The Yogic View of Intuition: Pros, Cons & Considerations

intuition-psychologyA common belief in modern yoga is that yoga helps us to get in touch with our intuition.  This is absolutely true, and certainly one of the many benefits of regular practice, but there are also some clarifications the Yogis found it can be helpful for us to understand in terms of the different forms intuition can take.

Today we’re going to look at the two distinct forms of intuition according to Yoga philosophy, including the ways in which they can either serve or hamper us.  We’ll also explore the specific techniques the Yogis offered for becoming more aware of these two forms of inner-guidance so that we can choose wisely and use these insights to move forward in life.

Understanding Insight vs. Conditioning

The first thing to understand about intuition is that, according to the Yogis, its two forms have very distinct grounds and impact but are often hard to distinguish.  Because of the profoundly different influence they can have on the direction of our lives, the Yogis believed we need to have a good understanding of both if we are to use our inner guidance to move in a constructive direction.

The first form of intuition is what can be thought of as our innate wisdom – obviously a profoundly beneficial thing, and something we want to actively cultivate.  In Yoga, this is often referred to as the sadguru, or our “true inner-teacher.” This is a form of internal guidance that can provide valuable wisdom and insight, especially in challenging situations.

The second form of intuition is actually a combination of two factors: what the yogis referred to as samskaras, which are the unresolved issues from previous lives we all carry with us, and the unconscious conditioning we all build and carry within this life.  These two factors often play off of one another, creating very powerful feelings that might seem to provide insight about our current situation when in fact they are usually more of a statement about our unresolved issues and lingering wounds.  Where the first form of insight leads us in a constructive direction, this second form actually tends to mislead us.

Clearly, our inherent wisdom is a good thing and something we want to foster.  The challenging thing is that it frequently can be difficult to discern from our samskaras or conditioning.  Essentially, all three come across as deep, inherent sentiments – powerful “good” or “bad” feelings that arise spontaneously during certain situations.  As alluded to at the beginning, regular practice tends to make us more sensitive to all three of these voices, which can actually heighten the complexity of the situation.  The challenge comes from the fact that following our inner wisdom leads us to constructive choices, while being swayed by samskaras or conditioning generally leads us to repeat unhealthy patterns either of avoidance or of choosing behavior that doesn’t truly serve us.

How, then, do we learn when our inner voice is one we should heed and when it is one we should treat with reservation?  According to the Yogis, learning to see and respond correctly to the two very distinct messages is a crucial part of our self-development.  It’s also essential if we are going to break out of the cyclic patterns of our samskaras, especially since these are errors we tend to repeat most particularly when we are agitated or distressed and therefore not thinking clearly.  To take this step, the Yogis suggested the use of two valuable tools, svadhyaya and viveka, which we’ll discuss next.

Svadhyaya Revisited

In previous articles, we’ve already talked about svadhyaya and its two distinct but interconnected forms.  As you may recall, the term literally means “study of our own unique nature,” and, in this form, it can be seen as similar to the process of introspection or analysis found in psychotherapy.

However, the Yogis realized that self-study can be challenging on a couple levels.  First, when we explore sensitive aspects of our personalities and pasts, it can be easy to fall into challenges such as re-wounding, self-criticism, or vilification of others.  Second, when exploring our inner disposition, it can be difficult to discern between innate beliefs or feelings and those which are the result of our conditioning.

For these reasons, the Yogis defined svadhyaya as having a second and equally-important meaning, and that is scriptural or textual study.  In this form of self-study, we are using the teachings of those we respect to evaluate the insights provided by our self-examination.  For example, when challenging thoughts come up, we can compare them with those of others who have walked the path before us.  Did they face similar issues?  How did they resolve or rise above them?  In this way, we are often able to avoid common pitfalls.

Of course, this approach is not without its challenges, as the Yogis were the first to acknowledge.  We all have differences, which means even the most respected teacher or teachings won’t necessarily match our particular issues.  That much said, textual study can still offer valuable support in the process of self-examination, providing insight into our more common challenges and thus freeing our energy for our own unique issues.

