Home / Health and Wellness / Yoga / Pātañjali’s Ashtānga Yoga: A Neurologist’s Perspective



By Vinod D Deshmukh, MD, PhD.

In order to present a neurologist’s perspective, I have selected a few key shloka-s from Pātañjali’s Yoga-Sutra. The selective shloka-s in Sanskrit and their translation are provided. I will elaborate on these key concepts from the neuro-scientific perspective. The English translations of the Sanskrit text are from Taimni [1] in Appendix A.

 What is Pātañjali’s Ashtānga Yoga?

Pātañjali’s Ashtānga Yoga consists of eight self-disciplinary practices. They include five external and three internal disciplines. The external disciplines include Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prāṇāyāma and Pratyāhāra. The internal disciplines include Dhāranā, Dhyāna and Samādhi. The latter three together are called Samyama.

 Five External Disciplines

Yama or self-restraint include five practices of a) non-aggressiveness, harmlessness and non-injury to others and self, b) truthfulness, abidance in Reality, c) honesty, non-cheating and non-stealing, d) avoidance of sexual misconduct and e) non-greed, non-acquisitiveness and non-possessiveness (Yoga-Sutra-s II:30).

All of the self-restraining behaviors involve inhibitory self-control of one’s impulsive, thoughtless or mindless behaviors. Behavioral impulse is the motivating energy that expresses as desire, motivation or propensity to act in a certain way, typically to avoid pain or injury and to obtain pleasure or to relieve distressing tension.

The neurobiology of self-control is explained in my recent book [2] on page 43. Here is a quotation:

“Prefrontal cortex mediates executive-cognitive control. Cognitive control is multimodal and it depends on working memory. It has limited capacity and flexibility. Prefrontal cortex has been called the great integrator. It synthesizes information from both the internal and external worlds (fields of experience) and helps the organism to deal with them effectively and adaptively. Prefrontal cortex is connected with sensory, motor and limbic cortical and subcortical systems.

Read More....

From moment to moment, each organism has to make a decision either to approach, to avoid or to wait-and-watch, in response to a new situation, an object or an event. Frontal lobes specialize in the avoidance response, whereas, parietal lobes are involved in the approach response. Prefrontal inhibitory network is probably involved in wait-and-watch mode. Ideally, every organism has to be ever-prepared or mentally ready, clear and composed, and in full self-control with the ability to allow, pause, or stop one’s actions, whenever necessary.

Conscious preparedness depends on emotional arousal, conscious clarity and open working memory; a full cognitive-control depends on intelligent activational and inhibitory capacities. These are the skills that we have to learn and master in order to live a good, purposeful life.”

Niyama-s are five self-observances that include a) maintaining the cleanliness of one’s body and environment, b) an attitude of self-content, c) developing self-discipline, d) spiritual studies that inspire one to understand Self and others, and e) self-surrender to the Divinity within, the Natural laws, or God. (Yoga-Sutra II: 32).

Āsana is a posture for meditation. It should be comfortable and steady (Yoga-Sutra II: 46). A natural, spontaneous and effortless stillness of the mind is to be achieved. Any discomfort in any part of the body can be a major distraction for deep and prolonged meditation. In order to control unintentional or unwanted bodily movements, several fronto-striatal, fronto-parietal and fronto-cerebellar inhibitory neural networks are involved. This capacity to voluntarily inhibit movement is tested by a procedure called, “Go/No-Go” task, in which a person is asked to intentionally initiate or stop a particular bodily movement such as moving the left or right index finger etc.

During a steady posture for meditation, up-right position of spine is emphasized in order to maintain conscious arousal and alertness. Specific hand postures or mudra-s are also recommended. To prevent unnecessary and random eye movements, a specific gaze is recommended, either looking at the forehead, the tip of the nose, or just a restful eye position, looking in front. Wandering eyes usually accompany a wandering mind. Zazen is also an excellent tradition to learn and to develop bodily and mental stillness, silence and serenity. [3].

Many of the subconscious and automatic movements like walking, running, swimming etc., are carried out by the subcortical brain networks involving mid-brain (mesencephalic locomotor center), cerebellum and basal ganglia. Recalled or memory-based movements are mediated by neural networks involving parietal-temporal cortex, hippocampus, medial temporal cortex, premotor cortex and motor cortex. Conscious and intentional movements are mediated by the prefrontal-parietal cortex via premotor and motor cortex. Yoga-Asana-s for children are well explained and illustrated in ref [4].

Prāṇāyāma is self-regulated breathing. It is another way to make the mind calm and alert, as mentation and breathing are closely related and each influences the other (Yoga-Sutra II: 49). In order to minimize the wandering of mind, breathing is voluntarily made calm and slow with greater emphasis on prolonged exhalation and pause. As one gets good at it, the breathing becomes effortless, slow and subconscious. Then, the mind is free to turn inwards and pay attention to thoughts, feelings and memories. One tries to listen to the soft sound of breathing and also to the spontaneous intrinsic sound or Anāhat Nāda, which serves as a good cue to make the mind calm, silent and serene. For further details about the sound of silent eloquent energy, please refer to ref. [2] pages 1-6. For further details about Prāṇāyāma, please refer to ref [5] by Dr Nagendra. Neural mechanisms of breathing are extremely complex. Please refer to a recent review article for details. [6].

