The Yoga Sutras and Neuroscience: Exploring Connections

Young attractive woman practicing yoga's Half Lotus Pose also known as Ardha Padmasana Pose.

Article At A Glance

Contemporary psychology books spend a long time unpacking various issues. In contrast, the yoga sutras are short, concise, incredibly potent, and endlessly applicable in our daily life. When confronted with a life challenge, my first thought often is, “What do the sutras say?” So today, let’s investigate what the sutras say about our brain activities, the many conflicting voices we hear in our heads, and how it all aligns with modern neuroscience.

Of all the traditional yogic texts, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is my all-time favorite. It gets often mentioned in the yoga world in connection with yamas (moral precepts), niyamas (daily practices), and the eight limbs of yoga, but, to be completely honest, these are my least favorite parts of the book. 

To me, the entire book is a sophisticated analysis of how the mind works and what we can do to understand and realize our human potential. To me, it’s much more of yoga psychology than philosophy (some people will disagree :)). 

In contrast to many contemporary psychology books that spend a long time unpacking a particular issue, the yoga sutras are short, concise, incredibly potent, and endlessly applicable in our daily life. When confronted with a life challenge, my first thought often is, “What do the sutras say?” So today, let’s investigate what the sutras say about our brain activities, the many conflicting voices we hear in our heads, and how it all aligns with modern neuroscience.

Yoga Psychology and The Four Characters

Labels showing four lobes of the human brain

Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist and author of Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters that Drive Our Life, analyzes the activity of four distinctive brain regions and demonstrates how those different clusters of cells often make us think and feel in contradictory ways. She calls those clusters of cells “The Four Characters” and describes their characteristics in detail. To summarize them briefly, Character 1 is an organizer, Character 2 is a worrier, Character 3 is a fun-lover, and Character 4 is a healer. 

We can apply our understanding of the brain characters to the yoga sutras to help us deal with our unruly thoughts and get a glimpse of our True Nature.

The 5 Mental Activities, According to the Yoga Sutras

Sutras 1.5 and 1.6 explain that there are five main mental activities that we engage in: 

1.5 Vrittayah-pancatayah-klishta-aklishta

There are five kinds of mental activities; they can either cause suffering or not.

1.6 Pramana viparyaya vikalpa nidra smrtayah

The five mental activities are correct assessment, incorrect assessment, imagination, deep sleep, and memory. 

That’s pretty incredible. All that stuff happening in our heads can be sorted neatly into one of the above categories. At any given moment, we either evaluate our reality accurately, misinterpret it, imagine stuff, sleep, or reminisce. These mental activities are tangled with emotions and produce corresponding physiological reactions. 

All four characters are involved in each mental activity.

Weaving Together the 5 Mental Activities and the 4 Characters

  • Correct assessment (pramana) is formed from your Character 3 experiencing reality in the moment, Character 1 making assumptions based on data and consulting authoritative sources, and Character 2 comparing it all to your past experience.
  • Incorrect assessment of reality (viparyaya) happens when something goes wrong with the process above: either your direct experience is misinterpreted, the conclusions you make are inaccurate, or the authority on the matter turns out to be misleading. 
  • Imagination (vikalpa) is based on something that does not exist. It’s your Character 1 planning and projecting, Character 2 imagining the worst, or Character 3 daydreaming or creating.
  • Deep sleep (nidra) is the absence of all mental activities; it’s when all characters are quiet.
  • Memory (smrtayaha) is an interpretation of one’s lived experience. It’s your Character 1 analyzing your past accomplishments and mistakes, Character 2 dwelling on the past, and Character 3 reliving all the fun times. 
  • Character 4, on the other hand, is the background upon which all this is happening. It is the ocean of the proverbial consciousness in which all the other characters are either swimming leisurely or splashing chaotically.

The fours aspects of your brain represented by 4 characters and their relationship to the yoga sutras.

The Yoga Sutras: Klishta vs. Aklishta

Remember sutra 1.5 above? It says that all the five activities above can be either klishta (causing suffering) or aklishta (not causing suffering).

1.5 Vrittayah-pancatayah-klishta-aklishta 

There are five kinds of mental activities; they can either cause suffering or not. 

Klishta means something that produces suffering. Aklishta is the opposite, something that does not create suffering. This means that all the activities of the mind, whatever they are, might make you suffer or not. What should we do then? Should we try to get rid of the mental activities that cause suffering (“negative” thoughts and emotions) and elevate the ones that do not cause suffering? 

Nope, that is not what the sutras recommend. The following three sutras define yoga and how it relates to our mental activities.  

1.2 Yogah chitta vrtti nirodhah

Yoga is mastery over mental fluctuations. 

1.3 Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanum

[When those fluctuations subside] Then your True Self is revealed.

1.4 Vrttisarupyam itaratra

Otherwise, we identify with mental fluctuations. 

The Purpose of Yoga, According to the Yoga Sutras

In other words, the whole purpose of yoga is to attend to our mental activities, notice what our brain characters are up to, watch them do their thing, and let them settle. When they settle, we notice that they are actually floating in the ocean of universal consciousness, which is Character 4. This is our True Nature, the peaceful, open, gracious, all-knowing, and all-accepting. The purpose of yoga is to immerse ourselves in our Character 4, to experience our True Nature, both in the space of one yoga class and over a lifetime, so that we can live out of that awareness and weather the turbulence of our lives with more grace and ease.

The 4 characters of the brain and the yoga sutras to help quide the characters.

Otherwise, if we do not get in touch with our Character 4, we will continue to splash with our Characters 1, 2, and 3 and define ourselves through their ups and downs.

The 4 Characters and the “Brain Huddle” 

Clearly, we cannot walk around all day in a state of pure consciousness. Things need to get done, emotions need to be experienced, and fun needs to be had. That is why, when it comes to daily life, Jill Bolte Taylor recommends that we acknowledge each brain character for what it is and how it contributes but not allow either one of them to pull us too far in one direction. 

In fact, we seem to be the happiest in our daily lives when all the characters come together and support each other in tasks big and small. This can be accomplished with a technique called “the Brain Huddle.” You do the Brain Huddle when you pause for a few moments and check in with each of your characters to hear their opinions. “When we run our lives on automatic, our Four Characters do whatever they please without any real consideration for what we might actually choose to be doing instead. When our Four Characters gather together in a Brain Huddle, just as in sport, they each share their perspective and then collectively choose our best next strategic play. Regardless of what is going on outside of ourselves, we have the power to routinely come out of the huddle with an appropriate and peaceful resolution.” 

the wisdom and guidance of the yoga sutras to guide the 4 characters of the brain.

Would you like to try the Brain Huddle for yourself? Check out this short Yoga Boost. In this practice, we use large whole-body movements to increase the sense of vitality, try simple breath retention to create space within the body and mind, and do “the brain huddle technique” to focus the mind and help you move through your day more effortlessly. 

Practice Video: Awaken Your Inner Power, including a Brain Huddle

Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.

Educated 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.

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