achieve the supreme goal of yoga there must be a total dispassion and detachment to all powers, otherwise, the yogin/yogini will only delay ultimate liberation.

In Patanjali’s second aphorism of the Yoga Sutra, he defines yoga as, “citta-vrtti-nirodha,” which means the “cessation of the turnings of thought” (Miller 28). Our thought, through its daily wondering, worrying, calculating, and assessing is in a constant “turning” or modifying (vrtti) process (Whicher 92). The totality of citta (thought) is composed of manas (mind), ahamkara (the ego), and buddhi (the intellect)—the three tattvas (Whicher 90). The goal of the practitioner in Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is to implement disciplined practices in order to harmonize the body and mind; thus, allowing the yogin/yogini to eliminate senseless thought, develop a clearer focus or “one-pointedness”, and a highly absorbed contemplation. The simultaneous joining of the three, samyama, allows for finer contemplation of the more subtle forms of prakrtimanas, ahamkara, and buddhi.

The “perfect discipline” that is samyama is said to be comparable to the application of oil to hard, tough leather. If an individual applies a small amount of oil to the leather and then wipes it off, the leather is briefly softened, but the oil does not greatly affect the composition of the leather; this is comparable to dharana. If the individual applies the oil again, but leaves the oil for a longer duration before removing it, the oil will slightly alter the composition of the leather, and make it more malleable; this is comparable to dhyana. Finally, if the individual applies the oil to the leather allowing it to penetrate and become fully absorbed by the leather, no residue of oil remains. The oil dramatically transforms the composition of the leather, and leaves it soft and pliable; this is comparable to samadhi (Devi 253).


The first part of samyama, dharana, is the internal concentration of the mind to a single place or entity for a short duration of time (Saraswati 225). Practicing dharana, a yogin/yogini may concentrate on an object in his or her mind, on a mantra, on the breath, or even on a single location of the body. The practitioner, by means of focusing intently on the chosen object, is able to “zone” in the attention to the exclusion of other mental activity.  The process of dharana produces a foundational “one-pointedness” or ekagrata (Feuerstein 84), wherein, the object of focus captures the yogin/yogini’s attention with great intensity. To effectively assert the full faculty of the yogin/yogini’s attention the object must be personal or pertinent to the practitioner; thus, the object may be any personally chosen mantra, deity, vivid picture, or such things as, the tip of the nose, the navel, or the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. Sutra I.39 of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali states that the yogin/yogini is free to choose any object that facilitates in effectively concentrating the attention (Saraswati 107).


Flowing effortlessly from dharana the practitioner arrives at dhyana, which is the continuous and unbroken flow of consciousness (Saraswati 228). Dhyana is said to be comparable to the unwavering flow of oil or honey pouring from a container to its source, in which the content of the consciousness is the continuously uninterrupted stream of oil (Devi 259). At this stage no other thoughts or distractions impede upon the steady flow of focus on the object, and the yogin/yogini’s concentration extends to a more thoughtful meditation of the object’s inexpressible nature. The yogi/yogini begins to comprehend the object and its inner essence begins to reveal itself, thus aiding the practitioner in the quest for a higher transcendence (Feuerstein 84). Dhyana or meditation “generates a necessary churning process” that allows the practitioner to regenerate new perceptions of the falsehood present in his or her perceptions of the material world (Whicher 20). After extensive practice in dhyana the samskaras (Saraswati 393) or mental suppressions, which are imbedded in the mind, begin to dissolve. It is necessary for the seeds to dissolve, otherwise, these impressions continually multiply themselves in the subconscious—sprouting, and taking form through thoughts, memories, and dispositions (Feuerstein 73).

Sutra I.41 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra explains that when the vrttis (turnings of thought) stop, the thought is purified and colourless; therefore, he compares pure thought to a clear crystal, which reflects, without distortion, the color of any object presented to it (Miller 34). When the yogin/yogini’s thought is not bound by the ego’s false identification with the continuum of material phenomena, the yogin/yogini is free to look upon objects and realize their undifferentiated nature.


The bud of dhyana matures and flowers into the deepened meditative state of samadhi. In the pure contemplation of samadhi the yogin/yogini is fully absorbed by the object, and only the true essence of the object is illuminated, shining forth to the observer (Dasgupta 336). Samadhi is divided into two kinds: “seeded” (sabija) and “seedless” (nirbija) (Whicher 201). Samadhi with seed is termed samprajnata-samadhi; furthermore, within states of samprajnata the practitioner uses an object, whether it is gross or subtle, to support his or her practice. Samprajnata-samadhi can further be divided into four states, all containing seeds within the consciousness: vitarka-samadhi, vicara-samadhi, ananda-samadhi, and asmita-samadhi (Whicher 203).

In vitarka-samadhi, the “aspirant is aware of an object, without there being any awareness of anything else” and the grosser manifestations of prakrti are understood (Whicher 203). For instance, in the vitarka state, the aspirant sees a cow appear before him or her, knows that the object is called “cow”, but also knows that the word, object and idea of the cow are unified or one. In vicarasamadhi, the practitioner experiences the object like the natural transformations of a clay pot. The formless pot begins as minute dust particles that accumulate into the form of clay. Next a potter uses the clay to mould a pot that an individual will use for daily functions. In time, the pot disintegrates back to its minute dust particles and exists only as formless dirt particles apparently devoid of any obvious “potness”. Through abhyasa (practice) in vitarka-samadhi the aspirant is able to master and understand the underlying nature of all things (Miller 47-48). In the vitarka-samadhi state the object of focus is the manas (mind) and the ahankara (ego) (Whicher 229-238).

