Continuing from the sutra 1.3, in which the writer sums up the whole goal of yoga (to abide in one’s true nature), we come to 1.4:
Vritti Sarupyam Itaratra
“At other times, [the Self seems to] identify with the mind’s fluctuations”
Vritti = “modifications” (of the chitti, mind-stuff, mentioned in sutra 1.2), sarupyam = “assumes the forms of” or “identify with”, itaratra = “at other times”.
This sutra addresses identity. What are some of the forms we attach to ourselves? Let’s see, there’s appearance, gender, relationships, occupations, passions, abilities, preferences, peeves, age, fears, habits, etc. Which gets closest to who I am? Well, I love being a yoga instructor. Okay, what happens if I am unable to teach yoga? I’m a mother, a daughter, a spouse–and yet those roles continue to morph in that I wasn’t always a mother or a spouse, and as much as I’d like to believe in the permanence of these roles, tragedy can change all of them on an instant. I’m a woman, but I feel pretty confident that were I born with a different genetic make up, I may have made different life choices but the essence of me would be the same. In all those cases, no matter which role comes to the forefront, I’m still me, right? Well, who is that me?
Patanjali tells us that all of the roles we attach to ourselves are forms, ripples that stir up sediment, disturbing the clear pool of our minds, which in turn keeps us from recognizing our true selves. The roles serve their purposes: they can be the source of joy or sorrow or pain, they can be meaningful or frivolous, but, ultimately, they are not essential. Sometimes, they are distractions.
Now, that is not to say go out there and shed all your various identities and shave your head and put on a sack cloth and go live in a box so you can contemplate samadhi 24/7. What would be the point in that? The idea is to recognize the fluidity of such roles. Recognizing that any identity you assign to yourself is temporary. On the one hand, that awareness allows us to appreciate the identities that serve us; on the other hand, such awareness helps keep us from getting mired in the roles when they no longer serve us.
You don’t need to reject or abandon meaningful roles in your life (despite what popular hero’s-journey stories might romanticize) to abide in your true nature. Even so, you might be able to recognize how certain identities might muddy the waters more than others. When my daughter was born, I attempted to continue my yoga practice at a studio with a led class, but every time I managed to get away, I’d get about halfway through the class before a phone call from the child-minder (or my husband) asking me to cut my time short because the baby would just not settle (and, boy, could she use those unsettled baby-lungs to full capacity).
So, I needed to find another avenue, one that went through the mommy-landscape–and let me tell you, that is not an easy terrain in which to abide in one’s true nature. However, I was able to use a lot of the mental equipment picked up from yoga to find my way across the newborn territory. It took serious trailblazing, but the vistas it afforded were well worth it. Being present with my daughter, even when she’s mid-tantrum, has helped us both traverse emotional states that would have otherwise avalanched us.
In order to remain grounded, though, I still have to take the time to reconnect, but instead of taking a big chunk of time to hit the studio, I’ve had to adjust my introspective practice so that it fits into nap times. I’ve had to be discriminating in “self-care” to make sure I was truly replenishing myself rather than adding more distraction.
My role as parent cut me off from my usual avenue toward abiding. I couldn’t just say, “Sorry, kid, my True Self is calling.” You might laugh at that, but there is an all-or-nothing impulse to rejecting vritti. It is a myth to believe that the only way to answer the call live one’s True Self is to abandon the world, abandon all attachments, become some kind of monk or hermit. Abiding in one’s true nature is indeed one that can be practiced in a controlled environment (and temporary hermitage’s can be a useful tool to recognizing the Self free of vritti), but the challenge of existence is to live in the world with this particular body and this particular mind and yet be able to abide.
Coming up in the sutras, Patanjali breaks down the various types of vritti (mental fluctuations).
[This is a series of commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a classical text compiling yogic wisdom. Claims date the writing anywhere from 5000 BCE to 300 CE. It is often regarded as a core text of yogic philosophy.]