The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1 (1667)¹
The state we’re in
We are living in a period of tremendous instability where much of what we have taken for granted is now revealed to be uncertain. As war, poverty, illness and ecological issues take on global dimensions our mind struggles to find peace. Yet, in yoga we find the tools to help us through since yoga is all about training the mind to serve us well. In particular, it is aimed at a gradual reduction in mental conflict until the mind is calm and clear. Each time we overcome the things that bring conflict to the mind, even for just a tiny moment, we create a memory of peace that can strengthen our commitment to keep practising and so continue creating an ever calmer and clearer mind.
Being in our right mind
However, it is a common myth that ‘anyone can practise yoga’. As our teacher, TKV Desikachar, says in The Heart of Yoga there are states of mind in which yoga practice would be impossible. You have to be in your ‘right mind’ to practise yoga as we cannot practice if the mind is not capable of focusing. There will be times when we will need to do something else to stabilise the mind first before attempting to practise. This can be as simple as going for a walk or having a nap to clear our head a little or it could be something more involved like seeing a doctor for medication to help the mind if we are unwell with depression or anxiety.
It is vital to be aware that there are some more severe mental health conditions where it would be dangerous to practise yoga. This is because the process of clearing the mind involves stirring up the contents of the mind and what emerges from the depths of the mind is unpredictable and can be unnerving, even to someone whose mind has resilience.
We are specifically warned in the Yoga Sūtra-s of Patañjali that emerging thoughts can be troubling and painful and this is one of the main reasons that in this tradition of yoga we emphasise the need for each student to have a supportive teacher and guide. This is someone you can discuss your life experiences with as well as what emerges through yoga practice. Your teacher can help you discern an approach to practice that is more likely to bring benefit than cause harm. She will also be able to spot when someone needs a completely different intervention to help stabilise the mind.
Mind your mind
We have called our annual convention ‘Mind your Mind’. Minding your mind means both paying attention to it and also watching out for the dangers it can pose to our own and other’s wellbeing and peace. In both cases minding our mind means having a personal commitment to dealing with the ‘stuff’ in our own mind and the humility to recognise that our teacher may be able to see our stuff more clearly and calmly than we can because they are not enmeshed in our inner drama like we are.
Let the practice teach you
Yoga teachings tend to take a ‘carrot and stick’ approach: encouraging us forward by enumerating the benefits of practice and also warning us of the dangers of not practising or practising in the wrong way. The subject of yoga practice is vast but its basic premise is that there are things that must be done and things that must not be done if we are to have a calm and clear mind.
Most of us start by learning how to unite the body and breath through the practice of āsana. As we begin to first focus on and then embody the qualities of stability (sthira) and ease (sukha) in the physical body we are also training the mind in these things. In this way the practice itself become the mind’s teacher by unlinking the link with pain so we focus on positive attributes instead and become more adept at withstanding the instabilities of life.
The refining breath
This unlinking from troubling thoughts is a kind of cleansing process. Imagine you have a dripping wash sponge. Soon it will become a festering mess if you don’t squeeze it out. When the sponge is wrung out it becomes lighter and more spacious. This is what our practice does for the mind and the breath is key to the process. As we learn techniques of breathing that slow down the breath and make it smoother so the mind also slows down and flows more smoothly. Our main technique is called ujjāyī prāṇāyāma and this gives feedback to us through sound and sensation so we can adjust our breathing and ensure that the way we breathe is more likely to bring positive benefit to the mind. A secondary benefit is that we will develop the capacity to concentrate for longer and find it easier to cut off from outer distractions.
The refined mind
At its simplest yoga is choosing the direction of the mind instead of it being pulled this way and that. Once we have learned how to become less distracted by sensory stimulation and to concentrate for longer periods of time then choice begins to open up. Do I want to go in the direction that causes worry or do I choose to focus on what will bring me to a more settled mind? The more often we make a choice in the right direction the stronger the mind will become – like an unblemished diamond according to Sri Krishnamacharya – and we will see things as they really are instead of being under the often-misleading influences of memory and imagination. Seeing things as they actually are means going beyond the superficial into the heart of things. This requires strength so as not to create new disturbances in the mind. Again, this is why practising in the right way for us as individuals under the guidance and support of a wise and compassionate teacher is so vital for minding our minds.
A new reality
Yoga practice eventually will take us into a new reality. In fact, it will take us into a reality that has always been there but it will feel new to us because it has been covered up like veils over a light. False understandings, selfishness, wrong attachments and fear will fade into the background and we will experience illumination. The sense of peace this brings will lead us into joy.
These are the fruits of practice: clarity, peace and joy. But these fruits also nourish those we encounter in daily life. We will naturally become more compassionate, less judgemental, more friendly and more generous towards others. In his translation and commentary on the Yoga Sūtra-s, TKV Desikachar says that a person whose mind has been refined by meditation can never increase the anxieties of others.
The state we could be in
This new personal reality, then, has the potential to reduce human suffering overall and to create a new society. Yoga is a practice of peace for the world, not just ourselves. But if we are to take minding our minds seriously then we have to take care that complacency does not set in. The work is never finished. Things are constantly changing within and around us. Look at the weather – the sun does not always shine. But through regular and committed practice we can stay attentive to the potential obstacles and our śraddhā (trust in life) will remain intact and carry us onward.
Written for TSYP by Helena del Pino
1 Thanks to TSYP teacher Karen Adamson for suggesting this quote.
2 PYS 3.6 – viniyoga
3 PYS 3.9 – vyutthāna saׅׅṃskāra
4 PYS 3. 10 – praśānta vāhitā
5 PYS 3.9 – nirodha saׅmskāra
6 PYS 3.9-kṣana
7 Heart of Yoga, p121 – these are kṣipta (the mind in overdrive) and mūdha (the stuck mind)
8 Ibid, vikṣipta (a normally fluctuating mind that has the capacity to focus)
9 PYS 1.5 – kliṣṭa
10 This is the implication of PYS 1.1
11 PYS 1.12 – abhyāsa
12 PYS 1.12 – vairāgya
13 PYS 2.46
14 BG 6.23
15 PYS 2.48
16 PYS 2.50
17 PYS 2.53
18 PYS 2.54
19 PYS 2.54 – pratyāhāra
20 Commentary on PYS 1.41 see https://yogastudies.org/yoga-text-freenotes/t-krishnamacharya-
21 PYS 1.6
22 PYS 2.52
23 PYS 2.3 – kleśa
25 BG 2.66
26 PYS 1.33
27 PYS 4.6 – Reflections on Yogasūtra-s of Patañjali, p115
28 PYS 1.30 – antarāya
PYS: The Yoga Sūtra-s of Patañjali
BG: Bhagavad Gītā