Patanjali begins the yoga sutras by defining yoga as “citta vrtti nirodaha”(YS 1.2) which is often translated simply as ‘Yoga is the ability to calm/direct/restrain the fluctuations of the consciousness/mind’. Patanjali then says that when in this state of yoga, the perceiver (person) then abides in his or her own/true nature. So the question then becomes – HOW do we calm or restrain the mind to achieve this desired state of yoga?
Well the simple answer is: do your yoga practice. Simple. Just keep doing a regular and sustained yoga practice and all will come – as the late Sri. K. Patthabhi Jois would say. But we are creatures of wanting to know everything and sometimes the simple answer just doesn’t cut it!
Patanjali actually describes the five fluctuations (functions) of the mind (or five vrittis) to help us better understand the workings of the mind. He says these five vrittis can be painful or non-painful. They are:
- Valid Cognition (Pramana)
- Misconception (Viparyaya)
- Imagination (Vikalpa)
- Sleep (Nidra)
- Memory (Smriti)
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. Valid Cognition (Pramana)
What determines whether knowledge is valid and correct? Well, we know something is valid if we ourselves have experienced something and can use that knowledge, right? For example, using our 5 senses, we can say that we know what water is, because we have touched it and experienced it before and we have practical applications of water because we use it to clean ourselves and to hydrate our bodies. So in this case, we know the knowledge of water is valid because it is revealed to be water based on our experiences and it has a practical application to us in life. So Patanjali says, for knowledge to be valid it needs to:
- Reveal the thing as it really is
- Be useful – have a practical application
It is true to say that we can often be deceived by our 5 senses. Think of a mirage. You may believe to see water in the distance – it appears to be water, however the water does not actually exist. The perception is real, but the outcome is incorrect or impractical. So Patanjali says that in order for knowledge to be valid it needs to be perceived not only by the five senses, but it also needs to have a practical application. For example, a bookkeeper’s knowledge is completely invalid or impractical to the knowledge of a doctor or vice versa.
So how is it that we acquire knowledge?
- Direct Experience (pratyaksha): using our five senses (acquiring knowledge directly through the environment)
- Inference (anumana): our ability to apply logic and reason to figure things out for ourselves. For example, you may see smoke in the distance coming out of a mountain so you may infer that there is a fire.
- Trustworthy Testimony (agamah): trusting in the knowledge and experience of someone else. For example, I know factually that oxygen and hydrogen create water although I cannot personally figure this out for myself scientifically and it is not something I would have known if I had not have been told. However I can experience water and I trust my teachers in the subject (scientists) and their motives and so based on this, I believe their knowledge is valid.
It is important here to note the importance of something called anubhava in the process of acquiring knowledge. Anubhava refers to the assessing of knowledge to your personal experience. So although someone can verbally pass knowledge onto you, anubhava is about experiencing this knowledge for yourself in some way that brings life to this knowledge. For example, someone may say to you “You should do yoga, it’s so good for you!” and this is knowledge you may acquire but really this knowledge is lifeless and empty unless you experience first-hand that yoga is good for you by attending yoga classes for yourself! So as I mentioned earlier about valid cognition (pramana) – knowledge is valid IF it is valid to your personal experience too!
2. Misconception (viparyaya)
The second function of the mind (vritti) is misconception. Misconception is false knowledge based on the deceptive appearance of that object. We may like to think that we go through life seeing things objectively but in fact, we see the world that we want to see. The Sanskrit word for ‘the world’ is prapancha –pancha meaning five senses and pra meaning perceiving through – so basically the world is what we see through our perception of the five senses. An example would be a group of people looking at the same tree. What do they see? Based on their own likes, dislikes, interests etc, they will see different things. For example, an artist will see a potential painting, a carpenter sees potential crafty possibilities, an environmentalist will contemplate the environmental benefits of the tree and a child will see it as something to climb and explore! So a tree is not simply what we see with our five senses – we see what is relevant to us which is conditioned by our own biases.
So our thoughts (vrittis) can be knowledge that is misconceived… the goal of yoga is to calm these vrittis; so when they are calm we can start to see things for what they truly are instead of what we perceive them to be.
3. Imagination (vikalpa)
Our imagination function operates on a more subtle level than the previous two functions of valid cognition and misconception. Imagination is an idea that we create in our minds. We actually can convince ourselves of a truth when in fact it is not true at all! Other translations of vikalpa are: doubt, indecision, daydreaming. To explain this further, if we tell ourselves that we are wonderful, amazing, capable etc… then we live our life believing this about ourselves. However if we tell ourselves that we are failures, useless worthless and unsuccessful, then our mind believes this and your life will be a reflection of this! So this function of vikalpa or imagination can heavily influence you – causing happiness or suffering in your life.
