Fact or Fiction: What Do You Believe? A Dive into the Yoga Sutras

By Beth Hinnen

If there is one thing we start to see with Yoga practice, it is that thoughts constantly bombard our minds. Remember being in Paschtimottanasana for what felt like forever with a tornado of swirling thoughts, from that embarrassing event 20 years ago to what’s for dinner tonight? Not to mention how much more glaring it all became in meditation. With the mind being one of my great interests since I started practicing Yoga, this now is more understandable, given that current research, according to the Internet, suggests that humans have a thought somewhere in the range of just under one to a whopping seven per second. No wonder first-time yogis and meditators can walk away with a spinning head! Where does one even start to restrain the modifications, those vritti, modifications of the mind-stuff in order to experience Yoga, as Patanjali guides us in the Yoga Sutras? How can we move past the bombardment to have just one millimeter of space between thoughts?

To answer this, I distinguish between the two, vritti and individual thoughts, because in my experience, the brain has just one job, to create separate thoughts. In that way, I liken it to the heart, which has the sole purpose of circulating blood in the body. As individual thoughts are created, I imagine they can come and go “like clouds on a summer day,” a phrase often used in preparation for deep relaxation in Integral Yoga classes. Except, what tends to happen, is that one thought provokes a connection to another thought, which leads to an entire storyline that then gets blown up into a novel. Suddenly, deep relaxation is over in a second (at least it feels like that) because instead of letting go, I am caught up in, mentally experiencing, a whirlwind story and not relaxation.

For me, these vritti, or whirlwinds, are what happens when thoughts do not pass straight through the mind. The thoughts themselves aren’t necessarily the problem. It’s when they connect and build upon each other to create storylines that seem as real and believable as what is actually happening in the moment, that becomes the issue. For instance, when doing the dishes I may be caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts of what life would be like to never to have to do dishes again, how lovely that would be, how much time I’d have to do super important stuff, how soft my hands would be, and suddenly, my finger is cut by a knife. Being off in a whirlwind took me away from what is true, handling a sharp knife! Such whirlwinds are the vritti Patanjali would have us restrain. “But they (vritti) feel so real!” many a student (including myself) has remarked. And as devoted yogis, intent on restraining those vritti, we finally ask, “Are any stories or whirlwinds accurate, helpful? Which ones are harmful? How can I tell the difference?”

Enter Patanjali’s sutras 5 to11* in the first pada (or section). These seven sutras offer the very good news that out of all the billions (yes, billions) of whirlwinds a person can have over an average lifetime, each one falls into just one of two categories and into one of five types. Indeed, sutra 5 directly states that every whirlwind, no matter how long, involved, mesmerizing, horrible or fantastic, is either categorized as painful (leading toward suffering) or painless (leading away from suffering). So simple, so refreshing! And yet, there is a clue here that it will take some practice to see which is which as Patanjali did not say the opposite of painful is pleasurable. It turns out that vritti can convince us that a story/event is pleasurable when it is actually painful.

Let’s go back to washing the dishes. The whirlwind about having soft hands, and time to do other things appears pleasurable, though what it clearly led to was a painful event, a cut finger. Now, instead of being caught up in a whirlwind, if while washing the dishes I am present to every thought that arises in each moment such as, the water is hot (I add cold water if too hot); the dishes are dirty (I scrub a bit more); an unidentifiable object is at the bottom of the sink (I take my time to retrieve it); it’s a knife! And I carefully wash the knife without a single nick or scratch. Not only have I experienced a painless episode, I have also realized that perhaps the vritti are not true or accurate! The story that is woven from a simple thought may take a kernel of truth (I’m washing dishes) and lead me into a fantasy (if I weren’t washing dishes my hands would be soft, I’d be doing something important, this is not a lovely way to spend time). This fantasy vritti is telling me a story I have no way of experiencing unless I actually stop washing the dishes! However, if I attend to washing the dishes, I can experience a vritti (which may feel like a gentle, refreshing breeze) that is true, and includes the temperature of the water, the state of the dishes, an unexamined object. In this case, the true vritti is painless, and indeed, is simply bringing me information.

