Yoga Philosophy

1A) What problem is yoga
trying to solve?
1B) How does yoga solve this problem? 1C) What is yoga’s method?


What problem is yoga trying to solve?

The problem is our worried mind

“We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are” ― Anaïs Nin

We have about 60,000 thoughts a day.

Most are repeats. Many relate to questions like:

We weren’t born with a user’s manual telling us what to do and how to do it.

We only have best guesses for the question “How do I find meaning in my life?”

Then there are bigger questions like “Why are we here?” that are further out of reach.

Because we don’t have (and won’t have) answers to these, life has inherent uncertainty.

However, this uncertainty isn’t the issue. We can’t do anything about it. Therefore, we shouldn’t view this as the crux of the problem.

Because we have uncertainty, we tend to have worried thoughts. Our mind (with the help of our imagination) tends to be very creative when it comes to imagining worst case scenarios. It becomes easy to get stuck thinking about imaginary bad outcomes. Worry may help us survive, but excessive worry makes it hard to thrive.

So then is thinking the problem? Not exactly. One thing we can be sure about: our mind will continue to create new thoughts. Lots of them. And it doesn’t care if we want to hear these thoughts or not. Our mind has a mind of its own, so to speak.

Therefore, worried thoughts by themselves aren’t the issue either. We can’t find an “off switch” for this constant stream of thoughts. This is our default mode of being.

The problem is that we identify with these worried thoughts. We can’t control the next thought that comes up any more than we can stop a car from honking nearby. We don’t concern ourselves with the car. It’s inconvenient. But it’s random and out of our control.

On the other hand, we do take our random, worried thoughts quite personally. So personally, in fact, that we can’t distinguish ourselves as separate from these random, fleeting thoughts. The thought never occurred to us, if you will.

When we identify with our thoughts, “We don’t see the world as it is. Rather we see it as we are.” Or more to the point, we could say: we see the world as our worried mind sees it.

As Mark Twain put it: “There has been much tragedy in my life; at least half of it actually happened.”

We can’t stop our thoughts from popping up. However, we can work to slow this stream of thoughts down. From here, it becomes easier to untangle ourselves from our thoughts.

So we should refocus “the problem” in our lives not as our worried thoughts themselves, but rather our identification with them and reaction to them. In short, the problem is our worried mind.

This is the problem we should focus on, because it’s the only one we have a reasonable chance of addressing.

Yoga looks at this phenomenon of an inherently worried mind and asks: “How can we solve this problem?”


How does yoga solve this problem?

The solution is to observe our thoughts and let them go

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” ― Lao Tzu

We can’t eliminate uncertainty. And we can’t stop our mind from thinking. So then what can we do to address the challenge of a wandering mind?

The solution, according to yoga, is to first observe our thoughts. Bring awareness to the fact that we are having a thought and that we are lost in it. This will help to slow our stream of thoughts.

After we establish this deeper awareness, then we can begin the bigger challenge of letting go of our attachment to these thoughts.

This all may sound very Buddhist. While yoga and Buddhist philosophy are complementary in many ways, the methods yoga suggests have some key differences we’ll explore later.

If the problem is our worried mind and the solution is to let go of our attachment to our thoughts, then another way of putting it is: Every problem begins and ends in our mind.

But solving the problem isn’t as easy as understanding it. If it was, then our work would be done after reading this last sentence.

The theory is simple. Yet the practice is the biggest challenge we face – letting go of our nagging inner critic.

For now, let’s look at how yoga works on this problem by starting at the very beginning: the definition of yoga.

What is yoga?

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “to yoke, or join.” It also means “union.”

Here’s a yoke:

As we all know, it’s what a farmer uses to get an ox or water buffalo to plow a field. A farmer yokes an ox. It’s the only way to “join” or “unite” the farmer with the ox.

So what makes this a good metaphor for yoga? What is being “yoked” in yoga?

According to yoga philosophy, when we practice yoga, we “yoke” the mind with itself.

