Sutra I.9 – Chapter I, Sutra 9

शब्दज्ञानानुपाती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः॥९॥

śabdajñānānupātī vastuśūnyo vikalpaḥ

Imagination (vikalpah) is the knowledge (jnana) obtained (anupati) from words (sabda) when the actual object is not present (vastusunyo).

PRACTICAL LIVING     Imagination is the third mental activity and a very common one. Vikalpah occurs when we have a mental image as a creation of the mind, without a direct experience of the object. Since the images we create in our minds are in some way a result of past experiences, imagination is closely linked to memory (the 5th activity we will be exploring in 2 weeks). Vikalpah can occur while remembering something, listening to someone tell us a story, while reading, in dreams, or through feelings and emotions. Regardless of what triggers the mind to imagine, the image can either create suffering or not (refer to Sutra I.5). Earlier we explored the definition of Yoga: to choose, focus and sustain (Sutra I.2). When we choose to focus on something negative that has not been directly experienced (you overheard, dreamed or read something), the imagination helps us dramatize the thought and create a “monster” out of an image which is not based on a ‘real’ object.

On the other hand, vikalpah allows us to imagine a wonderful life. This powerful concept is called ‘bhavana’: the art of visualizing the juiciest and most incredible life. Children do this naturally. Ask a five-year-old what they would like to be when they grow up and words like “purple unicorn with 18 legs and orange polka dots”, “astronaut with 12 swords to fight the monsters” are likely to be heard. Once an adult tells us “don’t be silly, unicorns or monsters don’t exist”, our ability to use vikalpah as a positive activity of the mind gets hindered. Vikalpah teaches us to focus on what we want, rather than on what we don’t want.

IN THE YOGA WORLD     Vikalpah is a powerful mental activity, leading us either to suffering or to comfort. We can imagine a healthier a body when we are ill. We can visualize our bodies being thinner if we are overweight, or heavier if we are underweight. We can visualize ourselves in a beautiful relationship where we feel loved and we love openly. We can also imagine dedicating our lives to a meaningful and pleasureful activity. Through Yoga we begin to practice self-awareness and notice when we are using vikalpah in a destructive way (jealousy, victimization, arrogance, focusing on what we DON’T want) and replace the latter with what we do want.


Visualize what you want

Christy has been in my life for the past 4-5 years and has inspired me in so many different ways! This woman has the capacity to visualize anything: she is fearless and acts on her incredible imagination. She is the queen of bhavana and uses it to create the life she wants, whether if it’s moving to a big city and making her dreams come true, or moving back to a small town and connecting to nature and a slower-paced life. In that process, she has been spreading inspiration, a love for life, generosity and growth to anyone who comes across her path. I was fortunate enough to spend some very special time with her and her beautiful family recently and feel super blessed to be her friend. Christy, thank you for the beauty you bring into my life 🙂

Do you have any experiences you would like to share? Please interact as much as you like – everyone will learn from your personal experiences!

Thanks and we will look at deep sleep/nidra next week!

42 thoughts on “Sutra I.9 – Chapter I, Sutra 9

  1. Vikalpah is a beautiful state of mind that can be used for so much positivity. Its a sad truth that our minds change as we start to experience negativity. The imagination of a child is priceless! Fear is a huge piece of this transformation. When we focus on what we don’t want, we begin to fear it. And act on this fear. I struggle with this and a future in parenthood. I have imagined my life wo children and fear of this reality has overwhelmed me. Now through yoga I can focus on my Bhavana and the reality of motherhood.

    • Hi Jess, yes, fear definitely changes the route of a positive imagination into something very ugly, which often has no base in reality. We are taught to “hold” onto our bhavanas, not “grab”. The key is to imagine, clarifying what we want, but remembering not to attach to it…thank you for your comment 🙂

  2. I kind of love this idea of vikalpah. I’m definitely not letting my imagination be destructive. Even though I’m not a child anymore, I’ve been letting my imagination work in a positive sense. I’m definitely starting on my road to my bhavana. I started my yoga teacher training as a start. Some day I WILL open a yoga studio, and start to love what I do everyday. One of my friends was complaining about the hours she works all the time, and my comment was, “I know, I know, I feel the same way…but if I were just teaching/practicing yoga all day, that would be the life”. Maybe this seems a little dramatic or far fetched, but you get the point. What’s that saying, “if you’re doing something you love, you never do a day of work in your life”? Well that’s a great bhavana to work on!

