Yoga off the Mat: Contemplation

Today we begin a new series of posts on the blog. This series delves into the yoga we ‘do’ off the mat. I use the term ‘do’ loosely as I believe yoga is both a noun and a verb—we both ‘are’ and ‘do’ yoga.


The philosophy I’ll be examining in this series is from Patanjali’s yoga sutras, which I am confident I have written about before. The sutras are a brilliant spiritual and practical text I suggest you add to your reading list. Till then, I hope you find my posts enlightening and helpful.


One last note before we get started, these posts are based on talks I gave at my studio Essence of Living earlier this year. I love to share more than just the physical asana and pranayama practices at Essence to serve my community at a deeper level.


To begin, let’s get back to basics: what is yoga?


At its heart, yoga is mastery of the fluctuations and activities of the mind.


You read that correctly and I’ll say it again: Yoga is mastery of the fluctuations and activities of the mind.


Yoga isn’t headstands, the splits of any other pose. Although they’re great fun and may make up a part of your yoga practice. When it comes down to it, yoga is a simple idea, but as with many simple ideas, the application of yoga is sophisticated, beautiful and challenging.


So if yoga is mastery of the mind, it makes sense then that the ability to focus attention is the primary skill of samadhi, the eighth and final rung on Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Samadhi is often translated as integration, self-realisation or bliss (more on this later).

Focusing the mind

There are five thought waves, types or patterns which either move us towards self-realisation or away from it and we call them vrittis. They are:

  • right knowledge
  • incorrect knowledge
  • imagination
  • dreamless sleep
  • memory

All thoughts will fit into these types, and when we begin witnessing our thoughts, we will notice they may be ‘coloured’. A coloured thought is shaded with something, whether it’s past experience, imagined experienced, context or something else. Coloured thoughts are therefore classed as ‘incorrect knowledge’.

There are ways to attain clarity though. Three steps to determine correct knowledge, absolute truth:

  • direct perception: you’ve seen it yourself
  • inference: deduction produced rationally
  • reliable testimony: you are told the facts from a reliable source

Begin to observe your thoughts, which of them are useful to you? Which of them are not helpful to you?

We call the process of uncolouring our thoughts abhyasa vairagya. Abhyasa translates ‘practice’ and in application is a persistent effort to maintaining a stable, tranquil and still mind called sthitau. Vairagya translated to ‘non-attachment’ and in practice is a letting go of fears, falsehoods, aversions and any other attachments we’ve collected which are colouring our thoughts and mind.

Pairing both practice and non-attachment together leads us in the direction of mastery of the mind.


Putting the philosophy into practice: Abhyasa

Carve out a chunk of time. Pour a big glass of water or brew a chai tea. Grab a notebook and pen or pencil. Sit comfortably. Open yourself to the practice and be vulnerable. Here we go.

Begin by drawing two columns. One is what actions, words and thoughts lead you towards sthitau (a tranquil mind). The other is the actions, words and thoughts which push you away from sthitau.

Be honest, open and let go of attachments. Be devoted to uncovering truths.


Putting the philosophy into practice: Vairagya

Set yourself up as you did for the previous exercise. This time your columns will be a little different.

In the first column list beliefs, ideas, people, opinions etc. which you are attracted to but you know are not useful to you. In the next column list aversions which are not serving you. These columns will then become a list of things to LET GO of.

The four levels of concentration

Let us now build upon abhyasa vairagya by moving further inward, making our way through the four levels of concentration on an object, and ultimately progressing to the stage of objectless concentration.

  • Attention (broken/separate)
  • Concentration (less broken/separate)
  • Meditation (unbroken/separate)
  • Samadhi (unbroken/collapsed)

The object of your concentration can be anything, a lotus flower, a colour in your mind’s eye or a mantra. Begin by letting your attention come to the object. Concentrate on it by taking it in at the gross level. What does it look/sound like? Concentrate on the details. You enter meditation when the lines between the gross and the subtle start to blur. You move deeper and perhaps enter samadhi, the bliss level of concentration where the object and yourself are no longer separate—you are one.

In this post, we have touched on Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1.1 to 1.18, and I’ve outlined some tried and tested practices for you to get to work on. Next month we’ll be going deeper into concentration.