Patanjali Yoga Sutra I.21 Intensity of Practice


This article explains Sutras I.21 and I.22 of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. These sutras classify students and methods of practice. 

Often students and seekers practice methods and techniques for many years or even decades without much progress. These students begin to doubt themselves or the methods they are practicing. They even begin to question the authenticity of their teachers and their tradition.


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explain why some practitioners progress rapidly and others do not.

Two important sutras

Sutra I.21: Those with high degree of intensity attain higher levels of consciousness quickly. 

Sutra I.22: (Depending on the system of methods and philosophy practiced) there are differences even among the most enthusiastic of students. The different methods are:

  • slow 
  • medium
  • fast 

(There are three kinds of students with varying degrees of intensity: mild, medium, high.)

The words in parenthesis are from the Vyasa Bhasyam, a commentary by Sage Vyasa, the foremost commentator of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

Three categories of practitioners

These two sutras refer to those practitioners who are desirous of attaining a higher state of consciousness. Those, with a high degree of intensity, attain higher levels of consciousness quickly. The Vyasa Bhasyam – the first commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – divides students into three categories of intensity. A practitioner could have mild, medium or high intensity of desire and practice.

It is said that to become an expert in any field takes around 10,000 hours of practice. We know this from studies in music and sports. The same applies to experts in a professional field.

A full time university student actually studies for around 6 hours a day, including the time out of classes attended he spends researching and writing assignments. He has weekends off. This means he studies for 6 hours daily for 20 days in a month. Students also have a couple of breaks in the year, amounting to around two months. This means that a full time student studies for 1200 hours on average annually. With this calculation, a student needs 8.3 years to become an expert in his field. This would be the equivalent of a doctorate. 

It is clear that to achieve mastery in any field requires the invest of time and attention. Many practitioners are willing to invest time and attention in their university education but are not willing to do the same for their mental and spiritual evolution. A meditator must practice daily, including weekends and vacations. Meditation is like eating and breathing. You do not take breaks from it, not if you want to become an expert meditator. A sustained effort or spiritual stamina is required. 



The table shows that a full time practitioner who practices daily needs only 4.5 years as opposed to 8.3 years required by a full time practitioner unwilling to practice on weekends and holidays.

A full-time meditator, practicing for six hours a day, needs only 4.5 years to clock up 10,000 hours of meditation and become an adept. However, few are willing to invest that kind of time. If we consider three hours a day, an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, and an hour at night, you need almost 11 years. It is a long time for most people, but achievable, if you consider that we spend around the same amount of time to prepare ourselves for a profession. Thus, it is important this intensity is sustainable and not just a nine day wonder.

There is an idea going around that meditation and spirituality is something for older people. According to this point of view you start meditation only when the kids are out of the house, when you are retired and you have lots of time. But around 60 years of age, you generally do not have the enthusiasm, concentration and energy to start something totally new, without having any foundation. Therefore, it is important that you do not postpone your liberation. Even if you practice for three hours a day, start with one hour a day, so that you prepare yourself gradually over years. 

Three kinds of methods

Sutra 22 mentions three kinds of methods. The methods have been categorized as slow, medium and fast. 

Slow methods are methods that are external methods, such as physical culture, rituals and all methods that are not systematic. An irregular and inconsistent practice is also slow to bear fruit. Jumping from one tradition to another, from one teacher to another, or constantly experimenting with new techniques without guidance, are all examples of slow methods.

The speedy methods are those that are internal and systematic. A systematic method of meditation leads from the external to the internal, gross to the subtle, from the many-pointed to the one-pointed. This method follows the path of sages. The sages have already crossed the various dominions of the mind, conscious as well as unconscious. These maps are available to those in the living traditions and have been handed down from teacher to student. These lineages are custodians of the speedy methods, accompanied with the correct interpretation of scriptures. This method is a spiritual highway, the fastest and shortest way to the highest level of spiritual attainment. Thus, it is important that the aspirant makes a commitment to a systematic practice and integrates it into his daily life.

The medium method lies in between the slow and speedy methods. 

Deliberate vs regular practice 

Many students and practitioners aspiring to attain the highest level of consciousness start out with great enthusiasm and practice daily or regularly such as three times a week. Once this regular practice is achieved, and a certain level of proficiency in practice is attained that helps maintain a pleasant and enjoyable state of consciousness, the practitioner sustains the same like he would a hobby. This "comfortable level" of regular practice is useful but will not lead to mastery and attainment of the highest level of consciousness and final liberation.

Those having the ambition of attaining nothing less than total liberation must focus on deliberate daily practice. 

There are four main criteria for deliberate sadhana:

  1. Deliberate practice is performed systematically with focussed attention.
  2. Deliberate practice has a clear formulated goal or purpose. It is not merely a hobby or passing interest. 
  3. Deliberate practice is accompanied by a mentor who gives immediate and actionable feedback. 
  4. The practitioner is willing to listen and integrate the feedback of the mentor, transforming radically in the process.

One of the biggest issues in deliberate practice is listening and integrating the counsel of the mentor. While it is absolutely normal for adult elite athletes to have a coach even though they may be at the summit of their career and recognized as experts in their chosen sport, it is unusual to have a mentor for spiritual evolution. Most practitioners do not like to listen and integrate the counsel of the mentor (if they should have one). The practitioners get defensive, even attacking the mentor as "harsh" or "strict" and remain unwilling to integrate changes in lifestyle or practice once they have reached the "comfortable level" of practice.

Different Levels of Progress and Attainment

There are differences even among the most enthusiastic of students. Depending on the kind of intensity you already have, matching up with the kind of the method you use, there are different possibilities for progress. How fast the practitioner can attain higher levels of consciousness depends on the system of techniques and philosophy practiced as well as the nature of the student.

A person of mild intensity using a slow method, would be the slowest of them all. But a practitioner with a very high intensity using a speedy method would quickly attain high levels of consciousness.