  3. The concept of vikalpah is wonderful. I constantly image what my life will be like in the future- husband,kids, house on a hill! my imagination tends to wander when thinking about my career and where its headed. I love how yoga makes me feel mentally, emotionally, and physically. I dream about being able to share my experience with others and hopefully be able to practice and teach yoga full time. A lot of people says its not feasible, but I believe it is. I struggle with having doubt that I will be able to conquer my dream, but i will die trying!

    • The biggest obstacle to our bhavanas is fear. The more specific and positive we can be when describing our visions, the more likely we will make decisions to move in that direction.

  4. I have such a hard time ‘imagining’ anything but as I continue this journey I find that it is essential. You need to believe in better things, work towards &set goals…or else you live in darkness and/or worse…live stagnant.

  5. Vikalpah is really hitting home with me, as I’ve always identified myself and been identified by others as “a dreamer” with my “head in the clouds” So the fact that this aspect of my mental activity and habits is described further and offered as a tool for happiness in this sutra makes me really happy! I’ve definitely experienced the wonderful positives of vikalpah, envisioning myself achieving my goals and leading the life that makes me happiest one step at a time. I’ve done this so many times but I particularly remember using vikalpah when I was a senior in high school working hard to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle. The results? I learned a lot about how to nourish my body, lead a satisfying and healthy lifestyle, and lost 35 pounds to boot! However it is in this example that I see vikalpah cannot stand alone, it must go hand in hand with action. Vikalpah + Action = Progress! I’ve also experienced the negative effects of vikalpah, and have a lot of irrational anxieties because of it. I’d say I have an “overactive imagination.” Sometimes, in my mind, every person on the street past 10 pm is a threat, and rough housing means broken bones. Thats not a fun state to be in, and I really want to channel my vikalpah away from those negative thoughts and towards Bhavana. However, there is a question that I have about vikalpah. I was once told that “daydreaming (which involves vikalpah) is one of the main sources of suffering” now is that in all cases? Even in the case of positive vikalpah or bhavana? Is vikalpa only meant to enhance our practice, but not to be used as a means of passing the time, even in a positive manner? Any insights would be appreciated!

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  7. One story that continues to baffle me (especially now that it is so, so cold outside) is one I heard of a man using vikalpah. While I was participating in a expedition-based outdoor school in New Zealand, my sea kayaking instructor told us a story of a man who encountered freezing weather while he was at sea, for which he was not prepared physically. Mentally, however, this man was able to transport himself to a place where he was so hot- sweating profusely- that he actually physically began to sweat whilst in the middle of freezing cold nowhere. That is truly the magic of vikalpah.

  8. My favorite place to practice with my vikalpah is while lying in savasana. Ever since I first began practicing yoga I have found that I have the most relaxing and deepest experience when I activate my vikalpah and visualize myself somewhere else. Normally, I visualize myself at the end of the dock at my parent’s lakehouse. The sun is just coming up and the dock is moist with dew. It’s completely quiet and I am lying there all alone. However, when there is someone in my life who is very meaningful to me at a certain stage in my life, they will sometimes be incorporated in my visualization. Last year, my friend Sara was helping me through a tough breakup. She was over all of the time, we would cook together and practice yoga. One night in savasana without even conciously making the choice, she was just there, lying on the dock with me. I love how yoga is so open to imaginiation and interpretation. It can be customized for each individual and no experience is the same.

  9. I practiced vikalpah while I was a gymnast and wasn’t aware that it had a name! (I called it “positive mental imagery”) Before each meet, I would close my eyes and visualize myself perfectly performing my routine on each event, and then I would do this again immediately before I performed each routine. I noticed a big difference in how well I performed when I did this versus when I didn’t; I think envisioning myself in the best light possible helped calm my mind and body. I love this concept!

