Yoga's Wisdom: Chitta Vrittis

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1:2

Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha

Yoga is the stilling of the mind's stirring thoughts.

  • Yoga = Union

  • Chitta = Conscious Mind

  • Vritti = Disturbance

  • Nirodha = disciplined restraint; container

Most people come to Yoga with an idea of what Yoga is 'for'.

They've been sold Yoga For Anxiety. Yoga for Flexibility. Yoga for Weight Loss. Yoga for Immune Health.

Yoga for this.

Yoga for that.

Yoga is not for anything...except for every aspect of being human.

A Clear Blue Lake

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras Yoga is introduced as a method to overcome mental disturbances that separate us from feeling connected with our inner wisdom and the greater world around us. In the Sutra's 8-limb path the unification of mind and body bringing about a presence of mind. Attaining steadiness and presence of mind is the core of yoga practice.

Attaining steadiness and presence of mind is the core of yoga practice.

The ancient Yoga masters ascribed the mind as that which exists between between body and soul. The pain of life is not avoidable, but through Yoga the addition of mental suffering, anxiety, volatility is mitigated. More simply with Yoga we learn not to pour salt on our own open wounds, but rather to work on becoming friendlier towards ourselves and more relaxed during uncertainty.

A common metaphor offered to embrace the impermanent quality of Chitta Vrittis is a deep, clear lake. The ripples on the lake are affected by the wind and weather, but the disruption and even when the ripples become waves, only truly affect the most external layers of the lake. At some depth the water becomes undisturbed. However from above seeing the depth and stillness of the lake is impossible because the ripples and waves distort the rest of the lake from view. When focusing on the ripples it's easy to forget that there is an entire world underneath the surface.

Within the stillness of the mind comes relief from suffering, and realization of true nature, or inner divinity. Suffering within the sense of Yoga arises from mental anguish, and not seeing beyond the illusion and pain of the manifest world. With practice we learn to remember that at our core we are not the body, nor the mind. We are an inextinguishable spark.

Meaning Maker

In Yoga philosophy the mind is not simply one thing. We know this modernly to be true as well. Different parts of our brain, the organ we most associate with the word 'mind', has areas and functions, conscious and unconscious activity, functional control, active and rational thinking, memory storage, sensory processing and more. Within Yogic Philosophy the mind has many, many functions as well.

Four categories of particular interest to the serious practitioner are Buddhi, Manas, Ahankara, and Chitta. They work together and influence each other, and our vrittis (ripples) will determine our ability (or lack thereof) to enjoy equanimous peace.

Chitta is the mind comprised of subconscious thoughts, habitual thoughts, or conditioning. The conditioning can create the vrittis (waves/disturbances).

Ahankara is our ego-identity that begins to identify with deep held beliefs, learned behavior, culture, and human-based ego-driven ideas. It governs how we perceive ourselves and our relationship with others within our roles.

Buddhi mind is our reasoning, deciphering, and understanding mind. It can collect information and make senses of what it perceives. But it too is sensitive to conditioning.

Manas is part of Chitta but it relates uniquely to our active, human mental state. It generates all our spontaneous thoughts. An external trigger creates a thought within Manas. However, if our Chitta mind is conditioned to a certain reactivity, our manas mind is also going to follow that patterning.

Of the four the Chitta mind is like a gatekeeper. And the Chitta Vrittis are the ripples that may cloud our visions otherwise.

Everything exchanged between body and soul must pass through the subconscious mind. And very often our mind, through life experience and conditioning attributes meaning - legitimately or otherwise - to physical experiences without first consulting our deeper, wiser, and truer self. Feelings of love, peace, and ok-ness our inner-selves might have for the body and mind is also filtered through the meaning-making if our mind, which can be especially troublesome when our mind is especially busy and our patterning feels very solid and unrelenting.

The goal of yoga, as described in Patanjali's Sutras, is to train the mind, discipline it, and to gain awareness of when the mind is creating or reinforcing a false narrative, and the Chitta Vrittis are inhibiting ones ability to see, process, and act with clarity. Eventually mastery over the Chitta Vrittis becomes the ultimate goal of yoga - to break free of the patterning and conditioning that drive our thoughts, actions, and reactions and operate from a place of true knowledge and liberation.

Meditation & Contemplation

Meditation and contemplation are powerful tools for training and disciplining the mind. Meditation makes the mind one-pointed and steady. By practicing meditation we train the mind to stay alert but undisturbed. Contemplation gives the mind an opportunity to fully understand experiences without misinterpretation, or allowing the replaying or analysis of experiences to overwhelm us.

Through the practice of contemplation we come to know that the nature of our mind like a witness. The goal of yoga is not to restrain the mind but to calm the vṛttis—the perpetual stirring of thoughts that steal our peace, or more accurately within Patanjali's example, stirring thoughts cloud our ability to see our connection to everything within us and around us.

Perhaps you are thinking, "I don't have the luxury of taking the time to sit and breathe. I'm too busy for that."

While contemplation can feel like a luxury when the demands of the body and life weigh heavy on our mind that discomfort is a great place to begin.

No Wrong Understanding

We start by working in a pose, in a meditation, in breathwork, with what is immediately present, without judgement.

To do so we must embrace the notion of no wrong initial motivation. Or, as my teacher says, "No Wrong Understanding."

This concept was initially very hard for me.

What do you mean there's no wrong understanding?

I wanted very much for my own understanding to be either right or wrong, and same went for everyone else.

But as the wisdom of her words sunk in I realized she was speaking about the Vrittis. Understanding does not fall into a dualistic correct or incorrect. Understanding itself may be mis-understanding, but it's not inherently 'wrong' but rather misguided, or misinformed, or maybe even only as accurate as the present information can allow. A person's understanding is simply how they make sense of something based on the information they have and their conditioning. And as more information is revealed, and the conditioning is challenged - the understanding also changes.

Just because something got you to the mat initially, doesn't mean it will remain the driving motivation forever.

Overtime the understanding will evolve, and our motivations may also change.

Embracing this idea for myself allowed me to extend greater empathy to my own practice, and in practice when living in community with others. With empathy the body and mind can more easily relax into what is, rather than cling to everything as we wish it to be.

Awakening Body Wisdom

Ok, so it's clear that Yoga is about the mind. But why then do we focus so heavily on asana (poses) these days?

The body, mind, and consciousness are intermingled but the concerns of the body feel because we are more sensitive to it than to the mind, and our bodies are not always able to fulfill their role in processing energy fully and effectively. In this modern world, we often feel cut off from the wisdom of our body - we understand it more than we ever have on an intellectual level, but we also feel more separated from ourselves than ever.

Feeling disrupted by the sensitivities of the physical body can make our ability to practice core of yoga—mastery over mental disturbance and anguish— secondary. The noisiness of physical discomfort calls our attention to deal with the needs and demands of the body. That is why the practices that help us become healthy at the physical level have become the more well known aspects of "yoga"; asana, breath work, and lifestyle choices help us minimize controllable obstacles that get in our way of calming the mind. The more witness our own feelings, actions, and reactions, the more empathy we can cultivate for ourselves and others, and the more empathy we can cultivate for those stirring thoughts. However, a true practitioner must remember that Yoga means "union."

The ultimate union is between the individual and the Divine and the greater world around them. Witnessing the nature of our mind's is the essential tool for bringing this union about.

We cannot quiet the waves by fighting against them. We can however fortify and strengthen our body, mind, and spirit to weather the storm, and take respite by diving down finding calm in the waters below the waves, deep inside where our True Nature resides.

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