Dear Yogi E,
I recently read an article that defined yoga as “the stilling of the fluctuations of mind.” But in all the popular magazines and videos, yoga is defined as “the union of body, mind, and spirit.” Which is it, am I trying to shut myself up or put myself back together?
Dismembered in Denver
Technically, shutting yourself up is closer to the truth, so you might reconsider signing yourself as Chattering in Colorado.
The primary source document for the practice of yoga as most of us practice it is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These 196 sutras, or terse aphorisms, were written over 2,000 years ago and circumscribe the purpose and many of the practices of yoga. As the recognized authoritative scriptural source for the science of yoga, this is arguably the best place to turn for such clarification. And luckily, our answer can be found in the first few sutras of the work.
Yoga Sutra 1.2: Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of mind.
Here we learn that the purpose of the practice of yoga is to still the mind (which includes all thought forms of any kind). This means that all of the tools, techniques, practices, and theories of this ancient science are specifically designed to quiet the mind. And while this is clear enough, it’s important to recognize this isn’t all that is going on—not quite.
Let’s think it through. If you were to perfectly still your mind, you wouldn’t know who you are, who you are married to, or where you put your car keys. Without any thoughts whatsoever you wouldn’t be able tie your shoes, trim your toenails, or tidy your bedroom. Your IQ would be reduced to the level of a lump of coal, or a trendy Crate and Barrel lamp shade, and carrying on the affairs of a normal life would be out of the question. In other words, stilling the mind perfectly and permanently opens you to a whole host of other problems in your life—it’s no kind of solution at all. Thus, in and of itself, completely stilling the mind can’t be the real purpose of yoga. It simply doesn’t make sense. So we read on.
Yoga Sutra 1.3: Then (when the mind is still), the seer [that’s you] abides in her own true nature.
It’s here that we get our first glimpse of the true purpose of the practice: the recognition of your truest essence. Alternatively referred to as self-realization, God-realization, nirvana, or enlightenment, this recognition is made more possible when the mind is still and calm—hence the emphasis on stilling the mind in the previous sutra.
Incidentally, this points to the reason why nearly all great religions and spiritual traditions of the world include some kind of meditation, contemplation, or prayer. It’s because the results of each of these techniques when properly practiced is a still mind, and a still mind, the logic goes, makes the recognition of your true essence (in some tradition called the perception of the divine) more accessible. In the words of another tradition: “Be still and know I am God.”
Lastly, the next sutra, confirms our logic.
Yoga Sutra 1.4: At other times (when the mind is not still) the seer [you again] seems to take on the form of the modifications.
Check it out. When the mind spins angry thoughts, what do you say? I’m angry. When the mind coos contented thoughts, what do you say? I’m contented. When the mind whips up worried thoughts, what do you say? I’m worried. This is what is meant by the seer [you] seem to take on the form of the fluctuations.
This is the thing: you are never, nor have you ever been, angry—but rather you’ve been aware of angry thoughts and emotions. You’ve never been contented—you’ve witnessed contented thoughts and emotions. You’ve never been worried—you’ve been aware of worried thoughts and emotions. And on and on it goes. Thoughts and emotions blow in like the weather and each and every time we fall for the same trick. We believe ourselves to be the fluctuations of the mind.
You are not your thoughts or emotions; you are the witness of your thoughts and emotions. This is a key insight to your liberation, but more on that another time.
Thus to sum up:
The purpose of yoga is to still the mind.
The purpose of stilling the mind is the recognition of your truest essence.
The purpose of recognizing your truest essence is the liberation from the tyranny of the mind—and the expansive feeling of freedom and fulfillment that comes with it.
So why then is the popularized, mainstream purpose of yoga stated as “the union of body, mind, and spirit?” Likely, it’s something the boys down in marketing whipped up to sell magazines (or seminars or books or mat or incense or…). It sure sounds a helluva lot sexier than stilling the mind. Let’s be honest: by and large the peddlers of popular spirituality are more interested in profits than truth.
This is not to say that the phrase is completely devoid of usefulness, it’s just probably not the most accurate depiction of what yoga seeks to do (so you can relax, your body hasn’t gotten a divorce from your mind, and your spirit isn’t throwing craps in Vegas without you).
The last point here is that all of the above answers the question from the perspective of the original purpose of yoga: self-realization. However, this is not to say that the various tools and techniques of yoga don’t have other far-reaching benefits, benefits that may seem much more practical and relevant to say, a stressed out accountant who is more concerned with his backache, bunion, and biceps than he is with stumbling upon his truest essence.
And this is perhaps the greatest thing of all. Yoga, properly understood and practiced, has something to offer virtually all of us. No matter who we are, or what we are interested in, the many practices of yoga can be tailored to provide some benefit physically, mentally, or emotionally. That is, unless your spirit has skipped out to Vegas with your 401K. Then, you’re kind of on your own.
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, and Arizona's first 500-hour Master-Level Yoga Teacher Training Program, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life. In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.