Patanjali’s Raja Yoga

FOREMOST among the Yoga teachings of India comes that of Patanjali dating back, according to popular tradition, to at least 300 B.C. His Yoga SÅ«tras give definitions and instructions which are accepted by all teachers, even when they also make additions in minor matters. He begins with a description of yoga as “Chitta vritti nirodha.”

Chitta is the mind, the instrument that stands between the man and the world. As a gardener uses a spade for digging, so a man uses the mind for dealing with the world. Acted upon by the things of the outer world through the senses, it presents to the man within a picture of those things, as on the plate of a camera. Acted upon by the will of the man within, it transmits into action in the body the thought-power that is its positive characteristic. It thus has two functions—one receptive or negative, the other active or positive. It transmits from the world to the man within, and also from the man within to the outer world.

Vritti means literally a whirlpool, and nirodha signifies restraint or control. Thus yoga practice is control of the whirlpools or changes of the mind or, in simple terms, voluntary direction of what is commonly called thought, or control of the ideas which are in the mind.

The mind of the average man is far from being an instrument within his control. It is being impressed at all times, even during sleep to some extent, with the pictures of a thousand objects clamoring for his attention, through ears, skin, eyes, nose and mouth, and by telepathic impressions from others. In addition to all that, it is in a state of agitation on its own account, bubbling in a hundred places with disturbing visions, excited by uncontrolled emotion or worrying thoughts. Let him achieve control of all this, says Patanjali, and his reward will be that he shall stand in his own state.

That a man should be in his own true state has two meanings: first, that in his repose he will be utterly himself, not troubled with the whirlpools, which, however slight, are in the eyes of the yogi nothing but worry, and secondly, that in his activity as a man, using the mind, he will be a positive thinker, not merely a receptacle for impressions from outside and ideas which he has collected in the course of time.

Ideas in the mind should be material for thought, not merely ideas, just as the muscles are useful means of action, not mere lumps of flesh. To be a positive thinker, lover and willer, master in one’s own house, is to be oneself, in one’s own true state; all the rest is slavery or bondage, willing or unwilling. To its master, the man, the vrittis of chitta are always only objects of knowledge, because of his not being involved in them, say Aphorisms iv 18-20. These vrittis are ideas or items in the mind.

The final aim of Patanjali’s yoga is to cease this slavery and achieve freedom. The technical name for this great achievement is kaivalya, independence. That is really only another name for divinity, for material things are in bondage, unable to move of themselves, and always moved by forces from the outside; but the divine is by definition free, able to move of itself. Every man feels in himself some spark of that divine freedom, which he then calls the will, and that is the power with which he can control his mind.

In Patanjali’s yoga the aspirant uses his will in self-control. Thought governs things, we know; so much so that every voluntary movement of the body follows a mental picture; therefore all work done by us, even with the hands, is done by thought-power. But will controls thought, concentrates it, expands it, causes its flow—directs, in fact, its three operations of concentration, meditation, and contemplation. The perfection of these three is the aim of the Patanjali yoga exercises.

Before proceeding with the systematic description of the practices of yoga, which begins in his Book ii, Patanjali mentions two things which are necessary for success in controlling the vrittis or thoughts, namely abhyāsa and vairāgya. Abhyāsa means constant practice in the effort to secure steadiness of mind. Vairāgya is that condition of the feelings in which they are not colored by outside things, but are directed only by our own best judgment. This detachment of the emotions may be “lower” or “higher” according as it is born from dislike of external conditions, or from a vision of the glorious joy of the pure free life. The higher uncoloredness leads to the highest contemplation, and therefore to freedom, the goal of this yoga.

Patanjali’s systematic instruction for practical training is given in two portions. The first part, called Kriyā Yoga, is often translated as preliminary yoga because a person who has not first practiced it is not likely to succeed in the main portion, the ashtanga, or “eight limbs” of yoga practice. But it is much more than preliminary. It is the yoga of action, the yoga which must be practiced all the time in daily life. Without it, meditation would be useless, for yoga involves not retirement or retreat but a change in attitude towards the world. It. is in the midst of life’s activities that our freedom must be realized, for to desire to slip away into some untroubled sphere would be mere escape, a perpetuation of the dream of the best we have so far learned to know, a denial of the possibility of our real freedom. A man must become master of himself, whatever other people and beings, whose activities constitute the major portion of his world, may do.

