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Thinking about the Mind: YSP 1.6

YSP 1.6 pramana viparyaya vikalpa nidra smritayah

Bouanchaud: The five mental activities are: understanding, error, imagination, deep sleep and memory.

Desikachar: The five activities are comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep and memory.

To date in the sutra studies, we’re still at the point in the sutras where Patanjali is defining the mind and its activities and he lists five. Eastern philosophers tend to do this a lot. They construct great lists of items related to a theme as a mnemonic aid. When it came to mental functions and activities, some schools of thought listed more. I think I once read a list of 18 or 24. The details escape me but Patanjali settled on five classifications for his treatise and they are:

  1. correct understanding,
  2. error
  3. imagination,
  4. deep sleep and
  5. memory.

The next five aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras describe these in greater detail but one thing does arise from this section: with the exception of deep sleep (nidra), any of these states are capable of increasing or decreasing our suffering. The end of suffering is the raison d’etre of all Indian philosophy.

One of the things that I’m struck by when I work with this is how nuanced it is. It’s not enough to state that the mind thinks: here’s how it thinks. The other idea that comes out of this is a very sophisticated appreciation for the functions of mind. It is not our senses that provide us with our perception and ultimately our understanding of the world. Our sensory organs provide data input only. Our mind interprets that information which in turn provides us with our understanding.

To my mind, it’s impressive stuff for a bunch of guys in loincloths living in the woods a few thousand years before the invention of CT scans, EEGs, PET scopes and all the rest of our sophisticated technology for examining the function of the brain and mind.

And who is doing the interpretation? It’s done by the witness, the perceiver, drastuh whom we met in YSP 1.3. In other words, consciousness (Purusha) uses the mind as a tool to understand the world. We are not the functions of our mind. The mind is just another piece of equipment, subject to its own limitations and capacity for failure.

The other thing that comes out of this is the notion that is a large part of our Western psychotherapy tradition. We have all kinds of thoughts but not all thoughts are true. One of Patanjali’s classifications of mental activity is erroneous thoughts or misapprehension. Implicit in this list is Patanjali’s understanding that not everything our brain cooks up is correct. Cognition is not the be all and end all. We still need discernment in order to evaluate the accuracy of our thoughts or how they stack up against reality.

And one final point I’d like to make before I go much further on this topic: nidra. This refers to deep, dreamless sleep. This is what was once referred to as Stage 4 sleep back when I was taking psychology courses. I haven’t kept up with the topic and so I’m talking through my hat a bit here. My limited understanding is that psychologists have collapsed the old Stage 3 and Stage 4 together into a single category known as Stage 3 sleep. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s that non-Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, also known as slow wave sleep or delta sleep. This is the deeply restorative phase of our sleep cycle.

Dreams, whether we generate them in a waking or a sleeping state, are classified as vikalpa (imagination). Again, the nuance of this classification that was developed long before we could record brain waves in sleeping subjects, divides the stages of sleep into two categories. There is the dream state (vikalpa) and then there is nidra – the deep and dreamless state.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,


A general note: I write this blog 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. These discussions are my perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 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.

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