Samkhya and the Roots of Yoga

Samkhya is the foundation philosophy of Yoga and Ayurveda. Rooted in the knowledge of the Upanishads (800BC), the concepts of Samkhya are explored in many ancient Yoga texts, including the Bhagavad Gita (400BC) and the Yoga Sutras (250BC).

It is believed that Samkhya philosophy developed around 600BC and was condensed by a Sage named Kapila, whom is seen as the founder of Samkhya. This was during the time of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, when the Sramana movement took off in India. Sramanas were practical mystics whom became disillusioned with the rigidity of the caste system, the complex social hierarchy and all the Vedic religious rituals. In their rebellion they rejected dogmatic belief systems in search of true soul liberation, through direct personal experience. They understood that self-realization could not be taught, but only experienced through consistent inner exploration of body, mind and breath. They dedicated their lives to physical, psychological and spiritual experimentation – through postures, breath, meditation, sounds, visuals, etc. Sramanas lived either alone or in groups, outside of society in forests and mountains, in harmony with nature.

From these cumulative experiments, progressively over time, the Yoga tradition emerged and evolved, as Yogis continued to use their bodies and minds as laboratories to explore various techniques. Through tests and trials, a reliable set of principles and practices became established as the science of Yoga.

Samkhya explains the cosmology of nature – the process of life, what the world is and who we essentially are. The word ‘Samkhya’ means ‘to count’ and is seen as a listing of all the layers of reality that we encounter during the direct experience of our inner and outer being.

Samkhya is a non-theistic description of nature as it is in its raw essence. It explores the mystical dance that unfolds and enfolds between our innermost core connection to infinite pure consciousness and our outermost peripheral experience of finite manifest form. From pure consciousness or ‘Purusa’ (the seer, formless, that which experiences) the process of evolution unfolds into manifest form or ‘Prakriti’ (the seen, form, the content of experience) and from manifest form or ‘Prakriti’ the process of ‘involution’ enfolds back to pure conscious or ‘Purusa’, then re-evolves and re-involves and so the cycle continues, outward and inward, infinitely.

Samkhya describes the cosmos through 25 Tattvas (principles of existence) and splits the totality of the cosmos into two ultimate realities:

  1. Purusa (pure consciousness, seer, formless, infinite, soul) – Beyond the manifestation of nature. It is the observing presence. The true self. That part of us that was never born and never dies. That part of us that never changes and is eternal. That part of us that experiences.

  2. Prakriti (pure potential, seen, form, finite, creative energy) – Nature in its manifest form. It is that which is observed. All tangible and physical things. Including all our perceptions, thoughts and emotions. That part of our reality that is the content of experience.

Life evolves and unfolds from Mula Prakriti. ‘Mula’ means ‘root’ and ‘Prakriti’ means ‘creative energy’. It is the primordial state of Prakriti as pure potential that simply reflects pure consciousness. From this stillness Prakriti is stirred into manifestation by the three Gunas (fundamental operating principles of nature). ‘Guna’ means ‘thread’ and everything, at all levels of manifestation, is said to be a braiding together of these three basic energy threads. The Gunas operate in the gross outer world of physical forms, as well as in our subtle inner world of perceptions, thoughts and emotions.

Rajas is the quality of antithesis (opposition), creation, activity, passion, motion, desire, excitement. Sattva is the quality of synthesis (union), preservation, balance, harmony, intelligence, happiness, radiance. Tamas is the quality of thesis (conclusion), destruction, inertia, passivity, fixity, dullness, darkness, illusion.

The Gunas are constantly in dynamic tension with one another. Like a game of rock, paper, scissors, one Guna gets on top, but before long another Guna takes over and through this process life stirs into a continues cycle of creation, preservation, destruction. The Gunas are the unfolding of eternal time itself – Rajas (future), Sattva (present), Tamas (past).

