Karma & Emptiness in the Yoga Sutra


Exerpts from  Karma & Emptiness in the Yoga Sutra – Geshe Michael Roach


            Patanjali is an amazing wise man. He wrote the Yoga Sutra, which is really an incredible resentation of all the teachings of those other masters… It covers all the major concepts presented in a whole twenty years in a Tibetan  monastery and it goes further, into the secret teachings. So he had an extraordinary grasp of the entire range of the teachings from ancient India, and in some extraordinary way, he has placed them into a tiny, short, little book.


            He was also a great physician. He wrote a book on Ayurveda, the ancient medical knowledge of India. Some people say he didn’t write it. It’s written under another name. Tradition says he did write it. I think he wrote it. Anyone who has that great of a knowledge of the inner channels, the chakras, the subtle drops of energy within a human body would naturally be drawn to the study of medicine also.


            A lot of the medical tantras are related to the higher practices of the secret teachings of which what we consider yoga is a part, the study of the inner workings of the inner winds, inner channels, inner energy centers, which if developed properly, change into the body of an Enlightened Being.

            Master Patanjali also had a deep interest in dance. He is considered the father of classical Indian dance, which is a very great and high science. And I think again, this is natural for a person who is interested in the subtle energies of the body which are linked to your meditative states.

            And I don’t think it matters. The modern yoga traditions in this country, like the Sivananda tradition, Ashtanga tradition, Master Iyengar’s tradition, the Jivamukti tradition, even the Vikram tradition and other ones I’m not familiar with, they all have the same basic ways of manipulating the body. I think what’s crucial is that you find a teacher that has a good heart.

            The exercises are not very effective without a good heart. But don’t get nervous and think that we’re all going to be jogging and standing on our heads. It’s not the point. Sometime in the future, as a small but very important part of our higher studies, it can be very useful to be able to manipulate the inner channels by means of our outer body. You can also do it from the inside, through deep meditation techniques, especially through tong-len, breathing exercises, and we’ll be learning all of those in a tantric way in the future. So if you have any inclination, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. You will still move along quite well. So Master Patanjali was a great dancer and he’s recognized as the father of Indian classical dance as well. He wrote an incredible commentary on the Sanskrit language, called the Mahabhasha. It’s a commentary on Panini’s presentation of Sanskrit grammar.


            Those of you who’ve studied the Vajra Yogini sadhana, teachings, there are many places where we visualize secret sounds throughout our bodies. You’re trying to see something which is already there. That letter has been singing to you your whole life. You can’t hear it. And so the study of Sanskrit is not some silly linguistic thing in India. It’s an attempt to hear the sounds of the inner channels which, if you can develop properly, changes your entire body into that of an Angel who can help countless living beings. So it’s natural that Master Patanjali would have all these interests.


            Now I’d like to speak about the Yoga Sutra. Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word yuj. The Ancient Indo-European root is yeug. And that comes into English in the words “yoke,” meaning to join two animals together for plowing. It’s found in the word “jugular,” as in “jugular vein,” because the root “j-u-g” in Latin means that thing which connects your head to the rest of your body, which is your neck. So the word for neck comes from the root that the word for yoga comes from. The word “join” comes from the same root, the “j-o-i,” and the word “joust,” which means for two horsemen to meet each other, connect, to join. So you get this feeling of how the root means “to connect” or “join.”

            The word in Tibetan is neln-jor. This is a case where the way that ancient Tibetan translators translated the word helps us a lot to understand what yoga means. They sat with ancient Indian pandits for years. They discussed the best way to translate words into Tibetan. There was a royal edict, a command from the king, that no book should ever be translated without two pandits from India and two Tibetan translators working side by side for accuracy.

            Later on there was, by royal decree, a standardization of all the Tibetan words that came from Sanskrit. So neljor comes from two words, nelnma and jorwa. Jorwa means “to connect.” Another form is jar, and even in modern Tibetan the word for glue is jarsi which means “sticky stuff.” So jar means: the jor means “to connect.” Nelma, the first half of neln-jor, is a very difficult word to translate. It means something like “the deep inner essence.” So nelnmar jorwa or neln-jor means “any practice which connects you to the deep inner essence.” The word for the inner channels, nadis, and the inner energy centers, chakras, and even the inner diamond body is called the nelme lu, the deep inner body, the diamond body.

