Empirical Epistemology



YSP 1:7

Through sense perception, inference born of logic and authoritative testimony knowledge is gained. 


The mind moves in its circles, sometimes these movements move us towards clarity and understanding, sometimes they catch us and halt our evolution.

The first set of patterns the mind can move into are those associated with how we can acquire accurate, ‘correct’ knowledge.

This immediately raises the question of absolute truth, is there ever such a thing as ‘correct’ knowledge? Everything that we consider to be true is only true in the context of the information we have at present. Established truths are constantly changing as we acquire more knowledge that we consider to be authoritative. Probably the best example of this is our understanding of the cosmos. There was once a time the earth was flat and the stars in the sky were placed there as Hercules through his demons in to the heavens.  Exploration and investigation have led to current thinking believing the earth is elliptical and the stars are balls of plasma held together by their own gravity. But these accepted truths will change and evolve as more information is gathered and our understanding expands.

At this point Patanjali is not concerned with what the truth or ‘correct’ knowledge is but with how we acquire knowledge. If the process of acquisition is flawed then the veracity of the knowledge is irrelevant.

The practical nature of the yoga sutras places the greatest authority on empiricism, knowledge gained through direct experience from the senses. The process of yoga clarifies the senses so that we can ever further collect more accurate information. Imagine the mind is a window. If the window is dirty we can’t see through it, we might see shapes or movement but we cannot identify what those shapes or movements are. Yoga cleans the window so we can see clearly, our senses (physical and psychological) become more refined and our understanding increases. This is Pratyaksa.

Once we can see, hear, feel things accurately how can we interpret the information we have gathered correctly?

Patanjali calls the most effective way of interpreting the information anumana, through the logical application of inference. In western philosophy this is called syllogism. For example:

All aliens are green.

Tim is an alien.

Therefore Tim is green.

The crucial elements of a syllogism are in understanding its limits. Because we know that “all” aliens are green if Tim is an alien he must be green. This will hold true until we find a yellow alien and then the syllogism cannot be applied, because we now know that not all aliens are green, some (at least one) are yellow.

It is also necessary that Tim is definitely an alien before we conclude he must be green, maybe he just looks like an alien? A syllogism also doesn’t work backwards, just because Tim is green doesn’t mean he’s an alien, he could be an unripe banana.

The reliability of applying logic depends on the reliability of the premises. Another example could be as simple as a literal application of “there is no smoke without fire”.

If the only circumstance in which smoke is produced is in the presence of fire then it follows logically that if there is smoke there must be a fire. Again this can only be logically true for as long as there is no other cause of smoke.

Patanjali is suggesting that we need to be able to apply these precise criteria in order to gain correct knowledge. However how does one know when one has purified the senses to physically see, hear, smell, taste, and touch free from bias? How can we know the syllogism we apply is flawless?

The third way of knowing is possibly the most ambiguous but also the easiest (in certain contexts) to access: Agamah, reliable testimony (verbal).  Ambiguous because how do you know the testimony is reliable? First we need to know the person who is giving the testimony is reliable, they should be of irrefutable character free from blemishes, and they should have direct experience of that which they speak. The words of this trustworthy person can create a pattern in the mind of the listener and the citta will then flow into that pattern, facilitating a direct experience in the listener. Finding the trustworthy person is the crux.

Patanjali is writing in the post vedantic era, the concepts of the Veda are firmly established and there is an assumption of their knowledge and understanding in the Yoga Sutras. Yet whilst The Vedas placed the emphasis on ritual and the Upanishads shifted the emphasis to the experience of or searching for experiences of ParaBrahman, Patanjali is guiding us directly towards those experiences. There is no mention of any specific scriptures in the Yoga Sutras, direct experience of Iswara, ParaBrahman is considered to be the goal. Rather than learning about others experiences we should go and have our own.







How does the mind whirl?


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The stuff of the mind can be pulled into different patterns. Some of these patterns are beautiful the mind will dance with them for a while, some of the patterns bring us pain and the mind can become cloaked in their darkness. The goal of yoga is to help the mind stop both dancing and becoming shrouded: to help the mind turn back inwards and reflect the consciousness.

Another interpretation of vrtti is pattern, possibly an habitual pattern, a pattern of behaviour, a conditioned reaction. The citta (mindstuff) falls into this pattern and the energy of consciousness follows it. This is best exemplified by the classical conditioning demonstrated in the 1890s by Ivan Pavlov and his dogs. We respond to certain stimuli in the ways which we are conditioned to. Patanjali is offering an insight in how to change that conditioning.

Sutra 1:5 tells us that there are five patterns which the citta follows. Of these five some are conducive to a still, quite mind and others will agitate it further.

It is worthy of note the adjectives kilsta/aklista describing the patterns (vrttis) as either detrimental or beneficial have the same root as the word klesha: kils which can mean to trouble or to torment. Think of Macbeth “oh full of scorpions is my mind” this describes beautifully a tormented by vrtiis pulling the consciousness into a negative spiral.

Because Patanjali is taking us on a logical path next we are introduced to these five patterns.

pramana: accurate assessment of a situation, a source of ‘right’ knowledge.

viparyaya: inaccurate assessment of a situation, error.

vikalpa: imagination.

nidra: sleep.

smrtayah: memory.