The third state is ananda-samadhi, which means “joy” (Whicher 203). The ahamkara (ego) is focused on in ananda contemplation, and the yogin/yogini is able to grasp the joy of the sattva guna; thus, the yogin/yogini identifies with the inherent happiness that is sattva (Whicher 240). The fourth state asmita-samadhi, occurs when the aspirant realizes the faulty nature of the subtle guna identity, and is able to detach from self-identification with ahankara (ego), to identify with the most subtle of the tattva—buddhi or mahat (Whicher 243). The aspirant’s mind becomes like a still ocean, and liberating knowledge, dispassion, and an all-encompassing compassion pervades the yogin’s/yogini’s consciousness.

Accompanying the application of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, is the manifestation of psychic, spiritual, or supernormal powers (siddhis) (Devi 249). Through pure meditative contemplation the consciousness is able to actualize knowledge and power that is not possible at regular levels of thought (Miller 48).  When the knowledge of samadhi is strengthened in samyama, the consciousness is transcended to a higher level and the object of meditation shines with clear knowledge (prajnaloka) (Dasgupta 339-340).  Thus the yogin/yogini applies samyama to any gross or subtle object in order to clearly see the underlying nature (Saraswati 233-234). Through application of samyama to various entities the yogin/yogini gains extraordinary powers (siddhis), “such as, invisibility, superhuman strength, knowledge of past and future lives, knowledge of the workings of the cosmos and the microcosm of the body, as well as control over the physical needs of hunger and thirst” (Miller 49). Furthermore, a yogin/yogini can perform samyama on (among many) friendliness, the strength of an elephant, the sun, the moon, and the heart in order to gain, knowledge—respectively—of friendliness, strength, the solar system, the position of stars, and the citta (Saraswati 263-273). However, Patanjali cautions that, although the powers are a sign of spiritual progression, they “might lead the unwary astray by inspiring pride, egoism, and new cravings” (Miller 53). Therefore, if the yogin/yogini attaches to the powers, the powers will impose a barrier on the ultimate transcendence of the spirit; the yogi/yogini through dispassion must relinquish the powers for the sake of the supreme separation of purusa from prakrti.

The growth and application of samyama culminates in the second kind of samadhi, nirbija-samadhi. Nirbija-Samadhi is a finer state of consciousness, wherein, the yogin/yogini no longer relies on an object for support in his or her practice. At this point, the consciousness of the yogin/yogini is completely void of thought, leaving no seeds to mature into future thoughts, and the spirit free from the material world. All samskaras, which are karmic residue or dormant mental impressions, are cleared from the consciousness, and no longer affect future consciousness (Saraswati 393). In nirbija-samadhi “all affliction and its effects are ‘burned away’ ‘scorched’, bringing about the total cessation (nirodha) of thought” (Whicher 274). Nirbija-samadhi gives rise to kaivalya (liberation or oneness) which is a definite isolation or aloneness from all the afflictions of material nature (Sarbacker 38-39).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dasgupta, S.N. (1930, 1974, 1979) Yoga Philosophy: In Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Devi, Nischala Joy (2007) The Secret Power of Yoga: A Women’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras. New York: Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing.

Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Shocken Books.

Miller, Barbara S. (trans.) (1996) Yoga, Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu (1975) An Introduction to the Yoga Philosophy. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Sarbacker, Stuart Ray (2004) Samadhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. NewYork: State University of New York.

Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (1976) Four Chapters on Freedom. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust.

Whicher, Ian (2000) The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of Classic Yoga. New York: State University of New York.

Further Reading:

Eliade, Mircea (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Aranya, Swami Hariharananda (1983) Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Connolly, Peter (2006) A Student’s Guide to the His­tory and Philosophy of Yoga. London: Equinox.

Daniélou, A. (1956) Yoga: The Method of Re-Integra­tion. New York: University Books.

Feuerstein, Georg (1979) The Yoga-sutra of Patanjali. Reprint. Rochester: Inner Traditions Internation­al, 1989.

Woods, J. H (1914) The Yoga-System of Patanjali. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Oriental Series XVIII.

Related Topics for Further Investigation










Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra

Raja Yoga


Eight Limb’s of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga

Samprajnata Samadhi


Asamprajnata Samadhi







Asmita samadhi



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Article written by: Whitney Balog (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras are ascribed to varying dates around the second century CE (Rodrigues 201). They are not recognized as the establishment of yoga, because yoga and concepts of self-discipline and meditation had been practiced for thousands of years before the writing of the Sutras. Buddhist texts indicate that methods of dhyana (meditative state) (Rodrigues 405) and samadhi (contemplative absorption) (Rodrigues 562) had been well established by the time of the Buddha (Dasgupta 47). Patanjali, a great Sanskrit grammarian, is sometimes credited with the creation of the Yoga Sutras. However, many scholars think the grammarian Patanjali was a different person. Although Patanjali contributed greatly to the growth and doctrines of Sankhya school of Yoga, commentators like Vyasa [To read further on the commentaries by Vyasa see Baba (2005) to help clarify the explanation on the Sutras] concluded that Patanjali was not the originator of yoga but that he was its “editor” (Dasgupta 51). This is position is reinforced when analyzing the character of the book. The Sutras are divided into chapters (pada), which leads on to believe that Patanjali was providing a system of organization to knowledge that already had a thorough foundation. The first three chapters, or padas, are “written by way of definition and classification” (Dasgupta 52) which indicates that this knowledge was “already in existence” (Dasgupta 52). The fourth chapter appears to be a later addition.

If the title of this great work is correctly translated it provides an intensified clarity of the purpose and direction that the Sutras are intended to take. Yoga, essentially meaning to “yoke” and is rooted in Sanskrit literature within the word yuj, (Dasgupta 44) meaning to join and to form a union or connection (Dasgupta 43). Yoga is essentially the act of yoking and/or joining the senses. In older Upanishads the word is understood “in the sense of austerity and meditative abstractions productive of mighty achievements” (Dasgupta 43); this is consistent with the era, as the practice of austerity was popular amongst many devoted Hindus and Buddhists and several other religious philosophies. The word yoga originally applied to the control of steeds and in several sacred texts the senses are often referred to as “uncontrollable horses” (Dasgupta 44). This understanding of the word as a controlling action, or perhaps inaction, is entirely plausible, as the practice of yoga further develops to tame the senses through intense meditation and physical discipline. (Sutra meaning, “thread,” provides the organizational consistency that is needed when such a definitive work is being written. These sutras, or threads, help weave together the fabric of the principles and philosophies of yoga. This provides a legible and tangible blanket of knowledge that allows for expansions and meditation on specific principles to amplify one’s practice.) It is important to understand the linguistic features of the practice of yoga for it helps portray a long history that predates the creation of the Yoga Sutras.