Pratyāhāra is self-restraint of sensory-perceptual inflow from environmental and mnemonic (memory) information (Yoga-Sutra II: 54). Most of the environmental and body-sensory inflow (sensorium) is through the thalamo-cortical circuitry. The input of all sensory modalities except olfaction or smell is mediated through the thalamo-cortical network. Thalamus has a very complex set of neurons in it. It includes a) nonspecific thalamic nuclei that mediate general conscious arousal and alertness, b) specific thalamic nuclei that mediate specific sensory inflow such as vision, audition, touch, and bodily sensations and c) an inhibitory Reticular nucleus that selectively inhibits the sensory input to the cortex and acts as an informational gateway to conscious awareness. Olfactory input bypasses this gate and goes directly to the olfactory cortex in the medial temporal lobe and the limbic system. This is especially pertinent during the Anuloma~Viloma Prāṇāyama, an alternate nostril breathing and the circadian nasal cycle.

 Three Internal Disciplines

Dhāranā, focal attention or concentration is defined as confining of conscious awareness to a limited perceptual-cognitive space (the object or form for concentration) (Yoga-Sutra III:1) In neuroscience, attention is the capacity of an organism to direct conscious awareness to a particular object, event or a thought-emotion. The following is a brief description of the neurological aspect of attentional activity from ref. [2] page 42.

“Attentional activity has two modes: i) a nonspecific, global matrix attention, eye-on-the-field or a flood-light mode and ii) a specific vector attention, eye-on-the-ball or a spot light mode [7 & 8]. The global matrix attention depends upon modality-nonspecific reticular-thalamo-cortical circuit. The specific vector attention depends upon specific reticular-thalamo-cortico-striate circuits. It creates a subject-object duality with a specific conscious content and experience. Selective spatial attention is conceived as a mental spotlight, which improves perception of any or all objects within the attended (“illuminated”) field or the region of interest. Attention can be conscious or subconscious, and voluntary or automatic.”

“Human attention depends on three neural networks: i) a subcortical alerting network that maintains an adequate level of conscious arousal-energy for cognitive-behavioral processing; ii) a parietal cortical orienting network, which orients the organism or a person to current space-time-person situation and then directs the body, head, ears, and eyes towards an interesting or alarming object, event, activity, or experience; and iii) an anterior cortical central-executive network, which enhances the perception of the selected target event or object, and suppresses interference by distracters like other objects, events, images, and thoughts. Attention can be focused on a specific place, time, and modality like vision, audition, thought, etc. For further details on the cognitive neuroscience of attention, please refer to ref [9]. Focusing in space enhances the processing of that region of interest, whereas, focusing in time enhances the processing of events at the present moment. It is the basis of presence or present mindedness, which is also known as Vipassanā or mindfulness in the Buddhist literature.”

Dhyāna is sustained, continuous vigilant attention (Yoga-Sutra III: 2).Vigilant attention is defined as attentiveness with continuous inhibition of task irrelevances. It is undistracted, bare and choiceless awareness, mindful presence or uninterrupted contemplation. Mindfulness is defined as the effort to intentionally pay attention, non-judgmentally, to the present-moment experience and sustain this attention over time. The aim is to cultivate a stable and nonreactive, present-moment awareness or presence. Presence is defined in greater details in my book [2]. Here is a quotation from page 249:

“The concept of presence refers to being fully present in the moment. It is being fully aware and cognizant. It is a non-directed, pre-reflexive, first-person experience, with a primal and blissful feeling of energy~being. It is similar to essential, existential, affective being, ipseity or proprium. Subject and object are two abstract poles of a unique process, which is presence. Presence is the fact or state of being present. It means being present-minded, as opposed to being absent-minded, which is ‘absence.’

Presence is being attentive to what is happening now and here. Presence is being in existence now. Presence is functioning, fully and whole-heartedly, at the present time. It implies freedom from the cognitive burden of the past and imaginations of the future. It implies self-renewal from moment to moment. Presence is being well adapted to one’s situational self. Presence is the potential for reducing uncertainty or knowing and doing. Presence heightens awareness and may lead to intuitive consciousness, generating new ideas, understanding, and solutions. Presence is a way to achieve mental clarity and peace. Presence is being present at the edge of sequential time. It is the continual effluence of energy~being~awareness. It is the very essence of blissful conscious being or Sat~Cit~Ānanda.”

Robertson and Garavan commented on vigilant attentiveness as follows: “We conceive of the right parieto-prefrontal network and its interactions with the midbrain arousal systems as the circuitry by which vigilant attention is maintained. This circuitry can be ‘tuned up’ (or down) endogenously or with exogenous support. Within this system, we believe that the prefrontal cortex plays a central role in maintaining and monitoring optimal arousal levels to match current task demands.” [10].

Mindfulness is a very popular word in current neuroscience and neuropsychology. There is a lot of scientific and general literature on this subject. Mindful Presence or Sākshi-Bhāva (Witness-Perspective) is a mental skill to be learnt and developed. In my recent poem, I have described it as “The Mindful Eye: The Sakshi-Netra.” (Appendix B). Mindful meditation is to pay attention intentionally, choicelessly, and non-judgmentally to the present-moment experience and to sustain such a calm attentiveness over time. The aim is to learn and to develop a stable, non-reactive and calm presence or present-moment awareness. Some of the key references to mindful presence are given below [11 – 17].

Samādhi is a non-polarized, non-dualistic, holistic consciousness, in which there is no sense of duality like the observer-observed, doer-deed, knower-known, I-other, and no sense of personal time-duration. It is egoless, formless and timeless. It is spontaneous and effortless like an eternal spring from within. It is like the ambient light, everywhere, all-the-time. It is the very source and sink of all conscious and subconscious activity and experience. (Yoga-Sutra III: 3). It is our calm and serene awareness of spontaneous conscious arousal or the magma of our protoconsciousness.