At any given time when we are not in a state of yoga the mind will be following one of the patterns.


and just for fun 🙂



At other times.


To recap: Yoga is the state when the mind stuff stops whirling and because it is still our true nature is revealed. Our true nature is pure consciousness and whilst matter is essential it is also transitory, in contrast to the permanence of consciousness or energy. If everything is matter vibrating, the vibration is the constant, the matter the variables.

Patanjali builds from sutra to sutra so once a concept is expounded or presented subsequent sutras don’t reiterate it.

When we are not in a state of yoga,  dwelling in union with Purusa (at other times, itaratra), we feel distinct, separate, our mind follows and takes the form (sarpuyam) of the whirls and fluctuations (vrtti).


If the mind is whirling we can not realise pure consciousness. For example when we become caught up in a web of emotions. the physical sensation of sadness or the sense of lightness which follows joy we are existing with an acute awareness of prakriti matter. We feel and we then identify with those feelings. We say “I am sad” or “I am happy” and whilst we are experiencing those emotions they fill our existence. It is difficult to recall the sensation of sadness when we are happy and vice versa.

Thus it takes practice to still the mind. In the meantime (spoiler alert) it takes faith that it can be stilled – More of this later……….




Ta Da!!!



Just as the magician reveals the conclusion of a magic trick, Patanjali reveals the consequences of yoga. When the vritti of the citta ceases then the Seer  is revealed to itself.

sva rupe can be translated as “our own form” not our physical form but the form of the seer.

‘vasthanam contains the root ‘sth’ which forms the basis for ‘stand’, as in samasthiti. Here it is to denote the firm standing, and total comfort of the drastr the seer, in it’s own form.

The Seer in this context is consciousness or Purusa, that which resides as the essence of being. Baring in mind Patanjlai’s roots are in a dualistic system of philosophy there is the sense that mind as matter is separate form consciousness. This separation, is the cause of suffering. When the mind can be still there is no separation as our awareness is full of the realisation of consciousness. It is a moment of pure bliss, of total quietude. A moment which with practice can become longer and more substantial.

Thus ultimately yoga brings about the cessation of suffering through the revelation of our true form, as  formless perfect consciousness.





Where is my mind?



Yoga is the mindstuff whirling ceasing.

Part of the genius of Patanjali is that a simple format is followed throughout the sutras.  Make a statement, then refine the components of that statement. First we are told we will be instructed in yoga, then we are told what yoga is.

For Patanjali yoga is presented as the blissfully simple clarity of mind.

In this context clarity is stillness. Just as when the water of a lake is still we can clearly  see through it thus when the mind is still we have achieved the state of yoga.

The Patanjalian concept of mindstuff, “Citta”, comes from the root “Cit” which can be translated as ‘to think’ or ‘consider’ – note that this is an active process from which I infer some degree of practice may be necessary.

Citta is made up of three elements:

  • Buddhi. The capacity to discern, to be awake.
  • Ahamkara. The individuating principle, the sense of I in “who am I?”, the part which enables us to function as an active individual in the world. If the recipe of our personality in this lifetime is written by samsara, with our past karma as the ingredients, Ahamkara is the chef who puts it all together.
  • Manas. To continue the above analogy Manas is the taster of the finished dish.  The interpreter of  information in the context of the sense of I.  It is also through Manas that the information about the world is gathered.

Together these three elements describe the inner life of the individual. They are intertwined and co-dependent.

For Patanjlai the mindstuff is separate from consciousness. The mindstuff can be flawed, fooled, muddied.  Yoga is how we correct the flaws, educate and clear the mind, and find our way to consciousness.

The flaws in perception are born from the constant movement (vrtti) of the mindstuff.

For most human animals our mind is in a continual state of flux (vrtti), our senses feeding information to Manas, Manas interpreting how that information is relevant to Ahamkara, Buddhi discerning the nature of that information and what we need to do about it.

and what is yoga?

Yoga is when that whirling (vrtti) ceases (nirodhah).



Now, this is the instruction on Yoga.


Atha Yoganusasanam

Now, follows the instruction upon the state and practice of Yoga.

Opening with “atha” “Now” Patanjali grabs our attention. “Now I am offering this instruction; now you can hear this instruction; now is the time for this instruction”.

This remains as true today as it was when it was first composed and chanted. When we are ready the teachings become clear, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait until we are ready to start listening and practicing. As if we are a garden, a vegetable patch, the ground is prepared, the seeds are chosen, then planted, the earth is nurtured, watered and fed with light, eventually following perseverance (practice), and observation (dispassion, patience) plants begin to flourish. In this context the plants are our understanding, our capacity to see clearly, free from misknowing or misunderstanding, free from fear and grasping.

And all of this is possible right “Now”.

“sasanam” are the instructions Patanjali will lay out. There is an imperative implied in the term, as though these are instructions which are universal laws, once heard and understood they must be followed. “anu” the smallest possible observable thing (similar to atom) also suggests an inevitability to these teachings, once the world is seen as a whole, through the lens of the yoga sutras, it is impossible to unsee, to unhear.  As William Blake said “to see the world in a grain of sand” – this encapsulates the term “anu” both tiny and immense.

Now, then, let us begin. Here follows my understanding, interpretation and exploration of Patanjali’s instructions and teaching, thank you for joining me on the adventure.