I was running out of my office the other day when I bumped into an old friend. “It’s so great to see you,” I told him, “But I gotta go. I’m late for yoga.”
He said, “Man, everytime I see you it seems like you’re running to yoga. What is yoga?"
I said, “It’s simple, Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah" (I was obviously just fucking with him) and I was gone. But, "Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah" is really the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me, "What is Yoga?" It's the second sutra from the 5000-year-old scripture "The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali."
But, for my friend and for everyone else who has asked me over the years to define yoga for them. I say:
“Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah,” which is in sanskrit language, (the ancient language that the scripture is written in) and it translates as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind." Or, to break it down even further, "yoga" occurs when the mind is still.
If you’re not familiar with the practice, then this probably wasn’t the description you were expecting. In your mind, you might have probably associated yoga with a small room full of sweaty people on mats barefoot and twisted up like pretzels in various positions. Right?
Even though that is something you would probably see if you peeked into a yoga studio, that’s not what yoga is truly about. The yoga practice consists of 8 disciplines or practices in which the "Asana" (AKA poses) are only one. In some ways I’m a little guilty of perpetuating that limited image myself because whenever anyone asks to interview me for an article about yoga, I usually end of taking a picture of myself standing on my head, or with my legs tucked behind my neck.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those poses - they’re fun and it's part of the "yogic science" to practice smiling and breathing in difficult poses - but I want to be clear that those poses are NOT yoga.
No, yoga is not a physical thing. Rather, we use those physical poses to help us realize a state of grace or yoga. To use an analogy for you, a push up is not a muscle. Instead, a push up is a physical tool or technique that we can use to help build a muscle. In the same way, the various poses of yoga are used only to help us achieve that state of stillness that I mentioned earlier.
Again, the physical poses or "Asanas," of yoga are NOT the only way to achieve a still mind. You can also realize this state through meditation, good karmic work, devotional work, breathing, or pranayama practices. Some people are able to find it through repetitive physical activities like running, swimming, or even gardening.
I realize that when I start talking about “Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah," it probably sounds exotic or foreign to some people. But, the concept of "stillness" is really something that’s found in every culture and religion. Christians call this state “Christ Consciousness” or a “state of heaven on earth." Yogis call it “Samadhi,” and Buddhists call it “Nirvana." While Muslims refer to "Taqua," almost every religion has a term for the blissful state where your mind slows down and you feel present and "awake."
Even if you’re not religious, you’ve probably experienced this sort of consciousness before. If you've ever went bungee jumping or sky diving, remember how time seemed to stand still even as you fell through the air? Then, that was like a state of yoga. If you’ve ever been in a car crash and remember how those two seconds between when your breaks start to squeal and you actually hitting the other car, it felt like it took an hour but, the actual impact really only took seconds, that too was like a state of yoga. The space between the noise is so beautiful it can make a corpse and a sunset both seem beautiful.
Once I was trying to explain this to Puffy and he said, “Oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about, it was like that one time when I was getting shot at.” Well, he was right, even the sensation of being shot at can
"shock" you into this state of full presence or yoga. The problem (or should I say in Puffy’s case, the good thing) about getting shocked into stillness is that the sensation only lasts a few seconds at most, and then it’s gone. Once the bullets stop flying, or the parachute ride is over, you quickly return to your normal, distracted noisy state of mind.
The beauty of the practice of yoga is that it teaches you how to take those precious seconds of stillness and lengthen them from seconds, to minutes, to a lifetime of enlightenment. So, the yoga practice is
designed to teach you how to take those brief fleeting moments of stillness and begin to extend them out of the yoga studio and into the rest of your everyday life.
When you first start practicing, that sense of stillness might only stay with you for a few minutes after class. But, the more you stick with it, the longer and longer the moments will last. Until the point that you’re truly enlightened of your present being. The "jivamukta" spends his or her entire life living in that beautiful awakened state. I’m nowhere near that enlightened state myself, but it’s something I work towards every day because from even those relatively fleeting moments of stillness that I can experience during class, I know my life is so much richer and peaceful and successful because of these practices.
So, the next time you see me sitting there with my leg tucked behind my head with a big grin on my face, understand that I’m not just happy because I’m able to twist myself up like that. No, I’m working on moving closer to God or God consciousness, and that is where I believe true lasting happiness resides for everyone.