Reflections on Light : Yoga Sutra 1.36

/Reflections on Light : Yoga Sutra 1.36

The 6th limb of yoga practice is dharana, a word that is most often translated as concentration. Dharana is the beginning of meditation practice; the object of our focus.

Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place. [YS 3.1]

As you begin meditation it’s important to know where you’re attempting to direct your attention. What’s the “one place” that you’re trying to fix your mind? In other words, what’s your dharana?

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In my own practice I’ve been experimenting with taking Yoga Sutra 1.36 as my dharana: Visoka va jyotismati. This sutra comes in a list of ideas for meditation that can help us overcome obstacles as we work to steady the mind and live in a state of yoga. I was originally drawn to the sutra because of the word jyoti, which means light. In the Quaker tradition light is an important concept. The Light within is understood as ‘that of God within us.’ Because of this I was drawn to the language used in the translation of this sutra by Sri Swami Satchidananda:

Or by concentrating on the supreme, ever-blissful Light within.

In his commentary on the sutra he writes:

You can imagine a brilliant divine light which is beyond all anxieties, fear and worry—a supreme Light in you. Visualize a brilliant globe in your heart representing your Divine Consciousness. Or imagine your heart to contain a beautiful glowing lotus. The mind will easily get absorbed in that, and you will have a nice experience. In the beginning one has to imagine this Light, which later becomes a reality.

I appreciate the simple visualizations offered here. This way of practicing visoka jyotismati feels deeply connected to the translation of the Gayatri Mantra I keep on my altar:

We recollect in ourselves and meditate upon that wondrous Spirit of Divine Light; may this Light guide our inner vision.

Satchidananda’s last line, however, leaves me feeling confused. How can we imagine the Light into reality? I believe the Light is a reality and that we can gain a sense of it (in some mysterious ineffable way) through our meditation practice. I can’t imagine that Satchidananda wouldn’t agree with this, but it’s not clear from his commentary. Maybe my friends who practice Integral Yoga can help me understand.

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Edwin F. Bryant translates sutra 1.36 as:

Or [steadiness of mind is gained when] the mind is pain free and luminous.

And in his commentary he writes:

According to Vyasa, Patanjali in this sutra also implies subject-focused meditation, when the mind is fixed on the sense of I-am-ness (asmita). Free from rajas and tamas, it becomes calm and unlimited in this state, like a waveless ocean, and is aware only of a sense of I am. Vyasa states that the yogi in this state can ponder the atman within the heart, which is the size of an atom, and realize the self in the form of I am.

Unpacking this paragraph could be an entire post. For now I will focus on the last line. When we are in a state of deep concentration, we connect with our innermost self (the atman), which the ancient commentators described as being the size of an atom—once understood as the smallest particle of the universe. Yet in this state we recognize ourselves in the form of I am, which I understand to mean ‘I am that’ (So Ham). My innermost self is That. It is the universe. It is the Light. When Moses asks for God’s name in the book of Exodus, God said, “I AM WHO I AM.” From meditation on the Light, I come to understand that I am the Light. I come to understand that ‘I am who I am.’

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‘I AM’ can be a confusing concept to wrap our heads around. Swami Hariharananda Aranya’s commentary on sutra 1.36 offers us a concrete way to think about it and to practice:

First imagine in your heart a limitless, sky-like or transparent effulgence; then think that the self is within that, i.e. ‘I am spread all over it.’ Such thought brings ineffable bliss. The transparent, radiant sense of ego radiating from the heart to infinity is called Visoka Jyotismati or effulgent light free from sorrow.

We are not imagining Light into reality. We are using our imagination to help deepen our understanding of Light. I sit still and visualize light and imagine myself spread all over it. In some ways this doesn’t make any sense. Yet practice isn’t always about sense. It’s about sitting still and quiet long enough to clear out some of the noise. Sitting still and quiet long enough to let deeper understandings rise to the top of our attention.

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The Self—the I AM—is contained in an effulgent light free from sorrow.

In a brilliant radiance.

In a shining forth.

