Yoga Sutra 1.2: Quieting the Mind

Yoga Sutra 1.2

YOGAŚ CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH.
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

I’m studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali again these days because sometimes I need to remind myself of why I practice yoga and why I teach it. Although I’ve been steeped in yogic practice and philosophy for nearly half my life, sometimes life gets chaotic, and I lose focus. On this latest return to the sutras, I’ve been moved to write some reflections on them. I’m no sanskrit scholar or philosopher, but the great thing about the sutras is that you don’t have to be those things to learn from them. They have something to offer us at every stage of our practice. I’ve written before about sutra 1.1, so today I want to share my reflection on sutra 1.2.

Yogas citta vritti nirodhah.
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

The mind is a busy thing. It is always moving. Even when we sleep, the mind is fluctuating, making up little stories, tossing flashes of color and light around, reenacting or inventing conversations and scenes that feel like reality while we’re experiencing them. Only when we wake up do we realize our dreams were “just dreams,” no matter how real they felt. We’ve all heard of lucid dreaming, right? Some people learn to recognize that they are dreaming while it’s happening, and that changes the dream. Similarly, we become lucid in our waking life when we learn to tell the difference between what is real and what is just mental noise.

If I experience anxiety, I might have all kinds of crazy scary thoughts. I might think the world is a terrible place, no one loves me, and I’m doomed to be a failure. But the practice of yoga is about cultivating the awareness to ask, “What’s really going on here? I feel panicked but I don’t know why. The thoughts I’m having are unreasonable. They’re not an accurate reflection of reality. Perhaps I could choose to think something else.”

The same practice can be applied to many areas of life. If you’re driving and someone cuts you off, you get mad, right? You think, “Wow, that guy drives like a jerk! Why didn’t he look where he was going? And then he had the nerve to honk when I passed him! I hate people.” But you know the way someone else drives doesn’t have anything to do with you. And in reality, you probably don’t hate everyone. The truth is, we may feel and think a lot of different things depending on our circumstances, and while we can’t always control our circumstances, we have a choice about how we respond to them. We can choose to indulge negative, fatalistic, and panicked thoughts, or we can let them go.

Our perception of reality is strongly colored by our choice of thoughts. This is one of the simplest truths in the world and one of the hardest things to remember when the going gets tough. That’s why we have our yoga practice to use as a tool. Asana (poses) helps us create the link between mind and body. This helps us to stay present in the moment and to gain control over the fluctuations of the mind. As we create a state of ease and health in the body, we also create a sense of peace and quiet in the mind. Only when the mind is quiet can we begin to experience true yoga or union.

So … How can I apply this to my life right now? Having recently been struck with a sneak attack of the flu, I need to slow down and be quiet for a while. Rather than pushing harder, teaching more classes, perfecting harder poses and so forth, I need to reconnect with that deep well presence. I’ve been pursuing the career side of things, the outwardly visible trappings of so-called success rather than focusing on my own basic wellbeing. That’s essentially the opposite of what my yoga practice is all about, so even though it may look like I’m doing tons of yoga, keeping up this pace for too long can become counter productive. Luckily, this little virus came just in time to put me back in line without doing too much damage. Now, it’s time for more self-care, rest, and quiet reflection.

Peace!

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Don’t tell me I think too much. Even if it’s true.

don't think too much

So, I want to write a little bit about mental health today. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, but I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, it’s not easy.

For much of my life, I have dealt with a cyclical type of depression. What experience is similar to how people describe bipolar disorder, except it’s … different. I don’t get the manic highs, but I get intense anxiety that builds up until it collapses into depression. Many times, it seems that the diagnosis of mental illness depends on the illness being visible to outsiders, but because my troubles have been mostly invisible, most people figure I’m just a normal person who is moody sometimes. So, even though I’ve been coping with cyclical depression and anxiety for most of my life, I’ve never been diagnosed with anything but plain old depression. On one hand, that’s great because it means I’ve managed to dodge a label that’s easily misused and even hurtful. On the other hand, it means that in my darkest times, the responses I got from other people were usually:
Just get it together.
You’re just too emotional.
Don’t take it so seriously.
You think too much.

“You think too much,” is probably the most common thing I have been told in the midst of an emotional breakdown. I’m not sure if I can explain exactly how unhelpful that is, but for the record, it is unhelpful and also massively insulting. To a person who grew up in an intellectual family and prides herself on being able to grasp big concepts, “You think too much,” is like saying, “Just stop being yourself.”

No, I don’t think too much, but I do have really strong feelings sometimes. And sometimes my thoughts and feelings are hard to control. And there have been times when I’ve lost control completely.

It’s scary to lose control of your thoughts. One minute you’re mad at your roommate for leaving a mess in the kitchen,* and the next minute, someone’s telling you “You think too much,” and you start second guessing everything. Do I really have a right to be mad at my roommate? If not, why am I so upset? What’s wrong with me? I must be crazy. I always freak out about everything. I’m so fucked up. Why can’t I just get along with people? No wonder no one likes me. What the fuck am I even doing here? I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.

This thought pattern can get really dark really quickly, and for me, it usually lead to one place: If this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life, maybe I should just end it now.

