Undoubtedly the most cited aphorism in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the second: yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodah. Although numerous translations of these four words have surfaced, I’m partial to that of late scholar Georg Feuerstein: Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.
Patanjali expounds those fluctuations in depth while prescribing techniques for their restriction. While there have been many suggestions for accomplishing this over the centuries, we can turn to neuroscience to guide a serious consideration of attempting such a restriction. Slowing the neuronal firings that assault our brain with a ceaseless stream of thoughts makes for an apt analogy to Patanjali’s writings.
For years I was interested in how Patanjali framed consciousness. I earned a degree in Religion at Rutgers University by investigating Eastern thought and have studied dozens of styles of yoga since. While those styles are varied—Kundalini to Bikram, Ashtanga to Yoga Nidra, Anusara to Vinyasa—the foundation remains the pursuit of self-realization.
A few years ago, I stopped turning the pages back thousands of years. While beautiful metaphors are expressed in scripture, we now have a firmer grip of the chemical and physiological basis of consciousness. If we want to address the self — consciousness’s great creation — yoga is well served by studying our nervous system.
The human brain is a fascinating organ. It is comprised of a complex network of neurons — estimates range from 100 billion to a trillion — communicating with one another by propagating an electrical current that travels along a tube-like channel called an axon. The current runs into another neuron at the tip, the synapse, causing the release of a chemical molecule, the transmitter. There are more potential neuronal connections in a single human brain than elementary particles in the entire universe, which give rise to our vast imaginations.
A neuron colliding with a muscle fiber, for example, results in movement. This is how we are able to practice the hundreds of asanas associated with yoga today. Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinàs believes thinking evolved as a form of movement; every thought stimulates your motor neurons, the signals that cause you to move. Thinking is not just metaphorically, but literally, a fluctuation.
Our conception of consciousness and what we call the ‘self’ has had different interpretations over time and in different philosophical systems. In Western psychology it was long believed that the self is an encoded, fixed being that remains stable throughout our lives. Some philosophies exaggerated this notion, claiming that while identity is fixed during one lifetime, it is then transferred to another body for later usage.
While the concept of the self is still debated, researchers today are coming to a more nuanced understanding. In Self Comes To Mind, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes, “There is indeed a self, but it is a process, not a thing, and the process is present at all times when we are presumed to be conscious.”
The self is essentially a social network posting about itself all day. Fixed identities were abandoned with the discovery of neuroplasticity: we have the power to change those patterns. Through extensive research on people such as Buddhist monks, meditation has been proven to be one such catalyst for change.
Our brain, in constant communication with our body through the nervous system, is the seat of self. Every thought, feeling, and sensation begins and ends there. One startling discovery about the brain involves our five basic senses, showing how counterintuitive neuroscience can be. We don’t actually see with our eyes, hear with our ears, or taste with our tongues. Those organs send electrical impulses to our brains, which creates our perception of each sense. Our sense organs are transmitters; our brain translates.
So it is with every facet of our existence. Siddhartha, himself a former yogi, was onto something when he claimed the self to be an illusion. Many neuroscientists today agree, realizing that the self is a construction built partly from genetics and influenced largely by environment. In the ever-shifting nature of our ideas about ourselves, we cannot pinpoint an exact being — ‘being’ in this case would better be represented as a verb than a noun.
In Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness meditation, the first step is to recognize thoughts as thoughts, a more challenging prospect than it first appears. It is just a movement, but where it moves us, most often to the past or future, creates a sense of disembodiment. Understand how thoughts move, and you learn to move them where you want them to go.
Think about it this way: your brain produces thoughts from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep and beyond. Your idea of your self is inextricably bound up in these neuronal firings. Even while asleep, your brain is thinking. Researchers have discovered that dreaming plays a pivotal role in memory consolidation. Your brain consolidates your experiences, finding context based upon what you’ve already learned.
The neuroscientist Sam Harris discusses this phenomenon in Waking Up. “It is not within our power to stop talking to ourselves, whatever the stakes. It’s not even in our power to recognize each thought as it arises in consciousness without getting distracted every few seconds by one of them.”
Without meditation, he writes, it is impossible to remain aware of anything for more than a few moments at a time. This is what our brain does: it thinks, ceaselessly, relentlessly. It fluctuates. Our self is an attempt to recognize coherency in these fluctuations.
These fluctuations result in what we call consciousness. While that word seems vague from overuse, consider the Latin origin, conscientia, from cum, ‘with’ or ‘together,’ and scire, ‘to know.’ Simply put, consciousness binds together a number of divergent elements and makes life appear seamless and continuous.
