This is the second sutra of the Yoga Sutras, and is usually translated as something along the lines of, “Yoga is the cessation of the activities of the mind.”
This is the definition of nirodha in Sanskrit. nirodha
confinement , locking up , imprisonment (-tas Mn. viii , 375)
|(H3) ni-° rodha [p= 554,1] [L=109427]||m.|
|investment , siege |
Var. Ka1v. &c
|enclosing , covering up |
Mn. MBh. &c
|restraint , check , control , suppression , destruction |
dram.) disappointment , frustration of hope Das3ar.
Buddh. ) suppression or annihilation of pain (one of the 4 principles) Lalit. MWB. 43 , 56 , 137 &c
partic. process to which minerals (esp. quicksilver) are subjected Cat.
= ni-graha) L.
|hurting , injuring (|
|aversion , disfavour , dislike |
of a man Lalit.
Is Yoga Stillness?
One of the dozen translations of the Yoga Sutras
(amazon.com link) in my house is by Swami Aranya
(Google Books link), and I notice that it begins with a little ditty.
and scroll down a few pages to see this page.
Actually, I had the book for years before I noticed this "to catch the mind and keep it still" limmerick on page 2 of the book. But maybe Swami Shankarananda is giving us a clue here. Wow, daring humor to put that there!
Arrest Cessation Inhibition Restriction Restrain Stoppage Suppression
Because it is a diligent and scholarly translation, Aranya's version, translated into English by Pundit Mukerji, goes on to use the standard words arrest, cessation, inhibition, restriction, restraint, stoppage, suppression, fixity, and blankness on every other page, just like all translations of Patanjali.
Over the last couple of years, I have been contemplating Patanjali's historical context. And what I get, when I do samyama on nirodha – the way his stoppage
model makes sense is this. Say you live in a world like India of 300 A.D. Nothing much in your village has changed since the time your great-grandfather lived. The village is about the same size, 120 people more or less. Farming is done with the same tools. Everyone is wearing the same type of clothes, speaking the same language, and organized by the same caste system. You are a 60-year old male whose every need is cared for. Your wife waits on you hand and foot. The village is tiny, and everyone knows who you are. There is nothing you need to remember, no zip codes, no new words, no new concepts. There is just your village and the fields all around, the farmers. If you wander off and get lost because you have dissolved your identity, friendly farmers will bring you home and drop you off. Everyone walks everywhere, so you don't even have to have the presence of mind to look both ways before crossing the street. In such a context, you can just forget who you are, where you are, what you are, and dissolve. Someone will bring you food. Someone will take you by the hand and bring you home.
And under these conditions, I think you can make your mind blank, for what it's worth. But is it worth much, in 2008, to try to adapt to live in a village in India in 300 A.D.? But just do the research for yourself – has anyone, anywhere, stopped their mind? Has anyone in America stopped their mind intentionally? Has anyone ever set out to NOT THINK of a pink elephant, and not thought of one?
Or do people's minds just go quiet once in awhile of themselves, after you finish sorting yourself out? And if it almost never happens, why define stoppage as the goal of yoga? Why define yoga as something that everyone fails at all the time?
And further – what happens to people over time as they impose stoppage on their inner life? It seems to me that people who have imposed this restraint on themselves, do create permanent inner restraint and they are STILL SLOW ON THE UPTAKE. They did some kind of permanent damage to themelves in their ability to think fast and adapt to life's ever-changing flux.
Everyone responds differently – some people just glaze over the harmful, anti-life emphasis in yoga and thrive on what is good. Others react literally to the poison and are weakened by it.
Look at this completely sincere, well-intentioned statement by the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute
. It is meant to talk about how pure they are, how pure yoga is, and how totally traditional it is.
Selection from Chip Hartranft's new translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras
This is the kind of thinking you are up against if you want to retrieve meditation from the realm of being something like a brain software lobotomy, in which you force a stoppage. The thoughts are apparently so sophisticated, how can you dare to even question them?
Yoga is Desireless?
excerpt from "Yoga Mala": "The practice of yoga is not new to the people of India. It is a noble, desireless action, coupled with righteousness, which has been passed down, in an unbroken tradition, since time immemorial. Many stories are told in our Epics of how the people of India attained divinity by practicing yoga.
". . . We know of only one yoga, in the term of asana and pranayama, which is useful to strict brahmacharis [celibates] and sannyasins [renunciants] alone, and not to ordinary men. Yet, if we look into the scriptures properly, understand their meaning, and reflect on them, we will come to know yoga's true nature.
"What is then yoga? The word has many meanings: relation; means; union; knowledge; matter; logic; and so on. For now, let us say that the meaning of yoga is upaya, which means path, or way which we follow or by means of which we can attain something. What then is the path we should follow? What or whom should we seek to attain? The mind should seek to attain what is best. Just as a servant seeks a king to serve, a disciple seeks the best Guru, and a wife seeks an ideal husband, so too will the mind seek the Universal Self
"The means by which the mind is directed towards the Self and prevented from going towards outside objects is what is known as yoga, as a hymn from the Katha Upanishads affirms: "Tham yogam iti manyante sthiram indriya dharanam [Yoga is considered to be the steady fixing of the senses]." Here, the means to establishing the sense organs in the Indweller, and thus to preventing them from going towards external objects, is called yoga.
"Hence an aspirant, by the grace of his Guru, and constant practice of yoga, can someday realize, before casting off his mortal coil, the Indweller that is of the nature of supreme peace and eternal bliss, and the cause of the creation, sustenance, and destruction of the universe. Otherwise, an aspirant will be unable to see anything in this world but turmoil..."
