Practicing Wholeness: Yoga Sutra 2.1

Meeting Yoga & falling in love

Do you remember the moment you first stepped onto a yoga mat? I sure do. It was a power yoga class at a local gym and we were packed wall to wall in a tiny mirrored room. My borrowed mat was breaking down (much like me) and smelled like a bag of stale corn chips. That didn’t stop me from falling in love with yoga that day. During Savasana, as tears streamed down my face, I heard and felt the word “home”.  Yoga arrives in our life at the perfect time and begins her precise work of integrating the “stuff” of our life and dissolving all we are not. That was the day Sutra 2.1 was planted deep in my heart.

Practicing Yoga in part

Sutra 2.1 of Patanjali’s yoga sutras begins: the practice of yoga consists of self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya) and dedication to God (ishvara pranidhana). Or as I like to see it, a harmony of doing, reflecting, and Presence. This sutra is an invitation to wholeness and implies a movement among all three aspects. 

As a new yogini, the only aspect in my focus was self-discipline (tapas). Another definition of tapas is “effort” and I had plenty of that. Beliefs began to arise that said if I do more yoga, the “right” way, if I eat better, if I truly live a yogic lifestyle, follow the right teacher, I won’t experience as much suffering or I’ll know how to mitigate all problems with yogic techniques. The limiting beliefs were subtle and I never thought to question them even as I began teaching.

I became a yoga zealot who thought anyone with an ailment just needed yoga. Have depression? Yoga will lift you out. Chronic back pain? Yoga is the answer. I also believed that yogis should always be able to breeze through life with a strong immune system, glowing skin, and a positive attitude.  It is safe to say my yoga practice was out of balance and it didn’t take long for life to show me the problem with this way of thinking. While self-discipline (doing, efforting) is a vital element, applied without the support of self-study and dedication to God,  it doesn’t yield the richness of a Sutra 2.1 yoga practice.

Greater than the sum of its parts

In Ecclesiastes it is said that a three cord strand is not easily broken. This is how I see Sutra 2.1. The power lies in its triune relationship of tapas, svadhyaya, and ishvara pranidhana, all synergistically at play with every breath of our yoga practice. Many elements in nature reveal the power of trinity. While each aspect is valuable in their own right, bringing them together is what really creates the magic!

Consider a water molecule. Water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, makes up approximately 60% of the human body, and is necessary to preserve life (a human can survive three weeks without food but only three days without water!) The water molecule, like Sutra 2.1, is a trinity: it’s made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom (H2O). Any change (or imbalance) in this trinity yields a completely different substance: Take away the oxygen from the trinity and you’ve got Hydrogen, a gas. Add another Oxygen atom and you’ve got Hydrogen Peroxide. To “imbalance” the water molecule this way isn’t wrong, it’s just no longer water. 

Practicing Yoga as a trinity

If we apply Sutra 2.1 to the body and see the body as a temple, the right side may represent tapas, self-discipline, our “doing” side.  This is the way we choose to take action in our practice to discipline the lower aspects of ourselves.  The left side can be seen as svadhyaya, self-study, a receptive gaze inward that invites us to take an honest look at our behaviors and how we relate to life, others, and ultimately our divine nature. The central channel can be seen as the space of ever abiding presence where our dedication to God ("Source", or Ishvara) resides. 

Let’s take a look at how we might engage with our yoga practice through the trinity of Sutra 2.1: 

Tapas (Self-Discipline): Doing: We step onto the mat with purpose making our way into Mountain Pose, hands at the heart in Anjali mudra. Feet are grounded. Connected to Earth. Our body is a temple of tapas, self-discipline, heat. Notice the warmth generated as we begin to breathe a little deeper. Visualize moving into the strong asana, Warrior 1. Now we build the asana from the ground up with steady attention.   

Svadhyaya (Self-Study): Being: We are now in Warrior 1. Welcome a gentle, open curiosity. Draw a slow breath in...and exhale allowing the eyes and jaw to relax. Remember that all things work together for good. Remain disciplined and receptive to the sensations that arise in this powerful shape. We welcome Warrior 1 to teach us. Standing strong, we surrender into an asana that has been practiced by millions of humans for thousands of years. We are humbled. Svadhyaya is our willingness to remain open and curious with each step of our journey. As our teacher, Ravi Ravindra has often said, “yoga requires a willingness to be surprised.”

Ishvara Pranidhana (Dedication to God): Presence: Completing the experience of Warrior 1, we step forward to Mountain Pose with one hand on our heart and one hand on our belly. We find ourselves beyond any sense of lack in this moment. Guided by self-discipline and self-study, a longing for Truth, Presence, God springs from the heart and pours through our body. We are home.

A journey to remember

The stars align in countless ways for us to fall in love with yoga. The initial longing may be a desire to heal, escape suffering, or find happiness. Whatever the reason, with a balance of self-discipline, self-study, and dedication to God, yoga does her gracious work and we may realize, as many before us, the place we are looking for is also the place we are looking from. Home is here, within our heart.

Please join James Boag in Season 10 of his show "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali", where he dives into Chapter Two of this timeless text. And if you are new to the Sutras, check out Season 9, which offers a complete review of Chapter One, only on Yoga Anytime.
Angel Brownlee
About the Author

Angel Brownlee

Angel Brownlee is the co-founder of Temple Road Journey, a ministry of breath, movement, and meditation dedicated to helping people see themselves through the eyes of the heart, using the teachings of Christ and Yoga. As a certified yoga therapist and Reiki master, she is passionate about working with care partners, those in neurological rehabilitation and hospice. Angel believes the practice of yoga graciously meets us right where we are at every stage in life. You can practice with Angel in her new show Yoga and Faith.


Nancy T
2 people like this.
This is such a beautiful, from the heart, article.  The author has captured the essence of this Sutra through her own experiences and journey of yoga.  Angel has helped me understand how important the sutras are to study as part of our yoga practice and journey. 
Kate M
Such a beautifully written, from the heart, interpretation of Sutra 2.1. The sacred relationship of the trinity of svadhyaya, tapas, and Ishvarapranidhana. Thank you for this inspiring article!

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