Strength thru Discipline

Yoga: The Path to Self Mastery


            My belief is all modern forms of leadership are predicated upon high levels of Self-Mastery.  The value of Self-Mastery vis-á-vis leadership simply can’t be overemphasized. When contemporary leadership models are parsed, accounting for linguistics, they all share a strong likeness to the system of yoga, that ancient science, philosophy and art of self-transformation. Author and retired Navy SEAL Mark Divine likes to say that yoga is the “oldest form of personal development” and Leonardo de Vinci said “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself”In this essay I conceptualize Self-Mastery as the basis for a flourishing life, arguing that yoga is the most refined pathway to Self Mastery. I walk the reader through the nuances of saṃskāras as the double edged sword that sets us back, but also spurs the yogī toward liberation. Working with the Patañjali’s 8 eight limbs of yoga, I conclude that Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras is the guide with the precise efficacy to achieve Self-Mastery. I then discuss, compare and contrast the Authentic Leadership Model and the Transformational Leadership Model to the Yoga Sūtras. Establishing that these modern leadership theories are a repackaging of ancient yoga concepts demonstrating my thesis that out of the numerous systems of self development one could follow today, yoga is the clear choice.       

Before a person can lead anything, a company, family or any entity they must first have the temerity to lead themselves. Any objective analysis would conclude we are our own worst enemy. The undisciplined is a rudderless ship at the mercy of the tide, while the disciplined captain harmonizes the forces. Self-Mastery is about taming, harmonizing and expansion. We can learn to master a topic, a musical instrument or a process for example, but Self-Mastery is to be in command of every aspect of one’s life. Another way to look at it is to master oneself  ‘is to fully grasp who you are are at a very subtle level’ (Gabriel, Chopra Center). Or as author Satinder Dhiman wrote Self-Mastery is full “integration of human personality” (43). The yogic path to Self-Mastery is one that cannot be de-coupled from the spiritual path, however one has no chance of spiritual mastery without its precondition of Self-Mastery. The path to Self Mastery is impossible until you develop a deep relationship with yourself, and in turn other relationships are free to blossom. There will always be degrees of resistance in life until liberation. Resistance is a propellent for growth, but for many it’s regressive. Yogic discipline erodes the regressive side of resistance, turning it from foe to friend.  This is not to imply that everyone has a civil war raging inside, but it does underscore opposing energies. Polarity must be recognized as without “opposing forces, how could there be room for mastery of self as a difficult condition to attain?” (328, Campbell).  In other words, if it were easy everyone would be a master.  In this paper I use the terms Self-Mastery, self-discipline, self-regulation and yogic discipline interchangeably. Clarification is provided where needed.

Self-Mastery is envogue, especially in the management literature.  The modern world is buzzing with stimulation, outpacing the brain’s evolutionary timeline with the shear load of information and cultural expectations of ambition. I believe it’s imperative that discipline become embedded in the cultural DNA for a flourishing planet. Self-Mastery is not new. The Stoics grappled with discipline as a virtue, Plato wrestled with ‘reason, spirit, and passions, St Paul with spirit and flesh and Freud’s dramatis personae’ (328, Campbell).  Self-Mastery is the path to liberation (literal and figurative), releasing us from the chains that bind of us down. The ability to discipline ourselves is the worthiest of goals as it encompasses all notions of restraint such as self-discipline, self-transformation, discipline and mental toughness.  My thesis is that yoga provides the deepest well to drink from to guide us to true flourishing by leading a disciplined life, positioning the sādhaka (student) with leadership capacity and eventually self-transcendence.

