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In a previous article “How Asana Practice Can Lead to Citta Vritti Nirodhah” I explained the yogic model of the Chitta (the consciousness) and described three steps in which one can quieten the fluctuations of the Chitta and I included various quotes from B.K.S. Iyengar’s books. Here I want to return to this subject, but to suggest a practical method of studying and transforming the Chitta. I recommend, however, that you read the previous article since it serves as a background for understanding the subject.
Before going into the components of the Chitta, let us review the states of the Chitta.
Yoga is about studying the Chitta, understanding its functioning and transforming it toward the Nirodha (controlled, silenced) state. But the Chitta is an abstract entity – we cannot see nor touch it, so how can we study it?
Fortunately, yoga provides us with a model that helps us observe the Chitta and study it. According to yoga, the Chitta is made of three components: Manas, Ahamkara, and Buddhi. I will not go into depth describing these terms here since I explained them in my previous article (as in many books about yoga, see for example Light on Life, by B.K.S. Iyengar). The Chitta is described to be in one of five states.
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The Five States of the Chitta
In his classic interpretation of yoga sutra I.1, Vyasa, the mythological interpreter of Patanjali, defines 5 states of the Chitta. These are:
- Mudha – stupefied, dull
- Kshipta – restless, agitated
- Vikshipta – oscillating, distracted
- Ekagra – one-pointed
- Niruddha – arrested, controlled
Vyasa regards the first three states as inappropriate for yoga. He then continues: “…But the concentration attained by a mind which is one-pointed, i.e., occupied with one thought, which brings enlightenment, … paves the way to the arrested state of the mind.” (From Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, by Swami Hariharananda Aranya).
We can know these states of the mind (Chitta) from our own experience. When we are extremely tired, under the influence of alcohol, or in severe depression, the mind is very dull. In such a state, not only concentration is impossible, but also clear thinking is lacking.
In the Kshipta state, we experience the ‘monkey mind’. The mind is moving rapidly from one thought to another and from one object to another, never finding a resting place.
The third state, Vikshipta, is probably the one in which our mind dwells most of the time. It’s oscillating between moments of concentration and distraction. We can be in an asana and be absorbed for a few moments, but then start brooding about the past or the future, and lose our concentration. The mind is oscillating between the Kshipta and the Ekagra states.
Ekagra is a state where concentration can be maintained for a long time. This leads the mind to a state of Niruddha where we have full control over our minds.
In our daily practice, we move between states 2 to 5 (in the Mudha state we are not likely to bring ourselves to practice at all). As we go deeper into the practice, we can maintain longer intervals in which we are one-pointed (Ekagra). This is the state we need to develop. The practice is an effort to maintain the Ekagra state as long as possible. The more we are persistent and systematic in our practice, the quicker we can develop and enhance this state.
The Components of the Chitta
Let’s return now to briefly exploring the components of the Chitta: Manas, Ahamkara, and Buddhi. The Manas is the part that allows us to function and survive in the world. Ahamkara is, as the name suggests, the I-maker. It is the part that makes us perceive ourselves as separate from others. Finally, the Buddhi (intelligence) is the part that enables us to discern, make ethical judgments, and differentiate right from wrong.
How the Components of the Chitta are Expressed in Asana Practice?
Manas, because of its need to preserve itself and survive, moves quickly from one topic to another. This enables us to rapidly identify threats and take the appropriate measures. However, it also makes it difficult to concentrate and calm down. It’s the ‘monkey mind’ that, like a monkey, jumps from one tree to the next, wandering rapidly from one thing to another.
Whenever we observe, compare or discern, it’s the Buddhi that operates. During practice whenever we are attentive to the sensations in a pose, adjusting to find balance, symmetry and harmony, we work from the Buddhi and develop it. Take Uttānāsana for example (although this applies to every asana). Whenever you observe the weight on each foot and adjust to make it even, or sense which buttock is more prominent and adjust to balance, you are absorbed in the pose and practice active discernment.
The Functioning of Manas and Ahamkara
In yoga, we aim to develop the Buddhi, but we must recognize the other two parts inherent in us. During the practice, we may find ourselves commenting: “Wow, I am so good at this”, “I am bad at that”, “I will never be able to do this”, “it’s too hard”, “it’s too easy”, “this teacher is not nice”, “I don’t like this asana“, “I need to preserve energy for the rest of the day, so I will not invest all my efforts here” and so on and so forth. Similarly, we may get bored and look at the clock to see when the class will be over. All these restless movements of the mind are expressions of Manas’ activity.
Some of this restlessness stems also from the Ahamkara. Ahamkara (or Asmita) creates our attachments and aversions, our likes and dislikes. It is in charge of all our habits and behavioral patterns (Samskaras). Whenever the ‘I’ comes into the picture, then, on one hand, there is the “me” that thinks, negotiates and evaluates and on the other hand there is the asana. It’s a dualistic state. But when we are totally immersed in the sensations, the actions and the adjustments we make, we forget ourselves and become one with the asana. At such moments, the Ahamkara loses its grip and the Buddhi takes over.
Observing the Manas and Controlling it
The Manas creates agitation, distraction and impatience. When the Manas operates, our practice becomes scattered, without order or direction. If we notice this restlessness, the inability to keep our attention on one thing, we witness the Manas. Whenever we think about what we are going to do after the practice, check the time, (in self-practice) check messages on our phone, or get lost in some narrative, then once again – it’s the Manas. When we recognize this, when we are aware of this, we can immediately become attentive and mindful again. We can set the business of the Manas aside. We can stop the interpretations, the commenting about success or failure and so on. Then there is only sensation, action and observation.
This is not easy; the Manas is very powerful and we need it to operate, but by returning to the practice, again and again, we can not only study the Chitta but also transform it toward a yogic state. In our practice, when we operate from the brain it’s the Manas that is in action and thus there is no intellectual clarity. Operating from the chest is exhilarating, but can become too emotional and lead to emotional instability. Performing the asanas with constant reference to the spine helps us internalize and become calm and then we operate from the Buddhi.
A Technique to Silence the Manas and Activate the Buddhi
In one of his workshops, Birjoo Mehta, a senior teacher from Mumbai, taught the following technique: draw an imaginary line from the top of the right shoulder blade to the bottom of the left one. Then draw another line from the top of the left shoulder blade to the bottom of the right one. Now sense the crossing point between these two lines. When you stand in Tāḍāsana, connect to this point and then do all the subsequent asanas with constant reference to the same point. Keep this point stable and keep your mind observing it as you move from pose to pose.
Try this technique. I find it very useful. It quickly draws the mind in, making it quiet, and when the fluctuations subside there is a space for the Buddhi to emerge.