The sage Patanjali depicted according to the myth linking him with the anjali (folded hand gesture)
The sage Patanjali depicted according to the myth linking him with the anjali (folded hand gesture)

Yoga cannot be learned by oneself; it is a lifelong spiritual journey that requires the guidance of a guru (“teacher”) (Eliade 10) to further one’s practice. A guru of yoga is often referred to as a yogi (masculine) or yogini (feminine) and he/she is often committed to a journey of samsara (rebirth) and the attainment of moska or nirvana (Eliade 11) liberation or transcendence of rebirth. There are different Hindu schools that claim one should access or attain moksa or nirvana. Yoga is one of the six orthodox Hindu schools and is best represented by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and its subsequent commentaries. Patanjali’s work is framed hand-in-hand with the Samkhya philosophy [see Worthington V for an in depth analysis of the Samkhya philosophy. It is important to note and understand the six orthodox schools of Hinduism and the connection and differences interconnecting them all]. Samkhya and yoga are inextricably intertwined with one another and bear much resemblance to one another. It should be noted that Patanjali’s work is the “coordination of philosophical material” (Eliade 16) and the physical practice, which elevates it to an almost philosophical system as opposed to a “mystic tradition” (Eliade 16).

The Yoga Sutras consist of four chapters (pada). The first chapter is the “chapter on yogic ecstasy” (samadhipada), containing fifty-one aphorisms or sutras; the second called sahanapada, contains fifty-five sutras and is the “chapter on realization”; the third chapter, vibhuti, “marvelous powers” also contains fifty-five sutras. When analyzing the fourth chapter it is important to note the amount of sutras because it has noticeably fewer sutras, suggesting perhaps it was a later addition (Eliade 13). The fourth pada has only thirty-four sutras and is called the kaivalyapada, “isolation” (Eliade 13).

The first chapter, samadhipada, pertains to the consciousness of the mind. It is the understanding of thought, or vrtti, and how the human mind is a natural roadblock to reaching the true self. The samadhipada outlines several techniques that try to harness the mind and avoid distractions. In the samadhipada: (Sutras 38) Patanjali proposes a physical guideline to obtain a mental achievement. It appears that by practicing proper breathing techniques one gains control over a sense that is almost entirely involuntary, which reinforces the union of physical and mental to obtain control and release of the constant fluidity of the conscious.

The sadhanapada is the “practical way” of attaining a spiritual awakening. Patanjali discusses the eight limbs of yoga [For further information on the eight limbs of yoga, visit Doran’s website] as a way of practicing union of the mind and body and dismissing obstructions to spiritual attainment. The obstacles that block the path to the attainment of union are outline in this pada, sadhanapada (Sutra 10) and illustrates that the acknowledgement of these hindrances will help dispel them. The sadhanapada also makes note of other branches of yoga and the importance to achieving oneness of mind and body i.e. Ashtanga yoga (meaning the eight limb practice).

The third chapter called the vibhutipada is an expansion on the powers that are “matured with practice.” Gaining and controlling such subtle powers leads to a state of awareness and contemplation (samadhi).

The kaivalyapada is the final stage and goal of yoga and the isolation of one’s self. This chapter essentially focuses on liberation, or moksa, as the yogi/yogini has learned to separate himself/herself from the bondages that obstruct true consciousness. This pada is, as noted, most likely a later addition to the Sutras, as it no longer focuses on the directional guidance, but rather it is a concluding remark on the practice and end point of a spiritual pathway (Johnston).

The Yoga Sutras is undoubtedly one of the most influential texts on yoga, and is influential within the Hindu tradition and for any practicing yogi and/or yogini. The composition of the Sutras does not mark the birth of yoga; rather, it is the systematizing of the yogic pathways towards spiritual attainment. The Sutras provide an organized approach towards the practice of yoga and the union between physical and mental aspects of the human body. The purpose of the Yoga Sutras is not to provide a narrow hallway towards spiritual awakening; rather, it is a guide and allows for meditation and contemplation of every pada and physical step. This text is not self-explanatory, but the journey that the self takes with the help of the Yoga Sutras explains the connection between theory and practice.


Varenne, Jean. Yoga and The Hindu Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Whicher, Ian. The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of Classic Yoga. New York: State University of New York, 1954.

Rukmani, T.S.. Yogasutrabhasyavivarana of Sankara. 1 and 2, Samadhipadah and Sadhanapanah. New Delhi: Munishram Manoharlal Publishers, 2001.

Dasgupta, S.N. Yoga Philosophy: In Relation to Other Sytems of Indian Thought, India: Shri Jainendra Press, 1930, 2974, 1979.

Eliade, Mircea. Patanjali and Yoga. United States of America: Shocken Books, 1975.

Baba, Bangali. Yogasutra Patanjali. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2005.