Georg Feuerstein in his seminal work The Yoga Tradition wrote “Yoga is a spectacularly multifaceted phenomenon, and as such it is very difficult to define because there are exceptions to every conceivable rule” (3). Feuerstein does narrow down a foundational concept that are found in all yogic systems, that “they all are concerned with a state of being, or consciousness” (3). That yoga, deriving from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning “union of the individual self to the universal self.” The idea of an ultimate reality or some primordial soup is baffling to the western mind. “The existence of absolute reality within each person is Hinduism’s most fundamental truth and the basis of its teachings on happiness” (Schoch, 70). My intent in this paper is geared toward the western mind, a mind culturally inclined to tune out when confronted with the languaging of some of yoga’s more esoteric concepts, and thus missing out on deep truths and a sure pathway to freedom.  In terms of guiding a practitioner toward Self-Mastery, my belief is the yogi must be aware of the ultimate goal of self-transcendence without getting bogged down into the why’s and how’s of such a concept. Talk of liberation at the outset is premature.  Just know that as you climb the ladder of Self-Mastery as Patanjali unfurls it in the Yoga Sūtras, self-transcendence will become less of a concept and more of a creation.

Let’s first consider how we became flawed in the first place. Tabula Rasa is an ancient phrase describing the mind as a blank slate at birth. As one experiences life “impressions” are created via sensory experience which in turn shapes character. A person can have events befall them, creating psychic grooves, leading to poor decisions cascading into dukkha (suffering). Yoga has similar notions but goes deeper and arches back into past lives as well as current experience. “In classical yoga every action (karman) leaves an impression (saṃskāra) in the deeper structure of the mind (citta) where it awaits its fruition in the form of volitional activity” (Whitcher, 601). The Yoga Sūtras speak to the “forms” of memory and impressions and that there is a “causal relation even among births, places and times that are undisclosed” (Whitcher, 601). We may not remember our past lives or are conscious of any karmic “residue” from these past experiences, but according to yogic philosophy karma is the culprit influencing a person’s current actions. Yet, yogic philosophy does differentiate between “operative” and latent afflictions (kleśas). “Under the influence of afflictions (kleśas), the impressions and memories of a person then form “subsets” of saṃskāras known as karmic deposit or residue (karmāśaya) which in turn becomes operative” (Whitcher, 602). The triggers that operationalize karmic forces are beyond the scope of this paper. Just understand that these afflictions dictate how a person shows up in the world, creating or dissolving certain personality traits (vāsanās).  If one wants to gain Self-Mastery have a sense that you reap what you sow.

Self-Mastery is the process that slows the moving train of karmic deposits and begins to reverse the damage. The yogic antidote is attainment of samādhi (The eighth and final act on the path). “As the mind becomes purified of affliction-and the saṃskāras and habit patterns/personality traits (vāsanās) which sustain that affliction-it becomes capable of a steady “flow” toward the “good” meaning a “flow” of discernment from which an identity shift can take place” (Whitcher 612). In other words as one approaches samādhi, yoga becomes a blocking mechanism (of corrosive afflictions) as a flow state asserts. How does one achieve samādhi? Self-Mastery is step one.

Intrinsic to humans is the desire to achieve or transcend to something bigger or greater. This is why I believe Self-Mastery is so compelling to so many. Most people just don’t know where to begin their journey. Patañjali’s eight limbed path is the framework best suited for the Self-Mastery project. Patañjali was an Indian sage with an unparalleled intellect. He compiled the Yoga Sūtras between the 2nd and 4th century CE into 195 aphorisms. Iyengar calls them “concise and compact.” He goes onto explain in Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali,  “they are compiled in such a way as to cover all the various facets of life, exploring each in depth” (xvii). Yoga is a cause and effect relationship with oneself and “a true friend to those who embrace it sincerely and totally” (xxvi).  As westerners, we see this “friend” manifest predominantly as the physical practice of āsana, the third stage on the eight limbed path. It may seem irrational to begin at the third rung, but as B.K.S Iyengar articulated clearly that we are all a project, and encoded into this “project is an attention to the self, and a path to enlightenment is mapped through the body” (Lea, 76). Yoga meets us where we are and culturally speaking the physical is the current locus.