The effect of this ever changing, cyclical pattern of the Gunas is that we are always in transition.  Our Yoga practice teaches us to cultivate awareness in all the different Guna states so that we remain fluid, alert and able to flow from one Guna to the next skilfully. Otherwise we risk becoming too attached to one particular Guna or we miss-identify with the continues change. If we are able to observe the transformational, evolutionary play of the Gunas with equanimity, we appreciate the process of life exactly as it is. Through the understanding and acceptance of impermanence, we open ourselves to the mysterious flow of life and an experience of spontaneous awakening in the present moment

If we do not understand that all of life is the intertwining of the Gunas and we do not accept that change is the natural outcome of that interdependent relationship, then we become attached at certain moments of our experience and repulsed at other moments, which inevitably leads us to extreme suffering and even a regret of the process of evolution itself.

The process of evolution and transformation can either be conscious and blissful, if Purusa remains in ‘pure awareness’, or it can be unconscious and painful, if Purusa ‘falsely identifies’ with Prakriti.

Ultimately Prakriti exists for Purusa to realize its full potential and true essence. Once Mula Prakriti is stirred into life by the Gunas, Purusa can experience nature through the other 23 Tattvas, beginning with the 3 subjective aspects of creation:

3. Buddhi (individual intelligence, ‘the context maker’) – Originates from Mahat (universal intelligence). ‘Budh’ means ‘to awaken’. It’s an aspect of our inner mind. A link between the vast, open and pure quality of Purusa and the more specific, object centred quality of Prakriti. When Buddhi is turned inward it allows us to recognize our self as Purusa. When pulled outward towards Ahamkara (ego), which acts as a ‘false purusa’, Buddhi is distracted and the clarity of its functioning gets clogged up with deep lying needs and fears. This is Avidya (ignorance). Yoga purifies our Buddhi function, so that our intelligence no longer gets derailed by our ego.

  1. Ahamkara (ego, ’the I-maker’) – The knot that ties pure consciousness to the un-conscious. It is the mis-identification of Purusa with Prakriti. It’s an aspect of our outer mind. The ego creates the thinking mind and the senses for individual functioning in the world. The ego is actually a ‘sacred’ process that occurs within Prakriti because it is essential to life. Without ego we would not exist, it assists us to establish forms and boundaries. It allows us to temporarily identify particular things – like this body, this thought, this object – as separate from all else. But the ego can become the source of endless suffering and loneliness when it creates subject-object relationships in the sense fields. It endows countless small sections of Prakriti with self, thereby pulling objects out of their backgrounds and accepting or rejecting objects according to the ego’s perceived need to protect and maintain itself as a separate organism. This blocks the intelligence of interdependence and creates a false sense of self (a false purusa). The ego is like a seed, it needs a hard outer shell to protect the inside information it contains, but when a seed falls to the ground, with the presence of moisture, the hard outer shell softens until it is sufficiently supple and becomes porous. At this point there is communication between the inside of the seed and the external environment. In the same manner our ego has an outer shell that allows our potential to develop, at certain junctures of interaction with others or with the environment our ego becomes porous and allows illumination, transformation and insight. We are then able to assimilate things that lie beyond our immediate system and through this process of change growth happens, because there is an exchange between boundaries. In this process there is the possibility of realizing our true Self or Purusa, beyond the boundaries of false identification with separate objects. Having no ego would mean the death of the physical organism, but learning to become fluid within our ego leads to clarity and insight. Yoga makes the ego function more porous.

  2. Manas (thinking mind, ‘the organizer of perception’) – Within specific circumstances Manas gives attention to particular feelings, thoughts and sensations that come into our awareness, while completely ignoring other things that arise. We are constantly surrounded by a sea of information that reaches us through our senses and at the same time we are continually creating stories and theories about our experiences on a subconscious level. The vital function of Manas is to select and filter this information. Our thinking mind has two basic functions. ‘Sankalpa’ – to imagine things together or unified’, recognizing the commonality of a collection of various things that appear to be separate and grouping them together into one category. Vikalpa – to imagine things as divided, by taking those very same things that were grouped together and dividing them into separate units or sub-categories. This continues flux between Sankalpa and Vikalpa is based on the ego function: “this is something I can use, I will take it” or “this is useless, I will reject it”. Manas is where our inner world of ideas and feelings meet our external experience of objects. It is the underlying power of attention that coordinates our sense and motor organs.

