yoga and the mind

January 29, 2023 |

Yoga and the Mind

Yoga’s take on the mind is a really interesting one. It’s different to the way we usually think about the mind but it also makes a lot of sense when you break it down. So, let’s explore it.


Manas is the part of the mind that receives information from the outside world (through the senses) and responds to that information in a way that is instinctive, reactive and habitual. It’s manas that tells us to duck when a ball is thrown at us and that recognises experiences like desire, fear, jealousy and affection and reacts instinctively to them.

What’s important to understand is that there’s no evaluative component to this. Manas simply coordinates. Because manas has no ability to make a decision, yoga says that its basic nature is doubt. If it’s not receiving orders from buddhi (the higher mind) it will respond without any real insight into why, easily swept along by our reactions to circumstances and impulses. The more we develop buddhi, the better able we are to step outside of this cycle of impulse-driven behaviour. This is the first aspect of yoga and the mind.


The second aspect of yoga and the mind is chitta. When manas isn’t receiving sensory input from the outside world, it becomes open to input from inside of us. Sitting somewhere, just outside of our conscious awareness, is a pool of memories and traces from our past experiences. This is chitta; the storehouse of impressions gone by.

I once heard chitta described as the riverbed over which the rest of the mind flows. We know that the waves or ripples on the surface of a river are created by the shape of the riverbed underneath. The same is true of our mind. The shape of our mental riverbed determines the way thought waves rise to the surface of the mind when manas isn’t otherwise preoccupied with the outside world.

Chitta has two functions. One is passive, in that it acts as a storehouse for our memories and impressions. The other is active, in that it sees the sensory information that manas receives and offers up old memories in response. It helps to orient us in this moment by comparing our current situation to our past experiences.

This is why things from the outside world can trigger old emotions. This is why we have the tendency to repeat so much of our old behaviour. The more impressions of a ‘like nature’ we have stored in chitta, the more likely it becomes that we’ll react from that old place. This is true for negative impressions. It’s true of positive impressions too.

If you want to learn more about this, you might be interested in this article on samskara.

When the senses are quiet and manas isn’t receiving information from the outside world, manas acts as the screen on which memories are projected. This means either manas is facing outwards, broadcasting something ‘live’, or it’s facing inwards, broadcasting reruns. The better we become at turning our senses inward (a process that goes by the name of pratyahara) the more access we have to the reruns that come from the unknown parts of our mind. This is what allows our unconscious mind to be more easily observed as happens quite often in meditation.


The third aspect of yoga and the mind is ahamkara. Manas, as we know, doesn’t have self awareness. Self awareness comes from ahamkara. Ahamkara’s primary question is ‘what’s in it for me?’. It’s orientation is to determine what, of the things that happen in life, might be considered ‘mine’.

Ahamkara’s primary job is to protect our sense of self. Irrespective of what our sense of self happens to be, ahamkara will perpetuate the behaviour that reinforces it. So, what ahamkara does is look at the impressions that manas receives, compare them to the memories stored in chitta and turn what’s happening into something about me.


This brings us to the final aspect of yoga and the mind: buddhi, the ‘higher’ mind. Buddhi takes the information generated by other parts of the mind and uses it to make decisions. It recognises patterns and sifts through them consciously in a process of self-reflection.

Like anything that goes through a process of maturation, buddhi matures gradually. Initially it might only have the capacity to decide what, of the stuff that’s reflected on the screen of manas, is good or bad. At this stage buddhi is weak and is still influenced by memory, emotion and instinct.

As buddhi evolves, however, it’s able to reason and to employ its intelligence to develop a philosophy of life that feels more coherent. It creates frameworks of meaning that allow it to organise our thoughts and behaviours so we can function well in the world and act according to the standards for conduct that our society deems acceptable.

Beyond that, though, the highest expression of buddhi concerns itself solely with the pursuit of truth. It starts to look for unifying principles that are aligned with the intelligence of nature. It seeks Truth with a ‘capital T’. So, buddhi (when it’s functioning well) helps us make better decisions in the material world, but it’s also what connects us to purusha. We could even say that buddhi stands back to back with purusha and is the vehicle through which the light of purusha’s consciousness shines its awareness into the mind.

And this is the relationship between yoga and the mind.

If you would like to dive into this in more depth, you might be interested in this self-study course (Yoga and the Mind).

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