We can create an imagined world for ourselves based on our way of thinking. We can create an imagined world without contemplation of the facts. This ‘power of positive thinking’ may appear new age, however the yoga sutras has been teaching for thousands of years the importance of controlling the mind! Through this control, we can liberate ourselves from suffering.
4. Deep Sleep (Nidra)
Nidra is commonly translated as “deep sleep” or “state of emptiness”. In nidra, the mind is directed inward, operating at a very subtle level. We all know how important sleep is to our overall health. You only need to have one poor night’s sleep, suffer from insomnia or have a newborn baby in the house to appreciate how important deep, restful sleep is for our mental and physical well-being! So how do you feel after a good night sleep? Refreshed and ready for the day. What about a poor, disturbed or simply, not enough sleep? This can negatively impact your mood and ability to concentrate during the day. Observing how well the mind operates after a good or poor night sleep helps you make choices that are more beneficial to your health around your sleep habits. For example, do you watch TV to help you fall asleep? Play games on your phone? Read a book? Listen to music? It’s a good idea to assess your own sleep habits and reflect on the kind of sleep you have when you use certain stimulus to aid in the sleeping process.
In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says that “deep sleep is when the mind is overcome by heaviness and no other activities are present” (YS 1.10). So basically when the mind is not in the first three virttis (valid cognition, misconception and imagination), then it goes to sleep. Sleep is a common activity for the mind and there are optimal times for sleep such as when the sun goes down. But this heaviness can occur due to boredom or exhaustion, stress or other reasons may result in the mind going to sleep! Some people sleep to ‘escape the world’ due to their worries and anxieties.
B.K.S Iyengar says that “sleep is the non-deliberate absence of thought-waves or knowledge”. The Yoga Sutra 1.10 has also been translated as “deep sleep is the absence of reasoning, the absence of other thoughts and all other modifications of mind are suspended” or simply “sleep is a process based upon the absence of cognition”. So in nidra, or deep sleep, the mind is not conscious at all. Due to it being an unconscious state of mind, we cannot explain this experience of ‘dreamless sleep’ as we never experience it. We can only guess that we had a good or bad sleep but there is no awareness of deep sleep itself. Nidra is actually noted as the activity defined by non-activity!
Using ancient yogic meditation techniques called ‘yoga nidra’, it is possible to experience deep sleep consciousness… this is often described as a ‘conscious deep sleep state’. If you haven’t tried yoga nidra, be sure to come to a yoga class or download some yoga nidra tracks and listen to them while lying down in relaxation. It really is a consciously relaxing experience!
5. Memory (Smriti)
The Yoga Sutra 1.11 is translated as “Memory is the mental retention of a conscious experience” or “memory is a recollection of experienced objects”. All conscious experiences leave an impression on the individual and are stored as memory. It is not possible to tell if a memory is true, false, incomplete or imaginary. Just think about the retelling of a past event – different people will recall different ‘facts’ and sometimes you may disagree on the details based on your own recollection.
On the most obvious level, memories can bring you pleasure or can stir you up to feel angry, sad or agitated. But on a deeper level, memory can influence your present situation more than you might realise. For example, the memory of a bad experience may keep you from starting a new relationship, taking risks or living fully in the present moment. Memory’s influence also shows up in some of our closest relationships. Have you ever caught yourself saying things about someone like “he is untrustworthy”, “She is always late”, “She is able to handle anything” and this is all based on the memory of your experience with that person.
Memory at times can prevent forgiveness. We may hold onto some painful memories which prevent us from letting go and in a way, our memories can ‘steal our present moment’. By holding onto certain impressions, this can prevent us from experiencing the now…without bias, judgement or criticism.
We are the sum total of all our experiences. So the vrittis (mind functions) including smriti (memory) are considered memory because all thoughts create lasting impressions. So it can be said that smriti is memory of memory! Every memory creates an impression in the mind and these impressions, whether they lead to suffering or freedom need to be controlled in order to abide in our own true nature- in the state of yoga.
So what does this all mean?
Basically, Patanjali describes the five functions of the mind to ultimately help us reduce our suffering. By being able to recognise these functions and learning how the mind works, this is the foundation to seeing your true nature as separate from the mind. Almost like stepping out of yourself and observing the functions of the mind, without being attached, upset or frustrated…just simply becoming an observer. Once you are able to observe without reaction, you will be able to more easily differentiate the mind and all of its fluctuations from your true nature. Patanjali says that “through sustained practice and the cultivation of dispassion, these fluctuations of mind can be stilled” (YS 1.12). So as I said at the beginning of this post, the simple answer to calming the mind and achieving a state of yoga is through regular and sustained practice! Do your practice… and your life will unfold the way it is meant to!