I love looking at the historical texts of yoga to learn more about its essence. Somewhere between 500-1500 years ago a sage named Patanjali wrote down for the first time a system of yoga that still exists today in a book called The Yoga Sutras. He likely wrote down what had already existed for thousands of years through oral teachings handed down from one master to the next. In 196 threads of information he offered the world a system of yoga that purified the mind, body and spirit in order to find oneness with all that is.
The first two sutras are a brilliant reflection of how this all works and relays how yoga really is an inside job. The other 194 sutras basically just try to explain what is stated straight away.
YS 1.1 Atha yoga nushasanam.
Essentially this says that right now, this perfect present moment, is the time to practice yoga, or discovering the union with our highest selves. “Atha” is the very first word in the whole book and in this one word we can understand it all. “Atha,” the now or the present moment is the only place we can experience true yoga. It is asking us to get out of our own way by letting go of the past and all the habits and conditioning that we have developed from previous experiences. And to stop fretting about the future. The eternal now is the only moment we have control over. When we visit the past or the future, the only way we can do it is through the mind (I’m pretty sure the time-machine hasn’t really been created yet.) 😉
The second sutra defines what he speaks of in the first sutra, yoga.
YS 1.2 Yogas chitta vritti nirodhaha.
A common definition is “Yoga is the restraint of the mental modifications.” What the heck does that mean? Have you ever noticed your mind and how it is jumping from thought to thought in less than an instant? The mind is constantly on the move. The ever-changing thoughts are the “mental modifications.” And the practice of yoga comes through self-control of all this movement. One minute your mind is friendly, supportive, focused. The next it’s worrying about the dishes, the future of our country and your next vacation which you could really use right now.
This definition of yoga has zero to do with your body or the postures we practice in class. It’s all about the mind. The mind can either be our best friend or our worst enemy. Just think about how your mind talks to you. Would you ever choose to say those things to another human being? Most likely not. Our minds can be cruel to us and like to be in charge. Yet, yoga asks us to discipline the mind so You hold the reigns.
Circling back to how we practice yoga today, we like to focus on the asana. What is different between a really great physical yoga practice and one in which you struggle through the class? Yes, tight hamstrings and injuries might have something to do with. But, more than that it is our mental relationship to those challenges that can either create ease or resistance. The mind is what makes our practice really great or really not great. So, even us modern yogis that practice mostly physical asana get this definition of yoga. That’s the beauty of it all! We get into the mind no matter what our practices look like!
The mind effects all aspects of who we are. And we are the ones that get to choose where the primary influence comes from. Is it the outer world that is constantly in flux? The world in which we have no control over what is happening? If our focus is constantly outward, your mental body will reflect that constant change and feel like it is always stirred up and irritated. You are always looking outward to solve your problems or to blame someone or something else for your struggles.
The mind is the gateway that either allows the light of love to shine brightly from within into the world or it is the barrier that blocks that same light and keeps us in the dark. The mind is considered to be the middle layer of the five kośas, the manomayakośa. We’ve discussed the innermost two layers, the wisdom body (vijñanamayakośa) and the bliss body (anandamayakośa) which surrounds the true self. On the other side are the outer two layers, the energy body (pranamayakośa) and the most tangible layer of the physical body (annamayakośa).
If on the other hand, we allow our focus to be on the wisdom, joy and light from within, we feel more steady and in control. We know where true happiness comes from. The world only gives fleeting happiness. The light of the soul and being connected to our highest selves is how we develop a constant state of joy. When the mind is focused within, we are steady in our selves and the ever-changing world has less effect on us.
This all may sound easy – just turn your focus inward and everything will be great. Please know that this is a practice. We have strong habits that keep our minds wanting to go back to old ways of being (in yogi talk they are smaskaras). It takes discipline and willingness to develop the muscles needed to stay steady on the path. But, the great thing is that you are in control of this “work out”. It is your mind. You are the one who gets to work on making it better. Every time you come to your yoga mat or sit down for meditation or anything else that helps you calm your mind and feel connected to you is strengthening the muscle of inward focus. Then, notice when you’ve lost your way or gotten sucked back into the same old patterns or the negative energy you get from watching the news, or anything else that feels like it knocks you off your center. Then take a deep breath. Pause, and consciously choose a new way. You really are in control.