Imagine that you are out walking one evening. As you round the corner of a building, you jump back in fear. A snake is coiled on the ground. Thoughts churn through your mind. Finally, when your heart stops pounding, you take a closer look and discover that it is only a coiled rope. Your thoughts rapidly change. You feel relieved and maybe a little foolish.
You’ve just experienced the results of misperception–one of the five types of mental chatter that keep our hearts and minds preoccupied. The other four are correct perception (a coil of rope), imagination, dreams and memories. According to the sutras, yoga is stilling this mental chatter. When we are able to do this, we experience calmness, peacefulness and an understanding of our true self.
If you have ever tried unsuccessfully to quiet your mind and felt frustrated with the lack of results, you’re in good company. Patanjali acknowledges the difficulty. And while some people are naturals, most of us will have to practice diligently to gain the skills to do this. He offers a process to follow: start by replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Begin learning to quiet your mind for brief periods of time, then gradually extend the time when your mind is still. How can we still our minds? Trying to push our thoughts and emotions away only creates more disturbance like ripples on a lake. Instead focus attention on one thing.
During our practice we use our own bodies as a focal point, whether that is our breath as we flow through a vinyasa or our fingertips in warrior two. We move off balance and come back to center. We get distracted, laugh and return to our pose. We are practicing yoga. We are becoming more skillful in both our bodies and minds.
“This, too, shall pass.”
My friend’s grandmother used to say this often. It’s a wise saying. Our thoughts and emotions are as changeable as the sky. They come and go. They change from one moment to the next and over time. They can can be helpful, harmful or neutral. They will pass. It’s true also for our bodies and, really, everything in the world. We can get caught up in our thoughts and swept away as if we’re in a raging river. Yoga offers a way to step out of that river and connect with our unchanging, essential self.