Yoga: The Settling of the Mind
The house where I grew up was at the end of a dead-end street in the rolling hills of southeastern Indiana. Below the house were three acres of unruly woods which ended abruptly at the edge of Hogan Creek, a tributary large enough to accommodate the recreational fancies of houseboat enthusiasts, water skiers and, in the wintertime, ice skaters. My favorite time of day there was evening. I loved sitting alone on the front step of our house watching the blackening sky, listening to cricket song and watching the lazy-flashing lightning bugs punctuating the darkness. Most of all I loved the silence. Inside the house activity ruled—conversation; the tones of flute, clarinet and piano; television. Outside there was only stillness and the deep blue-black sky sprinkled with starlight. Gazing at the sky I felt its vastness. Stillness enveloped me and I became peace.
Silence is what kept me tethered to Utah in my early years here. On my first trip to Arches National Park in April of 1983 I experienced true silence for the first time. In the early 1980s the park was relatively empty in springtime. This particular night there were only three or four other tents in the campground, pitched more than 100 yards from my own. As daylight faded I sat alone on a picnic table. In the desert landscape of southeastern Utah, no leaves rustle, no crickets sing. There was no wind this night. The silence was absolute, deafening. When a raven flew about fifty feet overhead I heard the rhythmic whooshing of its wings. Ecstasy flooded my cells, enlivened me. I knew then that Utah was my home. I did not want to venture too far away from this incomparable resource, the austere, silent beauty of the desert.
When I began practicing yoga asana in 1982 it was the stillness of mind I felt that first captured me. I enjoyed the increased flexibility and freedom from back pain that I noticed soon after beginning practice, but most of all it was sense of pervading peace that drew me to commit to yoga. I was aware that asana practice was embedded in a larger philosophy but I chose not to learn about it until much later. The benefits I felt then were enough.
In the late 1990s yoga asana (the practice of postures) became wildly popular in the West. What we call “yoga” in Western culture is more accurately termed “asana.” Yoga is much larger, encompassing all areas of our lives. Asana is one small part of the practice. Of the 195 yoga sutras, only three are concerned with asana.
The purpose of asana practice is to prepare the body for meditation, which is considered to be the heart of yoga. The physical practices are designed to refine the body, specifically the nervous system. Because asana practice has always been integrated into the schedule at Last Resort meditation retreats, I was able to see firsthand how this works. In the context of consistent mindfulness practice, asana is truly a joy. Careful attention allowed me to drop beneath the level of gross sensation so that I could experience and enjoy the subtle movements and energies in my body. Because asana unwinds musculoskeletal knots and promotes deep breathing, the practice makes sitting meditation much more comfortable. After asana practice the body feels light and clear, the mind calm.
As a companion to meditation practice, I have maintained an interest in the concepts presented in the Abhidhamma, the comprehensive text on Buddhist psychology. I learned what I knew of Buddhist philosophy by reading books by such wise and insightful Buddhist teachers as Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Thich Nhat Hanh, and through hearing hundreds of taped dharma talks by these and other Western teachers. These distillations of the teachings resonated profoundly with my understanding and my life. What I did not realize was how many parallels existed between what I had learned through Buddhist channels and the wisdom crystallized in the yoga sutras. When I decided to embark on a reading of the yoga sutras I found that much of what I already understood through meditation practice was written in the sutras.
Around 300 B.C. a sage named Patanjali codified the ancient, universal wisdom that is yoga. While the ideas presented in the sutras are likely a composite of timeless, universal wisdom that had evolved over the ages, Patanjali brought the concepts together into a definitive text that serves as a succinct almost step-by-step map of the inner journey of awakening. Written in Sanskrit, the aphorisms are short, concise and devoid of any literary coloration. Sanskrit does not accurately translate word-for-word to English, so translators have added their own interpretations to the text. Many Sanskrit words symbolize concepts that do not have direct English correlations. For this reason I’ve found it most helpful to use multiple translations in my own sutra study. Each different translation adds dimension to the meaning of each verse.
The entire volume of sutras is crystallized in the second aphorism. All subsequent sutras aim to define and explain the concept, and introduce all the methods of practice that lead to the state of yoga. Many years before setting my intention to study the sutras a teaching colleague repeated a translation of this single, defining verse. At that time the translation seemed very abstract and somewhat forceful to me and initially turned me away from pursuing yogic philosophy. Of course, this was rather shortsighted, but my interest had not reached the critical mass necessary to inspire me to take a closer look. Who knew there was more than one way of interpreting a sutra?
