Last month I posted a blog on the first four sutras wherein Patanjali gives the initial teachings on yoga as mind work. Shortly thereafter I heard Kiki Flynn (1) (of “Kiki Says”) say that “yoga isn’t for the body, it’s for the mind” and it struck a cord that caused me to ponder further the concept of MIND….
Because many of us engage in a practice (asana/vinyasa/contemplative movement) that is highly physical it’s quite easy to slip into a mode of mind that is tied strongly to physicality. And since we’re surrounded by a fitness world that is focused on looking good — an industry that has taken it upon itself to try and corral and deviate yoga into its cadre of exercises — it can be quite a challenge to maintain an awareness around the greater meaning and value of yoga. “Mind” is much more than brain and the yogic texts are filled with attempts to provide us with information to help clarify our understanding of mind.
In her commentary, Barbara Stoler Miller (2), an academic who wrote versions of both the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, writes:
Yoga is defined as citta-vrtti-nirodhah, “cessation of the turnings of thought”.
The “turnings of thought” (citta-vrtti) refers to the totality of mental processes—conscious, subconscious and hyperconscious—not simply to the faculties of intellect, recollection or emotion.
Citta is the total process of thought.
This thought process is a composite of mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahamkāra), the three mental evolutes of material nature (prakriti).
Thus, in Patanjali’s view, thought is fundamental to the spirit’s involvement with material nature.
Vyaas Houston (3) translates citta as “the field of consciousness, the perceived” and vrtti as “active state (specific current activity which defines)”. This is material (prakriti) — i.e., the seeable or what can be seen. The seeable is our magnificent, ever-changing, temporary (and thereby ultimately not real) thinking/existence into which we are drawn by our senses — by prana (aliveness) and desire.
Purusha — the seer — is the pure, untouched by action, changeless state of being that is who we really are, in the ultimate truth sense, and with whom we yearn (sometimes unknowingly) to be connected (abide in).
The great yogi Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati (4) describes this as “thinking mind” vs. the “I-AM” — suggesting the difference between doing and being. The Bhagavad Gita (14.24) supports this concept and draws upon our most basic energies to provide insight:
Sitting like a neutral observer (one seated above)
who is not moved by the gunas*
“The gunas act (among the gunas).”
– whoever just so abides (stands apart), is not agitated.
*Gunas being the primordial forces of sattva (brightness), rajas (activity), and tamas (darkness) that come together to create the material world (prakriti).
There is thought and there is something beyond thought. And our human-ness leads us for a need to understand in order to know. Words are used and systems constructed. All to attempt to bring character to something that is incomprehensible. But, it’s fun to try….
This brings us back to Stoler Miller who introduced an aspect of this that doesn’t get as much airplay — the three mental evolutes of material nature: manas, ahamkara and buddhi.
Manas translates as “mind” and is our base level of mind — it is the list-making, get-stuff-done part of us — the “organizer of perception” according to Freeman. “Yad bhaavam tad bhavati” (As a man thinks so he becomes). Man means mind and mind means man.
Ahamkara is our ego layer of mind — the “I-maker”. Ego is the double-edged sword, so to speak, of the yogi’s path. When kept in check and used to initiate service and ahimsic action, it is beneficial. But, it can so easily cross over into selfishness – to I, me and mine mode – where the end result is always suffering for us and others. Unhealthy ego stems from root ignorance, avidya, the confusion of material (prakriti) with spiritual (puruśa). It sets-up the subject-object dynamic where we normally reside and that creates separateness — an obstacle for the yogi.
Buddhi comes from the root syllable “budh” meaning “to awaken” and is taken to mean “intelligence”. According to Richard Miller (5), it is the state of our mind that resides closest to pure consciousness (puruśa) and the nature of sattva guna. It is the part of our mind that is capable of assimilating information coming to us through the senses and developing an understanding – knowledge – based on that information.
Purusha the seer cognizes through buddhi (intellect). Buddhi is the first interface between awareness of Purusha and Prakriti. The “seen” refers to objects which present themselves to the buddhi. These objects, acting like a magnet, attract the awareness of Purusha because of proximity. Purusha appears like a master and the seen becomes like a property of Purusha. These objects tend to take on the nature of Purusha. This association between the two which has no beginning is the cause of suffering which needs to be avoided. (6)
All this matters because ultimately our practice is intended to reduce and possibly eliminate suffering — the everyday dis-satisfactions and pains of life that can be traced back to our material-spiritual confusion (avidya). Yoga postures serve us because they turn the body into a tool to focus our mind inward. Through that inward turning we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves better, gain greater awareness of our connection to others and maybe even attenuate the suffering-inducing grip we often have on this body. Yoga is for the mind (heart and soul).
p.s., I think maybe that’ll be my next mind blog — the mind-heart connection (often the translation of citta in Buddhism…).
p.s.s., the photo accompanying this blog was taken at sunrise on Poon Hill in the Himalayas of Nepal standing with my dear husband in 2017.
1 Kiki Flynn has longstanding ties to both the Jivamukti and Ashtanga lineages and is a Sanskrit and Yoga Sutras scholar – she has a good podcast. http://www.kikinyc.com/
2 Barbara Stoler Miller was an academic who wrote very useful versions of the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Stoler_Miller
3 Vyas Houston is a Sanskrit and Yoga philosophy scholar who produced the Yoga Sutras Workbook. http://cart.americansanskrit.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=BK-YSW&Category_Code=Books
4 Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati is one of the 3 root teachers for Jivamukti Yoga founder’s David Life and Sharon Gannon. He founded Ananda Ashram in upstate NY and San Francisco and authored multiple texts on the Yoga Sutras. I dig his “Textbook of Yoga Psychology” for its scientific perspective on the Yoga Sutras. http://www.anandaashram.org/Founder
5 Richard Miller is highly respected yogi and Ashtanga Teacher and this came from his book, The Mirror of Yoga. https://www.shambhala.com/the-mirror-of-yoga-1045.html
6 Paraphrased from teachings of Edwin Bryant, a sutra scholar and author of one of the most comprehensive of all commentaries. https://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Sutras-Pata%C3%B1jali-Translation-Commentary/dp/0865477361