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.
Bernard Bouanchaud starts off the discussion on this aphorism with four questions that I hope to explore a little more in-depth this week.
Does my practice really transform how I think?
If so, how and in which spheres?
How much do I apply yoga to my daily life?
Through yoga, can I become more aware of what I am and what I am doing?
It’s sufficient fodder to keep a battery of analysts and psychotherapists in business for years to come.
Does my practice really transform how I think? Absolutely. Of this, I have no doubt. While I fall firmly into the “work in progress with a long way to go” category, yoga has been beneficial for me. Earlier, Bouanchaud references Vyasa, one of the classic commentators on the Sutras, about 5 different personality / student types. I decidedly fall into the category of “people prey to frantic agitation”.
I can get wound up from zero to sixty in 2.2 seconds flat. It’s okay – I was well paid for that capacity. The ability to go from nothing to total pandemonium, surfing chaos with relish and joy, is something one looks for in a 9-1-1 operator. When all Hell itself has broken loose, familiarity with ‘frantic agitation’ becomes a blessing. You want to talk about ‘mind fluctuations’ ? Hell’s bells – I was hired because I have such a lovely fluctuating mind. In our current lingo, it’s called multi-tasking.
In the average week, I worked about 45 hours a week doing that. The question is – what do you do in the 123 hours remaining in the week? Sleep wasn’t something I wasted a lot of time on, to my eventual peril. And here’s the kicker – I loved, loved, loved, LOVED my state of constant frantic agitation. The only thing I didn’t like is that I couldn’t go faster, more, harder. For people like me, that state of agitation is what I call exhilaration. I feel more alive. I’m smarter. Colours are brighter. The senses are sharper. It beats any drug, although I promise you, caffeine certainly helps the cause. My standard responses to pain, suffering, discomfort or unease were: Go faster. Go harder. Push. Drive. Drive. Drive. Repeat as necessary.
The problem arises is that like all addictions (and don’t kid yourself, adrenaline is one hell of an addictive substance) is that it’s not sustainable. Sure, it worked like a charm for the first three and a half decades … and then … I’ll spare you the gruesome details but the point I’d like to make is that I had no idea how to slow down. In fact, I didn’t know that slowing down was actually an option. My solution to EVERYTHING was drive harder. Hurt? Go harder. Tired? Drive it. Overcome EVERYTHING by sheer force of will and iron-clad discipline. Feel the burn? Hell, I was the burn.
So you might imagine what a mental and emotional shock my first yoga classes were for me. My ‘job’ was to move my arms in time with my breath. And if I can manage it, breathe slowly. What the hell? And then there was that whole idea of turning my mind inward to pay attention to interior sensations in my chest. Where did I breathe anyway? What happened when I exhaled? Do you know your spine elongates on the inhale and shortens again on the exhale? Did you know you can feel your breathing right into the pelvic floor? In fact, if you really pay attention and block out all other distractions, you can feel breath moving everywhere in the body, even your feet!!
For someone like me who was definitely in the throes of a full mind/body disassociation, these experiences were literally life changing. It was in practice, yoga OUTSIDE the classroom, where my mind and body started communicating after a Thirty Years War of their own making. Eventually, although it took a long time, a peace treaty was negotiated between the factions and that is something that really transformed my life.
And all of it came about, not because I could bend farther into a forward bend, although that happened too. The fruit of the practice became the steadying, calming and reorientation of the frantic energy of my mind. Bringing my mind into my physical reality and the present moment is the starting point for all that came after. I became calmer. I became smarter. And interestingly enough, I became more effective at being a dispatcher.
Yogah citta-vrtti nirodhah? Oh, yeah, you can bet your sweet bippy on that one.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,
A general note: This blog is about trying to integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton has provided an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years on where I got this stuff. These discussions are meant to be about one person’s perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Please keep in mind that this is exploration and not explanation.