Samādhi also implies self-realization. “Self-realization springs from within, because the fundamental truth of our existential being is within us. It is not outside in the changing phenomena. There is something amazingly beautiful within each one of us – a primal feeling (ādi-bhāva आदिभाव), of an infinite (ananta अनन्त), spontaneous wonder (vismayaḥ विस्मय:). It is whole (pūrṇa पूर्ण) in itself. It lacks nothing. It is the greatest wonder within us, which is waiting to be discovered by our watchful self-enquiry. We are an integral part of this incredible Natural Order (Ṛtam ऋतं). We are in Nature and Nature is within us, at every level of our biophysical and mental being. We have to realize this amazing integration in our own core heart~being. This is what Vedānta is all about.” [2] Page 252.

Neurologically, consciousness is a living, organismic process. Here is a quotation from my book, ref [2] p 240 & 255:

The term consciousness is difficult to define, although all of us understand consciousness and what it is from our first-person experience. There are many definitions and several reviews on the subject of consciousness. In clinical neurology, consciousness is defined as a set of neural processes that allow an individual organism or a person to perceive, comprehend and act, on the internal and external environments. It has three functional aspects, arousal, awareness, and attention. Consciousness is viewed as a self-generating, self-organizing process from an ecological perspective.

Consciousness is bimodal: affective and cognitive. These two modes are served by two separate but, complementary neural networks, namely, reticulo-limbic and reticulo-cortical. Consciousness is also tri-laminar: Internal-Visceral, Proprioceptive-Somatic and External-Distant, on the basis of specific sensory-motor receptors and their functional interactions.

Consciousness is a biological systems-level, functional process and property. Brain is the organ of consciousness. Conscious experience is a synthesis of three aspects or perspectives, which I would call a philosophy of “Triple Aspect Monism.” The first aspect is the describable, objective reality or the observed world. The second aspect is the observable and describable mental world of ego, actions, thoughts, emotions, images, memories, and imaginations etc. The third aspect is the indescribable, all-inclusive feeling of intrinsic, subjective, essential, existential energy~aware~being. It is the mysterious wonder within all of us. Only a few of us realize this aspect of our consciousness, because most of us are so preoccupied with superficial, verbal, memory-based cognitive processing. This is the ‘existential-spiritual’ aspect of our conscious being that waits to be discovered by each one of us, in our own heart or inner being.

Neuroscience of Consciousness

In order to understand consciousness, one should explore and understand its various components, namely conscious arousal, awareness, attention, experience, will, self-consciousness and self-itself. Here are more details about these components from ref [2] p 240-252:

Conscious Arousal “describes the degree to which an individual is awake and able to interact with the environment. General arousal is higher in a person who is more alert to sensory stimuli, more behaviorally active, and more reactive emotionally. Conscious arousal requires the interplay, between the brainstem reticular activating system and the cerebral hemispheres. Like a pilot flame, the central brain or the reticulo-limbic system is always active in all living organisms. Without it conscious life is not possible.”

Conscious Awareness implies that the individual is not only alert but also cognizant of self and surroundings. Awareness is global, multimodal, but nonspecific, in terms of any particular sensory, motor, or cognitive modality. Awareness depends on arousal. The neuronal mechanism required for conscious awareness is the central thalamic nuclei with their brainstem and cortical connections.

Conscious Attention implies the ability to respond to and to direct awareness and modality-specific information to a specific time-place and person. Different sensory-motor-cognitive modalities include visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, locomotion, limb movements, speech, memories, thoughts, and images. Attention directed to a specific aspect of the experiential field, the world or the self, requires both an intact brainstem reticular activating system with general awareness and a well functioning, modality-specific thalamo-cortical network with specific awareness.

Conscious Experience is integrated; each conscious scene is unified, and at the same time, it is highly differentiated; a huge number of different conscious states are possible at each conscious moment. They define integration or functional clustering, as a property shared by every conscious experience irrespective of its content: Each conscious state comprises of a single scene that is private and cannot be decomposed into independent components. We cannot be aware of two incongruent scenes simultaneously. So also, we cannot make more than one conscious decision, within an interval of a few hundred milliseconds (300-500 ms), the so-called psychological refractory period. Conscious experience depends upon activation or deactivation of specific neocortical areas, in response to external or internal stimulation or activation by memory, intention, imagery or dreams.

Conscious Will. Wegner, in his book, “Illusion of Conscious Will,” stated: “Conscious will is something that is experienced, when we perform an action – actions feel willed or not, and this feeling of voluntariness or doing a thing ‘on purpose’ is an indication of conscious will… Intention is normally understood as an idea of what one is going to do that appears in consciousness just before one does it.” [18].

Self-Consciousness implies conscious awareness of oneself, one’s own being, one’s actions, thoughts, feelings and emotions. Self-awareness is our capacity to reflect on our feeling and sense of self. Such capacity depends on the proper functioning of medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex and other central, midline neural networks. Essential, self-awareness implies our natural self-acquaintance, familiarity, and feeling of being-in-existence now, or the bare sense of “I am.”