The modern form of āsana would not be recognizable to the ancients. In fact, it wasn’t until the Haṭhapradīpikā in the fifteenth-century that postures other than seated postures were articulated (Mallinson and Singleton, 87). In the early yogic texts āsana came to be known as a sitting position or “to take a seat” and only later was complexity added including fluid movements. In the text Roots of Yoga, the authors point out that in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, “the earliest text to give systematic description of an eightfold yoga practice, āsana is a way of sitting and the third of the eight auxiliaries necessary for mastering yoga” (86). Patañjali gives no further instruction in terms of āsana other than to say “that in order to practice breath-control and, by implication, the meditative techniques of yoga, the yogi’s āsana should be steady and comfortable” (86). It would appear that proficient āsana is a precondition for the fourth limb of prānāyāma or breath control. The marriage of āsana with its significant health benefits and the relaxation components triggered by control of the autonomic nervous system are obvious benefits that are tangible immediately. These physical benefits can happen in real time and are not tucked away in an obscure primordial ether or fleshed out only in a challenging philosophical treatise. If one wants to achieve Self-Mastery, gain control of your physical body.

The first Yoga Sūtra is to “calm the fluctuations of the mind.” To be disciplined means to be calm in stormy conditions. A person that is constantly acting out is not only creating mental turbulence immediately but also creating a ripple effect via the previously discussed saṃskāras. The world is full of lure and temptation or in yogic terms afflictions. The gathering of afflictions is caused by avidyā or ignorance. “The external world lures the seer towards its pleasures, creating desire” and “the non-fulfillment of desires in turn creates pain, which suffocates the inner being (Iyengar, 24). This is precisely why Patañjali’s first disciplines are the yamas (discipline)  and niyamas (restraint).

The eight yogic disciplines begins with the five yamas: ahiṁsā (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (continence, sexual restraint) and aparigraha (non-covetousness). These disciplines are combatting our lower level nature, contained in our limbic or reptilian brain. Author Georg Feuerstein says the yamas “are intended to check the powerful survival instinct and rechannel it to serve a higher purpose, regulating the social interactions of yogins” (246). It makes perfect sense that the ladder to mastery would begin with the obvious things that trip us up. These restraints on behavior are straightforward, and universal to all major religions, but terrifically challenging to adhere to. To those who master the yamas numerous good flows. A vigor to the sexually restrained (not repressed) person, a less hostile world surrounds a less hostile person, a certain kindness begins to flow via speech as kindness begets kindness. If one wants to achieve Self-Mastery learn to harness the passions.

When the yogin has moral discipline, energy is set free to allow the practitioner room to begin an inner harmonizing process. Iyengar notes that “observance of yama brings about niyama, and the practice of niyama disciplines one to follow the principles of yama” (31). This feedback loop is self reinforcing. The second limb is the niyamas and contain five elements of self-restraint.  Śauca (purity), santoṣa (contentment), austerity (tapas), svādhyāya (study) and īshvara-pranidhāna (devotion to the lord). This is the level of the ladder where spirituality begins to take hold in the journey toward Self-Mastery.

As one continues to practice, yoga dissolves old saṃskāra patterns replacing with fresh purified impressions.  Purity is equal to cleanliness both inside and outside the body. Santoṣa is “diametrically opposed to our modern consumerist mentality, which is driven by the need to acquire ever more to fill the inner vacuum” (Feuerstein, 246). Note those who have obtained a respectable level of Self-Mastery nearly always lean toward minimalism in my experience. The content yogin is equanimous in all circumstances. Tapaṣ lands squarely in the self-discipline wheelhouse. It’s meaning is austerity, purification and heat to produce energy that “yields the elixir of high awareness” (Feuerstein, 247). Svādhyāya is about self-knowledge and study, especially study of the scriptures. This is where the yogin gets to know herself in the spiritual sense. Lastly is īshvara-pranidhāna or devotion to the lord. This is to be interpreted as a surrendering to god or what Feuerstein has interpreted as “the multiple coalescing transcendental Selves (puruṣha) (247). If one wants to achieve Self-Mastery let the yamas and niyamas be your North Star.

