Embrace the Yoga Sutras in a Totally New Way With These Visual Meditation Practices

Ignite your imagination and use all of your senses as a path to the divine with one yogi-artist’s visual interpretations of three Yoga Sutras

To inspire you to explore the Yoga Sutra on a deeper and more personal level, artist and Sanskrit expert Melissa Townsend shares three visual meditations adapted from her book The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali–A Visual Meditation; Book One, Samādhi Pādah

“These paintings are the results of my spiritual practice,” she says. “It’s showing up, engaging deeply with each sutra, listening to what arises, and grounding myself in the creative process.”

You can use Townsend’s art before your next meditation practice to see if it gives you a deeper meaning of the Yoga Sutras. Start by reading each sutra’s translation and commentary and chanting it a few times. Then, simply sit and let your eyes rest on that sutra’s accompanying image for several minutes. If you remember the sutra, it can be nice to mentally chant it as you look at the art, but it’s not necessary. Finally, close your eyes, meditate, and notice what comes up for you. Afterward, you might want to paint or draw your own interpretation or experience of the sutra, or write about what comes up for you a journal. 

See also Looking for Journaling Inspiration? These 11 Prompts Can Transform Your Writing Practice

Sutra artwork
Melissa Townsend

Sutra 1.9 Meditation

Use It to Ignite Your Imagination and Encourage Abstract Thinking

Translation: Imagination is thought based on words—without actual substance.

What does vikalpa mean? Interpretation:

In Patanjali’s definition of imagination (vikalpa), a thought or idea exists only via words. It has no objective reality or actual substance separate from the words that describe it. Someone can say “a red-winged horse,” and a clear image appears in your mind—but there is no actual red-winged horse other than the image in your mind that the words created.

Vikalpa can also be translated as “conceptualization” or “abstract thinking.” This can include metaphors (a “heart of gold”) or concepts like time, space, or soulmates.

It also includes all of the many subjective ways we categorize ideas, people, and things to give them meaning and to help us navigate and make sense of the world. All such conceptualizations are ultimately imaginary and as much a product of words as the fantastic red-winged horse.

See also Decoding Sutra 1.15: Dispassion is the Conscious Mastery of Desire

Sutra artwork
Melissa Townsend

Sutra 1.14 Meditation

Use It to Get Inspired to Commit to Daily Practice

Translation: Practice is firmly grounded when it’s continued for a long time, without interruption, and with complete faith (right attitude).

What does abhyāsa mean? Interpretation:

This sutra expands the definition of practice (abhyāsa) and states that in order for our practice to be effective, we must regularly and sincerely work at it.

The artwork I created for this sutra shows drops of water that will slowly fill a pool until it becomes a reservoir. The blue of the water mirrors the blue pearl of meditation (a glowing light that many people report experiencing when they meditate). The droplets and the pearl both represent the consistent, intentional work of stilling the mind.

While working on this piece, I was inspired by an image of a huge underground reservoir created slowly and painstakingly by the Fremen, the fictitious indigenous dwellers of a hazardous, barren desert in the Frank Herbert novel Dune. Just like the water collected so diligently by the Fremen, our practice becomes deeper drop by drop. These collect into a pool, then fill a lake—and eventually become an ocean that sustains us.

See also Decoding Sutra 3.1: Embracing Sadness Through Deep Focus

sutra 1.35 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Visual Meditation
Melissa Townsend

Sutra 1.35 Meditation

Use It to Explore Your Senses as a Route to the Divine

Translation: The experience of subtle, divine levels of the senses also establishes steadiness in the mind.

What does samadhi mean? Interpretation:

Each of the five senses can be a vehicle for subtle, divine experiences that can bring peace and steadiness to your mind and move you toward samadhi (union with the absolute)—the eighth and final limb of yoga. Sensory experiences—such as visions, sounds, tastes, aromas, and physical sensations—can come naturally as a function of grace, or they can be the result of certain techniques and practices. These sensory perceptions can bring great calmness and peace and serve as a gateway to an experience of transcendence. 

About the Author

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Visual Meditation
Melissa Townsend

Artwork, translation, and commentary from The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali–A Visual Meditation; Book One, Samādhi Pādah by Melissa Townsend. Learn more at

See also A Yoga Sequence to Help You Balance Effort and Surrender