Stilling the Mind through Yoga

As many of you know, I will be leaving on July 29 for my fifth trip to Pune, India, the home of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). There I will have the opportunity to learn from Abhi and Prashant Iyengar and other institute teachers, and to relax deeply into my daily practice and study of the yoga sutras, pranayama and asana. Preparation for the trip is complicated, but I am slowly making my way through various lists of tasks to be completed before I embark.

While in India, I plan to blog regularly about my experiences, so I hope you will check in to see how it is all going. I absolutely love hearing your comments, so please engage! The blog is a great way for me to stay connected to my friends ands students at home. If you want to receive the blog in your email, please subscribe using the form on the right.

Over the last couple months, I have been posting some of my published articles about yoga philosophy. I hope you will enjoy my thoughts on the opening aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

May your practice flourish, for the benefit of all beings!


Stilling the Mind through Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begin with a simple statement, “Now the teaching on yoga begins.” This first sutra or aphorism is a way of calling us to attention, so we can receive the wisdom contained in the teachings that will follow. The very first word of this treatise on yoga philosophy is artha or now. In a sense, this initial word of the first sutra is a summary of the entire teaching, which is to learn to live in the present, in a state that is content, spacious and blissful, free from any desire for that moment to be different from what it is. All the teachings that follow point to this end.

The second sutra of Chapter I is the often-quoted definition of yoga: Yoga cittavrtti nirodhha. It is useful to reflect on various translations of this sutra.

Yoga is the cessation of the movements in the consciousness.
B.K.S Iyengar
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Chip Hartranft
Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuation of consciousness.
Georg Feuerstein
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
Alistair Shearer
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction.
T.K.V. Desikachar
Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

All these translations tell us that the movements of the mind, or cittavrittis, can be stilled, bringing the mind to a state of undisturbed silence. Some translations use words like “cessation” or “control” implying an active use of will to restrain the mind’s habitual patterns. Other translations use the terms “settling” or “still the patterning” giving a sense of a passive or receptive experience that we need only allow to take place. Each approach may be useful at different times. What joins them is the need for regular, disciplined practice.

Any of us who have attempted to relax in a soothing yoga pose, or sit in quiet meditation, are well aware of the mind’s conditioned habit of jumping from thought to thought. This experience has been labeled “monkey mind” and we instantly understand what is meant when we hear this phrase. The mind moves quickly from desire to fear to memory to hope to regret to nostalgia and around again. Countless sensory images and thoughts pass through our minds in short periods of time. Yoga practice trains us to observe this habit, slow the process down, and eventually, bring it to complete cessation.

It is interesting to note that the definition of yoga is based completely on the condition of the mind, and does not mention the physical state at all. The physical postures or asanas have many benefits, and a key one is that we develop enough physical health and vitality to be able sit for long periods of time without the disturbance of physical pain. The ability to sustain a seated posture that is stable and comfortable allows us to do the deeper work on our habitual mental tendencies.

The third sutra in this first chapter tells us that once our mental fluctuations have been stilled, we will experience the spacious, free and whole state that yoga posits is our true nature, or as B.K.S. Iyengar translates, “our own true splendor.” The idea of being completely free of disturbing thoughts and emotions may seem to most of us like a distant dream. Yet we can all feel the calm that follows the practice of a supported, restorative yoga posture, or the refreshment that comes after a few minutes of silent sitting.

Yoga practice gives us practical means to uncover the divine within. While the goal may seem distant, it is helpful to remember the teaching from the Bhagavad Gita, another sacred text of yoga. “No righteous action is ever wasted, and no obstacle is eternal.”

Copyright Karen Allgire 2008

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One Response to Stilling the Mind through Yoga

  1. Char Frires says:

    Safe Passage and Vaya con Dios!

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