Integral Yoga master teacher Rev. Jaganath Carrera, the author of the book Inside the Yoga Sutras, shares his reflections on the first two sutras that are foundational to understanding the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the textbook on Raja Yoga. Rev. Jaganath’s deep study of the subject helps us to delve deeper into the timeless wisdom contained in this ancient text.
Let’s begin with a fundamental truth: everyone wants to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled. If you are completely at peace, if there is no lack in your life, if nothing has the power to make you sad, anxious or unsure, then, perhaps for you, the study and practice of the Yoga Sutras is not necessary, you are already living the goal. If, on the other hand, you feel there is something missing in fleeting occasions of joy; if you yearn to experience an abiding peace, are searching for meaning and a vision of life that will help you make sense out of the unexpected twists ands turns you face; or if you would like to bring your mind to a clear and focused stillness, then consider reading on.
The Yoga Sutras of Sri Patanjali is the science of joy and a blueprint for living a deeply satisfying life. It is a timeless spiritual classic whose appeal is founded on a profound and unerring understanding of the human condition. Not simply a philosophy, it presents a holistic system of practices that provide clear progressive steps towards the elimination of suffering and attainment of spiritual liberation. These teachings reach beyond age, occupation, gender and faith tradition. They touch the heart of the struggle to find peace amidst a world of uncertainties and challenge. They boldly proclaim that the joy we seek is within us as none other than our True Identity.
Inside Pada One —Samadhi Pada: Contemplation
We are about to begin a journey. There are two essential factors required to make any journey: we need to know where we are and where we’re going. Sri Patanjali wastes little time in giving us a destination—the goal of Yoga—in sutra two of this section. Where we are now—stuck in a misperception of our True Identity—is addressed by sutra three and in several sutras scattered throughout the text.
Sri Patanjali describes the various mental modifications that color the mind and offers several meditation techniques and hints for gaining and maintaining undisturbed calmness of mind. We’ll begin our study with the very first sutra in which Patanjali sets us firmly on the path of Yoga.
Pada One: Samadhi Pada
Sutra 1.1: Now, the exposition of Yoga.
Not later, not soon: now. If we wish to understand the principles of Yoga, our minds can’t be bogged down in the past or fretting about the future. With all other concerns at least temporarily put aside, our minds are free to be completely in the moment. The ability to focus attention is an important requisite in all areas of learning, but especially in spiritual matters, which contain subtle philosophical observations.
We can expand our understanding of this sutra by examining the words “now” and “exposition.” Atha, translated as “now,” was traditionally used to indicate the beginning of a course of study intended to remove doubts. In regard to Raja Yoga, the doubt to be addressed may refer to uncertainties regarding the validity of the science of Yoga.
Atha also implies Sri Patanjali’s fitness or authority to teach. He is calling the class to order, so to speak. Only a qualified teacher would do that.
The word anusasanam, “exposition,” was typically used to signal the beginning of the study of a subject that was either composed of commonly held concepts, or that was previously taught on a more elementary level. Considering this, it is apparent that Sri Patanjali was not claiming that his was a new teaching, but rather an explanation of what has been taught before. It is also reasonable to assume that there were certain givens that Sri Patanjali didn’t refer to when speaking to his students. It’s like a preacher who might not believe it necessary to define the Golden Rule or list the Ten Commandments when speaking to a class of seminary students.
We can now re-examine this sutra and imagine that Sri Patanjali’s students might have understood it as, “Be alert, stay focused, for any doubts you have concerning the timeless teaching of Yoga will now be erased.”
Sutra 1.2: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.
This is the heart of Raja Yoga. This sutra alone could form the basis of a lifetime of contemplation and practice. The four words that comprise this sutra are, in Sanskrit: Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. In this issue, we will take a deeper look at the meaning of “vritti,” or modification.
Vritti: literally to whirl, turn, revolve, to go on. It’s a colorful term that suggests incessant and maybe dizzying movement. It is the word that Sri Patanjali uses to describe the primary activity of the mind. A vritti is not simply a thought; it is the activity of forming conceptions from individual thoughts that arise in the mind. It is activity that takes place both on the conscious and subconscious levels of the mind. Vritti activity is the mind’s attempt at making sense of the experiences it encounters. It impacts our mental landscape by largely determining our perceptions of who we are and the world we live in.
