Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of thought waves
What absolute GOLD we have here! If I could only teach ONE yoga sutra forevermore, it would surely by Sutra 1.2.
As one of my favorite commentaries points out:
For a keen student, this one sutra would be enough because the rest of them only explain this one.
That’s Satchidananda. And let me tell you… Over the years as a yoga teacher, I have taken this sutra to heart.
May we never ever forget that the enterprise of yoga is about discovering who we are when the mental chatter dies down.
Let’s break it down.
Did you miss Sutra 1.1? Click here to read.
Table of Contents
Citta: The Mind Field
A quick summary of citta could call it “the field of the mind.”
But I’d like to shed a little more light than this.
Citta is said to be made up of three major components.
Importantly, these range from dense to subtle — one of them being closer to the soul consciousness than the others.
Here's the list:
Buddhi: The Lens
Buddhi, the subtlest aspect of citta, can be thought of as:
It’s the part of the mind that sees distinctions.
Buddhi gives rise to the human capacity to perceive one object as separate from another. This capacity gives birth to the functions of sorting, categorizing, ranking, and judging — among other functions of awareness such as will, according to Sutras scholar Edwin Bryant.
As the subtlest aspect of the mind, it is the most closely connected to the soul.
One can imagine that consciousness and therefore the soul itself has no content of its own. Buddhi then introduces a lightweight faculty, that of discernment.
It is thanks to buddhi that the soul can begin to experience itself.
Ahamkar: The Veil
Also spelled ahankara, this is the aspect of mind that creates the “I.”
Buddhi sees separateness and ahamkara says, “This separateness is me!”
“…I am different from others. I am this and not that.”
Ahamkara is a denser aspect of mind than the intellect because it solidifies the experience of separateness.
Ahamkara paints the illusory veil that keeps the soul in forgetfulness of its true nature.
Suffering then can be traced to the fog of ahamkara and the illusion of separateness it creates.
Manas: The Temptress
The densest aspect of mind, manas, connects the perceiver to the 3D material reality.
It is within manas that the world of the senses is perceived. For this reason, thought waves that arise within manas keep the perceiver bound to the phenomenal world.
If buddhi perceives an errant baseball headed directly into its field, ahamkara says, “That baseball is headed toward ME!” Manas then says, “This is going to hurt! This is traumatic, and I’m going to remember this for a long time.”
Manas As Mediator
The information about the baseball is passed all the way back up to buddhi which then determines the necessary course of action. In this way, manas acts as a liaison between the sensory world and the higher aspects of mind.
Manas can also be thought of as the reactive aspect of mind. That’s because it gives rise to aversion, attraction, and desire, which are themselves colored heavily by emotion.
Book 2 will offer a deeper look at these obstacles.
Its saturation in the feeling-world makes manas alluring in itself. Manas tempts the soul to remain mired in the world of density, physicality, emotion, and drama. If ahamkara is a veil, manas is a heavy velvet curtain.
When the yogi undertakes the project of stilling her thought waves, manas is the first layer she must reckon with. It’s like being caught in a body-sized spider web and trying to unstick oneself.
Later in the sutras, Patanjali describes pratyahara, the process of becoming disengaged from the senses. Pratyahara then is part of the means of clearing the field of manas.
Vrtti: The Thought Waves
The root vrt means “to turn.” Vrtti refers to the turnings of the mind — or to thoughts themselves. I also think of vrttis as turbulences — sometimes big, sometimes small.
If citta is a wide open field of tall grass, the winds of vrtti bend the grass this way and that.
A favorite visual: Mind as a body of water
If the mind can be thought of as a perfectly placid expanse of water, vrttis or thoughts are the choppy waves and crests that disturb the glassy surface and depths below.
The vrttis themselves will later be divided into 5 types which are discussed in Sutra 1.5
The Soul As a Crystal
A favorite metaphor of commentators over the years is of a crystal.
If the pure awareness of the soul (or purusha) were a crystal, then objects of perception cast their colorful shadows onto its surfaces, creating the illusion that the crystal itself is full of color.
Naturally, the soul mistakes itself for the reflections arising in consciousness.
Yoga is created when the mind is so clear that it casts no color upon the crystal and the crystal then shines forth as itself.
Nirodhah: Restraint or Control
Nirodhah is a stilling, termination, or ceasing, in this case of the turnings of the mind.
In my own teaching, I have found that the directive to “control” or “restrain,” carries with it a heavy charge. When a student is asked to restrain or control, there is naturally a gripping or an agitation that comes along with this heavy order.
One can imagine a student trying and trying till they’re blue in the face. Unfortunately, this kind of effort and the anxiety it produces creates a state that runs counter to what is really being asked.
For this reason, and at the risk of getting myself on the wrong end of a finger wag, I prefer to teach the directive of “nirodhah” as more of a “relaxing into” one’s natural state (of mind).
When we try too hard and grip too tightly, we tend to miss the yoga when it happens!
The state of “no mind,” or of “getting behind the mind” is quite a natural and easy state. It’s just that we have to create opportunities for it to arise.
A Favorite Example of Stilling the Mind…
Are You Already a Yogi?
If you were lucky enough to have had a childhood with at least a few moments of easygoing play, you might remember an experience like this one:
You are lying down under the shade of a tree on a beautiful blue-sky day. You are comfortable as you look up at the sky, your arms wrapped behind your head.
After playing all day, your mind has run its course, and now you lie here content.
You gaze at the sky and view the passing clouds.
From your vantage point, you possess no age nor gender. You are not worried about future events. You are not rolling past events around in your mind.
You are simply and wholly here.
You are viewing the sky and its passing clouds. The matter is no more complex than it is.
This is a state of yoga — beautiful and profound in its simplicity.
It is a state that adults too easily forget. They assume it must be far more complicated than this.
Further, the average practitioner tends to expect the state of yoga to be unreachable, a gift that only the world’s most rarefied sages and mystics have access to. This is not so.
Every human being has access to the state of yoga. As we will see, yoga begins when the practitioner starts noticing moments like this one under the tree. Eventually, the practitioner sustains a continuous and uninterrupted state of childlike wonder — the soul experiencing itself.
A few favorite translations:
Edwin Bryant: Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.
Mukunda Stiles: Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.
Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda: Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Sri Swami Satchidananda: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.
Two Pieces of "Homework" for the Aspiring Yogi
1. A Contemplation:
What would my life be like if I took Sutra 1.2 to heart in all moments of my life?
Hold the questions lightly in your heart this week.
Journal if that feels helpful but it is not necessary.
- Do fears arise? What is their content?
- What tends to distract you from the project of clearing your mind?
- What would it look like to carry out your household duties whilst living in a state of yoga?
2. Meditation Prompt:
When a vrtti (any thought or thought-form) arises, say internally, “Huh, there’s a vrtti” with all the detachment of someone shrugging their shoulders.
Set a timer and practice this for 5 minutes.
Try it several times throughout the day.
Build and build until you can notice the turnings of the mind in as many moments as possible without being pulled into their stickiness.
8 Essential Sutras
To recap: Sutra 1.2
Yoga is the cessation of thoughts.
If we practice this whole-heartedly, we need no more instruction!
If we have trouble arriving at this state of mental clarity, well then…
The remaining sutras will give us step-by-step instruction toward the goal.
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