Yoga Sutra 2.1 Translation and Commentary

December 26, 2013    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait


The schematic practice of yoga consists of three components: tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (unshakeable faith in the guiding and protecting power of God).

tapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni = tapaḥ + svādhyāya + īśvarapraṇidhāna
tapaḥ derivative of tapas and tapa; as a verb, it means to heat; to glow; to shine; to purify; to fire; to change; to transform. In philosophical and spiritual literature, tapas refers to the practices and disciplines leading to acquiring radiance of body and clarity of mind; generally tapas refers to austerity, penance, and undertaking the practices that require putting the body and mind through hardship and thereby expanding one’s endurance.

svādhyāya = sva + adhyāya

  • sva self; one’s own; pertaining to inner reality; belongingness
  • adhyāya a chapter; a phase; a portion; a lesson; study

Together, svādhyāya means study of the self; study by oneself; understanding each and every chapter of life separately, as well as in relation to each other; a thorough study of oneself; thorough study of the scriptures.

īśvarapraṇidhāna = īśvara + praṇidhāna

  • īśvara guiding and protecting force; the omniscient, primordial being; the teacher of all previous teachers; the soul free from all afflictions, karmas, and fruits of karmas
  • praṇidhāna complete surrender; complete recognition; embracing tightly; keeping at the center of life

Together, īśvarapraṇidhāna refers to having complete faith in the guiding and protecting power of the Absolute Reality.

kriyāyogaḥ = kriyā + yoga

  • kriyā action; effort; to initiate; to move with purpose and goal
  • yoga the process of acquiring a calm and tranquil mind; the absolutely still state of mind

Together, kriyāyoga means an action plan for acquiring a calm and tranquil mind; an action plan for reaching an absolutely still state of mind. In other words, kriyāyoga means to put the theory of yoga into practice; the schematic practice of yoga.

3 Steps to Self-Transformation

The spiritual energy contained in a sacred mantra infuses self-study with purpose and meaning.

This is the first sutra of chapter 2, and as such, it is a continuation of the last sutra of chapter 1. The first chapter is known as Samadhi Pada, the chapter that expounds on samadhi. According to Patanjali, samadhi is the heart of yoga. Samadhi grants ultimate freedom—the freedom from all known and unknown causes of sorrow. Samadhi is the foundation of lasting joy, for it is free from all fears and doubts. In samadhi, the mind stands still and regains its ability to see reality as it is. The prerequisite for attaining samadhi, however, is to make ourselves completely free from the charms and temptations of the world and keep our focus on only one single reality—the inner self. This prerequisite implies that those who are not established in the virtue of dispassion (vairagya) are not fit to practice yoga as described in chapter 1. The commentator Vyasa clearly states that a disturbed, distracted, and stupefied mind is not fit for reaching samadhi. It is reachable only by aspirants who have cultivated a one-pointed and completely still mind.

The charms and temptations of the world agitate our minds, and an agitated mind is bound to be disturbed and distracted. When it meets failure in worldly endeavors, the mind gets frustrated and tired. Such a mind resorts to sloth and inertia and becomes stupefied.

Because living with a disturbed, distracted, and stupefied mind has become the norm for most of us, reaching a state of samadhi as described in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra is beyond the scope of most people. Should we simply forget about practicing yoga because we do not have a disciplined, focused, purified, and perfectly still mind? No.The practice described in chapter 2 is specifically for those whose minds swing from disturbed to distracted to stupefied to one-pointed to perfectly still and back again.

We are all endowed with limitless capacities. Our dormant potentials are immense. Even the most unhealthy person, with the right planning and sustained effort, can become healthy in body and clear in mind. According to Patanjali, putting together a plan to discover one’s core strength and executing that plan systematically is called kriya yoga, the schematic practice of yoga. With this kind of yoga, you can start practicing from wherever you are. This schematic practice of yoga guides you to assess your current physical capacity, intellectual grasp, and emotional maturity, and, based on your findings, determine the scope and intensity of your practice. Thereafter, you walk one step at a time. This way, regardless of whether your mind is focused or relatively dissipated, whether it is sharp or relatively dense, you can start practicing yoga compatible with your current level of development. Knowing how to assess your ability and design a plan is the crux of this schematic practice.

Kriya yoga consists of three components: tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana. Tapas helps us assess our physical capacity; svadhyaya, our mental ability and intellectual grasp. Ishvara pranidhana allows us to see the depth of our emotional maturity. Together these three help us see our strengths and weaknesses, and, with proper guidance, help us design a course of practice that is perfect for our overall growth and development. Let us examine these three components more closely.

Tapas is loosely translated as “austerity.” In an Indian context, austerity is normally associated with strict self-denial—fasting, owning no material objects, living in a cave or hut with only the bare necessities, and, in extreme cases, standing on one leg for years at a time, lying on a bed of nails, or not using one’s own hands to feed oneself. In Western culture, austerity is associated with monasticism—living in a monastery, doing penance, fasting, and practicing celibacy and non-possessiveness. In both East and West, austerity is associated with hardship. This notion of austerity runs counter to the fundamental goal and objective of tapas in yoga. Radiance and clarity are the core of tapas. A practice or discipline is tapas only when it can help us cultivate a radiant body and a clear mind. Tapas is not torture or hardship, but rather the ability to awaken the dormant energy within us. One who undertakes such a practice is called tapasvi.