Wait…how do we unite something with itself? The farmer and ox “unite” with the yoke, sure. But how does the mind yoke itself? This is a really abstract concept, so let’s break it down.

Let’s look closer at the “yoke” metaphor

What’s the difference between these two photos below?

The yoke. In the first pic, nothing’s happening. In the second pic, they’re plowing the field.

We can’t predict what the oxen in the first pic will do next. But no matter what happens, we can be sure that the they won’t be plowing their farmer’s field all by themselves. It simply isn’t in their nature.

They’ll never have enough training to plow the field without being yoked by the farmer. This requires yoking the ox…every day.

So what’s the connection between the ox and our mind?

It isn’t in the nature of our mind to stop thinking and worrying. Nor is it in our nature to separate ourselves from our thoughts. To do this, we need to “yoke” our mind with the practice of yoga. Ideally every day.

The day we stop practicing yoga is the day we let go of the yoke. Over time, our mind will slowly but surely return to its default mode of excessively wandering and worrying. We can’t stop it from wandering, but we can reign it in.

The farmer needs the yoke to reign in the wandering ox just like we need yoga to reign in our wandering mind. If you can find an expert yogi who can keep his or her mind from wandering without a daily yoga practice, that would be like finding an ox who has been through enough training to plow a field all by himself. Both would be more convenient, yet neither exist in the real world. They both require a daily practice. And unfortunately there aren’t any shortcuts.

In the first part of the “yoke” metaphor:

But what about the farmer? To understand the definition of yoga, we need to look closer at this metaphor as it relates to the farmer.

What is the “Self”? How is the farmer our “Self”?

When we are lost in thought, especially a worried thought, we are often controlled by it. If the thought is angry, we’re angry. The thought is indistinguishable from our feelings. As a result, our actions become indistinguishable from our thoughts and feelings. In this case, we literally become an outward projection of our inner thoughts and emotions.

Our mind plays a trick on us here. It convinces us that we are in the driver’s seat, and that we’re steering our car wherever we choose. What we don’t realize is that our wandering mind is driving our car. And it’s on auto-pilot. What we perceive and experience as action is merely an automatic reaction.

To untangle our thoughts from our actions, we need to be able to:

If we are unable to do these, then it’s like we have as much self-control as a wandering ox.

When we’re angry, for example, it’s like watching a volcano erupt. Afterwards, we usually say something to ourselves like “Wow, did I really just do that? That’s strange, usually I’m so calm. The only reasonable explanation is that it was the other person’s fault. Nothing for me to worry about or change.” Clearly, this is surface level thinking.

When we practice yoga, we are able to take a step back from our thoughts. Rather than being the participant lost in our experience, we can look at our thoughts more objectively, like a neutral observer. The “Self” is the observer of our thoughts.

This shift in awareness is like switching from the perspective of the wandering ox to the perspective of the farmer in the “yoke” metaphor.

When we “yoke” the mind, we switch from the perspective of our wandering mind (1st person point of view) to the perspective of a deeper Self that is able to observe our wandering mind (in the 3rd person). We become “Self”-aware.

When we have the discipline to practice yoga,
we gain freedom from our worried mind & connect to our deeper Self

Rather than always reacting unconsciously, developing deeper awareness allows us to step back and observe more than one option. We can react to the situation like we always do. Or we can choose to act independent of our thoughts and feelings in the present moment.

This is tough because our thoughts and feelings release neurochemicals and hormones that affect our perception in the present moment. In addition to letting go of the thought, we have to let go of the feelings and even senses that are attached to the thought.

The easy choice in the short term is to react – follow our thoughts and feelings along for the rollercoaster ride. The more disciplined choice involves observing our thoughts and feelings, letting them go, and making a better choice that is independent of them. Now we can make a choice more in line with our “Self” interest, in line with our long term wellbeing.

10 times out of 10, we can trust the farmer to make a better decision than the ox. It’s not even a contest. The former is simply more conscious than the later. Likewise, we can always trust our Self to make better decisions than our wandering mind.

Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” Yogi Dada Gunamuktananda added to it by noting: “When I stop thinking, then I really am.”