The object of the preliminary yoga or yoga of action is to weaken what are called the five kleshas. A klesha is literally an affliction, just as one would speak of a crooked spine or blindness as an affliction. The five afflictions are avidyā, asmitā, rāga, dwesha and abhinivesha, which may be translated ignorance, egotism, liking and disliking, and possessiveness. One leading ancient commentator on the Aphorisms, named Vyāsa, states that these, when active, bring one under the authority of Nature, and produce instability, a stream of causes and effects in the world, and dependence upon others. They are faults of the man himself, not outside causes of trouble; the world can never hurt us, except through our own faults, and these five reduce us to pitiful slavery. Having submitted to these, a man is constantly moved from outside, governed too much by circumstances.

“Ignorance” describes all those activities of the mind which do not take into account the fact that man is in himself eternal, pure and painless. The man who does not accept his own true nature as eternal, pure and painless, will judge and value all objects improperly. A house, a chair and a pen are something to a man, by which he can satisfy his body and mind. They could not be the same things to a cow. But the question now is: what are all these things to the real man, who is eternal, pure and painless? To look at all things as for the use of such a being is to begin to see them without error. It is to have true motives.

“Egotism” is the tendency to think “I am this,” and the desire that other people also should think one to be this or that. Thinking oneself to be a certain object or mind, or the combination of these even in the form of an excellent and useful personality, means attachment to things. We are not a personality, but we possess one, and it is not to be despised if it is useful to the real man.

The error of Self-personality or egotism leads to the next two afflictions which are personal liking and disliking. These two are those unreasoning impulses which lead men to judge and value things by their influence on the comforts and pleasures and prides of the personality, not according to their value for an immortal being.

The fifth affliction is “possessiveness,” beginning with clinging to the body, which indicates the lack of that insight which causes a man to regard the body as a mere instrument which he is willing to use, and wear out in the course of time.

In this affliction we have not merely the fear of death, but that of old age as well, for men forget that the bodily life has its phases—childhood, youth, manhood and old age—and each of these has its own perfections, though it has not the perfections of the other stages. In this course there is constant apparent loss as well as gain, because no man can pay full attention to all the lessons of life at once, or exert at the same time all his faculties, any more than a child in school can properly think of geography, history and mathematics in the period which is devoted to music.

In Hindu life, before it was disturbed from the West, men were wise enough in old age to give the family business into the hands of their mature sons, and devote themselves to the study and contemplation of life; and just as in the West it is considered the bounden duty of parents to support their children with every kindness and give them the opportunities that their stage in life requires, so it was always considered in the East the duty of the grown up children to support their old people with every kindness, treat them with honor and dignity as the source of their own opportunity and power, and give them every opportunity that their stage of life requires. The material requirements of these retired people were very small—a corner in the home, some food and occasional clothes.

It is not presumed that in the preliminary stages the candidate will completely destroy the five afflictions. His object will be attained if he succeeds in definitely weakening them. Three kinds of practices are prescribed for this purpose in the yoga of action. These are called tapas, swādhyāya and īshwara-pranidhāna.

It is impossible to translate these terms by a single word each, without causing serious misunderstanding. The first is often translated as austerity, and sometimes even as mortification. The word means literally “heat” and the nearest English equivalent to that when it is applied to human conduct is “effort.” The yogÄ« must definitely do those things that are good, even when a special effort is necessary because old habits of the personality stand in the way. Briefly it means this: “Do for the body what you know to be good for it. Do not let laziness, selfishness, or thoughtlessness stand in the way of your doing what you can to make the body and mind healthy and efficient.”

Patanjali does not explain the practice of tapas, but Shri Krishna says, in the seventeenth chapter of the Bhagavad GÄ«tā “Reverential action towards the gods, the educated, the teachers and the wise, purity, straightforwardness, continence, and harmlessness are tapas of the body; speech not causing excitement, truthful, affectionate and beneficial, and used in self-study is the tapas of speech; clearness of thinking, coolness, quietness, self-control, and purity of subject-matter are the tapas of mind.”

Shri Krishna here gives a wider range to the meaning of tapas than does Patanjali, who makes it particularly a matter concerning the body. How than can any one say that tapas is self-torture? It is true that there has grown up a system of painful practices, such as that of holding the arm still until it withers, or sitting in the sun in the midst of a ring of fires, but these are superstitions which have grown up round a valuable thing, as they are liable to do everywhere. Those who follow these methods are few as compared with the true yogÄ«. All over the country there are Indian gentlemen—many of them Government servants who have a routine task with short working hours—who every day spend some time in meditation, deliberately guiding themselves by the “Yoga SÅ«tras.”