  10. I read daily intentions by Wayne Dyer and yesterday’s intention said “your imagination creates the inner picture that allows you to participate in the act of creation. It’s the invisible connecting link to manifesting your own destiny.” I love how this intention and this sutra blend so wonderfully to reinforce the idea that sometimes you need to “believe it (imagine it) to see it.” I’ve started doing more imagining (visualizations) in my morning meditations to help me focus on the endless possibilities the future holds for me, even though I don’t know exactly how it will turn out. I believe the more I imagine a fantastic and wonderful future the more likely it’ll become that I make that a reality. I won’t lie, I have be prone to imagining the worst case scenarios as well…but, those imaginations just create more suffering for me and could potentially keep me from living the fabulous future I desire. So, here’s to imagining big and having your dreams come true!

  11. Growing up my mother always told me I had a wild imagination. Sometimes now I feel like I’ve lost it. Yoga has helped me begin to bring it back. I deeply enjoyed practicing visualization and continue to focus on my long-term goal of getting to someplace warm. 🙂 In the short-term, I hope to bring more imagination to my work because sometimes I think I get stuck in the idea that “this is how things are done.” My goal is to continue to try to bring in creative energy and make our process more innovative through imagination.

  12. I love this sutra and think that vikalpah is really important to incorporate into our daily lives. Vikalpah reminds me of my goals and what I really want out of life. It’s so easy to think “living on a beach or traveling the world is unrealistic”, but whether it’s realistic or not if it’s something you want you have to imagine it and think about it first or else you will never take steps to achieving it. If we never allow time for vikalpah we will only ever see what is already in front of us, we won’t be able to see the amazing and accomplished person we want to be in the future and then it’s so easy to get stuck in negativity. I liked that this sutra also mentioned the vikalpah in children, it reminds me of the Picasso quote “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,”. We could easily take his quote and replace artist with yogi. We come into this world pure, innocent, and full of dreams and wonder, but then we’re told from others to “get our head out of the clouds”. If we could all learn to embrace our inner child and embrace vikalpah I believe the world would be a much brighter and creative place.

  13. I like bhavana because it adds a sense of reality to the imagination. It is not about being lost in a wonderful situation that we pretend is the substitute of reality, but rather it is imagination with awareness. It helps me clarifying on what I need to do to move in the direction of my bhavana. It is a powerful concept.

  14. Up until a few years ago, I felt as though I could achieve anything that I could envision. My vikalpah was endless and I would focus on positive things. The past few years, I feel as though I have become jaded and cynical. I don’t know why or how this happened. This makes me think of a dinner meeting I had a few months ago. I met up with my business mentor’s daughter’s friend. She was a recent college grad leaving for London. She had no job in London, she had no place to stay, she said she bought a 1 way ticket and was just going to show up there and figure it out. I asked her what she would want to do over there, if money or a visa weren’t an issue. She said she would like to be a blogger that traveled and wrote about her amazing experiences. As she was describing this, I felt my jaded side come out and caught myself thinking, “yes this sounds amazing, everyone wants to be the next Anthony Bourdain, but is this really realistic?” I was genuinely concerned and worried about her. Maybe it was the mother inside of me trying to protect her. But as I think back to listening to her vision, I was shooting down her vikalpah. Sometimes the realistic and practical side of me comes out too often. I need to just believe that positive things will happen. I just received an update about this girl who moved to London. She found a place to live, has a job at a local pub and is blogging and travelling in her spare time. This made me realize that some of the most unrealistic and far-fetched ideas can indeed come true!

  15. We use our imagination (vikalpah) at all times and at some point in time we relied a lot more in our imagination than our rational/analytic mind but as we age we somehow lose the interest or habit of imagining beautiful and endless possibilities and instead we start imagining at times very dreadful situations. How can we correct this habit that tends to creep with our years?
    I have been working on letting go of fear and start imagining things, start imagining the possibilities. There is nothing wrong with being modest and keeping attainable goals but it is good for our soul, for our true natures to shine, to allow our imagination to be free and help us envision what we want.

    Not very long ago I was tasked to imagine the vision of my perfect yoga teaching life and even though I tried my best to let go of fears and go with whatever came to mind, I could see a part of me not letting go and perhaps being scared and holding onto personal barriers that are there because of fear. Without a clear vision one cannot walk toward this wonderful life, the steps come after we know where we would like to go toward to.

