Parinama (Transformation): The Real Aim of Yoga

According to the sources I’ve examined, the word “Parinama” means “change, alteration, transformation, product, fruit, or result. It also means, “transformation or change due to time; mutation.” One thing is clear, parinama is used in relation to the tendency of all phenomena (material or “prakrtic” phenomena, including the mind and emotions) to change in state, form, substance, or composition.

In the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, parinama seems to refer less to the general (universal) tendency of all phenomena toward transformation, or the general state of impermanence of all material phenomena, and more to a specific process that a consciousness refined—by yoga sadhana—undergoes as the higher stages of practice, or samyama, manifest. With the exception of Sutra II.15, which uses the word parinama as more of a general description of the tendency toward impermanence of all states of experience (thus reminding the student to develop the discernment not to become too attached to pleasant experiences, or too averse to painful ones by realizing all experiences transform ceaselessly both in quality and content) Patanjali employs the term parinama to describe a distinct process whereby the mind, or rather consciousness, is, to quote Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar, “transformed, cultured, refined, and polished.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pg. 191). Clearly, Patanjali is here using the word to describe not an inevitable occurrence of a law of nature, but rather the conscious, intentional, invocation of that law to produce a certain effect. In other words, transformation “ordinarily” occurs as the result of what we could call “natural” forces or factors (or even the will of God?). The individual is more or less a passive participant, often at the effect of this phenomenon. In Patanjali’s yoga system, by contrast, the adept practitioner learns to participate in this process and, by what Guruji calls “skillfull repeated efforts,” to utilize this natural tendency to direct the consciousness (or perhaps a better verb would be to release the consciousness) to its highest possible state.

Parinama of consciousness, as taught by Patanjali in Sutras III.9 – III.13 involves its changing from an activated (restless), outward-moving state to a restrained state, from a restrained state to a state of single-pointed attention (where the outward-moving tendency has been overcome, at least to some extent), and from the state of single-pointed attention to a state of what Guruji calls “no pointed attentiveness.” Another important point here about the parinama Patanjali describes is that it is without a doubt a transformation from a “lower,” to a “higher,” and then to an ultimate state. By my reading of the Sutras and Guruji’s commentary, as well as through the experiences of my own practice over the years, I view parinama as a description of the tendency of phenomena (including and especially my own body, mind, emotions, energies, etc.) to seek the highest possible state. Of course, Patanjali’s use of the term parinama also implies there are no guarantees that this higher level will be reached. Rather it seems to depend upon the cultivation of the proper conditions whereby this natural tendency can unfold most fully. This is where proper (i.e. long-term and skillful) practice proves essential.

So, now to make this more practical. I have certainly seen transformations occur through practicing. Most obvious—and Guruji does write that “the three stages of transformation described in [Sutras] III. 9 – 12 affect the entire being: organs, senses, body, and mind, and bring about a stable, steady state of consciousness.” (L.O.Y.S.O.P., pg. 195)—have been the changes in my hamstrings, hips, upper body, etc. Come to think of it, I’d have to say the changes in mind are equally notable. I have seen my desires and habits change as well. Practice has transformed me from a smoker to a non-smoker, from someone who used intoxicants with frequency to someone sober for over a decade. My diet and tastes (not just in foods, but also in books, music, recreational activities, even companions) have changed markedly. More specifically, I can distinguish parinama  manifesting in my asana (and to some extent, pranayama) practice in the same sequence enumerated by Patanjali. For example, in any posture, especially say a longer Sirsasana, I must regularly restrain the “rising” waves of my consciousness (vyuttana citta) by utilizing breath, action, sense of direction (i.e. “alignment”) to invoke nirodha parinama. When I am able to sustain this restraint, I do find the consciousness does settle inside of the body (or at least upon the act/ asana at hand). Finally, on some occasions, when the consciousness does seem to settle in this way, I find I can expand my awareness from the act/ asana at hand and have this kind of whole-body experience. In those moments I feel I am experiencing, even “living” the posture rather than doing the posture. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am experiencing ekagrata parinama, but certainly this seems a corollary to the transformation Patanjali describes. There are moments where I experience the asana as a “state,” as described by Prashant Iyengar. I would associate the transformation of the practice of asana—as a set of isolated movements and actions, to an integrated set of movements and actions, to an experience of that integration as a state of being—with the parinama Patanjali describes.

I have one example from a teaching perspective. In class I may have a general (scattered?) idea about the postural and philosophical theme(s) I plan to cover. But as the class progresses and I begin to discern how my students are responding, theses themes take on greater clarity. At times, as these themes develop and as the students’ practices coalesce around them with a certain skill and focus, new connections and unforeseen augmentations will develop, and the teaching moves from “one pointed” to “no-pointed”.