I have learnt many things from my teachers over the years. For instance, do āsana (yoga postures) to understand what your body can and cannot do and in so practising discover the intelligence of your body and the wisdom to take care of it properly. Do prāāyāma (yoga’s gift of breath awareness and control) to discover the source of your vitality and a way to remove the veil that obscures your perception .
Yoga is most often seen as a way to improve bodily well-being. What is less obvious but far more important is that many types of Yoga focus a lot of attention on the mind: what it is, how it works and how it can be transformed. In a sense, yoga is about the mind. This is what my teachers have led me to understand. We experience absolutely everything through our minds. In fact, we live our entire lives through our minds. When we interact with others, we do so with our minds. Many of us don’t see this straight away. If I am honest with myself, I forget this most crucial bit of wisdom many times each day.
Even when we come to appreciate the central role our minds play in our lives, we don’t automatically notice that it is in want of training. I know we all went to school and learnt (and then mostly forgot) a great deal of useful things. This is not the sort of training I am really talking about. Let me put this another way by likening the mind to a musician. I taught myself to play the guitar, but my wife and children were taught to play their musical instruments by qualified music teachers. The difference between them and me is that I am stuck in a narrow range of musical techniques; I can’t read music; I don’t notice that I am out of tune, out of time, or in the wrong key; I don’t know how to play with other musicians and so on. They, on the other hand, don’t have these limitations and what they can do musically always impresses me.
I am suggesting that for most of us, the mind is a bit like a symphony orchestra and one that has been self-taught and lacks a conductor. The mind also thinks it’s the bee’s knees. This is mostly down to the fact that it can’t read minds. If it could see how other minds worked, what they sounded and felt like, I suspect it would get itself into shape. It would naturally then get that our minds determine our actions, and, if it is in lousy shape then can we be surprised at:
- the noise it makes,
- the mistakes it makes
- the number of wrong decisions we have to live with
- how it can annoy others and ourselves
- its unskillful actions?
The good news is that it is never too late to get the orchestra into shape and to appoint a conductor. Even though the untrained mind is not self-aware and doesn’t know what it can do for us, this can be changed through meditative practice.
We can take to our mats to gain strength, greater flexibility and better physical co-ordination. We can reduce stress, anxiety and depression in much the same way. Come to think of it, cold-water swimming and walking briskly, among other activities, have similar benefits. To enhance the functional effectiveness of the mind, however, we need only commit to meditation and meditative practices.
‘One cannot underestimate the power of meditation’, explains TKV Desikachar , when it comes to training the mind to become the best it can. Our minds are all that we have to offer others. We should not forget that our minds have a power to hurt ourselves and others, emotionally and physically. They can even kill.
However, we can choose to offer minds to others that are friendly in the presence of happiness, compassionate in the presence of unhappiness, feel joy in the presence of virtue and are indifferent towards error . Meditation is a key technique for reshaping the mind for a better cause.
I offer this simple meditative practice for you to try at home , and if you find it enjoyable and beneficial, then I would suggest you find a teacher to help you to deepen your self-awareness and your understanding of your mind. Maybe you already have a yoga teacher but s/he is only teaching you about the body and the breath. If this is the case, s/he may just be waiting for you to inquire about yoga’s rich tradition of meditation, so ask!
Try this out for size:
- Find a seat and sit comfortably with your back upright: slouching encourages sleep. In the East the preferred postures are cross-legged or kneeling ones, but meditation stools, zafus, yoga blocks and chairs all work a treat.
- Close your eyes, and let your breath settle. This will take two or three minutes.
- Become aware of your body and the sensations of sitting. Accept what you find as if you had chosen these sensations. In other words, don’t judge anything, just notice what you experience.
- Gradually turn your attention to your breathing and let your attention rest in the sensations of breathing.
- Return your attention to your breathing every time your mind wanders. Don’t let the wandering mind bother you. One thing you will come to know through regular meditative practice is that the mind will often hijack your attention with its thoughts and feelings. It’s so good at doing this that you will hardly notice that you have become lost in your thoughts. When you realise that your attention is not longer on the sensations that accompany breathing, just briefly notice what distracted you (or keeps distracting you) and return to your breath.
- Continue to practise in this way for between 10 and 30 minutes regularly each day. As you progress in your practice you may get to notice that when your attention is with your breath (or any other object you might later choose to focus on) your mind becomes quiet and clear. You may also notice that if your mind has unbridled access to your attention, it will convince you that it is in control of your life. That’s an important discovery to make.
All yoga practices should leave you feeling good in some way, but sometimes this doesn’t happen. If the above practice doesn’t agree with you then please don’t carry on with it. Discuss how the practice left you feeling with your teacher.
 Yoga Sūtra II.52
 Quotation is from In Search of Mind, 2001, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, p. 43
 This practice is in common circulation. However, I was reminded of it while reading Sam Harris’ 2014 book, Waking Up: searching for spirituality without religion
 Yoga Sūtra I.33, based on the translation by Bernard Bouanchaud as translated from the French by Rosemary Desneux which appears in Bouanchaud’s 1997 book, The Essence of Yoga. Bernard Bouanchaud was a student of TKV Desikachar’s.