  16. Vikalpah usually comes to me when I am listening to music. So many emotions can come from the memory of a song. It can be a song you heard on a first date that makes you remember how much you love your boy friend, or a song you heard at a funeral home when a love one passed. I can honestly say that I have felt every emotion possible through the power of music and I love it. Yes, it may suck to feel not so good emotions but the fact that a lyric in a song can bring you back to that exact way you felt is amazing. I imagine so many situations and past experiences and it’s nice to be able to be brought back to a happy moment in life and grounding to be brought back to a maybe not so good one. My Vikalpah is very vivid when music is involved.

    • I love that you related imagination to music! Lyrics and rhythm can bring us deep into an emotional memory. At the same time we can remember and imagine the past, we can also use vikalpah to “remember the past”, or to imagine ourselves being open, fluid and deliciously happy in the future.

  17. I think that is Sutra is truly beautiful. Even though I’m no longer a child, I love to allow my imagination to run wild like I’m still 6 years old. Allowing my imagination to be set free has been the first step in allowing me to travel to travel to India, work at refugee camp in Haiti, even work in research with exoskeletons to allow spinal cord injured patient’s to walk. Each of these adventures in my life started with an idea of something I imagined I could do, but even when they were happening they seemed quite surreal. While I’m not always sure I can make all my dreams happen in this lifetime, I won’t really know at all if I don’t dream them up in the first place.

  18. I think many of us remember that child that had endless ideas of what the future would be. Revisiting that part of us that can gets lost due to different circumstances in life is important. I like that this sutra reminds you to use our vikalpah to imagine a more positive life and leave the negative one behind.

  19. Vikalpa allows us to get as close as we can to another person without inhabiting their mind/body. As a child, and still today, I am drawn to the creative activity. Both for myself, and as a lover of all of the products of human endeavor. Through the experience of reading a book, watching a movie, seeing a piece of art, listening to music, I am able to let my own mind go and let another’s or a collective’s guide me in play.

    At the same time, exercising our vikalpa muscles requires us not to be open to others experiences, but to allow ourselves to participate in that imaginative process.

    It is so interesting to me that we generally support children, the disabled, and the elderly in the pursuit of creative activities for a variety of reasons, but that as we grow into adults, these proclivities are either placed into professional tracks or mostly minimized. We should all have the confidence and power to incorporate a sense of play and vikalpa into our lives, for as long as we live.

    PS I understand that other activities encourage imagination, like so much of the STEM fields, and that there are many ways that adults use imagination in their day to day lives…not to slight any other tracks or professions; this is just the closest one to me.

  20. I have a strong sense of the vikalpah duality as I move about my day-to-day life. There are certain things which have never happened to me but I know have happened to others which I fear happening to me. Sometimes I start imagining what I would do or feel in such a horrible situation. This is the wrong kind of imagination because it stirs up negative emotions such as fear and paranoia. On the other hand, sometimes when I get annoyed with my family or coworkers, I visualize myself traveling to beautiful faraway places and being around wonderful people to make myself feel better. I tend to use this type of imagination as more of an escape or fantasy without realizing that thoughts and imagination can actually shape reality. In addition to the yoga sutras, many self-help or “new age” books tell you this as well—the universe manifests what you continually visualize. I am going to play with this idea more and “dream big”—after all, it can’t hurt to think more feel-good thoughts. They are certainly nicer than the paranoid ones!

  21. I adore what Bridget said about “exercising the imagination muscles”. In a very practical sense for me, I try to exercise my vikalpah for work as a costume/properties designer. In the mainstream spectrum of theatre, I see many sets that are people’s houses, real locations, condos, porches, etc. In costumes, people are wearing real function pieces: cardigans, shirts, pants that are easily found at any store across the country. Every now and then, I will encounter a play that sparks my vikalpah from the first time I read through it. Although the characters or scenery may be rooted in reality, my imagination muscles can color them and their surroundings with beautiful, uncanny things. In the best of all equations, this creates a visually-juicy theatrical experience that can immerse an audience deeper into a show than an “ordinary” set might.

