In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodhah, yoga is the calming of the whirling of the mind. As we are able to calm our minds, we can see more clearly who we truly are, as Patanjali says in his next aphorism, otherwise we remain identified with our thoughts and feelings.
These are profound teachings and summarize how we end up in lives full of suffering and angst, as well as point us to a trajectory that helps us return to our essence. We get so caught up in our everyday world that we often forget what is most important in life. It is like when we go to the movies, and we are captivated by the story, and forget ourselves. Likewise in our lives, we get caught up in our daily dramas, without recourse to a sense of centeredness. We get pulled and pushed around by the crisis du jour or the next item on our “to do” list without ever pausing to consider why we are here and what is most essentially important.
Our yoga practice involves a process by which we begin to cut through the surface layers of identification to discover or simply remember our essence. Though ultimately meditation is the primary way to do this, our yoga asana practice can help us move in that direction.
One of the most helpful techniques for calming the mind in our asana practice is working with our breath. The technique of ujjayi breathing is cultivated by closing the back of your throat and creating an aspirant sound at the back of your throat. This starts to balance the breath and gives a focus for your ears as you listen to the sound of the breath. We begin to draw our awareness away from the outer world, as well as from the inner turnings of our mind.
The breath is such a beautiful part of ourselves to honor with our attention. It is perhaps the most easily accessible and obvious manifestation of the divine pulsation present in each of us. It reflects the vibration of being that pulses through everything, all of the cycles of nature: day and night, the tides, the seasons, life and death, our heart’s beat, the inhale and exhale. Keeping our awareness on this fundamental pulsation begins to draw us in to the still point from which it emanates.
Consider how in a yoga class we try to maintain a focus on our breath while still attending to the class itself. We have the teacher’s instructions to listen to, all of the different parts of the body to be aware of and coordinate, not to mention the activities of all the students around us as well as other parts of the environment, along with all the thoughts and reactions that all of that is creating in our mind. These are all the whirlings of the mind, the chitta vrittis.
Trying to both stay centered in our breath, while maintaining an open awareness to all of that other stuff is not unlike what we have to do in our lives as householders. On the mat we try to stay connected to the breath while we listen to the teacher and attend to our bodies, and to some extent while we maintain an awareness of our environment, but often so many extraneous and unnecessary thoughts enter our awareness, and the next thing we know we’re going over our grocery list.
So, we simply keep coming back to the breath. We come back to our ujjayi breathing without judgment, without making it a big deal, back to the breath, again and again. Inhale, exhale. Start again. Breathe, listen to the breath, feel our bodies, stay present, notice the person next to us, should I get a haircut like that….ooops! There I go again. That’s OK, start again: come back to the breath, inhale, exhale, feel my body, stay present….
And so it is when we step off the mat. We take whatever calm, peaceful awareness we cultivated in our practice as we step out the door and into the rest of our lives. Then when someone cuts us off in traffic, we get pulled into our reactions, and our mind whirls, we begin to lose that presence, that awareness. Yet there it is, as close as our breath. We can pause, collect ourselves, take a deep breath, reconnect to that peaceful awareness, and remember to respond from that place of greater connection.