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The principles of yoga

Updated on November 29, 2015

The principles of yoga




Yoga is gaining universal popularity largely because of the various physical exercises

it offers to persons aspiring for a healthy long life its protagonists offer them. People are also told, correctly, that good health provides a stress free mental faculty. In today's world there are many types of yogic exercises which a person can learn from a teacher of yoga but in this article the physical aspect will not be described in any detail. Instead the principles of the subject will be summarised. The source of these principles is what is known as Yoga Darshan, the latter Sanskrit term meaning philosophy, being founded by Patanjali in the 4th century B.C.E.

Incidentally, the word in Sanskrit is Yog and in fact in Bengal and possibly in some other regions of India, it is pronounced as jog. We shall, however, continue with the term yoga to avoid confusion among western readers.

Sankhya Darshan

Sankhya was formulated by one Kapila in the 6th century B.C.E. He was tutored by his mother but it is believed that the principles of this philosophy were enumerated by him independently. It is necessary to know certain aspects of sankhya because it is the foundation of the principles of yoga darshan.

Sankhya aims to hypothesise how sristi, the emanation of the phenomenal world, began and what karmas should a jiv, a sentient being, undertake or what knowledge (vidya) one should acquire to arrive at moksha or mukti. The latter two terms are used to signify escape from dukkha which is the recurrent state of mental and physical suffering of a sentient being because of his ineluctable incarceration in sansar, which is the perishing flux of life, death and many other impermanent future lives.

Kapila posits a female principle called prakriti and purusa the male principle. Prakriti is matter and purusa could be compared with atma. Prakriti is the material constituent of the vishwa, universe, whereas purusa is formless, unseen and very small in size. Many students of darshan visualise prakriti as a monolithic amorphous mass but there are many many individual purusas dispersed throughout the vishwa. A time comes when the two principles interact. There is no question of sexual union because purusa is formless. However, the result of the interaction is the appearance of buddhi, the power of discrimination. A part of this cosmic buddhi evolves into ego, a portion of which transforms into mind, sense organs, organs of action and subtle elements viz., sound, touch, sight, taste and smell successively.

Among the myriads of purusa there is one who never interacts with prakriti. The result is that it never embodies and hence escapes the doleful entrapment in sansar. It remains in isolation, far away from other purusas, in a state of ananda, bliss. This is moksha or mukti.


Yoga darshan was founded by Patanjali in the 4th century B.C.E. A person who has

mastered the principles of yoga and practises the relevant physical exercises is a yogi.

As in sankhya, the goal is moksha. To achieve moksha involves being like that unique purusa of sankhya who never interacted with prakriti. This unique purusa is ishwar who is wrongly likened to the Almighty of the Semitic faiths. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ishwar will never embody and will therefore never experience dukkha. Like the Upanisadic brahman we could express ishwar in neuter gender and state that it is formless, unattached and indifferent to all. It is beyond the reach of all sentient beings.

A jiv who wishes to achieve moksha aims to be like ishwar. It is very important to appreciate that the once embodied purusa who has now achieved moksha has no ambition to be near ishwar. He would not want to be in him either. The purusa once free from embodiment merely wants its independent, isolated existence as far away from neighbours as possible including ishwar.

It is not easy for a sansaric jiv as most of us are to become like ishwar, no matter how many yogic physical exercises we perform. One has to do much more than exercises or meditation occasionally. One has to aim to be a yogi in the first place.


To become a yogi, a jiv must follow the following mandatory paths scrupulously:

(1) He must study sankhya and have an in-depth knowledge of the product of interaction between prakriti and purusa, which are the 25 elements, viz., buddhi, mind etc.

(2) He must be a practitioner of certain principal physical excercises.

When he has completed all the prescribed steps to fulfil the above two conditions he has reached the state of samadhi which is the penultimate step to moksha. We shall soon discuss what samadhi is but to appreciate it fully we need to have a thorough knowledge of chitta.


We recall that prakriti evolves into three elements initially as a result of her interaction with purusas. These are buddhi, ego and mind each of which are of cosmic proportion. As a kaya, the corporeal frame of a jiv, forms due to concatenation of fundamental particles, appropriate fractions of buddhi, ego and mind enter it. These three products of purusa-prakriti interaction constitute the chitta of a sentient being. Chitta is not mind only or emotion as some are prone to declare.

The chitta plays a crucial role in a jiv's capability for concentration. This should be clear soon but we need to know how it acts. The answer is that it acts through its three constituent parts, viz., buddhi, ego and mind (mana). Thus when a jiv wishes to concentrate on an object, or he/she simply wishes to identify it, the chitta acts through its constituent parts in the following sequence:

(I) The mind perceives the object.