Svadhyaya & Intuition

The connection between svadhyaya and intuition should be apparent.  When we find ourselves wondering if a particular intuitive feeling is an example of inner wisdom, and thus a “constructive” one, or is the result of our samskaras/conditioning and therefore more of a distraction than a blessing, we can use svadhyaya in both its forms to see.

We can start by looking at past patterns.  Is this a sentiment that we’ve had before?  What have the results been, either when we’ve ignored it or when we’ve acted on it?  Is this a unique or “spontaneous” insight, or is it something we can see coming out of our conditioning?  Such reflections often let us know if it is a voice that it would serve us to follow.

We can also compare this inner suggestion with the teachings of those we respect.  If they confirm our insight and speak of the benefits of this or similar approach, we have reason to believe it is probably an insight we can trust.  If, on the other hand, they speak of similar feelings having arisen for them or others and how those feelings actually served to mislead, this in turn tells us that these “inner messages” are actually more likely to be part of our samskaras/conditioning and thus most probably distractions rather than informative insights.

Intuition & Discernment

Related to self-study is the complementary practice of viveka, or “discernment.”  As discussed in previous articles, viveka has multiple forms and applications within Yoga philosophy as a whole, but in the case of intuition, it takes the form of learning to discern between the different associations and feelings that come up around our two categories of insight.

Essentially, the Yogis observed that when our intuitive feelings arise from samskaras or conditioning, they tend to be “negatively charged” – that is, they generally arise with feelings such as fear, anger, dread, bitterness, and other emotions we would most often characterize as difficult and distracting.  By contrast, insights that arise from our inner wisdom or awareness tend to have more of a “constructive” quality to them – that is, they tend to come in the form of feelings of benefit and (an underused word in our day and age) concord or harmony.

Even with seemingly parallel situations – for example, a scenario in which our inner voice suggests a situation might not be good for us – our conditioning and our inner knowledge tend to generate distinct feelings with distinct results.  A samskara-based insight often comes with feelings of apprehension or anxiety, whereas wisdom-based insight is more generally calm.  There are exceptions, of course, especially situations where are two forms of insight are encouraging the same response, but watching for more “negative charge” behind an inner sentiment can be a valuable step before acting.

An important part of this is that this “negative element” of intuition based on past baggage or programming tends to cloud our thinking, while “true intuition” always comes with lucidity and the calmness that wisdom brings.  This provides yet another valuable tool for discerning between a helpful insight and a “gut feeling” that is based on past experiences and may in fact mislead us.

For example, imagine we have a less-than favorable impression of someone we’ve just met.  This may be our inner wisdom guiding us, or it may simply be the fact that he or she has some minor behaviors, a simple mannerism or even a perfume or aftershave, that unconsciously remind us of bad experiences of the past – experiences that actually have no bearing on the current situation.  If we let our feelings guide us without inquiry, we might miss a valuable relationship.  On the other hand, if we don’t consider our inner guidance, we might pursue a situation that doesn’t really suit us.

Again, we can use viveka to more mindfully examine our feelings.  We can ask: “Am I feeling anxious or ‘reactive’ around this situation, or am I feeling relatively calm?  Do I feel that I am thinking clearly or am I falling into more of an unconscious/unaware state?”  If we realize we’re falling into unhealthy emotional patterns, we can take a moment to center ourselves and clear our thoughts and then ask if the feeling is still there.  If it is, it is more likely to be a genuine insight, if not, it tells us that it was more likely the product of samskaras and conditioning.

In Conclusion…

By learning to better understand these two forms of intuition and their very different character, we can get better at distinguishing between feelings that might hamper our growth and those which can help us evolve.  By using our various practices of Yoga, including asana, meditation, and self-study, we can become better observers of our thoughts and feelings.  As a result, we can become more skilled at seeing when our feelings are based on baggage or past issues, and when they arise from the innate wisdom we all carry. Ultimately, this allows us to move beyond old patterns and into new, healthier ways of thinking and acting.


As always, we hope this exploration has been of help to you and warmly invite you to share with others if it has.  We also hope you’ll feel free to contact us if there’s a topic you’d like to see discussed.  In the meantime, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”


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