Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves
That break upon the idle seashore of the mind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When I did my last blog post on the yoga sutras, I had read ahead in my book to the next chapter to take a peek at the next word. The next word, of course, was this one, vikalpa, which means imagination in Sanskrit. I have been so excited to do this chapter since my last post, the long Memorial Day weekend was nearly torture for me because I truly had no time to write! I really wanted to dedicate my hour to this post immediately, because imagination means a lot to me, and it has ever since I was a kid.
As usual, before I commence this post, here is the list of the Sanskrit words I have covered thus far:
- Atha: Readiness and Commitment
- Citta: Heart-mind Field of Consciousness
- Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
- Drsya: Ever-changing Mother Nature
- Viveka: Keen Discernment
- Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
- Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
- Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
- Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
- Karma and Samskara: Action and Its Imprint
- Parinama: Transformation
- Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
- Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
- Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
- Pramana: Correct Evaluation
- Viparyaya: Misperception
So far I have covered 16 of the 51 total sutras in Nicolai Bachman’s book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras. I am doing these one-by-one, and writing about them every couple days or every week or more so that each sutra has space to really land in my mind and body. This also gives me a chance to teach about the sutras on another platform other than just teaching in front of a classroom of yoga students.
As soon as I saw this chapter, Einstein came to mind. Good ole Einstein probably has the most famous quote about imagination ever uttered by anyone, “Imagination is more important that knowledge,” and I could not be in more agreement.
The first sentence of this chapter is almost a bit disheartening, “Vikalpa is an idea or abstraction that has no basis in reality.”
I quickly realized how attached to my thoughts I am once I read on and let Bachman’s words sink in a little more. Imagination has been a tremendous value of mine since I was a little kid: fairy tales have been one of my absolute favorite ways to pass the time since I was little. I could never get enough of the magic that was Disney and all of the associated kids books that had to do with magic, miracles, and manifesting great things. In my adulthood, I have realized that it was my overactive imagination as a kid that really set me up for success later in life, because it truly was years and years of practice imagining I was a mermaid or fairy princess whose friends were unicorns and elves that set me up to easily picture success in my mind’s eye. I know this sounds strange, but hear me out (this is why I was so excited to write about this chapter!).
Imagination for little kids is like play time for baby lions and cheetahs. Baby predators in the wild play all the time, much like our pet dogs and cats do. To us as humans this just seems like a really good time, but it a biological sense it serves an incredibly important purpose: it is setting up the babies for adulthood when they actually will need to fight for their lives, whether it’s physically fighting an attacker or attackee, or it is fighting for prey in order to eat. Imagination for our evolved species is so important because with those moments in childhood where we pretend to be things we are not, whether it is adventurous princesses trying to save the realm or an astronaut planting an explosive on a meteor to save the planet, these things are all set ups for what we are to encounter and do in our lives as adults.
Sure, I may not be an actual mermaid princess who flits around the ocean looking for treasure, or climbing Mount Everest (which I routinely pretended to do on my stairs when I was about four or five years old-I was very intense about it, and I would never speak to anyone when they would ask me what I was doing-I was too focused on staying alive and getting to the summit), but it did set me up for visualization techniques my coaches would teach us when it came to competition time later in high school, techniques which I have continued to use since then in order to achieve the things I have since starting two companies.
Bachman makes sure to mention the negative aspect of each sutra he writes about, which I appreciate very much, and it is no more important than any other sutra than this one. In fact, this could be the most important one. Our brains are hugely powerful machines, and they alone are in charge of what we perceive to be our realities, and they are in charge of creating our present moment and our future for us. Your imagination is VERY active, whether you see it right now or not, and know that whatever it is you are thinking is absolutely what you are manifesting right now.
I learned the hard way how my crazy active imagination, when left to it’s own, unaware devices, has a tendency to go off the deep-end and create all of these crazy, fear-based scenarios in my brain. When I was in college, I would daydream while in math class about awful things happening to people I knew and loved. I was just learning all of these amazing facts about the human body in my athletic training classes, specifically about what is considered a medical emergency while on the playing field. I learned in my freshman year at the University of Miami that a femur fracture is automatically considered to be a medical emergency, because of the femoral artery located is such close proximity to it. This artery is one of the main blood vessels in the human body, and if it ever breaks, like it does in a femur bone fracture, the patient can bleed out very quickly and die.
My athletic injuries class where I learned this was extremely informative and a lot of fun for me, and was quickly my favorite class. This femur factoid was one of my favorites, and my brain promptly began daydreaming while I was bored in other classes about scenarios where femur breaks could actually happen with my family members when I went home. Since I was learning all these great things in my first semester at UM, I would daydream myself saving whoever it was that popped up in that day dream that day, and be the savior for the day. Little did I know, I was actually stressing myself out with these crazy daydreams, and it showed on my face. My teacher actually said something to me in class one day, snapping me out of my reverie. He thought I was becoming depressed, but my imagination had only just become so vivid and real, because sometimes in my daydream Your Brain on Meditation, I realized I was actually causing physical harm to my brain and body by needlessly dumping excess amounts of cortisol and adrenaline into my system, wearing out my brain, muscles, and spirit alike. Needless to say, I allowed dramatic thoughts like these to totally permeate my consciousness while in college, and had a hard time all four years I was enrolled, even actually becoming depressed, getting injured at track practice to the point of needing surgery, and just in general having bad luck all around during my time there.
