Most yoga teachers know of the great sage Patanjali and of raja yoga, the eight-limbed system he developed and encoded in theYoga Sutra. However, fewer teachers know that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is based on Samkhya, an Indian philosophy that defines the language 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 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.
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.
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).
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 Hum]. 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.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Yoga and Samkhya—Purifying the Elements of the Human Being by Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati and Jayne Stevenson