This is totally sincere writing, obviously. It is intended to give a blessing to the people of India and tell them that doing yoga is traditional – he is saying the Hindu equivalent of "Jesus approves of Yoga." It appears to be taken from a talk by Pattabhi Jois, who I adore. He is just speaking in religious language here. I'll leave it to you to decode the many embedded assumptions that can ruin the life of an American yogi. Notice the phrase, "It is a noble, desireless action . . ." Why go out of your way to imply that desire is bad, or desire is not yoga?
Yoga is Against Outward Motion?
Let's look at the phrase: "The means by which the mind is directed towards the Self and prevented from going towards outside objects is what is known as yoga."
Do you see the problem here? "Prevented from going toward outside objects." If you adopt this attitude,you may be setting up conditions of resistance or subtle warfare with the outward motion of the mind, toward creativity into action. There is a universe of difference between "Setting up conditions so that the mind can, of its own accord, be attracted inward," and saying, "Try to prevent the mind from going outward."
When a householder sits to meditate, her mind will tend to fluctuate between inner and outer every few seconds. She will first feel some relief that her eyes are closed, and savor a few seconds of resting. Then she will think of everything that is undone and her brain will start to choreograph the rest of the day, the chores and calls to make. She will mentally rehearse going through the motions of going here and there and having this conversation and that. Then she'll remember she is meditating and return to her focus, the breath or whatever, for a few seconds. After going through this cycle a few times, her mind will start to go silent for a second here and there. Just a pause that refreshes. If the meditator welcomes the flow of thoughts, she will have more quiet moments. If she sets up any resistance at all, then resistance and struggle will permeate her experience of meditation.
Does Patanjali dictate that if your mind stops for 1 second, that you have failed? Does he give a formula or a sequence anywhere, a grading system: 10% stoppage = F, 80% stoppage = B, 100% stoppage = A. Not that I am aware of. But very few people accept that they are doing yoga meditation if they sit for 20 minutes and their mind stops for 1 second. From somewhere, they invent a system of judgment that says they have failed.
Nirodha Could Mean Embrace, Not Restrict
It is posible that Patanjali meant this, that to get into yoga, you have to give up on accomplishing anything. But it is not necessarily the way he meant it. First of all, Patanjali was in the oral tradition, menaning that these sutras were memorized and recited, one at a time, and then explained, and part of what is communicated is how to approach each. If you look at a wall chart of yoga asanas, they are cartoons, frozen in time. They do not explain how you approach each pose, and that you may not look like the figure in the chart for a long time, if ever. You go as far toward that pose as your body wants to go, and you attend to every motion and every sense along the way. Also, the word Patanjali used, nirodha, has many meanings, not just "suppress." It could mean "contain" or "embrace" or "encircle" the waves of awareness.
This is partly an empirical question: you can explore the difference in your own mind and body if you approach yoga as "embracing the waves of the mind, and finding the stillness underneath," or "yoga is the suppression of the fluctuations of mindstuff." Just check it out and see what works.
Every person responds differently to instructions. The people who thrive amidst the stoppage, restriction language may be those who are wired differently, with separate layers that allow them to say one thing and do a completely other thing. Or they may know intuitively to apply a bit of stoppage, just enough to contain themselves from jumping up, but not so much that they put out their inner fire.
The approach I am suggesting is to think of meditation as internal asana. Invisible internal motions of the mind. What American yogis tend to do when they close their eyes is run through a kind of inner Sun Salute: their brains choreograph the day to come, and balance everything, work out the timing, moving from one scenario to the next to the next to the next. Almost everyone thinks of this as having a noisy mind, but I don't. I think it is perfect, just what the doctor ordered, (what the Guru ordered).
Skill in Action
Now consider what skill is involved in doing external asanas, the physical kind, where you move your limbs. For one thing, you don't force anything. You carefully feel your way into each stretch and each joint, and you learn greater skill every day. You hold a pose for seconds or minutes, depending on your body and your level of training. Because asanas are visible, yoga teachers have developed tremendous common sense over the past few decades. Everyone knows about injuries and is interested in preventing them. Injury prevention is a built-in part of most teacher's awareness now.
Do you think that meditation will come to be seen as a set of inner asanas and given the same kind of sophisticated exploration? Why should you, or anyone, object to the concept that when a householder meditates, their mind will go through a whole series of asanas, akin to a Sun Salutation. Salute the urge to have friends. Attend to the vibration between me and all my friends. Salute the family; attend to the connection between me and my spouse, children, parents. Salute the work world; attend to my upcoming chores. And after going through all the mental asanas, shavasana. Ah.
Think about what householders need: what could be better, if you think of it, than to have a few minutes of deep relaxation and then to review your life from that vantage point? With John, the yoga of everyday life is calling him, but he is refusing the call. It does not match his mental map, made years ago. It is as his inner vibration, his excitement, is waiting to meet him in meditation to feed his nerves the prana, the vitality, to support him in his action. Since he defines meditation as stoppage, conscious meditation may not be the place this yoga takes place. Perhaps when he sleeps, the integration will go on, and when he take quiet moments.
So you can see how formidable it is to take yoga out of the context of recluses, people who sit in caves, and translate it into the lives of householders and people with jobs.
Krishna defined yoga as "skill in action," not "skill inaction."
And it is not skillful to define yoga as something all householders will fail at. "Will my heart break or mind implode, before my vrittis do nirode."