Tag Archives: Zen

Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.35


Or the concentration on subtle sense perceptions can cause steadiness of mind.

The inner concentration on the process of sensory experiencing, done in a way that leads towards higher, subtle sense perception; this also leads to stability and tranquility of the mind.

In these sutras, Patanjali is giving some examples of meditation practices. The last sutra mentioned focusing on the breath, this one is simply focusing on the senses.

Again, this is in contrast to the Zen practice of zazen, or ‘just sitting’. We do not focus our attention on anything in particular, but are mindful of our breathing going on, the feeling of our body on the cushion on the floor, the sounds coming to our ears. We notice this coming and going without judgement, but without the specific focus that is being offered here.




Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.34


Or that calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.

The mind is also calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice.

Patanjali here is talking about pranayama, or the control of the movement of prana (the vital life-force) through our breathing. Be mindful of the breath, and you will regulate your mind. We have all experienced this when feeling worried or anxious, if we purposefully take a few deep breaths then it can help to calm us.

There is some debate as to whether Patanjali meant simply observing the breath or whether he actually meant retention of the breath, kumbhaka. Swami Satchidananda believes he just meant regulating the breath, rather than detailing any specific breathing exercise. Being mindful of the breath going in and out can bring serenity of mind.

This excellent blog, which I have referred to many times whilst reading the sutras, says that:

Pranayama is often translated as breath control. The root ayama actually means lengthening. Thus, pranayama more specifically means lengthening the life force.

This is in contrast to Zen Buddhism, which does not stress the end result of meditation. There is no goal in Zen, we meditate to see things as they really are. Serenity of mind may be a pleasant by-product of this, but should not be the ‘goal’ (there is no goal). Some days it may bring serenity, some days it may not. Both are ok. There is no expectation in Zen that there will be any particular result or side-effect. It is what it is, and that’s ok.




Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.26


From that consciousness (ishvara) the ancient-most teachers were taught, since it is not limited by the constraint of time.

Unlimited by time, God is the teacher of all previous teachers.

Unconditioned by time, ishvara is the teacher of even the most ancient teachers.

This sutra stresses the importance of a guru or teacher, even for the ancient teachers. However, it also seems to suggest that the guru is not a ‘god’ , as ishvara is the supreme teacher.

In Zen Buddhism also, lineage is of the utmost importance, to ensure that the teachings of the dharma are accurate and ‘pure’. All monks in Zen buddhism today can trace a clear line of teaching that goes way back.

Devotion to the all-knowing ishvara or supreme consciousness is a form of samadhi (contemplation), obtained (says Sri Swami Satchidananda) through total surrender to the universal consciousness or god).


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.11


Memory is the unmodified recollection of words and experiences [Iyengar]

Recollection or memory is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources.

Memory is the retained impression of experienced objects.

When I first read this, I thought I’m not sure I agree that memory is “unmodified”, after all aren’t all of our thoughts modified by our past experience, our upbringing, our world view? Aren’t all of our memories similarly filtered through our previous experiences? I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ memory for something like seeing a dog in the street, one which has not been affected by our past experiences with dogs; I’m not sure we have the capacity to remember without our unconscious mind making associations and connections, that we may not even be aware of.

It is interesting here that BKS Iyengar uses the word “unmodified” and the second interpretation uses “mental modification…without adding any other characteristics from other sources”.  I think that memory can only be modifed by our unconscious mind and previous experiences, whether we mean to add those or not, that’s just the way the human mind works and processes our experiences. If I was once bitten by a dog as a small child, and I now see a dog in the street, my mind might create the dog I now have before me as a scary entity, something to be feared. But if you see the same dog without having had the negative prior experience, you might just think ‘what a cute dog over there’.

I suppose our memory for facts and knowledge could be said to be ‘pure’ memory, in the sense that I can remember that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. There are no additions here, my unconscious mind has not added anything from my previous experience, I have simply remembered a  true fact. Perhaps it is this type of memory which Patanjali is referring to here.This type of memory (E.g. for facts) is not so disturbing to our consciousness, when compared with the other memories which produce unconscious associations from our past experience. These ‘memories’ can often be fantasy, in the sense that we have mentally reconstructed the memory. Using the dog example, my mind has recreated the image of the dog using my past negative experience, so that when I think back to seeing a dog in the street in the future, I may remember it inducing fear. This is one of the fluctuations in consciousness that Patanjali talked about in 1.6, and something we need to be aware of.

Modern psychoanalysis (and other psychotherapeutic models) aim to do just that, to make us more aware of the associations our mind produces, so that we may see the present as it really is. And there is something quite Zen about that. Therapy is not the only way to achieve this, but sometimes there are so many layers of previous experience in our unconscious mind, we may not be able to chip through them. Meditation and psychotherapy can work hand in hand to help with this awareness.

