Patanjali Sutra #2: What is Yoga?

Yogaschitti vritti nirodhah. (To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga.)

Vrittis. I just spent fifteen minutes (alright, more like 45) staring at facebook, lazily taking in photos and posts from my friends at home. We don’t get much free time, and there’s an insanely beautiful and unpopulated beach outside where I could be spending it. Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras at some indeterminate time in history, would say that’s my memory vritti acting up (or my procrastination vritti, or my indolence vritti because it’s comfortable and cozy lying here.)

Vrittis are circular patterns of the mind. Yoga (breath control, sense withdrawal and asana) is intended to block these circular patterns so that we create union with the True Self.

That’s why meditation is so powerful. For example, at this yoga training, I have really become fixated on mealtimes. I have less control over when or what I eat, and on some level this really distresses me. So, after breakfast, at the back of my mind is this constant tape playing, over and over, wondering what’s for lunch. (For you it might be a cocktail, or seeing your partner, or going to sleep – something you’re anticipating.) This recording, playing over and over, prevents me from being truly engaged in the present moment.

Today, we perform a pranayama (breathing exercise) called Bhastrika in preparation for meditation. After this breath exercise, I lose awareness of the recording playing in the background. I am able to sit still. Thoughts come up, but my mind is quiet and expansive and I am able to keep returning to that quiet place within it.

Shanti tells us about a nine month period when he was a young swami. He and seven other men performed Bhastrika three hours a day, twice a day. He said it made them “quite mad”, but it was ok to be “mad”, because they were in an ashram.

After three months of breathing this way six hours a day, the men were given the laborious task of gathering small boulders from the surrounding hills to block the flow of a flooding river. They spent all day running up and down the hills, carrying these boulders by hand, eating only one small bowl of rice midday. Sometimes at night, one of them would wake up and say “Oy; let’s get rocks!” And they’d all pile into a pickup and shoot off toward the hills to work through the night.

Shanti says that without this strengthening breathing technique, the men would not have survived. (He did mention that one did get “quite sick” and had to be put in a hospital.) The rest were living on the “pranic” energy Bhastrika had built up within them. “It’s amazing,” Shanti says, “that in modern medicine, we focus on the diet and exercise, but no one mentions breath. We live from the breath as much as we do from food.”

I asked Shanti later about the yogis I had heard about in the Himalayas who don’t eat at all, but he said he studied with a woman guru in a Himalayan cave for about three months and she did eat, just like the young swamis did, usually a small portion of rice once a day. .

But it’s true – my fixating on food vritti was quieted by just ten minutes or so of Bhastrika. And the more reminders I get that the True Self lies waiting quietly behind the constant patter of my distracting vrittis, the more meditation appeals to me, seems necessary even.

“Are any of you bored with this?” Shanti asks during the Yoga Sutras philosophy discussion, breaking into my distraction vritti as I sit daydreaming and staring out at pine trees green against gray clouds pregnant with imminent rain.

“I am,” I say, almost automatically. I enjoy the part about vrittis and the True Self, but then the discussion goes further into discussions about freedom of mind. According to Patanjali and other yoga scholars, freedom of mind is to become free of beliefs, likes, dislikes and even dreams, to the point of saying that actually nothing exists.

“I think things exist,” I say.

“OK,” he says. “It’s important to respect where people are, at any time. Even if you think they will change their beliefs.”


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