Yoga citta vritti nirodha.
This Sanskrit expression means "Yoga calms the fluctuations of our consciousness." If you're confused by the use of the word "yoga" here, that's not a surprise. In Western culture, the term "yoga" has been diluted to include only the physical practice of yoga postures. However, yoga actually includes multiple tactics and ways of being to ultimately achieve inner peace.
So, "yoga citta vritti nirodha" means that we can calm the fluctuations of our consciousness with practices like meditation, mindfulness, or yoga postures, among others.
Being able to calm the fluctuations of our consciousness matters because, otherwise, they can prevent us from feeling a sense of inner calm.
There is a fundamental belief in meditation and yoga philosophy that we are more than our body, our thoughts, our feelings, etc. We are also our awareness, which lies beyond all those things. It goes by many names including inner calm, inner peace, consciousness, soul, true self, higher self, inner light.
It's always there. It's just that we often forget it's there because life happens and it causes fluctuations. We get caught up in our stuff: our thoughts, hopes, feelings, expectations, fears, worries, tasks, responsibilities, etc. It's hard to remember our inner calm when life is swirling so powerfully around us… and that's okay.
Adventuring on a lake.
The following analogy helps to explain how fluctuations of our consciousness impact our experience of inner calm.
Imagine a beautiful calm lake. It's in a gorgeous setting, perhaps like the one in the picture below. The water is so still and so clear that you can see right to the bottom of the lake. The bottom of the lake is like our inner calm or awareness.
If the wind were to pick up a bit, it might cause light ripples on the surface of the water. The ripples are like fluctuations in our consciousness. They are all those things in life that keep us busy, distract us, require our attention. When those things seem manageable, the ripples are smaller, which means you're still be able to see the bottom of the lake (your inner calm), albeit the view might be a bit distorted.
However, when external and internal elements in life get big and stress us out or consume us, it's as though a bunch of speedboats are racing around the lake, causing many wakes - like a Saturday in the Muskokas! - or like a storm is coming through, causing the surface of the lake to thrash and crash about. When this happens, the swirling, angry surface of the water makes it impossible to see the bottom of the lake.
But, we all know that not being able to see the bottom of the lake does not mean that it's no longer there.
It's the same with our inner calm. When the fluctuations in our consciousness are big or intense, we cannot see our inner calm as easily. Sometimes we even forget it exists at all. However, this does not mean that our inner calm or awareness isn't somewhere inside us. So many things in life seem to take us away from our inner calm but what they are doing is just creating ripples or fluctuations in our consciousness that make it harder to see or access our inner calm.
I think it's comforting to remember that our inner calm is always in exactly the same place.
Returning to inner calm.
I like to take this lake example further by considering the fact that, on average, 60% of the human body is water. Knowing this makes that calm lake analogy even more accessible to me because, when I'm feeling agitated or uneasy or upset or just not calm, I imagine that the water in my body (my inner lake) is "ripply" or choppy. On some days, the best way to describe it is by borrowing an expression from George Costanza: "The sea was angry that day, my friends." (I think we have all had days like that!)
There are so many situations in life that can cause us to feel this way. Worries about workloads or a looming deadline. Strong feelings like fear or anger. A mind that is running a mile a minute and causing a vortex of thoughts. Confusion about something. The relentless buzz from a good but busy day.
When I catch myself in a state like this, I think about my inner lake and consider what its surface might be like in that moment. Is it calm like a mirror? Are there little ripples? Is there a tempest?
The mere act of considering how we're feeling, what our inner lake looks like, and the fluctuations that might currently be present in our consciousness is the first but most important step to getting closer to a sense of inner calm.
Then, I actively take measures to quiet the fluctuations in my consciousness and return myself to a calmer state. As I do so, I imagine the surface of my inner lake returning to that calm, glass-like surface… or at least something closer to it.
So, what can we do to quiet the tumultuous waters of our inner lake?
My favourite thing to do when I want to return to my inner calm is breathe. I start off by taking at least three soft slow smooth breaths, keeping my full attention on each breath as much as possible. As I breathe, I imagine calming the surface of my inner lake and returning to a more relaxed or clear state.
It can be that simple. However, I often add to this by doing one of two things:
Technique 1: So Ham
The first is mentally repeating a mantra in conjunction with my breath. As I breathe in, I think "so" and, as I breathe out, I think "ham" (pronounced "hum"). "So ham" is a Sanskrit expression that means "I am that." In this case, you could take it to mean "I am my inner calm.". I love this practice because, to me, the sound of "so" is like the sound of breathing in and the "ham/hum" sounds like breathing out. So, I find it to flow beautifully and be very soothing.
Technique 2: Gap Breath
The other breathing practice I often turn to is called Gap Breath.
The idea behind this is that we focus on each part of the breath. We often mistakenly view our breath as having only two parts: the inhalation and the exhalation. However, as shown in the graphic to the right, there are actually four parts to the breath: the inhalation, the pause (or gap) before the exhalation, the exhalation, and the pause (or gap) before the next inhalation.
In our society, which can be so focused on doing, it's no surprise to me that we tend to only count the two parts of the breath that involve action! However, there is so much power in the pauses in our breath. With this practice, focus on the inhalation then, before breathing out, hold the breath in for a brief moment. The important thing here is to hold it in for no longer than what is comfortable for you. Otherwise, you'll just stress out your nervous system and create more waves on your inner lake, instead of fewer waves. Then, after holding the breath in for a couple of seconds, focus on exhaling. Then, before inhaling again, focus on holding the breath out. Remember to hold the breath out for only as long as is comfortable for you. The moment you feel the need to breathe in again, do so immediately. There are no extra points for longest "breath-holder-outer". Then you repeat.
As you continue with the gap breath, you may notice that the pauses or gaps naturally lengthen - in other words, you can go longer before having to breathe out or breathe in again. That's totally fine but not necessary. Remember, don't force anything as it will lead to the opposite of what you are trying to do: calm down!
When I relax into the gap breath, I sometimes add a visualization. As I breathe in and hold the breath in, I imagine breathing in light and calmness. As I breathe out and hold the breath out, I picture moving beyond everything that is disrupting me, right to my awareness… as though I'm swimming below the tumultuous surface of the water, directly to the bottom of the lake where I can find my inner calm.
Doing formal and informal practice.
The two techniques above can be approached in two different ways.
You can do them "in-the-moment", as an informal means of accessing your inner calm when you need it most. These practices can be done sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, or waiting in line, for instance.
However, these techniques can also be done as formal meditation practices, whereby you carve out some time in your day (5, 10, 15, or more minutes) and sit quietly in a comfortable place and focus on these practices for the duration of your meditation session.
While each approach is integral to adding more inner calm to your life, a combination of the two is ideal: informal in-the-moment techniques and formal meditation practice.
If you do decide to try these as a formal meditation practice, which I encourage, don't forget to review the advice I provided in my blog "I can't stop thinking long enough to meditate"... and other lies.
Being human involves experiencing many things. It isn't "bad" to have fluctuations or to sometimes feel like your inner lake is choppier than a cup of juice in the hands of a toddler having a tantrum.
This is part of being human!
I feel very strongly about the importance of accepting the present moment and all that it entails, including feeling what we feel.
So, accessing one's inner calm should not be confused with repressing one's emotions.
This isn't about glossing over what is going on. Rather, it's about allowing yourself to truly experience it all but, when you remember to, doing so from a place of inner stillness.
As I've noted in the past, self-compassion is paramount when it comes to all this stuff.