1.2 “Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind”
We can thank En Vogue for the title of this Blog. Back when it was released I was very much interested in freeing my mind, but through the pursuit of pushing it to its limits. These days I have realised life itself can push us to our limits, we don’t necessarily need to put ourselves in extraordinary situations! And while I would love to write a blog on prejudice towards others – the theme of the song quoted – this blog is more about self-prejudice.
For many of us, one of the main obstacles to living with peace and harmony is that we believe all our thoughts to be real and true.
We are victims and slaves to our own prejudice towards believing our thoughts. Prejudice is a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”. Many of our thoughts fit into this category! They have no basis in fact, and do not serve us in any way.
Our minds are like junkyards, full of unhelpful crap, with some real jewels to be found if we look hard enough.
For many of us, believing the thoughts that fill the junkyard that is our mind can be crippling. Thoughts about our own capabilities, lovability, intelligence, and general worthiness or thoughts about what other people are thinking get in the way of us living fully. We become paralysed by fear, self-doubt or confusion. At a certain point, we find ourselves so far down a rabbit hole of choices driven by believing these unhelpful thoughts that we need to do some work to find our way back to ourselves. To the version of ourselves that is light, joyous and – at least at times – free from this prejudice towards believing our thoughts to be fact.
If you are reading this and think “oh yes this is / was / might be me” then you have already taken a step towards freeing your mind from thinking thoughts = facts.
But for many of us we are so identified with these mental fluctuations and so prejudiced towards taking them seriously that often we don’t even realise what is occurring. We have accepted the diatribe our minds engage in about ourselves, others and our circumstances as our reality.
We need to free our mind, and what will follow is liberation from thoughts which directly get in the way of our happiness.
What does this have to do with Yoga?
In yoga terms, mental fluctuations are called vrittis. They are generally what brings us out of the NOW and into the past or future. Our vrittis are all different in flavour and intensity! They are deeply ingrained ways of thinking that then manifest in our behaviour and radically affect our life and ability to be happy.
‘Vritti’ also literally means ‘whirlpool’ – which is a fabulous way to describe the fluctuations of the mind. A whirlpool evokes images of swirling water that comes about because of the meeting of opposing currents. Whirlpools are a hazard, unpredictable and out of control. For some of us, our minds are like this too.
The second line of the Yoga Sutras reads:
“Yoga is the control of the thought waves (vrittis) of the Mind”
Or as my teacher Sri K Pattabhi Jois liked to say about Ashtanga Yoga:
“Ashtanga Yoga method is mind control method”
According to the Yoga Sutras we can consider one of the primary aims of yoga to be ‘mind control’. For most of us our mind is, at least sometimes, out of control. Indeed, depression, anxiety and stress are all fuelled by unhelpful thoughts.
We may be doing yoga asana, but find our mind is still out of control. This was the case for an old friend who explained to me a long time again that even though he was doing all this asana (at the time he was one of the world’s most physically advanced Ashtanga practitioners) the method wasn’t working and he wasn’t happy.
At the time, I was surprised. For me the journey of the physical Ashtanga practice has provided many opportunities for learning about the nature of mind. Yet I can also see that in a practice so focused on the physical that sometimes the more internal lessons might be lost, especially if people experience greater success at the asana than most might. It is a reminder that doing yoga asana is not guaranteed to free your mind.
What is important is what your mind is doing when you are practicing asana.
The mind needs to be trained. Otherwise it will wreak havoc on our lives! Primarily we need to loosen the grip our thoughts have on us, and undo lifelong prejudices towards believing our thoughts as facts. Mental fluctuations will always be present to some degree. Practice does lessen the power these thoughts have over us. But it is not magic, there is no quick fix and it does not happen overnight.
We have usually spent so much time identifying with the thoughts that we think we are our thoughts. We identify with them completely and limit ourselves through this association. This identification with the ‘vrittis’ shuts down possibilities to us for work, for love, for friendship, for joy, for happiness.
Identifying with our thoughts controls us in ways we don’t even realise.
For some people, there are intrusive thoughts or images which can feel overwhelming. Especially if you are a naturally anxious person, it is possible to live in fear of your own mind. Living with fear like this is no way to live!
Some of us act as if we are mind readers. We think of what other people’s reactions might be or over analyse what other people are thinking. This can cause a great deal of stress and impact upon our words, behaviour and general life choices. Identifying with this sort of ‘mind reading’ is a failure of logic because:
‘You DO NOT have ESP!’
You can’t know what other people are thinking unless you ask them.
Basically, Patanjali is telling us that to experience yoga, we must begin the journey of finding mental stillness and de-identification with the fluctuations of the mind. But we can’t simply stop thinking. Yoga is not about stopping thoughts, although the power of our thoughts over us will lessen the more we practice. Yoga is about becoming familiar with your thoughts and befriending them, without necessarily identifying them as true.
How can you begin to undertake the internal practice of yoga? Here are some practical suggestions:
Past or Future?
As you allow the thoughts to be present and return to your breathing as an anchor you can also allow yourself to observe the nature of your thoughts. To begin, when you are practicing yoga and connecting with the body and breath and the mind inevitably wanders, notice whether it has wandered to the past or to the future.
For me, it is the future. ALWAYS the future and never the past. Which way does your mind go?
Noting / Labelling
When you notice a thought dragging you away from the breath give it a label. What is the mind doing? It could be a whole manner of things including:
Without analysis as to why – simply say mentally what the mind is doing and then return to the sensation of the breath.
Having certain types of thoughts or themes over and over? It might be time to dispute these thoughts. For example, if your thought is “My boss is unhappy with my work that is why she was abrupt with me today” you can ask the following questions:
- What evidence do I have that my boss is unhappy with my work?
- Is there any evidence to the contrary (that my boss IS happy with my work)?
- How do I know my thoughts are accurate?
- Is there an alternate explanation for my boss being abrupt?
(if you find this process difficult, a psychologist is always very handy at talking this through)
Who am I?
Lastly, once you have noticed the nature of your mind, where it wanders, what types of thoughts are most common, and the way in which you mind read, jump to conclusions and general self-identify with the fluctuations or vrittis of the mind you can ask yourself the bigger questions:
Who am I?
Who am I without identifying with these thoughts?
Who am I when I let go of the story I am telling myself?
Once you well and truly know YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS you might (re)discover yourself and a life in which you have freed your mind, with great happiness and joy to follow. You will have begun to know the liberation that comes through the practice of stilling the thought waves of the mind …