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Yoga and Samkhya: Purifying the Elements of the Human Being

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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, Pranayama, and meditation, with meaning and direction. The body-mind is the instrument that consciousness learns to play.

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.

Yoga is a life journey that can be enriched every day through yoga practice, as well by reading the foundation texts that guide our practice. One of the best sources to read about Samkhya, as applied to life, is in Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita.

Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati is an eminent yoga teacher and therapist, author, and medical doctor. After meeting his guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, in 1974 in India, he lived with him for ten years. He has now taught yoga, meditation, and Tantra for more than 30 years. Swami Shankardev is an authority in the Satyananda lineage and teaches in Australia, India, the United States, and Europe. Jayne Stevenson is a writer and filmmaker with many years of experience in yoga and philosophies of enlightenment. She is cofounder of Big Shakti, a Web site and on-line magazine with a tantric approach to yoga and meditation.
You can contact Saraswati and Stevenson and read more of their work at