            So the word “yoga,” as translated into Tibetan and as understood a thousand years ago by the great masters was that it’s a practice which connects you to the deep inner essences, with connotations of emptiness. Sometimes emptiness itself is called nelma. So the function of yoga, the meaning of yoga, is to connect us to our deeper selves. I think it’s good for new people to hear the explanation

            There are four great groups of secret teachings in ancient India and Tibet. The third group is called yoga. The fourth group is called anuttara yoga. The name of the third group implies connecting yourself to the holy angel . . . they call it druptap, sadhana, “reaching the holy Angels,” I like the word sutra. It comes from a root syu in Sanskrit. The Indo-European word is the same, syu, and we see it in the English word “sew.” The W came from the U and the S-E came from the S-Y. There’s another word, “suture,” meaning a wound closed with a thread. And so the ancient meaning of the word “sutra” is “a thread,” and it comes from roots that mean “to sew.”

            What’s that got to do with the book? The idea is that holy teachings, short holy ideas ,are strung along the thread in a book. Sometimes you can think of it as pieces of thread twisted into a thread, like cords of a rope are twisted into a rope. The Tibetans translated “sutra” as do. Do has about three different meaning, but the first one is “brief.Do means “crux,” “brief,” “a short book.” Even in modern Tibetan we say dordu-ma means, you know, “to put it in a nutshell.”

            Do has another beautiful meaning. It can mean “the intersection or the juncture where two or three rivers come together,” which would be called sindo. Or even an intersection where three highways, two, three or four highways come together would be called a lamdo. In Sanskrit it’s the idea triveni, “the three sacred rivers coming together.” This has a very deep meaning for us. There are three major inner channels in the human body that, if properly cultivated, help you turn into an Angel. And we are often working at the intersection, or the do or the sutra of these three streams to help create that body. And the physical exercises of what we call yoga in the modern times can help that process in a very rough way. So you get a feeling that “sutra” means “crux,” essential crux of a system which will enable us to reach the Angels. This is the meaning of the word Yoga Sutra.


Anitya-ashuchi duhkha-anatmasu nitya shuchi sukha-atma khyatir avidya.

Things that cannot last seem to us as if they will. (II.5a)]


            This is one of those cases where I’ve taken out only a piece of the verse because we don’t have time, unfortunately, to do the whole verse.

Nitya, anitya…. Nitya: the root is “n-i” in Sanskrit. The ancient Indo-European is en and it came into English in the word “in.” The idea is that there’s something about you; inside you have a independent nature that protects you from dying. And that’s not true. Nitya means “will last forever” because it exists in and of itself, which is wrong.

The Tibetan word is takpa, which means “unchanging.” Then actually everything is anitya. “A” is the negative in Sanskrit and in Greek and it comes into English in the negative, in Greek words like “apolitical,” or “amoral” or “atheist,” meaning “not”: even in the word “ignorance,” the “a” changed to “i.

There’s a power which is making our bodies get old during a yoga class. That power can be stopped and reversed. But to learn it you have to want to learn it, and you have to admit to yourself that even if you become a very good yoga student, you’re still getting older every year, and there’ll come a time when you can’t do those poses. There’ll come a time when you can’t walk up the stairs to the yoga class. There’ll come a time when you can’t put your foot out of your bed. And that has to drive you to learn how to stop it. The original purpose of yoga is to stop those terrible things. These are accidents. You don’t have to live like that. Mitakpa is just the negative of takpa meaning “changing,” which means “not unchanging,” everything is changing, all the time.


Next verse

Bandha karana shaithilyat prachara samvedanach cha chittasya para sharira-aveshah.

And they realize that the body itself is a prison. (III.39b)]


            There are no key words here. I just thought it was a great verse. [laughter] Prachara…means “a prison” or a fenced-in area. The “c-h-a-r” came into English in the word, “incarceration.” The “c-a-r” in “incarcerate,” comes from the “c-h-a-r” in prachara. This is actually a verse about a very high tantric practice of moving your mind out of your body into another body because your own body has become like a prison, called trongjuk in Tibetan. It’s one of the six teachings of Naropa. But the point is that all of us are stuck in this kind of a body, flesh, blood, bones. You don’t have to stay in that kind of a body. You weren’t meant to be in a body like this. You were meant to be in a body made of light, a body that could go to countless people at the same time and help all of them. And so it’s important that we look upon this mortal body, as a prison that we want to bust out of, using the techniques of yoga.


Next verse.

Sthira sukham asanam.

