By Abhi Ghosh
When I once mentioned in a public talk that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali could be called the world’s first self-help book that worked for practitioners for more than two millennia, a student interjected, claiming that despite best intentions, self-help books don’t “work.” A self-help junkie herself, she had read dozens of books, attended seminars and workshops, chased gurus and participated in retreats. Although all of them had good things to offer, they had not “worked” to help her feel better, beat procrastination, become more effective, manage time and try to win friends and influence people. So she lumped the Yoga Sutras with the myriad other stuff from the multiple billion-dollar self-help industry.
In my defense of the ancient Indian sage Patanjali, I explained that his “bestseller” actually worked for sincere practitioners over two millennia because it focuses on a holistic inside-out transformation. Most self-help books or practices in our times focus on external quick fixes: how to diet to get a slim figure, how to make appreciative statements to make others feel good or how to get rich quick. Most of these external transformative moves aren’t sustainable in the long term, as we find ourselves putting on weight after our diet is over or making short-term friends. Trying to “quick-fix” external aspects of our personality or situation leads to an outside-in transformation.
On the other hand, an inside-out transformation, as the Yoga Sutras suggest, assumes that a transformation from the core of our being will not only be long-term and real, but will naturally lead us to take care of all the other external aspects of transformation we tend to focus on. The key to an inside-out transformation is yoga that Patanjali defines as “citta vrtti nirodhah” ..(1.2), which literally means “pausing the turbulent fluctuations of our mind.” It has been said that an average human being has about 60,000 thoughts in 24 hours. About 90 percent or so of these thoughts are repetitive; they’re more or less the same thoughts that you’ve had in the last few weeks and probably will have over the next few weeks or months.
Unfortunately, most of these repetitive thoughts are negative: regrets about the past or fear of something that might happen in the future.
These kinds of negative thoughts are the “noise,” according to the Sutras, that drown out the voice of our true Self, Purusha.
When we’re able to pause these turbulent fluctuations of our mind and silence the constant noise that goes on both inside and outside of us, we’re able to clearly listen to our purusha. And at that point, says Patanjali, drastuh svarupe avasthānam (1.3) – “the inner witness becomes situated in its own true nature.”
If we aren’t able to control these turbulences of the mind, then we start (mis)identifying with them and become one with those fluctuations – vrtti sārupyam itaratra (1.4), which means, “otherwise, the inner witness identifies with those fluctuations”. And when we start letting our uncontrolled mind control the rest of our lives, chaos ensues.
It is difficult to control the fluctuations of the mind. For those who have ever tried and failed, the Sutras offer hope. The process to befriend and tame the mind is a difficult feat achievable only through sādhanā: regular practice.
As we give ourselves to the process of sādhanā, a mastery of our mind comes through commitment to and a regular practice of the eight limbs of yoga: yama (restraint), niyama (observances), āsana (physical postures), prānāyāma (breath regulation), pratyāhāra (retracting senses), dhāranā (concentration), dhyana (contemplation) and samādhi (meditative absorption).
Making friends with the mind through this eightfold path and beginning an inner transformation is the most effective and long- term way to achieve a healthy body, refined senses, relaxed mind, focused intelligence and an overall sense of happiness and well-being coming from the depths of our inner self. Yoga, according the Sutras, thus explains the the spiritual practice, sādhanā, of “connecting” or “joining” to our real Self and our ultimate source, the supreme being, Ishwara. It must be practiced in solitude, and also with other like-minded yogis to enhance learning and encourage each other.
When we invest our own passion and commitment to sādhanā, and have a support system of fellow yogis, the theory of the Sutras will slowly and gradually start transforming us inside-out in ways we have never imagined in our practical, everyday life. And though the sādhanā required to experience this transformation might feel tough when we start out, practicing yoga and living the Sutras regularly—individually and collectively—will eventually help us to effortlessly manage our mind.
Dr. Abhi Ghosh is a scholar, teacher and a practitioner of Bhakti yoga for more than 21 years.