Most weeks, I teach Monday and Wednesday “Basic Asana + Mindfulness” classes (9:15-10:30am MST), and generally introduce a philosophical concept based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (more on that in another blog post) before we start our practice of asana (postures). If you are lucky enough to request a recording of the class, you’ll get a little overview of the philosophical concept not only in the recording, but also in the “description” which is shown just below the actual YouTube video. Have you joined a class, or, if you’re already an online student, requested a video and read the description recently?
For the past six or so weeks, we have covered concepts from Sutras 1.4 – 1.12, regarding the “fluctuations of the mind”, which are meant to be settled through the practice of yoga. I thought you might like to read, learn, or review them in my words here, as taken from the notes written after each class and posted with the class. I hope this is helpful for you to learn a little about the Yoga Sutras, and to learn about how the mind works, according to the science of yoga. (My writings are based on study of the writings of B.K.S. Iyengar, Nikolai Bachmann, and Alastair Prentice.)
Five types of fluctuations are outlined in the Sutras, and are described below, in relation to the content of each class.
- “Pramana”, or correct means of evaluation, means literally, “to measure or gauge what’s in front of us”. Three types of Pramana are described: Pratyaksha, direct perception or firsthand knowledge, based on experience; Anumana, or inference (literally, “measuring after”), meaning to infer information based on what is perceived (where there’s smoke…); and Agama, or reliable testimony from a trusted source. As learners, we move from third to first type (i.e., the teacher tells us about a new concept based on their experience of it, we practice it and we get to know it as our own, and we finally achieve a clear knowledge of the concept through our own experience of it). Pramana can be positive or neutral, if that which is perceived is accurate and does not cause fluctuations in the citta (heart-mind); however, it can also be negative or harmful, if that which is perceived is accurate, but causes fluctuations, such as witnessing a violent event. This can cause illness/suffering, and can create deep, longstanding traumatic patterns. As we practice the postures of yoga, how are we developing our skills of pramana, or correct means of evaluation?
- “Viparyaya” means “misunderstanding” or, as Alistair Shearer states in his transliteration of The Yoga Sutras, “Misunderstanding is the delusion that stems from a false impression of reality.” The antidote to misunderstanding is admission of misunderstanding, seeking of clarity, and acceptance of a new, different meaning, aligning with the “pramana” of that which is perceived. In this class, we practiced a variety of extended twisting postures in several relationships to gravity, as well as some ankle and shoulderblade mobility, and put it all together in the spirit of “yoga” (yoking), to investigate the concept of viparyaya. As we work within the asana, we discover where we have misunderstanding, and seek to create clearer understanding of ourselves and our experiences through this dedicated physical practice. Since the body is how we experience the world, it is a great tool for learning about how we relate within, as, and through it.
- “Vikalpa” is the third fluctuation of the citta (heart-mind), meaning “imagination” or “delusion”. Vikalpa can be helpful when it leads to new, helpful discoveries and achievements – this is imagination in action – but can be harmful when it is simply turnings of the imagination without a basis in reality or without resulting in a positive action. The physical practice involved basic standing poses, with an overriding theme of expansion without undue effort. Through the physical practice of yoga postures, we determine whether what we imagine we are doing is actually what we are doing or not. The use of the props in our yoga practice often provides concrete, immediate feedback about our delusions, as can the teacher’s feedback, when offered skillfully. This can be quite eye-opening, and requires an open mind to accept new information that may bring us to a different relationship with our reality. Vikalpa is a great indicator of our presence in, relationship to, and widely varying concepts of “reality”.
- The fourth fluctuation of the citta (heart-mind), is “nidra”, or sleep. Five types of sleep are defined in yoga writings: waking, dreaming, deep/dreamless, and “turiya”, or beyond sleep. In discussing nidra, we also discussed “rajasic”, or disturbed, sleep, “tamasic”, or lethargic, sleep, and “sattvic”, or clear, sleep, from which we rise fresh. This led to a lively discussion of antidotes for sleeplessness, as most students agreed that they had difficult relationships with sleep. The physical practice involved using props to simply develop awareness and maintain it in a particular place, then practice the same pose without the prop, and discover the difference in our ability, our attention to and our experience of the pose. In the experience of savasana, corpse pose, students follow guidance to bring them into a semi-sleep, a state of sattvic nidra.
- The fifth week, we focused on “smrti”, or memory, which is the fifth of the five fluctuations (vrittis, turnings) of the mind. Do we always recall things as they happened, or is our memory of an occurrence sometimes clouded by our emotions, desires, and expectations? The physical practice involved awareness of our backs – that which is behind us – as we consciously created inequality, practicing a long sequence of asymmetrical postures on only one “side”, acknowledging the distortion that resulted, and then taking action to reduce the distortion by completing the sequence on the second side, to create an awareness of where our present meets our past through the practice of twisting poses.
- In the last class of this series, we wrapped up our study of the vrittis by returning to Sutra 1.4, which states that “Our essential nature* is generally overshadowed by these fluctuations of the mind”. This sutra precedes the sutras regarding the five vrittis (fluctuations of the mind) which mentioned above. By returning to it here at the end, we brought our attention to not only the activity of our mind, but also to how our thoughts, when directed and focused, can help us achieve a stillness, a settling of the mind into quiet, which allows our turning inward, to glimpse our divinity*. From that inward turning, or “involution”, as B.K.S. Iyengar calls it, we can then turn outward again to take positive action in the world, while not forgetting our true nature*.
Here are the relevant sutras, in order, as translated by Alistair Shearer:
1.4: Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.
1.5: There are five types of mental activity. They may or may not cause suffering.
1.6: These five are: understanding, misunderstanding, imagination, sleep, and memory.
1.7: Understanding is correct knowledge based on direct perception, inference, or the reliable testimony of others.
1.8: Misunderstanding is the delusion that stems from a false impression of reality.
1.9: Imagination is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance.
1.10: Sleep is the mental activity that has as its content the sense of nothingness.
1.11: And memory is the returning to the mind of past experience.
1.12: These five types of mental activity are settled through the practice of yoga and the freedom it bestows.
*”Divinity”, “true nature”, “essential nature”, “seer”, and other terms for Purusha are some slippery concepts that can lead us quickly and easily to the land of viparyaya. They will be discussed in a further writing, along with other topics, so stay tuned! If you will read these, I will keep posting them. Your comments and feedback are welcome, as long as it is constructive.