Yoga Sutra 1.13: Define Practice

by Darla Hueske

Of these two, effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.

Effort toward steadiness of mind. In other words, meditation.

Meditation can take many forms, such as the seated practice most people think of or more physical practices. Asana itself can be a moving meditation when we tune in to the body and the breath and make our focus single-pointed. Meditation can be done in the form of walking, singing, chanting, and even eating. Anything you do can be a form of meditation if you are practicing with your entire awareness.

Bonus: Here’s a simple meditation practice you can work with to get started.

Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Sit up straight but without too much effort or strain. Close your eyes, and pay attention to your breath. Begin counting your breath — each complete round of breath is one count. Inhale, exhale: one. Inhale, exhale: two… and so on.

Attempt to focus strictly on your breath and the counting until you reach ten. If your mind wanders to other topics, start over. If you’re being honest, chances are good that you’ll have to start over several times. Remember: Thinking about how great you’re doing counts as thinking. Start over.

This exercise is simple, yet challenging and serves to show you just how much our minds tend to wander! Practice it a few times this week, and next week we’ll answer the question on everyone’s mind: When do we get to be enlightened?

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Yoga Sutra 1.12: Practice and Let Go


These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.

There are two steps to enlightenment, but you have to repeat them an infinite number of times. First, practice being present and aware to develop mental continence. Second, do not be attached to the results of your practice. If you’re meditating and you notice your mind wandering, don’t berate yourself for being unable to focus — that only takes you further from your practice and ultimate goal. Instead, detach from your thoughts and expectations. Let it all go and resume your practice.

Sometimes the simplest concepts in the world are the hardest to carry through, and that’s why it takes years  of practice to get the hang of it. Even if you’ve been meditating for a very long time, you’ll struggle with all kinds of stupid human problems like troubling memories, and emotional attachments. That’s why the yogis say it takes lifetimes to reach total enlightenment, and that’s why I don’t touch the topic of enlightenment with a ten foot pole. It’s best for most of us to forget about becoming a saint or a sage and just focus on our two tasks: practice and let go.

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Yoga Sutra 1.9: Be Careful What You Believe


An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.

Heaven and hell come to mind. Angels in white robes rest on cloud beds and play harps while fork-tailed devils jeer at the damned in a fiery pit for eternity. And although we have no way of confirming such a tale, many of us conduct our lives as though that were the reality that waits for us after death. So that’s verbal delusion. Someone has told us something based on no reality that we can see, and our minds have run wild with it.

Other instances of this vritti might come up in the middle of an argument. Suppose my husband says something I don’t like. I can grab hold of that statement and launch a whole domestic dispute about his choice of words — we’ll call that Road A — or I can try to figure out what he really meant. That’s Road B, which almost always works out better, but it takes practice to do that and not fly off the handle.

The vrittis are pretty straightforward stuff, once you know what they are, but that doesn’t change the fact that they continue to affect us. We spiritual types talk a big game about being “here and now,” practicing presence and awareness, but that doesn’t mean we never fall victim to our own chaotic minds. Next week, we’ll discuss the last vritti (one that might surprise you) and then we’ll move on to ways to control the vrittis rather than being controlled by them.

Just a reminder … My main source for these translations of the sutras is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
translated by Sri Swama Satchidananda. If you’re enjoying reading about the sutras from my perspective, I think you’ll find his commentary on them extraordinary.

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Yoga Sutras 1.5 & 1.6: The Importance of Vocabulary


Sutra 1.5:
There are five kinds of mental modifications, which are either painful or painless.

Sutra 1.6
They are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.

Consider this the kindergarten of yoga. In these sutras, Patanjali is giving us some basic vocabulary that’s going to become more useful later. As we gain the vocabulary to discuss our experience, we deepen our comprehension of it and develop the ability to control it to some degree. When we understand where our thoughts come from, we can practice choosing the thoughts we want. By intentionally choosing our thoughts, we begin to change ourselves and our relationship to the world. Sometimes people use terms like “manifesting” for this process, which is convenient shorthand, but not entirely helpful. Terms like that imply some heavy duty magical thinking or denial of reality. Yoga, on the other hand, is very much about being in touch with reality. In fact, it’s about being so much in touch with reality that we become one with it. Again, we return to the concept of union. Most of us are not ready to let go of our uniqueness, our individuality, our exciting and interesting human dramas and pleasures. We focus on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s our right as human beings, and it’s part of how we evolve.

However, with these two sutras, Patanjali begins to give us the vocabulary required to more deeply understand our experience. He divides the vrittis (mental modifications) into five categories, all of which may be painful or painless. In other words, those categories are not “good” or “bad” in the moral sense, they simply are. This is why yoga, although historically related to Hinduism, is considered a philosophical system rather than a religion. Yoga philosophy does not assign moral value to actions but rather discusses those actions in terms of their effects on ourselves and our world. In later sutras, Patanjali describes the nature of each of these categories, so we can explore them in more depth then.

There are many translations and commentaries on the Sutras, but my favorite that I’ve read is by Sri Swami Stachidananda, who explains the painful/painless distinction carefully. Some translations say the vrittis can be painful or pleasurable, which Satchidananda specifies that even apparently pleasurable vrittis carry the possibility of loss and pain. All these things are changing, that is what makes them vrittis, so even those that seem to bring happiness or pleasure can and will change. Therefore, attachment to any of the mental modifications, whether happy or sad, creates suffering. The idea that attachment causes suffering is one you will see frequently in yogic philosophy and other schools of Eastern thought.

The next several sutras will explain the nature of each of the vrittis. Learning to recognize the little tricks and games of the mind is the next step toward controling it.


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Yoga Sutra 1.4: Keep Your Head On

Big Beautiful Face Statue in Tenerife

At other times [the self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications.

Ok, so we know that yoga means union and that (theoretically), when we quiet the mind, we access the pure, unchanging, eternal self. If you’ve meditated a little bit, maybe you’ve begun to have glimpses of that. In that meditative state, our physical boundaries feel like they melt away as we let go of all those false identities and changeable factors. We begin to feel that we truly are all one. Hooray, yoga! We’ve reached enlightenment, and now we can stop meditating and go about our life as actualized beings, right?

Maybe not quite. For most of us, the moment we rejoin the world, we’re brought back into a game of rules and boundaries. It would be foolish not to recognize the separation between ourselves and others. One of the dangers yogis face (and fail to acknowledge too often) is thinking that because we’ve had a few glimpses of something bigger than ourselves that we are now enlightened. Sometimes, yogis are just like evangelicals, going around spouting off about their experience as though it applies to everyone. After all, if we’re all one, then I should be able to understand and speak for anyone, right? Wrong again.

On a grand scale, yes, we’re all one, all made of the same stuff, all the same energy, all from the same source — no matter what name you assign to that source. But in our day-to-day lives, we all have different experiences. We have different lives, histories, knowledge and understandings. Think of it like a card game — I can’t see your cards and you can’t see mine. If I make an incorrect assumption about the cards in your hand, I lose the game. Sure, all the cards come from the same deck, but it’s a pretty extensive deck, and there’s just no way for us to know all the cards in play.

In other words, try to keep a sane perspective. Know in your heart that you are indeed connected to everyone and everything in the universe, but keep your head on and your eyes open.

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