Updated: Oct 4, 2021
8 June 2021
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Chapter 1 sutra #2
So here’s a question: why, exactly, are we practising yoga? The above translation of Patanjali’s second point in his Sutras (short comments or explanations on yoga) dives right in, and tells us that it’s so that we can still our troubled minds.
The term he uses to describe the state of mind most of us are experiencing most of the time is “chitta vritti” – mind chatter. If you think about it, it’s not surprising that this is the case given the constant proliferation of distractions, disturbances, information, opinion and general noise being directed right at us every day. We’re bombarded by so much information from social media, the press and advertising that we become mentally over-stimulated to a level that’s off the scale.
This information overload can be detrimental to us in many ways if we allow it to flood into our consciousness unchecked. Whilst the “information superhighway” can of course be positive, depending on what we are choosing to read and listen to, the downside of it is the potential it has to generate stress, pressure, self-doubt and even self-loathing, if we are not careful about filtering what comes our way. How much time per day do you spend scrolling, surfing or binge watching? According to an online review by www.techcrunch.com consumers globally now average 4.2 hours daily on their mobile phones, and that’s not including work-related activity. That’s up 30% since 2019. And it also doesn’t include time spent watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the net.
So what’s the solution, and how can yoga help? Back to Master Patanjali’s comment above. In it he is stating that yoga enables us to be quiet enough to get past the “noise”, so that we can access a deeper level of focus and consciousness. The first thing we need to do then, is to stop that darned mind chatter!
This is something of a personal interest of mine, as my own mind chatters an awful lot! This may come as a surprise to you folks, because I’m a yoga teacher – and most people assume that because I teach yoga I’m always in that Zen place of bliss, where the noise of the world doesn’t impact on me. If only!! In fact, not only do I have a lot of mind chatter to quieten (… did I feed the dogs this morning? … what on earth am I going to cook for dinner tonight … wonder if anyone really got what I was trying to say in class last night… etc.) but I also suffer dreadfully with “earworms”.
Earworms are catchy snatches of songs or tunes that your mind replays over and over again. As a long suffering earworm infectee, I can tell you that it is SO difficult to get rid of them, and I’m coming to the conclusion that my mind has an internal jukebox implanted in it. It can be the most random thing that pops up, at least daily, and mostly unbidden. For example today’s musical obsession is the theme tune from the old kid’s TV show “Champion The Wonder Horse”, following a random conversation I had with my partner yesterday. And to my horror, I still remember the lyrics and can hear them very clearly, over and over! Any Generation X yogis out there may sympathise: cracking theme song, but when played internally on a constant loop it’s a real head explosion. And before you dive in to help, I’ve already tried drowning it out with both the National Anthem and Happy Birthday, both recommended as earworm erasers – it simply doesn’t work.
So what to do? One sensible answer is: FOCUS. For me, focus is the key, and here, yoga can help on several fronts.
Focussing on our breath, whether in meditation or in asana practice, forces us to still the mind. Taking Tree pose whilst you’re mentally creating your shopping list? That will end up in badly lopsided tree, or even fallen tree if you’re not careful. Many yoga poses require concentrated, one pointed focus.
Another useful technique is to use our Drishti. This means gazing at a fixed point, which can be the tip of the nose, the point between the eyebrows, your hands (cf. warriors 1&2”) or an external fixed point in front of you, to name a few. Concentrate your steely gaze on that point and banish everything else from your mind.
Practicing with the right attitude that can also be a great help in focussing. For instance, embodying the spirit of the pose, for example channelling grace and poise in dancer’s pose, will enhance the ability to find “the zone” and enable better alignment, as well as inner and outer stillness.
Meditation and mindfulness are, of course, key to unlocking focus. They are in and of themselves a focussing tool. Advances in technology have been able to show the physical effects these practices have on the brain of consistent meditators via neuroimaging. Science has found multiple benefits of meditation and mindfulness, including as better sleep, increased energy, reduced symptoms of depression and enhanced immunity. The effect of these and other yogic practices on the parasympathetic nervous system are well evidenced; they are able to bring us from a high state of alert, which is “fight or flight”, to a much calmer and more peaceful state of “rest and digest”, which is the first stage of accessing that deeper level of consciousness which the yogis tell us is an important step along the path to bliss and oneness.
Keep remembering that practicing yoga isn’t just doing asana; to be able to claim one has a “daily practice” does not necessarily mean spending two hours sweating through a physical yoga sequence. Meditation and pranayama are just as much “the practice” as asana, and pay great dividends when you are committed to a daily practice of them. I know my earworm issues fade away when I’m meditating, particularly when using my own preferred methods of meditation, chanting and/or counting the breath.
There are many meditation and mindfulness forms you can explore to find the one (or ones) that fits you best. Just as with asana, it’s not a “one size fits all” situation. By keeping mind, body and spirit nourished with a balanced practice of asana, pranayama and meditation, we can all reap the benefits, as well as the sublime inner peace and stillness we uncover when the chitta vritti subsides. Find “the one” (way of mediating that works for you, that is), and practice it with the same dedication you give to your asana practice: your efforts are sure to be repaid manyfold.