The teachings of yoga tell us that we’re so much more than the ever changing movements of our mind. The teachings of yoga tell us that our true nature is unbounded consciousness, pure awareness, the totality of being. I’m using a lot of fancy, descriptive words here, but don’t be fooled. The truth of our being exists beyond language. The words I’m using are just pointers and approximations to help inspire us. The truth of our being isn’t something that can be understood intellectually. It’s something that has to be understood experientially.
And the way that we move toward experiential understanding is through practice. Now remember, when I talk about yoga practice, I know that you might be thinking of someone twisting themselves into an odd posture or flowing through sun salutations over and over again, but this is a limited view. The practice of posture, of movement, is deeply, deeply valuable, but it’s not the main practice of yoga. Yoga includes a vast toolbox of practices—movement, breath work, mantra and chanting, ritual, prayer, and devotion, self reflection and inquiry to name just a few. But the fundamental practice of yoga is meditation.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we’re given a definition of yoga:
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. (Yoga Sutra 1.2)
The state of yoga is a meditative state of absorption. In the state of yoga, we merge with the truth of our being (Yoga Sutra 1.3).
It’s a lovely and appealing teaching—a mind settling into silence. But I know for many people, it’s a teaching that can feel disconnected from the realities of everyday life. And I’m not the only one who knows it… Our ancient teachers knew it too.
After the definition of yoga, the Sutras tell us what we already know. They tell us that the truth of our being is usually overshadowed by the ever changing movements of our mind (Yoga Sutra 1.4). As we all know, our minds spin and spin and spin. One thought constantly giving way to the next. In our wildly distracted world, settling the mind into silence can feel almost impossible.
In the 6th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, which is dedicated to the practice of meditation, Arjuna speaks for us when he asks Krishna a question that we can all relate with. He says:
O Krishna, the stillness of divine union which you describe is beyond my comprehension. How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace? Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind. (Bhagavad Gita 6.33-34)
Arjuna is right of course, trying to control the mind is like trying to tame the wind. So what do we do? A disciplined mind—a quiet, focused mind—takes effort. We can’t wish it into existence anymore than we can tame the wind, but we can take intentional steps to move toward it. Let me share some really practical things I’ve learned from my years of studying, practicing, and teaching yoga.
First, it’s really important to have a clear intention for your practice.
- Why do you practice yoga?
- What are you seeking?
- What direction are you trying to move in?
If you don’t have answers to these questions, your experience of practice will be fractured. Individual practices might feel nice—really nice. They might help you relax for a few minutes or even an hour. But they won’t foster dedication and consistency. And they won’t build the kind of momentum that leads to transformation. In her book Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi wrote:
Resistance to practice occurs when we have not yet formed a clear intention. Until we form a clear intention, we cannot rally our energy and align it with our goal. We have to know what it is that we really want. We may say we’re practicing Yoga because we want to lose weight or become flexible or fit. But until we understand that what we really want is to feel truly alive, there will always be a contrary movement that pulls us in a negative direction. Once we find the core of our intention, this intention acts like a laser to cut through the endless excuses and avasions. We stop having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, battling it out in a tit-for-tat competition. Instead, we align ourselves from the center of our intention, and the friction of opposing forces ceases to obstruct our momentum.
If you’re unsure how to articulate a clear intention, I encourage you to reflect on your experiences of suffering. Where do you feel stuck? Or unclear? Where do you feel a strong sense of attachment? Or aversion? Or fear? The practice of yoga can help us move in the direction of inner freedom. But only if we’re willing to look honestly at what’s real and to clearly name what we’re seeking. If you’re interested in transformation, your practice must begin with a clear intention.
Once you know why you’re practicing, you can decide how to practice. You can articulate a goal for yourself and decide what kind of practices will help you move toward that goal. I’ll share a personal example. The intention of my practice has always been two fold—healing from childhood trauma and connecting with the Divine Light within me. For many years the object of my meditation was the Gayatri mantra, an ancient prayer that I translate as:
I recognize within myself and meditate upon that wondrous Spirit of Divine Light. May this Light guide my inner vision.
Focusing my practice on this mantra supported me in two ways: it helped me remember that I am more than the story of my childhood experiences. And it helped me decide, day after day, action after action, to make choices guided by the Light within, rather than by my deeply conditioned trauma responses. I can say this all so easily now, but it’s taken years of deep practice. Years of reminding myself of my intention. Years of sitting in silence and internally repeating this mantra with my breath. Years of saying to myself all day long: May this Light guide my inner vision.
Which brings me to the relationship between formal practice and everyday life. Formal practice might feel set apart from the rest of your day, but it isn’t! If your practice is effective, then it’s going to impact what’s happening in your life. And, no matter what, your practice is affected by all the other choices you’re making. Your practice is affected by what you ate, how you slept, what movie you watched last night, that phone call you had with so and so yesterday, and every experience that lives in your body—which is pretty much every experience you’ve ever had.
When you sit down to meditate, you can’t suppress all the thoughts and feelings that are flowing through you. And you can’t fake what’s happening with your energy levels and your digestion. You show up to meditation as yourself. Whatever is real in that moment is what’s real. You have to meet yourself where you are. And this is why yoga includes so many different kinds of practice. Before you sit down to meditate, it’s helpful to move your body. It’s helpful to intentionally direct the breath. And, like I already said, it’s helpful to know what you’re meditating on.
Remember, meditation—yoga—is mind training. When we sit down to meditate we practice keeping the mind focused in one place. Every time we notice that the mind has wandered off in some random direction, we bring it back to the point of focus. But we can’t do this if we don’t know what we’re focusing on. The reason I started saying “May this Light guide my inner vision” to myself all day long is because I had spent hours and hours and hours of formal practice training my mind to stay focused on the Gayatri mantra. Through my formal practice, the object of my meditation started naturally showing up in the everyday moments of my life.
Effective practice requires a clear intention. It requires a clear object of focus. And it requires repetition. There are a few magical beings in the world that are transformed simply by hearing something once. But most of us have to hear things over and over again before they start to sink in.
After Arjuna told Krishna that trying to control the mind felt like trying to control the wind, Krishna responded by saying:
It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment. (Bhagavad Gita 6.35)
In these words I hear Krishna telling Arjuna to take heart. And I echo his words. I invite you to be kind to yourself. If you seek transformation, it is possible. If you seek to connect with the Truth of your Being, you can. Look honestly at what’s real. Articulate a clear intention. Choose an appropriate object of meditation. And show up to your practice over and over and over again.
I’ll close with two more verses from the Bhagavad Gita. As you hear these words—Krishna encouraging Arjuna—allow your heart to hear them. Hear them as a message for you. A message of encouragement for your own practice:
Whenever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self. (Bhagavad Gita 6.26)
Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self. (Bhagavad Gita 6.25)