YSP 1.4: vritti sarupyam itaratra
Otherwise, we identify with the activities of the mind.
Trans: Bernard Bouanchaud
The ability to understand the object is simply replaced by the mind’s conception of that object or by a total lack of comprehension.
This aphorism wraps up the introductory aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The next eight discuss the nature of the mind itself but before we hurry off in that direction, I’d like to take a moment to review where we’ve been so far.
The beginning chapter of the Yoga Sutra, the first of four, is entitled ‘Contemplation”. Patanjali is clearly signaling what he deems is the priority here: the power to observe something at length. And what is being observed? The mind.
How do we observe the mind? We do so by stilling it. Left on its own, the mind is a busy creature. It’s in the past, it’s in the future. It’s imagining, planning, emoting. It’s defending itself. It’s defending you. It’s working hard, all the time. It’s a very efficient thought generating machine and it spits out all kinds of thoughts. Some of them are even true. Either way, there’s a lot of noise in the undisciplined mind. It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere.
So, what happens when the mind is stilled? We see our own true nature, who we are beneath the thoughts and emotions and the identities and the plans and the … well, you get it, underneath all the fluctuations of the mind. This is a key point of yoga: you are not your thoughts. You have thoughts but they are not who you are. Traditionally, there are a lot of metaphors used to convey this idea. One of my favourite is a pond, like an ornamental backyard fish pond. It’s hard to see the details on the bottom if the surface is ruffled by the wind, or objects being pelted in it causing ripples and turbulence. Once the water stills, it clears up and it is very easy to see what’s at the bottom. When the fluctuations of the pond has stilled, we can see its true nature.
And, to carry this idea through to the fourth aphorism, if the pond is never allowed to still, all we see is the ripples, the turbulence and the agitation. We never get to see the bottom of the pond and all we know about it is its fluctuations.
Our English word contemplation comes from the Latin root templum, meaning to cut or divide. The idea is that we cut something out from its surroundings and study it intently. To say someone is ‘contemplating’ something means she is thinking about something in a concentrated manner for an extended period of time. For Patanjali, this concentration over a long period of time is the key to liberation from suffering. The four aphorisms we’ve already looked at not only set up the rest of this chapter on “Contemplation”, they set up the rest of the book.
One of the key points to take from this section is YSP 1.2. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. This is the classic definition of yoga. Everything discussed from here on refers back to this definition.
It’s a point that needs repeating because in our culture yoga is popularly imaged to be a series of physical postures of varying degrees of difficulties. I’ll be talking later on in this column about the value and purpose of the physical work (also known as asanas) and how they fit into the general scheme of things. But I think that for right now, it’s important to be clear on this matter. Yoga is a discipline of the mind, first and foremost. The postural work serves that goal. If the postural concerns take me away from my mind, then I’m no longer doing yoga. As I’ve heard attributed to Desikachar, when you’ve lost your mind, you’ve lost your yoga.
It’s why I rarely practice with music. After spending 20 years listening on 9-1-1 lines and to police radios, I have a keenly developed ability to listen. I’ve observed the world through my ears and my attention is grabbed by the sounds in my environment. Music takes me out of my practice. My mind starts attending to the richness of the notes. I get swept up in the beauty of the music and I’ve completely lost my practice at this point.
In fact, I argue that I don’t practice yoga at all when I’m student in a classroom either. My teacher’s voice, as she’s giving instructions, pulls me out of my own experience. It’s not until I get home and start the practice on my own that I can come to a state of yoga. The purpose of the class is to get the practice, get some overall theory behind what I’m doing and why and learn where to put my feet. Experiencing that practice as YOGA will have to wait until I’m by myself.
This is one of the reasons I’m so keen on maintaining a daily practice. I’m sure other people experience it differently but I just can’t imagine coming to a state of yoga with somebody yapping at me. I can either listen to my teacher or I can experience yoga. I can’t do both at the same time.
Next stop on the Yoga Sutra journey: the mind and all its bits. In the meanwhile, thanks for reading and Namaste,
A general note: This blog is to help me 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 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 one person’s perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is exploration and not explanation.