A great example of tapas is that of the modern women. Their will-power in the government of their bodies and in overcoming bodily self-indulgence excites the greatest admiration. And their results are entirely in line with Patanjali’s aphorism iii 45 in which he approves of “excellence of body” and refers to it as consisting of correct form, charm, strength and very firm well-knitness, all of which is the very reverse of mortification or self-castigation, which some have erroneously attributed to yoga, because of superstition.

These delightful beings are not even willing to leave Nature just as she is, but consider in many ways how to bring lightness and freedom from earthiness or grossness or clumsiness into bodily living and bodily appearance. Even the artificialities of high heels and very slender figures have the same “spiritual” background, and where excess or unbalance occurs it can at least be credited to good intentions, carried out with great will-power or tapas. The proportion of tapas is on the increase all the time as seen by the exercises and dietary courses which are extensively advertised and the thoroughness and continuity with which they are carried out.

Man himself, too, it must be said, shares a little in this sort of effort, shaving or at least trimming his beard and whiskers, and padding his shoulders to ridiculous excess, as he used to do his calves in the old days when trousers were worn short and stockings were the vogue.

In all these matters there has been plenty of effort, in the main tending away from uncouth and un-mastered living. I know some of both sexes who assiduously perform what our yogÄ«s call uddiyāna, the exercises of the abdominal muscles, with the effect of correct posture and adequate strength, thus attaining the “natural corset,” as it has been called, essential to health and good appearance. There is no doubt that such exercises are necessary for those who do not do work involving bending, and it is not a bad thing that this undertaking calls for considerable will-power which then becomes useful also for other purposes as well, and also contributes to the enjoyment of consciousness.

The second practice, swādhyāya, means the study of books that really concern yourself as an immortal being. Psychology, philosophy and ethics come in here. Give up indiscriminate reading, and study what bears upon your progress, is the advice.

The third practice, Ä«shwara-pranidhāna, means devotion to God, but God as understood by the Hindu, as the perfect Being pervading all things, the life of the world, the inner impulse of which each one of us is a share. The aspirant must habituate himself to see that Principle in everything, to accept all as from that hand. “Everything that is received is a gift,” says a Hindu proverb; more than that, it is a gift from God, presented with perfect wisdom, to be accepted, therefore, with cheerfulness and joy. Behind the eyes of every person he meets, the aspirant must also see the Divine. The common salutation of the Hindu, with the palms together, looks curious to the Westerner, as resembling prayer. It is prayer—the recognition of God within our fellow-man. It is appreciation, the opposite of depreciation. Ishwara-pranidhāna is in effect the full appreciation of everything. It makes for maximum attentiveness and thus maximum living.

This practice develops right feeling towards everything; the previous one right thought, and the first right use of the will, and the three together, pursued diligently for even a short time, play havoc with the five afflictions.

When the candidate has weakened the afflictions to some extent, he is ready for Patanjali’s regular course, the eight “limbs” of yoga. These may be divided into three sets: two moral, three external, and three internal, as shown in the following list:—



Five abstentions.




Five observances.



Balanced posture.




Regularity of breath.



Withdrawal of senses.











The two ethical or moral “limbs” of yoga contain five rules each, which the man must practice in his daily life. Put together, they make what we may call “the ten commandments.” The first five are; “Thou shalt not (a) injure, (b) lie, (c) steal, (d) be sensual and (e) be greedy.”

Explaining this aphorism, Vyāsa says that ahimsā or non-injury is placed first because it is the source of the following nine. Thus the brotherhood principle is considered as fundamental. Truth, for example, can hardly arise unless there is a motive beyond selfish desires. Vyāsa explains that this means word and thought being in accordance with facts to the best of our knowledge. Only if speech is not deceptive, confused or empty of knowledge, he says, is it truth, because speech is uttered for the purpose of transferring one’s knowledge to another.

