October 2020: Sankhya Philosophy

Week 1

Hello, October! I can’t decide if the fall arrived in the blink of an eye or at a snail’s pace. I think each day was experienced differently and when I zoom out, yup, a blink it was.

This month, we’ll dip our toes into the waters of Sankhya (also spelled Samkhya) Philosophy, one of India’s oldest philosophical schools of thought, said to be founded by Sage Kapil (or Kapila). If you remember from our first month together, yoga is another one of the six Indian philosophies. As you’ll watch in the video towards the end of this week’s post, Sankhya is a foundation of yoga philosophy, though the two definitely contrast in some ways.

Sankhya can be translated to enumeration or number, but interpreted as knowledge. It’s a dualistic philosophy, meaning “of two,” or that the universe and all within it consists of two different parts or elements. Furthermore, Sankhya philosophy both explains and denies the existence of God.

Before I continue, take a peek at this article, and more specifically at the chart about halfway down. This will give you an idea of where we’re headed for the next few weeks. There are a lot of charts similar to this one, and I find it helpful as a visual learner. Maybe you will as well!

So, let’s begin with “of two.”

Sankhya philosophy begins with the principles of Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha can be thought of as pure consciousness; spirit; the eternal and never-changing. Prakriti is nature; the material energy that makes up all things. Prakriti is made up of three qualities called gunas, and they are sattva, tamas, and rajas.

Sattva means balance; pure; wholesome. Rajas is the active, kinetic energy of prakriti and on the other end, tamas is the dark, potential, and negative energy.

We’ll move slowly through these concepts this month, and without getting too far ahead, I’ll put what we’ve learned about into perspective:

According to Sankhya Philosophy, our souls/true Self is Purusha and our human experience is Prakriti. As divinity within a material form, we are constantly moving through the gunas. We are always seeking sattva, but move through waves of rajas and tamas.

Think about how you’re feeling today. Are you sluggish, foggy, and wish to sleep a lot (tamas)? What about energetic, excited, or anxious (rajas)? Maybe you’re calm, peaceful, and aware (sattva).

One way or another, we are all seeking sattva. But balance never looks like a straight line. It ebbs and flows, where we go through periods of anxiousness and exhaustion. According to practices such as Ayurveda (yoga’s sister science), we aim for sattva by tipping the scales.

Not moving much? Go for a walk!

Getting too much stimulation? Try sitting quietly for a few minutes.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like this is a simple process. In life, it doesn’t always make sense or feel right to do the opposite of what we’re feeling. The more we tune into the subtle cues of our bodies and minds, the more we’ll be able to feel into what it is that we truly need. Furthermore, we’ll never get to a place where we live and exist in sattva. That’s what makes us human. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be in this human experience.

We’ll pick back up next week. Until then, check out this great video and reflect on this week. The beginning of the video talks about Sankhya Philosophy and the middle talks about Yoga. The Vlogger than compares and contrasts the two. You might hear some familiar information that we went over a few months ago. It’s always nice to have a refresher!

Reflection: What guna has been most present in your life over the past few days, weeks, etc. Reflect on what you can do to bring yourself a bit more into balance based on the characteristics of your guna. Here’s a gunas quiz to take if you need a bit of assistance. There are many out there, so let me know if you find a better one!

Week 2

Last week, we began a discussion on Sankhya Philosophy by explaining Purusha, Prakriti, and Prakriti’s three characteristics that are always ebbing and flowing throughout our existence: sattva, tamas, and rajas. There are a few different ways of explaining the rest of this process of creation, depending on the lineage, so keep in mind, you may hear or have heard a slightly different version.

When Purusha and Prakriti merge together, the universe and everything in it is formed through the creation of an additional 23 elements. “The cause assumed behind this process of expansion is ignorance (avidya), which according to Kapila is the lack of the ability to discriminate (Vivek-khayti) between real (sat) and unreal (asat).This situation resulting out of indiscrimination is caused by Vritties (tendencies) or restlessness of mind. The Soul (Purusha) gets itself discriminated from various gross and subtle forms of Prakriti by acquiring wisdom (discriminatory power) through practicing a rigorous Yogic path and as a result, it is no more subjected to the limitations posed by the Prakriti. After realizing himself as a distinct identity Purusha is no more subjected to worldly sufferings” (Sankhya Yog).

Purusha and Prakriti form mahat/buddhi (intellect),the gunas (sattva, tamas, rajas), ahamkara (ego), and mana (mind). 10 indriyas (one’s perception of the external world) are also created: jnanendriyas (external senses) and karmendriyas (internal senses).

There are five jnanendriyas, which are “the senses through which one receives external sensations stimuli” (Sankhya Yog). They are hearing touch, vision, taste, and smell. There are also five karmendriyas, which are “the organs of action for taking actions necessary for survival” (Sankhya Yog). They are speech, grasping, walking, procreation, and elimination.

We’ll pick up on the last few elements next week. What’s important to understand thus far is that Sankhya Philosophy aims to explain creation in a way that not only connects all human beings to each other, but connects us to all matter in the universe. These elements will present differently from person to person and object to object due to ahamkara (ego), which manifests as the individual mind and highlights this illusion of separateness.