Self is a complex, integrative process of a living organism. The living organism is a functioning, behaving unit of Life. The living organism self-organizes, coordinates, and integrates the molecular energy-information, within and around itself, both consciously and subconsciously. The dictionary defines self as i) the total, essential or particular being of one person, the individual, ii) personality, character, individuality, and iii) individual’s consciousness of his own being, identity, subjectivity, ego. The self is the archetype of the ego; it is the innate potential for wholeness, and unconscious ordering principle, directing the overall psychic life, that gives rise to the ego, which compromises with and is partly shaped by the external reality. This Self concept is similar to the concept of Ātman in Vedānta.

The present, minimal self is the life-in-the-moment or the immediate experience of one’s person, unextended in time. The narrative self, autobiographical, or longitudinal, is related to one’s personal past and projected future. A person can refer to self, either as the source of its agency for regulation of behavior, or as the target of perception-cognition-action. It is the essence of individuality, being, proprium, or ipseity. According to the psychologist William James, nominative self is the knower of the self (self-as-subject), whereas, empirical self is the self so known (self-as-object). The empirical self further consists of the material self, the social self, and the spiritual self, which is closest to one’s core, the subjective experience of oneself.

For further elaborations and discussions on the self, please refer to Antonio Damasio’s recent book, “Self comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. [19]. Damasio described three stages in the development of self.

“First stage is the protoself. It is the neural description of relatively stable aspects of the organism. The main product of the protoself is spontaneous primordial feelings of the living body (and a sense of unity or singularity)… Primordial feelings precede all other feelings…The contributors to the protoself include master interoceptive maps, master organism maps, and maps of the externally directed sensory portals… (Protoself is the biological foundation of the self-process, but it is not the homunculus or the sage within)… Second stage is the core self. A pulse of core self is generated when the protoself is modified by an interaction between the organism and an object and when, as a result, the images of the object (and ego) are also modified. The organism and the modified images of the object are momentarily linked in a coherent pattern. The third stage is the autobiographical self. It occurs when objects in one’s biography generate pulses of core self that are, subsequently, momentarily linked in a large-scale coherent (situational) pattern.” [19] p 192, 201, 203, 213.

Two major difficulties have been recognized in the neuroscientific explanation of consciousness. They are called “qualia I & II.” Damasio described these two problems as follows: “In one, qualia refer to the feelings that are an obligate part of any subjective experience – some shade of pleasure or its absence, some shade of pain or discomfort, well-being, or lack thereof. I call this the Qualia I problem.” The Qualia II problem is: “Why should the construction of perceptual maps, which are physical, neurochemical events, feel like something? Why should they feel like anything at all? [19] p 269.

The most recent review article by Susan Pockett argued that consciousness and information processing cannot be equated. [20].

 How does Yogic Meditation work?

Yogic meditation works by restraining, inhibiting and letting-go of random, reactive and unintentional mental activity (Yoga-Sutra I: 2). In order to adequately regulate the wandering mind, initially one has to have the motivation, make repeated effort and to do regular practice to develop these skills. One also has to let-go of any expectations or goals during meditation. It is a personal mental skill to be learnt and practiced. Once, one gets very good at calming oneself (Atma-Shānta) spontaneously, at the same time staying fully alert (Udita) and free of any distressful thoughts, one can abide peacefully in oneself or in one’s true nature (Yoga-Sutra I: 3, I: 4). In my recent article, I had described this as the “Ground-Self” as opposed to the ever wandering “Proji-Self.” [21]. Here is a quotation from that article:

“Attention functions in two specific modes. The mnemonic mode is a vector-attention dominated by memories, associations, ruminative thinking and an explicit, vector-like activity of the projiself. When we direct our attention to objects around us and function in the mnemonic mode, the knowing process creates a sense of duality of the knower and the known. The presence mode however, is matrix attentiveness with the implicit ground-self, which is pervasive and continuously present. It is the key to adaptive mental excellence. It requires total attentiveness to the present reality with freedom from the past memories, biases, preferences, projections and the momentary vector-like projiself activity.

During meditation, when situational conflicts, desires, and needs are resolved, and when there is no need to attend to anything specific, one can stay naturally in an undistracted restful state of ground-self with nonspecific matrix attentiveness. Such a spontaneous, self-absorptive, nondual (unpolarized) state of being is the nature of the implicit ground-self. It is the primal ground and the binding thread (Sutra-Atma) of all of our conscious moments of vector-like experiences. The ground-self is our nonverbal and ineffable, ultimate subjective unity and reality.”

For further exploration and understanding of the neuroscience of meditation, please refer to an excellent book, “Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen” by Professor James Austin. [22]

Spirituality and Neuroscience

One of my good friend and a colleague, Professor Kenneth Heilman has skillfully and wisely tackled the difficult question of “Spirituality and Brain” in his recent book, “The Believer’s Brain: Home of the Religious and Spiritual Mind.” Here are a few valuable quotations from the last chapter on “Our Spirituality.” [23].

“The meaning of spirituality cannot be fully explained by a brief and simple definition. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says it is ‘having a spiritual meaning or reality that is not apparent to the senses.’ We may understand it as a personal intuition and experience of the divine that transcends our ordinary understanding of things.” Another word for spiritual could be “mystical.” Mystical experience may include “an intense and important, but transient life experience that bring feelings of joy or serenity and a sense of oneness and unity. This experience can be brought about by meditation and contemplation, as well as ascetic practices and drugs.” (Compare Yoga-Sutra IV: 1)

Professor Heilman further suggests that the frontal lobes may be involved in the process of believing. Frontal lobe again has three anatomical subdivisions with specific functional networks: Orbitofrontal cortex serves as the emotional executive by helping us control emotions; the lateral frontal cortex serves as the environmental executive by helping us interact with items that we see, hear and feel; and the medial frontal cortex serves as the self-executive by allowing us to initiate or inhibit goal-directed actions even in the absence of external stimuli.

