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Vairagya (non-attachment) etc. – workshop transcript (10/21/17)

 [This is an edited version of the transcript of the monthly workshop on the yoga sutras held on October 21, 2017. In this session, we covered the following sutras:

  • Sutra 1.16: higher form of vairagya (non-attachment)
  • Sutras 1.30-1.31: obstacles to the path of yoga
  • Sutra 1.33: Four attitudes for four categories of people
  • Sutra 2.28: why practice the eight limbs of yoga?
  • Sutra 2.29: Listing the eight limbs of yoga]

Invocation to Sage Patanjali

In this invocation, Patanjali is credited with three areas of knowledge – science of Ayurveda to purify the body, the commentary on Sanskrit grammar to purify the speech and the science of Yoga (Yoga Sutras) to purify the mind.

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां । मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ॥ योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां । पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि ||

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yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ । malaṃ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena ॥ yo’pākarottaṃ pravaraṃ munīnāṃ । patañjaliṃ prāñjalirānato’smi

"I respectfully bow down with folded hands and offer my salutations to Sage Patanjali, the highest among the Munis (sages), who has presented the remedies for removing the impurities of the body through his treatise on Ayurveda, of language through his treatise on grammar (Patanjala Mahabhashya) and the impurities of the Chitta (mind field) through his treatise on Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)"

Sutra 1.16

तत्परं पुरुषख्यातेर्गुणवैतृष्ण्यम्॥१६॥

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tatparaṁ puruṣa-khyāteḥ guṇa-vaitr̥ṣṇyam ॥16॥

tat=that (renunciation); paraM=higher; puruSha=the soul, self; khyAteh=knowledge, perception; guNa=qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas; vaitRuShNyam=desirelessness

“That is the highest Vairagya in which, on account of the awareness of the Purusa, there is cessation of even the desire for the three Gunas.”

As we recall, the definition and the purpose of yoga is to subdue the fluctuations that are constantly going on in the mind – “yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhaH” (sutra 1.2). These fluctuations are given in five categories – right knowledge (pramana), wrong knowledge (viparyaya), imaginary knowledge or fancy (vikalpa), sleep (nidra) and memory (smriti). To subdue these fluctuations, in sutra 1.12, Patanjali recommends that we do these two things – abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment). Abhyasa is defined as practice done for a long period of time (dirgha-kala), without interruption (nairantarya) and with a sense of devotion and faith (satkara-asevitaH) (sutra 1.14). Since calming the mind is a difficult task, long period of time could mean multiple lifetimes. Of course, in every new birth, one doesn’t start with a new, clean slate. You start at the level of spiritual evolution that you attained in previous life. The subtle body including the samskaras, memories etc. gets stored in the “karma bag” which gets transported to the next life. The practice must also be done without interruption, on a regular schedule. If you miss your practice, you have the possibility of dropping the level of spiritual advancement that you have attained so far.

Vairagya could either mean non-attachment or detachment. It is detachment when we are already attached to something and we want to get rid of that attachment. On the other hand, it is non-attachment when we want to avoid getting attached to any new sense objects.

Q: does it mean we don’t enjoy anything in life?

A: No, it doesn’t mean that. We want to enjoy all aspects of life but we don’t want to get attached. We enjoy our cup of coffee or a piece of cake; however, we don’t want to get attached to them. When I am attached to my cup of coffee which I must have a 7 AM, then if I don’t get that coffee, I might develop a headache or some other syndrome. We should avoid this kind of attachment.

Q: What is Patanjali referring to when he talks about “practice” – practice of what?

A: The implication here is the practice of the eight limbs of yoga that he talks about in chapter 2.

The form of vairagya discussed in sutra 1.15 is considered the lower form of vairagya. In the current sutra, Patanjali talks about the higher form of vairagya. In this sutra he talks about the knowledge or awareness of Purusha. If you recall, Purusha is the consciousness principle or the Self. Purusha and Prakriti are the two realities mentioned in the Samkhya philosophy. Prakriti is the material counterpart of Purusha. The purpose of the practice of yoga is to understand that our true identity is nothing but the Purusha, not this mind-body complex which is a part of Prakriti. When we attain that objective, it is called self-realization. As the sutra states, this awareness of the Purusha is associated with total desirelessness of the three gunas of Prakriti. Prakriti is a composite of the three gunas – sattva (purity), rajas (action) and tamas (dullness). Tamas also includes negative tendencies like anger, greed etc., or the desire to hurt someone etc. In many cases, it is a combination of two or sometimes even all three gunas that propels our actions. For example, desire to hurt someone may be a combination of rajas and tamas – tamas for bringing about the desire and rajas to put that desire into action of hurting the other person.

