With our modern emphasis on the physical practice of asana it’s hard to believe that for thousands of years yoga was a completely mental practice. The ancient yogis explored the inner workings of the mind (not the body!) in their quest to understand the nature of reality and how to attain enlightenment. In doing so, they identified what they believed to be the source of unhappiness and blocks to achieving samadhi. They believed through properly utilizing antarkarana, or the four functions of a yogi’s mind—manas, chitta, ahamkara and buddhi—a yogi’s quest for enlightenment could be realized.
Manas is the lowest aspect of our mind that oversees and manages the constant flood of sensory information entering the body. Manas directs our attention to specific sensory organs and it also measures, tests and questions the validity of the information it receives.
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Chitta’s mental function is to store and organize all of the experiences of manas into samskaras – memories, impressions and emotional patterns. Chitta constantly accesses our samskara database to provide context, depth and understanding to our current experience of the world. Strong samskaras shape our overall character and behavioral traits and can color (klishta) or distort manas to create psychological projections and false perceptions.
Ahamkara is the “I-maker” function of the mind which creates our identity and sense of self. A healthy and balanced ahamkara allows us to skillfully meet all of our needs to survive and grow. Ahamkara is best utilized as a source of willpower, commitment and determination for achieving goals and attaining success in our worldly pursuits. Unfortunately, our I-maker can become unhealthy and distorted by thought patterns and false beliefs that lead to feelings of separation, pain and suffering.
Buddhi is the highest aspect of our mind, and is the pathway to inner wisdom, spiritual discernment, and eventually leads one to enlightenment. In most of us, the buddhi function is weak and hidden by the activity of manas, chitta and ahamkara. When purified and strengthened, the buddhi provides a clear reflection of consciousness, improved discrimination and a deep source of wisdom and knowledge.
Swami Sivananda encouraged his students to “Understand the mind; study the mind; and know this machinery well, and know also how to manage it.” Thus the goal of a yogi is to steadfastly observe these four functions of mind as well as to un-color (aklishta), purify and refine antarkarana through concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), selflessness (karma yoga) and non-attachment (vairagya). The careful examination of the mind through the lens of antarkarana allows one to gain understanding and mastery over the mind. Once mastered, the mind can then be utilized as a tool for creating contentment, inner-peace, happiness and enlightenment.