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Yoga and Samkhya—Purifying the Elements of the Human Being

By studying Samkhya, we can deepen our understanding of the Yoga Sutra, enrich our yoga practice with meaning, and realize how to bring yoga into our lives for greater health, happiness, and enlightenment.

By Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati and Jayne Stevenson

Most yoga teachers know of the great sage Patanjali and of raja yoga, the eight-limbed system he developed and encoded in the Yoga Sutra. However, fewer teachers know that Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is based on Samkhya, an Indian philosophy that defines the language of yoga. Understanding Samkhya can take us—and our students—to new levels of awareness in our yoga practice.

Today, our understanding of yoga and its terms has strayed from many of the original meanings. For example, the Western world interprets the word yoga as a system of stretching the ligaments. Likewise, the word guru has been greatly diminished to simply mean any leader in any field. These adaptations have the potential to undermine our understanding of the power of yoga and diminish its ability to optimally affect our lives. As yoga practitioners, we need to be careful not to bend the meaning of the language of yoga to match our limited understanding. Instead we need to expand ourselves and deepen our understanding and knowledge. When we embark on the study of Samkhya, we are touching the essence of yoga.

The personal joy of studying Samkhya is deeply stirring and transformative, as we are learning to unravel the greatest mystery of our lives—ourselves. The Samkhya philosophy systematically deciphers every part of our being, from the lowest level of mortal existence to the highest level of eternal consciousness and spirit. The journey through Samkhya unfolds through three processes: reading (comprehending terminology and philosophy), contemplation and meditation (understanding and feeling the philosophy), and yoga practice (applying the philosophy so that our understanding results in authentic experience).

Samkhya can help us, as yoga teachers, understand the language of yoga and the power it contains. It can help our teaching take on a new dimension that can inspire students to go deeper into themselves.

Samkhya Philosophy

Samkhya is one of the six major philosophies of India. Originally written in Sanskrit, Samkhya describes the full spectrum of human existence by revealing the basic elements that make up the macrocosm and the microcosm. Samkhya teaches us about the components of the body, mind, and spirit, from the gross elements that make up the physical body to the more subtle elements of the mind and consciousness. Samkhya names each element, teaches us its function, and shows us the relationship each element has to all others. It is effectively a map of the human being.

Yoga takes the Samkhya philosophy into the realm of experience, through gradual and systematic progression. Based on the understanding we gain from Samkhya, we teach yoga starting from the gross or physical level, moving next to the subtler levels of mind and spirit, and then returning to the gross with a higher level of consciousness. We return to our "outer" lives rejuvenated and relatively more enlightened.

The Elements of Samkhya

Samkhya states that the individual human being has 25 elements, or evolutes, that develop progressively out of one another. Learning about these evolutes and their order is, for a yogi, the equivalent of a musician learning musical scales—we need to know the scales before we can make music. Knowing Samkhya imbues all techniques of yoga, all the asana, pPranayama, and meditation, with meaning and direction. The body-mind is the instrument that consciousness learns to play.

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