Albert Einstein wrote an essay called “Cosmic Religion,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine on November 9, 1930. Einstein wrote about three levels of religion – “that of fear, with a God who protects rewards and punishes; a second (level) related to morality, like that of the Ten Commandments; and a third level he called the ‘cosmic religious sense.’ Einstein explained that, unlike an anthropomorphic concept of God, here, at this third level, a person feels the nobility and marvelous order revealed in nature and the world of thought. The person feels that individual destiny is a form of imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance. We might define Einstein’s third level as spirituality.”

Default mode network may be involved in simply relaxing, resting, and doing nothing, which can be a crucial part of most meditative practices. One may even call it the non-executive mode or the spontaneous state of bare awareness. Default mode network includes midline cortical (and subcortical) neural structures that are active during mental disengagement from goal directed activity, a cognitive pause and spontaneous peaceful rest.

Spontaneously calm and alert state of bare awareness is emphasized during meditation. Many meditation practices including Yoga and Zazen recommend bodily stillness, verbal-cognitive silence (Mounam), and emotional serenity and equanimity. Many great sages have described an advanced meditative state of pristine, spontaneous and blissful conscious being called Sat-Chit-Anand, Atma-Sphurana or Atma-Jyotiḥ, the timeless wellspring or the flame of self-awareness. It is an effortless and enlightening state of natural blissful awareness. Please see my recent poem, “The Well-Spring Within: Atma-Sphurana.” (Appendix C)

I recently thought of it as “Atma-Ghosha”. The Sanskrit word, ‘Ghosha’ means an indistinct distant sound like the sound of a distant waterfall (Buddha), roar of an animal like a lion, a roaring sound of flowing water, sound of collective recital of prayers also called “Mantra-Ghosha,” a spontaneous sound making one attentive called “Ghosha-buddha.Atma-Ghosha is strong, continuous, spontaneous, effortless background sound that remains unaffected by all other external or internal sounds. In fact, it is the source and sink of all other experienced sounds including our internal speech and thoughts. It gives one a sense of great self-energy~awareness~being. It is a useful cue during meditation for a quiet and silent awareness. It is a creative matrix consciousness from which new ideas and solutions can emerge. It is the power of primal, potent and eloquent silence (Mounam).

The neurobiology of behavioral arousal is well described by Professor Donald Pfaff in his book, “Brain Arousal and Information Theory: Neural and Genetic Mechanisms. [24]. Pfaff described “Generalized and Specific Arousals.” For the spontaneous generalized arousal, Pfaff gave two appropriate analogies: the Planet Earth’s magma or the central core and a second one is that of “The Big Bang” from which the entire Universe emerged and expanded. Similar analogies have been given in Upanishads as the central spark of light-heat-consciousness (Sphulinga) and the concepts or Hridayam and Hara. One of the main goals of meditation is to optimize resting and basal levels of conscious arousal. Please see an example of this research in Buddhist meditation [25].


Self-Freedom: Kaivalyam

In my recent article on “Vedic Psychology: a Science of Wisdom” I have summarized some of the essential concepts of Vedic Psychology, Philosophy and Yoga. [26]. Here are a few pertinent quotations:

“Most of the Vedic literature is devoted to self-culture and actualization of one’s essential being with innate wisdom. By wisdom, I mean the innate intelligence with complete natural peace with being-in-Reality. Vedanta described it as blissful conscious being (Sat-Chit-Ananda). What one experiences from moment to moment depends on one’s perspective or mind-set. An extraordinary perspective of the essential, existential being, in everyday life, is only possible after a deep self-understanding and self-realization. This wise stage in life is described in Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita as the state of superconscious equanimity (Sthita-prajña, Turiya, and Atma-prasād).”

There have been many examples of such enlightened individuals in human history. Therefore, such wisdom is potentially achievable by all of us. Understanding Vedanta, Yoga and living mindfully with an undistracted presence can help us flower in virtue. Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra promotes self-development by proposing the practice of many virtues and disciplines, like Yama: nonviolence, peacefulness, truthfulness, righteousness, fidelity, nongreed, and generosity, and Niyama: personal and surrounding cleanliness, self-content, austerity, self-study, and self-surrender. Other Yogic disciplines include Āsana steady posture with full awareness, Prāṇāyama natural well-adjusted breathing with full awareness, Pratyāhāra self-restraint of conscious sensory-perceptual activity, Dhāranā focusing on a single existing object or experience,  Dhyāna undistracted conscious presence and Samādhi blissful conscious being.

Pātanjali concludes his Ashtānga Yoga-Sutra in the last shloka (34th) of the last chapter (4th) on Kaivalya-Pada. He describes the state of freedom from oneself as Kaivalyam, the ultimate state of perfect freedom. It is also the state of resolution and integration of the individual’s conscious mental energy into the infinite and timeless, Holistic Awareness-itself or Chiti-Shakti. Please see my recent poem, “Self-Freedom” with its explanation in Appendix D.



[1] Taimni IK. (1961). The Science of Yoga. The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, ILL. USA, p.443.

[2] Deshmukh VD. (2012). The Astonishing Brain and Holistic Consciousness: Neuroscience and Vedānta Perspectives. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York, NY. A free PDF file of the book is available at the following link: https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=33900&osCsid=f3658d7dc495b928fabe8ae513742177.