(ii) The buddhi resolves for action if any.

(iii) The ego arrogates and propels the sentient being into action.

Thus the chitta of a jiv allows him to have experiences of which he is aware. The chitta is also responsible for subliminal and subconscious experiences of which he is not aware.

The chitta is the all important medium for, say, a man who has entered the discipline of yoga with the earnest ambition to become a yogi. For him the chitta must be able to concentrate on the relevant object without being distracted by extraneous circumstances. The chitta of mortals is liable to be fickle. In fact gurus of yoga have recognised five types of chitta.

Types of chitta

Yoga Darshan has recognised five types of chitta as follows:

(1) Fickle.

(2) Ignorant.

(3) Partly Fickle.

(4) Concentrated (Ekagra).

(5) Detached and Restrained (Niruddha).

Fickleness of the chitta is the natural state of a sentient being. This has to be accepted

as something inevitable. However, a yogic pupil, i.e., the one who is being instructed by a competent, experienced guru, must understand that it is mandatory for him to progress to the niruddha state if he is serious about becoming a yogi.

The first thing a guru would do is to instruct the beginner to concentrate his/her chitta on an object, say, a painting. It takes time but with serious effort the student will reach a stage when he/she can just think of the painting, as and when they wish to do so, without the chitta wandering onto something else. If the aspiring student can concentrate in this manner even briefly, but as and when required, he has overcome the fickleness of his chitta.

The second stage is to eradicate ignorance from the chitta. Ignorance arises when the mind fails to perceive the object because the man's world is narrow and he is illiberal.

He is opinionated about what he holds to be true, however irrational, and is blatantly superficial in his approach to subjects or events outside his own sphere of existence. A classical case of ignorance is seen among some followers of the monotheistic faiths when they come across a Hindu seated cross-legged in front of an image of say, Visnu. All they see is an idol and they retreat in disgust. Some readers may be amused if we quote hymn No 1821 by Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, who arrived in India in 1823:

In vain with lavish kindness,

The gifts of God are strown;

The heathen in his blindness,

Bows down to wood and stone.

Bishop Hever composed the hymn himself and he was mortified that the Hindus did not come to him in droves to be converted to Christianity!

The predatory Arabs, Turks, or Central Asian tribes or the British and other Europeans castigated the millions of Hindu, Buddhists and Jains as idol-worshippers.

On this occasion, the chittas of these alien rulers were and still are ignorant on two counts. Firstly, the term worship does not apply. Secondly, the Hindu, if he is in the process of controlling the fickleness of his chitta, is making use of the image of Visnu as he has been imagined consistently by Indians for a very long time. Some use a flower. Whatever the object, the pupil must concentrate on its geometry and other visible aspects such as colour. If his approach is superficial, as in the case of those followers of monotheistic faiths, the buddhi fails to discriminate. The net result is that the ego makes false assumptions.

For the mind to perceive accurately, the chitta must be cleansed so that its mood points eagerly towards knowledge. The objects of knowledge in yoga darshan are ishwar and the 25 elements in sankhya, evolving as a result of purusa-prakriti interaction, such as buddhi, ego and mana. The pupil of yoga must believe it when he is told that ishwar does not watch him to reward or punish. Ishwar is detached from its surroundings. It is indifferent to all and it dwells in isolation. The object of becoming a yogi is to arrive at moksha. It means that pupils wish to be like ishwar so that, upon their death, the respective purusas within them could reside in isolation and never embody again at least during the life-time of this vishwa.

If the pupil satisfies the guru that he/she has a true understanding of the 25 sankhya elements and ishwar, he/she will be asked to strive for a chitta which will not have any residual fickleness. That is, the chitta must not even be partly fickle. This is extremely difficult but, if successful, the yogic pupil will continue to train for his/her chitta to acquire the ekagra characteristic. Before continuing with our discussion further we need to introduce the idea about gunas.


Gunas are variously translated as strands, attributes or qualities. There are three gunas which are sattva, raja and tama. Sattva guna is pure and devoid of impurities. Raja guna's nature is to be energetic while tama guna has ignorance and lethargy in it. These gunas, when dominant, give rise to products. We need to assume that a product of sattva guna is also pure and devoid of impurities. The products of raja and tama gunas should be energetic and lethargic respectively. Not all the gunas of course can act with full vigour simultaneously. While one guna has achieved dominance the others try to restrain it to take over. There are times when the three gunas are in a state of equipoise.The system then remains inactive and indifferent.