Gunas are the reason why we act in a certain way at a given time. All our thoughts, behavior patterns, plans etc. are based on the guna that is dominating at the time. Our interest, of course, is in diminishing the influence of rajas and tamas so that the sattva guna becomes more dominant. It must be kept in mind that we need all the three gunas all the time. If you don’t have tamas, you will never be able to sleep when you are tired at night. If you don’t have rajas, you will never get to work on time or not get there at all! The point is that it is the dominance of rajas and tamas over sattva that causes problems for us. Our interest thus is to shift the dominance of the gunas from rajas and tamas toward sattva. But eventually even attachment to sattva needs to be eliminated. We really want to go beyond the three gunas by transcending any attachment to them. That is possible only when you have been able to merge back to the original Prakriti, called unmanifest Prakriti. The word “vaitrishnyam” in the sutra means having absolutely no desire for any of the three gunas. When we are able to transcend the three gunas, we would have attained “self-realization” or liberation. That represents the highest form of non-attachment known as “para-vairagya”.

The term “viveka khyati” used here means pure discriminatory wisdom that will allow us to attain the state of highest non-attachment.

Sutra I.30

व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमादालस्याविरतिभ्रान्तिदर्शनालब्धभूमिकत्वानवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपास्तेऽन्तरायाः॥३०॥

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vyādhi styāna saṁśaya pramāda-ālasya-avirati bhrāntidarśana-alabdha-bhūmikatva-anavasthitatvāni citta-vikṣepāḥ te antarāyāḥ ॥30॥

vyādhi= Disease; styāna= dullness; saṁśaya= doubt; pramāda= carelessness ; ālasya= laziness ; avirati= sensuality; bhrāntidarśana= false perception; alabdha-bhūmikatva=failure to reach firm ground; anavasthitatvāni= slipping from ground gained; citta=mind; vikṣepāḥ=distractions; te=these; antarāyāḥ=obstacles ॥30॥

“Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from ground gained—these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.”

This sutra lists many of the obstacles that we are likely to face in our pursuit of the goals of yoga and on our path to self-realization. A brief description is provided below:

Disease (vyadhi): Physical/mental illness or disease is an obvious distraction for the mind.

Dullness (styana): Chronic fatigue and lack of nervous energy are caused either by some defect in the "pranamaya kosha" (vital energy sheath) or as a psychological condition based on a total lack of purpose in life. Here is a quick overview of the five koshas (sheaths): annamaya kosha (physical sheath), pranamaya kosha (vital energy sheath), manomaya kosha (mental sheath), vijnanamaya kosha (intuitive wisdom sheath), Ananda (bliss sheath).

Doubt (samshaya): Doubts in the efficacy of yogic techniques are a cause of distraction. An unshakable faith (shraddha) in the objectives, in the person himself and the yogic methods to be practiced is a key requirement for progress on the path of yoga.

Carelessness (pramada): Careful attention to important and seemingly unimportant things in life is needed to overcome the tendency to become lax and careless in yogic pursuits.

Laziness (alasya): Laziness is love of comfort and ease and a tendency to avoid exertion – physical or mental. Languor (mentioned above) can be considered a physical defect while laziness is a psychological condition. In my own practice, every now and then I tend to feel a little laze sitting for meditation. At that time, if I rest in Shavasana for about five minutes, I regain the energy to sit and meditate.

Worldly-mindedness (avirati): The path of yoga leads to Viveka (discrimination). However, if this viveka is purely at an intellectual level, the mind will be constantly driven outward through the attraction of sense objects. Worldly-mindedness can be a serious cause of Viksepa (mental distraction).

Delusion (bhranti-darshana): Delusion, taking a thing for what it is not, is generally caused by lack of discrimination. Sometimes people begin to see lights or hear sounds during their ‘yogic sadhana’. Due to delusion they begin to look at these spurious and trivial experiences as real yogic attainments. These feelings are a serious cause of distractions.

Non-achievement of a state (alabdha-bhumikatva): To attain deeper levels of consciousness, one needs to go through the essential techniques of yoga – dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption). Persistent effort is required to make the leap from one state to the next. Non-attainment of the next state with reasonable effort is a major cause of distraction for the sadhaka. While practicing yoga, there should be no expectation or judgment as to the outcome of the practice.

Q: Does Patanjali give any guidelines on how to stay motivated in the yoga practice?

