Have you ever left a yoga class feeling a disconnect between how yoga is described by books and teachers and what you are actually doing in class? On the one hand, you are striving for “nirvana” and “absolute consciousness” while on the other hand, you are only being instructed on how to do the physical postures. You begin to wonder, how many “chattarangas” will I have to do for absolute consciousness to settle in?
So what does chattaranga have to do with meditation or reaching a higher state of being? According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (one of the foundational texts of yoga), the goal of yoga is to restrain the thought-streams natural to the mind. Our mind is constantly jumping from one thought to the next: to do lists, worries, replaying memories, fantasizing about the future. With a mind that is so preoccupied, it is difficult to experience the present moment. But how can we miss the present moment while we are experiencing it? Here’s an example:
After a long day of work Lauren goes to her favorite bakery and orders herself a delicious piece of chocolate cake. As she’s taking her first bite the mind begins to wonder, “I shouldn’t really be eating this. No wonder I can’t lose any weight. I have no self control.” Before you know it the cake is finished and yet, she can’t quite remember eating or enjoying it. Lauren not only doesn’t enjoy her cake, she also begins to identify with these passing thoughts. She now views herself as a weak and unattractive woman.
By identifying with passing moods or thoughts we lose site of our true, deeper, unchanging, and joyful selves. The core of this misunderstanding is what yogic texts call “avidya” – a basic ignorance of who we are and the
underlying reality that connects everything in the universe. Without the frantic thoughts and concerns, there is a true self that lies much deeper.
This is easy enough to understand, but unfortunately knowing the truth intellectually doesn’t change your feelings or behavior. This is why learning how to change our thought process is a long, difficult road. We cannot expect to simply sit, close our eyes, and turn off our chaotic mind. It would be like trying to stop a truck going a 100 miles an hour.
This is where the yoga asanas (postures) become handy. Since “clearing” the mind would be way too much to ask of ourselves as beginner yoga students, we instead focus our mind on our bodies.All concerns, to do lists, and memories get put aside and all of our attention is placed on the physical body.
Did you ever notice how your mind can be so focused in your physical practice but one minute in shavasana (relaxation) and you’re already thinking about dinner? This is because it is much easier to focus our mind on physical movement. Don’t get frustrated – it’s a process. Just remember the next time you practice, that the point of asana is not just to get better at asana.
The asanas are a tool to cultivate the mind, cleaning it out of negative and unnecessary thoughts, and discovering your true self.