Yogic mindfulness: updating our mental software

A.G. Mohan, internationally renowned yoga teacher, author and disciple of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, discusses the positive impact yogic mindfulness can have on our mental and physical wellbeing.

yogic mindfulness

What is yoga?

Millions of people around the world are now engaged in various practices that go by the name of “yoga.” Students in sleepy hamlets as well as in bustling cities are experiencing the benefits of yoga. Many people – including many thousands of yoga students – think of yoga as simply a series of stretching exercises. It has even become a competitive “sport”! A great many consider yoga a method of relaxation. Some think that yoga is an alternative treatment for physical diseases and mental disorders. Still, others view it as a way to tap into esoteric or “secret” knowledge. And certain critics of yoga view it as a cult set of religious practices.

In its uncorrupted state, yoga is not an abstract concept such as “happiness” that can mean different things to different individuals. Its purpose is not a matter of opinion, whim, or personal preference. Its basic objectives are not—and should never be—subject to revision, reinterpretation, or updating. They are timeless and ageless.

Yoga and our mental software

Actually, our mental software is continually being updated by the experiences in our lives. These automatic updates are out of our control. Sometimes they result in improvements; sometimes they degrade the system.

Fortunately, it is possible to intentionally and positively revise our mental and physical programmes in a way that leads to health and happiness. This is the possibility – and the promise – of yoga.

Our unconscious mental software updates are based on this universal wish: I want to live happily forever. By “I,” we mean our body and mind. By “happily,” we mean in such a way that we get what we want, that we experience pleasure and avoid pain. By “forever,” we mean an unchanging, everlasting continuum of pleasure. The search for happiness begins in infancy and leads to a repeating cycle of pleasure and pain throughout our lives.

The cycles of pleasure and pain

Everything in the material world changes. And this fundamental fact—that everything in the external world is always changing in one way or another—suggests that there will always be a cycle of happiness and unhappiness for us. Likewise, because our minds are always changing, we are likely to experience cycles of happiness and unhappiness throughout our lives.

But this does not have to be so. External circumstances are partially, and often totally, out of our control. But internal changes are within our control. To accomplish this, though, it is important to know what we are dealing with when we speak of “mind.” Yoga gives us this understanding and provides the means to steady our minds. We can be less affected by these cycles of pleasure and pain by steadying our mind. This is yoga.    

Patterns of the mind

What we call the “mind” is composed of patterns of thoughts and feelings that are repeated throughout our lives. These patterns are largely unconscious and operate automatically. These patterns are constantly getting updated by our bodily and sense actions apart from that stored in our lower mind. The mind is in charge of our complete system and is similar to the operating system of a computer. The mind consists of three components, arranged in a hierarchy:                        

• the storage system 
• the intellect
• the “I-sense.”                        

Each of the three components of the mind contains representations of patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions that we have repeated throughout our lives. Ancient yoga sages described this mapping of the mind many centuries ago, and current research in neuroscience seems to support the sages’ framework. Modern neuroscientists are discovering complexes and circuits in the brain that are the substrate for the mental phenomena described by the ancient sages. Modern science is catching up with the past!

Repetitive thought patterns and mindfulness

The unconscious operations of our mind can at times work against us. They can cause us to repeat patterns of thought, feeling, and action that result in our unhappiness and pain.
Fortunately for us, we don’t have to be “victims” of the unconscious operations of these components. There is a method by which we can become aware of the operations of our mind and exert some control over them. The method is relatively simple but not easy. It takes time and practise, because it involves the exercise of vigilance and discipline over our perceptions, judgments, and choices.

We have the capacity to exercise control and we do so depending on the situation. If we are invited to our friend’s house for dinner, we will choose to speak in our own way. If we are invited to have dinner at the White House, we will exercise vigilance and speak in a different way. It requires mental steadiness and strength, as well as the ability to detach from our automatic tendency to identify with the persons, objects, and events outside us and the thoughts and feelings within us. But it is a method that brings immediate gains in calmness and clarity and that leads to the long-term rewards of happiness and peace. The means is Yogic mindfulness.     

Transient thoughts 

Unless we cultivate the ability to choose one peaceful thought over other thoughts, we will not be happy, even if all of our wishes are fulfilled. This is due to the changing nature of our mind. We will constantly fear losing what we have gained. Long ago, a man went into the forest alone and sat under a tree. He didn’t know that he was sitting under a tree that fulfilled wishes. The man casually wished for a thousand gold coins. Suddenly, the coins appeared. The man’s surprise and happiness were quickly replaced by fear and worry. He was alone in the forest with a treasure and was therefore easy prey for thieves who would want to steal the treasure. And, sure enough, thieves did come and steal the man’s coins. Mental steadiness is not an option. We all need it. The means is Yogic mindfulness.

Modes of operation

We have three general modes of operation in our mind:

1. The first mode is characterized by feelings of lightness and brightness, contentment, quiet and clarity. It is not exultation but the feeling of contentment and completeness that stems from a tranquil mind.

2. The next mode is characterized by excitement or stimulation, by excess mental activity, obsession, agitation, and lack of control. In this mode, we are likely to be angry, contentious, and controlling. It is a state of mind in which we are driven to action by desire or dislike.

3. The third mode is one of heaviness or dullness, insatiability and delusion, and lack of control. In this mode, we are likely to take action without thinking or take no action at all. We may face a situation in which we are not clear about what to do to satisfy our desire or reduce our unhappiness.

All of us wish to remain always with a sense of wellness. This is related to the first mode characterized by lightness of body and brightness and clarity in our mind. To further our mental health and balance, to know what will bring us and others happiness, and to act on this knowledge with maximum clarity we need to develop the first mode in preference to the second and third mode. The means is yogic mindfulness.

