The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are sacred verses that teach us why we need yoga and how to practice. First, we’re told to take a seat and listen. We will now learn about yoga. Yoga (or union) is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.
Patanjali then describes the five modifications of the mind we need to control. We need to control them, the sage tells us, so they don’t control us.
If we want to know who we truly are, we must still the muddy waters that cloud our minds. Then we will see clearly. This is yoga.
The Five Modifications of the Mind
The Yoga Sutras first show us how our mind works. We must understand how it works before we can learn to control it. Our minds produce five types of thoughts:
- Right knowledge – For example, there is a snake in your garden, and you think, “There is a snake in my garden.”
- Misconception – For example, there is a rope in your garden, and you think, “There is a snake in my garden!”
- Verbal delusion – You are told about a snake someone saw in your garden, but there was no snake. Perhaps it was a rope.
- Sleep – The mind continues to work even while we’re sleeping.
- Memory – All thoughts are based on memories. They can be dreams (while sleeping) or daydreams.
All of these modifications of the mind need to be controlled or eliminated to reach an enlightened state.
So, What’s Wrong with Right Knowledge?
If you’re like me, you looked at this list and wondered why stop thoughts based on right knowledge. It’s fair to say, if you’re going to have thoughts that distract you from your true self, they may as well be based on right knowledge. Patanjali agrees, suggesting that we first practice placing negative thoughts with positive ones.
The second two modifications—misconception and verbal delusion—are clearly of little benefit. So, it’s a good idea to become aware of both and do our best to stop or change those thoughts. How much time do we spend believing things that are simply not true or misunderstanding something because we haven’t seen clearly? We need to pay attention and notice.
Patanjali also points out that some thoughts cause pleasure or peace, while others cause pain.
Most People Cannot Stop Thinking!
In his book, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sri Swami Satchidananda points out that completely stilling the mind is impossible for most people, especially beginning yogis. And we are all beginners. So, he tells us, if we’re going to have thoughts, we may as well thoughts that bring us peace!
Observing Our Thoughts is Practicing Yoga
When we observe our thoughts to become aware of which cause pain and which result in peace, we’re practicing yoga. It’s not the goal, but it’s an important step toward enlightenment.
If you’ve ever done an exercise in which you consciously observe your thoughts, you’ll likely find—at least at first—that most of your thoughts are negative. Many are probably downright false or misguided. Why this is the case, I don’t know. It seems we humans are wired toward negative thinking for some evolutionary reason.
As is the case with a lot of evolutionary reasons for things (like the fight or flight response), we’ve mostly outgrown the need to be negative thinkers. Yet, we still do it instinctively.
Learning to Shift Our Thoughts
Yoga is about overcoming that instinct. First, we learn when we notice our thoughts, we can choose to shift our attention. Then we begin to understand that thoughts in general are mostly a problem! Even positive thoughts cloud our perception of reality.
For example, Yay! I got the promotion! Wow, my website looks great! Cool, that person just complimented me!
These thoughts feel good, but what happens when we get attached to having such thoughts? We begin to identify with the accolades and accomplishments. In short, we can get an inflated ego and lose sight of our true nature, which is separate from external accomplishments.
So, while we know we eventually need to let go of attachment to any kind of thought, the first step in our practice is to master the shift from negative, painful thoughts to those that bring peace and contentment.
Yoga is a journey, and the journey begins with attention.