Patanjali is famous today for giving us Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbs that define the path of Yoga, and these are beautifully expounded in chapters 2 and 3 of his Yoga Sutras. But Yoga offers so much more that is of great benefit to the world, and this is especially true in the field of psychology.
Today many people are plagued by depression, mental disturbance, anxiety and distress, as a result of our complex societies, urban lifestyles, breakdown of relationships, and unnatural way of living that is out of sync with the circadian rhythms that are hardwired in our physiology. Circadian rhythms determine our optimal sleep and feeding patterns. Even the metabolism of our cellular energy follows the rhythm of the circadian clock. If we don’t follow natural rhythms, our cellular energy levels decline, as the mitochondrial network is impaired. As a result, lifestyles with irregular daily rhythms have been linked with various chronic health conditions, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. When we are swimming upstream against the current, when we choose a lifestyle that is out of sync with natural cycles, our system suffers.
Yoga offers us so much help to find balance. If we start at the very beginning of chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali starts by explaining what Yoga is:
1.1 Atha yoga anushasanam
Now, after prior preparation,
comes the discipline of Yoga.
1.2 Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of all the modifications
of the mind in the field of consciousness.
What does Patanjali mean by prior preparation? Generally we enter the path of Yoga only when we are totally frustrated with our minds as they are. We reach a point where perhaps we have had some major failures in life, when someone says, “Do Yoga to regain your health,” or when we are tired of being addicted to two things – the hopes and expectations we have for the future and the entanglements that bind us to our past. We no longer want to be slaves of the weight of the past.
This very human need to divest the burdens of the mind is the base of many forms of self-improvement, including western psychology. This instinct to free the mind and heart of burdens has been at the foundation of religion, philosophy, ethics, psychology, and also creative art forms like dance, music and painting.
And, actually, for those of you who still want to develop and hone your mental skills and knowledge, perhaps you need more preparation before coming to the path of Yoga. Why? Because Yoga is not a pastime. It is not a hobby or a fitness regime at the local Yoga Studio once or twice a week. True Yoga is for those adventurous souls who are ready to embark on a journey beyond the mind to the spiritual center of being. Along the way, the mind and heart are purified, they are ennobled, and they become supreme, and it is one of the amazing benefits that Yoga brings, but that is not its purpose.
Patanjali tells us that when we are really ready for Yoga, discipline is required, and what is discipline? Discipline means to be a disciple, and for that the most important pre-requisite is an attitude of willingness and openness to learn, to be a student, to accept that “I don’t know,” and I need help. It requires craving to know the truth, receptivity, humility and a sense of wonder. A disciple remains a restless seeker, seeking to understand the mysteries of the Universe. Without this attitude of discipleship, there is no discipline of Yoga.
This is one of the reasons why all the great sages and saints have praised humility, insignificance and innocence. Without these noble qualities, there is no discipline of Yoga, whereas with these qualities our consciousness is flexible and remains open. Like little children, we return to purity, letting go of all the modifications of the mind.
And what are these modifications of the mind? Patanjali’s descriptions and scientific codification of our mental processes are broader in nature than modern behavioral sciences and psychology, for one very important reason: because Yoga starts with the baseline of mental wellbeing, the balanced mental state, the original condition. There is no need for interpretation or analysis of this mental state, as it can be perceived by direct experience, scientifically, as a vibration-less state. It is the pure state of no-vibration that lies at the center of our existence, beyond consciousness. This pure state is Patanjali’s definition of Yoga, the ultimate state of stillness we aspire to experience. It was the starting point of our whole existence, before creation, and it can be our end point.
Patanjali then goes on to explore the reasons why modifications and related vibrations arise in our field of consciousness; anything that takes us away from that state of mental balance and stillness.
These mental modifications exist in all of us. While the details vary from one individual to another, the types of variations are part of the human condition. We can call them psychological deviations because they pull us away from that state of stillness at our spiritual center, the soul. The process of refining and transcending these modifications is what Yoga is all about, as we gradually elevate the mind and go beyond the mind.
