It usually takes thirty seconds in the pose for people to start to fidget. Sooner if it's toe squat, sitting on lifted heels to open the neglected soles of the feet. I watch it happen. Wind blows through the shala, leaves rustle along the sand-dusted cement floor, and students start to move. Some glance at me with pained faces; their eyes ask how much longer we're here. Nerves fire, sensation arises, the brain reacts, and the body wants an out. Our instinct is to fix the sensation, to lean forward or move our toes. We first attend to what appears to be happening on the outside. Yoga practice, be it asana, meditation, pranayama, or even mindfulness in daily tasks, instead asks us to change our perception of the sensation by changing our minds. Hardwired instincts must be viewed through a new lens.
There's a Sanskrit word for turning away from your senses: pratyahara. Ahara means food, signals from the outside world that feed our senses. It's easy to explain these senses as matter, something measurable that occupies space. The vibrations in the air that move your ear drums to produce sound or the molecules of heated food that pass through your nostrils to produce scent. All of this matter, however big or small, allows you to experience sensation.
In the yogic system this is only one type of food. Similar to the way that science classifies various tissues and physiological processes, yoga breaks the body into layers or koshas. Our physical layer is fed by actual food; what you eat quite literally becomes the molecules that make up your skin, muscles, organs, etc. Your brain layer is fed by sensations, responding to the world around you. Your discerning mind is considered a layer all its own, and it is fed by your thoughts. These thoughts are just as real as the food you eat and the signals you receive from the outside world. For example, while the brain layer (manomaya kosha) experiences hunger when it smells a food you love, your discerning mind layer (vijnanamaya kosha) can pause and consider whether you need to eat right now and if that food will nourish you. But the mind's capacity to pause and discern rather than react is greatly influenced by the thoughts we feed it.
In the Western world we tend to classify our thoughts differently. We might refer to intuition and mind as a sixth sense, but our thoughts tend to be downgraded to ether, floating in space and confined to our imagination. But yoga doesn't see it this way. There's no discrimination between physical matter and energy. Your thoughts are just are real and nourishing as the food on your plate.
In this context our thoughts take up space just like any other object. They are mind food. Just as eating a salad makes you feel physically (and mentally) different than eating a piece of cake, so your thoughts shape the feelings of your mind. But we rarely consider the quality of what we feed our minds. Perhaps because we don't see it in front of our faces. We don't have a way of counting the grams of sugar or measuring the artificial ingredients.
For thousands of years yoga and other spiritual traditions have taught on samskara, the imprints left on us by past experiences. Only in modern times can science trace this as actual pathways in your brain. What you think and how you react lights up various parts of your brain on an MRI. Like a muscle, the thought travels on the strongest, most repeated pathway because it's easy for your brain to perform. The same way that your food, posture, and physical activity shape your body, so your thoughts shape your brain and your mind. It's simple cause and effect that if you slouch every day, years of this practice will cause your shoulders to round forward and your weakened spine to hunch. This is its learned position that was practiced over time.
And so it goes with your mind. The thoughts you practice because reliable and easy for your mind to continue to follow. Your thoughts create a mind posture in the same way that the consistent structure of your bones and muscles shapes your physical posture over time. What your mind experiences is not random; it is practiced and learned.
We all know that physics can measure cause and effect. Given the force, acceleration, and mass of an object, we can predict its trajectory. Energetically, this is what yoga, Buddhism, and other ancient forms of spirituality have taught about our thoughts, words, and actions. Karma isn't a mystical accounting book of good or bad deeds; karma simply means that when you think, speak, or do something, something happens. As you would push a ball on the ground and watch it roll, so your actions and words exert a force around you. The effect is more difficult to measure than that of the rolling ball, but it is no less significant.
Perhaps more radical is the idea that your thoughts also exert this cause and effect. That those seemingly invisible vibrations affect you and those around you. A Course in Miracles teaches that, "there are no private thoughts." Your thoughts are not just in your own imagination; they pulse through the universe with the same power of cause and effect that your words and actions have.
And where does this leave us on our mats? With our aching toes or fidgeting arms? They say that a great meditator could practice in Times Square, transforming the abundant sensations not by changing the outside environment, but by changing their own mind. Yoga poses give us bursts of this. The posture is an environment for us to watch our reactions. We experience bursts of sensation, and we're left with the choice to fix it from the outside or the inside. We can even make space to ask the same questions of our thoughts that we do of our spoken words: is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary?
This, of course, is easier said than done. But over time holding the shape gets easier. Thirty seconds becomes forty-five. We build and open muscles while we build and open mind pathways. And ideally we're also kind enough to ourselves to see simply showing up for that work as a success.