Johnston, Charles. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man. Kensinger Publishing, 2006. NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES ON THIS TOPIC (Worthington V) (Doran)


Ashtanga Yoga


Eight Limbs of Yoga


Hatha Yoga



Raja Yoga

Samkhya Philosophy

Six Orthodox Schools


Article written by: Kelsay Gault (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hatha Yoga

The ultimate goal of Hatha-yoga, like all forms of yoga is to transcend the self and realize the ultimate reality (atman) (Feuerstein 38). It is different from other forms of yoga because of its focus on using the body and developing its potential so that when the person achieves atman the body is able to withstand the onslaught of ultimate reality (Feuerstein 38). Therefore, Hatha-yoga is designed the help achieve the Ultimate Reality in a finite human body. The practitioner of Hatha-yoga wants to design and construct a divine body (divya-sharira) for themselves that would guarantee immortality once atman is attained (Feuerstein 39). Hatha-yoga is also considered to be an off shoot of Tantrism as it deals with both the body and the mind, two key aspect in the Tantric practice (Feuerstein 505). The term Hatha-yoga can be explained as the union (yoga) between sun and moon or the two different aspects of the body-mind union. Most Hatha-yoga practitioners use and follow the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, as it is the most popular Hatha-yoga manual (Feuerstein 38).

Hindu teachings associate the creation of the Hatha-yoga tradition with Goraksa Natha and his teacher Matsyyendra Natha (Feuerstein 510). They are thought of as the founders of Nathism. Siva is considered to be the father of the Natha lineage and thus is considered to be the ultimate yogi (Feuerstein 510). Other masters of Nathism include: Jalandhari, Bhartrihari, Gopicandra, and Caurangi (Feuerstein 513-514). As well as references to these masters in Hindu traditions, there are also references to the same people in Tibetan traditions (Feuerstein 513).

In Tantric practices, the life force (prana) is divided along the spinal axis “where the dynamic pole (represented by Sakti) is said to be at the base of the spine and the static pole (represented by Siva) at the crown of the head” (Feuerstein 518). The practitioner of Hatha-yoga works to unite these two poles. For this to happen he/she must first stabilize the alternating life current that flows up and down both the left and right side of the body (Feuerstein 518). The primary objective is to intercept the left and right current and bring the energy into the central channel which starts at the anal center (muladhara) (Feuerstein 518). It is at this anal center that the kundalini [could be considered the manifestation of primordial energy (see Feuerstein 473)] is believed to be asleep (Feuerstein 518). By regularly trying to redirect the life force into the center the kundalini is mobilized (Feuerstein 518). This action could be considered forceful, hence the meaning of the word hatha as “force”. “Hatha-yoga is a forceful enterprise in which the body’s innate life force is utilized for the transcendence of the self” (Feuerstein 518). According to the Sage Gheranda, there are only seven limbs of yoga. He divides the asanas (postures) and the mudra (locks) into two different limbs while he does not regard the moral rules (yama and niyama) as independent features (Feuerstein 521).

A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga
A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga

The first step in affecting the channel of the life force into the center is breath control (pranayama), the fifth limb of yoga (Feuerstein 518). However, before working on this breath control one must undergo intense and extensive purification (Feuerstein 518). Thus, the Sage Gheranda describes six purification practices. They are as follows: dhauti (cleansing) is broken into four different techniques: antar-dhauti (inner-cleansing), danta-dhauti (dental cleansing), hrid-dhauti (heart cleansing), and mula-shodhana (root purification) (Feuersein 519). The second purification practice is called vasti or basti (bladder) (Feuerstein 519). This is follwed by neti, lauli or lailiki (to and fro movement), trataka, and finally kapala-bhati which in itself contains three different practices. These are: vama-krama (left-process), vyut-krama (inverted process), and shit-krama (shit process) (Feuerstein 520) [for a more detailed description of each of the purification techniques see Feuerstein 519-520]. Once purification has been done, the yoga practitioner may start to work on their breath control (pranayama). Sage Gheranda describes eight different types of breath control which he calls retentions (kumbhaka). These different retentions are as follows: sahita-kumbhaka (joined retention) -broken into two parts: sagarbha (with seed) and nigarbha (without seed)- surya-bheba-kumbhaka (sun –piercing retention), ujjayi-kumbhaka (victorious retention), shitali-kumbhaka (cooling retention), bhastrika-kumbhaka (bellows retention), bhramari-kumbhaka (bee-like retention), murccha-kumbhaka (swooning retention), and finally kevali-kumbhaka (absolute retention) (Feuerstein 527-528) [for a more detailed description of the different breath control techniques see Feuerstein 527-528]. According to Gheranda there are three different levels of pranayama control. The lowest level of control generates heat in the body, the second level causes tremors in the limbs and the third level actually causes levitation (Feuerstein 528).

Along with pranayama is a focus on different bodily postures (asanas), which is the second limb of yoga. These different postures also help prepare the body for the realization of atman. Siva the founder of yoga is believed to have taught these postures (Burley 73). There are a few different accounts of how many were taught (see Feuerstein 521), the Gheranda-Samhita describes the following thirty two: “siddha-asana (adept posture), padma-asana (lotus posture), bhadra-asana (auspicious posture), mukta-asana (liberated posture), vajra-asana (diamond posture), svastika-asana (svastika posture), simha-asana (lion posture), gomukha-asana (cow-face posture), vira-asana (hero posture), mrita-asana (corpse posture), gupta-asana (hidden posture), matsya-asana (fish posture), matsyendra-asana (Matsyendra’s posture), goraksha-asana (Goraksa’s posture), pashcimottana-asana (back-stretch posture), utkata-asana (extraordinary posture), samkata-asana (dangerous posture), mayura-asana (peacock posture), kukkuta-asana (cock posture), kurma-asana (tortoise posture), uttana-kurmaka-asana (extended tortoise posture), uttana-manduka-asana (extended frog posture), vriksha-asana (tree posture), manduka-asana (frog posture), garuda-asana (eagle posture), vrisha-asana (bull posture), shalabha-asana (locust posture), makara-asana (shark posture), ushtra-asana (camel posture), bhujanga-asana (serpent or cobra posture), and yoga-asana (Yoga posture)” (Feuerstein 521)[for a more detailed explanation of the postures as well as pictures of them see Feuerstein 522-523 and Burley 258-271]. While some of the postures are designed to help with sitting for long periods of time while meditating, others are designed for helping to regulate the life force within the yoga practitioner’s body (Feuerstein 521).

