Emotions and the Yoga Sutra

April 1, 2002    BY Georg Feuerstein

At Raja Yoga seminars students often ask me, “What about the emotions?” What indeed? Patanjali is curiously silent about such cardinal feelings or emotions as envy, fear, grief, guilt, hope, humility, jealousy, love, pride, remorse, resentment, shame, and so on. Contrary to popular opinion, however, he does not altogether ignore our affective life, as is evident from the following list of affects mentioned in his Yoga Sutra:

Positive Affects

  • aparigraha or “greedlessness” (2.30,39)
  • ananda or “joy/bliss” (1.17)
  • hlada or “delight” (2.14)
  • karuna or “compassion” (1.33)
  • mudita or “gladness” (1.33)
  • santosha or “contentment” (2.32,42)
  • saumanasya or “gladness” (2.41)
  • sukha or “joy/pleasure” (1.33; 2.5,7,46)
  • upeksha or “equanimity” (1.33)
  • vairagya or “dispassion” (1.12,15; 3.50)
  • vishoka or “non-grieving” (1.36)
  • vitrishnavaitrishnya or “non-thirsting” (1.15, 16)

Negative Affects

  • alasya or “sloth” (1.30)
  • daurmanasya or “depression/dejection” (1.31)
  • duhkha or “pain/suffering/displeasure” (1.30,33; 2.5,8,16,34)
  • krodha or “anger” (2.34)
  • lobha or “greed” (2.34)
  • paritapa or “distress” (2.14)
  • styana or “languor” (1.30)
  • tapa or “anguish/distress” (2.15)
  • vaira or “enmity/hostility” (2.35)

Most of these positive (desirable) and negative (undesirable) affects Patanjali leaves unexplained, and their exact meaning is not obvious from the context in which they appear, although they were undoubtedly clear to Patanjali’s contemporaries.        

Before we proceed, a terminological clarification is in order. Emotions, feelings, moods, and attitudes are generally grouped under affects. Emotions are intense affects, while feelings carry a much milder charge. Moods, unlike temperament, are temporary emotional dispositions that arise in reaction to internal or external conditions, whereas attitudes are fairly stable predispositions by which we react in a more or less predictable way to stimuli from the environment (people, organizations, material objects, or ideas).

Emotions are intense affects, while feelings carry a much milder charge.

The Yoga Sutra was intended as a vade mecum for yoga practitioners, and hence it appropriately focuses on the higher processes of yoga, especially meditation and the various levels of ecstatic unification (samadhi). Patanjali simply took it for granted that anyone attempting the eightfold path as mapped out by him is emotionally stable and ready for the practice of sensory inhibition, concentration, meditation, and ecstasy. In other words, he showed no interest in the psychopathology of ordinary individuals and mentioned negative affects only insofar as they may arise as obstacles on the spiritual path.

Patanjali dealt with affects summarily via the fundamental categories of “attachment” (raga, 1.37; 2.3,7) and “aversion” (dvesha, 2.3,8), explaining the former as “that which rests on pleasure” and the latter as “that which rests on pain/suffering.” From his perspective, neither pleasure nor pain is deemed worthy of cultivation. Rather, the yogi seeks to promote a mental state in which the seesaw play of pleasure and pain is transcended in favor of a condition in which mental activity is controlled (niruddha). For the yogic process to be ultimately fruitful, control has to happen at three levels:

1. vritti-nirodha or “control of the fluctuations” through the cultivation of meditation.

2. pratyaya-nirodha or “control of (higher) ideation” in the state of ecstasy through the cultivation of formless or supraconscious ecstasy (asamprajñata-samadhi).

3. samskara-nirodha or “control of the subconscious activators” through the event of seedless ecstasy (nirbija-samadhi).

These three levels of control indicate a progressive deconditioning of the mind through ever higher levels of mental control to the point of actual enlightenment, or liberation (kaivalya). For Patanjali this state apparently coincides with the recovery of our transcendental Identity (as the Self or purusha)—that aspect of our being which is free from all conditioning because it is devoid of the mind itself. The purusha, or Ultimate Awareness monad, is utterly transcendental and thus, strictly speaking, non-human.

According to Patanjali’s opening definition in aphorism 1.2, yoga consists of the control (nirodha) of the whirls of the mind, the chitta-vrittis. But these are very specific types of mental activity, namely correct perception (pramana), misperception (viparyaya), imagination (vikalpa), sleep (nidra), and memory (smriti). To the consternation of many Western students of yoga, emotions are simply not included in the vritti category.

Even when Patanjali talks about the motivating forces, he refers only to the fivekleshas, or causes of affliction, which comprise ignorance, I-am-ness, attachment, aversion, and the will to live (or survival instinct). Attachment/ attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha) are in contemporary terms “like” and “dislike.” This dualism represents a simple but practical model of affective/motivational behavior. Ordinarily we do not ever seem to be in a completely neutral disposition, and Patanjali appears to agree with this. We always experience shades of either attraction or aversion. Neutrality comes into play only when the yogic process of self-transcendence is involved, leading to a profound and persistent mood of equanimity (upeksha) or calm indifference.

Until this state of even-temperedness is attained, however, we must expect varyingly strong emotions to arise, particularly in our interpersonal activities.Patanjali acknowledged this by insisting that spiritual practitioners begin by harmonizing their social interactions through the five moral disciplines (yamas)—non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and greedlessness. These are supposed to be practiced under any circumstance and without exception, which is easier said than done. In fact, the moral disciplines are very demanding and involve a complete retraining of our motivations. Because of the great popularity of hatha yoga postures, many Western practitioners completely bypass the moral disciplines and thus the spiritual process itself, for the five yamas are not merely moral rules but cornerstones of spiritual life.

Once a certain measure of emotional stability and inner witnessing has been achieved, the technique of pratipaksha-bhavana, or cultivating the opposite, works very well.

Patanjali tells us very clearly in aphorism 2.33 that if our practice of the moral disciplines should be threatened by undesirable mental states (vitarka) based in negative affects, we should immediately cultivate their opposites—a practice known as pratipaksha-bhavana. Thus when our heart is filled with anger and we are on the verge of breaking the virtue of non-harming (either in deed, word, or thought), then we should at once engender thoughts of kindness and love toward the object of our anger. Unfortunately, the Yoga Sutra is not specific about how to do this. We can imagine that Patanjali might have advised his disciples to remember that they are the transcendental Awareness, or purusha, and are mistakenly identifying with the arising emotion of anger. Next he might have asked them to sit still, take a few deep breaths, and utilize the energy of anger by converting it into a powerful visualization of radiating positive energy and thoughts toward the person or persons who have become the object of anger. Of course, this approach presupposes a certain level of emotional control. An individual who is subject to fits of rage is incapable of assuming the position of the transcendental Witness. But then, Patanjali and other yoga masters like him were not interested in teaching unqualified disciples.

What can we do when an intense emotional response is triggered in us? Yoga is clear that we must not just “let it rip.” Unchecked expression of intense emotions—especially anger—is manifestly disruptive, harmful, and also debilitating. But neither do the yoga masters expect us to repress anything, which is unproductive and damaging. They also would not quarrel with our using one or another psychological technique for managing strong emotions until regular yoga practice has balanced our mental life more. Once a certain measure of emotional stability and inner witnessing has been achieved, the technique of pratipaksha-bhavana, or cultivating the opposite, works very well.

Emotions are an integral part of human existence. In their pursuit of liberation or enlightenment, yoga practitioners are not expected to excise all emotionality. Rather they must, step by step, overcome negative emotions and refine or ennoble their emotional life. In this way they also effectively contribute to greater social harmony and world peace.

Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.