Yoga is awareness. However, when trying to be fully present in daily life, most of us discover that we keep getting distracted. If you find that many distractions keep pulling your attention away from presence, you may try the four word summary offered by Patañjali in Chapter One, verse two of the Yoga Sutra:
योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः [1.2] yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ
This sentence consists of four words. When separated into individual words, the sentence becomes yoga citta vrtti nirodha.
Most interpretations of this sutra say that yoga is the control, suppression or cessation of the activities, turnings or waves of the mind/consciousness. The dictionary definitions of the four words in the original sutra add additional perspectives to these four seemingly simple words. In Sanskrit each of these words has several meanings. The word “yoga” is the word with the largest number of different meanings. Some of the meanings of these words include:
The combinations of these four words can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We can try to incorporate these meanings into an all-encompassing interpretation of Patañjali’s definition, such as:
Yoga is a method, consisting of tools for removing dysfunction and relieving discomfort, by bringing together our intentions, goals and actions at the level of heart, mind, memory and intelligence, through monitoring and regulating our tendencies, character and ways of behaving.
Although a bit long and unwieldy, this definition includes a good selection of the meanings of the four words in Patañjali’s definition in a way that, arguably, can be put into practice. However, a simpler interpretation may be better, because complexity invites ambiguity and offers many ways to get distracted. So, a more condensed definition could be this: Yoga is attending to and integrating our heart, mind, memory and intelligence. Or, we can try an even more succinct definition by saying,
Yoga is regulating our ways of being
If you have ever tried to concentrate on anything you may have noticed that some distractions keep taking your attention away from this moment. For instance, you may have found that the posture you originally thought was pretty comfortable is not too comfortable when you stay in it for several minutes. Or you may have found that there are some internal “stations” transmitting inside your head, such as the “planning station,” which tries to remember all the things that you need to accomplish today. Or, maybe you have found the “worrying station,” which keeps coming up with reasons to be concerned, or the “complaints station” which seems to be really good at finding fault in everything. Perhaps your internal radio is tuned into the “drama du jour station,” where a new reason for being upset is served up fresh daily. If you are like me, it may seem like there is a cacophony of stations competing for your attention most of the time. With regular practice you may notice that some of these distractions keep coming back, perhaps discomfort in your shoulders or neck is a recurrent theme. Feeling tired, sad or worried may be another.
All of these internal activities are encompassed in the Sanskrit words citta vrtti. These words, citta vrtti, in sutra 1.2, are most often translated as consciousness, thought-waves in the mind, fluctuations of consciousness, mind distractions, turnings of thought, changing states of the mind, patterning of consciousness, and modifications of the mind. Translating citta vrtti as “ways of being” synthesizes all of the ways in which we take part in our life. Ways of being includes the ideas related to citta mentioned above, as well as the concepts related to vrtti. By defining citta vrtti as “ways of being” instead of just activities or fluctuations of the mind, the advantage is to move beyond the dichotomy mind-body. As a result we favor a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves as complete and whole beings. Our ways of being include our intentions and thoughts, as well as our attitudes and actions, while also including how we breathe and move.
In other words, ways of being (citta vrtti) can be a short way to refer to our inclinations, tendencies and habits that manifest at the physical, mental and emotional levels. These tendencies influence how you perceive and respond to internal and external events. Many of these tendencies are unconscious. From this perspective effective yoga techniques have a twofold purpose. First, they bring these inclinations and preferences into conscious awareness. Second, yoga techniques help to regulate these habits to increase internal and external harmony. Some tendencies can be beneficial some of the time and not very helpful other times. Eventually, all tendencies will be removed.
The majority of people who try to be present invariably notice all of these internal activities taking place in interrelated ways at all levels: physical, mental and emotional. Yoga, according to this simplified definition as regulation of our ways of being, is learning to modulate these activities, so that you can be with what is. In other words, yoga is a system for creating internal and external harmony. In order to foster harmony, yoga leads you to inquire into your own nature. Since you do not exist in the vacuum, this inquiry will, by necessity, also lead you into exploring the nature of reality and of life itself, as will be discussed in other episodes.
The yogic process starts by paying attention. When you pay attention, you notice your internal climate. You also notice some attitudes, opinions and tendencies that influence how you perceive your experiences. Those opinions and attitudes are sometimes useful. Other times they are obstacles. Awareness is instrumental in discerning if a tendency is useful at this moment or not. Your awareness can also reveal how your choices are influenced by your own stories, beliefs and preferences. Then, you increase the chances of making intelligent decisions right where you are. The main ingredient is awareness making it easier for you to choose your actions intelligently. Yoga is regulating your ways of being to enhance the quality of your participation in your own life. Still, there will be plenty of times when distractions will prevent you from choosing consciously. This is where it helps to hone the most important skill in yoga. That skill is your ability to return to presence without strain, struggle or self-judgment and with a gentle smile. Getting good at this skill can make the difference in how effective, and how enjoyable your practice is. Eventually, you grow in your ability to choreograph the dance between your two modes, being and doing, so that they coexist in integrated harmony.
Some suggestions for you to explore in your practice: What are your ways of being? Are there some tendencies in your ways of moving and in your posture? What are your tendencies when you breathe? What are the stories that you are more willing to believe in? How do those stories influence your perception and your choices? Are there some patterns in your emotions?To what extent is it possible for you to regulate some of these patterns, tendencies and inclinations? When you get distracted, can you try to return to whatever you are doing without strain, without struggle, without self-judgment and with a gentle smile?