Linked with the postures are seals (mudra) and locks (bandha), the third limb of yoga. The seals signify far more advanced techniques and at times merge with some meditative practices. The locks are special maneuvers that are supposed to help restrict the life force within the trunk and thus stimulate it (Feuerstein 523). The seals (mudra) and locks (bandha) are named as follows: maha-mudra (great seal), nabho-mudra (sky seal), uddiyana-bandha (upward-going lock), jalandhara-bandha (Jalandhara’s lock), mula-bandha (root lock), maha-bandha (great lock), maha-vedha (great penetrator), khecari-mudra (space-walking seal), viparita-kari (inverted action seal), yoni-mudra (womb seal), vajroli-mubra (thunderbolt seal), shakti-calani-mudra (power-stirring seal), tadagi-mudra (pond seal), manduki-mudra (frog seal), shambhavi-mudra (Shambhu’s seal), ashvini-mudra (dawn-horse seal), pashini-mudra (bird-catching seal), kaki-mudra (elephant seal), bhujangini-mudra (serpent seal), and finally the five concentrations (dharana) on the five elements-earth, fire, water, air, and ether (Feuerstein 523-525)[see Feuerstein 523-525 for a detailed description of all the locks and seals].

The fourth limb of Hatha-yoga according to Gheranda is detachment from the senses (pratyahara). This involves removing attention from external- sensory objects (Feuerstein 525-526).

The sixth limb is in regards to meditation (dhyana) which can be understood as visualization (Feuerstein 528). The Gheranda-Samhita talks about three types of dhyana: “visualization having a ‘coarse’ (sthula) object, such as a carefully visualized deity; visualization having a ‘subtle’ (sukshma) object, namely the Absolute in the form of the transcendental point-origin (bindu) of the universe, as explained in connection with Tantrism; and contemplation of the Absolute as light (jyotis)” (Feuerstein 528)[for a more detailed description see Feuerstein]. According to Gheranda, with contemplation, the attention is inverted onto the inner essence of Self (atman). He explains it as the process of awakening the kundalini and it merging with atman and then rising to the center at the crown of the head bringing one to samadhi (Feuerstein 528).

Samadhi according to Gheranda is the seventh and final limb of yoga. It is liberation from the states of consciousness and separation of the mind from the body. Reaching this point is reaching the ultimate level and thus moska for the Hatha-yogin (Feuerstein 528-529).


Burely, Mikel (2000) Hatha-Yoga: Its Context Theory and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books & Prints.

Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. India: Divine Life Society.

Sivananda Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets and Metaphor. Porthill: Timeless Books.

White, David Gordon (1996) The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Siva Nata-Raja













Raja Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Karma Yoga

Bhakti Yoga

Kundalini Yoga

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Caylee Dutnall (2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Yama and Niyama

The words yama and niyama take their origin from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras [more specifically sutra 2:29]. They are the first two limbs of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) raja yoga which Patanjali describes [see: Saraswati 185]. Swami Satyananda Saraswati translates these two words as referring to sets of “self restraints” and “fixed rules” respectively. Farhi describes the yamas and niyamas as being “given as uncompromising, universal truths to be practiced regardless of our race, country, class, or circumstance” (2004:35). Thus the implication is that rather than being a rigid set of “do’s and don’ts”, they are instead behaviours and habits to be adopted at all times, allowing for a state of yoga (mind free of fluctuation) both on and off of a mat.

Despite being the first two limbs of raja yoga these two are often superseded during what North Americans would conceptualize as a yoga class, by pranayama and asana [which are generally taught as breathing techniques and poses, but perhaps more accurately translated as “life energy control” and “comfortable posture” ]. It should be noted that as Maehle points out, when it comes to yoga treatise, “some sources [omit the first] two limbs, the ethics.” Later on, teachers argued that they should be included, as ethics (particularly the fifth niyama) are necessary for achieving samadhi [the eighth limb] (Maehle, 212). Gates also mentions a more complimentary and interplaying role between the eight limbs, suggesting that yama and niyama are more like “spokes on a wheel [than] rungs on a ladder” (Gates et al. 6).

Unlike many religious doctrines which prescribe a set of morals, yama and niyama establish a set of guidelines. As yoga by definition is the cessation of mind fluxation, it is more relevant to understand yama and niyama as the guidelines for not causing fluxations in the minds of others or one’s self. They encourage a harmonious relationship with the atman [monistic consciousness]. Rather than serving as a litmus test for “good and bad”, they foster awareness for the karmic consequences of one’s actions.

The implication of yama and niyama as necessary and adopted disciplines is taken to a further extent by Saraswati who, in reference to bahiranga [These are limbs of yoga which are “exoteric” or of the “external element”, “practiced with objects outside, in relation to the body”. They include: yama and niyama, as well as pranayama, asana, and pratyahara (See: Saraswati 185)] says that “the preliminary part of raja yoga must be practiced in the presence of a group with whom the aspirant must live for some time. When the mind is set into a pattern, [the yogi] can go back to society and live with people” (Saraswati 186). [Please note that to avoid over-repetition, the word “yogi” is used to represent both male and female practitioners throughout this article] This is of course more in line with the traditional study of yoga under a guru.

Taking a less rigid stance, Bell refers to the yamas and niyamas as “guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry.” She goes on to say that “they are not commandments, nor are they intended to be followed mechanically” (Bell: 42). Later on she suggests that “the yamas and niyamas are not intended to be unbending law [but rather] life long practices” and encourages striving towards continual on-going practice, rather than sequestered mastery (Bell: 47).

While the prescribed rigor of learning yama and niyama can vary by teacher, it would be generally agreed upon that these first two limbs form what Farhi describes as “yogic precepts for ethical living” (2006: 11). Farhi goes on to make a distinction between the two stating that yamas are “constraints that [yogis] observe in relationship to the world” and niyamas are “concerned with [a yogi’s] relationship to self and how [they] live when no one else is watching”. Put succinctly, yamas provide instructions on how to be at harmony with the world and niyamas harmony with oneself.