Book Club – The Heart of Practice, Understanding Yoga From the Inside


The Heart of Practice: Understanding Yoga From the Inside by Orit Sen-Gupta

This little book captures my two passions : yoga and Zen Buddhism. The book is divided into chapters on breath, asana, meditating, teaching and dying. The practical chapters resonated with me the most, particuarly the ones on asana, pranayama and sitting. Sen-Gupta’s tone is gentle, her touch light. This is not a manual of instructions, just a book of thoughts by someone who is on The Path, and her views are valuable and considered.

The chapter on death and dying was unexpected and interesting to consider how the ideas in Zen and yoga can apply to end of life situations. Sen-Gupta describes in depth the process of her own father’s death, in an honest and heart-felt way. She also talks about Liat, a new student at one of Sen-Gupta’s yoga classes, who was diagnosed with cancer and how she used yogic practices to pass from life to death. I’d not given much thought to how these Eastern philosophies deal with death and dying, and this was really thought-provoking.

However, there were some things in the book that I stumbled on, such as some slight inconsistencies when Sen-Gupta talks about meditation, such as “practice is the reward”. Zen Master Dogen said that the practice of meditation should be ‘nothing special’, done just for the sake of doing it, rather than for any reward in itself, although I could appreciate the sentiment.

Sen-Gupta does make some sweeping statements, such as “In India most people are religious and express their devotion to God”. I struggled with these, as no citation or supporting evidence is given. There were also some confusing mixing of ideologies which were not clear to me, “When we just sit, everything is kosher”. I appreciate that Sen-Gupta lives in Israel, but no explanation was offered to clarify this.

All in all, this is a helpful book to anyone interested in yoga and zazen, but read with a critical mind.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.10


Sleep is the non-deliberate absence of thought-waves or knowledge [Iyengar]

 Dreamless sleep (nidra) is the subtle thought pattern which has as its object an inertia, blankness, absence, or negation of the other thought patterns

Sleep is the vibrational mode which is supported by the absence of objective awareness.

While philosophers love contemplating the idea of dreaming, and how to distinguish it from being awake, the state of dreamless sleep is interesting, and less talked about. It’s true to say that while we are awake, we are aware that we are awake, but when we are in the state of dreamless sleep, we are not aware of this. Interpretations of this sutra, for example by BKS Iyengar, appear to suggest that during dreamless sleep, the mind is focused on the void or emptiness of sleep. I’m not sure that my use of the word ‘focused’ is quite right here, as this implies this is a conscious effort on the part of the mind, which is not what Iyengar is saying.

Iyengar goes on to say in his commentary that the Seeker is trying to achieve this void he has experienced while asleep, during his waking hours, to try to free the mind of sense experience. He says

Simulation of this state of sleep when one is awake and aware is samadhi [profound meditation], wherein the Seer witnesses his own form.

There is something quite Zen about all of this – The Rinzai Zen Buddhist koan the Gateless Gate states that mu (the negative, or void) is the gate to enlightenment. It is interesting how these two philosophies converge on this point. Sunyata is a key concept in Zen, the idea of emptiness. “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, as is chanted from the Heart Sutra. This appears to be a paradox – how can form possibly be emptines, and vice versa? There is a great explanation here, but in a nutshell ’emptiness’ does not mean ‘nothingness’ or having no form. These two opposing ideas of form and emptiness need each other to exist – without the notion of form, there can be no idea of emptiness (empty of what?). This is all rather mind-bending, and I do not claim to have got my head around it as of yet, it’s definitely a work in progress…

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.7


1.7 Correct knowledge is direct, inferred or proven as factual

Of these five, there are three ways of gaining correct knowledge  1) perception, 2) inference, and 3) testimony or verbal communication from others who have knowledge. 

Correct perception may be acquired directly, by correct analysis or by correct reference.

So this is talking about 1.6, about how there are five types of thoughts, and the first one is correct knowledge. The first way of obtaining correct knowledge (by which I mean knowledge which is true) is through direct perception. Iyengar states that initially our perceptions should be checked with logic and then to see if it corresponds with traditional wisdom. He also says that practicing yoga asanas, brings intelligence to the surface, which then sharpens our ability to discriminate between our perceptions. I suppose this happens through being more aware of the body during asana practice, through being conscious of the balances and imbalances throughout the body, this in turn  allows for the quietening of the mind.

I like the way that this sutra seems to value direct experience over hearing something, even if it is from an expert. This fits with my own personal view of the world, which is largely influenced by Zen Buddhism. I like the way in Zen that there are few things to ‘believe’, if any,  it is all to do with your own direct experience. I struggle when belief systems or religions require people to ‘believe’ things, to take them at face value, rather than to experience things for themselves and then make their own minds up. I suppose these religions could be said to be forming the ‘testimony of experts’ part of this sutra, but it seems to me that these three ways of forming correct knowledge should fit together, rather than just follow something in blind faith without any direct experience or reasoning. True knowledge should fit with your direct experience, your reasoning and what experts say.