The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 sutras, or aphorisms, that together constitute one of the foundational texts of yoga study. I was instantly fascinated by this sort of road map for yoga practice when I discovered it, and during my teacher training we were asked to memorize several of the passages from the first book. I was never very good at plain memorization, but if you sing something to me I’ll remember it for a lifetime. So each morning as part of my personal practice, I chant the first four:
1.1 Atha Yogānuśāsanam – Now, the study of yoga.
1.2 Yogaś citta vṛitti narodhaḥ – Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.
1.3 Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe’vasthānam – Then the seer abides in his own nature.
1.4 Vṛitti sārūpyam itaratra – In states other than yoga, the seer conforms to the modifications of the mind.
This physical ritual allows me to begin each day with the awareness and intention of new effort toward yoga, or union with the True Self and the universal consciousness. Like any ritual or prayer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of letting the words fall out of the mouth without meaning. But I have discovered that even on the days where I feel the most distracted, this simple practice becomes a way of re-grounding myself and re-committing to the work: “Now I practice. When the mind is still and calm, I will have found a state of yoga (union) and will connect will my eternal, peaceful self. When the mind is not in a state of yoga, I identify with ideas and thought forms that are not my real self.”
Whew, that’s a tall order. Consider how often the mind is running away with a thousand thoughts: I really need to fix that bookshelf. Is there money in the checking account for this? Did I turn off the oven? I need to take the dog to the vet. Traffic is so bad today. Ugh, that woman running looks so fit—I’m so out of shape. The car is making a funny noise. The house is a mess.
That bookshelf might be sagging, but it’s holding the books just fine. And if it wasn’t, would it really make so much of a difference if the books were simply stacked in a corner? Who is the bookshelf for? Is it for me to easily find my books or is it an ego-trip so that guests might admire my collection of reading materials? In traffic, I can either sit there gritting my teeth and feeling irritated, or let it go and accept that it’s where I’m at. What will be will be. And as for that lady I’m watching jog, I’m considering only her physical form and comparing it to my own. Making a judgment about her and myself based purely on the visual. Talk about putting yourself (or others) in a box, right?
In Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on the sutras, he writes that, “We cannot reach the goal by mere words alone. Without practice, nothing can be achieved.” So after the initial introduction in sutra 1.1, the entire collection is devoted to instruction on practice for achieving the state described in sutra 1.2.
I really wrestled with sutra 1.2 when I began contemplating it. I kept thinking, “But if the mind is completely still, the person is dead. No brain activity, no life.”
After turning that over in my head for a while, I was graced by a teacher and friend who offered a way of looking at it that I’d not considered. If we think of the mind as a sky, the thoughts become clouds. Some are heavy, slow-moving, and overwhelming, while others seem so light and transparent that they disappear from view before we have a chance to even consider their shape.
In yoga practice, it is not that we strive to make the clouds disappear or go away, but that we work toward expanding the sky. The greater the sky, the smaller the clouds seem. The more we expand our horizon and view of our place within the universe, the less the mind-chatter and false identification seem significant. It is not that these things no longer exist, we are simply no longer attached to them or focused on them as we once were. And in the stillness of that detachment we find yoga.
That kind of detachment and soft focus remain a challenge for me, but I try to appreciate and cherish the moments of stillness. I try to identify with how I feel in those moments, so that I can return there more readily in the future. And sometimes it’s only a fraction of a sliver more space added to the sky, but each day it is a reaffirmation that I am a growing, thriving being.