[3] Loori JD. (2007) Finding the Still Point: A Beginner’s Guide to Zen Meditation. Dharma Communications, Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA.  

[4] Chanchani S & Chanchani R. (2009, 25th reprint) Yoga for Children: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Yoga including a manual for Parents and Teachers. UBS Publishers & Distributers, New Delhi, India.

[5] Nagendra HR. (1998) Prānāyāma: The Art and Science. Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Prakashana, Bangalore, India.

[6] Ramirez JM, Doi A, Garcia III AJ et al. (2012) . The Cellular Building Blocks of Breathing. Compr Physiol October 1; 2(4):2683-2731.

[7] Mesulam MM. (1985). Principles of Behavioral Neurology. F A Davis Company, Philadelphia, PA. P 125-168.

[8] Heilman KM. (2002). Matter of Mind: A Neurologist’s View of Brain-Behavior Relationships. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

[9] Posner MI (Ed.). (2004) Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention. The Guildford Press, New York, NY.

[10] Robertson IH & Garavan H. (2004). Vigilant Attention. In Gazzaniga MS (ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences, 3rd ed. A Bradford Book, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. P 631-640.

[11] Jon Kabat-Zinn. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners: reclaiming the present moment – and your life. Sounds True, Inc., Boulder, Colorado.

[12] Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. (2002) Mindfulness in plain English. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.

[13] Chinmaya Mission West. (2008). Living in the Present. Chinmaya Publications, Langhorne, PA.

[14] Austin JH. (2011). Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

[15] Siegel DJ. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Wellbeing. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.

[16] Eline Snel. (2013). Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their Parents). Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA.

[17] Deshmukh VD. (1990). Presence: The Key to Mental Excellence. Published by Sunanda V Deshmukh, Jacksonville, FL.

[18] Wegner DM. (2004). The Illusion of Conscious Will. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. P 1201-09.

[19] Damasio A. (2010). Self Comes To Mind: Constructing The Conscious Brain. Vintage Books, Random House Inc, New York, NY.

[20] Pockett S. (2014). Problems with Theories that equate Consciousness with Information or Information Processing. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.

[21] Deshmukh VD. Cognitive pause-and-unload hypothesis of meditation and creativity. J. Altern Med Res 2013;5(3):217-231. A free PDF file of this article is available from this link: https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=46298&osCsid=f3658d7dc495b928fabe8ae513742177

[22] Austin JH. (2011). Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

[23] Pfaff D. (2006). Brain Arousal and Information Theory: Neural and Genetic Mechanisms. Harvard University Press, Boston, MA.

[24] Britton WB, Lindahl JR, Cahn BR et al. (2014) Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness. Ann N Y Acad Sci January; 1307:64-81.

[25] Heilman KH and Donda RS. (2014). The Believer’s Brain: Home of the Religious and Spiritual Mind. Psychology Press, New York, NY. P 101-121.

[26] Deshmukh VD. Vedic Psychology: A Science of Wisdom. J Altern Med Res 3;(1): 29-43. A free PDF file of this article is available from this link: https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=19181&osCsid=f3658d7dc495b928fabe8ae513742177.


Appendix A

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ||I:2||

Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind. (1)

तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरुपेअवस्थानम् ||I:3||

Then the seer is established in his own essential and fundamental nature. (1)

वृत्तिसारुप्यमितरत्र ||I:4||

In other states there is assimilation (of the seer) with the modifications (of the mind). (1)

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्याः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः ||I:5||

The modifications of the mind are five-fold and are painful or not-painful. (1)

अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः ||I:12||

Their suppression is brought about by persistent practice and non-attachment. (1)

Who is God?

ईष्वरप्रणिधानाद्वा  ||I:23||

Or by self-surrender to God. (1)

क्लेशकर्मविपाकाशयैरपरामृष्टः पुरुषविशेष ईष्वरः ||I:24||

Ishvara is a particular Purusha who is untouched by the afflictions of life, actions and the results and impressions produced by these actions. (1)

What are positive feelings and what is a mature and wise mind?

मैत्रीकरुणामुदितोपेक्षाणां सुखदुःखपुण्यापुण्यविषयाणां भावनातष्चित्तप्रसादनम् ||I:33||

The mind becomes clarified by developing attitudes of friendliness, compassion, gladness, and indifference respectively towards happiness, misery, virtue and vice. (1)

What is regulation of breath?

प्रच्छ्र्दनविधारणाभ्यां  वा प्राणस्य ||I:34||

Or by the expiration and retention of breath. (1)

What is thought-free silence and enlightenment?

निर्विचार वैशारद्ये अध्यात्म प्रसादः ||I:47||

On attaining the utmost purity of Nirvichara stage (of Samadhi) there is dawning of the spiritual light. (1)

ऋतंभरा तत्र प्रज्ञा ||I:48||

There the consciousness is Truth-and-Right bearing. (1)

तस्यापि निरोधे सर्वनिरोधान्निर्बीजः समाधिः ||I:51||

On suppression of even that owing to suppression of all (modifications of mind) ‘Seedless’ Samadhi is attained. (1)

In Samadhi, there freedom from stress.

समाधिभावनार्थः क्लेशतनूकरणार्थष्च ||II:2||

(Kriya-Yoga) is practiced for attenuating Klesha-s and bringing about Samadhi.

What are the causes of stress?

अविद्या अस्मिता राग द्वेष अभिनिवेषाः क्लेशाः ||II:3||

The lack of awareness of Reality, the sense of egoism or ‘I-am-ness’ attractions and repulsions towards objects and the strong desire for life are the great afflictions or causes of all miseries in life.