A: Patanjali tells us that to attain the goal of yoga is not an easy task. It can actually take multiple lifetimes. We cannot expect to achieve liberation in a month’s time. So, there should be no expectation of any kind. However, when we practice meditation, many benefits begin to accrue to us gradually. The mind becomes calmer and clearer. We start making better decisions; our relationships may begin to improve; we may get less angry etc. These are the subtle benefits that keep us motivated in our practice. Subtle changes begin to happen in our mind and in the psyche. We have past impressions at the subconscious level called samskaras. Through constant meditation practice, we begin to make subtle changes in these samskaras.

It is these subtle benefits that accrue to us that keep us motivated to do the practice more regularly. The best time to do meditation is early morning when the mind is relatively clear and calm. It is a good idea to allocate time for meditation in the morning even if it means that you set your alarm for an earlier than your normal waking time.

Q: Many times I am motivated to do the practice but unable to devote the time. Can I “tweak” my available time to do a brief session?

A: Yes, indeed. It is better to do a regular practice for a shorter duration than to wait for a perfect day when you can allocate the full 90 minutes to your practice. Over time, you will learn how to “tweak” the rest of the day to be able to allocate more time for your yoga practice. Even a brief daily practice can help us work on our samskaras. The effect over time is cumulative.

Q: Can we get “attached” to our meditation practice?

A: Yes, indeed, that is quite possible. If you are attached to your practice then if you happen to miss one day you may start feeling angry at yourself for missing out. These feelings of anger or guilt etc. are all negative and counter-productive. They are obstacles in the path of yoga. So, yes, we should not be attached to our yoga practice.

Q: Do our samskaras get carried over to the next life?

A: Indeed, we carry our “bag of karmas” which includes all the samskaras to our future life. As such, we start off at the level of spiritual attainment from our previous life.

Instability (anavasthitatvani): Sometimes, due to its inherent fickleness or unsteadiness, the mind can revert back to the previous state. This is a cause for vikshepa (distraction).

Sutra 1.31

दुःखदौर्मनस्याङ्गमेजयत्वश्वासप्रश्वासा विक्षेपसहभुवः॥३१॥

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duḥkha-daurmanasya-aṅgamejayatva-śvāsapraśvāsāḥ vikṣepa sahabhuvaḥ ॥31॥

duḥkha=pain; daurmanasya=despair, depression etc.; aṅgamejayatva=shaking/trembling of the body; nervousness; śvāsapraśvāsāḥ=inhalation and exhalation, disturbed breathing; vikṣepa=distraction; sahabhuvaḥ=accompanying (symptoms) ॥31॥

“Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing.”

These are the possible accompaniments to the nine obstacles listed in the previous sutra. These are additional impediments to the attainment of the goals of yoga.

DuHkha (Sorrow/pain/suffering): is of three kinds –

Adhyatmika (arising within oneself): pertaining to oneself; includes things like running a fever, physical pain or even self-inflicted suffering like feeling of guilt, anxiety, stress, depression etc. 

Adhibhautika (pertaining to physical): includes suffering caused by other living beings – snake/insect bite, injury caused by an enemy

Adhidaivika (pertaining to natural calamity). These include natural disasters caused by divine intervention – earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, fires, plagues etc. We have no control over these events but are a cause of major suffering. We see them happening all the time. The objective of the practice of yoga is to free us of all these three kinds of suffering. Yoga can teach us how to stay calm and unperturbed in the face of suffering that we have no control over.

Duhkha (sorrow) is any suffering that one tries to prevent/remove.

Daurmanasya (Dejection/despair): results from non-fulfillment of desires or non-removal of suffering.

Angamejayatva (unsteadiness of body): results in shakiness/trembling of the body.

ShvAsaprashvAsa (disturbed breathing): is also associated with mental distraction. In complete concentration, breathing may stop but the flow of inner consciousness continues and brings about concentration on the object of meditation.

Sutra I.32


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tat-pratiṣedha-artham-eka-tattva-abhyāsaḥ ॥32॥

tat=that (there); pratiṣedha-artham=for the purpose of removing; eka=of one; tattva=principle, element, truth; abhyāsaḥ=practice ॥32॥

“The practice of concentration on a single subject [or the use of one technique] is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments.”

