An introduction to the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali
The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved; they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. Their master said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.”
Growing up in the eighties/nineties in Holland there wasn’t much literature around about Daoism. Yoga was more of a thing so in order to still my spiritual hunger I took a 4 your teacher’s course in Raja yoga at age 20 and was hooked on to one particular book: the ‘Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali’ which I kept at arm’s reach for years on end. It’s only when I turned to tai chi at a later age that I let go and slowly turned from Sanskrit to Chinese terminology. But after the neidan course this summer I noticed that my mind just kept translating and referring back to the yoga sutra’s in order to get a deeper understanding. I guess just like Dutch is my first language, yoga is my first spiritual language.
So for people coming from the opposite Daoist way I guess it’s pretty straightforward to call Patanjali the Indian Lao Tze. Perhaps also a nice a counterbalance to the popular tendency of calling Qi Gong Chinese yoga. Although studying Daoism on its own is already a lifelong undertaking, to me personally there is always a nice charm to learning a new language or culture (like Swedish). Only by comparing you get a deeper understanding and appreciation of what you’re accustomed to. I think the yoga sutra’s can have the same beneficial mind-broadening effects and it should be on everybody’s bookshelf or e-reader for that matter. Even though it is no small matter in this article I will attempt to make an introduction to these wonderful writings.
What is a sutra? Literally it is a thread that draws things together. In this case Sanskrit letters. In contrast to modern languages ancient Sanskrit is a way more condensed kind of language in which you basically only need a few words to bring an ocean of meaning across. Patanjali got down to the very essence of the universe and the sutra’s reflect this concentration. In order to find the deeper subtle meaning of these little threads you need to plant them in your mind and foster it until the seed is rooted and eventually sprouts. But since he talks about such bloody subtleties our acquired minds need more than one thread to conjure an accessible image. So I feel very grateful for mr K. Taimni who managed to translate and further explain the sutra’s in a very clear fashion so our modern techno based minds can get a better grip on it. This author was educated as an engineer and therefore knows how to take things apart. From my own experience having a technical mind helps to get an understanding of the working of the subtle energies. A friend of mine is also an engineer and when I first explained the sutra’s to him I was surprised how easy it was for him to absorb the ideas and make it work in his own mind. Clockwork!
This article is meant as a general introduction and links up with Damo’s article on Letting go. Even though Patanjali describes the same guidelines, it is the little differences and nuances sometimes that make principles sink in deeper, leading to an even better AHA moment.
The yoga sutra’s are made up of 4 chapters. The first chapter is aimed at providing a clear answer to the question ‘what is yoga’? Patanjali was a man of few words and managed to squeeze the purpose of yoga into a four word sentence.
1:2 Yoga chitta vritti nirodha,
Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration, coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind field (chitta).
Which isn’t all that different from Lao tse’s guidelines:
“Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.”
So it is all about controlling the mind field or chitta. Remember the Matrix? In this movie Morpheus gives a clear definition to the seeker Neo. “Do you want to know what it is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
So this matrix or Chitta is the 3 dimensional mind field or projection screen. It sits in between heaven and earth and has the nature of consciousness, which is immaterial, but which still can be stirred by matter. To the current scientific understanding all mind activities start and end with the brain. But there are specific cases which make this theory tremble. Take for instance Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel who studied the accounts of patients who reported having a near death experience or NDE. What struck him most about these people is that although their brain did not show any sign of activity during their NDE they could still observe the world around them, move to any place they desired and had contact with diseased relatives. After studying many of these cases his conclusion was basically that most memories are not stored in the brains but the brain merely functions as an antenna or receiver of subtle energies. And that a person’s consciousness is, in contrast to his body, non local. It’s not fixed in a certain place, has no centre (being created from one and the same centre, everything is a centre and nowhere is a centre) and has basically access to all life and the whole universe. So once we die it seems like we are born again in our true nature and find the love, peace harmony connection all spontaneously.
So the big question for all spiritual seekers is: can we enter that same state while still walking around in our material bodies? According to both traditional yoga and Daoism and the modern NDA accounts the answer is yes. We only need to find out what exactly is obscuring our vision and systematically try to filter out all the radio noise that is keeping us from realizing our true nature.
