Stretching Beyond The Superficial

(i.e., the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga)

This post builds on the framework explored in a previous post: Navigating Indian Philosophy

If you ask someone of Indian origin about the Western conception of Yoga, you’ll often get a slight eye roll - even among those that participate. It’s not that the Western tradition is actively wrong, or harmful; it’s simply become its own subculture, which blends new-age approaches to spirituality, healing, and exercise into a variety of capitalist concoctions. I think the wrinkle is that it fundamentally constrains an essential and textured term; “Yoga” not only pertains to an ancient āstika school of Hinduism, but over the millennia, it has also come to embody the notion of praxis itself - within the larger tapestry of Indian philosophy.

In its original and religious construction, Yoga is concerned with something considerably more existential than personal fitness: ultimate liberation, or moksha; true freedom from personal suffering, and from the bonds of the material world. The origins of Yoga can be traced back to passages in the Katha and Chandogya Upanishads, two of the primary philosophical hymns within the The Vedas. Throughout the Vedic Period (~1st millennium BCE), a plethora of yogic practices and philosophies developed - generating practical motifs that would eventually be incorporated into mainstream Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Patanjali is the sage credited with curating the wide expanse of practices into a core Hindu framework that persists to this day.

Born in the second century BCE, Patanjali initially gained fame through his work on Sanskrit grammar and linguistics, before writing the Yoga Sutras. These sutras remain the bedrock of the Yoga school, synthesizing the aforementioned array of disciplines into a coherent, structured collection of practices and theories. Divided into four books, the sutras outline the valid techniques for pursuing truth, the disciplined eightfold path that leads one to liberation, the different types of extraordinary power available to expert practitioners (yogis), and the nature of the ultimate self.

The Astanga Path

Patanjali opens the Yoga Sutras with a clear statement of intent: Yoga is the active methodology for producing a state of consciousness that is free from all modes of discursive or superfluous thought. This purified state of consciousness reveals the true and eternal nature of an individual’s soul, liberating them from the bondage of all forms of materialism - gross and subtle. Patanjali then proceeds to detail the eight-limbed, or Astanga, path for anyone determined to work towards transcendence. (For those familiar with Buddhism, the “eightfold” construct may seem superficially similar; it’s unclear who first influenced who - but it’s among the clearest indications of cross-pollination between Hindu and Buddhist thinkers during the Vedic Period.)

Patanjali introduces the term citta as a composite term for consciousness - inclusive of the mind, intellect and ego. The explicit goal of each of the eight components of Yoga is to progressively cleanse citta of its impurities, misconceptions, and distractions. The first component is yama: the blanket term for abstinence, or comprehensive bodily control. Yama dictates that one must begin by methodically cultivating and abiding by the principles of ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthful speech and action), asteya (non-stealing, non-coveting), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (control over material yearning). With each attribute, Patanjali explains how the exercised control purifies one’s citta; as an example, the active principle of nonviolence leads to the abandonment of enmity - which otherwise relentlessly pollutes the mind.

The second component of the Astanga path is niyama, which consists of five imperative behaviors: shaucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (acceptance of others and material circumstances), tapas (tolerance), svadhyaya (routine study of both scripture and personal behavior), and ishvarapranidhana (active meditation and surrender to the Godhead). The first two components of the path, when taken together, establish a rigorous code of conduct; yama defines the axioms of control, and niyama defines the fundamental praxis. Often having spent years on these initial components, an aspiring yogi is then prepared to move into the realm of physical meditation, known as asana.

Suffice to say, asana encompasses more than stretching or breathing exercises; it is a set of physical meditations intended to complement the cognitive meditations established with yama and niyama. Through an integrated set of concentrated motions and postures, the goal is to gain deeper understanding of the physical modalities that govern causality and suffering throughout the world. The fourth component, pranayama, is the addition of breathing control - which provides a sharper scalpel for examining the fluctuating nature of citta. Western yoga largely focuses on asana and pranayama exercises, which - while seemingly beneficial for many practitioners - draws both criticism and worry from those with a holistic understanding of Yoga. Pranayama, in particular, is considered potentially hazardous if not pursued with the proper training and prior conditioning.

At this point, Patanjali’s instructions transition from the bodily sphere to the inner, spiritual realm. The fifth component of Astanga is pratyahara, or control of the sensory organs. The sutras are clear that this does not mean that “the eyes are closed to the world”, but rather that the mind’s deeper faculties are trained to retract from reacting or processing the sensory stimulation. This prepares the adherent for the sixth component, known as dharana. Dharana is the ability for the mind to focus on a single point, in a state of total and uninterrupted concentration. The object of focus is at the complete discretion of the practitioner; it can be a mantra, the personal breath, an object in the world, or a concept synthesized within the mind.