Patanjali once again emphasizes that it is only through focused meditation that these obstacles and other distractions can be removed. For meditation, he is not trying to limit you to a specific type of object. He is suggesting the use of any “tattva” – element, principle, object etc. that you decide to pick. Here, from the Samkhya point of view, you can pick any of the 23 elements of Prakriti as your object of meditation. The 23 elements are:

  • Intellect (buddhi)
  • Ego (ahamkara)
  • Mind (manas)
  • Five sense perceptions (tanmatras) – sense of smell, sight, taste, touch and hearing
  • Five sense organs (jnanendriyas) – nose for smell, eyes for sight, tongue for taste, skin for touch and ears for hearing
  • Five organs of action (karmendriyas) – organs of motion/locomotion (feet and legs), organs for grasping/lifting (hands and arms), organ of speech (tongue), organs of elimination and organs of procreation
  • Five great elements (mahabhutas) – earth, water, fire, air and ether

According to Samkhya philosophy, we are a composite of these 23 elements. As per this sutra, we can use any one or a combination of these elements as our object of meditation.

Q: Are these 23 elements listed in any of the yoga sutras?

A: No, they are not specifically listed; but they are listed in most commentaries under various topics. You can read more about it, along with a pictorial view, on my yoga sutra blog here. Remember, most of the concepts in Patanjali’s yoga sutras are based on some of the basic tenets of Samkhya philosophy.

Sutra 1.33

मैत्रीकरुणामुदितोपेक्षणां सुखदुःखपुण्यापुण्यविषयाणां भावनातश्चित्तप्रसादनम्॥३३॥

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maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam ॥33॥

maitrī=friendliness; karuṇā=compassion; muditā=gladness; upekṣāṇāṁ=indifference; sukha=joy, happiness; duḥkha=sorrow, misery; puṇya=virtue; apuṇya=vice; viṣayāṇāṁ=of the objects; bhāvanātaḥ=by cultivating attitudes (towards); citta=of mind; prasādanam=calming, purification

“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”

This is a popular and oft-quoted sutra as it tells us how to interact with people of different types. It puts people in four different broad categories and then recommends the attitude that we should have toward people in each category. The four categories are:

Sukha: people who are generally happy)

Dukha: people who are unhappy, miserable, suffering or in some distress)

Punya: people who are doing good, positive, benevolent deeds

Apunya: people who are doing bad, evil deeds

Q: Sometimes, it is hard to be indifferent toward or disregard someone who is wicked, especially if they happen to be a family member.

A: The word “upeksha” comes from the Sanskrit root word “iksh” which means “to see”. Adding the prefix “up”, the meaning becomes “to overlook” or “disregard” something. The word “indifference” may have a negative connotation especially if it brings about an angry reaction like “I give a damn!” The word “ignore” is also mentioned sometimes as a possible meaning. However, in the case of a family member, that meaning will not work. So, upeksha means being engaged and yet not being negatively reactive or disturbed by the interaction. The reactivity is initiated by the ego and the overlooking or disregarding while still engaged comes from the pure intellect. As we have seen before, it is only through deep meditation that one develops a sharp intellect so the ego becomes less effective. At that time, we can respond appropriately to every situation. We respond from a state of total non-attachment.

Observation: We need to learn how to separate the person from the actions he/she does. Once we can do that, then we can ignore/overlook their deeds and yet stay connected with the person. It is certainly not easy to do but the practice of yoga can help us get there.

The sutra states that by adopting these four different attitudes toward the four categories of people, we can attain “chitta prasadanam” or undisturbed calmness and peace of the mind.

A friend of mine, Ramani Ayakannu, has prepared a full presentation, with powerpoint slides, on this sutra. You can read about the presentation along with an audio recording of his talk on the subject on my blog here. I would love to hear your feedback on this presentation.

Eight Limbs of Yoga

We will skip many of the sutras from chapters 1 and 2 but will pick them up later under different topics. For now, we will begin our study of the eight limbs of yoga as given in chapter 2. So far, Patanjali has emphasized the need to understand the functioning of the mind and why we should sharpen the intellect so we can ignore the ego and get relief from suffering.

In early part of chapter 2, Patanjali discusses the topic of “klesha”, suffering, or in modern terms, stress that we go through in life. Therein he discusses the reasons for suffering, how ego plays a heavy role in causing suffering and finally how to get rid of this suffering. He also talks about the Karma theory and the concept of reincarnation. He emphasizes the need to cleanse the mind of all impurities, sharpen the intellect and make the intuitive wisdom more accessible and powerful than what it is now. In our present state of the mind, the intuition is hidden behind the cover of the ego. We need to start doing our actions based on intuitive wisdom, not the ego.

Sutra 2.28

योगाङ्गाऽनुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवेकख्यातेः॥२८॥

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yoga-aṅga-anuṣṭhānād-aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptir-āviveka-khyāteḥ ॥28॥

yoga-aṅga=limbs of yoga; anuṣṭhānāt=by the diligent practice of; aśuddhi=impurities; kṣaye=on the destruction or diminishing of; jñāna=spiritual knowledge; dīptir=shining, light; ā=leads to; viveka-khyāteḥ=discriminating knowledge

“By practicing the limbs of yoga, impurities of the mind dwindle away and the light of wisdom shines through leading to the highest state of discriminative discernment.”

