I:II Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
Yoga — yes, that bendy Indian exercise regimen — is about much more than looking good in your Lululemon yoga pants, touching your toes, or even getting up into a handstand. That may take some people by surprise, but its critical for elevating the fitness craze taking the western world by storm into anything more than Crossfit for hippies. It’s benefits don’t just end with your body, but are actually primarily directed towards your mind, spirit and soul.
“Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind.” is the second verse in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an instructional text for classical yoga dating from somewhere between 5,000 B.C. and 300 A.D.
But what does it mean by “fluctuations of the mind?” Fluctuations of the mind includes all the thoughts, feelings, opinions, emotions, memories, misconceptions that barrage our existence on a seemingly endless cycle. And who wouldn’t hope for the cessation of those, if even for a little while?
How do we do it? Here’s some practical advice:
- Asana isn’t just exercise. It may take some casual, modern-day yogis by surprise to hear that yoga is anything other than physical exercise, let alone has anything to do with “fluctuations of the mind.” But that’s where it all started, renunciant forest yogis preparing their bodies for meditation. So use that weekly 90-minute vinyasa class, not simply to space out, plan your afternoon, or compare yourself to others, but to get simple and make space. Counting the breath, sending your awareness into your sensory perceptions of each pose, mentally reciting a mantra like “Om” are all tactics to infuse your asana (physical practice) with the quality of meditation which will gradually eat away at our incessant tendency to think and feel.
- Confusion is your ally. In his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle writes: “When you fully accept that you don’t know, you actually enter a state of peace and clarity that is closer to who you truly are than thought could ever be.” The fact is that we are consciousness. Though both thoughts and language can point to this consciousness, that consciousness is not the thoughts or language themselves. Therefore, not knowing (sometimes referred to as confusion) is a great landmark on our journey towards deeper spiritual awakening. Look for it and embrace it as a signpost on your path.
- Become mindful. Whether you do it sitting on a pillow each morning, walking down the street to work or during conversation, find opportunities to cultivate a habit of mindfulness: noticing the multi-faceted nature of the Present moment. Eventually, you will become able to even notice your noticing and begin to identify, not with the fluctuations of the mind (sensory impressions, thoughts, emotions, opinions), but with the purity of consciousness itself, giving the mind and its machinations the permission to rest.
- Surrender to God. Later in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali stresses the importance of Isvarapranidhanani – total dedication and surrender to a Supreme Being, in whatever form you choose to see him/her/it. In fact, this is the only “shortcut” to enlightenment, but it’s a tall order when you consider the extremity to which this could take you. It will reappear later as one of the niyamas, which — with the yamas — constitute ten ethical codes of behavior for yogis to practice. In short, though it is extraordinarily difficult for most of our modern-day self-reliant egos to give up anything, especially to something we can’t fully comprehend, it is essential that we continue to cultivate awe in the majesty of the unknown and embrace every shred of evidence we can find for the existence of a Supreme Being. Better yet, those non-evidential leaps of faith which bring us more deeply reliant on God’s grace. For the practical purpose of clearing the mental garbage, surrender to God can mean visualization, meditation, prayer, mantra japa (reciting the names of God), selfless acts, and much more.
So get to it! Expand your scope of yoga and invite a little cessation of the incessant thinking which predominates your daily life. The benefits are astounding.