Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah
Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity.
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.
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? Hmmmmm..no 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,