Through this sutra, Patanjali introduces the eight limbs of yoga. It is a beautiful sutra as it outlines the major benefits of yoga at the deepest level. There are four Sanskrit terms used in this sutra. I am presenting below an explanation of these four terms. This is based on a blog article on this sutra that I wrote some time ago.

Yogaanga-anuShThaanaat (through the practice of the various limbs of yoga): In the very next sutra, Patanjali lists the eight limbs of yoga. It is for this reason that Patanjali’s yoga is also called Ashtanga Yoga (the Yoga of eight limbs).

Ashuddhi-kshaye (on the elimination of the impurities): This statement is pregnant with deep meaning. Here Patanjali is telling us that through the practice of yoga all impurities will be cleansed out. At various places in the sutras, Patanjali has mentioned various impurities, ailments, suffering etc. which can all be placed under "impurities". These represent impurities at the physical and the vital level (sutra 1.30 and 1.31 for example) and also those at the mental level (sutras 2.3 through 2.9) which he terms as kleshas.

In most of our spiritual literature, there are these six impurities of the mind, called “shad-ripu” or six enemies, listed. They are:

  • Kama (lustful craving)
  • Krodha (anger)
  • Lobha (greed)
  • Moha (delusion or attachment)
  • Mada (arrogance, pride)
  • Matsarya (jeaslousy)

Of course, there are other forms of impurities in the mind that may include depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling of inadequacy, lack of self-worth etc.

We also know that all the impurities are a result of the ego working on the samskaras (past impressions) while keeping us away from the present moment, and forcing us to worry about the past or the future all the time. All the stresses and strains in life are caused because we are not able to stay in the present moment. The term "ashuddhi kshaye" implies that with the practice of the eight limbs of yoga, we are able to learn how not to dwell on the past or the future, but rather stay in the present moment thus eliminating all the deep-seated impurities of the body and the mind.

It is interesting to note that the term "ashuddhi kshaye" means "on elimination of the impurities". That implies that getting rid of the impurities is not the final goal of the practice of yoga; it just paves the way toward the final goal.

Jnana-deeptiH (light of knowledge or wisdom): When the impurities are present, they represent a cloud that is covering the light of innate wisdom and keep us in the darkness of ignorance. The ego which uses the past samskaras to keep us under the cloud of ignorance loves this darkness. When we practice yoga, we gradually begin to chip away these impurities thus removing the cloud of ignorance. When that happens we can now see the glow of pure knowledge which represents our pure, innate, intuitive wisdom.

A viveka-khyateH (finally arriving at the pure discriminative wisdom): The word "aa" (pronounced as "aah") in Sanskrit mean "until". This phrase means that with the practice of yoga, now we can finally reach the ultimate goal of yoga which is "self-realization". Viveka means discrimination which is the ability to discriminate between real and unreal, truth and untruth, pure and impure etc. The word khyati literally means knowledge. Patanjali has used the term "viveka khyati" a few times in the sutras to indicate the state of the mind where we are now able to distinguish our mind-body complex from the pure consciousness that we are. In the terminology of Samkhya and Yoga, pure consciousness is termed as "Purusha" and the mind-body complex along with the entire material universe is called "Prakriti". The discrimination between purusha and prakriti has been termed "kaivalya" by Patanjali. Essentially, then, what Patanjali is saying is that through the practice of the eight limbs of yoga, one can attain the final state of kaivalya wherein we recognize our true identity as pure consciousness (purusha) and get rid of the misidentification with the mind-body complex (prakriti).

In summary, the three most far-reaching benefits of the practice of yoga are:

  1. All the impurities at the physical, vital, mental and emotional levels are removed.
  2. The light of pure knowledge and wisdom shines through.
  3. We attain self-realization with the dawn of discriminative discernment.

Sutra 2.29


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yama niyama-āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo-‘ṣṭāvaṅgāni ॥29॥

yama=abstinence or restraint; niyama=observance; āsana=physical posture; prāṇāyāma=breathing practices; pratyāhāra=sense withdrawal; dhāraṇā=concentration; dhyāna=meditation; samādhayah=final absorption; ashtau=eight; aṅgāni=limbs

In this sutra, Patanjali simply lists the eight limbs of yoga. In the next session, we will continue discussion on the sutras covering these limbs in some depth.

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