Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Sutra 1:10 The mental modification supported by cognition of nothingness is sleep.
Remember that we are still in the portion of the Yoga Sutras that many scholars feel is for, lack of a better word, the advanced ones, called Samadhi Pada. This portion is for the ones who are at a point where they are contemplating the nature of existence. Don’t get lost in the section. I will be covering the portion that is geared more to the every day practitioner but I wanted to go in order.
We have established earlier in the series that, Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Deep dreamless sleep is seen as a mental modification or fluctuation. A yogi is working towards stopping these and coming to a state of Samadhi. Is Patanjali telling us that we should not go into deep sleep?
I had some theories but I had to call in the big dawgs on this one. I contacted Gregor Maehle, author of the popular book, Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy and Greg Nardi, Level 2 authorized Ashtanga teacher and lecturer on the sutras.
I usually like to keep the posts in this series short and sweet and I will do my best here but It will be a bit longer then usual.
Defining the Sutra
Part of the human experience involves experiencing consciousness in different ways.
Citta is the unbroken conscious awareness that is directed by the various vrttis. It can therefore be known in a variety of different modes depending on the vrttis present. Vrttis direct the consciousness in the same way that a shade can be used to direct a shining light. According to the Māndūkya Upanishad (Mā.U.), the 4 modes of consciousness are waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and turiya, or simply, the fourth. In the first three of these states, the chitta is modified due to the operation of the gunas so that we have different types of experience.
When you are in deep sleep ( sleep is nidra) you are not having these experiances.
In nidra, on the other hand, consciousness has become unified. There is no experience of self and other, though it is in a darkened state. Nidra has a rejuvenating effect, but it is still not conducive to a Samadhi state.
Why is it not a Samadhi state? Deep sleep is tamasic, which means that it is inactive (over simplified definition). Samadhi is saatvic which means that it is active (over simplified definition). Yoga is to take you to a state of Samadhi. Deep sleep is not conducive to Samadhi
When Patanjali defines yoga as citta vrtti nirodha, he states “then the seer abides in its own essence.” From my understanding, this is the product of a particular type of experience of the Purusha seeing itself reflected through the Buddhi, which is saatvic. In other words, a preponderance of saatva is necessary for a Samadhi state…..
What are the Modern Day Applications
There are Indian hardcore yogis who hold that you need to overcome sleep. They are from the same faction that say that any form of samadhi cannot be sustained if respiration continues. While I think that they are fundamentalist, let me shed a bit of light on a few points: Some shastras say that during the night and sleep you should always breathe through Pingala, the right nostril. That’s counter intuitive as you won’t sleep deeply. The Pingala will destroy your nightly tamas and you will have a light and lucid sleep. Today we would even call that a disturbed sleep.
They then suggest to activate Ida, the left nostril, during daytime. This will reduce your rajas and again you won’t be really snappy and switched on but a bit drowsy, dopey and goofy. So what they want is that you stay in an in-between state, avoiding the extremes of rajas and tamas.
In brainwave terminology they want us to stay in an alpha state, avoiding the extremes of beta and delta.
It is possible but how feasible is it? I have heard about some natives in the Amazon jungle that still live and sleep that way. They have no ambitions at all. Certainly you would have to forget all about our fast paced metropolitan way of life. You would have to entirely forget about our industrial, military, capitalist and consumerist way of life. Possible we would fix depression, suicide, ecocide, genocide, etc all at the same time.
In other words, you are opening a bit of a can of worms here. It’ll be very hard for an individual to achieve this because it must be a civilization wide effort. It points at the very root of what is wrong with our civilization. We are conquering and subduing nature and get completely rajasic and wound-up in the process. If we stayed sattvic (APP addition: staying in a state of balance, harmony, purity, positivity, creativity) throughout the day none of this conquering and industrial society and plundering and looting of the planet would ever happen. And then we wouldn’t have to get so tamasic in our sleep either. Seeing that our civilization has taken this path it is now hard to change because you have to participate in the game to survive. These are just some thoughts. The implications are vast.
Why is it important:
My biggest takeaway from this conversation was that I have no clue of what a Samadhi state is. I have always seen deep sleep as being very seductive and it is something I crave every night. I have often seen it as a preview of total absorption but if I am understanding the conversation with Gregor and Greg correctly, it is a total aliveness while being absorbed. It is a state of totally experiencing life while being absorbed. It is a state that I cannot even comprehend at this moment but I will keep studying and hopefully you will too.
Greg Nardi, as always had some great parting words. In his Yoga Sutra Workshop, though he talked about heady stuff, he brought it back down to something that was relatable and he did the same here.
When it comes to vrttis, I would say that we start with the low hanging fruit. In other words, try to start by cultivating pleasant thoughts as Patanjali suggests in sutra 1.33 or begin with practices that purify the body and mind (tapas) as in sutra 2.1. As the body and mind become more saatvic, meditative involution becomes habituated. Many of the rejuvenating qualities that come from sleep are also available in meditative states and the need for nidra is said to be less.