To do this we first need to acknowledge that we are the image makers. We project the world outside us, it is the productions of our own minds that we see.
To illustrate this we shall have a closer look at our colourful cameraman Jason and his camera. In the picture you can see them both man and machine focusing on Damo. The camera is absorbing light through its lense which is absorbed and translated into digital codes and played back on the small lcd screen that mirrors the world in front of the camera.
That process of creating images works pretty much the same in the human brain/chitta. In this example Jason looks in front of him and is most probably convinced that he is looking at Damo ‘over there’ trying to explain some unexplainable things. But what he is actually seeing is his internal lcd screen. Just like his camera, light enters his eye lens, which is turned into some electric vibration and sent to the brain. This transmits it to his chitta which turns it into the actual 3D image or scenery that only he can witness. And like the lcd screen is basically just a set of on and off switches of electrical pulses so is his experience nothing but the continuous rippling of his chitta
Back to the sutra: Now that we have established an idea what Chitta is we should now come to a deeper understanding of yoga. It is the control (nirodhah) over the modifications (vritties) of this field. The term Vritti comes from the root word vrt, which means to exist or to function. Nirodha means to control, manage, or restrain these vrittis.
So what happens if you finally accomplish this? 1:3 provides the answer: Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-realization.
This is in line with the main message from Eckhart Tolle who states time and again that we don’t need to acquire or accomplish anything by doing lots of meditation, yoga in order to attain enlightment in the future. No. We are the Seer, but we just need to get rid of the modifications of thinking.
1:4 At other times, when one is not in Self-realization, the Seer appears to take on the form of the modifications of the mind field, taking on the identity of those thought patterns. Sounds familiar? Compare that to what Morpheus tells Neo in the Matrix “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Taking the blue pill is easy and goes almost automatically. It is only once you start your spiritual quest out of dissatisfaction with those blue pills that you start seeking for a red pill which usually takes way more effort. So in order to get our hands on the red pill we need to explore the nature of the blue pill, or the ceaseless modifications of the mind.
Although the mind can take millions of shapes in the end they can be brought back to just 5 main categories or modifications. Once you know them, and acknowledge them as such, you can take a step back and become more detached to the ceaseless mental activities. Patanjali describes these main categories in sutra 1:6. The five varieties of thought patterns to witness are:
1) Knowing correctly (pramana)
2) Incorrect knowing (viparyaya)
3) Fantasy or imagination (vikalpa)
4) The object of void-ness that is deep sleep (nidra)
5) Recollection or memory (smriti).
Let’s explore these a little deeper.
3 Imagination: Basically anything that takes you away from the boring here and now. A well known phenomena is self talk; having imaginary talks in which you explain things or winning an argument after all. Basically all sorts of images can pop up out of your memory field which the ego eagerly seizes to create an imaginary event. Until you ‘wake up’ and realize your mend led you on again.
4 Sleep is basically seen as focusing on a blank state of mind. It is a process whereby the mind is focusing on absence itself. Sleep is not an off switch, but there is still mental activity. You could compare it to a computer’s screensaver. The pc is is in a slow mode, apparent non active, but still there is one program active, running: a black screen or some annoying moving logo.
5 Memories. Positive or negative, pleasant or annoying, way back or only recently, the mind is like a hard disk which records every single moment. Just like a bookshelf, it’s good to have books organised and not laying all over the living room. Same for your mind, do you control your memories or vice versa.You see the porridge, you hear the sticky sounds when scooping, you smell the cinnamon, you feel the warmth of the bowl and finally taste the lot.
So next time you meditate just look at whatever comes up in your mind and you will see that they can basically be brought down to one of these 5. Just don’t fall asleep. In sutra: 12 Patanjali explains how to rehab from taking all those blue pills.
1.12 These thought patterns (vrittis) are mastered (nirodhah, regulated, coordinated, controlled, stilled, quieted) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya).
(abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah)
This advice sounds familiar for those training with Damo. ‘Keep on going’, ‘Rest is the devil’ and ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’. For my introduction to the sutra’s I shall leave it at this and will address other relating themes to Daoism in later articles.
Related articles and references
You’re not your body, you’re not your mind.
Pim van Lommels scientifice studies of near death experiences
Free online explanation/exploration of the yoga sutra’s