These days we generally like our yoga plain, without too many intangibles or hefty concepts such as God or faith to weigh it down. So Patanjali’s assertion in the Yoga Sutra that the practice of yoga begins with faith may give us pause. That is, if we notice it.
The Sanskrit term for faith, shraddha, appears only once in the Sutra (1.20) so it’s easy to gloss over it and move on. But it deserves more attention than that. Faith’s long and respected heritage has nothing to do with sectarian attitudes, nor does Patanjali’s assertion imply that you must go to a temple or pay allegiance to a particular theology in order to do yoga. Patanjali speaks about a more essential notion of faith. What exactly makes his notion such a basic aspect of yoga practice?
The way each of us lives out our lives reflects the nature of our faith. Yoga itself is an act of faith arising from the heart, and by having faith in the fundamental aims of yoga, “a faithful person obtains knowledge.”
A look at the word itself offers a starting point for answering this question. Shraddha comes from two Sanskrit words: shrat (shrad), which means “truth” or “faithfulness,” and dha, which translates “to put or place; to direct one’s mind toward.” Shrat is also a precursor to the English word heart. Assemble these meanings and they tell you that faith blooms when the mind directs itself toward a deep-seated truth—a truth arising in your heart.
Acts of the heart take us beyond (or beneath) everyday thoughts and feelings. They ground us in the fundamentals of life—supplying us with direction, hope, and resilience. In The Healing Power of Mind, the Tibetan teacher, Tulku Thondup, tells a moving story to dramatize this.
Many centuries back a severe famine swept through a valley in Tibet. A father saw that he and his children would not live much longer since all their food was gone. And so he filled some bags with ashes, tied them with ropes from the ceiling, and told his little children, “We have lots of tsampa [food made of barley] in those bags, but we have to save it for the future.” The father died of hunger, but the children survived until some people came to rescue them. Although they were weaker than their father, they lived because of their belief that they had food. Their father died because he had lost hope.
In answering the question, What was the source of the children’s faith? you might conclude that the children believed in their father, and therefore in the truth of his words. They took his words to heart, where they were transformed into faith. The children lived on the basis of that faith.
For each of us, faith arises from what we deeply perceive to be true, what we feel most assuredly in our hearts. Thus faith lies at the foundation of our being—as both the source and the consequence of our deepest intuitions about life.
The Bhagavad Gita confirms this idea of faith—and adds to it. In the opening verses of the 17th chapter, Krishna says that faith results from our most steadfast convictions. When our mind is pure, he says, we find faith in benevolence, having little attachment to what we ourselves can gain. At such times, faith leads us to value yoga as a means for curtailing sorrow and suffering, and for directing our mind toward transcendental truths. At other times, however, faith revolves around lesser truths and leads us to behaviors that are not so lofty—having “faith” that we’ll win the lottery, for example.
In other words, the way each of us lives out our lives reflects the nature of our faith. Yoga itself is an act of faith arising from the heart, and by having faith in the fundamental aims of yoga, “a faithful person obtains knowledge.” (BG 4.39) But a person whose faith is based only on mundane truths, or who is without faith and overwhelmed by doubt, “comes to nothing.” (BG 4.40)
Faith sustains us like a loving mother. We are calmed by its presence. We rest and grow in it. It nurtures us. To illustrate this, faith is frequently personified in India as a feminine image—a loving and protective force that nurtures us like a mother or a goddess.
The Yajur Veda, one of the earliest texts of Indian spirituality, gives tribute to the marriage of truth and faith. It recounts a series of questions posed by the famed King Janaka to the sage Yajnavalkya. Janaka persistently presses Yajnavalkya to name suitable substitutes for the offerings used in the agnihotra ceremony, a ritual in which offerings are made into a sacred fire. At first Yajnavalkya recites a lengthy list of replacements for the principal offering, milk. But in the end, King Janaka’s query exhausts the available options and forces Yajnavalkya to abandon the concept of material offerings altogether. Yajnavalkya then recognizes that faith lies at the heart of sacrifice. Janaka begins:
“What is used for the agnihotra, Yajnavalkya? Can you tell me?” “Milk,” Yajnavalkya answered. “But if there were no milk, what would you use for an offering?” “Rice and barley.” “And if there were no rice and barley, what would you use?” “Some other herbs.” “And if there were no other herbs?” “I would use wild herbs,” he said. “And if there were no wild herbs, what would you use?” “Some fruit.” “And if there were no fruit, what would you use?” “I would use water.” “And if there were no water, then what would you use?” “Then, indeed,” he replied, “there would be nothing at all, and yet an offering could still be made—truth with faith.” Then Janaka said, “You are wise Yajnavalkya; I give you a hundred cows.” —Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11–4
With each substitution Yajnavalkya proposes, ritual sanctity is lessened until nothing of ritual value remains. At that critical moment even the idea of ritual sacrifice may well be abandoned for lack of anything to be offered. But Yajnavalkya thinks otherwise.