The challenge is building that trust. Trusting ourselves to let go of our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. Relying instead on something deeper – our intuition.

As Arno Ilgner explains in The Rock Warrior’s Way: “Don’t confuse true intuition with inner dialogue. Intuition comes from your subconscious and tends to manifest as very clear and specific feelings about doing something. Inner dialogue manifests itself as more ambiguous and thought-intensive messages, typically related to the concerns of the Ego.”

We can develop our receptivity to our own intuition through a yoga practice. And we can access this intuition when we are engaged more deeply in the present moment.

When we develop trust in our deeper Self, we begin to let go of our worried mind. Suddenly we have options where there were ostensibly none. We create something out of nothing. Our perception of reality changes.

Nothing changed on the outside – so what happened? The change occurred in our mind.

This takes practice. The end result of a disciplined yoga practice is freedom. Freedom from our own worried mind. And a union with the deeper Self. We yoke the mind with itself.

When we let go of our attachment to our thoughts, we have the potential to become a whole lot more than the sum of our thoughts. Or as Lao Tzu noted: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”


What is yoga’s method?

Yoga’s method involves ethics, self-development,
physical poses, breathing practices and meditation

“Now begins the instruction of union” Yoga Sutra 1.1

Intro to the Yoga Sutras

Yoga began in India, formally established around the 4th century CE when a yogi named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras are 195 short statements that describe the philosophy behind yoga and its method for practice.

The word sutrasutra is a Sanskrit word meaning “thread.” Each of these individual statements are threads. It becomes the job of us yogis to elaborate on these statements. When we interpret and apply this philosophy to our practice, it is like we are adding different beads to a thread to make our own bracelet.

One yogi may have a different bracelet than another. But they all originate from the same thread – the Yoga Sutras. As such, this interpretation of yoga shouldn’t be taken as the one and only approach. Rather, it’s one interpretation among many.

It’s our job as yogis to look around at different practices to find the best fit.

Yoga Sutra 1.2

The Yoga Sutras identify the problem and solution as occurring in our mind. The entire philosophy of yoga is summarized in the second line of the text:

Yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

Translation: “Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind.”

One interpretation of this sutra is that the thoughts in our mind turn in our head, like a whirlpool spinning in the ocean:

The whirlpool distorts our reflection when we look at the water. Likewise, our thoughts create a distorted view of the world.

When we achieve the highest level of our yoga practice, we can identify our thoughts and separate ourselves from them completely. We are no longer moved by our thoughts. The modifications of our mind becomes still – like when a whirlpool comes to a complete stop:

All that remains is a perfect reflection. We can see the world as it really is. Movement in the mind is replaced with stillness. Worry is replaced by a feeling of deep inner peace.

The 8 Limb Method Overview

To achieve this inner stillness, we need to follow yoga’s method. The method outlined in the Yoga Sutras is known as the Ashtanga method. Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word which means “8 Limbs.” Each of these limbs is a different way to practice yoga. When we integrate them into a holistic practice, they create synergy.

Most yogis refer to this method as their “practice.” This practice happens both “on” and “off the mat.”

Our common understanding of yoga is the physical poses on the mat. However, this is just the 3rd Limb of the 8 Limb method.

The 4th – 8th Limbs are also practiced on the mat. However, these are mostly performed in a seated meditation. The 1st and 2nd Limbs of Yoga are practiced off the mat.

There are 8 Limbs, but they shouldn’t be seen as a hierarchy. Rather, yogis should incorporate the 7 lower limbs into a holistic practice to work towards the 8th limb of union.

In Yoga Sutra 2.29, Patanjali lists the Ashtanga method:

Yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana Samadhi astau angani.

Translation: The Eight Limbs of Union are self-restraint in actions, fixed observance, posture, regulation of energy, mind-control in sense engagements, concentration, meditation, and realization.

In short, this 8 Limb method involves ethics, self-development, physical poses, breathing practices and meditation. This is yoga’s method for slowing our stream of thoughts to the point where we can let them go.