Which leads to sutra 6 where the vritti are broken down into five types, “They are right knowledge, misperception, conceptualization, sleep and memory.” These types can help us identify vritti as painful or painless, though not always, as we will see. However, Sutra 7 is fairly straightforward stating, “The sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and authoritative testimony.” The word “right” is a clue for pointing to painless vritti. However, it can be loaded with its own vritti, as what is “right” can vary from person to person! For me, I like to instead use “helpful,” “reliable,” “timely,” “accurate,” or even “compassionate” as a qualifier for knowledge. And to alleviate confusion later on, I will capitalize the word Knowledge, implying that Knowledge means it is “right,” helpful, reliable, timely, accurate, and compassionate.

So, going back to our dishes example, I gained Knowledge through direct perception when I attended to the dishes. Direct perception is my own experience. If I am off in a whirlwind about never doing dishes again, I am not experiencing doing the dishes. Not only do the chances of hurting myself increase, I actually never allow myself to see if I do like doing the dishes! Without being in a story, I may experience the warmth of the water, or laugh at the soap bubbles, or find joy from a dirty dish becoming clean, or feel gratitude for a sparkling kitchen. Which is why the word “direct” is critical to gaining Knowledge. If I do the dishes with any story in my head, it is not a direct experience. Only when I am truly present to the moment am I having a direct experience or perception.

Must that be the case all the time? Not according to the second source of Knowledge, inference, which has an indirect quality to it. A dictionary definition, “to draw a conclusion, as by reasoning,” leaves this source vague. Indeed, it almost suggests jumping to a conclusion. Rather, Reverend Jaganath’s Sanskrit interpretation* resonates with me: “the process of drawing a logical conclusion regarding an experience through accurate recall and assessment.” This clearly outlines a higher standard. If we go back to the dishwashing experience, perhaps my fingers brush the unidentified object hidden at the bottom of the sink (experience). Instantly I remember using a knife to prepare the meal, setting it by the sink to be washed (both recollections), and when I carefully touch the object again and feel smooth metal (assessment), internally I exclaim, “knife!” without seeing it or feeling its entirety per direct perception. Over time, with experience and memory (another type of vritti), my ability to infer can become more accurate and counted on as Knowledge. I may even begin to experience intuition, or insight, what I define as an instantaneous dropping in of Knowledge that might come from a Divine source or through consciousness simply piecing together facts gathered over time coupled with experience.

Which could be the very reason why there are three ways to obtain Knowledge. This way, Knowledge can be corroborated, backed up, verified; it is not subject to the whim of dogma or what is “right” at this point in history. And in fact leads us directly to the third source of Knowledge— authoritative testimony. By including this Patanjali states that we can rely on what the spiritual trailblazers ahead of us discovered and wrote down. These writings, collected as scripture, have stood the test of time because they resonate with each new spiritual seeker. Different words may be used (right vs. helpful), different parables or allegories told, but the concepts and lessons ring true, the directions and places being pointed to are valid, and new readers/seekers have a similar or exact experience that has already been pointed to, described, and practiced. Often, when we have a direct experience, or a flash of insight, we can read about someone else having had the same, or a similar one. And vice versa, we can read about others’ experiences which becomes intellectual knowledge until we actually experience that and it becomes Knowledge for us.

It is key then, to cultivate, use, and refer to these sources of Knowledge on the spiritual path. And yet, in my experience, the least regarded of these is direct perception, my own experience. How many times do I overeat at a buffet only to feel sick a few hours later? Why do I continue to do it? It’s the definition of insanity: repeating the same behavior hoping for different results. Simply put, instead of heeding my Knowledge gained from direct experience, I am listening to a vritti (I’m starving, I must try everything, I can’t let food go to waste!). That’s how powerful vritti can be, and why restraining them is the experience of Yoga.