The poses bring a feeling of well-being which stays with you. (II.46)]


            Master Patanjali really only devotes one line to the physical exercises, out of almost two hundred lines. This happens to be that line. I thought, if you’re going to talk about Yoga Sutra to people interested in the exercises, you better throw in this line. Let’s talk about asana first. Asana is a Sanskrit word that means “a seat.” It comes from a root, “long a-s”: as which means “to sit down.” I’ve checked very carefully and the word “ass” is not a derivative of as, but it certainly seems like sitting down involves your ass. The word comes from a root “as.” The Indo-European word is es, and that came into English in the word “is”: “to be,” and the word “essence,” and the word “yes.” So all of these words have the same root as asana. Asana means, then, a seat or a position in which you meditate, originally, and one big function of the yoga exercises was to be able to sit for long periods in a yurt in a desert and meditate. And if you read great books like the Hathayoga Pradipika, the first series of asanas, there’s more of the book spent describing how to sit for meditation than there is for describing the more active yoga exercises. So originally asana or yoga exercise meant a comfortable way of sitting or exercises to enhance the quality of your meditation sitting.

            There’s a very important word, vajrasana, which means “the vajra asana.” Vajra means “diamond,” asana means “seat,” and it’s said in scriptures that on every planet there’s a vajrasana. It’s what we call Bodhgaya nowadays. In the old days it was called Vajrasana, “the Seat of the Diamond.” Every Enlightened Being is said to become enlightened in that place, on the diamond seat, in the Bodhgaya or the Vajrasana of their own world. Even nowadays, when we bless our seat for a long retreat we do a vajrasana mantra.

            The Tibetan word is den. It also means “a seat.” Carpets nowadays, even in Tibetan, are called kaden which means “a seat” – something you sit down upon. Sera Monastery is called Densha, “A Seat of Higher Learning” and Vajrasana is called Dorje den in the Tibetan language. So we get the feeling of den meaning “seated properly,” and the original purpose of the yoga was, was to work on your channels and to allow you sit in long meditations where you were also

working on your channels from the inside. We’ll talk more about working on your channels from the inside, because if you don’t work on them from the inside, just working on them from the outside doesn’t allow you to reach the goals. Kha means “a hole.” Space is sometimes called kha. When you say khachari paradise, it means “to move in the space,” Kha-a-chari, which is Vajra Yogini’s paradise. And so kha has come to mean some kind of open space or cavity or hole. And people say that sukha came from a word that meant “a good hole in the middle of a wagon wheel,” which means the wagon wheel runs smoothly, and that’s where the word sukha came from.     This is a case where the accent of the word sukha is useful in understanding the word .The ancient Indo-European word is ghai. And that came into our language in the word “chasm,” the “c-h-a” comes from ghai; the word “gap,” the “g-a” comes from ghai; the word “gape,” “to make a hole out of your mouth”; and, there’s one more, “yawn” , the “y-a”

comes from “g-h-a.” So it means “a good hole” which means “to feel good or to ride smoothly.”

            Of course it’s not the goal of asanas or yoga postures to just feel good. It’s  sthira, “ultimate happiness,” ultimate feeling good, which cannot be done in a mortal body like the ones we have. But that’s the one line that introduces the ideas of a yoga exercise which has now become what people call yoga. And it’s important to know, I think.


Next verse

Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkara-asevito dirdha bhumih.

Your practice must be steady, without gaps. (I.14b)


            The key word here is nairantarya, and it means “without gaps.” Master Patanjali’s sutra is following exactly the same structure as the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is an outline of the five great spiritual stages that every one of us will go through. Master Patanjali’s book is the same. This line comes in a section which is describing the first two paths, called the path of collection and the path of preparation, or the path of accumulation and the path of preparation. These are the first two stages of every person’s spiritual growth, and in a few lines later, Master Patanjali describes the five specific parts of what we call jor lam in exactly the same way as they are described in all Buddhist texts. But he starts to talk about the idea of practice, and the first thing you’d want to tell anyone who is trying to learn these deep things about their channels, is that you gotta keep it up steadily. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is constantly telling us, “It takes time and it takes hard work, and you have to be steady. You have to keep it up every day.

