A central purpose of yoga is to yoke the mind, to control it rather than let it control us. Before we can do this, we need to understand how the mind works. Once we understand what the yoga sutras call the five modifications of the mind, we’ll know how to approach working with our minds.
How the Mind Works: A Yogi’s Point of View
Early in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the five modifications of the mind. They are ways the mind plays tricks on us—or tries to.
The first modification is right knowledge. It doesn’t sound like a trick, does it? Knowing what’s right seems like a good thing. And it is.
But the struggle to discern right knowledge from wrong knowledge can be a challenge. It’s easy to get carried away in debates, studying the mind, and trying to perfect our view of things.
By seeking too much knowledge, we also risk misunderstanding. Language—which most of us use to learn and understand things—can easily keep us in an endless circle of trying to make sense of things instead of living from a place of knowing.
Another important point in understanding how the mind works is things aren’t always as they seem.
Patanjali warns us that our minds often have a hard time knowing truth from fiction. Have you ever misinterpreted something someone said? Or perhaps you’ve witnessed an event and drawn the wrong conclusion about what you saw.
When we learn to understand the mind through experience, we learned to look more closely at things before we draw conclusions.
The third modification of the mind, says Patanjali, is our ability to use and understand words. It’s worth noting that Westerners are often reminded that our ability to understand the Yoga Sutras is limited because Patanjali wrote the sutras in Sanskrit, a language more complex than English.
In many commentaries on the sutras, Sanskrit scholars note that there is “no English translation” for one word or another. They describe the concept as well as possible in English but warn us not to jump to conclusions about the meanings of words.
The point of understanding the mind by recognizing verbal delusion is that we need to check our facts—sometimes again and again—before letting our minds control what we feel or do.
Patanjali lists sleep as one of the five modifications of the mind. I don’t know about you, but I find sleep refreshing and restorative. Why, then, does Patanjali bring it up as something we need to beware of to understand the mind?
Well, if you’ve ever woken up in a panic from a nightmare or puzzled over the meaning of a dream, you know. Dreams are great tools for unraveling psychological blocks, but when we have and remember many dreams, it may be a sign that our mind has more control over us than we have over it.
It’s not sleep itself, but memories of dreams that come into play when yogis learn to understand how the mind works.
There’s little doubt memories can play tricks on us. Just the other day I attributed an idea to my mother that was actually something my father had read in a book.
Some memories are accurate, of course, but even accurate memories can be a problem if they trigger unwanted emotions. Remember what that bully did to you in high school? Are you angry? Will that anger become chronic? Will you take it out on those you love, or use it to create a wall between yourself and others?
Another tool we can use once we understand the mind is letting memories go, so they don’t affect us in the present moment.
With awareness of the ways our minds interfere with our ability to be peaceful, spiritual beings, we are ready to learn the techniques of yoga. Specifically, we can learn concentration and meditation, yogic practices that will help us overcome the limiting distractions of the mind.
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I’m Maria, devoted yogini and author of Yoga Circles. I’m a writer, editor, and content marketing creator. I help small businesses, wellness brands, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and communicate effectively in writing. Visit my website (link below) to learn how I can help you connect with more readers, clients, and students!