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Yoga defined: 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

Today marks the end of New Brunswick’s official Citta-Vritti (Mind Fluctuations) week. Tomorrow, we’re moving on to Sutra 1.3, so I’d just like to round off this week’s discussions with some lingering thoughts on the matter before we all run off and get enlightened and don’t remember any of these issues any more.

Bernard Bouanchaud asks in his commentaries “How much do I apply yoga to my daily life?” and “Through yoga, can I become more aware of what I am and what I am doing?” Also, in his more general discussion on the aphorism makes the following note “The other aphorisms will not be properly understood unless they are approached in relation to this one.”

So this aphorism is the lynchpin of the Sutras. It’s the one that the rest reflect back to and without an appreciation of it, the rest of the book doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is yoga defined, in its broadest sense. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In our class discussions this August past, our teacher, Kathryn Downton, added that the word “nirdodhah“, while meaning stopping, controlling, stilling etc, also has an implication of re-orientation or channeling to it. I think this is a key point to understanding the sutra.

The mind fluctuates. That’s a given for anyone whose taken three minutes to observe the pattern of their thoughts. It’s the first thing I learned after parking my rump on meditation cushion. I was lost in the past, constructing grocery lists, noticing my knee hurt, berating myself for being fat, and daydreaming about what I might do when I win the lotto. I was supposed to be following my breath. Lesson one for all would-be meditators: The mind fluctuates.

Lesson Two quickly followed on its heels. I can observe this happening and I can control the process. It doesn’t come through repression or any forceful application of will. It happens when I let go of my idea of what SHOULD be happening and reorient my concentration back to breath. Fluctuate, reorient, fluctuate, reorient, fluctuate…you get the drill here, I’m sure. The key point is that this is not a forceful repression of thought or emotion. This is a gentle acknowledgement of the nature of mind. It fluctuates, that is its nature. Be patient and gentle with it and reorient it.

Lesson Three: it’s a skill. Like all skills, from how to use a chef’s knife to how to drive a car, both of which I’m relatively skilled at by now, it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. In fact, if Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) is right, it takes about 10 000 hours or about 10 years of dedicated practice, to become an expert in anything.

Lesson Four: it works. Eventually, gently, steadily and over time, the mind does slow down. The ping-pong pace of the churning citta-vritti (mind fluctuations) takes a decided downshift. In the next sutras, we start examining what happens when that downshift takes place.

But one of the important things that come from this sutra and I’m wise to keep in mind: Yoga is about the mind. If my mind isn’t involved in what I’m doing, it’s NOT yoga. If I’m standing in warrior and thinking about the groceries, it’s NOT yoga. If I’m sitting on a meditation cushion, reliving a snipping match with my teenage daughter, it’s NOT yoga. Yoga only occurs when my body, mind and spirit are all pulling together on the same task.

The word Yoga comes to us from the same linguistic soup pot that brought us the English word “to yoke”. It means to join, like one would yoke two oxen together to plow a field in tandem. It’s done so the power of the animals is directed in the same direction and so they aren’t pulling against each other’s efforts. Yoga is the process by which I yoke together my body and my mind and my spirit to bear upon that thing we call Life. Yoga is both a process and an outcome.

Do I find the state of yoga off the mat? Yes, and moreso with practice, I might add. Sometimes, in life’s sweeter moments, I find myself falling into the state of yoga without effort. A sunset, the wonders of a spider’s web, a hug from my daughter can all be moments when I am in that moment and that moment alone and the busyness of my mind settles for long enough for me to live fully in that moment.

These moments are glimpses of what is possible. I do know that those are moments when I’m at peace. I feel radiantly positive about myself and the world around me. Yoga is a state of grace open to all of us and that is its greatest gift to us.

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.


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.

2 responses »

  1. Kate,

    Your “explorations” served to explain well the Yoga process leading to the cessation of mental fluctuations. Acceptance of self is a precursor of growth. Understanding the fact that these variations of focus and subject do exist is the first step.

    More importantly is your comment about not forcing the process; easing into it, to accept it. Simple will power can win only temporary victories at best. Effective behaviors, as you said, are only established over time.

    Behaviors are comprised of skills, habits, and attitude; it seems to me that the process of maintaining focus – leveling your mind – is exactly that: a skill developed through habitual practice supported by the right attitude. I believe it comes down to preparation through focused practice.

    Well put and well done… Namaste.
    Lawson Meadows

  2. Thank you Lawson. As always, I find your comments uplifting and encouraging. Later on in the Sutras, we’ll get into the discussions about what Patanjali had to say about practice. You’ll approve of his comments, I’m sure.


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