A pure field of consciousness is still – well, almost still – with just the baseline activity of existence, and the soul is happy when we regain that balanced state, as we do in deep sleep. In contrast, the interplay of senses, thoughts, feelings and tendencies draw us into the world of outer experience and activity, creating various energetic patterns in the field of consciousness. The soul is also happy with movement, provided there is purity and lightness, and constant fluidity between underlying stillness and activity in the field. So in Yoga we do two things:
Turn the attention inwards to stillness, and
Refine the focus and type of outward activity so that our thoughts and activities are conducive to evolution, happiness and balance.
We cannot stay in total stillness all the time or we would be dead, and Yoga is also all about skill in action. So how to bring stillness into activity? I have written about this in an earlier article on “The Stillness Paradox.”
This combination of stillness and activity brings peace and joy, which is the quality of the soul. When the waves of the vrittis settle and we are calm, as happens during meditation, we see our true nature, and then we can externalize this reality in all our activities.
The modifications start out as natural, normal functions of the human mind, the vrittis. They are the whirlpools or vibrational patterns that are created in the field of consciousness as a result of living, feeling and thinking. Patanjali describes 5 of them: right thinking, wrong thinking, imagination, sleep and memory.
As a result of these patterns in the subtle field of consciousness, our neural pathways develop cognates or patterns that are hardwired into the nervous system, and repeatedly over time they result in behavioral habits and tendencies. What starts out as vibrational patterns in the subtle body’s field of consciousness, goes on to affect the mind, our behavior, our nervous system, and eventually all our other physical functions.
The next step in this process is when the vrittis develop colorings, altering our perception and leading to confused thinking and a ‘colored’ or distorted view of reality. We no longer refer back to the center of our being, our soul, as the guiding light, and instead start using the mental faculties on their own without the heart’s superior guidance. We are now one dimension removed from the source of wisdom, and this is accompanied by a tendency to think things through, rather than feel what is right in any situation. These colorings or mental impurities are known as kleshas, and Patanjali also describes 5 of them: ignorance as a result of veiling reality, mineness and egotism, attachment and addiction, aversion and repulsion, and clinging to life through fear of death.
As these mental patterns become hardened over time, they eventually become obstacles to our overall wellbeing and distract us from succeeding in both worldly and spiritual pursuits. Patanjali describes 9 such obstacles, which are known as the vikshepas: illness and disease, mental laziness and dullness, dilemma and indecision, carelessness and haste, laziness and sloth, inability to abstain, false perception, failure to attain the next stage on the journey, and failure to maintain that stage. I would like to add a few more to Patanjali’s list of vikshepas, which are relevant in the modern context: guilt and shame, fear of missing out (FOMO), and digital distraction.
Accompanying these obstacles are symptoms that are the expressions of the perturbed mental state we have created by moving so far away from our balanced center of still consciousness. These symptoms are the 5 vighnas: physical and mental pain, despair and depression, trembling and nervousness, and irregular breathing – both inhalation and exhalation.
In this series of articles, we will explore all of these mental modifications that Patanjali describes, as well as some of the practices that help us transcend them. Yoga is actually the pure science of the inner being, and Patanjali was a scientist of the highest caliber. Unlike most spiritual teachers, he was not mystical. Instead his legacy is based on practical experience. His description of the mental modifications in the Yoga Sutras is really the first written codified treatise on psychology, and as such deserves its due recognition.
While Patanjali beautifully described and codified the process of developing mental complexity and illness, and the need to return to a simple pure state of consciousness, he did not offer us a set of simple practical methods to remove the complexities and return to simplicity. Neither did anyone else, until the 1940s, when Ram Chandra offered the world a set of simple, effective practices to reach the pinnacle of human existence, available to everyone, everywhere, free of charge. This has revolutionized Yoga to an incredible extent: first as a means to become balanced and happy, and second as a means to fulfill a human potential that goes far beyond this physical realm of existence. The expansion of the practical, experiential base of inner awakening to consciousness has been the important evolution of Yoga during the last 150 years.