There are 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. The first yama is ahimsa. This word comes from the Sanskrit words a (prefix meaning “not”) and himsa (“harming, injuring, killing, or doing violence”) [The etymologies of these sections are taken from Sovik 43 & 46, except where noted]. It is also commonly read-in (as it is in a host of commentaries on the yoga sutra 2:35) that ahimsa necessitates and leads to compassion towards every living being. [See Farhi 2004: 35]. While it would be easy to think of ahimsa as simply an outward behaviour, it implies a compassionate attitude towards oneself as well. For example, suicide or self-mutilation are violent acts, and show neither compassion for oneself nor those who would cope with the ramifications of them. It can be further expanded to say that ahimsa discourages other acts which are not necessarily violent, but can most definitely be harmful. Exclusion, like that of the mother-in-law whose invitation to a family event was “forgotten”, is an example of this. This act would be lacking in compassion and potentially harmful to the mother-in-law who discovers this, or the grandchild who misses the grandparent.

The second yama is satya from the Sanskrit for “that which exists or that which is,” and is commonly termed “truthfulness”. The practice of satya involves reporting and perceiving things only as they are, rather than how they relate to an ideal. Chopra describes this concept as “separating your observations from your interpretations” (Chopra 33). For example, a university student may become frustrated with a new professor whose teaching style is underdeveloped. A factual observation in this instance would be “the professor is a novice to teaching.” The insinuating interpretation is “this is a bad professor.” The student might go on to tell peers to avoid classes with that same professor because they are “bad”. This causes disharmony between the professor and potential students. Maehle notes that satya immediately follows ahimsa, placing non-violence in higher priority than truthfulness, because “we should never use truthfulness to harm or violate others” (Maehle 213). Satya inherently expresses the concept of being non-judgemental. A magazine might edit their photos. The editors have determined that a model can be more aesthetically pleasing if altered, thereby passing on the interpretation that real images are undesirable. This may cause its readers to develop negative body-image and/or eating disorders. This is not to say that truth is always more pleasant; in fact the avoidance of unpleasant truths can be even more unpleasant. A woman finds a lump in her breast but ignores it, because she can not accept the possibility she has cancer. When truths or realities are disregarded, destructive behaviours ensue.

The third yama is asteya which translates directly as “non-stealing”. Oversimplification would demand defining the act of stealing as taking something tangible which does not belong to us. Shoplifting or stealing a lunch from the fridge at work are examples of this. Other acts of theft such as plagiarism, or pirating mp3’s, where the objects stolen are less tangible, are also to be avoided. The principle of asteya can also be applied to more abstract concepts such as time or concentration. Being late for a meeting can be seen as stealing time from other attendees. Dominating a conversation, or interrupting someone who is speaking, or reading, or meditating, can also be perceived as acts of theft, as they consume their victims’ mental energies.

The fourth and quite possibly most debated yama is bramacharya. Sovik loosely translates bramacharya as “moderating the senses and walking in God-consciousness.” Usually associated with sexuality, the controversy of this yama can be seen in Sovik’s complete absence of direct references to sexuality in his translation. Farhi avoids both divine and sexual inferences using instead “moderation in all our actions” (2006: 94). [Chopra provides some possible etymology as thus: brahman (“unity consciousness”) and achara (“pathway”), or charya (“grazing”) (Chopra 34)]

When it is considered that the yoga sutras are believed to be but a compilation of practices divinely revealed to the risis, many of whom had several wives and children, it could be construed that here, brahman, refers to the consciousness (Maehle 215), and not the god. However, given that the yoga sutras were written long after the Vedic period, Patanjali might not have intended this, as he would have used the word “atman” instead.

Thus, the concept of bramacharya is translated and taught on spectrum ranging from the conservative “sexual abstinence” (Saraswati 197), to the more liberal ideas of Maehle: “Partnership is used in yoga to recognize the inherent divinity in the other. This does exclude casual sex… The yogic view of a relationship is not to consume another person like an object” (Maehle 214). The ensuing arguments are that casual sex is either: a violent act, or a theft act. As a violent act one partner perceives more of an emotional involvement, and is left hurt when that is found to be untrue. As a theft act, both partners are distracting each other from the true nature of each partner involved. Perhaps they just need friendship, or have problems with intimacy because of a previous violent act. Either way it is very taboo. It is perhaps easier to evaluate the practice of this yama by first using the first three to evaluate potential actions of a more intimate nature.

The final yama is aparigraha. This word comes from graha (“to grasp”), and
pari (“things”). Thus, aparigraha can be said to be “not grasping things” or being “non-possessive”, or practising “non-attachment”. As a matter of necessity, yoga aims for liberation (moksa). A mind which harbours attachment or possessiveness to an object (or person for that matter) is on some level chained to it, whether through the need to protect it, or a dependency on it. The mind becomes distracted by the need to own material objects, or exert some form of dominance over others. This yama encourages generosity and material minimalism. Saraswati tells of some yogis who “do not even touch fire and have only one set of clothes. They do not stay in one place. Their mind is so free and relaxed and they are always ready to do any duty anywhere” (Saraswati 199). Sannyasis (renunciates) can be said to be masters of non-attachment.

The first niyama is sauca or which means “purification” or “cleanliness”. It refers to a number of techniques such as sat karmas (cleansing actions) used to keep the body clean. It necessitates the eating of proper foods (those which are natural and pure) and thinking proper thoughts (achieved by being selective about what one allows the mind to be exposed to). We are constantly taking in things around us, whether in the form of air, nourishment, or sensory stimuli. As certain foods can alter the mood (coffee, chocolate, excess sugars, etc.), a balanced diet is encouraged to avoid these mood-swings. Some yogic schools of thought prescribe a vegan diet, for example. Selectively choosing which movies we see, music we listen to, and conversations we engage in, can also help avoid mental imbalance. For example, violent films or hateful music can encourage violent behaviours or prejudice. An argument can cause us to lose sight of the way someone is naturally, and cause us to see them as an enemy, or opposing force.

