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Yoga Sutra 1.4 – You Are Not Your Thoughts

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Sutra 1.4

Vrtti-sarupyam itaratra

Otherwise, at other times, the seer is absorbed in the changing states of the mind.

The fourth sutra lets us know what happens when we fail to bring the mind to tranquility: 

We become falsely identified with the mind and its thoughts. 

Straightforward enough, right?!

Hold on there a minute. 

I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone reading these lines has been identified with the turbulence of the mind today. 

Let’s unpack it!

Did you miss the explanation of Sutra 1.3? Click here to read.

Table of Contents

It's worth recapping the sutras so far...

1.1 Now begins the instruction of yoga. 

1.2 Yoga is cessation of the thought waves of the mind. 

1.3 When we succeed in bringing the mind to stillness, the soul can abide in its own nature. 

1.4 When we fail to bring the mind to stillness, the perceiver becomes identified with the turnings of the mind. 

Thoughts are not the person

This sutra essentially states that we tend to identify with what arises in the space of the mind. 

The implication is that identifying with our thoughts is a mis-identification. 

That’s because thoughts obstruct perception. When the soul is un-clouded by thoughts, it sees reality more clearly. 

From very young, we are taught to identify with labels (like name, age, gender, familial roles). That conditioning leads us to identify with other labels, words, phrases, memories and emotions that arise in the mind. 

After a while we are so mired in the heaviness of thoughts that we completely forget our true nature. 

For example:

Are you... stressed?

Hello, stressed. Nice to meet you. 

Jokes aside…

When’s the last time you got swept up in a mind storm? 

A minute ago? Earlier this morning? Just yesterday? 

Even the monks among us are wont to be taken over here and there by the tidal waves of mind.


Try this...

Journaling Time:

  1. Start a timer for just 2 mins and make a list of the emotions or thoughts that tend to pull you out of your center. 
  2. Now look the list over and circle the one or two that tend to bowl you over the most (or the most dramatically)
  3. Next time this thought or emotion arises — even if you totally lose your cool — give yourself permission to chuckle. As in, “Whoa, there it is! The thought that makes me a total a-hole. It got me again, haha. Look at that.” 
It’s this detached curiosity and humor that will ultimately help you create space between the tidal thoughts and your true center. 

Subtler Thought Waves

The “tidal” thoughts described above are easy to recognize because they often come with big emotion that pulls us off center. 

We might as well be thankful for them because noticing them is great practice for dealing with the more insidious and subtler thoughts that pull us into misidentification. 

Now let’s turn our focus to the habitual self-defining narrative that runs through the mind in a given day — even if its contents seem harmless or positive.

Try This...

Journaling Time #2:

  1. Set your timer for 2 mins and answer the following question without overthinking it: “Who am I?” 
  2. Now take a look at your list and notice (without judgment) the answers that are surface-level (or the level of body/mind). 
  3. Next notice the answers that might be considered soul level. Circle these. Or for bonus points: Rewrite them artfully and carry them in your consciousness today. (Leave your answers in the comments down below!)

A few favorite translations of Sutra 1.4:

Isherwood and Prabhavananda: At other times, when he is not in the state of yoga, man remains identified with the thought-waves in the mind.

Mukunda Stiles: At all other times, the Self appears to assume the form of thought’s vacillations and the True Self is lost. (Note: Stiles’ actual text is printed in poetic stanzas not replicated here — worth buying for yourself!)

Sri Swami Satchidananda: At other times, [the Self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications.

Barbara Stoler Miller: Otherwise, the observer identifies with the turnings of thought.

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homework for the seeker

Two assignments for aspiring yogi.

1. A Contemplation:

What is the content of my soul (or my higher self)? 


2. Meditation Prompt:

Who is this who observes thoughts arising?

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8 Essential Sutras

To recap: Sutra 1.4

(When the mind is not quiet) the person mistakenly identifies with their thoughts.

Thoughts cloud the perception of one’s true nature. 

Awesome Versions of The Sutras

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