Vāchaspati’s glossary interprets truth as word and thought in accordance with facts, and fact as what is really believed or understood by us on account of our own direct experience, our best judgment or the accepted testimony of reliable witnesses. So yoga is rooted in virtue, and that in brotherhood, or a feeling for others. Without at least the desire for these five, though perfection in them may not be attained, contemplation cannot yield its richest fruits. We are to be at peace with the world, even if the world is not at peace with us. In this case there is no desire to injure, lie, steal etc. Such activities are not sources of pleasure, in any circumstances.

The second five are: “Thou shalt be (a) clean, (b) content, (c) self-controlled, (d) studious, and (e) devoted.” Few comments are needed on these. Contentment does not mean satisfaction, but willingness to accept things as they are and to make the most of them. Without dissatisfaction one would not take to yoga. It implies a desire to improve one’s life. The remaining three are tapas, swādhyāya and Ä«shwara-pranidhāna, the preliminary yoga or yoga of daily life—apart from any private exercises—still carried on.

By the attainment of these five a man can be at peace with the world. It is the end of antagonism from his side.

Incidentally, Patanjali mentions that when the ten virtues are firmly established in a person’s character definite effects will begin to appear, such as absence of danger, effectiveness of speech, the arrival of unsought wealth, vigor of body and mind, understanding of life’s events, clarity of thought, steadiness of attention, control of the senses, great happiness, perfection of body and senses, intuition and realization of one’s true self. These can come only after the cessation of all antagonisms to anybody or anything in the world.

Now we come to what some will regard as the more practical steps, though to the understanding yogī nothing can be more practical than the ten commandments. Of these the three external steps are āsanā, prānāyāma and pratyāhāra. The first is right posture, the second right breathing and the third control of the senses. They mean the training of the outer instrument or body so that it will offer no impediment to the serious practices of meditation which are to be taken up.

First, one must learn to sit quite still in a chosen healthy position. “The posture must be steady and pleasant,” says Patanjali—that is all. There is no recommendation of any particular posture, least of all any distorted, painful, or unhealthy position. Posture is achieved when it becomes effortless and the mind easily forgets the body. It is chiefly a matter of balance. Some practice of balanced sitting, whether on the ground or on a chair is necessary until balanced musculature is attained. Very often there is fatigue because some of the muscles are weak, yet to sit unbalanced for long is almost impossible.

Next, regulation of breath is necessary. During meditation, people often forget to breathe normally; sometimes they breathe out and forget to breathe in again, and so are suddenly recalled to earth by a choking at the throat. Many people never breathe well and regularly at all; let them practice simple natural exercises, such as those recommended by teachers of singing, and take care that the body is breathing regularly and quietly before they enter their meditation.

Sometimes numbers or proportionate times are prescribed, and one of the most authoritative in India is that in which one breathes in with the number 1, holds the breath with the number 4, breathes out with the number 2, and immediately begins again; but it is impossible to prescribe the perfect numbers, because they must differ with different people. The question really is: how long must your breath be so as to provide for enough oxidation? Science will some day say. But one must not hold it in longer than that, for to do so is to deprive the whole system of oxygen. Your body has to carry on all its ordinary sub-conscious activities while meditation is going on.

The only general practical advice one can give is that the breathing should be regular and a little slow, and there should be enough pause between inbreathing and outbreathing. It should also be calm, as may be judged by its not causing much disturbance in the outside air. The student will soon find out what suits him. Stunts such as breathing up one nostril and down the other, or holding the breath for a long time, are not mentioned by Patanjali and should be generally avoided as dangerous.

Pratyāhāra is the holding back of the senses from the objects of sense. One must practice paying no attention to sounds or sights or skin sensations, quietening the senses so that they will create no disturbance during meditation.

Think of what happens when you are reading an interesting book. Someone may come into the room where you are, may walk past you to get something, and go out again; but perhaps you heard and saw nothing at all. You were in what is sometimes called a brown study. The ears were open and the waves of sound in the air were no doubt agitating the tympanum, from which the nerves were carrying their message to the brain. The eyes were open, and the light waves were painting their pictures on the retina—but you saw and heard nothing, because your attention was turned away from those sensations.

The yogī must try to withdraw attention at will, so that in his meditation no sight or sound will distract him. This is helped by an absence of curiosity about anything external during the time set apart for meditation. One way of practicing this is to sit and listen for a while to the various sounds of nature; then listen to the delicate sound in the ear and so forget the former (though you cannot watch yourself forgetting it); then listen to a mere mental sound conjured up by the imagination, and so forget even the music in the ear.

