Getting to Know the Vrittis

Yoga is the stilling of the mind waves known as vrittis, Patanjali informs students at the beginning of the Yoga Sutras. Until then, we falsely identify with the mind’s oscillations rather than with the eternal self that lies beneath. Experiencing the true self—not executing perfect handstand—is the ultimate aim of yoga. But asana and other yoga practices are fertile ground for getting to know the vrittis and how they influence us throughout our lives, both on and off the mat.

In Sutra 1.5 (Vryttayah pancatayyah klishta aklishta), Patanjali says that we experience five types of vrittis. Some are relatively easy to recognize, while others are hidden. These vrittis may be painful (klishta) or non-painful (aklishta). We experience them as (1) correct perception—something we know based on fact or observation; (2) delusion—misperceptions that lead to false conclusions; (3) imagination—fanciful or vague impressions; (4) sleep—the absence of conscious thought; and (5) memory—recalling past thoughts or events.

Through yoga asana we develop sensitivity about which muscles are engaged and which are relaxed, how the quality of the breath shifts, how tension differs from compression, etc. In a similar way, yoga trains us to discern between the thought waves, helping us to cultivate correct knowledge (pramana) and to recognize the other vrittis—viparyaya, vikalpa, nidra, smriti. This sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done.

When I sit for meditation, for example, I have an aim of observing thoughts passing through my mental field like clouds passing through the sky. But some thoughts are more likely than others to capture my focus, and the most engaging of all are creative inklings related to projects I’m working on. This is a form of imagination (vikalpa), the vritti Patanjali defines in Sutra 1.9. If I chase after these idea-clouds, my meditation will turn into full-blown fantasy. If I try to suppress them, my meditation will dissolve into a mental melee. If, however, I let them come to the surface and bubble away on their own, over time they will lose their urgency, much like a glass of sparkling water will eventually become still. When these vrittis lose their power to hold my attention, my mind can rest quietly.

But time alone will not still the vrittis. Calming the waves of the mind takes dedicated practice. And that’s true even of the vrittis that are easily recognized. What about the painful issues that we’ve buried deeply in the field of citta, so deeply that we don’t recognize them or realize the hold they have over us? These are the samskaras—the unconscious memories (smriti) or the lies we tell ourselves so often we’ve come to believe them (viparyaya).

This happens because both mind and body are a storehouse for past pains, physical and emotional. As Rama Jyoti Vernon often reminds her students, “The invisible must become visible before it can be transformed.” Asana and other practices help us stir the depths of the body-mind, prompting the vrittis to rise to the surface. Haven’t we all experienced times during a yoga class when something bubbles up from deep within? Or had an a-ha! moment, a signal of correct perception (pramana)? As we come to recognize the vrittis and how they operate within us, their distracting oscillations level out, and we can experience the essence of yoga.

How have you tamed the vrittis during asana or meditation?

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