In The Organized Mind, neuroscientist Dan Levitin reminds us consciousness is not a thing or even localizable in the brain. There is no “consciousness center,” but rather a system-wide phenomenon in which disparate neural regions communicate to create what we call identity. Levitin writes of consciousness, “It’s simply the name we put to ideas and perceptions that enter the awareness of our central executive, a system of very limited capacity that can generally attend to a maximum of four or five things at a time.”
Contemplating how consciousness arises in our bodies, philosopher Richard Metzinger argues for transparency: we don’t understand the mechanism transporting information to us. He goes on in The Ego Tunnel, “We do not see the window but only the bird flying by. We do not see neurons firing away in our brain but only what they represent for us.”
The mystery isn’t metaphysical; the mystery is how a three-pound organ that consumes 20 percent of our body’s energy attempts to understand itself. Unconscious processes are evolutionarily beneficial, as they free up our cognitive powers to create art, listen to music, and practice yoga. Since the “construction process is largely invisible,” we fill in the gaps of awareness with spirits, gods, and sundry ambitions; as Walter White said, life is chemistry.
Patanjali recognized how ceaseless our thinking is when he consolidated a variety of philosophies into his Sutra. Like Siddhartha, he knew that we suffer because we don’t perceive reality correctly. He understood humans believe their beliefs represent all of reality; we suffer when we realize that’s not the case. Instead of using our thoughts wisely, we become used by them. The self we construct imprisons us.
He also realized an escape from this prison exists.
Perhaps the most frightening, and in some ways enlightening, research discovered just how limited consciousness is. If our goal in yoga is to slow the fluctuations of a relentless mind, we have to discuss what is currently stopping us from achieving such an ambition.
The human brain processes up to 120 bits of information per second. If you’re talking to another person, you’re using up 60 bits of that capacity; half of your attention must be devoted to this person to understand what they’re saying. Throw your cell phone into the mix and chances are you won’t hear a word they’re saying.
Multitasking is a terrible habit. Not only do the many tasks we attempt to handle not get done efficiently, it ends up taking longer to finish everything than if we focused on one thing a time.
Yet multitasking is a cultural obsession. Outside of being rude and inconsiderate when involving others, it also increases the production of cortisol and adrenaline. We choose the quick dopamine release of a kitten video when we should be working, which is neurochemically taxing. Due to our prefrontal cortex’s novelty bias, we flood areas of our brain governing aggressive and impulsive behavior with anxiety-producing chemicals.
This is bad enough in front of our computer; it’s downright deadly on highways. There are currently 100,000 automobile accidents occurring every year due to texting and driving. It has been estimated that 420,000 people are involved in some sort of distracted-driving accident each year. Interviews with people responsible are nearly universal: I thought I could do it.
They couldn’t – none of us can. We don’t have the neural bandwidth. We’ve outsourced the fluctuations of consciousness to smartphone dings. I’ve witnessed numerous students on their phone until the second we begin class, picking it up again as soon as “Namaste” is mouthed. Even worse, some can’t not check it during class.
Add to this instructors that can’t resist posting a photo of unsuspecting students in Savasana or throwing up a flow on Snapchat to market their brand and you’re witnessing a discipline designed to yoke the participant to the moment producing a plethora of disembodied students and teachers making no real investment in practicing presence.
A spiritual practice addresses the needs of the times to be relevant. If yoga includes the cultivation of presence, our modern tragedy is the loss of what journalist Nicholas Carr calls “deep thinking.” Due to this constant shifting of attention from life to screen to road to mat, humans are losing the ability to focus on one thing for sustained periods of time, one of the remedies for suffering. Even worse, we’re becoming brittle.
“It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind,” Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. “It’s also empathy and compassion. Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they’re finding is that…the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that ‘are inherently slow.’”
The promises of modern yoga — focus, attentiveness, compassion, empathy — are co-opted by our uncontrollable fingers. I’ve challenged my students more than once: the next time you reach for your cell phone without actually needing to, resist. Notice if your hand shakes a little, your body temperature warms, and the space behind your eyebrows throbs. This is how our nervous system responds to addiction.
This is not the mind-blowing transformation of Kundalini, but something subtler, more readily apparent — what I would argue yoga is best suited to address. I’m a huge fan of social media and the virtual community it creates, but when you sacrifice the actual community you’re surrounded by, you have to wonder where the yoga went.
Our brains operate similarly to the first yogis who designed this exceptional discipline; the external circumstances have changed. To understand how yoga serves us today, neuroscience offers us powerful insights. Our brain is the tool that both creates fluctuations and has the potential to quiet them. If our goal is to honor the sage advice of Patanjali, the first step is to put down our phone and stare straight ahead into life.