It’s a beautiful philosophy, and although atheistic in nature (compared to classical yoga philosophies), it provides us with a framework that reinforces the idea of a collective consciousness. It brings us closer with nature; closer with the universe.

Many yogic teachings tell us that suffering arises from our feeling of separateness. We can use the principles described in Sankhya Philosophy as a tool for bringing us back to oneness.

I found this video and thought it was very fitting for this month! It’s a quick and visual way of explaining Sankhya from a high level point of view.

Reflection: Think about the last person you encountered that made you feel completely separate from them (i.e. ‘how could they act/think this way?!’). What are the main reasons you feel this way? What characteristics do they possess that make you feel as though they are completely different from you? In what ways are you similar?

We’ll come back to the above reflection down the road. Feel free to make any revelations about this exercise, should it already create an “ah ha” moment for you.

References and Resources:

Week 3

As I’ve been writing week after week, I’ve been giving myself a little giggle at the fact that I’ve spread these basic principles of Sankhya Philosophy over an entire month. I’ll think to myself, Couldn’t I have just done one long post, one video, one graphic, and move on? But then I remember a few important things that bring me back to this “weekly nuggets only” mentality:

  1. These posts are expanded versions of what I’m teaching the folks who roll out their mat with me every week. My aim is to continue to align these posts with my live teachings so if a student misses a week (and really enjoys diving in with me), they can pop onto the Shine with Lara webspace and catch up. Most of my classes are 45-60 minutes and I’ll tell yah, it’s hard to fit asana + pranayama + philosophical sadhana into that time frame.
  2. It’s a lot to take in. Yogic Philosophy is completely different from any other teachings I’ve experienced growing up. I grew up in a very Catholic household and was taught very black and white-ly how to view my faith, but without the real life applications or deep discussions. It was very much a here’s how to say your Hail Marys and memorize your ten commandments type of upbringing. Whether you had a faith-based upbringing or not, unless you were brought up with these teachings they will certainly be a different experience for most. It’s like spirituality, psychology, and therapy came together and created this loose framework for how to view the world, but most importantly, how to view ourselves. Yoga allows the space to be Catholic, Jewish, or even atheist to practice. We take what resonates and leave the rest. And we must sip in what we can slowly so that it dissolves over our entire being fully and with awareness. Because after all, that’s what it’s all about.

End thought. Back to Sankhya!

Last week, I finished up listing all of the jnanendriyas and karmendriyas, and promised we’d get to the last few elements next time. So, let’s go!

I’ve really enjoyed the sankhyayog.com resource and don’t think I could describe the last few elements better. I’ll finish off these last few ideas by quoting them (refer to the link under References and Resources to read on):

“Ahamkar [ego] in [the] course of evolution produces five Tanmatras, corresponding to five senses having Tamoguna [tamas] as the primary quality. These five Tanmatras are ‘Shabda’ (sound), ‘Sparsh’ (touch), ‘Roopa’ (shape) ,’Rasa’ (taste) and ‘Ganddha’ (smell)…These five Tanmatras further give rise to the five basic (Gross) element of nature. Each of these Bhootas [mahabhutas] (elements) have an immediate connection with one of these five Tanmatras and also each one of them in general is connected to other four Tanmatras (Sankyayog.com).”

The five basic elements are: aakash (earth), vayu (wind), teja [agni] (fire), jala (water), and prithavi (ether/space). The creator of the above mentioned resource includes a simple chart about a third of the way down the page that shows how each element is related to the tanmatras.

The basic idea of Sankhya Philosophy is to understand how we became separate; how we came to identify with this “I-ness” and “Me-ness” and “They-ness.” As Ram Dass would say, how we came to think that we are somebody. Sankhya is asking us to live the life of yoga so we can begin to identify more with our Purusha and identify less with our Prakriti. 

It’s not asking us to completely let go of the material world. We were born in it. We’re here. We’re not all meant to renounce this world and retreat for the remainder of our days. We are to live with awareness of our Prakriti but to learn more and more that our true Self is Purusha.

When we let go of who we think we are and bask in the awareness of our truth, that is where we experience liberation. And when we’re in that place, the world may still sit on our shoulders, but that feeling of heaviness will be just a memory.

The 25 Elements of Sankhya Philosophy Numbered:






(5) Karmendriyas

(5) Jnanendriyas

(5) Tanmatras

(5) Mahabhutas

I thought this video (below) did a great job of explaining the five elements in just a little bit more detail. Enjoy!

References and Resources:


Before you go…

November + December may be a bit quiet over here in Off the Mat. I’ll be spending these two months reviewing the last four months of information to be sure I have quadruple fact-checked myself and to see if there’s anything else I can add to these resource pages. As always, if there’s something you’d like me to add or some knowledge you’d like to share with me, please reach out! Send your info to shinewithlara@gmail.com or head over to CONNECT on the navigation bar to drop me a line or two.

Thank you so much for reading!

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