            The word antar came into English as “inter,” as in “interruption,” meaning you don’t practice steadily. The Tibetan is bar. I stuck it in there because you know the word bardo. Bardo means the place in-between your death and your next birth. So you get a feeling for how antar means an interruption. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about meditiation or yoga asanas — exercises — or retreat or study. It all boils down to the same thing. You have to do it every day; you can’t have an interruption. You can take days off to rest, and you should,

but they should be planned. “Every Sunday I’m going to rest; every Saturday I’m going to rest.”

            But the other five days you can’t get anywhere if your practice is not steady. It’s just very simple and very practical advice from Master Patanjali. Start with small, modest practice, but don’t skip any days. And you can’t succeed in the higher teachings unless you get in the habit of doing it every day.




Next verse

Vyadhi styana sanshaya pramada-alasya-avirati bhranti darshanaalabdha  bhumikatva-anavasthitatvani chitta vikshepas tentarayah.

And the fifth of the obstacles is laziness. (I.30e)


            Okay, obviously this is only a piece of the Sanskrit verse in which Master Patanjali presents the obstacles that you’re likely to run into on the first two paths, especially the path of preparation. The key word here is alasya. “A” is the negative like we spoke about with anitya. I like the word las; the Sanskrit word is las. The Indo-European root, the older root is las, and it means “to be lively or frisky.” And it came into English in two words, the first is “lust,” and the second is, “lascivious  meaning “frisky.” Alas means not so frisky, and here it means, laziness. And so, alasya is the first great enemy to be beaten back. It continues all the way up to the highest stages of Buddhist practice. You will have to be fighting against your own alasya. There’s a special kind of alasya that doesn’t want to go higher. Antaraya: the key word, antar again means “to go between.” Aya comes from a Sanskrit word, just the simple letter i, which means “to go.” The ancient Indo-European root is ei, and it shows up in English as the “i-t” in “circuit,” or “exit,” and “itinerary,” the I that starts out “itinerary,” all meaning “to go or to travel.” So aya comes from those roots; it’s a form of those roots, so it means “goes between.” Barche, the Tibetan listed here, means an interruption. “Kho nga la barche mun che song,” in modern Tibetan means “this guy’s a pain in the ass and he’s interrupting my work.” So barche means “interruption,” an obstacle. It comes in a very important word, barche me lam which you know, means “the period of direct perception of emptiness, [1]” which goes on in an uninterrupted flow.


Next verse

Tat pratishedha-artham eka tattva-abhyasah.

And if you wish to stop these obstacles, there is one. and only one, crucial practice for doing do. (I.32)]


            Master Patanjali, in the first of the four chapters of his work, describes the obstacles that can block our practice. He makes a long list. It’s very close to the list of Master Nagarjuna in his Suhrlehka, which we talked about at Vajrapani Institute, if you ever remember. But the two lists are very similar. And he says, eka tattva-abhyasah: there’s one crucial practice for stopping all of these obstacles. I’ll tell you about the the word first, and then the practice. I think the key word is abhyasa. That’s made of abhi and asa. Asa we’ve had already, which means “to sit down” or “to work hard,” which means to practice. And then abhi is the abhi in Abhidharma which means “higher” or “moving right up to the end” and it appears in the English word “epitome,” E-P-I, and “episcopal,” words like that.

Master Patanjali is saying, “Look, there’s one practice that can stop all of your obstacles, even laziness.” And my dear yoga teachers have also told me many times, when I’m struggling with my head about to collapse, “Look, do it for somebody else[2].”

            And you can push yourself a little further, all the time, if you’re doing it for someone else, if you’re not just doing it for yourself. You can always push yourself, you can find energy and power deep within you, no matter what you’re doing: meditiation, study, trying to serve those crazy demanding retreatants, you can always find a little more power if you forget yourself and try to do it for other people. Imagine how it feels to be able to see every single living being there is in the universe at the same time. Imagine how that might feel. There isn’t anything more joyful than struggling, working hard, to serve all of them. There’s nothing to compare with that kind of happiness. There’s no single happiness available to a human being which is higher than working on that level. It’s what all of us are meant to do. It’s what you really want to do. It’s no fun being a grubby selfish little thing. We all want to be a being who can serve countless others, just in a moment’s time, in every moment. That kind of happiness overcomes every other obstacle. You’ll never have any obstacle that you can’t get over once you are working for all living creatures, once you can see them.


[1] Note Ayurveda’s teaching on knowing  how to cure is training in direct perception. And the Word Ayur meaning “science of” in Ayurveda. And an Ayuran or one who has had the direct perception of emnptiness in meditation.---Randy


[1] Tong-len





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