One comes across odd philosophers who compare the gunas with the elan vital, life force, and its antithesis, matter, which feature in a philosophy enunciated by the French philosopher, Henri Louis Bergson (1859- 1941). He proposed that elan vital wishes dynamism in the atoms of matter as they concatenate. Matter on the other hand has this ineluctable impulse to remain in a state of equipoise so that it tends to avoid the proximity of elan vital. Readers may agree that there are some similarities between Bergson's philosophy and the role of gunas in sankhya and yoga as we touch upon the roles gunas play in yoga darshan.

Ekagra Chitta

A pupil of yoga has made excellent progress when his chitta is ekagra. In that state he can concentrate on the object of his dhyan (meditation), say, ishwar for a length of time decided by himself. In effect when the chitta has matured into the ekagra state, the raja and tama gunas retreat. This causes an imbalance in the state of equipoise in the jiv and the sattva guna becomes dominant. Being directed by this guna only this advanced pupil of yoga has taken a step close to moksha. Unfortunately it is a tentative step and reversion to sansar is possible because the chitta may become at least partly fickle again. Incidentally sansar in this case has the connotation of family to which a person is deeply attached with concomitant dukkha. If, however, the chitta does not undergo reversion, the pupil can train for the fifth type of chitta which is detached from sansar and it is niruddha, restrained. We shall illustrate the nature of a niruddha chitta while discussing samadhi in what follows.


Samadhi literally means in a buried state. In that state a corpse is totally removed from the condition of the earth's surface where he lived. At samadhi he is free from all the advantages and disadvantages of life as we know it. All this means that he has freed himself from the snare of attachment and he is thus free of disappointment, grief and the sadness from the ill health and death of his near and dear ones. A person who has achieved the state of samadhi, not an easy task, is at last a yogi. A true yogi, though living, is unaware of his/her surroundings, whether physical or mental.

There are two kinds of samadhi. The first kind is tentative. The second kind is stable and the one who has achieved it is a true yogi. We shall call them ekagra samadhi and niruddha samadhi respectively.


Ekagra Samadhi

This is the type of samadhi a candidate aspiring to be a yogi must master before he can train for niruddha samadhi. In the niruddha state one is totally detached and the chitta is restrained. We need to mention at this stage that it is solely the chitta which is in a niruddha state and therefore the jiv is not a yogi yet. The meaning should be clear when we discuss niruddha samadhi as opposed to niruddha chitta.

In ekagra samadhi the chitta has to be trained to abandon fickleness. The training involves dhyan (meditation) on an object, which is usually a devata,say, Visunu. The dhyan normally begins by the chitta concentrating on an image of Visnu. The image is normally sculpted from clay or produced by casting in a metal. The candidate yogi has to know of course that the object of his dhyan is only an image of Visnu as visualised by people long ago. The devata himself cannot be seen, at least not at that stage.

In the next stage he may substitute the image by a pitcher and think of Visnu although his eyes are directed towards the pitcher. If he can persevere long enough his chitta will become free of both fickleness and ignorance. He may then replace the pitcher with a flower but think of Visnu. He may replace the flower with some other object of his choice and continue in this manner until he can see Visnu without any aid. He is then in ekagra samadhi. Unfortunately, ekagra samadhi is difficult to maintain continuously because the seed of sansar still remains in his chitta albeit in a dormant mode; sansar in this case is his family and friends to whom he is deeply attached. Because of his attachment to his sansar and other things dhyan can be disrupted as a result of the chitta becoming at least partly fickle without warning. The candidate yogi then reverts to the state of a sansaric jiv.

Niruddha Samadhi

With perseverence and single-mindedness the one who is aspiring to brcome a yogi may reach the state when he can maintain concentration without reverting to sansar

even for a moment. If that happens he is in niruddha samadhi. He is then a true yogi and his buddhi, ego and mind are involuted.

We recall that on a cosmic scale there are prakriti, most of which has evolved, and purusas. On a very infinitesimally small scale, we could say that a jiv is the sum of all the 23 elements of sankhya and a resident purusa, all of which are resident in the kaya, the corporeal frame. As the buddhi, ego and mind are involuted they return to prakriti and the jiv is in niruddha samadhi. Note that we are not mentioning niruddha chitta any more.

In the state of niruddha samadhi the purusa remains in the body of the jiv without the mana to perceive and the ego and the buddhi to fulfil their respective functions. Since the chitta is no more there is no danger of reversion to the fickle or ignorant mode. In other words, the jiv is now a true yogi.