That’s a pretty terrifying moment. The first time it happened, I thought, “Mary, you really are thinking too much now. Stop it. Have a drink. Take a nap. You’ll feel better later.” After the second time, I got back on anti-depressants, which I had taken periodically throughout high school and college. But even on medication, I would still have really intense panic attacks sometimes. It was predictable, too. Everything would seem fine until a little anxiety started creeping in. Over a few weeks, things would get gradually worse, and then once every month or two, I would have a meltdown. A couple days after a major meltdown, I would feel bright and shiny as though the sun had come out after a big storm. I took to hiding in my room so my roommates wouldn’t know how insane I was. I was a mess, and I was scared, and I was afraid to ask for help.

For me, help came via my husband, who saw me going through these cycles over and over again. He was confused and hurt and just wanted me to be happy and didn’t know how to help. We took long walks during which I talked to him about everything on my mind. He listened and listened and listened. He loved me even though I felt broken. There were many times when I felt guilty because I couldn’t be as good a partner to him as he was being for me, but he insisted on staying and helping me through it.

It took a long time for me to go to therapy because I thought that people who go to therapy were fucked up. Going to therapy meant admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I was afraid it would mean I was stupid or somehow incapable of taking care of myself, and remember, most of the time, I was just normal. Nothing really bad ever happened to me as a kid. I didn’t have any good reason for being so messed up. No one but me could see my scary thoughts, so I assumed I just needed to toughen up and stop letting my emotions get the better of me. Only when I went to the doctor and couldn’t control my tears or my racing heart did someone say, “I really think it would help you to talk to someone, a counsellor maybe…” I didn’t like the word therapist, and my earlier experience with a psychologist was less than stellar, but my doctor was right. I needed to talk to someone. Even though my husband was willing to support me, I didn’t want to burden him with my emotions all the time, and I obviously hadn’t resolved my issues on my own.

The funny thing about therapy is that it worked, even though a lot of people who should know better told me it wouldn’t. I told someone my doctor suggested I take vitamins and focus on getting daily exercise, and they told me she was a crackpot. They would have preferred to see me on lithium, perhaps. When I ran out of my antidepressants, I decided not to refill the prescription since it wasn’t preventing those panic attacks anyway. I learned other coping skills instead. I found that meditation and yoga helped me feel more stable. I learned to let go of those obsessive thoughts that I knew would start the downward spiral. I learned to ask for help. I never went back to taking medication because it turns out that my mental health is manageable through lifestyle adjustments rather than prescriptions, which came as a relief. Not everyone is so lucky.

There must be as many types of mental illness as there are mutations of the common cold virus. Everyone’s experience will be different. But what I know for sure is that mental illness causes suffering, and it gets worse if we believe that “you just think too much,” or “you’re too emotional.” It is terrifying to sit alone in your room and feel that there is something so intrinsically wrong with you, down to the genetic level, that you cannot live a normal happy life. To think, “Well, I guess mother nature fucked up this batch. Maybe I’ll just take myself out of the game.” It’s just an awful experience.

So, what I’m saying is I hope you will ask for help if you’re suffering. And I hope you will reach out to those who suffer. I hope you will not call other people “crazy” when they’re going through it. I hope you will have someone to listen when you need it and that you will listen in return when you can.

Footnotes:

*When you say you’re mad about the mess in the kitchen, let’s be honest. You’re never just mad about the mess. This anger very quickly triggers outrageous thoughts such as, “The mess in the kitchen is just proof that my spouse/roommates/children disrespect me. They leave the mess because they expect me to clean it up.” This line of thinking assumes the other person is being malicious when in fact, it’s just paranoia from your own lack of self worth. That kind of thinking is the result of an anxious and unhappy mind.

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If a Tree Falls and You’re Not on Twitter

Snorting some of that Pixydust.

It’s funny how no one misses you on the internet. It’s a weird thing to admit, but if a tree falls and you’re not on Twitter, no one cares if it makes a sound. Granted no one cares about most of the digital content we consume on a daily basis. We all kinda go numb to it on some level, don’t you think? We binge on bad news, celebrity gossip and the salacious details of other people’s private lives. We consume media in much the same way that I used to eat sugar as a child — by the spoonful and straight out of the bag. Social media is intellectual Pixy Stix, and what I’m looking for is like … Avocados. Let’s stretch this metaphor beyond its reasonable limit and say I would like to experience and create the intellectual equivalent of the farmers’ market online. I would like to live in a world where digital content is not just soundbites whizzing through space at the speed of your next nervous breakdown. I know our society is geared toward doing things quickly all the time. It was hard to just slow down today, and after I relaxed most of the day, I felt like the most abominable slacker. But I just don’t think most of us are capable of fully processing information and experiences at the rate we feel compelled to take them in, which is interesting. I guess that’s how evolution works — we are always reaching for something just beyond our reach.

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Meditate Like a Boss, Part 5: The Kit

Incense

Today we have part five of my series on meditation. Last week, we talked about how to deal with the difficult emotions that sometimes come up during meditation. Now that you have all the mental tools you need, you’re ready to establish your meditation practice at home.