From Ahamkara and Manas, nature evolves through different patterns of the 5 elements inside and around us. Everything we experience, mentally or physically, is composed of a unique pattern of the 5 elements of nature. Purusha can then experience itself through the 20 objective aspects of creation.

5 Elements – basic building blocks of nature, unfold out of each other from subtle (inner) layers to gross (outer) layers:

  1. Ether / Akasha – located in throat
  2. Air / Vayu – located in heart
  3. Fire / Tejas – located in navel
  4. Water / Apas – located in lower abdomen / sacrum
  5. Earth / Prithvi – located in pelvic floor

5 Senses – subtle qualities of the elements, internal perception of the elements:

  1. Hear (Ether)
  2. Touch (Air)
  3. See (Fire)
  4. Taste (Water)
  5. Smell (Earth)

5 Sense Organs – organs of perception, external experience of the elements:

  1. Ears (Hear, Ether)
  2. Skin (Touch, Air)
  3. Eyes (See, Fire)
  4. Tongue (Taste, Water)
  5. Nose (Smell, Earth)

5 Motor Organs – organs of action, interaction with the elements to function in the physical world:

  1. Mouth (Ears, Hear, Ether)
  2. Hands (Skin, Touch, Air)
  3. Feet (Eyes, See, Fire)
  4. Urino-genital (Tongue, Taste, Water)
  5. Anus (Nose, Smell, Earth)

Through our daily Yoga practice we tame and re-balance the effects of the Gunas and the path of external evolution, to create an equally strong current of energy from manifestation to liberation. Involution is the return path, the process of re-absorbing Prakriti (nature) from our senses and the manifest world, back to Purusa (pure consciousness), the source of our being, the truth of our essence.

Sutra 1.2: “Yogah Cittavrtti Nirodhah” – ‘Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind’.

Sutra 1.3: “Tada Drashtu Svarupe Avathanam” – ‘When the fluctuations of the mind are still, the seer (Purusa) is in a state of self-realization and rests in Samadhi (oneness)’.

Sutra 1.4: “Vritti Sarupyam Itaratra” – ‘At other times, when the seer (Purusa) is not in a state of self-realization, it appears to identify with and take on the form of the fluctuations of the mind (Prakriti)’.

Sutra 2.17: “Drastrdrsyayoh samyogah heyahetuh” – ‘The cause of suffering is the association or identification of the Seer (Purusa) with the Seen (Prakriti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation’.

Within the context of Yoga, the root of all suffering is ‘avidya’ or ‘ignorance, the false identification of Purusa (that which is infinite, eternal, conscious and free) with Prakriti (that which is limited, impermanent, unconscious and bound).

Nature is here for our enjoyment, but also for our freedom. If we interact with nature without discrimination, we are drawn into identification with endless cycles of pleasure and pain. If we interact with nature with discrimination, we become blissfully free of the extreme suffering caused by pleasure and pain.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers us ways to navigate through the ‘duality’ of Samkhya with ease. Two paths to attain freedom are suggested:

1.‘Abhyasa’ or ‘practice’ – the path of evolution.
2.‘Vairagya’ or ‘detachment and renunciation’ – the path of involution.

The eight limbs of Yoga are practical guidelines to integrate these two paths to freedom in our daily lives and polish our intelligence to keep us plugged into pure consciousness.


Light on the Yoga Sutras by BKS Iyengar.
The Mirror of Yoga by Richard Freeman.
Yoga and Ayurveda by David Frawley.

Five Elements Samkhya Yoga