Let’s examine how vrittis are born and the way they develop….The mind takes a solitary thought (pratyaya) and begins a tornado-like dance, rapidly weaving together webs of thoughts in a frenetic search for other related thoughts. Through a process of comparing, contrasting and categorizing, individual thoughts cease their existence as isolated bits of information and become part of a complex web of ideas, self-constructed conceptions of “reality” that build self-identity and our understanding of the world.
What this means is that our experience of life is largely determined by the nature of the webs we have woven. In a real sense, vritti activity is the practice of constructing and deducing concepts of reality from mental impressions.
Vritti activity acts like filters that can distort perception, selectively admitting and rejecting information. Our understanding of the world is limited and skewed by the biases and limitations that are built into and result from vritti activity. In other words, we project our conception of reality onto the screen that is Reality. When vritti activity ceases, when all thought processes are stilled, then every filter is removed from our vision and we perceive Reality in its entirety. In perhaps the most colossal “aha” moment a human being can have, we realize that we have been staring into the eyes and heart of Truth—almost assaulted by omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence all along—but have been allowing only bits and pieces of it into our minds.
Vrittis Encourage Identification
The obscuring power of whirling vrittis is only half the story. The real trouble comes when we identify with the “realities” our mind has woven. Identification with vritti activity obscures our experience of our True Self (see sutra 1.3 and 1.4). It takes us away from the objective truth of pure experience and involves us in the drama of the mind; the dance of light and shadows that is vritti activity.
In order for identification to take place, several factors are required:
- Ignorance: To be unaware or forget that our True Identity is the Purusha (Spirit).
- Egoism: The belief that we are the body-mind.
- Vritti activity: The habitual behavior of the mind to form or find relationships.
It is important to emphasize that vritti activity occurs under the influence of ignorance—forgetting our True Identity and then mistaking the body and mind for the Self (see sutra 2.5). The effects are much like being under the influence of alcohol. You are deprived of the ability to discriminate; to put ideas and experiences in the proper proportion. You lose mental clarity, judgment and suffer impaired reaction time.
Under the influence of alcohol, inappropriate and even bizarre behavior passes for normal. Under the influence of ignorance, we cannot experience our True Identity.
We lose our inner peace and any hope of finding Truth or the happiness we seek. That is why it is not an oversimplification to regard spiritual life as stilling the persistent movement in the mind and the cessation of the habitual identification with vrittis.
The Mess We Are In
What is stunning is that the version of reality that we have created through vritti activity is based on whirls of largely non-sequential activity, in which our attention constantly shifts (often rather wildly) among many different thoughts, beliefs (both true and untrue) and memories. You can confirm this for yourself after a few minutes of attempting quiet inner awareness.
For example, the act of planning a party for your uncle’s eighty-eighth birthday is actually a ride on a disjointed roller coaster of scattered thoughts. As you plan the menu, you recall that your uncle loves Italian food. Watch as the whirling begins: eggplant is nice it’s a nightshade I’m getting hungry aren’t nightshades bad for arthritis wasn’t there something on the internet about arthritis what’s that sound my back hurts I need a new computer I can’t afford one right now my sister makes great sauce maybe I should get a new job good, it’s almost lunch the economy is not doing so well we need a new president it’s a little chilly in here boy, summer is almost over I sure am hungry I should ask my sister if she can help maybe pasta is better I can’t afford a computer right now yes, pasta is better
All this, and much more, happens over the span of only a few moments. Just like some sci-fi, mutant, hyperactive super-spider mad on radioactive steroids, the mind’s incessant whirling weaves webs of conceptions from perceptions and memories.
Raja Yoga teaches us how to avoid getting snared in vritti webs. A spider doesn’t get caught in its own web because not all of the strands it weaves are sticky. It knows which ones are not and steers clear of them. The Yoga Sutras teach that vrittis that are not tainted by selfish attachment are free from stickiness. In a practical step-by-step process, we are lead out of the stickiness of ignorance into the freedom of our own Self.
The Purity of Sense Perception that Exists Before Vritti Activity
To understand how vritti activity affects perception, let’s examine a “before-vritti activity-begins” experience. Imagine yourself as a baby, having mashed banana as your first solid food. At that first taste, the senses relayed the taste, color, texture and aroma to your mind. At that moment, there was no sweet fruity taste, no yellow, and no banana aroma. Your eyes shone with wonder and curiosity when the fruit touched your tongue. You simply experienced it for what it was. You were in the moment, not influenced by biases, fears or preconceptions. In that moment, you truly knew the nature of a banana.
