VRTTAYAH PAÑCATAYYAH KLISTĀ AKLISTĀH.
There are five kinds of mental modifications, which are either painful or painless.
PRAMĀNA VIPARYAYA VIKALPA NIDRĀ SMRTAYAH.
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.