The 8 Limb Method of the Yoga Sutras

Below is a brief interpretation and translation of the 8 Limb method of the Yoga Sutras. Translation provided by Sacred Texts –

Please keep in mind: the goal of this interpretation is simplicity. Each sutra can be discussed and debated endlessly. Treat this rather as a starting point, a frame of reference for beginning your yoga journey.

1st Limb – Yamas: Self-Restraints or Virtues

The five yamas are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possessiveness.

The first three yamasAhimsa, Satya and Asteya – can be interpreted as ethical practices that help restrain internal unethical behavior.

The final two yamas can be interpreted as external restraints. The 4th is Brahmacharya, or restraint from sexual desire. The 5th is Aparigraha, or restraint from material attachment:

2nd Limb – Niyamas: Personal Observances

The five niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender to a higher power.

The first niyamasSaucha – can be interpreted as keeping our body clean and space around us uncluttered.

The second and third niyamasSantosha and Tapas – can be seen as finding the right balance between contentment and discipline. One interpretation is to balance (engage and rest) our 4 energy domains: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

The final two niyamasSvadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana – can be interpreted self-reflection (inner exploration) and study of something bigger than ourselves (outer exploration):

3rd Limb – Asana: Physical Poses

In the Yoga Sutras, there’s no instruction regarding the physical poses of yoga.

Instead, we are given one principle that connects all the varied poses together: postures should be “steady and comfortable.” This can also be understood as “relaxed but firm.”

Patanjali notes that our physical body is to be trained in the 3rd Limb. He also reminds us in Yoga Sutra 2.47 that the 3rd Limb is also a time to give our thinking mind rest:

4th Limb – Pranayama: Breathing Practices

Prana means “life force.” Similar to the concept to chi or qi. Yama means “to lengthen.” We can interpret this as regulating our body’s energy through controlled breathing techniques.

The 4th Limb involves breathing practices that help regulate our energy. This makes it easier for a focused meditation practice, as noted in Yoga Sutra 2.53:

5th Limb – Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawal

In the 5th Limb, our body becomes still. We now want to bring deeper awareness to the sensations in our body, and allow them to relax more deeply.

6th Limb – Dharana: Intense Focus

The 6th Limb deepens our focus on a single point. This can be interpreted as focusing our mind completely on our breath.

Through intense focus on our breath, we can begin to train our mind. We can look at our thoughts more objectively. This practice helps us switch from the participant of our thoughts to the observer of our thoughts. Over time, we are able to bring this “observer experience” with us off the mat and into our everyday lives:

7th Limb – Dhyana: Deep Meditation

The 7th Limb is the deepest state of meditation. In earlier practices, we let go of our thoughts and feelings. We focus on our senses in the 5th Limb. Next, we train our focus intensely on our breath.

Now, in this deepest state of meditation (7th Limb), we shift the focus on the subtler sensations in our body. With this deep focus, we can catch a glimpse of the subtlest sensations in our body rising and passing.

Rather than being distracted by loudest sensations in our body, we train ourselves to focus deeply on one point. We are not distracted by other stronger sensations in other parts of the body that would otherwise divert our attention.

With enough practice, we begin to discover a sensation at our point of focus. We may notice it rising. And sooner or later, passing. We bring new awareness to a subtler sensation in the present moment where previously we were unaware. Then we move our attention to a new point of focus, and repeat.

We learn firsthand through this practice that our sensations have an impermanent quality. We shouldn’t become attached to them. Like thoughts, they rise and pass.

With disciplined practice over time, we slowly train our mind to let go of attachment to our most visceral experience in life – our own senses. Over time, we are able to bring this detached awareness to our lives off the mat:

8th Limb – Samadhi: Union

By letting go of our attachment to our thoughts, feelings and senses at the deepest level, we have by default let go of our wandering mind. We are no longer moved by it. We have connected to our deeper Self, and experienced the phenomenon of union:

As we all know: theory is basic, practice is advanced. So how do we apply this theory?

We’ll look at this in Section 2 ➞ Practice