Q: The Yoga Sutra tells us that the goal of yoga is to stop the flow of thought: in the second sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as arresting our thought process. Yet in spite of making a concerted effort I haven’t been able to master my mind and stop thinking when I sit for meditation.

A: Attempting to arrest your mind—to grab it and tell it, “Mind, you better listen to me and stop thinking!” is self-defeating. You will never attain mastery over your mind and thought processes by attempting to bully your mind into submission.

The sutra you are referring to is sutra 1:2, which reads yoga chitta vritti nirodha—“arresting the roaming tendencies of the mind is yoga.” The problem here is translating nirodha as “arresting.” Arrest, control, stop the roaming tendencies of the mind—that is yoga. This is a mistaken translation.

Yoga is the process of confining your mental process in a methodical manner.

Nirodha is made of two words: ni and rodha. Ni is a prefix which means “completely, in every respect.” Rodha means “confine, restrain.” Thus, yoga is the process of confining your mental process in a methodical manner. It is like locking the door to your home. You are not making yourself a prisoner by locking the door when you come home at the end of the day. You are not punishing yourself. Rather, by locking your door you are making sure no one enters your home and disturbs you when you are resting.

Locking your mind in its home when you meditate is nirodha. There is a positive reason behind it: your mind has come back to its home; it is resting, relaxing. Your mind is recharging itself, so that by the time your meditation is over you are refreshed and have reclaimed your inner vitality. You have recovered your inner luminosity and become a healthier, happier, more peaceful person. So you are not arresting your mind or forcing it to stop thinking; rather, you are allowing it to be relaxed and comfortable in its home.

Just as you take care to keep your home clean, free of clutter, and properly ventilated, you need to create a pristine environment for your mind so it is comfortable when it is resting in its home. That is the purpose of the yamas and the niyamas, the first two components of the eightfold system of yoga practice that Patanjali sets forth in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra.

The yamas are the five restraints: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-indulgence, and non-possessiveness. The five niyamas are the five observances: cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and trustful surrender to higher divinity. These restraints and observances help us become well-balanced and compassionate. Practicing them trains us to cultivate sensitivity to our own thoughts and feelings, and to develop empathy for the thoughts and feelings of others. In the process, we create an environment where we are no longer a threat to others and others are no longer a threat to us. We become more gentle, more loving, more straightforward, and we live in peace and harmony with those around us.

The five yamas and five niyamas help us become well-balanced and compassionate.

Practicing the yamas and the niyamas automatically reduces many of the causes of mental distraction—the fears, anxieties, and doubts—that force the mind to roam. As the ecology of our body and mind becomes more balanced, many of the causes of disturbance, distraction, and stupefaction vanish and our mind is no longer affected by them. We have created an internal environment in which the mind becomes still and stable, and thus willingly confines itself to an inward focus. That is yoga.

Source: Inner Quest by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A