Meditation relieves stress.

ध्यानहेयास्तद्वृत्तयः ||II:11||

Their active modifications are to be suppressed by meditation.

हेयं दुःखमनागतम् ||II:16||

The misery which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.

The observer-observed duality has to be overcome by constant self-awareness.

द्रष्टुदृष्ययो संयोगः हेयहेतुः ||II:17||

The cause of that which is to be avoided is the union of the Seer and the Seen.

द्रष्टा दृशिमात्रः शुद्धो अपि प्रत्ययानुपश्यः ||II:20||

The Seer is pure consciousness but though pure, appears to see through the mind.

विवेक ख्यातिरविप्लवा हानोपायः ||II:26||

The uninterrupted practice of the awareness of the Real is the means of dispersion (of avidya).

Self-content gives happiness.

संतोषादनुत्तमः सुखलाभः ||II:42||

Superlative happiness from contentment.

Asana involves stillness of the body.

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ||II:46||

Posture should be steady and comfortable.

Pranayama involves slow and quiet breathing.

तस्मिन्सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः ||II:49||

This having been (accomplished) Pranayama which is cessation (slowing and pause) of inspiration and expiration.

ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणम् ||II:52||

From that is dissolved the covering of light.

Meditation increases self-control and mental fitness.

धारणासु च योग्यता मनसः ||II:53||

And the fitness of mind for concentration.

ततः परमावश्यतेन्द्रियाणाम् ||II:55||

Then follows the greatest mastery over the senses.

What is mental concentration and meditation?

देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा ||III:1||

Concentration is the confining of the mind within a limited mental area (object of concentration).

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् ||III:2||

Uninterrupted flow (of the mind) towards the object (chosen for meditation) is contemplation.

तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरुपशून्यमिव समाधिः ||III:3||

The same (contemplation) when there is consciousness only of the object of meditation and not of itself (the mind) is Samadhi.

त्रयंमेकत्र संयमः ||III:4||

The three taken together constitute

What are the benefits of meditation?

तत्जयात्प्रज्ञालोकः ||III:5||

By mastering meditation (Samyama), the dawn of higher consciousness.

ततः पुनः शान्तोदितौ तुल्यप्रत्ययौ चितस्यैकाग्रतापरिणामः ||III:12||

Then, again, the condition of the mind in which the ‘object’ (in the mind) which subsides is always exactly similar to the ‘object’ which rises (in the next moment) is called Ekagrata Parinama.

प्रातिभाद्वा सर्वम् ||III:34||

(Knowledge of everything) from intuition.

हृदये चित्तसंवित् ||III:35||

By meditating on the heart, awareness of the nature of the mind.

जन्मौषधिमन्त्रतपः समाधिजाः सिध्दयः ||IV:1||

The Siddhis are the result of birth, drugs, Mantras, and austerities or Samadhi.

विशेषदर्शिन आत्मभावभावनानिवृत्तिः ||IV:25||

The cessation (of desire) for dwelling in the consciousness of Atma for one who has seen the distinction.

तदा सर्वावरणमलोपेतस्य ज्ञानस्यानन्त्याज्ज्ञेयमल्पम् ||IV:31||

Then, in consequence of the removal of all obstructions and impurities, that which can be known (through the mind) is but little in comparison with the infinite knowledge (obtained in Enlightenment).

पुरुषार्थशून्यानां गुणानां प्रतिप्रसवः कैवल्यं स्वरुपप्रतिष्ठा वा चितिशक्तिरिति ||IV:34||

“Kaivalya is the state (of Enlightenment) following re-mergence of the Gunas because of their becoming devoid of the object of Purusha. In this state, the Purusha is established in his Real nature, which is pure consciousness.”


Appendix B

The Mindful Eye:

The Sākshi-Netra or the Third Eye

Sākshi means

Witnessing, watching or attending.

Netra means

The eye, seeing or being aware.

The mindful eye

Watches all momentary self-situations,

The ever-changing and transient

Body-mind-ego’s activities.

The mindful eye

Witnesses all moves and roles,

That the limited ego plays and gets lost

In the endless drama of personal life,

Forgetting its existential or primal source,

The Universal Energy~Awareness~Being.

The mindful eye

Is the bridge that transforms,

The life-drama into Living Reality,

The personal past~future into the Cosmic Present,

The relative world into the Absolute Truth,

And the dualistic individual consciousness,

Into the nondual, Blissful Self-Awareness.

If we learn to live our life fully,

With the mindful eye and loving heart,

Fully open and receptive;

Then, spontaneity, cheerfulness, friendliness,

Compassion, equanimity and wisdom

Will blossom naturally.


The River of Humanity with a Mindful Eye

Original oil painting by Vinod D Deshmukh (February 2015)

Vinod D Deshmukh

February 7, 2015


Appendix C

The Wellspring-Within


It is the source of


It is the source of

All experience and behavior of

Our body-mind-ego.

It is spontaneous and effortless


It is natural and blissful.

It is the origin of all feelings, thoughts,

Speech, memories, imaginations,

Motivations and willful actions.

It is the primordial feeling of

One’s living body,

Embedded in the Nature.

It usually reveals itself during meditation,

As stillness-silence-serenity or Atma-Shanti.

It is continuously present, powerful and

Perfect in itself.

It has no perceptible

Beginning or end.

It has no specific form or duration.

It is an infinite, timeless and ineffable Unity.