External and internal afflictions

These three modes of operation also pervade our body and senses. If we give our minds free rein, they become what the ancient sages likened to a drunken monkey that has been stung by a scorpion. This comparison is deeper than it initially seems. First, it is the nature of a monkey to jump around. Even if the monkey is trained, it will retain its innate nature and will not become like a trained horse or an elephant. Second, drinking alcohol is self-inflicted illness. We often assault our own minds. Third, being stung by a scorpion is an affliction from an external source. So it is with our minds and bodies. Our mind is inconstant and we are assaulted by ills from within and without.

Cultivating awareness 

Firstly we need to become aware of these modes in all the subsystems – body, senses and the storage system of our mind characterized by our thinking. We need to assess our body, senses and our thinking to bring about the first mode, given our constantly changing condition. This is essential for our wellness and peace. We need to take responsibility for updating our mental software to experience freedom leading ultimately to peace. We need to have a way of maximizing lightness and clarity while all three modes are interacting.

According to yoga, thinking is behaviour, and action is secondary. Without awareness and self-control, our thoughts and feelings become actions. We then become enslaved to our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. To become free, we must interrupt the cycle that generates impulsive and compulsive behavior.

Distancing our thoughts from our actions

We do not try to stop the mind altogether, because this is not possible for most people. Instead, we strengthen our mind by developing the first mode – lightness. We thus enhance our mental health and are less and less affected by external circumstances in our life. Just as we cannot stop the activity of the mind altogether, we cannot necessarily reduce our desires. But through yoga, we can reduce the intensity of our desires, much like a carpenter who planes a piece of wood to make it smooth.

We use intelligent focus and effort in yoga—not esoteric techniques. We develop an awareness of what is going on in our minds so that we can let go of thoughts or place a distance between our thoughts and our actions. Even doing this in a small way is beneficial. The means is yogic mindfulness.

Updating our mental software

You update your mental software by minding your mind: by bringing into your body, senses, and mind – and indeed your entire life – a feeling of lightness and clarity. This feeling is the “gold standard” by which we measure our progress toward minding our mind. The assessment of this progress is internal. However, it will reflect in our external behavior.

The purpose of the eight limbs of yoga is to bring about this light – the pathway to health, happiness and peace. Minding your mind is to bring balance, quietness, and peace. Minding your mind encompasses mindfulness.

At the most basic level, the mind is formless and therefore clueless. The mind has no form, color, touch, taste, sound or smell. What we call our ‘mind’ is an inference based on our thoughts and feelings. We update our mental software by updating/changing the behavior pattern of all our subsystems. Our lower mind – the storage system, our senses that give the input to our mind and our bodily actions. We also have our breath which links our body and mind.

The influence of the eight limbs of yoga

The methodology consists of the practice of the eight limbs of yoga. The update of the mind itself – the lower storage system is related to the practice of the yamas and the niyamas.

We need to fix an inner CCTV and watch our mind. Currently we are like a robot programmed to act based on our past actions. It takes conscious effort and practise, and it doesn’t come out of the blue or in a state of ecstasy. And, most importantly, we have to do this ourselves. 

We need to fix an inner CCTV and watch our mind. It takes conscious effort and practise, and it doesn’t come out of the blue or in a state of ecstasy. Most importantly, we have to do this ourselves.

The means to update our bodily software is to practise asanas focusing on the breath and linking to our mind, since the subsystems are interrelated.                   

The methodology of updating our breath software to rewrite our other software systems is called pranayama. Pranayama is not simply breath control, but control of the energy responsible for the functioning of all our systems. In order to exercise control over this energy we need to control our food, restrain our senses and focus our mind. We begin this control of breath in asanas with focus of mind.

Our senses are the gateway to the outside world. The perfect update of the senses software is achieved through updating the software of our mind. However, to start with, we need to restrain and retrain the behavior of our senses. We need to be careful not only with the food we eat which is very important, but also the things with which we feed our senses. The methodology of updating this software is called pratyahara.

The other three limbs, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi happen through the practice of pranayama and meditation. The means is yogic mindfulness.

Helping yourself

Can I do it? Yes indeed. You can. Most importantly, only you can do it for yourself. If you do, you will have health and happiness. No Guru or loved one can do it for you. You have to help yourself. It is in your hands.

A sage was confronted in his village by an arrogant young man who sought to prove that he was more clever than the sage. The young man had caught a bird and concealed it in his hand. He planned to ask the sage whether the bird was alive or dead. If the sage replied “dead,” the young man would release the bird and allow it to fly away. If the sage replied “alive,” the young man would wring the bird’s neck to prove the sage wrong. The young man showed the sage the hand that concealed the bird. “Is the bird dead or alive?” he asked the sage. The sage looked calmly into the eyes of the young man and replied, “It is in your hands.”    

Yogic mindfulness – an introduction

In this talk, A.G. Mohan discusses the subject of yoga mindfulness – what it is, how to bring it into our daily life and how the appropriate practice of yogic mindfulness can bring about a state of steadiness and freedom. 

For more on the topic of mindfulness, read: 

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A.G. Mohan is the author of “Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind” (1993, Rudra Press), “Yoga Therapy” (2004, Shambhala Publications), “Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings” (2010, Shambhala Publications) and “Yoga Reminder” (2015, Svastha Yoga).  A.G Mohan and his wife, Indra, offer their teachings in India and internationally under the banner of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda which advocates an integrated approach using yoga and Ayurveda to achieve the state of Svastha.

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