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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

Of the 25 elements, two are the source from which the whole universe evolves: consciousness, or purusha, the eternal reality; and nature, or prakriti, pure creative power. Within prakriti are the three fundamental forces called the maha-gunas: tamas, inertia and decay; rajas, momentum and desire; and sattva, balance, luminosity, and knowledge.

From prakriti arise also the three elements of the mind: the higher, intuitive, self-knowing mind (buddhi), which connects with consciousness; the lower-thinking, rational mind (manas), which connects consciousness to the outer world via the senses; and the ego (ahamkara), which exists in a space between the higher and the lower mind.

Samkhya also describes 20 further elements: the jnanendriyas, or five sensory organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose); the karmendriyas, or five organs of action (tongue, hands, legs, reproductive organs, and excretory organs) the tanmatras, or five senses (sound, touch, vision, taste, and smell); and the mahabhutas, or five building blocks of nature (earth or solids, water or liquids, fire or transformation, air or gas—including breath and prana—and space or void).

Light and Darkness

One of the aims of yoga is to develop more sattva and to reduce tamas within our personalities. Excessive tamas leads to disease, restlessness, ignorance, selfishness, and various forms of suffering. If sattva dominates over rajas and tamas, we will feel healthy, happy, and full of knowledge, and we will enjoy supporting other beings in becoming autonomous, creative, powerful, and prosperous. Rajas, the force of desire, can lead us toward more tamas or more sattva in our lives. The choice is ours—it all depends on what we want out of life.

Yoga Practice: Working with the Subtle Elements

A balanced yoga practice is one of the best means of increasing sattva, as it maintains a healthy, balanced body-mind and injects awareness into our lives. Awareness is the ultimate source of sattva. The more awareness we can cultivate in teaching yoga, the more fulfilled our students will feel.

Start with the more gross physical practices, such as asanas, which strengthen the muscles. Then progress to teaching more subtle practices, such as pranayama, mantra, and meditation.

Pranayama works with the breath and our prana, or vital energy. It is one of the most powerful methods of removing tamas from the body and nervous system, while increasing concentration. Patanjali states that concentration removes disease, doubt, laziness, craving, instability, and depression, which are all symptoms of excessive tamas.

Once we have prepared the body and the breath, we can teach processes that work on the mind. If we neglect the mind, our students will not make much progress in yoga. Meditation works on the ahamkara, or ego, which tends to rule our life because it is not united to consciousness and is often full of worries and concerns.

The mind develops through a gradual process of meditation that includes relaxation, introversion and sense withdrawal, concentration, use of mantra and subtle breathing techniques. One of the best ways to work on the mind is through teaching breath awareness with the mantra So hm. All yoga teachers can use this mantra, which is universal and safe. The Gayatri mantra provides a powerful way to purify, strengthen, and awaken the elements of the human being. Its 24 syllables each represent one of the 24 elements of the human being. We add the mantra Om, the mantra of consciousness, to make 25.

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