In the western world, we usually perceive yoga as a physical practice that helps us gain flexibility, a little strength and even might support us to wind down from our stressful jobs and family related issues. However, in its ancient traditional development, yoga is not primarily about the body. It is not about becoming healthy, flexible or even distracted from your hectic daily life. The origin of yoga relates to the mind. Yoga is for the consciousness – Yoga is wherever consciousness is.
We have different approaches to define yoga (Sanskrit: yuj), such as the union of physical and higher self, union of the individual breath with the cosmic breath, realization, and satisfaction within our own self, the separation of ignorance from reality or impermanence from permanence. But when it comes to describing the purpose, the ultimate goal of yoga, let’s ask ourselves the question: WHY are we all practicing yoga, what is the aim? Well, an answer lies in its old scriptures.
You might wonder what these unpronounceable lines in the title might mean? Before beginning to beat around the bush: Let’s dive right into the topic!
~ Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: what is it about? ~
These three Sanskrit words trace back to the yoga sutras, written by Patanjali. This is the traditional philosophical foundation of the inner journey through the spiritual practice of yoga.
The yoga sutras (basic principles) provide us a “roadmap” on what happens in the inside – our mind, emotions and the entire inner body – when you practice yoga. Although it was comprised more than 2000 years ago, these sutras are still relevant to the struggles of yoga students today.
The 2ndsutra describes the purpose of the yoga practice, saying “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah”, which means “Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind”, or literally translated as:
- Chitta: mind, consciousness
- Vritti: waves, fluctuations
- Nirodhah: to control, to quiet
So, during the practice of yoga, we experience this phenomenon chitta vritti nirodhah, and as a result, our so-called “monkey mind” falls into complete serenity and quietness. Your intention is not to compulsively attempt to control the mind, but you allow the mind to rest in its center.
Patanjali further explains that through our dedicated practice and the cultivation of detachment, we will be able to stop identifying with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations we are experiencing, which are the reasons for all the emotional pain we are suffering from. We then will be open to experience our true self. In essence, the whole journey of yoga is turning away from the material towards the spiritual.
“Yoga is the golden key that unlocks the door to peace, tranquility and joy.”
In other words: yoga encourages us to take one step after the other deeper within; to get aware of our identification with external aspects of life; to become unattached by these aspects and to eventually find this inner place of peace. This place, which is beyond temporary anchors; which is the source of all energy and creativity in life.
~ Breaking free from your mental prison ~
During the process of thinking – which we undeniably, yet unconsciously do all the time – thoughts of memories or desires often appear. Our active mind either takes us back to the past when we recall or think of former experiences, or we’re anticipating something in the future. Thus, our (unconscious) mind is a master in keeping us off the present moment. There is a constantly running wheel produced in our mind: (past) impressions lead us to develop a desire of having or experiencing something, then we find ourselves acting and getting what we desire, just as the next impression brings us to the next desire, and this wheel goes on and on. Consequently, we’re always seeking to external sources in the process of finding happiness and fulfillment, while our mind does not allow us to arrive in the present moment. These distractions and attachments to the outside do have great potential to cause suffering.
A simple example is our own identification based on external attachments. When someone asks “Who are you?”, we usually identify ourselves in terms of our jobs, positions, roles, relationships, political affiliations, cultures or hobbies. So we’d say “I am a house wife and mother” or “I am a psychologist.”
Although we do need some kind of explanations in order to perceive and express ourselves here on earth – this is why we have an “ego”, it’s somehow a necessity. But being bounded and dependent on the external is the source of our dissatisfaction and emotional pain.
“Although you appear in earthly form,
your essence is pure consciousness.
You are the fearless guardian of Divine Light.
So come, return to the root of the root of your own soul.”
And this is where yoga comes in, puts one foot into our doorway and reminds us of what real contentment might feel like. As Ram Dass once concluded “Attachments leads to suffering”, so in return, we could say “Detachment leads to freedom.” The practice of detachment is what the Bhagavat Gita, as the first book on yoga, teaches us: letting go the fruits of one’s actions.
~ What does detachment mean? ~
Detachment can be conceived as a wonderful gift of letting go. In essence, it will give you any kind of freedom you can imagine. To put it the other way round: attachment is usually based on fear and insecurity.
For example, you believe that when you meet your perfect soulmate, when you pay off your bills and have XYZ amount of money on your bank account, then you will be perfectly happy and satisfied, everything is fulfilled. However, desires will appear again and again. Moreover, at a deep level, you know that whatever you’ll be able to get or achieve can be lost, so it potentially brings you pain at the same time. Thus, releasing and letting go of these desires and attachments will give you ultimate freedom and contentment. As long as you are not aware of your true Self, which is pure consciousness and potentiality, you start believing that there are things on the outside that will make you happy.