At a practical level, tapas entails gathering the fire within—overcoming sloth and inertia, becoming active, not being dependent on others for your salvation, taking charge of your own destiny, and putting your intellectual knowledge into practice. Just as when putting a wheel into motion, you have to face the resistance caused by inertia; in the beginning stages of your practice, a great deal of energy goes into overcoming resistance. This causes discomfort. Enduring this discomfort is tapas. When you commit yourself to this discomfort without a true understanding of the higher goal and purpose of the practice, your mind perceives it as torture. Sooner or later, it becomes unbearable—and eventually you drop it. If you force yourself to continue, you will disturb the ecology of your body and mind. People who are not familiar with your inner world may perceive you as a mystic, but in reality you are merely in the grip of spiritual insanity. However, if you know why you are undertaking a practice, what its goal and objective is, how it can help you remove the inertia of body and confusion of mind, how it can infuse your heart with the light of higher reality, and, therefore, why enduring any hardship your practice may bring is a great opportunity, tapas can become a source of lasting joy.

How do you practice tapas? The first level of practice involves restoring your body to health. For those with an unwholesome lifestyle, adopting a healthy diet, proper exercise, and bringing regularity to their sleeping pattern is a big tapas. Deeply rooted habits do not like change. Summon your willpower, stick to your decision, and adopt a healthy lifestyle. That is the beginning point—spiritually enlightened austerity. This level of tapas brings the ecology of the body to a state of balance.

The practice of pranayama takes tapas to the next level. The classical texts consider pranayama to be the highest form of tapas. The Yoga Sutra clearly states that the practice of pranayama destroys the veil that hides the light. In other words, the fire of breath burns not only physical but also mental impurities. The practice of pranayama helps purify and strengthen the nervous system, awaken the dormant forces of consciousness at different chakras, and ultimately roast the seeds of karmas deposited deep in the mindfield. The practice of pranayama should be undertaken only after we are fully established in the practice of hatha yoga.

Other forms of tapas include mantra japa, selfless service, pilgrimage, and practicing truth in thought, speech, and action. Each of these helps us expand our physical capacity, enabling us one day to experience how limitless powers are deposited in this body—a subject fully described in chapter 3.

Svadhyaya is loosely translated as“self-study.” This conjures up the notion of studying without a teacher and is a totally erroneous understanding of this term. According to the Yoga Sutra and the commentator Vyasa, svadhyaya means to study oneself by the means of practicing sacred mantras and reflecting on moksha shastra, the scriptures devoted exclusively to the dynamics of ultimate freedom.

In the simplest language, self-study means to reflect on oneself—to reflect on who we are, what our true nature is, where we come from, our purpose in being here, how we relate to others, what our duties are in relation to others, what we did in the recent past and the consequences of that, what we are doing now and what the future consequences may be, how fulfilling life and its gifts are, and whether or not we will be able to leave this world with grace and dignity. This self-reflection finds a purpose and flows in the right direction with a definite goal when it is accompanied by japa of a sacred mantra. Without mantra japa, self-reflection can degenerate into an intellectual exercise. It is the spiritual energy contained in a sacred mantra that infuses self-study with purpose and meaning. It is important that the mantra chosen for this japa is sacred. The selection of mantra is crucial as not all mantras have spiritually illuminating energy.

Self-study is also to be accompanied by the study of the right kind of scriptures— those which have ultimate freedom of the soul as their focal point. Such scriptures are called moksha shastra and include the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Vasishtha, and the Yoga Sutra itself. These scriptures set the guidelines and ensure that the direction of our self-reflection is correct. This kind of self-study helps us expand our mental ability and refine our intellectual grasp, which in turn empowers us with the conviction that the path we are walking on is straight and legitimate.

Ishvara pranidhana is loosely translated as “surrender to God.” This translation gives an impression of giving up and conveys a sense of inaction, passivity, and passing the responsibility for ourselves onto God. Such a notion of surrendering to God is misleading and completely wrong. The first step in practicing Ishvara pranidhana requires making an effort to comprehend the true meaning of Ishvara. Ishvara means unrestricted, unfettered, divine power. It is not only almighty but also all-knowing. It is auspicious, beginningless, and endless. It is all-pervading, the eye of the soul.

Unshakeable faith in the guiding and protecting power of God is the essence of Ishvara pranidhana. Infusing our actions with this faith is the second step. Surrendering the fruits of our actions and not being affected by the results of our actions is the final step.

Ishvara pranidhana is the final test of whether or not we are living in the presence of God. It helps us assess how mature we are in our beliefs, how resolute we are in our decisions, and how strong we are in removing ourselves in favor of God. There cannot be a more active way of performing one’s duty than Ishvara pranidhana: work hard with a surrendered attitude in the full realization that we are simply an instrument in the hands of the One who is almighty, omniscient, and the Lord of all that exists.

The schematic plan of yoga comprised of these three elements—tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana—helps us detoxify the body, nurture the senses, and purify the mind. These three together help us cultivate a higher degree of endurance and fortitude. Thereafter, obstacles such as disease, procrastination, laziness, and doubt begin to lose their grip on us. The practice of yoga that leads to the stillness of mind then becomes natural and spontaneous.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>