योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥ १.२ ॥

yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ || 1.2 ||

Yoga is the stilling of the turnings of the mind


A few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time, a friend of mine said to me ‘In order to find stillness, you gotta keep moving!’. That statement or advice has really stuck with me over the years. Like an affirmation. I often compare this movement to riding a bike. To find the balance on a bike, we gotta keep peddling, keep the wheels moving. Yoga happens to us, or we are in a state of yoga when we’re not falling or imbalanced by the various circumstances that life presents to us on a daily basis. The good news is that just like riding a bike we have been given the training wheels in the form of an 8-limb practice called aṣṭāṅga yoga. But the end goal is to ride the bike without even realising that those wheels are there, or what our hands and feet are doing; it becomes your intrinsic nature, a way of life.

Traditionally, āsana practice or movement was done before taking a seat for meditation, after we’ve prepared the body to be able to sit still. In a vinyāsa practice we put one foot in front of the other with intention, move our energy, spread it out, free it from tension and blockages so that when we finish the practice, we’re able to sit still in mediation. In the 8-limb practice of the yoga sūtra this is called Dhyāna. In a way, our āsana practice becomes a moving meditation too. Similarly, when we move with awareness and are conscious of our actions off the mat, we are not only trying to make our lives free of any unnecessary complications or unfavourable situations but also create a positive impact on the world around us.

In the second chapter of Patañjali’s yoga sūtra (titled Sādhana-pādah) after listing the yāmas and niyāmas Patanjali also mentions some of the boons that accrue to a yogi by following when they become pratiṣṭhāyāṃ which is commonly translated as: being well established. But what really is pratiṣṭhāyāṃ, or what does being well established mean? There’s a saying in yoga, “When you practice once a week, nothing changes. When you practice twice a week you change your body. When you practice three times a week, you change your mind. When you practice every day, you change your life.” Usually the first thought when I hear this statement is if I go to the studio or practice āsana at home every day, then I’m established in my practice. And there is nothing wrong with thinking that. But what are we really trying to establish? With a consistent and dedicated āsana practice using conscious ujjayi breathing and an intention, we’re trying to go beyond the physical to find that balance or so-called stillness. But the aim of the practice is to take this stillness into the real world, in our daily lives through these yāmas and the niyāmas. And this takes time, it needs patience, and perseverance. Being in a shape isn’t really what yoga is about, paying attention to what you’re doing and when you’re doing it is more what yoga is working towards.

In yogic philosophy, suffering is defined as resistance to change and one of the primary purposes of the practice is to teach us to become comfortable with discomfort. From one practice to another, from one posture to the other, we adapt, we change and perhaps also resist. But in each movement, in each breath we learn something about ourselves. Whether it’s the physical resistance due to tightness in our hamstrings, or shoulder mobility or the mirage that we create in our minds. The same happens in our daily lives, it may often feel like we are riding an emotional rollercoaster. It takes us to the height of exhilaration one day and we’re down in the dumps the next. But this is where pratiṣṭhāyāṃ kicks in or is needed the most. Are we still able to ride that bike and keep our balance? As Charles Bukowski said, “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”.

With attaining pratiṣṭhāyāṃ it is a sign that change has occured. But as we all well know change is often uncomfortable, and pushes our boundaries. But for any kind of change or transformation to take place it needs practice and commitment. In the yoga sūtra this idea of practice is called Abhyāsa. Our practice should be viewed as a process, not a destination. Patañjali tells us that our practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time. It is the doing of it that is most important. With consistency, not only do we become established in our practice, but it is also in those periods when we’re faced with a challenging situation that provides us with the greatest opportunity to observe our deeply ingrained patterns and behaviours, learn to breathe, meet them with less tension, and even make friends with that particular adversity. Unsurprisingly, these difficult or challenging times that we’re often faced with, or even the disappointment of hearing a ‘no’ often comes with an opportunity to learn. As cliché as it sounds, it’s basic human tendency to resist, to say ‘Why me?’, or thinking ‘I don’t deserve it anyway’, but that is also an opportunity to dig deeper, and moreover being aware of that exact feeling or emotion that’s making you uncomfortable.

According to Patañjali, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations or activities of the mind. The term cittā (to think, consider) is further divided into three subtle entities – Buddhi (intelligence), Ahankara (ego), and Manas (the mind). The mind collects or gathers the data through feelings, emotions, and desires; the ego appropriates it under the notion of I, or Mine; and the intelligence judges, evaluates and determines how it is to be presented to ourselves and to the external world. The word vṛtti is often translated as thought waves or the modifications of the mind; in other words, any sequence of thoughts, ideas, mental imaging, performed by either the mind, intellect or ego. The verbal root vṛt means to revolve, turn, move, and underscores the always active, rambling aspect of the cittā. If cittā is the lake, the vṛttis are all the ripples it creates when disturbed. And finally, nirodhah, translated variously as restraint or control, is the final piece of, and the answer to the puzzle itself.

In today’s day and age, with the lives that we are living, surrounded by technology and all other forms of distraction, its hard to imagine that our mind can be free of fluctuations or commotions. So how do we achieve a state of not thinking? “Yoga is both the means and the end,” says B.K.S. Iyengar in his commentary on the Yoga Sūtra. In other words, our aim in yoga practice is to realize a united state, which Iyengar defines as “integration from the outermost layer to the innermost self.” We integrate; we don’t banish thoughts or repress memories or emotions. Rather, we free ourselves from the turmoil that they (the vṛttis) cause by training the mind to observe, discern, and detach through āsana, prānāyāma, meditation, and other yogic practices.

Very similar to what Bruce Lee said: “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

-Gaurav Kharbanda