Those Damn Vrittis: Maneuvering On The Mat In Times Of Mental Chaos

Occasionally I forget that the whole purpose of yoga is to control the mind  – “citta-vritti-nirodha” – until I’m faced with a mind that is out of control.

This past week in practice, I caught myself a few times spacing out/psyching myself out in a pose for so long that I forgot what I was doing. You know in Ashtanga you typically only hold an asana for the length of 5 breaths. This doesn’t provide a whole lot of time for the mind to wander. The conjunction of the breath, movement, bandha and drishti lends itself to a full absorption of attention. But not always.

For no legitimate or provoked reason at the start of this week my mind was whirling with fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of catastrophe, fear of possible bodily harm, fear of the passing of time.

I’ve spoken with other Ashtangis about facing fear on the mat in regards to poses themselves – the fear that arises in deep and challenging backbends for example, or the fear that you will fall on your head, that your back will snap, that your arms won’t hold you, etc., But there are other fears we face in practice that have squat diddly to do with the physical shapes and movements.

These are the fears in the mind, the types that muddle thoughts, shorten breath and whisk you away from the here and now. How does one move past these? How does one brush aside scary visions or worst-case scenario monologues that start overtaking the head and the heart?

Personally what I’m learning, ever so slowly and stubbornly, is the importance of just keeping at it. Sometimes when I’m fraught with emotion in practice, I really want to stop and give up. I want to curl into a little ball and go deeper inside my thoughts, shutting the world out. I want to cease moving and simply lie there, self-absorbed, floating away with my jumbled breathless mind-stuff.

To keep moving is the hardest thing to do…but that movement is powerful. The process of adhering to the rhythm and the pattern of the practice has the ability to move you mentally. The dynamism of the series and the will to keep going burns through the vrittis. By continually bringing one’s attention back to the breath, back to the bandhas and the drishti and back to the flow of in and out, up and down, there is the opportunity to cut through the swirling of the mind’s chaos.

Fear robs you of your sense of personal power. It crumples you up. Anger gives you the sense of power, but it is false, an illusion masking a feeling of utter weakness.

My fear earlier in the week transformed to anger (rough week, what can I say!). Today that anger boiled up inside of me at afternoon Mysore. My head was a mess and I had doubts about the feasibility of practice but the room was warm and I started to channel my desperation and frustration. I let my breath be faster and I moved with intensity. I decided to practice half-primary and half-second with only 3 or 4 breaths a pose for the primary section. I let my molten heart and tangled mind fuel my movements. The further in I got, the more agro I felt and the more power I harnessed with each vinyasa. I felt animalistic, wild and suddenly, fearless. 

As I worked through my intermediate poses, I didn’t hesitate or do any of my typical preps for kapotasana (a pose I’ve had a lot of baggage around due to both shoulder and SI injuries). I knelt, inhaled and then arced back, throwing all caution to the wind, feeling like I simply didn’t give a sh*t about anything, especially not the outcome of this stupid pose. I grabbed my heels…for the first time since March probably. And then I just kept on going. No rest for the wicked.

Same thing with dropbacks. My spiraling mind was starting to settle by this point, but the rush of the anger fueling me kept me lifted. Deep, fearless, who-cares-about-tomorrow kind-of-dropbacks. Damn it felt good!

At the end of practice, I sat, bowing down, silently reciting the closing prayer. For a moment, I almost called out to Thad to lift me up because I wasn’t sure I could even rise to my own feet unassisted. I felt like I had been thrashed, caught in the swirling waves of a riptide. I felt crushed, beaten, bruised, burnt.

Energy pulsated through my body and then a new sensation emerged – a feeling of power, real beautiful power. Grounded, fearless, fierce but peaceful. My heart felt softened and warm tears cascaded down my cheeks. I suddenly knew, on an emotional level, that I had the choice to release, to forgive and to shed my armor and to “give up.” And so I did. I let go of my pride and I offered up the words and spirit to clear the karma causing me, and others, great pain.

“Giving up” gave me a feeling of strength and of ease. I felt like I had put myself through the ringer, aggressively catapaulting through the series, but on the other side, lay peace. An odd line to walk on a path oriented in non-violence…only through kicking the sh*t out of myself did I come to a place of loving release, of softening and sweetness.

For what it’s worth…that was my Sunday afternoon.

Love and Blessings,



4 thoughts on “Those Damn Vrittis: Maneuvering On The Mat In Times Of Mental Chaos

  1. Thanks for writing this.
    A yoga / meditation teacher recently taught me a technique he called “riding the wave”. This was based on the observation / rule that no negative emotion could persist for longer than 5 minutes if we didn’t invest in it. The technique was simply to sit with our negative feelings and really experience the physical sensations beneath the language / thoughts.
    I tried this with “embarrassment” and found that what I was really feeling was heat in the right side of my chest. I was naming this as embarrassment out of habit. The unexpected side effect of this technique is that it appears to give me an energy boost.
    I wonder if you simply sat with your fear what would you really feel ?

    • Thanks Richard.
      That’s very interesting. I definitely have had experiences like that. Regarding this post, what I experienced through moving through my fear what that at the end I realized there was no basis for fear, it was just mind-stuff that I didn’t need to attribute value to at all.

  2. Beautifully wriiten, Frances! Although i’ve read about emotional release on the mat, i’d never experience anything but my ego having a nice dialogue with me about whether or not i was capable, strong enough… I picked yoga up again and began a near daily practice in the spring. But it still remained asana with not much underneath. it was mostly movements, but getting physically stronger and feeling slightly different. it wasn’t until i took a little break from the practice and also started my ayurvedic therapies that my approach changed. I’ve come back to my mat really working on those bandhas and drishti, allowing my ego to talk but returning my focus back to where it’s supposed to be. Today, i managed my sun salutations and some of the closing postrures. it’s not a full practice when the cat’s running around my legs and my toddler wakes up, but it’s done with intention. i had my first post-yoga emotional release a few days ago. i felt intense happiness, but with something underneath coming to the surface. I felt kind of sick afterwards too, but that shadow needed to come out and go and i cried a bit. i have a lot of anger burning inside of me at the moment… tomorrow i’ll dance with that anger and see what happens.

    • Keep it up Roanna. Every little bit of practice counts…those big emotional cathartic experiences are about 1 in 100 for me…but they are worth the hours and hours of time on the mat, breathing, moving, meditating.
      Thank you for reading and for your kind words always.
      Blessings to you and your family this Christmas.

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