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Jivamukti Focus of the Month

What is Yoga?

yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations, or whirlings, of the mind.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras I.2

This sutra is how Patanjali defines Yoga: when you cease to identify with your thoughts, fluctuations of mind, then there is Yoga-identity with Self, which is samadhi, happiness, bliss and ecstasy.

Wow, what a concept! And it is from this simply stated concept, this simply stated idea, that the philosophy, paths, methods and practices of yoga have emerged and developed. But if we take into consideration the thousands, maybe millions, of books which have been written about yoga since Patanjali made this statement, then we have to conclude that the question What is Yoga? has and continues to challenge and confound scholars, practitioners and devotees alike, even though Patanjali has given us the answer in four straightforward words. But can words themselves ever answer our deepest questions?

Well we can at least look at the words and contemplate what they might mean: yogash: “then there is Yoga”; chitta: “the content of the mind”; vritti: “the fluctuations, whirling or movement of the chitta”; nirodhah: “the cessation or letting go of identification with the movements of the mind”. By means of nirodhah, the revelation as well as the simultaneous merger with the Absolute comes about. This magical occurrence is a shift in one’s perception or a shift of identification of ones self/Self.

Nirodhah is what the practice of yoga aims to bring about. Nirodhah generally means to stop or to cease. Nirodhah here means ceasing to identify with your personality or limited self, which is composed of thoughts: thoughts about oneself create the reality of oneself. Yoga means union with the Self: not the self in the limited sense of mortal self-body/mind/ego/personality-but the higher Self-the Divine/eternal/limitless Self. The practices of Yoga are concerned with freeing the atman, the Sanskrit term for the inner divine Self, from avidya, or misidentification-that is, identifying with the “lower case” self instead of the “upper case” Self. By means of these practices, nirodhah is achieved, and the practitioner comes to know the Self-the atman, the Divine soul within-and this is Yoga.

Yoga arises magically. You can’t make it happen and you can’t go and get it-you can’t do yoga. All you can do is to let go and it will reveal itself because it was always there. This it-the atman-it is who you really are.

When you cease to identify with your thoughts-to see yourself as defined by your thoughts, to mistake your self for your thoughts, or to see yourself as the sum total of your thoughts–automatically Yoga will come; automatic identity with the Divine atman will be the result, because there is nothing left after you have dropped everything that can be thought about-or felt. This is why Patanjali’s answer to the question What is Yoga? is paradoxical. He does not give the answer, because the answer cannot be explained, it must be experienced, and so it is with continuous practice that the revelation arises…and arises and arises.

The yoga mat is a good place to cultivate this experience. When your body is in an asana, what goes through your mind?-This is too hard? This is too long? This is not for me? I don’t do this asana because of my hamstrings? Oh, this is MY asana? Finally, an asana I can do? Why is the teacher doing so many backbends?-or are you able to simply sit with the asana and allow whatever thoughts and feelings arise without mental commentary or judgment? In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali provides us with many practices, including asana, which can facilitate the realization of who we really are and with it resolve all of our questions-and this all happens by means of letting go which is nirodhah.

“All the greatest and most important problems are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This out growing proves on further investigation to be a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appears on the horizon, and the unsolvable problem loses its urgency, fades out when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.” -Carl Jung

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