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No matter how stunningly beautiful this sutra is, no matter how inspiring it is, the fact remains that meditation is still hard. It requires coming back again and again. Back to the mat everyday. And then back to the dharana every time the mind wonders away.

It’s important to remember that we don’t practice for ‘results.’ We practice in order to cultivate silence in our lives. Whatever happens in practice, happens. We can’t get attached. We just remain present and open.

I’ve been working with this dharana for a few weeks now and have struggled with distraction. Sometimes it seems that being OK with distraction is the point of practice. Distraction comes and I just continue to sit. I notice the scattered thoughts and gently return to my dharana. And once in awhile, just for a moment, my mind finds ease.

In my practice this morning, I found myself repeating ‘I am that,’ almost as a mantra.

I am that.

I am that.


By |2014-12-08T12:54:21+00:00September 9th, 2013|Books, Meditation, Spirituality, Yoga|5 Comments


  1. Diana Chambers September 11, 2013 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Your BLOG is wonderful, Summer. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and heart with us. In response to your musings over Satchidananda’s suggestion that we might visualize light before we actually perceive it, I can offer perspective from my initiated practice of sound and light meditation. I have known teachers from other traditions to suggest imagining light, but I have always taken this as a technique simply to help us tune into the light that essentially forms creation. However, like the water in which fish swim, we cannot recognize it apart from what we already know. Visualizing light, it seems to me, simply brings this dimension into focus so that eventually, effortlessly, we may begin to recognize it as the reality beyond that of our imagination. Satchidananda’s wording is interesting. We could take it as a simplification to get his point across, one that necessarily, but maybe only temporarily, obscures the underlying truth, but I feel wary of concluding this too quickly. It could also suggest the more challenging idea that each individual creates his/her own reality (and light!) from within, a process that most of us perceive as happening over time. In my experience, *Truth* makes room for all levels of understanding and awareness to co-exist in one harmonious and coherent whole.

    • Summer Cushman September 11, 2013 at 9:41 am - Reply

      Hi Diana,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!

      I came up with many of the same conclusions you did. In fact, when I was writing I struggled deeply with this section. At one point, I took it out altogether. I don’t want to make assumptions about what a master teacher who has passed away meant. But his wording is tricky for me. You wrote: “We could take it as a simplification to get his point across, one that distorts somewhat the underlying truth, but I feel wary of concluding this too quickly.” That is exactly what I was thinking. I often struggle with his commentary actually because I often feel that it oversimplifies things. But I have also had many students who connect with his writing and so I appreciate how accessible it is. The wording of this particular point seemed too easily susceptible to distorted understanding though (assuming, of course, that he doesn’t actually mean that we imagine the Light into reality…).

      I think we all grow through the wrestling of deep questions. So I am happy for his writing in the sense that it forced me to think about and articulate my own thoughts.

      Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful ideas.

      Be well,

  2. John September 12, 2013 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    When I read what you wrote Summer about Imagining the Light into reality, I was thinking that this imagining changes us, bringing us into our true self of “I am”. I think maybe getting us out of unreality or what we create. We then interact with the world with this “I am” in a sense bringing it into reality. Wow, it’s funny trying to put this into words, because it seems as though truth shifts around or is a bit illusive for me. It’s good though. Good stuff to contemplate or meditate upon. Thank you for your thoughts and words. John

    • Diana Chambers September 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm - Reply

      Well said, John. I agree that imagining light, whether or not we sense it anyway, does alter us our consciousness/neurology in life-affirming ways. And I share your gratitude to Summer for stimulating reflection on this fascinating topic. Thanks to both of you. Diana

    • Summer Cushman September 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      Hello John,

      Yes, we are changed by this work! I truly believe this. I know it from my own experience. When we work to articulate the seemingly inarticulate things, when we allow ourselves to be absorbed in silence, when we focus our attention toward Light or whatever word or idea or question is calling us in any given moment, we are changed. It’s the mystery of this changing that keeps pushing me forward in my own practice and writing and teaching and life.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

      Be well,

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