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It’s all in your mind – YSP 1.2


Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah

Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity.

Trans.—Bernard Bouanchaud

Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration, coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind field.

Trans – Swami J


Here it is, straight out of the gate, the classic definition to the question “What is Yoga?” Yoga is the cessation, the reorientation, the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. The American writer Mark Twain wrote, “I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.” Mark Twain would have understood Patanjali in a heartbeat.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali really are a DIY manual for human existence and one thing that humans excel at is the creation of our own suffering. That idea alone is an excellent way to start a bar brawl, so let me go a little farther before I’m on the receiving end of some metaphorical bricks. Buddha, Patanjali, Twain and a few other million wise souls have come to the same conclusion about what it means to be human. One: we feel pain. Two: we add to our pain by how we deal with it – we call this suffering. Three: having created the suffering with our mind, we can end the suffering with our mind. The pain, by the way, will remain. Just thought we need to stay real on that point.

But first, before the bricks get launched, let’s take a quick look at what these wise people didn’t say. One: none of them said Life was a bowl of cherries. No one is denying the existence of pain. We feel it physically, emotionally and mentally. We grow old, feel our bodies diminish, our mental capacities weaken and we die. Throughout Life, we experience sorrow, disappointment, anger, grief, loss, jealousy, hurt and doubt. This is the nature of what it means to be human. Life sometimes hurts. Sometimes it hurts a Lot.

Even barring everything else that Life might sling at us, as long as the laws of physics in general and the Law of Gravity in particular are still in effect, most of us will experience the ouch of falling down and skinning a knee. It hurts and it hurts for real. Personally, I think where we get messed up with these ancient teachings is we have had some people intimate that anyone who experiences suffering or pain brought it on themselves. It’s the “if you have cancer, you didn’t pray/believe enough” school of thought. It’s called ‘blaming the victim’ and I’ve always chalked it up to a toxic combination of fear, ignorance and just plain dumb-assedness.

And for the record, I don’t think this is what these wisdom traditions are trying to do at all. I think they’re actually being very realistic about the human experience. They collectively say “Hey Human, you will experience pain because that’s what happens to humans. They experience pain. And when you do, you can make it better or you can make it worse depending on how you process it with your mind.” And in the case of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali’s prescription for this very human ‘dis-ease” is Yoga.

And what is Yoga?

Yoga is the stilling and reorienting the natural fluctuations of the mind.

Later on as this chapter progresses, Patanjali gets more specific about what constitutes “the mind” but in this section, he’s referring to the whole enchilada – intellect, psyche, thought, sentiment, emotion, conscious, subconscious. And here’s a place where I can get tripped up on occasion. The state of YOGA is a MENTAL state. It is not about my (in)ability to wrap my thigh around my neck twice whilst standing on my head. And I forget that all the time because my mind frequently gets hung up about being impressed and self-congratulatory (self-critical) about the postural practice. Again, the problem? surprise – the MIND.

The mind is central to the pursuit of the state of Yoga. In fact, the next nine aphorisms are going to expand on and flesh these ideas out. In the meanwhile, I can take some time to observe the fluctuations of my very active mind. It vacillates between memory and imagination, bounces between deduction and induction, tries to discriminate between fact and fiction with varying degrees of success. It is a restless beast and that too is part of the human existence. Our untamed minds are busy creatures.

There will probably be more thoughts on this aphorism later this week, but in the meanwhile, thanks for reading and Namaste,



About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

4 responses »

  1. Kate,

    Of particular interest is the idea of experiencing pain and the way we add to it through suffering, followed by the use of the mind to ease the suffering by however we react to the pain.

    I see so many parents who, mostly by example, train their children to react badly to pain. I don’t mean they get too upset over something so mundane as a knee scrape or falling from a bike, though they do… but that they model for their kids a non-productive, negative reaction to larger ideas and circumstances, like intolerance, injustice, ignorance, and just plain bigotry. It is almost as if the parent does not know their own mind, and certainly is not aware of the effect their actions have on the minds their children.

    The potential power of the mind to address and ease the reactions to pain is so often lost in this manner: parents passing on the lessons learned as children to their children – sure of their correctness, even when wrong.

    The cycle of ignorance of mind is continued and passed from one generation to the next, and so it continues.

    Wishing you a good journey… Namaste.

    Lawson Meadows

    • Ain’t that the truth? As parents, we can’t teach what we don’t know.

      My parents, for different reasons, were deeply affected by both religious intolerance and racism. So when they became parents, those were two topics on top for them and they worked intentionally to ensure that those ideas weren’t passed on to my sister and I.

      This summer, as I have continued The Medical Further Adventures of Kate MacKay, I have been trying to model “it is what it is” to our 14 year old daughter. I do have a natural urge to “protect” her by minimizing things because I don’t want her to be frightened, etc. In the end, my husband and I have deliberated and have decided that lying to her, no matter how well intentioned, does not serve her long term interests. In a very few years, she will legally be an adult and I think it’s incumbent upon us as her parents to properly model “how to have a crisis”. It may be the last major life lesson we can pass on before she reaches the age of majority.

      Namaste Lawson and thanks for responding!


  2. Pingback: Whom am I? YSP 1.3 « Dharmayoga’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: Wrapping it UP: YSP 1.1-1.4 « Dharmayoga’s Weblog

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