How the Mind Works

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How the Mind Works

In the last installment of my Lessons from the Yoga Sutra series, we looked at how yoga is all about the mind.

This begs the question, what is the mind?

It could be argued that the entire Yoga Sutra attempts to answer this question, as Patanjali drills deeper and deeper into the inner workings of how the mind works the further you get into the text.

You have a mind but you are not your mind

For our first foray into this topic, Patanjali offers up this philosophical tid-bit to help us understand what the mind is not (it helps to have some context to understand the third sutra):

When the mind is fully focused without distraction,

1.3 Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-realization.


This little sutra outlines a key component in classical yoga philosophy: we are all the same. When you focus completely on one thing without distraction, only then do you realize your True Nature and come to the understanding that you are no different then the object you are focusing on.

That True Nature rests within all of us, however:

1.4 At other times, when one is not in Self-realization, the Seer appears to take on the form of the modifications of the mind field, taking on the identity of those thought patterns.


When the mind is unfocused, we mistakenly identify with our thoughts rather then our True Nature (Self-realization) and become disconnected from this All for One, One for All idea.

Said differently, yoga philosophy argues that most of your life lived outside of Self-realization is an illusion.

The mind is an important tool for Self-realization but the mind is not in and of itself the Self. We must not confuse our True Self, or consciousness, with the mind.

How the mind works

What then is the mind?

Patanjali says:

1.5 There are 5 activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems.


Understanding the 5 activities of the mind and how the mind works helps us to understand a very important fundamental principle of yoga. Yoga is meant to be an experiential practice. The Yoga Sutras are written and presented as experienced knowledge. But they were experienced by “Patanjali.” For these same “truths” to be true for you, it’s important that you experience them for yourself. If, then, these truths turn out to be not true for you, it’s up to you to rewrite your own code to make sense of the mystery of the world.

Also, notice that Patanjali qualifies that the activities of the mind are neither good nor bad. Patanjali makes this distinction to underscore the fact of the matter. The mind, according to Patanjali, can do the following:

1.6 The 5 activities [of the mind] are comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep, and memory.


We can know something, we can misunderstand something but still think we know, we can flat out make things up, our mind can enter into the void of deep sleep, and we can remember things.

This is what the mind does. Notice, the mind does not meditate, bring us into ecstatic states of joy, or get emotional.

To better understand how the mind works, Patanjali expounds very briefly on each activity.

The mind can comprehend experience

1.7 Comprehension is based on direct observation of the object, inference, and reference to reliable authorities.


Ordering in the Yoga Sutras is very intentional. Knowing something is based first and foremost on direct experience, but can also come from inference (this starts to get a little faulty though as we can easily infer incorrectly based on assumptions), or be verified by others who have similar experiences.

It’s especially important to breakdown what it means to be a reliable authority. Anyone can call him- or herself an expert these days, but few people can prove they have gone through both rigorous training and direct experimentation. So basically, to know something is to experience it. If you’re not sure if you comprehend something, find someone reliable to bounce your ideas off of and engage in debate. This collaboration is key and seems to be a lost art.

The mind can be wrong

1.8 Misapprehension is that comprehension that is taken to be correct until more favorable conditions reveal the actual nature of the object.


Remember the caveat about inference in the previous sutra? All those times that you comprehended something through inference and then later found out that your inference didn’t quite pan out — that knowledge now falls under the category of misapprehension.

This sutra is an argument for the evolution of yoga. Science continues to evolve and prove or disprove new theories. This is why as yoga teachers, if we teach long enough (or study deep enough), we’ll eventually come to the horrible realization that we may have been hurting our students. As I heard Donna Farhi say in a podcast with J. Brown recently, perhaps it was useful to stand on your head for an hour and a half thousands of years ago but that same remedy isn’t so effective or efficient today. We can remain archaic or we can grow with the changing times. This is the concept of survival of the fittest, ironic language for the fitness-crazed state of yoga we find ourselves in today.

Because much of our existence remains ignorant of our True Nature, it’s only to be expected that a large majority of our knowledge will be…flat out wrong.

The mind can make stuff up

1.9 Imagination is the comprehension of an object based only on words and expressions, even though the object is absent.


Having an active imagination can be both a good thing and a bad thing. To be imaginative is to be creative, but it also may take you out of touch with reality. At the end of the day, imagination is not direct experience, but it can also be argued that imagination is the function of the mind that allows for hope, motivation, and inspiration to move forward toward a particular goal.

Interestingly, teaching yoga asana to a group of students requires a lot of imagination on the part of both the student and the teacher. The teacher often uses words and expressions to explain a shape or state he or she wishes the student to inhabit. The student must use the words and expressions of the teacher to find that state (direct experience) for him- or herself. Imagination, like the mind, becomes the vehicle through which we can travel to direct experience. The only problem is the road is fraught with pot-holes and detours.

The mind needs to rest sometimes

1.10 Deep sleep is when the mind is overcome with heaviness and no other activities are present.


I think this is a pretty amazing sutra. People have been touting the benefits of sleep for thousands of years! Patanjali doesn’t just say sleep is good. Patanjali says sleep is a function of the mind. The mind must sleep to function!

Fascinating scientific research has recently been published backing up this claim. Studies are now detailing a new discovery of the lymphatic and glymphatic systems extending into and around the brain. These systems are responsible for cleaning out cellular waste from brain, allowing it to remain clear and unclogged. They function best when the body and mind is sleeping.

The mind does a lot of work and needs to rest just like the body! It’s a little easier to feel the effects of a tired body but I know you’ve experienced a tired mind from time to time too.

When you look at the functioning of the human body, the brain and the central nervous system really controls everything. While Hatha yoga focuses on yoga asana and the body as a way to access the more subtle mind field, there is something to be said for working on the mind to effect body function. It works both ways and is best approached both ways.

With all this in mind (no pun intended, seriously), sleeping can be considered yoga practice. This is one reason to give plenty of time at the end of any asana practice for Savasana. Of course, it would have to be a very long Savasana to achieve a deep sleep state, as science shows that full sleep cycles last about 90 minutes. But still, don’t skimp Savasana!

The mind can remember

1.11 Memory is the mental retention of a conscious experience.


The Sanskrit word for memory is smriti. Many philosophical texts are claimed to be smriti or “remembered,” as in the authors all the sudden had a revelation and “remembered” all of these hefty concepts and ideas and then wrote them all down (there’s still hope for you and me!). And yet, memory can’t function without first having experienced something. Thus, authors who received divine revelations consciously experienced all of that revelation at once — this is basically the definition of enlightenment.

The problem with memory is that, over time, that conscious experience can be re-experienced through different lenses, morphing the memory into a shell of the Truth. This may be why memory is offered as the last, and most unreliable, function of the mind when it comes to achieving Self-realization.

The good news

Now that we know how the mind functions, according to Patanjali, we understand that the mind can both be a vehicle towards Self-realization or towards confusion and ignorance.

The good news is we get to choose which road we want to travel. And, we can double-back and switch gears anytime we like. Agency is ultimately in your own hands (or mind).

Are you ready to start taking back control of your life? Download the Essential Elements to Living Your Inspired Life here.


Translations taken from T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga and Salvatore Zambito’s The Unadorned Thread of Yoga[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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