In 1893 Swami Vivekananda brought Yoga to the West. He opened his speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago with the simple but eloquent statement, “Sisters and brothers of America.” Thus, America’s fascination with the mystical practice from India was born.
According to the 2016 Yoga in America study conducted by the popular yoga magazine Yoga Journal and the yoga teacher registration board Yoga Alliance, approximately 36.7 million Americans practice Yoga. This reflects an almost 50 percent increase from the previous study which was conducted in 2012!
With so many people practicing Yoga, one would think they would all be doing the same thing. Far from it! In any given Western city, attend five different yoga classes at five different yoga studios and the odds are they will be taking five different approaches to what they call “yoga”.
Will the “real” Yoga please stand up?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are our oldest know compilation of writings about Yoga. In pada (book) one, sutra (stitch, or verse) two of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives the definition of Yoga: Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah. Translated, this means “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff.”
Chitta means “mind-stuff”. The word “mind” in this context means something quite different than what we normally think of in the West. Chitta can more accurately be understood to mean the field of consciousness. It includes what we experience and how we feel about those experiences. Chitta is the entirety of our awareness.
In the Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali outlines the five vrittis. They are correct knowledge, misconception, delusion, sleep, and memory. These states of mind are not good or bad. They are neutral and we all experience them from time to time. However, they color and cloud the way we see reality. It is as if we are looking in a mirror. If the mirror is clean, we can see our reflection clearly. If the mirror is dirty, our reflection will be distorted. The mirror is our mind reflecting our True Self back to us. The dirt on the mirror is the vrittis. The dirt doesn’t really affect our True Self. Our True Self is untouched by the dirt. But if we mistake the mirror for ultimate truth, we have the false belief that we, not the reflection, are what is dirty.
When the vrittis distort our minds, we mistake them for being ultimate reality and forget the truth of who we are. We feel we are beholden to the information we glean from the vrittis. This causes us pain and suffering. Nirodhah is when the cycle ceases and is resolved. It is as if we have stepped off a wild roller-coaster ride and on to steady ground. When we experience the vrittis for what they are, states of mind that are not ultimately real, our minds are no longer agitated. We can think clearly and be at peace. This is the state of Yoga.
Yoga as psychology.
Psychology is the study of the human mind and its functions. In psychology there is a concept known as the Cognitive Triangle. The triangle is composed of three parts: thoughts, feelings, and actions. We begin at the top of the triangle with our thoughts. What we think leads to how we feel. How we feel informs the resulting actions we take.
Although the Cognitive Triangle is a relatively new, it indicates a truth that yogis have known for years! When we observe our state of mind without attachment, we have greater choice in how we live our lives. We become responsive rather than reactive to the situations we find ourselves in.
If our thoughts are uplifted and make us feel steady and grounded, we may choose actions that are healthy and foster a sense of contentment. However, we may notice our thoughts are dwelling on unhappy memories and we feel sad. This gives us the opportunity to choose a helpful activity, such as reading a good book or cuddling our cat, that will create an atmosphere where we are thinking more clearly, feeling more present, and able to choose to act in ways that are aligned with who we are now.
Yoga is a psycho-spiritual science. Many practitioners are well aware of Yoga as a spiritual practice. We are less familiar with Yoga as a form of psychology. If our intent is the attainment of a calm, steady mind, then at their highest expression psychology and spiritual practice are actually the same thing.
The ultimate aim of Yoga is viveka, which means “wise discernment.” We can practice viveka regardless of how we are feeling. We could be feeling quite sad and still practice viveka. Wise discernment does not deny the troubles we experience, personally or collectively. Viveka gives us the ability to see our troubles, notice how they make us feel, and respond to them in a mature, non-reactive way. By cultivating viveka through our Yoga practice, we are able to hone our intuition, make better decisions, and, ultimately, live peaceful lives with grace and integrity.
Now it’s your turn! What practices help you live in the state we call Yoga? Share with us in the comment section below!