For several years, as I studied and practiced yoga, I would find myself moving from a yoga pose into picking up a dust ball I’d spied while in headstand or transferring the laundry from washer to dryer. My reasoning was that I was “covering the poses and getting in some time on that mat” and clever me — “multi-tasking at the same time!”
Oh! My restless mind has its own excuses for the vrittis ready and anxious to cover the truth of its own instability and wandering ways.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of short aphorisms which encapsulate the depths of mind training for the attainment of self awareness and avoidance of pain for oneself or others. Written about 2,500 years ago, the second sutra of the first pada or chapter is : “yoga chitta vritti nirodha” There are hundreds of translations. The BKS Iyengar one is: “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.” We can’t understand the words by the English translations though. One has to find the experiential reference from one’s own life. That’s the practice.
Steady, clear consciousness leading inward was eluding me as I flitted about from pose to household chores. If yoga is a meditation in the body on the body I was doing a mechanical poor imitation of anything approaching contemplation. I was “doing yoga” but I did not have a practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn from Full Catastrophe Living:
If the thought of how much you have to get done today comes up while you are meditating (or doing a yoga practice, I would add) you will have to be very attentive to it as a thought or you may be up and doing things before you know it, without any awareness that you decided to stop sitting (practising yoga) simply because a thought came through your mind.
Chores and the pressure to do and to act is only one lure off the mat. Many of us also question if we deserve the time for ourselves.
Kabat-Zinn again: “Taking time to ‘tune’ your instrument and restore energy reserves can hardly be considered selfish. Intelligent would be a more apt description.”
The terms used in yoga refer to things that have to be discovered and directly observed by the practitioner in his or her own experience. Yoga requires the minutiae of accurate observation of one’s thoughts, sensations, emotions and subtler elements. My friends and fellow yoga practitioners say, “This is the yoga of the mind.”
Patanjali espoused observational enquiry. He described the original Eight Limbs of Yoga where limbs five, six and seven are the wisdom of turning attention inward. He was interested in the meditation that would permanently and radically change the whole character of human consciousness. Not necessarily a quiet mind, relaxation or unusual states of experience. It is not to produce anything. It is to See. He refers to the Self as the Seer.
In the West, yoga of movement is especially relevant. Our sedentary lives demand that we move. And the tension stored in the body has to be released in order to quieten the body-mind. Most of us are conditioned to be out of our body and living in thought. The current obsession with youth and athleticism is a lure for some. Often students will say that the unexpected quality of stillness in the body-mind kept them coming back to the mat. Plus asana and pranayama (yoga poses and breath work) help conserve energy which can be brought to flashes of insight in meditative states.
Yoga is not just a psycho-physical experience in that sense — it has become spiritual realization. And if yoga is skill in action according to the Bhagavad Gita, India’s devotional poem (and one of Ghandi’s only possessions), then we are living yoga when any action is done skillfully, including thoughts words and deeds.
That’s a tall order! Start with baby steps. Next time you get onto your mat, notice where your mind goes. And patiently, over and over for as long as it takes, come back to the body, the breath and the Self.
Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.