Then come the three internal steps, to which everything else has been leading up, called dharanā, dhyāna and samādhi. They are concentration, meditation, and contemplation.
Concentration is really voluntary attentiveness, but this involves narrowing the field of view, focusing the mental eye upon a chosen object.

When you practice concentration or meditation, always choose the object before you begin. Sometimes people sit down and then try to decide what to concentrate upon, and come to no settled decision before their time is all gone. Then, do not try to hold the object in position by your thought. It is not the object that is going to run away; it is the mind that wanders. Let the object be thought of as in a natural position—if it is a pen it may be lying on the table; if it is a picture it may be hanging on the wall. Then narrow the field of attention down to it, and look at it with perfect calmness, and without any tension or sensation in the body or head.

Do not be surprised or annoyed if other thoughts intrude on your concentration. Be satisfied if you do not lose sight of your chosen object, if it remains the central thing before your attention. Take no notice of the intruding thoughts. Say “I do not care whether they are there or not.” Keep the emotions calm in this manner, and the intruders will disappear when you are not looking. Calmness—no physical strain—is necessary for successful concentration, and, given this, it is not at all the difficult thing that it is sometimes supposed to be. Detailed methods for practicing concentration are given in my book Concentration,” and regarding that and the other seven steps as well in my Practical Yoga: Ancient and Modern, which contains my translation and explanation of all the Patanjali Yoga aphorisms.

Meditation is a continuous flow or fountain of thought with regard to the object of your concentration. It involves the realization of that object as fully as possible. You must not let the string of thought go so far away on any line that the central object is in any way dimmed. On the contrary, every new idea that you bring forward must be fully thought of only with reference to it and should make it clearer and stronger than before. Thus for practice you might meditate on a cat. You would consider it in every detail; think of all its parts and qualities, physical, emotional, mental, moral and spiritual; think of its relation to other animals and of particular cats that you have known. When this is done you should know what a cat is much better than you did before. You will have brought into agreement and union all your knowledge or information on the subject. In this meditation there is no clutching, no anxiety, only calm mental reviewing and thinking.

The same method applies to virtues such as truth, kindness and courage. Many people have the most imperfect ideas as to what these are. Make concrete pictures in the imagination of acts of kindness, courage, truth. Then try to realize the states of emotion and mind, and the moral condition involved, and in doing so keep up the vividness of consciousness that has already been attained in the beginning of the practice on account of concentration on the concrete scene.

In meditation you take something up, but it is the opposite of going to sleep, because you retain the vivid qualities of reality which belong to the concentrated waking state. Yet it should always be done with perfect calm, and no tension or excitement. It widens, includes and integrates without loss of the quality gained by concentration or specific attentiveness.

Contemplation is another kind of concentration; this time a poise of the mind at the top end of your line of thought. When in meditation you have reached the highest and fullest thought you can about the chosen object, and your mind begins to waver, do not try to go forward, but do not fall back. Hold what you have attained, and poise calmly on it for a little time.

You will find that by contemplation you have created a platform. You have been making a new effort and so have developed or discovered some hitherto latent possibilities. There may be something in the nature of illumination. You must see what comes; never try to predetermine it. Then contemplation opens the door of the mind to intuitive knowledge, and many powers.

The student is told always to begin with concentration, then proceed to meditation. The triple process is a mind-poise called sanyama.

If the candidate wants to have what are commonly called psychic faculties and powers, Patanjali explains how he may obtain them—by sanyama on various objects having corresponding qualities. He mentions knowledge of past and future, memory of past lives, reading of others’ minds, perception of those who have reached perfection, and other powers and knowledge connected with “higher hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell” but remarks that, though these are accomplishments of the out-going mind, they are obstacles to the full or higher samādhi. Vāchaspati comments on this that sometimes the mind is captivated by these psychic powers, just as a beggar may think of the possession of a little wealth as abundant riches, but the real yogÄ« will reject them all. How can the real man, he asks, who has determined to remove all pain—including psychological or emotional pains—take pleasure in such accomplishments, which are opposed to his true state of being? Only by non-attachment to all such things, however great, may the seeds of bondage be destroyed, and independence or freedom be attained.

True contemplation, poised on higher matters, Patanjali teaches, leads to the complete dispersal of the afflictions, and on to great clarity and insight, culminating in the cessation of the junction of the seer and the sight, the absence of all pain and the uncovering of the inner light.