As one gains control of their life, each level begins to blend into one another.  This is especially true with the fourth limb of Prāṇāyāma, coming on the heels of āsana. Prāṇāyāma is yogic breath work. It’s understood that breathing is partially a physical act, that the body must be in excellent physical condition to leverage the incredible forces a strong prāṇāyāma practice creates. We literally draw energy from breathing, thus the spine, back, lungs and all associated breathing apparatus must be toned to create the conditions for transformation. Iyengar states that at first the inflow and outflow of breath is irregular, but when “ease is attained, the breath must be regulated with attention. This is  prāṇāyāma” (33). From the western perspective we are gaining control of our autonomic nervous system that evolved over millions of years to keep the body in perfect homeostatic balance via its sophisticated feedback mechanisms. From the eastern perspective prāṇāyāma is harnessing prāṇa or life force, bio-energy made up of the five elements of earth, water, air, fire and ether. By gaining control of our breathing, we bring numerous elements under our command resulting in Patañjali’s first task which is to calm a turbulent mind. To achieve Self-Mastery, one must not be a slave to the emotions by turning the mind into a “fit instrument” (Iyengar, 33).

Through the first four limbs energies are consolidated and the yogin is pulling in the same direction on the journey to Samādhi. Pratyāhāra is the process of shutting down outside stimulus or a “complete state of sensory inhibition” (Feuerstein, 250), or as Feuerstein further explains that many texts compare this process to a turtle pulling back into its shell. As the yogin collapses inward the mind which acts as a bridge “between the senses and the soul, frees itself from the senses and turns towards the soul to enjoy it’s spiritual heights” (Iyengar, 34). This is precisely what is meant regarding the impossibility of decoupling Self-Mastery from spiritual mastery. If one wants to attain Self-Mastery tune out to tune into your true nature.

The last three limbs on the path are so interrelated that there is a Sanskrit term encompassing all three, called saṁyama. Saṁyama is the third and last tier toward self-realization and at this juncture Self-Mastery is nearly complete in the contemporary western sense. The sādhaka is operating at a high level. Dhāraṇā, is a one pointed focus of concentration, dhyāna is meditation made possible by all the previous layers of practice, and finally samādhi which is considered full integration. One is now a true leader as Self-Mastery has been achieved. In the conquest of the self we find that our “lifelong journey is not toward power but toward perfection. In this journey a leader must ceaselessly deal with the rigours of self-conquest” (Chatterjee, 53).

Contemporary scholars have shaped leadership thinking by creating models to chunk down the complexities of human behavior so it can be contextualized and trained. My purpose is to connect yoga as the path to Self-Mastery and as a system of leadership, asserting that both yoga and leadership are impossible without Self-Mastery. Both modalities are good bedfellows in that when we practice yoga we recognize yoga intuitively, but it’s difficult to define. Similarly leadership has a history of being definitionally difficult, but we know it when we see it. Yoga and leadership share an evolutionary quality as they interact with the environment. Like yoga, leadership shares shifting emphasis because factors such as growing global influences and generational differences reshape the field. Leadership will continue to have different meanings for different people. Sounds a lot like modern day yoga.

One way to conceive leadership is as a process or trait “whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northhouse, 5). I believe that leadership has universal appeal just as Self-Mastery is an equally compelling desired end state. My first step in framing leadership is conceiving it as a set of traits. In the early 20th century similar trait theories were called “great man” theories as numerous examples of great men and their charismatic ways could be pointed to. Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi or Napoleon Bonaparte are examples, and in the 21st century we can point to Barack Obama. We could also cast an eye to India with its plethora of Guru’s. Early on it was thought a leader was born with a secret sauce of traits, but research is finding this to be false. Leadership characteristics can be taught, tested and adjusted while in the flow of leadership.  A survey in 2006 “found that charismatic leaders consistently possess traits of self-monitoring, engagement in impression management, motivation to attain social power, and motivation to attain self-actualization” (Northhouse, 20). It is important to note here that a leader that excels in one situation may falter in another due to some underdeveloped trait or skill.  A self-disciplined leader would foresee a situation not suited to their skill set or value system. For example a charismatic yoga leader would not do well if asked to lead a ICBM missile silo crew.