By definition, the jiv has succeeded in detaching himself totally from his personal sansar which includes other possessions he assumes to own apart from his family and friends. Undoubtedly, his prolonged and single-minded effort has ensured that the seeds of desire, passion, greed and unfavourable karmas are rendered ineffective. The jiv then understands the difference between purusa and prakriti. He wanders about as a yogi as long as the purusa remains within him. Once the fruits of his karma are used up appropriately, the purusa abandons the body of the yogi which then becomes a cadaver. The yogi himself is redundant because the jiv is no more. The cadaver dissociates into elemental forms while the purusa escapes dukkha and remains in the cosmos isolated from all other purusas. In other words, the purusa becomes like ishwar who is a perfect yogi.

Yogic Paths (margs)

Let us return now to the beginning where the jiv has resolved to be a yogi. We do this so that one unfamiliar with the principles of yoga understands that a yogic pupil has to tie himself down in two main areas as follows:

(1) He must have a thorough understanding of the 25 elements of sankhya. He must know the nature of ishwar.

(2) The next step is to systematically pursue the margs which deal with yogic techniques. There are eight margs of which the first two are really preparation of the chitta for the practices which lie ahead in the remainder margs. These last six margs raise a jiv, if followed scrupulously, to a high level of asceticism which encompasses a life of unadulterated austerity.

The prescribed techniques in some of the margs have already been touched upon. As for example, one marg involves samadhi which has been discussed in detail. A summary of all the margs is given in what follows.

The First marg

The first marg stipulates that the pupil yogi master the following five codes of behaviour without the slightest deviation:

(i) He must practise absolute ahinsa, non-violence. This necessitates a total aversion to killing living beings including insects. Even slight, deliberate injury to another being dilutes the principle of ahinsa. The chitta of a truly non-violent jiv is in an ambience of correct karma.

(ii) He must be truthful. A follower of truth is a reliable person. Even telling 'white lies' makes a person untruthful if he wishes to remain in the margs.

(iii) The pupil must know that a jiv must not steal under any circumstances.

(iv) The pupil must be celibate at all times. Celibates raise the sattva guna in themselves to a dominant level.

(v) An aspiring yogi must only consume those material resources which are indispensable to maintaining a healthy body and mind. He must not even entertain the thought of a life crammed with wasteful luxury. This non-profligacy generates the resolve for renunciation of the materialistic living which goes on squandering the limited animate and inanimate resources of planet earth.

The second marg

The second marg pertains to a few prescribed niyams. A niyam can be translated as a directive or rule. If followed to the letter, these directives facilitate the attainment of those characteristics of the chitta which advance the jiv towards moksha. There are five niyams as follows:

(i) Cleanliness of the body and the purity of the mind must be maintained rigorously.

(ii) A materialistic life as recommended by Charvak, one of the ancient Indian philosophers, must not be coveted. One of Charvak's sayings is ' All your life happy you be; borrow much money and drink ghee'. Drinking ghee must have been the preserve of affluent ancient Indians. Are the British and other western nations followers of Charvak?

(iii) An aspiring yogi must engage in tapasya. It is difficult to convey the meaning of tapasya without a great degree of circumlocution but it is sufficient for us to appreciate for the moment that it involves concentrated and prolonged dhyan.

(iv) The candidate yogi must carry out jap. Jap is repeating a syllable or a mantra many times but not necessarily in a loud manner. Commonly, the name of one's chosen devata, e.g., Shiva, becomes the focus of one's jap. In that case suitable mantras or simply the devata's name can be chanted repeatedly with one's chitta concentrated on him.

(v) The fifth niyam is ishwar pranidhan. Pranidhan means concentrating one's chitta on an object. This is dhyan, i.e., meditation. Ishwar pranidhan, therefore, is meditating unswervingly on ishwar. We shall end this discourse with a section on ishwar pranidhan.

The third marg

The third marg embodies instructions regarding various established sitting postures while meditating. These postures are known as asans.

There are a number of asans used by those engaged in dhyan. An example is padmasan, the posture while seated cross -legged on the floor being as follows:

Right foot on the left thigh. Left foot on the right thigh.

Hands crossed, holding the two big toes.

Chin on the chest and the eyes directed to the tip of the nose.

Correct asans concentrate the chitta. They can ameliorate health problems. Certain types of asans can help one to withstand extremes of heat or cold.

The fourth marg

Once the asans are mastered, the practiser of yogic techniques will move on to learn the fourth marg. This marg is the discipline of breathing exercises and is known as pranayam. The exercise may merely be about just how to inhale and exhale correctly. There is a pranayam which involves taking deep breaths and varying the time of holding the air in the lungs.

