Five Pillars Yoga

The Upanishads: Saṃsāra

The Cycle of Continuous Change

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.



Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.


Samsara is a wheel. It’s the cycle of reincarnation, a continuous spin of birth and death as the soul completes its time in one form (human, animal, or divine) before landing in another.

Whether or not you believe in actual reincarnation, there is a profound lesson to be had from the concept of samsara itself: Everything changes, continually. In the course of our lives we will birth and let go of many identities, beliefs, goals, relationships and epiphanies. In this way we are coming into new forms again and again. An appreciation and understanding of samsara as a natural and necessary process may make it easier to work through those moments of transition: They are periods of illumination that urge us to grow. The more we come to expect and anticipate these moments, the more comfortable we can become in the big-shift feelings that accompany them—the euphoria and anxiety of creating something; the sadness and tenderness of letting something go. These are as natural and necessary as the events the spark them.


On the mat, on a micro level, we move through this cycle of continuous flow over the course of a yoga class. We start the class feeling one way and emerge at the end changed, however subtly. Each pose, held for a series of breaths, has a life cycle: the satisfaction of finding it; the deepening of sensation the longer we stay in it; the frustration of holding it for too long; the decision to stay with it; and then the relief or sadness at leaving it.

Play with samsara in your on and off-the-mat practices. Notice your cycles. See what shifts.

Images: Om symbol by Geoff Kim; teacher and students; serpent wheel