Years ago I worked on a project with someone who showed up one day with a tee shirt that had Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah printed on it. He was clearly horrified that I had only a rough idea what the words meant, and it was fairly obvious that I plummeted in his estimation.
In retrospect I’m a little horrified as well, since I had been practicing and teaching for a number of years at that point. And yet somehow this essential definition of Yoga, “the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind” hadn’t fully registered with me.
Sure, it sounded familiar, like the name of the French Foreign Minister in the build up to the war in Iraq (de Villepin) but I was hazy about both its specifics and its import.
Not any more. These days, the vrttis (sometimes translated as the “fluctuations” sometimes as the “modifications” of the mind) are at the center of my consciousness with some regularity. Because the more I practice the more I realize that what Yoga gives us, in any number of forms, is a perspective on our often wayward thoughts and feelings.
Anyone who as ever had a puppy remembers the early days of trying to walk said puppy on a leash. One word: anarchy. And yet that puppy is positively sedate compared to most of our thought patterns. Left to it’s own devices my mind is like that puppy. On steroids.
The beauty of Yoga is that over time you discover that wildly careening from one thought/feeling to another is kind of exhausting.
Then you learn some tools so you can at least narrow the field in terms of the amount of terrain you cover in a given minute of thinking/feeling.
Then you get (“little by little” as Pattabhi Jois used to say) somewhat more adept at not giving each and every thought or feeling your full and undivided attention.
Consider that puppy. Every single thing in the immediate vicinity smells good and demands instant investigation. Hence the hysterical (and hazardous to the innocent bystander) scrambling from one input to another.
I’m convinced that my puppy actually got a lot happier when she learned to proceed at a more stately pace. (Certainly in my anthropomorphism of her she did.) I do know that in many circumstances she now prefers to be on leash than off. I think it reassures her to be more focused in her perambulations.
And in a similar way, I think many of us suffer less when we don’t feel quite so at the mercy of our thoughts and feelings, when we have a modicum of control regarding what we give our attention to and how completely we surrender to a given thought or feeling.
Let me be perfectly clear, the goal (for me) is not to be expressionless and affect-less. This was my big misconception when I first encountered some of the classic Yogic texts, and it sent me running for the proverbial hills. I thought that if I was a good Yogi I wasn’t supposed to care passionately about anything or have desires or dislikes.
Now it’s possible that this was the original intent of the literature (I don’t know) but to me the texts are vital to the extent that they feel resonant and applicable to my modern experience.
And what definitely feels useful and powerful is the idea that Yoga is any practice that helps to calm the mind and create any small amount of space between one’s sense of the Self and the thoughts and feelings that at any given moment seem to define the self. “I’m sad, I’m happy, I’m stupid, I’m brilliant, I’m fat, I’m perfect” etc.
According to Patanjali, it’s the identification with thoughts and feelings that causes suffering not the thoughts and feelings themselves. So if you can put a tiny bit of distance between them and your sense of who you actually are, then life can be a little bit less painful. And your mind can be a little bit less hectic.
This is where the familiar practices of Asana and meditation come in.
When you sit, you learn not to engage with every single thought/feeling that enters the fray. Things come up and you let them float by rather than entering into a (repetitive) dialogue.
Similarly, when you practice postures you learn to use the physical body as a way of focusing your attention in the immediate present, on what is actually happening. You learn how to corral your attention so that your “fluctuations” are between events that are related in some way, as opposed to the wild roller coaster rides that our minds often take us on.
Here’s what I mean by that. When I teach I often give sequential instructions that seem to be in opposition to each other. In prone back bends, for instance (Low Cobra, Locust, Up Dog) I ask students to lift or spin their inner thighs up to the ceiling so they can widen across their lower back (a good thing). Then I ask them to notice that as they did that, their outer ankles bowed out creating a sickled foot (a bad thing). Ok, so now firm the outer ankles into the midline. But then the inner thighs drop and the lower back narrows. So try to keep the inner thighs lifting as you firm the outer ankles in. And so on.
It’s a lot to think about. But the good news is that if you are going back and forth between your inner thighs and your outer ankles, the field of cognition is fairly contained. The two things your mind is moving between are relatively proximal. Your fluctuations are not as extreme. “Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind.”
When you develop this ability to choose where you place your attention in asana and meditation, it becomes a skill that you can try to implement in the rest of your life as well.
Again, it’s not about eradicating thoughts and feelings, it’s about your mind not being a manic puppy frantically dragging you from one place to the next. It’s not about being perfectly in control, it’s about a practice that reins in some of your wilder oscillations.
Because what’s better than that puppy when she starts to walk in a straight line? Of course still stumbling and gamboling about, but less so, and definitely enjoying the return to center.