    For work, I’m not always imagining the happiest, juciest picture. To tell the best story, I sometimes have to delve into the “nastier” parts of a play… the scary, unfriendly parts. While this allows for balanced storytelling, I have to keep a strong division between what my work imagination is doing and what my own imagination is doing. I have to leave the nasty images on the stage, and carry the lessons and light into life.

    In a yogic sense, do you see yourself all wobbly and crazy while taking a bakasana, or do imagine yourself being weightless and soaring above the floor (despite it only being a few inches from your gaze)? To yield the most success (and I mean success on a personal level, not on a “how perfect is my pose looking” level), being a gliding crow is the way to go.

  22. Imagination is such a tricky place in the mind but as an artist and someone who sees beauty in all things. I feel I have chosen to use my imagination in positive ways.

    In my last comment I spoke about how I misperceived Julia. Could that have been because I had imagined or wishfully thought our friendship was as pleasing as it was three years prior? I don’t know

    During my Yoga practices, I love the placement of imagery. The ability to imagine to “Grow your tree”, “Float to the top of your mat” or “Melt into your mat” help idea pen my practice. Imagination is probably my favorite area of the brain.

  23. This particular Sutra related to imagination (vikalpah) really spoke to me today. I had a dream last night that my mom had died and my dad was dying of a serious illness. I was crushed and so upset by the whole dream and never found peace. I woke up and had tears streaming down my face. I started to imagine what it would be like if my parents were not around and I could not go back to sleep. I woke up and called my mom crying telling her all about my dream. She had to comfort me and talk me through all the fears I was imagining. My imagination had created a “monster” out of an already terrible dream. It took me to almost noon to recover and let go of the thought and feelings of losing my family member.

  24. I actually use my imagination quite a lot, particularly during my sleep. I could just close my eyes, get cozy inside my blanket and see myself on nice sunny beach with a gorgeous girl right next to me….yeah right :). The opposite is nightmare, and that is not fun imagining myself caught up in such situations. I also relate myself in good movies ; its as if you live in that moment, being scared or happy riding along the emotion rollercoaster. I tend to watch more lighthearted comedy or famiky movies these days to see the regular daily joy that i associate with and stay away from the drama genre that would drag me down. So i agree that if we project our minds with positive images and experiences, we will be more content and happier than projecting ourselves with negative things. Get more prana: dance, food, music, love and be kind to one another…

  25. I am the poster child for the rat racers. I am working on my vision (vikalpah) of my self living in a warm waterfront place doing massage and teaching yoga . I am on the road to that juicer life!

  26. I did something like this earlier this year. I imagined a warm beach, great conversations and days filled with yoga and laughter. About a month later a contest arose on facebook where I had to enter an essay on how I was Rocking My Bliss in 2014! Needless to say THIS was what I had imagined and I thought, wow, I actually have a change to do this! I won and got to go to Mexico and live that juicy week out! It was amazing!

  27. My son when he was 6 knew he was going to be a professional baseball player. He believed it with his whole heart. He played baseball everyday and worked hard on getting better each year. He played baseball even in college, until he had a shoulder injury. He had to make a decision to have surgery so that he could keep playing. He decided not to have the surgery. That day he said to me “Mom, you know I could have been a pro, I just don’t want to live that life anymore. I don’t know if he could have been a pro ball player, but HE knew he could. He imagined himself playing in the big games, and truly believed it was possible. An amazing lesson

  28. had this all typed an my tablet went crazy. let`s see if i can remember! my challenge this last year and a half has been not to get lost in the negative vikalpa. thoughts that i`ll never move out of my mother in laws or i`ll never find a good fitting job that i don`t despise. But positive vikalpa always comes in. i`ve imagined for years what it would be like to be a yoga instructor and love what i do and have greater flexibility with working, never knowing how it would be feasible. But then it started to manifest with local training on a great schedule. The future i imagine is getting brighter! focus on the positive and help it manifest. i love to see how my kids` imaginations work. my 6 year old tells me with confidence he is going to college to learn to design video games and will design minecraft 2. i can`t wait to see what his future brings.

  29. Often times I fins myself using vikalpah when I’m at work. I’m an office designer, so I’m constantly working with clients that need office furniture. In order to do a job well, I find that by using my imagination and visualizing things such as color schemes and furniture placement really helps with the overall result. As a designer, visualizing the project beforehand can help immensely- and in turn, give off confidence to the client so that they feel comfortable working with me and trust my ideas.