A trait that is aligned well with yoga and leadership is the trait of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman created the construct in identifying emotional intelligence as someone who is personally competent consisting of “self-awareness, confidence, self-regulation, conscientiousness and motivation” (Northhouse, 28) and linking to skills of social competence to include empathy, communication and conflict management. A disciplined leader will analyze their own traits vis-á-vis the organization or community they are a part of. This approach is used for self awareness and personal development. If one were to train with Patañjali’s eight yogic disciplines it becomes crystal clear that all the necessary pieces of being an impactful leader are trained and mastered in yoga. While this essay is mostly geared toward Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Bhagavad Gīta.

The Bhagavad Gīta offers many life lessons applicable to modern leadership. “The Gīta unfolds as an infallible guide for those higher order individuals who externally live a life of full-engagement with the world, while internally always remaining steadfastly anchored in the wisdom of their Higher Self” (Dhiman, 46). A leader sets the tone for the entity they are leading and by extension if one is undisciplined an unwholesome atmosphere will seep into the culture. The Bhagavad Gīta is specific in counseling taming an unruly mind as all evil finds its genesis in selfish desires, and a selfish person is unable to lead others effectively.  An analysis of the Bhagavad Gīta is beyond my objective here, but one could live by the teachings of the Bhagavad Gīta and achieve Self-Mastery.

By definition the Transformational Leadership Model’s (TLM) main objective is to change and transform people. It’s interesting to note that the TLM shares many of the same traits already discussed, especially charisma. The leadership literature often uses TLM and charisma synonymously. Sociologist Max Weber “was first to describe a special gift that certain individuals possess that gives them the capacity to do extraordinary things” (Northhouse, 188). The crucial difference between the TLM and describing a leader as charismatic is TLM requires a set of strong morals, whereas Adolf Hitler was described as charismatic. History abound with charismatic leaders with blood on their hands. However, charisma is not required to be a transformational leader as the leader is not the focal point. A “transformational leader motivates followers to do more than expected by (a) raising followers levels of consciousness about the importance and value of specified and idealized goals, (b) getting followers to transcend their own self-interest” (Northhouse, 190). The TLM leader is follower focused and must be viewed as competent not necessarily charismatic. The leader must be a role model that followers can look up too. It’s easy to see how the serious yogin, trained to not be attached to outcomes, and a thorough grounding in the yamas and niyamas could operate within this framework. Gandhi is consistently mentioned as a transformational leader and is well established he read the Bhagavad Gīta daily as part of his svādhyāya.

I now turn to my favorite leadership model, the Authentic Leadership Model (ALM). This model shares numerous factors with TLM, but is centric to developing the leader over the course of a lifetime, similar to yoga in that abhyāsa is a critical ingredient. ALM is seen as a “pattern of leadership behavior that develops from and is grounded in the leader’s positive psychological qualities and strong ethics” (Northhouse, 256). Four categories have been identified: self-awareness, internal moral compass, balanced processing and relational transparency. The eminent leadership theorist Bill George in 125 research samples found the significant driver in an authentic leaders is the desire to serve others. George succinctly said the authentic leader has heart, understands their purpose, values relationships and has uncommon self-discipline. “When  tested in difficult situations, authentic leaders do not compromise their values, but rather use those situations to strengthen their values” (Northhouse, 259). Again we see the theme of Self-Mastery present here as most everyone is motivated, but when motivation fades it’s self-discipline that picks up the slack.

In conclusion, I find the yoga system as structured in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras as the surest path to Self-Mastery. I’ve also stated that Self Mastery is a worthy target reversing karmic deposits leading to a true flourishing. I’ve argued that the Transformational Leadership Model and Authentic Leadership Models are systems of yoga cloaked in modern day language. A significant shortcoming of all leaderships models in my research is none of them mention physical fitness as a primary pillar of leadership. This deep flaw is precisely why yoga, Self-Mastery and leadership are one beautiful triad creating stability, strength, transformation, flourishing and ultimately self-realization. 

Freedom’s genesis is discipline. A beautiful life is within the grasp of all with a self-disciplined practice. The counterintuitive nature of freedom flowing from restraint is tough to swallow. It’s the element that allows the student to appreciate the fruits of abhyāsa and remain above the fray, clear headed and with a full heart. I will restate my belief that union of self is best achieved via the eight yogic disciplines as sketched by Patañjali’s in the Yoga Sūtras.




Works Cited


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