Essay published by Elephant Yoga. Original post here
Yoga makes some big and audacious promises.
According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga is a practice that will stop the chatter of your mind*. I don’t know about your mind but knowing my own I’d say that’s a pretty tall order! Never the less, most of us have found ourselves on the mat buying toilet paper, arguing with our boss or thinking about sex. And most of us have wondered why we keep doing that when we were supposed to be doing yoga! As much as we enjoy the bliss of being fully present, fully aware or mindful in our practice and in our life, we ever so often find ourselves caught up in memories, fantasies, auto-pilot perception or mental sleep walking.
Does yoga really work then, or is it just another false promise?
Desperately wanting the promises of yoga to be true, we quickly resort to the idea that the only reason yoga isn’t working for us is that we are not as dedicated and disciplined as we should be. We easily latch on to the idea all we need is to put more effort into training awareness, control our mind or discipline our bodies.
“If only I could make my mind STOP” we tell ourselves, “If only I could control the impulse to think about my job/lover/bank account/kids/career/butt…”
However, I’d like to suggest that yoga need not be about control. The famous opening of the yoga sutras “yoga chitta vritti nirhodah” has much more interesting implications than “yoga is a technique to tie down constant movements in consciousness.”
Godfrey Devereux puts it nicely when stating, “Awareness is not a dog you can call.”
Yoga, he seems to suggest, is not animal dressage. If awareness is in any way comparable to an animal, I suppose it would be one of those majestic, wild, free animals that go their own way. An animal which sometimes comes near to follow our actions with curiosity but soon after runs off again without warning. An animal which will sometimes nibble at the food we lay out in its territory but which may as well decide to ignore our kind gesture to go hunting in a forest far away.
Now, there are many examples of how people have found great meaning in catching, harnessing and training wild animals. And to be fair, some impressive accomplishments came out of that project. Civilization for example. But if we’re busy doing is yoga—and not a sophisticated version of synchronized dolphin swimming, one might wonder treating ourselves like dogs is really the way forward.
If yoga really does still the chatter of the mind, I think it is because yoga comes from a place within us that is deeply uncivilized.
A place that is deeper than our personal will, our techniques, our projects and ideals. To me, yoga is not a mental boot camp where we train ourselves to become fully aware. Yoga is a practice that allows us to experience the free, wild rhythm of awareness itself.
Sometimes we are fully aware of what we are busy doing, at other times we are completely gone. Sometimes we feed of that which our yoga practice lays out for us and at other times we go off far away to nibble at fantasies, memories and speculations.
Yoga works, yes.
But not because it teaches us how to discipline our minds and bodies. It works because it allows us to encounter a force much more powerful than that of self-control. Within the vacillating waves of perception “something” is experiencing how awareness oscillates between presence and absence, concentration and distraction, delight and suffering.
“Something” is constantly embracing the oscillations independent of our conscious effort, independent of personal will. I am deeply convinced that this “something” is a wild animal that we can inquire into coming face to face with every time we get on our mat. An unbridled creature who does not come when you call because it was already here.
*Freely and boldly translated from “Yoga citta vritti nirhodhah.” A couple of more scholarly translation would be: “Yoga is the cessation of movements in consciousness (Feurstein 1989) “Yoga is the restrictions of the fluctuations in consciousness” (Iyengar 2002), “Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception” (Stiles, 2002). That´s all fine. However, the only valid interpretation of Patanjali is your own. Look for it on your mat.