Great sages and saints of all times and traditions teach that to experience enlightenment, we need to forget all we have learned and become like a child. We need to regain the clarity and wonder of pure experience. This innocent awe is part of the greatness, the holiness, we perceive in Self-realized Masters. Their experiences of life— not colored by webs of thoughts—are direct, immediate and complete.
The Practical Side of Vritti Activity
Vritti activity gives us short-cut ways of dealing with the world of experiences. A cat sees a sparrow perched on a branch overhead. In the cat’s mind, the sparrow shape falls into the category of potential dinner. She instinctively gets ready to pounce. The same cat, upon seeing the mere shadow of a hawk flying overhead hunkers down and scurries to safety. In both cases, there is no analysis needed. Each bird’s shape fits into a category of the cat’s reality: one nutritional; the other a threat. It is easier to access information by category than be sifting though a vast multitude of individual random thoughts. It’s not the categorizing or correlating activity that ultimately is the problem, but the identification with all that activity (rooted in ignorance) that prevents us from seeing Reality as it truly is.
This brings us to nirodha, the final word in the sutra, which is the way out of the negative effects of vritti activity. Nirodha is both a process and a state. It has been translated as: restraint, cessation, restriction, suppression, prevention, control, and inhibition. The difficulty with these renderings is that they sometimes lead us to reduce its meaning to something like, “a forceful, mechanical halting of thought processes.” And since nirodha is usually associated with practices for stilling the mind; making it quiet, clear and one-pointed, the difficulty understanding it becomes compounded.
However, nirodha’s ability to still the activity of vrittis is not due to brute repression, but a process of selective focus: of attention directed to and held on, one object or idea. In this process, all other vrittis are naturally restricted from consciousness, breaking the usual routine of vritti activity. This frees the mind from the habitual patterns of perception that obscure the true nature of life and self. Freed from the conditioning of the vrittis, the mind begins to perceive everything in a fresh new light—to see things as they are. That is why practices such as worship, prayer, selfless service and study, that also rely on selective focus, lead to releasing the hold of the vrittis on the mind.
Since it is not the vrittis themselves, but our identification with them that cause us stress and suffering, our understanding of nirodha should include any process that ends ignorance’s hold over the mind-stuff. This understanding is reflected in Sri Patanjali’s description of perfection in nirodha. Note the difference in a mind with and without nirodha:
With nirodha: “Then the Seer (Self) abides in Its own nature.” (Sutra 1.3) A description of Self-realization.
Without nirodha: “At other times (the Self appears to) assume the forms of the mental modifications.” (Sutra 1.4) A description of spiritual ignorance.
Nirodha ends the suffering that accompanies misidentification with the body and mind; it brings to conclusion ignorance’s influence over mental functioning. After all, it is the body and mind that experience birth, death, disease, pain. The Self, our True Identity, remains forever pure and free, beyond the reach of the pangs of suffering.
Nirodha is best understood as a multi-faceted approach to mental mastery capable of transforming self-identity. How does this occur? Imagine that you have never seen your own face. You’ve heard that it is beautiful; you’ve read about it in scriptures. And now, you’ve developed a longing to see it for yourself. But you cannot see your face because it is the face that does the seeing. If you want to see your face, a mirror is needed to reflect the image back to you.
But to see yourself as you truly are, the mirror needs to be free of distortion and dirt. If you look at your reflection in a cracked, warped or unclean mirror, you won’t see your face as it is; you’ll see a distorted image. Perceiving that you are deformed, you become disheartened. Though it should be obvious that you are fine and that the distorted image is due to a deformed mirror, you persist in identifying with the reflected image.
Enter Sri Patanjali. He knows that our misery is caused by confusing the reflected image with the Self and begins to gently guide us out of ignorance. Perhaps to our surprise, he doesn’t spend much time talking about the nature of our face, but instead suggests practices to try. The practices gently but surely clean and straighten the mirror. As we persevere, the changes in the mirror cause the reflected image to change. Little by little a divine image emerges. When the mirror becomes perfectly straight, our face is revealed to us as it has always been. Sri Patanjali presents an appealing, time-tested path that is clear, practical and concise. Raja Yoga is a holistic approach to spiritual life that enlists all aspects of the individual in the quest for enlightenment.