I wrote about this experience because it is in direct contrast to my thought processes I had while in high school, a time that was wildly successful and more stimulating for me, especially on the track. My free time was spent day dreaming about my successes in track and field: past, present, and future. Back then, I practiced viveka, keen discernment, around my time daydreaming, because I would limit it to classroom changes.
I love what I did for my daydreaming technique during class changes: I would imagine the hallways were lane number 4 on the track (the fast lane at most track meets) and I would picture myself ahead in my heat, winning every heat. Nothing in life gave me more pleasure than sprinting, and especially winning my races. I didn’t know it then, but I was flooding my system with dopamine and other feel-good hormones, which supported my success in everything. Back then, I was also sure to not daydream while in class, because I had the presence of mind to know that I would miss out on valuable information that would negatively affect me if I missed anything due to silly, wandering thoughts. I trusted the fact I had time later to think about my passion.
My coaches in cross country taught us as an entire team how to visualize. This really was just a meditation technique. They would bring us into the wrestling room in our high school because when the lights were turned off it was pitch black inside, and it was in a remote corner of the building where we would be undisturbed. My coach, I will never forget her name, Coach Adams, would have us lay down on the floor on mats and close our eyes. She would use a soft voice and walk us through not just our race, but our entire day, creating the perfect weather for us, the perfect breakfast and lunch, the perfect warm up, the perfect thoughts we had to think in order to do well. I used this technique every single race I ran while I did track (the visualization definitely helped me in cross country, although my talent was truly sprinting; I noticed the biggest difference in sprinting because it determined whether or not I would win). She even went so far as to guide our entire race, turn for turn, through the finish line, and told us how we felt after completing our race. I will forever be grateful for Coach Adams teaching us how to visualize our races, because I have used visualizations for everything since: selling Cheetah Grounds coffee, completing steps of my books, landing new personal training and Red Cheetah Yoga clients and classes. It truly works, because it raises your vibration ot believe in what you are capable of, which in turns attracts what you believe about yourself.
What imagination does for you that I have just shown you in these examples is that it gives you space to realize your life is more than it seems. Bachman writes that “Real knowledge is supported by fact and is antagonistic to vikalpa. Yet vikalpa serves the purpose of creating abstract thoughts, which may eventually manifest in a practical way or lead to a higher level of understanding beyond our limited intellect.”
Our intellect is limited. Einstein could never have created the atom bomb based on mathematics alone. He had to have the imagination skills in order to imagine that it’s effectiveness and it’s action, and the result of it’s action, was possible.
Einstein’s gravity theory was witnessed by scientists in Europe last year, and the theory he had for gravity took imagination more than it did knowing things that already existed: Albert hypothesized that two great big black holes collided and sent ripples of gravity across the universe millions, probably billions, of years ago. Scientists actually witnessed this occurrence for the first time ever 100 years after Einstein hypothesized it. This took an incredible amount of imagination; coming up with something like that isn’t knowledge alone. That takes an active imagination that is willing to be daring, and it was a hypothesis that stood for 100 years before anyone could be sure that was a possibility. I know I could never have thought of that being the birth of gravity. I also know I could never have imagined I could sprint a 200 meter dash in 22 seconds if I hadn’t have first visualized it and believed I could achieve it. So much in our lives is determined by imagination; it’s up to us to hone our skills to aid us rather than be in conflict with us.
Einsein also said that he stands on the shoulders of giants, acknowledging he knew his place in the history of science on this planet, and that he could not achieve what he did without the work of others before him. This displays a tremendous amount of humility and groundedness, two things essential to achievement and continuous learning.
To ground this sutra back in the Sanskrit vernacular, vikalpa could either be viparyaya (contribute to misperceptions and delusions) or it can aid us to be the greatest versions of ourselves, and hence of be powerful service to this planet. Vikalpas exist in our heart-mind (citta) and as a result we benefit from practicing vairagya (nonattachment) to them on occasion. That which we can perceive, is not actually a part of us, and this includes our imagination. It is so important to let our bodies rest from work and exercise, it is important to brush our teeth and clean them of grime after meals, we must take care to do the same with our thoughts and our minds: give your mind a rest, put in the work you must to clear it out so it may be have space to receive new things.
Clearing out your citta gives you the ability to only leave space within yourself for empowering thoughts and visualizations. The discipline of a consistent yoga and meditation practice gives you the discipline to be able to see what thoughts and visualizations serve you, and the habit of being able to let them go.
Bachman concludes this chapter with the following:
“Imagination that diverts our attention and causes present or future suffering is to be avoided. Ruminations and constructive ideas that support or enhance our yoga practice and our lives, or the lives of others, are to be encouraged. As long as our hearts and minds are focused on cultivating inner awareness and improving our outer behavior, positive imaginings can help. May we keep our hearts and minds open to fresh and bright possibilities and not allow others to stifle our ideas.”
Ideas and thoughts are real things to be cultivated. Presence yourself to what truly creates growth in your life, and help it to thrive. Play with your imagination as a cheetah cub plays with it’s siblings on the Sahara: the more intensely and focused you play, the more you set yourself up for greater achievement in life, and the opportunity to bounce back from great, learning failures.
Imagination and fantasy can bring me joy as well as suffering.
I choose to use my imagination for creative thinking and self-reflection.
I will make important decisions with a heart-mind grounded in reality yet inspired by possibilities.