How the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (in particular the ethical code of Yama/ Niyama), contribute to the efforts of the modern seeker of truth, guiding us towards the evolution of the human brain.
The most complete and methodical script on yoga psychology and the exploration of the human brain was composed thousands of years ago, by a sage named Patanjali. It consists of 195 “sutras” (aphorisms). Patanjali was a great yoga Rishi, thought to be responsible for collecting and establishing the traditional yogic methods of managing the mind. We must always remember that Yoga is, above all, a systematic training of the human system (body/emotions/mind/soul), working towards evolution.
In the second sutra, Patanjali states:
‘’Yogah-chitta vritti nirodhah’’ (Yoga is the regulation or pause of the mind waves.)
In other words, Yoga is the ability to stop thinking.
Those who have tried to stop the mind know very well that this is the most difficult thing we can ask of ourselves. By stopping our thoughts, we essentially destroy our instinctive programming. By stopping our mind, our ego dies. The act of stopping our mind means that we are going against life itself... and our minds are naturally programmed to 'protect' us from such life-threatening deeds.
So why would we choose to threaten our own system by stopping our thoughts?
Most of our mental energy is distributed towards survival: what to feed ourselves, how to predominate, how to reproduce. Patanlali, over 2000 years ago, explains that these very deep unconscious needs deemed vital to our existence, are consequently responsible for creating the chitta vritis (mind waves, concious and unconscious) which then create samskaras (habits), which in turn create vasanas (programmings/character). This kind of mechanism infects the human brain with kleshas.
Kleshas (impurities of the mind), not only take up most of our mental energy but also shadow the truth from us. Patanjali emphasizes that if one does not make a conscious effort to control the chitta vritis (mind waves), the mind will always be preoccupied, and as it works, it will create more and more layers (kleshas) masking the truth.
According to Patanjali, there are five types of kleshas:
- Illusion of separateness
- Attraction towards the pleasant
- Aversion to the unpleasant
- Survival instinct
These are the causes of the mind's lack of clarity... Without the kleshas, our minds would be crystal clear, and thus ready for meditation. In simple terms, one cannot meditate when the mind is occupied with illusions, with limitations of the ego, with desires that need to be fulfilled, with fears of unwanted things or threats to our survival. This is why it is vital that we work towards finding methods and techniques of controlling these mind waves. In other words, we must find ways of controlling our thoughts.
The second obstacle preventing the mind from reaching high levels of meditation is Karma. We must recognize that we carry with us the actions of our past that have not yet been met with reactions. The more of these actions we carry, the heavier the mind is weighed down. This effect, to use modern terms, essentially places us on "stand-by" mode, preventing us from moving higher until the actions are dealt with.
The techniques presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, guide us through a process of clearing our minds of both Kleshas and Karma. Remember that the Yoga Sutras' goal is to stop the mind from thinking. Patanjali suggests that by practicing the ethical codes of yoga we can limit the disturbance that the kleshas bring and we can also “burn” Karma.
The first technique that is presented refers to two qualities which we must cultivate simultaneously:
- Abhyasa (uninterrupted practice)
- Vairagya (dispassionate objectivity)
In other words: Never give up, but always let go. Try, and then surrender your efforts.
This is a very deep technique that takes a long time to “install” itself in our modern brains, which are either operating mechanically with a constant tendency to “let go” through lack of effort, or are extremely dynamic without allowing us to stop or listen when life is telling us to do so. Therefore, the balance between the two, achieved through the equal practice of these opposing qualities, will bring our life into balance, minimizing some of the mind waves created by doing the wrong thing and/or doing it at the wrong time. Abhyasa and Vaigagya are very well represented during our Hatha Yoga sessions, when we repeatedly follow each active posture with relaxation.
Many such techniques are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, but the most famous (and perhaps the most vital) is the 8-fold method of enlightenment, translated from the term “Ashtanga Yoga”:
According to Patanjali, our first act must be to cultivate ethos (Yama-Niyama). Cultivating ethos is to harbor a character that does not create disturbance to you or to others.
The modern Yogi however, living in a world where everything is available at the click of a button, has no desire to waste time. Like everything else in his life, he wants enlightenment to be an instant process, and the system that Patanjali suggests does not promise any shortcuts. No one wants to wait until they have the right character to practice pranayama or meditation! Why would they, when there are meditation courses that promise self-realization in weeks. Why take the long and difficult road over these fast solutions?
