abhāva pratyayā ‘laṁbanā vṛttir nidrā

Sleep is necessary. Sleep is good.

Sleep should only happen when we’re sleeping, though.

The state we can attain during our humdrum ordinary day, that sense of disconnection and withdrawal from the world around us–this is what we want to avoid. This is insulating us from our truest experience.

The cultivation of attention, the sense that we have of our intention and engagement with the world, this is what we want from our yoga practice.

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śabda jñānā ‘nupātī vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ

I think we all have a friend, perhaps more than one, who has a story, or two, or three.

Especially if the story is a good one, often repeated, and we’ve known the teller for a long enough time, we get to see how it has increased in the telling. We can observe how small details shift, and the significance of the story becomes even greater, and the teller’s part in it more central.

We can see, in other words, how unreliable narration can be, and Sutra 1.9 reminds us of this, saying, “A story that is not rooted in truth is delusion.”

It is not to say that stories are without value. Even a moment’s contemplation will reveal that it is just the opposite–stories can bring us together, can inspire us, can help us forge connections and bridge divides. Some sort of Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.” recitation is unlikely to achieve that.

But it is for just that reason that we must also remain skeptical of stories–because they also represent a way we may be manipulated, either by others, or by ourselves. How many of us have forwarded some email recounting some story detailing some misuse of authority, or some heart-warming episode, only to find out later that it’s a fabrication? How many things you’ve been forwarded that make your blood freeze or boil have turned out to have their own entry on Snopes?

Don’t dismiss the value of stories, but don’t let them distract you from what is real.

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viparyayo mithyā-jñānam atad rūpa pratiṣṭhaṁ

Wrong thinking stems from mis-perception.

It would bore and depress me to try and enumerate or meditate upon all the ways we as humans get things wrong–we show an amazing mastery at it, and the consequences are often dire.

Instead, I will direct you to ZeFrank, who has a wonderful story of people united by the realization that their feelings, so deep and personal, were shared by others–because it seems to me that the mis-perception that lies at the heart of so much suffering is that we are alone, that our pain cannot be understood, that no one can sympathize.

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pratyakṣā ‘numānā ‘ ‘gamāḥ pramāṇāni

What is right thought? Right thought is direct perception, deduction, and scriptural testimony–that is, the things you have experienced, the things that you can reason about and the ideas that have endured the test of time.

These all sound like good things–they are ways to try and see the world as it is, which is part of the fundamentals of yoga–so how could these be manifestations of the vrtti? This xkcd cartoon would seem to sum it up:

Being right can easily put us on a path of distraction, when we need not just to be right, but to be acknowledged as right; ultimately, when we decide to impose our will on the world around us. The more sophisticated our practice, the more we understand freedom in our bodies and in our hearts, the more we realize that we can never impose freedom, that we can only try to help others see how they are limiting themselves. They have to find their freedom themselves.

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pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smṛtayaḥ

Right thinking, wrong thinking, vision, sleep and memory.

These are the things we mistake for what is.

We often seek mediation between our experience and…our experience. A path to “understand” rather than simply being in the experience. We seek reasons and justifications for what is happening, we cultivate a vision of why it’s happening, we try to escape in in sleep and memory.

But in the end, the experience is what is.

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vṛttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭā ‘kliṣṭāḥ

Our illusions come in five varieties, some of which are painful, others painless.

The important thing to remember in all cases, though, is that they are, ultimately, illusions. Our imagining winning the lottery may make us happy in the short term, but in the long term we will likely be hurt when we do not win. Remembering a departed loved one may seem painful initially, but if they passed after a long illness, perhaps we will come to see that it was a blessing that they were released from suffering.

Ultimately, though, these states of pain and pleasure are transitory. They are not our true state of being. When we vest importance in them, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

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vṛtti sārūpyam itaratra

When we’re not resident in the Self, we reside in our fantasies.

This is really stating the antithesis of the prior sutra–if we’re not able to rein in our imagination, to distinguish it from reality, we cannot reside in our Self. It could literally be no other way–either we reside in truth, and can connect to our Self, or we reside in fantasy, and must necessarily be disconnected from our Self.

This idea, that yoga is the practice of seeing things as they are, of distinguishing between our desires and reality, can be interpreted in a way that suggests that our imagination–which is often an expression of our desires–are wrong. I take exception to that idea–the power of imagination has changed the world. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and with that dream he worked to change the world–but I believe he always remembered that the dream was not the way the world was, and when he acted, he acted from a place of being grounded in truth. I believe this is where he was able to find compassion even for those who tormented him.

Simply put, to be effective in realizing our desires, we have to distinguish between what is, and what we want. Without this distinction, we cannot succeed, because you cannot navigate from the place you are at to the place you wish to be–you’re reading the map incorrectly. You’re trying to get from Belgium to New York City, but you’re actually starting out in Weehawken.

But never abandon your imagination. This is the engine of desire, of transformation.

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tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānaṃ

“Then the Self abides in its own true nature”

Why still the fluctuations of the mind? How is this going to help us? The fluctuations of the mind warp and distort our view of the world. When we find a place of stillness and immediacy, we can see the world clearly. Even more importantly, we can see ourselves clearly.

It reminds me of an old joke:

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician were on a train heading north, and had just crossed the border into Scotland.

The engineer looked out of the window and said “Look! Scottish sheep are black!”

The physicist said, “No, no. Some Scottish sheep are black.”

The mathematician looked irritated. “There is at least one field, containing at least one sheep, of which at least one side is black.”

The yogi is like the mathematician in a way: rather than making the assumptions of the engineer, or even the physicist, letting the reality be obscured by assumptions, distractions and fantasy–memories and dreams and how we wish the world to be–we try to let go of all of that to observe things as they most truly are. This is at once mundane and profound.

The relationship of this to the asana practice seems to me straightforward–we put ourselves in a position where it is hard to become mired in the unreal, by working the body in a way that demands as much of our attention as we can muster. With no capacity to spare for anything but this present moment, we start to train ourselves to have that sort of focus, and eventually we can start to bring it off the mat.

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yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind”

Why inhabit the present moment? To begin to let go of our fantasies and see the world as it truly is.

For me, this isn’t the stopping of thought. Certainly some schools of yoga encourage this–an attempt to step away from the world entirely, to transcend and escape it. But few of us have the luxury or the calling to step out of the world. Instead, we have to find our practice alongside the everyday aspects of our life.

Rather, for us, it is the cultivation of a clear focus on the present moment, and what it demands of us, and the ability to step beyond what we fantasize and do what is truly within our capacity.

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atha yogā ‘nuśāsanaṃ

“Now begins the study of Yoga”

I’ve been told (though I don’t know to what extent it may be true) that in all the ancient texts, the yogis would start with the single most potent word that, if you truly understood it, would render all the rest of the text superfluous. Certainly in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, that first word, now, seems to hold the key to everything else.

Some people approach the yoga practice as one that is subtle, mystical and esoteric. While I respect their interpretation, for me, the practice of yoga–the complete practice, not just the asana practice–is an endless attempt to inhabit the present moment. What yoga has shown me is that this moment is the only real thing. What matters to me is my actual experience, which is mundane and concrete. Projecting our consciousness backward and forward through time, with memory and fantasy, may help inform our experience in this moment, but it is ultimately this moment that matters.

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