Saturday, May 28, 2011

Just what is this Yogas Chittas Vrtti Nirodhah?

In a recent article on Elephant Journal, Michael Stone relates his early experience with yoga practice:

"When I first started practicing Yoga, I thought the practice would lead to a cessation of thinking altogether. I also imagined that I’d be able to somehow leave my body, especially since my body was in pain. It was surprising when I began to realize that the practice of sequential Yoga postures, combined with full breathing and the stillness of meditation, actually stabilized the chattering of my mind and body long enough so there was room for my more difficult and challenging habitual drives to arise. What was left when my mind became almost still was not quietude but discomfort—and the discomfort certainly didn’t feel like oneness."

I think many people, like Stone, also think that the practice would enable us to stop thinking or stop engaging in any brain activity altogether. I wonder if this may be partly because Yoga Sutra 1.2, "Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah" is usually translated as "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness." Which might lead us to think that in order to attain the state of Yoga or union, one must attain a state in which all conscious activity ceases. But if you think about this a little more, you realize that this simply cannot be the right interpretation of this passage: For one, the cessation of all conscious activity is the medical definition of being comatose! It doesn't seem right that the goal of our practice should be to become comatose!

Indeed, as Stone relates, as the chattering of the Chitta is stabilized and as one approaches Nirodhah, what arises is not cessation of conscious activity. Rather, one then becomes conscious of the difficult and challenging drives that guide our day-to-day behavior; drives that we may not be conscious of beneath the typically ceaseless chattering of the Chitta. The consciousness of these drives leads to intense discomfort and perhaps, even self-loathing. It is what we decide to do at this moment that determines how far and to what extent we can carry out the work of yoga. During her Yoga Sutra lecture at her recent Richmond workshop, Kino observes that Chitta actually has three layers:

(1) Ahamkara: We can think of this as the ego, the part of Chitta that identifies things in the world as "I", "me" or "mine".

(2) Manas: This is the intellect, the information-processing and cognitive part of Chitta.

(3) Buddhi: This might be thought of as a higher intelligence. Buddhi is capable of transcending Ahamkara, and responding to the information processed by Manas in a way that is most appropriate and enlightened.

Given this three-layered structure of Chitta, the objective of yoga practice, then, is not to stop the functioning of Chitta; indeed, as mentioned above, this is neither desirable nor possible unless one is comatose. Rather, the objective is to get Chitta to function on the level of Buddhi rather than on the level of Ahamkara. Ahamkara, as we know, is the "I-making" part of Chitta. As such, when the Chitta operates mainly on the level of Ahamkara, it is preoccupied with Prakruti (phenomenal experience): It has to, in order to distinguish which part of phenomenal experience is "I" or "mine." In order to bring about the Vrtti Nirodhah of Chitta, Chitta needs to be refocused, so that its attention is on Purusha (True Self). In so doing, the Chitta also comes to make decisions from the level of higher intelligence (Buddhi) rather than from the level of ego (Ahamkara).

I think all this speaks very well to our experience, both on and off the mat. On the mat, there are many opportunities and forms for Ahamkara to arise ("If I just push a bit harder, this posture will be mine!", "Why can't I get this or that posture or look like so-and-so or such-and-such in this posture?", or even "Why haven't I had this or that earth-shattering experience/sensation that so-and-so talks about all the time?"). Perhaps the thing to do is not to get rid of Ahamkara, but to be aware of and recognize the workings of Ahamkara for what they are, and realize that we have a choice to decide whether to go along with Ahamkara or find a more appropriate way to respond to our experience. I think having this realization is the first step to accessing and acting from Buddhi.

Well, I honestly feel that I am getting a little out of my depth here. I feel that I have reached the limit of what I can safely say about this subject without making things up on my own, and possibly corrupting your perception of the yoga practice (talk about prakruti...). So I think I should sign off here, and leave you in better hands. Below is the full video of Kino's Yoga Sutra talk in Richmond. I hope you will learn much :-)



  1. Michael Stone's teaching convinced me to begin meditation! I tried to read about meditation and even borrow old meditation CDs (made in the 80s and 90s) from the library but just couldn't get into it. Stone's explanations clarified the actual meditation process for me. I don't understand how the older meditation books and tapes make no mention of this "discomfort" step that most people experience at the beginning stage. Most people quit at this point because they think they're doing something wrong and/or are just not cut out for meditation practice.

  2. Interesting, Yyogini. I don't know very much about Michael Stone's teaching, but I certainly see the value of teaching and approaching people in a way that reaches them where they are (including the discomfort and everything) rather than where we think they should be. I think this is also true in yoga practice and teaching.