The most common argument that a Yoga Guru would give in response to this, is that without the ethical preparation of the student, the power is possessed by the wrong individual; one who is not yet equipped to handle it correctly.
Swami Gitananda would say “Yoga makes the thief a better thief”.
Another side of truth though, is that a thief can ever truly meditate!
The chitta vritis (mind waves) of a person who does not follow the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical codes of yoga) are so many and so complicated, that it would ultimately be impossible to concentrate. These first two steps must therefore not be underestimated or overlooked in any way.
The things we shouldn't do to others in order to do always the right thing, keeping our conscience strong.
- Ahimsa – To not hurt anyone or anything with your thoughts, words or deeds.
- Satya - To not practice unconscious or untruthful communication through speech, writing, gesture, and actions.
- Asteya- To not take advantage of any person or situation for personal gain.
- Brahmacharya – To use our energy consciously. We must create relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths.
5. Aparigraha – To possess only what you use.
The personal practices which lift the mind higher by “burning” Karma.
- Saucha – To maintain cleanliness of body, mind and surroundings.
- Santosha – To practice being comfortable with what you have and what you do not have.
- Tapas - To increase the heat that burns impurities, through practices that keep your body and mind fit and healthy (proper sleep, exercise, nutrition, work, and relaxation)
- Svadhyaya – To observe, read, study, practice, reflect, review and observe your progress.
By practicing the Yamas and Niyamas with Abhyasa and Vairagya, we can weaken the kleshas that create more and more karma, and even burn existing karma. (sutra 2.16 “avoid miseries that have not yet come”).
You may ask; how do the yamas and niyamas clear out the kleshas and the Karma?
There is a programming in the brain called the “conscience”. I remember as a child, our priest would tell us that God plants this "conscience" in our brain to stop us running away from him. A strong sense of conscience, means the ability to do always the right thing, avoiding miseries and unnecessary thought patterns that cause us to live wrongly thus causing disturbances during meditation. A strong sense of conscience can regulate all the types of kleshas (impurities).
So by practicing yamas, we control the kleshas, and by practicing Niyamas we minimize Karma. Thus we make the mind pure and proper for higher dhyana practices.
At the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali refers to Asana as “a steady and comfortable sitting” and not all these complicated body postures. After building a strong ethical character, your next step is to learn to remain still, in a comfortable position (Asana). Comfortable stillness is necessary so that the mind waves will gradually cease, but is also vital for moving to the fourth step - Pranayama.
Pranayama is essentially the practice of learning to produce and direct prana - vitality.
(In India, when someone dies they say “he lost his prana”.)
Pranayama is very much connected with the control of the breath, as our main source of prana is the breath. So, we train our breath as a medium of training our prana. Although there are thousands of breathing techniques for controlling our prana, Patanjali describes only one: stop the breath so that the mind waves will also stop. (sutra 2.49: “Pranayama is cessation of the processes of inhalation and exhalation”).
After learning to control our prana, we must then learn not to be disturbed or absorbed by the stimulations of the senses (Pratyahara).
So we become a person with ethos, who is able to sit still for long periods of time, controlling his prana, without being disturbed by any sensory message.
And it is only then that the internal work starts.
We can then move to Dharana, the ability to concentrate on only one thing.
Anything will work, as long as it is isolated entirely from any other thoughts or images.
And then, at this point, can we finally move to Dhyana - meditation; to learn to become one with your point of concentration. To forget yourself - to forget that you are a being that is concentrating.
Samadhi is the final stage of concentration and the complete liberation from the bondage of ego. Samadhi is complete absorption into oneness.
Patanjali says in sutra 2.11 that the final cessation of the kleshas comes through meditation (dhyana). Meditation is the way to reconnect with “the source” (whatever this may mean for us). “The source” is free from impurities, mind waves and karma. So connecting with the source serves to ultimately free us as well. This happens unconsciously during deep sleep: there is a point where the mind waves pause and we are connected with God. This reconnection is referred to as “shushupti” in the Yoga Sutras.
Shushupti is the charging of our biological "computer". It is the only opportunity we have to feed the brain with more energy than the amount required for survival, so that we can then use this excess energy to unlock the deactivated qualities of our mind. Shushupti can also happen consciously, through meditation.
Therefore, while stopping our thoughts may lead us to go against our natural survival instinct, which guides us through our daily tasks of eating, sleeping, finding a partner, reproducing etc., the opportunity to unlock the hidden possibilities of our mind through the methods outlined in the yoga sutras, is in fact indispensable to the development and evolution of the human brain.