Turn Off the Vrittis
It was a rare and treasured day, getting up early to attend a Mysore-style Ashtanga class. I left my daughter in the care of the babysitter and happily drove to the studio as the sun was cresting over the distant hills.
There are many things I love about Mysore classes: the sense of community, the individual adjustments, and the ability to work at my own pace. But what I love the most is the silence.
No teacher leading us through the paces, no music, just the sounds of breathing, jumping, and the occasional interaction between the teacher and one of the students as he imparts some wisdom or refinement of their practice. The silence is very meditative for me.
Was this a joke?
Upon opening the door to the studio, my ears met with something unfamiliar: the sound of some old crooner from the 50s singing a love song. Was it Elvis Presley? I can’t remember, but I do remember my reaction: shock. Was this a joke? Was some other class going on?
I saw all the sandals neatly stacked in the cubbies as usual – certainly there were people here practicing, and as I peeked through the curtains everything seemed normal. Some folks in Surya Namaskar B, others wrapping their arms in one of the Marichyasanas, and one or two already in the finishing poses. But this strange music was blaring through the speakers and no one seemed to pay attention.
Except, of course, myself. I was outraged. Deplorable. I had come for peace, a meditative quiet, and now I have to listen to crappy 50’s music (no offense to those who love that era!). This is not what I came to this class for. My mind was off on a bullet train to annoyed distraction and nothing was going to stop it for a while.
Those distracting thoughts are referred to as Vrittis in yoga philosophy. Vrittis are the fluctuations of consciousness that happen almost constantly throughout the day in our minds. If you ever spend time watching your own mental processes, you’ll notice that the mind is in a continual dialogue – discussing the weather, commenting on the expression on someone’s face, worrying about bills that are due, etc. Sometimes Vrittis appear to be completely random, unrelated to anything in particular, and other times they will be obsessively fixed on the spot that just doesn’t want to come out on your t-shirt.
Regardless of their source or function, Vrittis are a big obstacle on the yogic path. They interfere with our ability to focus, agitate emotions, and cause general distraction, sometimes mayhem, in our consciousness.
Therefore, a large part of yoga practice is focused on cleansing the mind of the Vrittis. The second verse in the Yoga Sutra, which is quoted time and again by many yoga teachers for good reason, states that “Yoga is the cessation of the Vrittis”. Yoga, the state of complete oneness or union, happens when those internal thoughts vanish.
Turn them off!
This was certainly not the state of mind I was having in Mysore class that morning. I was having Vrittis galore, and annoying ones at that. I was angry at the teacher, then worried about being angry, then annoyed with the next song. I wanted to ask him to turn it off. I wanted to hold a protest.
I wanted to complain to someone. I also wanted to not be bothered by it, to transcend the sappy love songs and find some inner peace. What better situation to learn to turn off those Vrittis than being immersed in Connie’s special mentally-torturing musical mix.
Practice under any condition
We often believe that meditation needs to happen in a quiet space, free of distractions. While that is generally an ideal, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have a better experience under those conditions.
Moreover, if we are to truly attain a meditative state and maintain that experience, we must eventually learn to practice it under almost any condition. Coming into Mysore class and finding loud, unpleasant music brought up completely different internal experiences for me to deal with during the practice of the asanas, or poses.
Get too busy to think
One of the main reasons that Hatha Yoga, the physical practice of the postures (literally, the yoga of “physical effort” or force), is so effective, is that getting present in the physical body is one of the best ways to learn to transcend thought. When we’re too busy to think, we don’t necessarily stop thinking, but we pay a lot less attention to those thoughts.
To get back to that meditative experience I loved so much, I had to come back to my breath, my hamstrings, the rotation of my neck, the broadening of my collar bones. The palpable, physical practice was slowly turning the volume down on both my awareness of the music and those Vrittis, and I found myself attuned to my practice once again.
Bringing ourselves to full attention of whatever task we’re engaged in, whether pulling weeds, writing a letter to our landlord, or giving a presentation to colleagues at work, we can similarly turn the volume down on those inner fluctuations. This practice of presence is what refines our focus, develops clarity, and awakens peace of mind. This is the internal practice of yoga.