The penultimate component, dhyana, is defined as the total contemplation of the subject that has been brought into laser-focus by the prior component, dharana. Whereas dharana assembles the state of the mind - an unmovable focus upon a single subject - dhyana is the active process of reflecting upon every aspect, form, and consequence of the subject, in a manner devoid of judgment. In dhyana, the meditator is no longer aware of the act of meditation; consciousness contains only a continuous flow of the subject, and the perception of one’s own status as the observer. Patanjali (and myriad others) treat it as a very advanced form of meditation, and consider it a prerequisite for the final stage of Yogic progression: samadhi.

In the depths of dhyana, the Yoga Sutras claim that one can achieve samadhi: the state of total oneness with the subject, where the distinctions between the meditator, the act of meditation, and the subject have completely dissolved. When achieved through the conscious use of an “anchor object”, the process is known as savikalpa samadhi. Patanjali asserts that an even higher form of samadhi is possible, nirvikalpa samadhi, which translates to “samadhi without seed” - and as the phrasing suggests, is obtained without any reliance on an anchor object. For the yogi that has obtained nirvikalpa samadhi, Patanjali claims that “the material world has become like a shadow, from which you are completely free.”

The Metaphysics

If the mission is liberation through samadhi, the natural question is: what does Yoga claim the adherent will perceive, on the other side? To this day, many consider Yoga to be the practical complement to Samkhya’s theoretical rigor; Yoga wasn’t even considered a formally separate school until centuries after Patanjali wrote his sutras. This scholastic relationship is formally established in the Bhagavad Gita, as Krishna (incarnation of Vishnu, the preserving aspect of Brahman) describes the nature of reality, and the contextual imperatives found in one’s personal dharma and karma, to the warrior-prince Arjuna.

Yoga broadly accepts the axioms put forth by Samkhya, starting with a foundational dualist claim about the nature of the universe: there are ultimately two essences that operate in conjunction with one another, known as prakriti and purusha. Together, they constitute all of reality - encompassing the realms of both ordinary and extraordinary phenomenon. Prakriti is the primary cause behind every manifested element in the material universe. In its fundamental state, it is imperceptible; containing an even arrangement of its three intrinsic qualities (known as the three gunas). Purusha, its complementary essence, is defined as pure consciousness. Its nature is considered transcendental - and beyond any possible perception that is mediated by the mind or senses.

As detailed in a prior post, Samkhya claims that purusha’s presence is what “disturbs” the otherwise dormant prakriti, instigating its transformation into the countless material configurations we see throughout the known universe. For the individual, liberation involves the unbinding of a purusha (i.e., an individual soul) from the prakriti it is entangled with. While Samkhya claims this is entirely possible through penetrating meditation, Yoga claims that the singular pursuit of knowledge is not enough. The adherent needs a systemic practice that progressively guides them through different phases of realization (i.e., the Astanga path), and finally places liberation within the realm of possibility.

Yoga also provides a more thorough psychology of the mind than Samkhya, detailing five different vrittis (literally “whirlpools” in Sanskrit), or psychic impressions. These consist of right knowledge, error, metaphor, deep sleep, and memory. While some of these can have beneficial manifestations in the early stages of Astanga, they are all ultimately considered attributes of prakriti, which must be transcended in the progression towards samadhi. Yoga outlines even deeper collections of psychic currents, known as klesas, which encompass the different forms of ignorance, ego, desire, aversion, and attachment that appear during different stages of consciousness. In a future post, I’d like to properly venture through these definitions.

One categorical distinction between Yoga and Samkhya is in the conception of the ultimate Godhead (Brahman). Where Samkhya is largely indifferent about any sort of unifying Brahman (instead focusing on the liberation of individual eternal purushas), Patanjali clearly affirms that samadhi is only possible through the grace of an omniscient and transcendent Brahman (also known as Ishvara, when considered subjectively). The nature of Brahman within the Yoga school has a multitude of interpretations; some believe it refers to a specific deity (e.g., Shiva, famously known as Adiyogi or the first yogi); others believe that it refers to a governing super-purusha, that enables the liberation of individual souls; and others yet believe that Patanjali intentionally left it ambiguous, so that adherents could contextualize Brahman in the manner most conducive to their personal path to liberation.

The legendary Vedantic sage and theological critic, Adi Shankara, is said to have pithily summarized the Yoga school as “Samkhya, but with God.” (A characterization that ruffled feathers in both schools, no doubt.)


It hopefully goes without saying that this post has only been the tip of the iceberg; the Yoga school contains enormous diversity - especially when considering different permutations of the Astanga stages, the myriad psychic phenomenologies and theories of the mind, and the diverse interpretations of samadhi and ultimate transcendence. Yogic practices have intermixed with Buddhist and Jain analogues for over two millennia - resulting in deep commonalities in praxis across the main schools of Indian philosophy. (Another topic for a future post.)

In a way, it’s fortunate that the West has received a glimmer of this richness. But as you begin to realize how much more is contained in the universe of Yoga, the consumerist label begins to feel a bit like using the term “Communion” to refer to recreational wine tasting.