The second niyama is santosa or (from the Sanskrit “contentment, delight, happiness, joy”). It can be thought of as closely associated with aparigraha. It is practiced by simply accepting one’s true self, and one’s status in the world (Sovik 46). For example, a sudra who is trying to act as a ksatriya is not accepting their status in the world. They are attached to a caste which is not theirs, and thus not able to be content with their role in the world. A person expecting to return to work right away after a major surgery might not be content with their status as a patient. Santosa is not merely seeing the glass as half-full, it is reacting to even an empty glass as enjoyable, the need to walk to the water cooler to refill it as enjoyable, and the availability of water as enjoyable, even if there is an insect in it. It is the acceptance of mistakes made in the past without self-hatred or self-judgement. It is the abolition of desire to be wealthier, smarter, stronger, or more powerful. It is the apex of equanimity with the good and bad that life delivers.

The third niyama is tapas (“heat”). It refers to the heat that builds during a concerted effort. (Sovik 46) It is also thought of as encouraging austerity. There are going to be challenges and distractions that arise to one’s practice of yoga. Tapas is the resilience to remain dedicated to one’s practice regardless of adversity. It is the key ethical tool used to build sadhana. [Sadhana is the “program” one makes for spiritual development. It varies by individual. It consists of any practice, ritual, rite, or study undertaken with moksa (liberation) as the intent.] Tapas is expressed in the adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.

The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Maehle points out that according to Vyasa it is chanting Om and moksa sastra [reading scripture to do with liberation] (Maehle 217). Sovik takes a more relaxed approach, saying that reading any literature which encourages or inspires one to develop spiritually is svadhyaya (Sovik 46). It is the removal of samskaras and separation from asmita [Asmita is the “I” or the perception “self” created through the samskaras (psychic lenses/citta vrttis), which separate the aspirant/yogi from the atman]. It is the primary focus of jnana yogis [Jnana yoga is the study of knowledge, more specifically, knowledge which is of a transcendental or divine nature]. It is the study of what remains after all elements of ego are removed.

The final niyama is isvara pranidhana. Isvara refers to “the divine” whether in the form of the nirguna brahman (universal consciousness), or any other deity (Maehle 217). Pranidhana literally means “to surrender” (Sovik 46). This surrender does not refer to some kind of submission to the cosmos, but rather, the active giving of permission to oneself to be present in the universe; to be aware of, and part of a greater whole. It is the acceptance that there is a higher power which is not completely independent of the yogi. Lastly, it is the devotion of all action (and thought) to that higher power. Patanjali points out that practice of this niyama is necessary to achieve samadhi, as it defines the end goal of sadhana (sutra 1:29).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bell, Charlotte and Rolf Sovik (March/April 2008). “The Forgotten Teachings – Patanjali’s 10 Steps to a Happier Life.” Yoga and Joyful Living, [100], 40-47

Chopra, Deepak, and David Simon (2004) The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Farhi, Donna (2004) Bringing Yoga to Life. San Francisco: Harper-Collins Publishers

Farhi, Donna (2006) Teaching Yoga. Berkeley: Rodmell Press

Gates, Rolf et al. (2002) Meditations from the Mat – Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga. New York: Anchor Books.

Maehle, Gregor (2006) Ashtanga Yoga – Practice and Philosophy. Novato, California: New World Library

Swami Satyananda Sawaswati (1976) Four Chapters on Freedom. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

Recommended Readings

Any number of commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Related Topics

Purusha Pramana

Vritti Parinama

Dharmi Raja Yoga

Bihar Yoga Jnana Yoga

Satayanda Yoga Ekagrata

Ahankara Tattva


Useful Websites

Article written by Michael Smith (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Yoga and Shamanism (A Comparison)

Shamanism and Yoga are spiritual practices originally found in Siberia and India, respectively. While Shamanism is practiced in various forms world-wide, traditional Yoga is mainly found in South-East Asia. Although the practices of Shamanism and Yoga share similar qualities, they are not always considered interlinking spiritual practice. Undoubtedly, there are times when the specifics between Shamanism and Yoga become vague and unclear. In order to contrast and compare these two magical/meditational traditions, precise definitions of both terms are absolutely necessary.

Shamans are religious healers and miracle workers, who may appear to be possessed by divine spirits. They are perceived to have power within the realm of the invisible, and thus, have powers outside the mortal world of average human beings (Robinson and Rodrigues 13). Scholars often describe Shamanism as “a visionary tradition, an ancient practice of utilizing altered states of consciousness to contact the gods and spirits of the natural world” (Drury 1). It may seem natural to relate Shamans with magicians or medicine men. However, it is necessary to maintain awareness that Shamans may take on many different attributes depending on their own personal practices. One may become a Shaman through ancestral lineage (considered a “lesser”, or inferior, Shaman), or may be called upon and chosen by spirits through dream or premonition (considered a “greater”, or preferred, Shaman) (Drury 6).

In comparison, the practice of Yoga is based upon the philosophy that seeks integration of one’s true self (atman) and the Absolute (brahman), through rigorously self-disciplined psycho-physical techniques and practices (Robinson and Rodrigues 159). Generally, the term Yoga is used to describe every technique of asceticism and every method of meditation (Eliade 1975:9). A great yogi has ultimate devotion to their discipline, and certain yogis are considered “spiritual masters” (Eliade 1975:7). Yogis are self-helping spiritual beings, due to the fact that they seek liberation (moksa) through meditation. Hinduism includes the methods of several Yogic categories and techniques. In fact, all forms of Yoga are the offspring of Hindu religious practices, as documented in the Upanisads. For those who follow the Hindu tradition, the underlying goal of meditational practices is the attainment of moksa. According to the Hindu tradition, anyone may become a yogi due to the fact that it is a chosen spiritual path.