In the process of gaining this inner clarity, we also may spend time observing those Vrittis to understand our habits of thought. Vrittis that follow a particular pattern, an internal habit, are Vasanas.
Vasanas are heavily ingrained patterns – in thought, word, and action – that are very challenging to change. Some believe these habits have been established for lifetimes in our subconscious. It is only through becoming aware of what these tendencies are, challenging them, and learning to refocus our attention or our actions elsewhere that Vasanas begin to change (It’s also darn helpful to have some Divine intervention or a Guru to help you!).
I had some strong Vasanas arising in my practice that morning. Righteousness was a theme I had noticed many times in my life, and this was no exception. It wasn’t necessarily a problem that I didn’t like the music. After many years of meditation, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to learn to like squash if we never liked squash. The problem was that I was righteous in my opinion that this music shouldn’t be played in this class. It was wrong to play, I felt. I entertained the thought of going over to the stereo and turning it off myself, of insisting that the teacher do so, and of walking out of class, among even less desirable options.
I knew that I had a Righteousness Vasana going on – an ingrained tendency to feel very justified in the “rightness” of my point of view. This had caused problems in various situations in my past, but here and now on my yoga mat I had an opportunity to see it play out and let it go before it caused me more mischief. What a relief to finally feel the energy drain out of that rigid position as I melted into a deeply enjoyable Parvsakonasana. It just didn’t seem important anymore.
Watching it wear itself out
When we’re able to watch our Vasanas in action for a period of time without reacting to them or acting on them, we can see them wearing themselves out. A habit or tendency will arise, have a period of time where it’s very strong, and then have a period of losing potency.
If we hold fast to our center, our breath, and our resolve not to react long enough, we can get over that craving for a candy bar or the compulsion to yell at our kids, and watch the energy shift. Sometimes, we’ll even have some period of peacefulness afterwards before the next Vasana arises.
A couple weeks passed by. I had been to a couple classes, happily in silence. But then I walked in the door the next Tuesday, and there was the music again. But this time, it was of a genre I actually liked: pleasant mix of modern mantra interpretations with some appropriate, spiritually-inclined songs from the 80’s and 90’s.
I smiled. Wow, Chariots of Fire – haven’t heard that in a long time. Sure does bring back some memories. Gosh, as I jump to Uttanasana I sort of feel like those runners on the beach in the movie.
Still a distraction
Interesting. Vrittis were popping up again. Oh, I love that song by Enigma! It makes me want to cry. Oh, that is my favorite chanting song! This time, the Vrittis were pleasant. But the interesting thing is; they’re still Vrittis. They were still a distraction to my practice.
Was I focused on Padangushstasana? Nope, I was reveling in memories from the mid-80’s. I had to come back again to my breath and the posture, and let the music fade once again into the background.
This kind of fluctuation in consciousness – the pleasant, enticing thoughts – can be even more dangerous than the upsetting kind, because we may not see them as a problem. We may not even notice them, because they aren’t disturbing us. Or so it seems.
But the truth is that pleasant Vrittis are also getting in the way of finding that place where the mind is quiet and peaceful. They still distract our focus and can be agitating – how many of us have been kept up at night by reminiscing over the wonderful events of a joyful day? A one-pointed mind is able to let go of pleasure as well as pain, and allow the body and mind to rest as we drift off to sleep.
Back to the present
This experience revealed different Vasanas. I still had a propensity for a bittersweet kind of melancholy, triggered by the old familiar tunes. The flair for the dramatic – enacting the triumph of the runners in Chariots of Fire through my yoga practice – wasn’t such a bad thing, but it distracted my attention enough to cause me to become clumsy in my jumpings. Instability in the transitions between poses is always a sign that I’ve lost my concentration.
So, I return to my breath. Inhale, exhale, Uddiyana Bandha. I step mindfully and place my foot precisely for Warrior I. Inhale and rise up. Open the heart. As I come back to the movements in my body, my attachment to the music wanes and once again I’m feeling present. I watch more Vrittis go by. If I haven’t yet found the off switch for them, at least I know where the volume is. Turn those Vrittis down.
Copyright © 2006 by Constance L. Habash
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