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Why yoga is not about silencing your mind.

“Yoga is about silencing the mind.”

Right? Aren’t we trying to quiet our minds, to find the gap between our thoughts, to shut off our brains?

Isn’t that what all those fucking yogi masters have been preaching to us for thousands of years?

I recently read a great article that started with this proposition – that the mind must be silenced – in the context of seeing how our minds trick us when it comes to our daily asana (yoga postures) practice. I agree with the crux of the article, which is that it is important to realize that our minds can lie to us.

The problem with the “silence your mind” language is that it doesn’t give the whole picture. All too often language falls short. The yoga sutras say you can meditate on the difference between a word, its meaning, and one’s ideas about it in order to gain knowledge of the speech of all beings. (sutra III, 17). This sutra highlights the complexity of language: a word, its meaning, and one’s ideas about it can be three distinct things.

So I propose that the use of the words, “silence the mind” as the way to describe the goal of yoga is inadequate. It makes us feel “less than” if we have active minds that never want to shut off. No offense if you’ve used the phrase before. It’s not you, its the words. Maybe its time to consider breaking up and moving on to something better.

The most famous yoga sutra says, “Yoga citta vritti nirodha” (sutra I, 2). Yoga is the stilling of the “chitta vrittis,” the “thought vascilliations.”

Stilling the vacillations of thought gives a different picture than silencing thought, doesn’t it? Think of thought as an ocean: it can vacillate fiercely with waves or can be calm and still; but it is never silent.

In fact, the yoga sutras also describe that even though there is a multiplicity of activities of the mind, one thought is the originator of all the vacillations of thought; and thought born of this original thought is free from accumulating karma. (sutras IV 5-6).  So its not that yoga brings no thought whatsoever; it is that yoga calms down and focuses the mind.

Have you ever noticed your thoughts go up and down, back and forth, almost like there is a committee in your head that weighs the different possibilities? How do we know which voice to listen to?

When it comes to asana practice, one voice-in-my-head may say, “I really should do a full asana practice today,” and another reminds me that yoga isn’t really about the asanas, and yet another reminds me that it is important to challenge my comfort zones, and another reminds me that yoga asana is supposed to be comfortable – “A steady comfortable posture” that comes through “relaxing effort and the natural tendency for restlesslessness by merging with the infinite breath of life” (sutras II-47-48).

So what to do? If we adopt the philosophy that yoga should always be comfortable, that is no better than adopting the philosophy that you should always push yourself. Life is fluid and different approaches are appropriate at different times, on different days, sometimes even minute by minute.

When one is in the state of flow – the state of oneness of mind – there is no black or white.

The actions of a such a yogi are neither “black nor white, nor mixed.” (sutra, IV, 7). However, for everyone else, our actions are some combination of black, white or mixed. (sutra IV,7). This is why we are able to debate things back and forth all day – like whether yoga is about silencing the mind – because, in reality, there are no black or white or mixed answers to anything, because true reality transcends our material concepts of existence.

And the mind is what grounds us in this realm of existence, because it is our judgmentcombobulator – charged with reading situations and coming up with judgments on the fly. In fact, it is the mind’s job to judge, just like it is the heart’s job to beat. Shutting it off completely is like stopping your pulse.

And yes, the mind can be a trickster, so it can be problematic to listen to the committee in our heads – to listen to the vacillating waves of thought, which tend to go round and round and back and forth for as long as we will let them. When we do, we get splashed around like a buoy on the ocean. Instead, yoga teaches us to listen to the innate wisdom of our bodies, which, unlike our brain-voices, are always honest with us.

When you are unsure of whether or not today is a day to push yourself, ask the question, “would it be wise to consider a full asana practice today?” (for example) and then go into your heart center and FEEL the answer.

You will find you can get a clear answer from your body as to best action to take. Because in truth, it is not always ok to take it easy, just like it is not always ok to push. I see teachers and students falling into one of these two broad categories all the time, rather than listening to the rhythm of the Universe and taking the action that a particular day or minute calls for.

So instead of thinking of yoga as a way to silence your mind, think of it as a way to still the vacillating waves of thought by connecting to the wisdom of your body; your body which is intrinsically connected to the infinite breath of life.

Reference: “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” Stiles, Mukunda trans.

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