As you make meditation a part of your life, it can help to have a space set aside for it. This place will serve as a reminder of your practice, and it will ensure that you have a comfortable, inviting place to sit and meditate. If the space is already there, all you have to do is sit down. Doesn’t that make things easier? Here are the keys to creating a meditation space of your own at home:

  1. A little bit of space. Figures, right? You just need enough room to sit comfortably. For me, creating a meditation space is a good opportunity to remove clutter from my house. The meditation is intended to help me remove junk and gunk from my mind, so the meditation space should reflect that.
  2. Cushions! You’ll want a soft place to sit, after all. A blanket on the floor under you is nice, while a pillow or zafu will raise your hips enough that your knees more easily relax toward the floor. If you have tight hips, sitting this way may cause some tension in your knees. If so, place cushions or rolled up towels under your knees so you can relax and your legs won’t fall asleep.
  3. An altar or focal point. If you have room for a little table or shelf, place a candle, flower, or inspirational image there. This isn’t necessarily an object of worship, but it’s something you can let your eyes rest on that puts you in the right mindframe for meditation. Some people use photos of a beloved teacher, guru or saint. The altar helps establish that your meditation space is to be treated with reverence (as a symbol of your practice), and it’s also a place to center your attention when you get lost in thought.
  4. Some peace and quiet. The more you meditate, the more you learn to focus in busy, noisy and even stressful situations, but meditating in quiet is much much easier and more pleasant for most people. Choose a place that sets you at ease so you’ll have fewer distracting and anxious thoughts

There is no right or wrong here. Your meditation space should feel comfortable and inviting to you. I like to keep a blanket on hand so that when I totter over to my altar in the morning, I can wrap up and get comfortable. I hope your place will feel like a sanctuary from the chaotic world outside. To begin or end your day in this peaceful, soothing way will start to make a big difference in the quality of what happens between meditation sessions!

Have other questions? Leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll do my best to address them!

Next week, I’ll post my responses to your questions and other FAQs about how and why to meditate.

Namaste!

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Meditate Like a Boss, Part 4: Fear Not

Pressure

Welcome to part four of my meditation series! This week, I want to talk about the resistance, fear and anxiety that sometimes come up during meditation.

On the surface, meditation doesn’t look scary, but sometimes it is. When I started meditating, I was afraid that by going too deep into my own mind, I would find out I was crazy, or I’d realize some terrible thing that happened to me as a child. There was really no need to worry, although it’s a pretty legitimate fear that lots of people have. Even if you’re not sure what you’re getting hung up on, the anxiety you feel when you start meditating is rooted in our fear of facing ourselves. We’re taught by our society that self-loathing is somehow admirable — it’s not just humility we’re taught, but putting ourselves last, being self-less, and even ashamed of so many parts of our nature. But it’s crazy to me that we have such a deep rooted fear of really facing ourselves. Is this some kind of evolutionary quirk that we outgrew but never got around to shedding from our genes?

Whatever it is, the good news is that meditation gives us the tools to work through it.

The first way to deal with this fear is to recognize it for what it is. Fear is a projection of your worst-case scenario. It’s also a chemical reaction in your brain. It may feel like an inexplicable shot of adrenaline or a nagging need to fidget. First and foremost, see it for what it is, and accept it: I am experiencing fear.

Second, have compassion for yourself. Imagine how you would feel for a little kid scared of the dark. It’s really the same. You’re moving into unknown territory or perhaps dealing with some issues you’ve avoided until now. It’s perfectly understandable for your mind to dig in its heels at this point. But just like there’s no use dragging a kicking child anywhere (I promise the experience won’t be positive for anyone), there’s no use forcing yourself to confront deep dark monsters. So ease up! Be kind enough to back off if the fear feels like too much.

You may find that the feeling of acceptance of this fear is enough to melt it so you can move forward with your meditation. Focus on that feeling of compassion. If the fear is too great, back off and return to focusing only on the breath. Count your breaths and stay with that for as long as you can. Whatever you do, don’t feed into the fear. Don’t obsess about it. Don’t chase it down demanding to know where it came from and why it’s coming up now. You’ll only make yourself feel crazy with that. Simply focus on the breath or on the feeling of compassion until either the fear subsides or your meditation ends.

For many people, this compassionate approach to fear and anxiety is enough to get comfortable with meditation. However, if you have an intense or persistent feeling of fear that you can’t get past, I recommend working in person with a teacher you trust. I have often found that meditating in the presence of a teacher or close friends makes it easier for me to settle down, as though that person’s physical presence is a mental security blanket for me. Going to meditation classes at a yoga studio is a good place to start.

Finally, if you struggle with anxiety consistently, you may want to go a step further and seek support from a therapist or counselor. Yes, I certainly believe in the power of yoga and meditation, but there are folks in other lines of work who can help immensely. I say this as a person who has dealt with somewhat severe anxiety and depression in the past — accept help and support wherever you find it, whether that’s in the form of your yoga teacher, your best friend, or your doctor.

Do you have other questions about meditation? Leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll do my best to address them! Next week, we’ll talk about how to set up your personal meditation space to nurture your practice.

Namaste!

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