Consider this common scenario. It’s the start of a new day or work week and the anxiety rises up in your chest, settling in like a ton of bricks as you anticipate the scope of what you need to get done. You’re exhausted and your efforts to focus are futile. It feels impossible to slow down and your plate is so full you can’t figure out what needs to go. I’ve been there, too. When we have too much to pay attention to, it’s challenging to focus and establish better rhythms for ourselves. Sometimes too many unexpected changes happen all at once and it’s tough to scale back. But very often we can find some balance by managing our thoughts and changing our perspectives. The Yoga Sūtras offer practical teachings for achieving balance through mental discipline.
You are not your thoughts.
Our minds are like flooded internet browsers with numerous tabs and pop-ups open at any given time. However, we do have the option of clearing any and all irrelevant windows. According to yogic wisdom, our true selves and our minds are two separate things. Let’s consider Yoga Sūtra 1.4, “Otherwise, at other times, [the seer] is absorbed in the changing states [of the mind] (1, p. 24).” Sometimes our thoughts overwhelm us, and at other times we’re able to let them go.
While our minds are very reactive and become easily consumed by what’s happening around us, often leading us off track and distorting reality, we can discern which thoughts warrant our attention. For example, if you think you’ve failed because something didn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you have or that there’s no chance of turning things around. A missed step is not failure, nor is it a reflection of who you are; it’s just another way to move your feet. Keep your mind open, steady on the path forward, and detach from the thoughts that threaten to distract you.
What can you let go of?
When we’re scrambling to meet every demand, it’s hard to know which priorities to keep and which ones to toss. This relates to tasks as well as expectations for what we can accomplish. And that’s where Yoga Sūtra 1.15 comes in, which states: “Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires (2, p. 64).” Not attaching to our desire for success is a learned skill of keeping the mind steady and clear of distractions. Without attachment to worldly gain, we can work with greater ease, fulfilled by what we’ve accomplished, and unbothered by feelings of failure or lack. When the pressure to do it all feels utterly consuming, take a pause. Step away from the computer or the paperwork. What can you scratch off your list? What expectations of yourself, or desires for achievement can you let go of all together?
Change your thought patterns.
Disciplining our minds also includes changing our thoughts when they threaten to drag us down. For this one, let’s turn to Yoga Sūtra 2.33, “Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts (1, p. 255).” This teaching could mean reversing our outlook from a glass-half-empty mentality to a glass-half-full. But sometimes that can feel like we’re forcing optimism where it doesn’t belong rather than looking at things through a different lens.
Perhaps you can relate this thought, “I’m never going to be able to accomplish X and Y by Z.” Maybe that’s true, but this mindset can be debilitating midst pressure to meet all the demands thrown at you. An example counteracting thought could go something like this, “I won’t be able to accomplish X and Y by Z, but I can get A and B done by C.” When the unfavorable thoughts won’t stop no matter how much you dismiss them, consider this exercise. Write down your negative thoughts on one side of a piece of paper, and then write out the counteracting thoughts right next to them. Cross out the negative and proceed with the opposite thoughts.
Yoga provides some of the very best instruction on how to live life, especially when life is difficult. It’s helpful to apply yogic teachings to our lives in practical ways so that they serve their purpose of helping us transform. Yoga is meant to be lived and experienced; That’s how we experience its gifts. The wisdom of these three sūtras can help us bring a chaotic situation back into balance by enabling us to see things clearly and examine our lives with some fresh perspective.
(1) Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009.
(2) Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002.