The definition of yoga, according to the sutras, as I understood it at that time was: “Yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations in the mind.” From my meditation experience I understood very well what those fluctuations were. I had met and become endlessly annoyed with the “wild monkey,” the traditional Buddhist metaphor for the untrained mind. Somehow the cessation of the monkey’s taunts seemed far, far away, if not impossible. It also seemed tantamount to clamping my consciousness down entirely. Later I would discover that while this was quite close to being an exact literal translation, reading other interpretations would help me understand and appreciate this sutra more fully.
The original Sanskrit for this sutra is “yogas citta vrtti nirodah.” In his scholarly volume, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Georg Feuerstein translates each word literally from the Sanskrit: yogas=yoga, citta=consciousness, vrtti=fluctuation, nirodah=restriction. Based on his direct word-for-word translation Feuerstein’s interpretation of the aphorism reads, “Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.” Feuerstein’s translation, which is remarkably similar to the first translation I heard many years before, became my ground for exploring this sutra. Subtle differences in wording—“restriction” vs. “stopping” and “consciousness” vs. “mind”, even “of” instead of “in”—gave my original understanding greater dimension. Still, I sought a translation that did not imply a closing down of mind.
Barbara Stoler Miller, author of Yoga Discipline of Freedom, offers this translation: “Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought.” The word, “cessation” gives a sense of greater ease to the sutra. In this translation, there is an implication that mental fluctuations can stop naturally without the imposition of force. The venerable T.K.V. Desikachar’s translation from his book, Patanjali’s Yogasutras, fleshes out the concept further. His take on the sutra is, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” Each translation adds a new dimension. For this reason I always read multiple translations of each sutra. A single author’s ideas do not always paint a complete picture.
Alistair Shearer offers the translation of this sutra that best suits my understanding. While not literal, this poetic interpretation distills the meaning of yoga in a way that fits with my personal yogic experience at this point in time. Shearer translates sutra 1.2: “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.”
I love this translation on many levels. First is its overall positive nature. In this interpretation yoga is achieved not by stopping something, but by a gentle, incremental process of release. I love the word “settling.” To settle implies relaxation into a state that is natural and inherent. Settling is a verb that suggests a process. It implies a gradual, continuous release, rather than the reaching of a static endpoint. Shearer’s translation does not tell us to look outside ourselves to find stillness and peace. That stillness is something we can settle into more deeply with each breath. The stillness is who we are, not something we must attain.
What is this stillness? We can touch stillness by visiting nature. Taking a hike or walk in silence with occasional stops to sit and enjoy whatever is present in our environment—the sights, the sounds, the feel of the earth beneath us, the feel of the atmosphere, wind and sun on our skin—helps to ground the mind in stillness. The desert is the epitome of stillness. A lake, glassy still on a windless day teaches us about silence. But sometimes even the quiet of the desert is disturbed. A silent lake is easily agitated by rain, wind and wildlife. Where is a reliable source of stillness to be found?
Stillness resides in awareness. My favorite metaphor for awareness is the sky—clear and infinite. No matter what disturbances appear in the sky, the sky itself remains unchanged. Clouds may pass through. Thunderstorms create temporary turbulence. Winds may stir up the atmosphere. Air pollution muddies our view. Light pollution obscures the stars. Yet the sky itself is not tarnished by these events. It remains vast, pure, impartial.
Awareness is exactly the same. Awareness is the quality, inherent to all of us, that can experience the careening of the wild monkey mind with all its emotional peaks and valleys, all its agitations and its wonderful illuminations, without relinquishing its essential purity. Awareness is vast and limitless, clear and luminous. Donna Farhi describes awareness in her book, Bringing Yoga to Life, as a screen onto which all our experience is projected. The screen is not the same as what is projected upon it. It simply reflects. This impartial screen is the core stillness that lives within each of us. It envelops and binds us all. The practice of yoga in all its aspects allows us to reconnect with and dwell in awareness, our essential being.
This story is an excerpt from a book by Charlotte Bell titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life. Charlotte is a yoga and meditation teacher, writer and musician who lives in Salt Lake City.