Nirodha is Achieved Through a Holistic Approach
Raja Yoga is firmly grounded in holism. The practices reflect who we are physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually. To ensure success, we are encouraged to utilize and refine all our capacities. In addition to stilling the mind through concentration and meditation, we are offered many other approaches that engage all of who we are in the search for Truth:
Personal integrity: the cultivation of moral and ethical virtues
Social interaction: the dedicated service to others
The body: Yoga postures and breath control
The intellect: study and self analysis
The heart: prayer and worship
Nirodha Requires Informed Choice
In order for nirodha to exist, we must be able to exercise choice. We choose (sometimes with considerable effort of will) whether or not to study the Yoga Sutras, remain on the path or quit, get up for meditation rather than sleep in, tell the truth rather than lie, or give up personal time to serve someone in need. The heart and soul of everyday nirodha lies in making decisions which require us to refocus the mind on choices that further spiritual growth. In order to make sound choices, we need to examine our goal, our strengths and shortcomings and the path we hope will guide us to our destination.
The Goal. What is important to you? What is your priority? What do your past choices say about what’s important to you? Doubt about your direction leaves you vulnerable to hesitancy and half-hearted efforts. You need to be convinced that the goal you set before yourself will bring the benefits you seek.
Strengths and Shortcomings. Evaluate your past history to assess strengths and weaknesses. How many resolutions have you abandoned? Do you have a history of enthusiastic beginnings that soon fade away? Do you routinely exhibit patience? Are you known for being straightforward and truthful? The examination of past behavior is a good way to become acquainted with your assets and liabilities.
The Path. Become familiar with the path you have chosen. Does it reflect your deepest aspirations? Will it help you to grow in ways that augment your strengths while diminishing your shortcomings? Does it appeal to you mentally and emotionally? Does it inspire you? How have others fared on this path? Once you have gone through this process, you are ready to exercise choice in an informed manner.
Nirodha is Exercised by Redirection
The real secret to making progress in Yoga lies in cultivating helpful habits while breaking harmful ones. The way to develop new habits is the purposeful redirection of attention. The roots that make up the word nirodha suggest this. Derived from, rudh = to restrain, arrest, avert + ni = down or into, nirodha suggests “to avert into.” Practitioners of Yoga strive to restrain their attention from unyogic pathways by averting it toward endeavors that are consistent with the goal of Yoga. You could think of this process as retraining rather than restraining. (See sutras 2.33 & 2.34, on pratipaksha bhavana, the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.)
Training the mind is like training a puppy. Having a behaved and happy pet is accomplished by firm, loving redirection rather than harsh words or stern punishment. Good dog trainers know that averting attention from undesirable conduct and redirecting it to the desirable is the best way to create good habits. Every time we disconnect our attention from an unwanted temptation or habit and redirect it to something beneficial to our growth, we will have gained a little more mastery over our minds.
How Nirodha Affects Our Understanding of the World
It is difficult to know an object, person or event as it is because biases affect perceptions. It is as though we are looking at life through a grimy camera lens that has been improperly focused. Nirodha cleans and focuses our lens by stilling the vrittis that color our perceptions. Through a spotless, focused lens (a clear and steady mind) we come to know the nature of objects as they are. The mind naturally exercises its capacity to penetrate whatever is held steady within its focus.
Measuring Progress in Nirodha
Progress in Yoga is not necessarily characterized by daily mind-bending revelations. Instead the path is marked by small, but significant changes in how we act and react. Perhaps we will be more patient when cut off in traffic. Or we may find ourselves a little less fearful or anxious when speaking in public. Attraction to violent movies may be replaced with more tranquil diversions. Next Christmas, we might decide to reduce our gift budget so that more can be given to charity. Sages and saints are born from these beginnings.
There is one infallible sign of growth: we will be more peaceful and happy. Maybe not everyday in every way, but if our happiness were marked on a chart, the trend over a period of time would definitely be upward.
Source: Excerpted from Inside the Yoga Sutras by Rev. Jaganath Carrera, Integral Yoga Publications. Available from: www.shakticom.org and most retailers.
Reverend Jaganath Carrera is a senior disciple of Sri Gurudev and and Integral Yoga Minister with over 40 years of teaching experience in the various branches, practices and theories of Yoga. He has taught in the U.S.A. and abroad in universities, prisons and Yoga centers and has been a principle speaker and coordinator of many Integral Yoga Teacher Training Certification programs in Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and in meditation. He organized the Integral Yoga Ministry and has lectured at interfaith programs. He is the founder of the Yoga Life Society.