The Power of Perception: A Guide to Happier Living from the Yoga Sutras

Every moment of every day, you are bombarded by information from outside and inside your body. You take in outside information via the senses (perception) and internal information via sensations (interoception). It is the job of your brain to interpret this information, and it issues its best guess about what it is based on your past experience.

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D. and professor of psychology, “All sensory information is a massive, constantly changing puzzle for your brain to solve. The objects you see, the sounds you hear, the odors you smell, the touches you feel, the flavors you taste, and the interoceptive sensations you experience as aches and pains … they all involve continuous sensory signals that are highly variable and ambiguous as they reach your brain. Your brain’s job is to predict them before they arrive, fill in missing details, and find regularities where possible, so that you experience a world of objects, people, music, and events, not the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ that is really out there. (1)

“To achieve this magnificent feat, your brain employs concepts to make the sensory signals meaningful, creating an explanation for where they came from, what they refer to in the world, and how to act on them.” Your brain sorts all input into categories, and this categorization “constructs every perception, thought, memory, and other mental events that you experience.”(1)

All this categorization happens behind the scenes; you are not consciously aware of it. What you are aware of is the constant stream of thoughts in your head, the inner monologue that evaluates the things that you experience inwardly and outwardly, and accesses how they will affect you—the main character of the story. This is a normal activity of the brain, and with all its busyness there are only five types of mental events that you can engage in (according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras).

The Five Types of Mental Activities

According to Patanjali, these five mental activities are: pramana (correct assessment), viparyaya (incorrect assessment), vikalpa (imagination), nidra (deep sleep) and smrtayah (memory). This means that at any point of any day you are either interpreting your experience (correctly or incorrectly), imagining things that do not exist, sleeping without dreams, or reminiscing about something that happened in the past. So basically in your waking state, you are evaluating something, imagining something or remembering something.

All of this happens through the lens of your own past experiences, beliefs, and character so it is highly subjective. “Your perceptions are so vivid and immediate that they compel you to believe that you experience the world as it is, when you actually experience a world of your own construction.”(1) The same point is communicated by a widely known expression: “We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

Even though yoga, Buddhism, and other traditions frown upon the “monkey mind,” by itself, those types of mental activities are neither good nor bad, they are just the result of the brain’s process of categorization. And the fact that we are so preoccupied with ourselves and our own stories is also neither good nor bad. Your brain is mostly concerned with your survival and thriving, so it is always evaluating the impact that things will have on you.

It is the job of your brain to interpret all the input, and it issues its best guess based on past experience. “I am hungry,” “I have a headache,” “I am nervous,” “My neck hurts” are your brain’s interpretations of your inner sensations. Some of those interpretations are correct and some are incorrect.

Are “incorrect perceptions” bad? If we could only figure out a way to assess the situation properly, diagnose the condition accurately, figure out what is really going on and then fix it, wouldn’t that prevent us from suffering? Not really. While correct diagnosis would certainly help with choosing an appropriate treatment, in many situations there are no right answers, just informed (or uninformed) opinions.

How Perceptions Can Cause Suffering—And How to Change Them

As Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras, any of the five mental activities (correct and incorrect assessment, imagination, deep sleep, and memory) can be klishta (cause trouble, suffering) or aklishta (not cause trouble and suffering).

Any thought you have can be benign and not have much impact on your life, or it can make you suffer. According to Yoga Sutras, our mental activity will make us suffer if we begin to define ourselves through it. If you define yourself as a starving artist, for example, you will think and behave as a starving artist. If you define yourself as a sick person, you will think and behave as one, and so on. It is not about the thoughts themselves, but how they feed into your inner narrative and perception of self.

If several of those mental activities keep feeding you the same message, it will have an even stronger impact. Let’s say you’ve experienced lower back pain for a long time (correct assessment). Your brain might begin to interpret other types of sensations, like stress or stiffness, as lower back pain (incorrect assessment). You cannot remember what it feels like to not have the pain (memory), and you cannot imagine it ever getting better (imagination). If this has become the lens through which you see the world, your life, and your sensations, it will cause you physical and emotional suffering. Through no fault of your own, your chronic back pain becomes part of you.

How do we break this identification? The entirety of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is dedicated to this. But here is the most important idea that we need to cultivate for ourselves and our students: I am not my pain.

This is a fundamental change in how you perceive yourself. Instead of defining yourself through your pain or a diagnosed condition, you can work on perceiving yourself as a person who experiences painful symptoms. Then it becomes a temporary condition rather than permanent quality. This kind of change in perspective can help change the status of pain from an all-consuming entity that defines your life to something that is manageable and can be dealt with. It is usually very empowering for students.

Also from Olga Kabel an article on training memory – Sing Out: How Chanting Trains Your Brain.

Study core strength and so much more with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline – Yoga for Posture Improvement with Focus on Core Strengthening and Axial Extension.

Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.

Olga KabelEducated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006 becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz- a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.


(1.) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

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