Beyond The Mat: Discovering Yoga's True Essence

Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Jun 21, 2024, 07:00 AM | Updated 11:20 AM IST

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
  • It is through abhyasa and vairagya, practice and detachment, that you can contend with the overpowering nature of the mind.
  • Today, the popular perception of yoga is limited to just physical postures. But do you know there are only three sutras dedicated to physical asanas in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, one of the foremost treatises on the science of yoga? Yoga is much more than a set of physical asanas or exercises.

    Among the definitions of yoga by Maharishi Patanjali, he defines yoga as the act of restraining or freeing the mind from its own modulations.

    He further elaborates, "There are five types of modulations of the mind — wanting proof for everything, incorrect understanding of reality, imagination, sleep, and memory."

    Throughout the day, your mind is engaged in any one or more of these modulations. But if there are moments in the day when you are not asleep or reminiscing or feeling angry about the past, not imagining, or looking for proof, then in that moment yoga has happened.

    These moments are considered precious because this is when you are with your ‘self’, which is the source of joy, love, peace, and knowledge.

    Yoga is what happens when you are in the moment and totally at peace.

    Think back on your own life; haven’t you had this experience? For example, when you are watching the sun go down or beautiful scenery, aren’t you completely in the moment, experiencing peace?

    This also happens during the practice of Pranayamas (breathing techniques) or meditation. The mind is then free from all these five modulations. That is why, when you are practising asanas, you align the body, mind, and breath in a single rhythm for yoga to happen.

    Understanding The Mind’s Modulations

    1. Wanting proof

    Pramaana means the mind has the tendency to seek proof for everything. There are three aspects to this: The first is Pratyaksha, which means it is obvious and can be experienced.

    The second is Anumana, which is not so obvious but can be guessed. For example, if there is smoke, you assume there has been a fire, though you may not have seen the fire.

    Lastly, there is Agama or scriptural proof. For example, if it is written on a bottle that the content is poisonous, you are not going to say, ‘I want to test it or I want to personally experience it to know.’ You take the writing as proof.

    2. Wrong perception

    Viparyaya is when the mind is stuck in wrong perception or wrong knowledge. It's when you have an incorrect perception of people or situations. This creates misunderstandings among people and societies.

    For example, you may have an inferiority complex and therefore consider someone’s behaviour to be arrogant. Actually, they are not arrogant or disrespectful. It is because you do not respect yourself that you think others do not respect you.

    The proof is of no importance when Viparyaya dominates and logic fails. Correct information appears briefly, but only incorrect information sticks in the mind.

    3. Imagining what isn’t

    The mind’s third modulation is vikalpa, a sort of hallucination. There may be some thought, but it is not true. It could be a pleasurable fantasy or a baseless fear.

    Perhaps you are 60 years old and fantasise about what it would be like to be 16 again. Or you may be apprehensive that you will have an accident and die tomorrow. Both are vikalpas.

    4. Sleep

    No one has ever defined what nidra, or sleep, is in such a beautiful manner as Maharishi Patanjali. When the mind gets into a contentless state, it is called sleep. That modulation of the mind in which it takes refuge in the non-content state amounts to sleep.

    5. Memory

    Smriti is the memory of those experiences that your mind could not let go of. Every morning you brush your teeth, but that doesn't make any impression. Every day, you eat your breakfast. Do you remember what breakfast you had the day before yesterday? One week ago? Or last month?

    No, because these are of no importance to you. It is neither pleasurable nor painful, so it does not make any impression on the consciousness.

    But some of the experiences you are unable to let go of from your mind remain as memories that create either cravings or aversions. Unpleasant experiences create fear and trauma in the mind.

    Is it wrong to have modulations of the mind?

    People usually say these five vrittis, or modulations, should be done away with. That is not right. For example, some people try to stay awake the whole night. That is not what Maharishi Patanjali is talking about here.

    These vrittis are said to be clista or aclista; that is, some are difficult and painful, and some are not. For example, if you don't get enough sleep, it is painful. At the same time, if you sleep too much, there is lethargy and discomfort. Similarly, if you forget everything, it is painful, and if you cannot forget anything, that is painful too.

    The same applies to wanting proof. Perhaps that is why there is the proverb 'Ignorance is bliss'. You are blissful when you don't know something, but when you get the proof, the truth can be hard-hitting and painful.

    With ignorance and wrong understanding, you can remain in the little world you build in your mind and it may be comforting. You can sit and imagine you have become an angel and are flying in the sky with wings. It's not painful. Similarly, if you imagine people are after you and everybody is against you and out to get you, you can make your own life difficult.

    These five vrittis, or modulations, are an indispensable part of life. But if they get out of control or are not in your control, then you can never come back to yourself. How do you contend with the overpowering nature of these activities of mind? It is through abhyasa and vairagya, practice and detachment.

    An effort is needed to relieve you of the five modulations, to bring the mind to the present moment. This effort is called abhyasa.

    You can start by being determined that you are not going to be interested in any proof or knowledge. If the mind asks for proof or knowledge, just observe it and relax. Let things be the way they are.

    If the mind is on some fantasy, know it is happening. Knowing you are fantasising, it drops off, freeing you and bringing you back to the present moment. This moment is so new, so fresh, and so total.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.