improve focus and CTFO with yoga {the yoga sutra's 5 levels of the mind}


I’m currently in the middle of a six-month yoga teacher training program (200-hour) at Sanctuary for Yoga in Nashville, and already the experience has been such a gift for me.

If I’m being honest, until somewhat recently, I was always just a “dabbler” in yoga. Despite knowing the tremendous mind/body/spirit benefits, like most things, I get excited about it for a while, then move on to the next thing I’m excited about, until I inevitably end up circling back to yoga.

Sidebar, this pattern of mine is starting to make a lot more sense, because I just realized within the past couple of days I am an Enneagram Type Seven (I had previously misidentified myself as a Three.) This discovery feels incredibly validating, and characteristic of a Seven, I'm eager to drop everything else and dive in to learn as much as I can as quickly as possible, even if it means staying up till 2am doing so and then feeling exhausted tomorrow. But alas, I will summon my wiser self and try to put that project on the shelf until later this week. Meanwhile — this post is not about the Enneagram!

Case in Point...

So, back to yoga: I am a busy-body. I was always one of those people who was eager to roll up the mat at the end of savasana and get on with my day. Those are precious minutes I could be on to my next task! I mean, if I’m going to be still, at least let it be a minimum 10-minute meditation so it “counts” for something. Yeah… see what I’m working with here? Though I’m a little embarrassed by it, I know I’m not alone here.

I started to be open up to savasana once I more fully understood its purpose. Savasana not just a nice relaxing pose at the end of a physically strenuous practice; it's about integration. In those few minutes, your mind and body have the opportunity to soak in the practice in a deeper way, so it’s not just something you checked off your list of “good healthy activities” or “workouts for the week,” but a practice that ultimately can make you a more whole person, and more integrated into the charmingly-funky patchwork quilt that is humanity.

For all you who have been committed yogis for years, I know you’re going “duuuuh!” (Well hopefully not, because surely that’s not in line with one of the yamas, right?!) I always knew there was a lot more to yoga than just the asanas (the poses) — that it’s a mind + body + spirit practice based in ancient Hindu texts and traditions. But it took me wanting to get certified as a teacher so I could integrate yoga with my therapy clients to actually commit to deepening my own practice.

Through the required readings and more frequent yoga practice (including personal practice on my mat, sans yoga DVD — my former self is gasping right now), I have started sinking my teeth in to the philosophy of yoga and finding, not surprisingly, so many parallels with the wisdom of modern psychotherapy and self-help.

One topic that spoke deeply to me recently as I was reading The Heart of Yoga by T. K. V. Desikachar (1995), was the five levels of the mind, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra (originally compiled in about 400 CE and revived in popularity in the late 19th century). Desikachar does a a fantastic job of translating the Yoga Sūtras and putting them into context in a way that illustrates how incredibly relevant they remain over 1600 years after their initial writing.

In Desikachar’s description of the five levels of the mind, I could clearly see myself when I’m functioning well, and when I’m uhhh… not functioning so well. I also thought some of his metaphors were hilarious. So without further adieu, from the bottom to the top —

1) Ksipta

“The lowest level of the mind can be likened to that of a drunken monkey swinging from branch to branch: thoughts, feelings, and perceptions come and go in rapid succession. We are hardly aware of them and can find no thread linking them.” Hahahah. I hope I’m not the only one actually picturing this drunken money right now. Or nodding enthusiastically in recognition. Oh, drunken monkey, please sit down and CTFO (chill the F out, for those who need a translation).

2) Mūdha

“Here the mind is like one of a heavy water buffalo standing for hours on end in one place. Any inclination to observe, act, or react has nearly disappeared.” Desikachar describes that this state might result from eating too much or not sleeping enough, medication (hello NyQuil and me last week), or “in people who, after many unsuccessful attempts to make something of their lives, simply withdraw and do not want to know about anything anymore.”

