Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha.
This is the famous line from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written sometime in the early centuries CE. The Yoga Sutras are a defining text for the practice of yoga, taught on almost every teacher training.
For Patanjali Yoga is simply stilling (nirodha) the fluctuations (vritti) in our consciousness (chitta).
Fluctuations in Consciousness
So, what does it mean to have fluctuations in consciousness? For Patanjali, we become most aware of these fluctuations when we try to sit still in meditation. If you’ve ever tried it, then you will know how difficult it can be to arrive at a peaceful mind. From thoughts about what you’re going to eat for tea, to aches in the limbs, to daydreams – the mind seems incessant. The thoughts flow like the ocean and like King Canute, we seem powerless to stop them.
This idea of stilling fluctuations in consciousness is reflected in Buddhism too. On a Vipassana silent 10-day retreat, steps are taken to assist the stilling of the mind. Sensory stimulation is limited – there is no access to social media, phones, books, or even pens and paper. Participants cannot talk or even catch each other’s eye. Food is deliberately kept bland so as not to excite and also not to cause discomfort. Physical exercise is limited to walking, again as a way of minimising the impact on the Autonomic Nervous System.
What a Vipassana retreat does is provide the conditions for stilling consciousness as far as humanly possible. The fluctuations that then arise in meditation come not from the environment but from within. This is where the real work begins – for these fluctuations come from the unconscious, that part of us that usually lies hidden beneath our conscious awareness.
What Lies Beneath
For Patanjali, for us to have any success in Yoga, we must first become aware of our unconscious patterns, the imprint caused by repetitive actions, or samskaras. It is estimated that between 75 – 90% of our day consists of unconscious repetitive thought & activity. Some of these can of course be really helpful. It’s a bonus not having to re-learn to drive every time we get in the car. But many are detrimental to both our health and to our peace of mind. What we, as yogis, have to decide is if the samskara helps us balance (sattvic), or keeps us veering from agitation (rajas) to lethargy (tamas).
Our top unconscious pattern comes from our thoughts. Our habitual ways of thinking about the world, ourselves, the people around us. Over the course of the last few months, I have spent hours trawling through these very patterns within me. It seems like an endless web – just when you think you’ve cleared most them, a new thought pattern appears. And even when you think you’ve worked through and cleared a particular negative thought pattern, it will re-surface when you least expect it, and cause you to start digging for its root again.
When I sat for 10 days in silence at the Vipassana retreat, I was shocked at how angry and judgmental I got. As my own discomfort with the practice grew, I directed it at others, often super-imposing a story onto people I had never spoken to. I was hyper critical of the organisers, and scathing about the cleanliness of the premises. And when my anger achieved nothing, I defaulted to rebellious mode and started to test the limit of the rules.
This was of course a few of my unconscious coping methods playing out. When I’m uncomfortable, I have a tendency to blame others, or to direct my feelings outwards. Also, when I find something difficult, often I will call it stupid and rebel against it so I can quit in a way acceptable to me. For years, these default settings had been running (and often ruining) my life. In those 10 hellish days of having to sit and face myself, I started to understand.
Facing Our Hidden Self
The second most pervasive unconscious pattern we have to deal with is breathing – between 17,000 to 22,000 times a day. It makes the habit of smoking pale into insignificance. Patanjali actually recommended correcting breathing pattern disorders before attempting to work with thoughts. Very often our unconscious thought patterns influence the way we breathe via the nervous system. And, of course, the unique thing about the breath is that it is one of the few bodily systems that we can control and affect change in the other way. In other words, we can change the way we breathe, and change the way we think.
Posture is another unconscious pattern or samskara. Very often our posture is reflective of the story of our life. On a less grand scale, it is at least a result of the way we carry our self, moment by moment. Often the way we hold our self is unconscious. Until, that is, something goes wrong as a result of the way we sit and watch TV, or run, or look at our computer monitor. Poor posture can cause discomfort or lack of balance within the body which leads to fluctuations in our consciousness. Hence the need to balance the body in yoga asana.
Equally illness can often be the result of an unconscious habit, whether that is over-eating to kill boredom, drinking to dissociate from our pain, or suppressing anger. Sometimes in meditation a pain that we have carried within us for some time reveals an emotional source, rather than a physical one. Both illness and pain create huge fluctuations in our consciousness and rob us of our peace of mind.
This idea of clearing the subconscious in Yoga is often ignored in modern classes. People want to feel good immediately and aren’t so concerned about a deep dive into their unconscious. Any yoga class, even a purely body-based gym class, will, of course, have some bearing on our unconscious, by perhaps releasing tension from the tissues, or allowing a release from the nervous system.
But the lasting peace of mind that so many of us seek can only be found in the discomfort of stillness. In the endless hours of picking our self apart to reveal the truth. Patanjali and the Buddha both knew that. This isn’t sexy – this isn’t a contorted pose adorned with LuluLemon lycra and a tan from Bali. In fact, the real value of a contorted pose, prized by the Instagrammer yogis, would be for the yogi to ask him- or herself why they want to do the pose (and then post it online) in the first place. Yogas Chitta Vrittis Nirodha.
If this subject interests you, you might like to check out the work of Robert Masters. for example, his book Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You.