July '08 Practice Notes

Yoga Sutras 101:
Quieting the Mind
by Lauren Cahn

The practice of yoga dates back way more than two millenia, although it is believed that the "rules of the game" were set down by a yogi and sage called "Patanjali" around 500 B.C. Patanjali means, literally, a sage that was dropped from the sky. He is credited with writing the "Yoga Sutras", which are widely considered to be the "Bible" of yoga, or for non-religious types, the yoga "Constitution".

"Sutra" means "thread" (think: "sutures"), and the Yoga Sutras are a series of short Sanskrit statements on what yoga is, and how we are to practice yoga. According to the Sutras, quite succinctly put, "Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." Or, to put it another way, the practice of yoga is the practice of quieting the chatter that we hear in our heads.

This chatter in our heads is a constant running commentary based on all of our stored up memories, dreams, perceptions and experiences (including those accrued from past lives, if you are inclined to believe in reincarnation). But the Yoga Sutras tell us that this chatter is not who we really are. Rather, the "self" is actually the observer of all this chatter. When we talk to ourselves, it is our mind talking, but the "self" that is listening.

The self has been there since our birth (and perhaps even before our birth, again, if you believe in reincarnation, which is essentially, the recycling of the self into a new body upon the death of the old one), since before we had language, since before we had experiences that imprinted on our minds. The self has no imprints. It always remains the same - pure and untouched. The self does not merely perceive reality; it is reality. The self exists before and beyond subjective experience.

As the events of our lives unfold, our mind processes the events, creating thought. The mind begins to identify with the thoughts as if the thoughts were truth, itself. The self is obscured by the identification with these thoughts. It's like a lake that is perfectly clear, so that you can see all the way to the bottom. That is the self. The wind blows, causing the water to ripple, causing the sand on the bottom to swirl. The bottom is no longer visible. That is the self as obscured by the fluctuations of the mind.

The practice of yoga is, essentially, the calming of the waters, bringing the bottom back into view. But just as the water of a lake can never be fully calmed, our minds cannot be stripped of their ability to think, perceive, experience. Yoga is not the process of creating a "numb" mind or eliminating all of our thoughts. Rather, yoga is the process of learning to not identify with our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences, of not confusing those things with "reality".

Thoughts, emotions, experiences, even perceptions are transient. They come and they go and they come again and then there they go -- poof. They cannot be the "self", because the self is a constant. Through the practice of yoga, we can come to break our identification with that which is external, recognizing it as external, entirely outside of our control and entirely separate from our true nature, the "self".

So, what does any of this have to do with bending like a pretzel or balancing on our arms or doing seemingly endless sun salutations? The answer is that asana practice, the physical practice, makes the body fit for the practice of yoga. A fit body is a better instrument for connecting with the self. Laziness, illness, discomfort - these are obstacles to the practice of yoga. Practicing asana helps to lessen these obstacles. In addition, asana practice serves as a distraction from the mind's chatter.

Next time you take a yoga class, notice what happens to your mind as you practice your asanas. Notice, without judging, how the mind's chatter seems to recede, even if only to a small degree, allowing time to pass without notice, allowing you to forget what you were stressing about before class began, allowing you to forget that you were thirsty or tired or worried...these are signs of the self emerging. These are signs of practicing...yoga.

Lauren Cahn is a long-time yoga student and sometime yoga-teacher living in the wilds of Westchester County, New York. Lauren writes on matters of yoga and spirituality on the Huffington Post and on her blog: Yoga Chickie. A former attorney, she has also published articles on art and the law. When she's not bending her body or words on the page, she's out in the garden, or hanging with her two pre-teen boys.

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