So it is in sutra 8 that Patanjali gives us the definition one of those powerful whirlwinds that can lead to pain. “Misperception occurs when knowledge of something is not based on its true form.” Back to the dishes. Perhaps while I was so wrapped up in the never-do-dishes-again whirlwind I grasped the unidentified object at the bottom of the sink, felt metal, and mistook it for the soup ladle. Since I was not present until this point, I don’t remember I used a knife, I don’t remember I already washed the ladle. What I have is incomplete information, or misperception, as opposed to direct perception. This is the classic jumping to a conclusion. And it is so believable because it is based on a kernel of truth (both the ladle and the knife have metal). Possibly, this is the most common whirlwind we encounter; and it is very much a place of stories running away with us.

Are we doomed? Can we change misperception into Knowledge? Yes. We can practice patience; taking the time to find out more information with direct experience. We can practice presence, attending to what is happening in the moment, another way of gaining direct perception. A ripe place for misperception is in interacting with others. When we hear someone say something, before we instantly jump to a conclusion we can ask questions, we can clarify what they mean by what they said.

Which leads into the next pain-inducing whirlwind, sutra 9: “Knowledge that is based on language alone, independent of any external object, is conceptualization.” Here, there is no kernel of truth, no external point of reference, no basis of a platform from which to jump to a conclusion. This is pure imagination, subjective realities created from the mind’s incessant inner dialogues. Referring to it as lower case knowledge, this, in the vernacular, is gossip. I also see it as garbage in, garbage out. And yet, there are two places where conceptualization could be painless. In the creation of art; and in the use of visualization for healing the body. I project that art comes from a fantastical amalgam of experience, imagination/conceptualization, and Divine inspiration. It may not be true or accurate (novels, plays, paintings) and yet, we can resonate with the universal messages of human emotions, such as love, sadness, anger, disappointment, joy. This could be painless vritti as it connects us in common experience and reminds us, we are not alone. As for healing visualization, there have been numerous medical studies now that support whatever the mind believes, the body goes along with it. So if the mind’s whirlwinds are directed toward healing images, the body responds. Now that sounds like a painless vritti indeed.

Until now, the previous three sutras addressed gathering information (which may or may not turn into Knowledge). Sutra 10 addresses no input: “That mental modification which depends on the thought of nothingness is sleep.” Here the concept is dreamless sleep, the absence of any mental activity (i.e. no dreaming). This can also be experienced in deep states of meditation, where one can be conscious of this “nothingness” whereas in sleep, it is most likely remembered only upon waking. Such an absence of mental activity is a very healing state for the body and mind, lending to this vritti being painless. Recent research shows that the brain has its own lymphatic system that drains toxins over a six to eight hour period, adding to the importance of a good night’s rest.

Finally, we arrive at sutra 11: “Memory is the recollection of experienced objects.” This vritti is important as a learning tool. We remember how to drive a car, how to cook food, indeed, how to wash dishes. And yet memory can be affected by current vritti, and even more suspect, could have been affected by vritti at the time the memory was made. It is also helpful to consider that memories are built from all previous four sutras. So, is this a vritti that is painful or painless? Here is where discernment will be a useful tool. While memories keep stores of good information for future use, they can also keep us stuck in our ways, living in the past, and harboring ill-will far into the future. My practice with memories is the same as with emotions. I figure a memory can last anywhere from one to ninety seconds. After that, it’s a whirlwind that could be leading me toward suffering.

So how do we practice with vritti going forward? Focus attention on the sources of Knowledge: direct perception, inference, and authoritative testimony. And drop, yes drop, everything else. Then, when you do find yourself caught in painful vritti, start asking, “How do I know that?” Before long, the spaces between the whirlwinds will get longer, the whirlwinds will slow down to thoughts, and the thoughts can come and go “like clouds on a summer day.”

*All translations taken from Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Reverend Jaganath Carrera.

Beth Hinnen began her Yoga teaching path with the Integral Yoga Teacher Training Program in 2001. Afterward, she took the Intermediate, Advanced, Raja, and Prenatal trainings. With over 1,000 hours in Yoga certifications (including Structural Yoga Therapy), Beth taught in the New York City area for over 10 years, both privately and in classes. In 2013 she moved back to her native state, Colorado, to open a common-denominational spiritual center named Samaya (“right timing” in Sanskrit) following Sri Swami Satchidananda’s teaching, “Truth is one, paths are many.” She currently also studies Buddhism.

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