Otherwise, there is identification with the movements, thoughts, and distractions (fluctuations) [of the mind]. These distractions/fluctuations are five-fold. They are either obstructing or non-obstructing.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Sutra 4-5

As translated by Shelli Carpenter

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are the oldest known collection of writings specifically about yoga. They are the foundation of our modern yoga practice.  The Yoga Sutra were written in 200-400 CE. They are attributed to a teacher called Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra are special because they were not written for people living in monasteries.  Rather, they were compiled for common householders living in the Indus Valley region.

I am. Thinking is optional.

Rene Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? It is a very logical statement. If one is thinking than there must be an entity there to be having the thought.

But what if this statement is actually backwards? What if we are, and because we are, we think?

According to Patanjali, the state of Yoga is realized when the mind is still and the individual rests in the truth of who they are. No thinking required!

In fact, thinking may hinder our ability to realize our true nature. Our true nature is not something to be intellectually conceptualized. If we can name or define it, that is not it.

That is not to say thinking is bad. Our brains are incredible organs. They were made for thinking, and they do so quite well! It is our identification with our thoughts that colors our understanding of who we are and of what we are capable.

Perceiving is believing.

The “fluctuations of the mind” may be painful, but they may not be. According to Patanjali, there are five different ways our minds operate: valid knowledge (or right perception), distorted perception, fantasy or imagination, sleep, and memory.

Our perception is based on information received through our senses. Perception is not fixed.  It is a way of understanding reality, but not ultimate reality itself. Our perception reflects the sensory input we receive at any given moment. It can change when we consider new or different information.

Patanjali says there are two different ways of perceiving: right perception and distorted perception. Right perception is informed by valid, legitimate sources. According to the Yoga Sutra, right perception is informed by trustworthy teachers, sacred scripture, and our own direct experience.

Distorted perception is when what we think is based on false or factually inaccurate information. It may be a misunderstanding, mistake in perception on our part, or we may have even been lied to by someone else. It is not wrong for our perception to be distorted. We base our perception on the information we have at the time. However, it is our responsibility to empower ourselves with the best information we can and be willing to change our minds when we receive information that creates a shift in perception.

It’s all in our heads!

Our minds are capable of some pretty amazing things. Some things are based in our perception (or misperception) of reality, and some have no basis at all. Unlike perception, fantasy and imagination do not arise from the senses. Rather, the mind conceptualizes an idea seemingly from nowhere. The creative capacity of the human mind is wondrous and terrifying. It can be harnessed for life-affirming purposes such as play, self-expression, and even advances in medicine and technology. However, it can also serve dark forces, creating chaos and destruction. No mental, emotional, or spiritual process is inherently good or bad. It is what we do with it that matters.

Actively passive.

The last two fluctuations of the mind Patanjali outlines are sleep and memory. At first blush, we may assume that both of these are fixed states that we have little control over. However, Patanjali and modern science would say otherwise. Sleep is affected by a number of factors. Some are outside of our control, but others are well within it. Like meditation, we may not be able to “think” ourselves into refreshing sleep, but we can create the conditions for healthy sleep to arise. There are many practices and recommendations for sleeping well: avoiding caffeine past midday, keeping our bedroom a comfortable temperature, turning off our technological devices at least an hour before retiring to name a few. But yoga is concerned with our minds. Whether we sleep well or not does not begin an hour before bedtime. It is a process we engage in throughout our day.

Disturbed sleep often reflects a troubled mind. In order to sleep well, we must first put our minds at ease. As yoga practitioners, we often focus on creating a ritual for beginning our day. It is just as beneficial to create and end-of-day ritual, especially if we have trouble sleeping. Try going beyond the typical suggestions many doctors give to take melatonin, try lavender essential oil, and enjoy a cup of chamomile tea. We can get to the heart of what really disrupts our sleep by keeping a bedtime journal. Try this practice:

  • Take a few moments and free-write about your day. Be sure to include the things that went well and the things that didn’t go as well as you would have liked.
  • Pay particular attention to the things that made you feel ashamed, guilty, or areas where you feel you missed the mark.
  • Honestly assess these things and consider whether the feelings are simply feelings or if there is anything for which an apology is warranted and an amends need be made. Take gentle care in this. Many of the things that cause us to feel guilt and shame -especially if they occurred long ago- are trigger points where we have been wounded and best to work through with a therapist or even a trusted loved one. Try to reflect only on the day you are ending without venturing further into your past.
  • If the feelings are just feelings, there may be something deeper calling your attention, but best to take that on in the waking hours.
  • If you do owe someone an apology, write it down. Also, write down how and when you will offer any necessary amends.
  • Whether the feeling is “just a feeling” or not, forgive yourself. We all make mistakes! It is our work to learn from them and do better next time.
  • Give just as much attention to the things of which you are proud! How were you helpful? How did you make someone’s day better? Write down even things that seem insignificant to you. You never know how a gentle smile or kind word has the power to alter someone’s day for the better!

Like sleep, our memories are variable and changing. If there is a memory that brings us pain, we can change it. That does not mean we can change what happened. However, we can shift our perception around what happened. Perhaps we found ourselves in a disempowering situation. When we remember the event, it causes us pain. What would make us feel empowered in that situation? Perhaps we realize that what we experienced was not our fault. Maybe we consider the possibility that we are fundamentally good no matter what we went through. Can we entertain the idea that we might be able to help others going through something similar?

Some memories we can work through on our own. Others may be too painful and overwhelming. Let’s be kind to ourselves, gentle with ourselves. Again, the help of a trusted loved one or a licensed therapist who resonates with us can offer a path to healing and integration. And integration, indeed, is yoga.

Thinking our experience.

We experience Yoga when we are able to separate the truth of who we are from our fleeting, transient thoughts. Becoming the observer of our thoughts allows us greater freedom and flexibility around what and how we think. It is a relief to realize our thoughts are not real! We are not stuck in some fixed state at the affect of the world. Rather, we are co-creators with reality. If we don’t like what we are seeing, we can choose to see differently and engage life in such a way at to elevate our experience.