The fifth marg

This is a situation where the jiv controls the senses. An instance is the withdrawal of one or more of his senses at will. Thus if he/she decides not to see an object in front of him/her he/she can do so once trained. It does not mean that he/she will close their eyes. They will appear to stare at an object but they are not aware of it because they have withdrawn the sense of seeing at that moment.


The role of the first five margs can be summarised as follows:

(a) The seed of yoga is planted in a being when following the five margs becomes second nature for the jiv and there is no deviation whatsoever from the niyams.

(b) The seed sprouts once the techniques of asan and pranayam are perfected.

(c) The state of detachment from sansar and material possesions blossoms in the aspiring yogi when the candidate can manipulate his senses of hearing, seeing, smelling etc. at will.

The practiser of these yogic techniques is now advanced enough to master the remaining three margs. These margs lead one essentially to samadhi, which has already been discussed in some detail.

The other margs

In the sixth marg the aspiring yogi learns to hold an object, say, an image of Visnu or a tree in his neighbourhood in his chitta. He progresses towards ekagra samadhi if he can hold the object longer and longer without being distracted. In the seventh and eighth margs this very advanced pupil attains ekagra samadhi first. As the ekagra state lasts yet progressively longer the chitta becomes involuted, that is, its three constituent parts revert to the original state of prakriti when she was unmanifest. The pupil is now a true yogi because he has attained niruddha samadhi.

One often hears people say that the resident purusa in the yogi in niruddha samadhi leaves the body as soon as the jiv wishes. The most difficult question to answer is how can a perfect yogi wish? At niruddha samadhi the yogi has lost his chitta. That is, his mind, ego and the power of discrimination are gone. With them disappear the media through which one could wish. The question to ask, of course, is what or who decides on the time of the purusa's departure from the body of the yogi. We may be permitted to answer by recalling the statement that the purusa leaves the kaya once the residual credits of the jiv's past karmas are used up.

Ishwar Pranidhan

We recall the fifth niyam of the second marg where a pupil of yoga has to concentrate on ishwar. Ishwar is that unique, solitary purusa who never allowed itself to embody.

Ishwar pranidhan is that yogic activity which involves pure, uninterrupted dhyan with ishwar as the object. It follows that one involved in such an activity must know exactly the true nature of ishwar. The aspiring yogi engaged in such a dhyan becomes a bhakta, devotee, of ishwar. One can ask the bhakta that how he can show his devotion, bhakti, to someone who is formless and disinterested in everything around him. The devotee will not answer because he is not concerned with reason or logic. In fact, an analytical approach gets in the way of bhakti by unearthing contradictions.

To a bhakta, all the devatas, including the superior ones such as Brahma, Visnu or Shiva will die eventually but ishwar is eternal. He is not bound by kala, time. The bhaktas of ishwar, when not engaged in pranidhan, immerse themselves in jap. By repeating his name, they are still involved in ishwar, even when they are engaged in mundane tasks such as lighting a fire.

As the aspiring yogi takes up an asan and becomes engaged in ishwar pranidhan a specified number of times or more, his chitta sheds the detritus created by material living. This cleansed chitta is fertile ground for the true knowledge of ishwar to blossom. In due course, the chitta involutes to abandon its evolved identity and then the bhakta is a yogi and, hence, in niruddha samadhi.

Concluding Remarks

We finish yoga darshan here hoping that from the principal rudiments given here a reader may be able to read further literature, of which there are many, armed with a firm foundation of the subject. We should however point out that a reader of this discourse will be confused when he comes across westerners and many westernised Hindus who would equate ishwar with the all powerful, omnipotent and omniscient ultimate reality of the followers of the Semitic faiths. It is hoped however that the reader would acknowledge that, by definition, ishwar is indifferent to its surroundings. Therefore, he neither creates nor destroys this phenomenal world. He neither rewards nor punishes jivs.

When the aspiring yogi engages in ishwar pranidhan, all he is doing is to try to acquire an understanding of the true nature of ishwar. The moment the purusa in the yogi disembodies, it becomes nearly like ishwar as was its goal. In that state it is not attached to prakriti any more. It does not even wish to be near the other purusas whether they are also free or in embodiment.

We say that it is nearly like ishwar because unlike the solitary unique purusa who never interacted with prakriti this purusa did so. It is not unreasonable to conclude that this purusa, who embodied before but has now attained moksha, may embody again at some future cycle of sristi.



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