One of the main concerns of Yoga, as expressed in the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali, is sorting out the yogin’s true, essential and eternal self from that which is other, that which is temporary and changing. By becoming able to distinguish between the two, the yogin hopes to free him or herself from the anguish and suffering of existence and perhaps even cease the continual cycle of death and rebirth. Patañjali states it succinctly in his opening verses:

Yoga is the process of restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.

Then the observer can know its own true nature.

Otherwise, the observer identifies itself with the fluctuations of consciousness.

Patañjali’s way of thinking about existence and the mind resonates strongly with modern scientific thought. He expresses many of his ideas in terms of energy. For him, thought is an energetic activity of the mind. The word he uses to represent this, vrtti, often gets translated as “fluctuation.” Think of the surface of a pond. When the water is perfectly still, the surface becomes transparent and it becomes possible to see all the way to the bottom. Drop a rock into the pond and the surface is disturbed with ripples. The bottom of the pond becomes obscured.

If the mind is filled with thoughts and emotions, the fluctuations are strong and energetic and the mind can become easily distracted. It makes little difference if the thoughts and emotions are positive or negative. The seductive memory of a pleasant experience can be just as involving as, say, the righteous anger towards someone who has done us wrong. And when the mind is wrapped up in those thoughts, Patañjali says it takes their shape and it ceases to be self-aware. That self-awareness is akin to the clarity of the pond water that enables us to see the bottom. Without it we will be unable to see plainly the world around us for what it is. We will always be at the mercy of circumstance and a slave to our emotions.

This may not seem like such a bad thing when we are happy, or when our fortunes are on the up. But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining has a potential cloud. Basing your identity on the blessing of your life can be just as fraught as identifying yourself with those things that limit you. If we define ourselves by the insults levied against us, how can we ever rise above them? And if we become attached to the good things in our lives, how will we feel when they are threatened? Without the discernment and self-awareness that comes with a calm and open mind, we will never be able to go deep enough to find the enduring freedom of an enlightened life.

The Idea in Practice

Our yoga practice gives us a perfect place to begin to address and work with the fluctuations of the mind. Here are four ways to approach your asana practice and take it out of the physical and into the spiritual plane.

Practice #1: Becoming Aware

The first thing is to observe how different kinds of poses affect the mind. At the beginning of your practice, check in with your thoughts. Observe their quality without going too deep into their content. Is the mind sluggish and lethargic, or is it vibrant and fluid? Do you feel up or down, happy or melancholic? Do the same after you have finished and note the change, if any. Keep track of your practice in a journal and note the following:

    What was the quality of your thoughts at the beginning of practice?
    What type of poses did you practice overall (back bends, forward bends, standing poses, etc.)?
    What was the quality of your thoughts at the end of practice?

In this way build up an understanding of how the different types of poses affect the energy of the body and mind.

Practice #2: Tracking the Flow

Once you begin to have a grasp on how an entire practice can affect the fluctuations of the mind, you can begin to observe how the mind and body can fluctuate within an individual practice. Poses in a practice are generally grouped together by type. We do some standing poses, then perhaps a seated pose or two, then inversions, and so on. At the end of each section, check in with yourself and observe how the quality of the body and mind has changed. Each section becomes like an act in a play, or a verse in a poem, each with its own idea, its own message and effect.

Practice #3: Becoming Mindful

To go deeper, start to observe the fluctuations of the mind pose by pose. Observe where you begin to lose yourself in the pose, either because the sensation is strongly pleasant or strongly uncomfortable. Observe also the moments when the mind is thrown out of the pose to think about something completely irrelevant. Start to become aware of patterns in your practice along these lines. Does a certain pose always have the same effect? Do you bliss out with some kinds of poses and sink into dread when faced with others?

Practice #4: Single-Pointed Focus

This last approach is perhaps the hardest. As you do your poses, can you observe your thoughts as if they were part of your body and not your mind? Can you find an inner perspective of calm self-awareness that allows you to experience both your body and the fluctuations of your mind as akin to a suit of clothing that you have put on, but that you could just as easily change?

This is a very subtle idea. At first you might not be able to truly experience it. If so, play with the idea as you practice. Think about it. Think about how it makes you feel. Pretend, even, that you can experience it. Eventually you might actually find yourself spontaneously in this mindset for short periods of time. When this happens, observe how the mind flip-flops between playing with the idea and truly experiencing it. As time goes on and the practice becomes firmly established, you can begin to take the exercise into your daily life and observe the changes it will create there.