    On the other hand, if I imagine a meeting going poorly- or if I have negative experiences with a client before sitting down with them, it is very difficult to find a way to see eye to eye or to think that a meeting will actually go well. However, no matter how much I am not looking forward to it, I find that as long that I imagine positive things, that it will go much better than I ever expect it to.

    Imagining yourself doing something that will benefit and fulfill you is important to achieving that goal. Seeing yourself walk across the stage and graduate before starting school, or imagining yourself in your boss’ office shaking hands because of a promotion– these examples of vikalpahs very much facilitate dreams.

    Lastly, I’ve learned not to “shush” my inner 5 year old- instead, I consult with it and find out real, possible strategies to get to where she wants to be.

  30. I love self-help books. “Try this to be your true self!” “Do that to harness the power of the Secret!” They all include visualizing what you want. Does anyone remember that scene from Runaway Bride with Chris Meloni? That’s a funny example of visualization! When I’m at my best I have all these grand visualizations and I love these moments. At these moments, I look deeply and visualize who I am meant to be and not necessarily who I want to be. Yeah sure I”d want to be a Victoria’s Secret model, but let’s face it that’s very unlikely 🙂 That’s what I want and not what I know I am truly meant to be. The thing I struggle with is that the voices in my head tell me these visualizations are dumb, impossible, and are never going to happen. How can I make these voices quieter? How can I truly feel and believe that I can be who I was meant to be?

  31. I have to use my imagination in order to remind myself how lucky I am. I live in a neighbourhood where young people are without the comforts I know, and where they are subject to all kinds of gang activity. I don’t know what it is like to see the streets as my clearest option. I can’t imagine, but I try to. Many of us do this (I think and hope) and it makes life a bit kinder.

  32. Been thinking about my vision statement lately and using vikalpah to create the business I want. Even though it’s only in my imagination right now, it will be the roadmap to follow as it turns into reality.

  33. I appreciate the fact that this sutra acknowledges both the life-giving and life-draining aspects of imagination. It’s amazing that our minds have the capacity to dream and think of ideas that we do not directly experience, but we also have the burden of making sure we remain conscious of the types of concepts we imagine. For instance, if we let our imagination (thoughts) create problems in our life, we will suffer.unnecessarily. However, if we embrace the imagination that breeds creativity and possibility, we may discover surprising sources of joy. The part of this sutra which has me a little perplexed is that it says imagination comes from “words.” This seems like it limits the source of our dreams. Surely, our imagination comes from many places, including bubbling up from clear mind. I would be interested in knowing what scholars think Pantajali means when he describes where imagination comes from.

  34. I like that the point is made that imagination can be used for the good or for the bad. I usually associate imagination with positivity and creativity, but I can also see how imagining something that may not be within reach or using imagination while jealous, angry or anxious could do a lot of damage to a person’s clarity of mind.

  35. Positive psychology, creating the life we want by first envisioning it. It reminds me of a saying from an old friend of mine that I have used often, that is “Everything Starts With A Dream”. Most recently we did an envisioning board in the teacher training, what a wonderful concrete step to take in putting images on something we can look at everyday. It’s like a map. It doesn’t always mean we will get exactly where or what we want, but it gives us a sense of direction and purpose sometimes that instills hope and positive energy. Love it.

    • Sutra I.2 tells us that the mind needs something to focus on in order to be productive. The idea of a vision is that: a meditation object for the mind to create the life you want to live.

  36. Imagination can be such a gift, but it is important to take notice that it can also lead to harm if we are imagining problems and issues within our life rather than bhavana. We have the ability to create problems when they are not actually present in our lives. People can become wrapped up in what they do not want, and lose sight of what they want. As this sutra teaches, we should strive towards focusing on what we want, and allowing our imagination to aid us in that journey. The mind can lead us to wonderful places, and it is often only yourself that limits to ability to imagine. People focus much more on the “real world’ as they age and become adults, but who is to say that you cannot be deeply in touch with your imaginative self even when you are in adulthood. I like to think that there is a little child within each of us encouraging us to dream (and to dream BIG), and we have the power to either suppress that urge or to embrace it.

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