It was late, it was dark, and we were lying in bed. I was quite still, my arms at my sides, palms up, and my eyes stared up at the ceiling.
His voice broke the still and quiet. "So many thoughts," he said, his voice thick with sleep, "are you okay, honey? What's the matter?"
I turned my head to look at him. Lying on his side, his face was soft. His eyes were closed but his brows were pursed, as they often are in sleep. When he sleeps, he looks like he's trying to solve some long division problem (which, let's be honest, for the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science grad, is a total walk in the park).
"I'm sorry," I sighed and turned my gaze back to the ceiling. "I guess I have a lot on my mind." I don't know how he could tell I was thinking so much, but he was right. I was thinking about building this website and about a difficult conversation I've been avoiding with a family member and the sequence I'm co-teaching with my colleagues and whether its enough or too much, and if I'd be able to wake up on time and if it's a good idea to take pictures of my physical practice and the upcoming staff meeting at work and whether this pain in my back is going to get better or worse and if all the work I'm doing right now is a good choice for my career or if it's just feeding my ego... The ticker tape of concerns didn't seem to stop, and that night especially, there was no quiet between my ears. Maybe he could smell the smoke and that's how he knew I was thinking so hard.
The second verse of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is, "yogahah chitta vritti nirodaha." It's a verse that lots of yogis wind up memorizing, and it means, "Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." This seems like it should be eventually achievable, right? Maybe your mind fluctuates plenty during the day, but at least it's still when you're asleep. But anyone who's had a rough night's sleep or a vivid and disturbing dream will tell you that your mind is anything but still while you're sleeping.
I like this verse; I often consider what it means to still my thoughts. Even on a good day my brain is hard to quiet down. Part of the reason I practice yoga--in all its forms, not just on the mat--is because at some moments, for just a fraction of a second, there is a kind of space between one thought and the next, where there is nothing. Not space, or breath, or calm, because there's nothing to be quiet or spacious or still. There's, like, really nothing. But it only lasts for an instant: in the midst of chanting a mantram or for an instant in a posture, or in that spontaneous cessation of breath. Then, the I that is my consciousness says, Hey, look at that! and I'm back into the space I was in before, in a pose, washing dishes, chanting, breathing again, and the next thought has arrived.
Chip Hartranft translates this verse as "Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness." I love this translation, because I think it gets at part of the potential that yoga has to be a really life-changing practice. If each of us made a list of our patterns of consciousness, a really honest one, it might be a pretty challenging list to read. Here's a sample of what's on mine:
- I get angry quickly and easily.
- I blame a lot of my relational dysfunction on negative childhood experiences.
- I forget how to take care of myself when my partner is away (see #2).
- I don't set great boundaries in order to avoid angering other people.
- I swear. A lot.
- I place too much stock on others' opinion of me, especially their opinion of me physically.
This is just the stuff off the top of my head, and it's not even that probing. If I sat down and did some really unflinching shadow work, I could probably uncover some real heavy gems. And sure, there's probably some argument to be made about society and conditioning and yada yada. But at the end of the night, the patterns live in me. I'm the one who chooses to acknowledge them and begin the process of dismantling them. Or not.
So obviously, this practice is about more than just calming my thoughts on a restless night. In his commentary on the Sutras, B.K.S. Iyengar writes,
I don't work to still the patterns of my consciousness so I can sleep better, or even so I can understand the baggage I'm carrying from this life or from others, and not repeat it. I do it so that I can connect with and dwell in that really-nothing place that is Spirit, that is Self.
I try to fathom what that is, what it really means, and my senses totally fail. Maybe this is a comfort; if I could understand it, it'd probably really scare my little human, Earth-bound, 21st century brain.
Before I can stop these thoughts, I have to recognize them, look at where they live, maybe even how they got there. Then I can begin to hold them in my hand, and maybe to loosen my grip on them until one day they're just gone. But it takes a while, (again, we're talking cosmic time here, right? centuries maybe, not decades) and right now I'm so much in the thick of my own patterns, the process seems impossible.
But some part of me believes in it, because every day I step on my runway. Every day I commit.