In yoga sutra 1.2, the second sutra of book one, Patanjali lays out the definition and purpose of yoga. Yogash citta vrtti nirodha: yoga is the cessation of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind. This sutra gets right to the heart of why we practice yoga. No time is wasted. We learn right away what yoga is and why we practice it, while the rest of book expands on the topic and offers ways to go about calming these modifications of the mind.
So what are modifications of the mind? Simply put, it’s the mind chatter that draws our attention away from the present moment. When you are in yoga class, focusing on your breath while feeling the movement of your body and suddenly you wonder what you’ll have for lunch, or you remember a conversation you need to have with someone, or you look over at the person next to you and wish that your pose looked like hers, your mind is fluctuating—you are no longer present. These are the modifications of the mind that yoga is trying to quiet.
This goal of yoga is simple but not always easy. Our minds are so conditioned to follow thought strands that take us from topic to topic, anywhere but where we currently are. Becoming caught up in our thoughts feels natural to us because we do it almost all the time. Quieting this chatter, using the tools of the yoga practice, can feel almost impossible at times. This is one reason why many people find meditation to be intimidating. “I could never sit still and do nothing,” they say.
But with practice, over time, quieting these fluctuations starts to feel natural, even effortless. Space opens up in our minds as we learn to remain focused on the breath, the body, the moment. And in this space can be planted the seeds of insight—those realizations that bring us closer to our true nature.