“Everything is temporary: emotions, thoughts, people and scenery.
Do not become attached, just flow with it.”
In the true nature of being, there can be no attachments, because you know infinitively that nothing is real. This kind of non-attachment that even if you leave your body today, it’s okay, because the true nature of your soul has been revealed and you know that it’s a timeless, deathless experience that is far superior to any superficial reality that we may identify with. Then we can understand that the practice can lead us to this experience.
~ Is this goal tangible? ~
Well, so much for theory – but is this state of a tranquil mind that experiences no desires and does not attach to any external aspect, being able to embrace every single moment in existence, realistically tangible?
“Detachment is not that you should own nothing.
But that nothing should own you.”
(Ali ibn abi Talib)
As probably everything in life, it is a practice with no terminated end point or goal to be achieved and stuck with for the rest of your life. It rather can be seen as a path you’re choosing to undergo, a path you’re committing to experience. What really matters is how you evolve during your regular practice; who you become, what you learn and things will start changing in your life.
“The point of a goal is not what you achieve.
The point of a goal is who you become.”
The practice of yoga is a very wonderful tool that sharpens your mind so you can see reality clearer. In saying “practicing yoga”, I do not relate to the asanas exclusively. As Ashtanga Yoga teaches us in its 8 limbs, we have various forms of focusing our minds. Meditation (Dhyana), for example, enables you to escape from this monkey mind-cycle temporarily. Focusing your attention (Dharana) while you witness all the thoughts that come and go, you’ll be able to experience the gap between your thoughts, stepping out of this identification. This might be a step towards the ultimate domain of unbounded awareness, called Samadhi. Speaking from my own experience: meditation has been changing my life completely. I can confidently say that there has been a life before and after my daily meditation practice; as it offers you the most direct path of awakening to your own infinite potential, stilling your mind and bringing you to the present moment.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have.
Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
The “Now”, this very present moment, plays an essential role in yoga. In fact, the 1styoga sutra starts with this word, Athah (Now), in the context of Atha yoga anushasanam (“Now, let’s begin with yoga”). So, essentially, the yoga practice seeks to get an idea of what the present moment really is and it helps you to root your consciousness directly in it, which is definitely not the easiest thing to experience. However, yoga is a magnificent teacher to support you on this spiritual journey, for example to turn fear into compassion, to find strength in moments of sadness, to tame your constant seeking for desires and to embrace the present moment exactly as it is, respectively, whether it’s painful or pleasurable.
“Being on a spiritual path does not prevent you
from facing times of darkness.
But it teaches you how to use the darkness as a tool to grow.”
Experiencing pain, whether mental or emotional, is in fact so extremely unpleasant that we automatically tend to avoid it. This non-embracing act of antipathy against pain is the source of misery, as it brings you into a state of resistance – everything you resist persists – it will follow you, for you cannot escape the truth by not seeing it. If you always try to run from negative experiences based on memories from your past life, you’ll allow the past to dictate your future as well as the present moment. Yoga gives you the possibility to stop this process of running away and to accept what is in this moment – whether it makes you feel good or bad. To embrace the truth of what is and to let it go after you’ve learnt your lesson out of it. And here we are again at the point of letting go – detach.
We can transfer the act of detachment also into the context of practicing asanas: for example, when your lower back is tight, you are asked to accept this fact as it is right now. And although you work on getting more flexibility into this area of your body, you should not expect the outcomes, the “fruits” of having a super-flexible lower back, in a few days or weeks.
~ Conclusion: Yoga as an approach to inner tranquility ~
To sum these lines up, I simply want to remind you of how the purpose of yoga is defined by Patanjali in the yoga sutras:
Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah. Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam.
– Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. Then one abides in their own true nature. –
So, according to the original idea, yoga is not primarily about our physics, but rather to achieve a silenced, peaceful, calm mind.
As every single yoga practitioner might have his or her own definition respectively, I’d like to share mine with you at the end of this article. So, what does yoga mean to me, what purpose do I see, feel and experience through this ancient practice?
“For me personally, Yoga is the most beautiful tool
to become aligned with your truest, innate, pure essence.
It helps you to tune into your body,
to become aware of your thoughts,
to come closer to YOUR truth
and to get connected with your intuition –
to grow spiritually.”
Thank you, guys, for reading.
Sending my heart-warming gratitude & love towards you, wherever you are right now. Have a wonderful day!