He concludes that faith in the external process of making sacrificial offerings is ultimately a reflection of an inner reality, that external actions both spring from, and support, inner truths. For example, donating to a charity is an act of faith. The truth underlying that act is the charity’s mission itself. When the mission of a charity is compelling to you, your faith and support naturally follow.
But what supports faith? “It is on the heart that faith rests,” Yajnavalkya asserts in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.9.21). Sacrifice is fundamentally an expression of faith in the truth in your heart. To strengthen your faith, this philosophy suggests, make sacrifices in the name of the important truths that inspire you. Preserve time for morning meditation; care for your body by preparing fresh food and eating regular meals, exercising, and getting enough sleep; and support those whose suffering arouses your compassion.
This brings us back to Patanjali’s concept of faith, which is not a religious commitment but a deeply personal expression of inner harmony. As if to confirm this, Vyasa, the author of the first and greatest commentary on the Yoga Sutra, writes that faith leaves a profound and personal tranquility in its wake. Faith is accompanied by pleasant-mindedness. This leads naturally to the desire to learn more about the truth that inspires it.
As your certainty in the validity of yoga deepens, your faith in its practice will also deepen.
Thus, Vyasa says, faith sustains us like a loving mother. We are calmed by its presence. We rest and grow in it. It nurtures us. To illustrate this, faith is frequently personified in India as a feminine image—a loving and protective force that nurtures us like a mother or a goddess.
As noted earlier, Patanjali uses the word shraddha only once in the Yoga Sutra. But it also appears in Vyasa’s commentary on sutra 1.14, which explains the nature of yoga practice. In the sutra, Patanjali states that practice (by which he means meditation and all that supports it) becomes firmly grounded when it is conducted for a long time, without interruption, and with devotion. Vyasa picks up the thread of Patanjali’s thought. He lists four essential qualities, which are woven together in devotion. Devotion, he says, arises out of a sincere determination to sustain one’s daily practice, restore balance to imbalanced senses, increase one’s knowledge of yoga, and cultivate faith.
By reading Vyasa’s commentary, we come to know that through practice we develop faith in the wisdom of our spiritual intuition, faith in the continuity of our practice, and faith in our deepening understanding of yoga. Thus faith in the context of yoga means faith in our path and in ourselves. Ultimately faith links even the simplest practice to a bigger vision that sustains us throughout our days.
Although each of the various elements of yoga may contribute to faith in the path as a whole, faith in something is the starting point. What is that something that inspires you to give your time, your effort, and your devotion to your practice?
How can we cultivate faith? By contemplating the principles of yoga and the systematic nature of its practice, because through this kind of contemplation the nature of the yogic vision becomes clearer. Reading spiritual biographies, attending classes and satsangs, and memorizing insightful passages from sacred texts provide value as well. Finding ways to serve the yoga tradition and its teachers is yet another essential ingredient. As your certainty in the validity of yoga deepens, your faith in its practice will also deepen.
The opposite of faith is doubt. If truth is the foundation of faith, doubt undermines it. Actions taken without a firm hold on faith “inspire no confidence,” says the Taittiriya Samhita. So does Patanjali suggest how we can transform doubt into faith, vacillation into confidence?
In a sense, the answer to this question brings us back to the fundamental significance of faith. Although each of the various elements of yoga may contribute to faith in the path as a whole, faith in something is the starting point. What is that something that inspires you to give your time, your effort, and your devotion to your practice? Perhaps yoga offers assurance of renewed health, restored self-confidence, or of a spiritual reality beckoning from within. Out of these or similar certitudes, threads are woven together, gradually forming a fabric of faith that is distinctively yours.
To support this process, Patanjali recommends meditation, and in particular the practice of japa—repetition of a mantra. Doubt (samshaya), he says, is overcome by japa. Through it your mind acquires an enduring trust in the presence of the Infinite within you.
Mantra japa is in itself a kind of sacrifice. It gains support from every branch of yoga practice. In the act of remembering and reciting a mantra, the mind’s distractedness and doubt are sacrificed in favor of a conscious return to an inner center. By returning to that center every day, faith deepens.
The story of the survival of the Tibetan children illustrates the power of faith. However, unlike the children’s faith, faith in yoga is more than a loving invention. It is inspired by belief in the promise of very real goals: healing, self-empowerment, and the restoration of inner harmony. These are truths that animate the beginnings of every practice.
St. Augustine said the final reward of faith “is to see what you believe.” But such a reward does not happen overnight. Before we reach our destination, faith supplies us with other useful tools. “Faith gives a seeker energy, courage, and strength,” writes Vyasa. With these, faith itself is magnified—and we take an important step forward on our spiritual path.