Depressing much? Really, though, I have had many days of feeling like that water buffalo who did not give a single f*** anymore. In my case, I think it’s often sort of like the drunken monkey had a blast but is now hungover and has no idea what to do with her life.

3) Viksipta

“The mind is moving but the movement lacks consistent purpose and direction. The mind encounters obstacles and doubts. It alternates between knowing what it wants to do and uncertainty, between confidence and diffidence. This is the most common state of mind.” So, for most of us, a “normal” baseline kind of day would feel like this. We more or less know what we’re doing, but have a reasonable amount of confusion or uncertainty.

Since Desikachar does not offer a ridiculous animal metaphor here, I will: think of Viksipta like your average domestic tabby: alternating between goal-directed (look! bird at the window! Oooh— treats! Will you pet me? What’s this TAIL suddenly in my field of awareness? IT MUST BE APPREHENDED) and utterly lackadaisical (in the middle of said tail-apprehension — stares off into the distance in a nihilistic fog. Lies on couch and doesn’t move for eight hours.)

4) Ekagrata

“Here the mind is relatively clear; distractions have little influence. We have a direction and, most important of all, we can move forward in this direction and keep our attention on it.”

Ever seen a meerkat in a zoo? No matter how many little kids are shouting at it along with 18 strollers with crying babies, meerkat keeps her eye on the prize. What the prize is, I’m not entirely sure, but meerkat is FOCUSED.

Although I’m about as distractible as a house cat with mild ADD, occasionally even I’m able to achieve this state of mind, especially when I get a bee in my bonnet about something (please tell me this is a commonly used phrase) or I’m on serious deadline.

5) Nirodha

“When ekagrata is fully developed, it peaks at nirodha… characterized by consistent focused attention…the mind is linked completely and exclusively with the object of its attention. Mind and object seem to merge into one.”

This is the level of the mind associated with “flow,” a psychological state named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (say that five times fast). We’ve all been there; you are so passionate about something or “into” it that you just get totally lost or immersed in it, and time almost stands still.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a widely-respected treatment model for many different behavioral issues (addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, etc.), this is referenced as one of the “how” skills of mindfulness called “one-mindfully,” which means choosing to do just one thing at that time. So, if you’re eating, eat; if you’re planning, plan; if you’re worrying, worry.

Multitasking vs. Mindfulness

This might sound like common sense now, but in the face of decades of talk about how important it is to be able to multitask, the concept of being one-mindful was actually quite radical. Of course, a slew of research in recent years has shown just how ineffective multitasking really is, which is why it has given way to mindfulness in both the self-help and business aisles.

I have certainly had moments of being in the state of nirodha, but they are few and far between. It pains me a little to say this as a cat person, but dogs are the first creature that come to mind when I think of nirodha or one-mindfulness. While cats have moments of existential ennui, dogs are almost always in the moment, present with whatever is happening now — because now has never happened before and how exciting is THAT?! *wag wag wag*

So there you have it — the five levels of the mind according to Patanjai’s ancient Yoga Sūtra text. I bet you could identify yourself throughout the various levels; and the million dollar question is, “How do I get more puppy-dog nirodha and less drunken monkey that ends up a tired and nihilistic Garfield?”

What Next? 

The short (and possibly obnoxious) answer is, of course, to practice all aspects of yoga — physically, mentally, and spiritually. And I’m living proof that it takes a while, and the time varies on your amount of self-awareness and commitment to these practices.

Learning about frameworks like this deepens my level of commitment to my personal practice and my excitement about yoga as a path for helping others heal emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

It felt extremely validating to see myself at these different levels, and to have a direction in mind that feels better than just thinking “I need to be more focused.” No — I’m working on expanding to higher levels of the mind, and in the meantime, I’m okay with the fact that I might still be frequently caught chasing my tail.

Have any other great metaphors for these levels of mind? Where did you see yourself the most? What helps you to get into a higher state? Let’s hear it in the comments!

Also, make sure to get my free meditation for mental focus + clarity right here