Shamanism is a world-wide phenomenon that is believed to have begun in vast regions of Siberia. It is largely practiced in small-scale tribal societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, Alaskan Eskimo society, and the Yaquis of northern Mexico (Drury, 12-17). Familiar characteristics of Shamans around the world include trance states, magical flight and contacts with spirits.
In contrast, Yoga has become somewhat of a trend in the Western World in recent years. In India, classical Yoga can be traced back as far as approximately 300 B.C.E., in portions of the Mahabharata (a major Hindu epic, with origins in India). Gradually Yoga began to spread to the rest of the world. Yoga was created by ancient Hindus with intent of providing a more concrete religious experience. It was also intended to make mystical devotion more accessible, intimate and personal in order for the masses to achieve moksa (Eliade 1969:144). Thus, the modern forms of Yoga – such as “power dance Yoga” which induces high energy cardio techniques without any meditational aspects – practiced around the world today do not pursue the same goals of moksa and spiritual knowledge as the classical forms of Yoga.

Practicing Shamanism often includes the use of sweating cabinets to stimulate extreme perspiration, magically raising body temperature (“magical heat”), mastering fire to the point of attaining insensibility of the heat from burning coals (“mastery of fire”), and producing “inner heat” (Eliade 1969:106). “Inner heat”, expressed by a “mastery over fire” and abrogation of physical laws, is fundamental for “primitive” Shamans. Hence, the “heated” Shaman can perform miracles and “create new conditions of existence in the cosmos” (Eliade 1964:412). In this regard, Prajapati (creator god depicted in the Vedas) becomes the epitome of all Shamans.
In Yoga, the parallel of this “inner heat” technique is documented in the Rg-Veda, in the concept of tapas. Tapas originally meant “extreme heat”, but evolved into a term to generally describe ascetic effort. Through tapas, the ascetic becomes almost psychic, and may even incarnate the gods. Furthermore, tapas results in a kind of magical power, creating countless illusions or miracles of the ascetics and yogis (i.e. Magical flight) (Eliade 1969:106). Pranayama (breath control) is “cosmogony in reverse” in the sense that, as oppose to the creation of new miracles, this power enables the yogi to disconnect from the world (Eliade 1964:413). Evidently, these are opposing views in regard to technical practices of Shamanism and Yoga.

In both Shamanism and Yoga, “extreme heat” is obtained by meditating close to a fire, or by retention of breath. Noteworthy to state, respiratory technique and detainment of breath were crucial components during the organization of ascetic practices, magical, mystical, and metaphysical techniques in the practices of Shamanism and Yoga. Here, the lines that differentiate Shamanism from Yoga, and vice-versa, are once again blurred.

One crucial difference between Shamanism and Yoga lies in their functionary goals. Shamanism follows an ecstatic ideology, whereas Yoga prefers an enstatic approach. The Encyclopaedia of Religion states, “A first definition of the complex phenomenon of shamanism – and perhaps the least hazardous – is that it is a technique of ecstasy” (Jones 8269). This is to say Shamans exercise a sixth-sense, if you will, in the categories of dream analysis, astrology, and spirit possession. This special power is ecstatic, meaning it refers to “out of self” practices. Shamans are thought to have the capability of moving their consciousness beyond “normal parameters.” Shamans use their ecstatic ability to communicate with multiple beings (i.e. animals, nature, deities, and spirits). They are also able to diagnose illnesses, understand and communicate the wishes of a deceased family member, and presume desires of a deity. Shamanism is characterized by its everlasting effort to reach ecstatic flight (Eliade 1964:339). Therefore, Shamans are not solely concerned with their own personal spiritual goals (Robinson and Rodrigues 262). Shamans aid, and may be commissioned by, other persons in forms of healers, psychics, and priests (Drury 1).

Yoga cannot be confused with Shamanism, or considered in any aspect as ecstatic. In effect, Yoga truly contradicts the ecstatic philosophy of Shamanism. Yoga pursues the goal of individual moksa. Yogis are continually striving to achieve absolute concentration, in order to discover their true selves (atman). The “true self” in Hinduism is the person beyond all assumptions, ego formulations, and illusions. This is to say that all classical yogis are searching for their innermost self, as understood in their metaphysical systems. Keeping in mind that “enstatic” means “standing within oneself”, Yoga is appropriately defined as such.

Evidently, Shamanism and Yoga are two distinct, yet intertwining spiritual practices. Although traditional Yoga is found mainly in South-East Asia (specifically India), traditional Shamans are found in tribal communities world-wide. Though Shamanism retains its ecstatic philosophy, while Yoga contrasts with its personal enstatic ideas, the two blend together in several ways (e.g. “inner heat” and pranayama practices). In addition, ideologies of emergence from time and abrogation of history are components that bridge the gap between the two spiritual practices we call Shamanism and Yoga (Eliade 1964:339).


Drury, Nevill (1989) the Elements of Shamanism. Dorset: Element Books Limited.

Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

_____ (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

_____ (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Feuerstein, Georg (1980) the philosophy of classical yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

_____ (2002) the yoga tradition: its history, literature, philosophy and practice. New Delhi:

Bhavana Books

Fillozat, Jean (1991) Religion, philosophy, Yoga: a section of articles. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers.

Gupta, Madan Gopal (2000) Dictionary of Indian religions, saints, gods, goddesses, rituals, festivals and yoga systems. Agra: M.G. Publishers.

Jones, Lindsay, ed. (2005) The Encyclopaedia of Religion (second edition). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

Malotki, Ekkehart (2001) Hopi stories of witchcraft, shamanism, and magic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Osho (1998) the path of yoga: commentaries of the Yoga Sustas of Patanjali. Pune: Tao Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

Pentikäinen, Juha (1996) Shamanism and Northern Ecology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Robinson, Thomas A. and Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








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Article written by: Jessica Schultchen (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.