It is the Source, the Primordium of

One amazing Life.


Atma-Sphurana: The Well-Spring Within

Original oil Painting by Vinod D Deshmukh (February 2015)

Vinod D Deshmukh

February 21, 2015


Appendix D


Self-Freedom is freedom from

One’s wants, expectations, regrets,

Choices and efforts.

True freedom is freedom from

Impulsivity and compulsivity

To act, to react, to speak, to think,

To search and to know.

Self-Freedom is freedom from

Aggression, hatred, greed, lust,

Fear and sadness.

True freedom is freedom from

Oneself, one’s autobiography,

And the self-projected future.

Self-Freedom is

Making peace with others, the world,

One’s body, mind and ego.

Self-Freedom is

Blissfully existing in Existence,

And sharing one’s presence,

Surging from the Source within.



Mother and Child

Original oil Painting by Vinod D Deshmukh (February 2015)


Explanation of my painting-poem: Self-Freedom

In the spring of 2013, we visited the famous Keukenhof Tulip Garden Festival in Amsterdam. While walking through the Garden, I came across this unique sculpture, which I liked very much and took a photo of it. Here it is:


It looks like a person meditating in a full Lotus position, with head slightly tilted down, with an inward attentional gaze. The empty interior (chest~abdomen) symbolizes a state of “Emptiness” or “Shunyata शून्यता.” In the Buddhist tradition, Emptiness is a symbol of absolute mental clarity, insight and wisdom. In Hinduism, there is a concept of “Wholeness” or “”Poornata पूर्णता.” It symbolizes the wholeness of Existence~Awareness~Bliss or Sat~Chit~Anand सत्चिदानन्द.

In my poem, “Self-Freedom,” I preferred the word “Freedom” instead of “Emptiness.” Because, to me, it feels more like freedom from oneself and one’s projected world-experience, rather than mere emptiness of one’s mind and heart. The word “Self-Freedom” also points to the wholeness of timeless and infinite Energy~Awareness~Being. Therefore, during meditation, one is empty of one’s transiently experienced world~body~mind~ego; and at the same time, one is full of spontaneous and infinite Energy~Awareness~Being. Such is the true state of Self-Freedom or Kaivalya कैवल्य or Mukti मुक्ति. Patanjali concluded his Yoga-Sutra by defining “Kaivalya” in the last shloka or verse.

पुरुषार्थशून्यानां गुणानां प्रतिप्रसवः कैवल्यं स्वरुपप्रतिष्ठा वा चितिशक्तिरिति ||IV:34||

“Kaivalya is the state (of Enlightenment) following re-mergence of the Gunas (phenomenal qualities namely satva, raja and tama) because of their becoming devoid of the object of Purusha (Self-as-subject). In this state, Purusha (the Atman) is established in his Real Nature, which is pure Consciousness.” (Taimni IK. (1961). The Science of Yoga. The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, ILL. USA, p.443.)

To me, “Kaivalya” is freedom from the limiting self or the ego. The poem is about that. During life-experiences, our outward-looking (bahir-mukha बहिर्मुख) mind gradually matures, becomes self-curious, and turns inward (antar-mukha अन्तर्मुख). In the final stages, it abides in itself, स्वप्रतिष्ठ Swa-Pratishtha – the spontaneous, infinite, blissful Energy~Awareness~Being (Sat~Chit~Anand).

Since I liked the sculpture so much, I had done several drawings of it, in my journal with many variations. When we recently started taking lessons in oil-painting, I chose to paint that sculpture with an inner glow that continuously radiates all-around, from within in all living beings including us. One integrated primal energy आदिशक्ति, like the white light, gets differentiated into many colors, patterns, objects and processes in different life-forms एकं ज्योतिः बहुधा विभाति (अथर्ववेद).

The primal innate glow is also called Antah-Sphurana अन्तस्फूरण or Ātma-Sphurana आत्मस्फूरण. When this innate glow is dim, the world~body~mind~ego dominate our field of experiential awareness, but, when the innate glow shines ever so bright, like the Sun-within, the Atma-Surya आत्मसूर्य, the world~body~mind~ego fade into almost “no-thing” in the background, similar to the fading of the Moon and stars after the morning Sunrise. Of course, the innate glow of consciousness depends upon a well-functioning brainstem-cortical network for conscious arousal-awareness-being.

#mk-accordion-597a89fff359e .mk-accordion-pane{ background-color:#f7f4de; }


.button-597a8a000a4c2 { margin-bottom: 15px; margin-top: 0px; min-width: 0px !important; } .button-597a8a000a4c2 { background-color:#617ad3; } .mk-button.button-597a8a000a4c2.flat-dimension:hover { background-color:#d74528 !important; }
.button-597a8a000ab7b { margin-bottom: 15px; margin-top: 0px; min-width: 0px !important; } .button-597a8a000ab7b { background-color:#617ad3; } .mk-button.button-597a8a000ab7b.flat-dimension:hover { background-color:#d74528 !important; }
.button-597a8a000b211 { margin-bottom: 15px; margin-top: 0px; min-width: 0px !important; } .button-597a8a000b211 { background-color:#617ad3; } .mk-button.button-597a8a000b211.flat-dimension:hover { background-color:#d74528 !important; }
.button-597a8a000b8b5 { margin-bottom: 15px; margin-top: 0px; min-width: 0px !important; } .button-597a8a000b8b5 { background-color:#617ad3; } .mk-button.button-597a8a000b8b5.flat-dimension:hover { background-color:#d74528 !important; }