What does it mean to take your yoga 'off the mat' ?Chances are you've heard it before and thought but how though? Is it just another empty buzz phrase, a brag? Does it refer to those couple of hours after a yoga class - you're in that post practice cloud, feeling that bit more patient and sexy with yourself, totally sure that you won't waste time watching TV or trying to fill your body up with wine later because you are so damn full of love and light? Erm, I guess sort of, but it can be so much more! In the yoga world, there is an obsession with defining what yoga is and what it isn't. Many are unsure as to where to look for yoga outside of the 4 corners of the mat. A sure way to go deeper beyond the postures (asanas) is through the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a book made up of thoughts on the theory and practice, comprised of 4 chapters. Upon your first toe dip into the texts, chances are you will experience a boggling of the mind, but with a little perseverance and usually the discovery of a translation + commentary that palatalizes them, the teachings start to present themselves, you start to find ways to assemble them to make sense to your modern millennial self. It's sad but true that our collective attention span has diminished, study of the sutras offers us a way to challenge that, to unravel. In the first chapters,we learn of the mind (chitta) and of all the stuff that makes it up (vrittis). Within the mind Patanjali lists 5 vrittis, fluctuations, what I would call the movement of the mind, often I cue students to observe these fluctuations inbetween postures, pausing the physical movement within an active practice to observe how the mind moves when the body stills. At any given time, our minds are in a process of either: • Understanding (pranama) • Misunderstanding (viparyaya) • Imagining (vikalpa) • Sleep (nidra) • Reminiscing (smrti) Most conversational exchanges with other humans fall into understanding and misunderstanding, and when left alone we are either in the past, future or a fantasy land. Even in sleep our brain activity consumes around 25% of our bodies energy capacity. Of course these categories of activity are nuanced but we can pretty much niftily fit any thought pattern into one of these boxes presented. I find it a practical and helpful tool to have this way of categorising my thoughts when my mind decides to run away with itself or gets stuck in counterproductive cycles. The thread we are pulling on here leads us to Nirodha, which is the process of controlling the fluctuations of the mind (the vrittis of the chitta, are you still with me?) What I get, emphasis on that this is all my interpretation, is that Patanjali's goal was to control the mind, to clear way for nothing but bliss, balance and clarity, sounds pretty bloody nice right? I believe with disciplined meditation practice we get glimpses of this, sure, but how can we implement Nirodha in the midst of a challenge, in our active day to day bumpy lives? Maybe we move the goal posts and go from trying to clear the mind, to instead getting to know it, honoring and celebrating the complexities, recognising any naughty and harmful activity and thus refining or reflecting upon it. The ability to catch yourself in an act can be very valuable. This practice can potentially stop us from jumping to conclusions, from putting ourselves down, saying something we can't take back, making quick fire decisions in the heat of a moment. I caught my mind wandering to the romanticisation of binge drinking to temporarily quick fix all life's problems recently (that ol' chestnut) and felt grateful for the lens which I experienced this craving through. When we learn to use the contents of this sutra as a blueprint, as a landing spot, we open up ourselves to a mindful way of living, life itself becomes a meditation. Often the only time we are actually alone with our minds is when our heads hit the pillow before sleep, it can be overwhelming due to us subconsciously shutting out our feral thoughts the whole time by always scrolling or spotify listening or incessant whatsapping. Ironically to combat this we stick on a heavily guided meditation to quiet the noise, but in the long run is that serving us? Could we be stuffing our minds with filler and ghosting ourselves, taking up the space in which independent thinking and questioning could be free flowing? This isn't to suggest we ditch the gorgeously guided meditations, rather food for thought to how we could switch things up.
So here's to getting to know the mind, allow your ego to have a conversation with the soul, explore that beautiful brain of yours and enjoy the ride! A little challenge to apply this interpretation of Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha to your life:
Observe yourself riding the waves of the vrittis, be it in a seated still meditation or on the go, for the sleep vritti (nidra) maybe keep a pad and pen by your bedside and see what you scribble first thing or in the middle of the night without self editing, a stream of consciousness..