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Yes, You Can Control Your Thoughts. Here’s How

Yoga can help us modulate our minds so that we can consciously decide which thoughts to focus on—and which to let go.

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The most relaxing place in the world, according to my mother, is on a commercial airplane. “Once I’m buckled in,” she says, “I feel so at ease and I’m simply able to enjoy the ride.” I, on the other hand, squirmed with flight anxiety for years. Isn’t it fascinating that two people can experience the same event so incredibly differently?

Swami Satchidananda explains that our experiences are projections of our mind. A situation can make us either feel free or imprisoned, depending on our thoughts and attitude. But we also have agency in how to control our thinking.

A core belief in yoga is that the citta, the mind, is naturally peaceful. Our yoga practice helps our busy, distracted minds return to this calm state. In Satchidananda’s translation of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the second sutra says Yogaś citta vrtti nirodhah. He summarizes it this way: “If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga.” Renowned teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya suggests that you experience a state of yoga only after quieting mind fluctuations and achieving one-pointed attention.

While each of us might develop our own nuanced interpretations of this sutra, most yoga scholars and gurus agree on the foundational importance of managing the ripples, or vrtti, of our minds. Mental fluctuations can distort reality and bring avidya, or incorrect perception. The opposite also holds true: Having a calm, or resolved, mind can help us clear our perceptions, make wise decisions, and lead peaceful lives.

See also: 4 Ways to Deepen Your Concentration & Improve Your Focus

Regulating your thoughts

Much of my work as a researcher is to help people understand that they are not required to accept every thought that comes into their mind. While some people find it hard to believe this, for the most part we can choose what we think about and, certainly, how we respond to our thoughts.

The brain and the mind

We constantly receive sensory information—sights, sounds, fragrances, feelings—but we don’t focus on it all at once. For example, you can feel your clothing touching your skin without consciously thinking about it. Certain sounds fade to background noise as you focus on someone speaking to you. These things happen unconsciously because our brains prioritize which sensory input deserves our full response in any given moment. Otherwise our brains would become overwhelmed. Yoga can similarly help us modulate our minds so that we can consciously decide which thoughts to focus on and which to let go.

In the West, we think of the brain—the physical organ—and the mind as synonyms. The ancient wisdom of yoga, however, defines the mind as having multiple conceptual parts that work together. According to Satchidananda, citta is the sum total of the minds, which can be divided as follows:

  • Manas: the mind that perceives the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell).
  • Buddhi: the intellectual, discriminating mind.
  • Ahamkara: the “I” or “ego” mind that relates to our personal identity.

These different “minds” operate all at once. Learning to pause and observe each part can help us gradually develop agency over our thoughts—and thus over our lives.

When my mother and I board an airplane, manas allows us to feel the texture of the seat cushion, hear the click of a fastening buckle, and smell the airline coffee. Buddhi recognizes that we are on a vessel soon to take flight and calculates how long before we land. Ahamkara personalizes the experience for each of us: “I like being on a plane and I feel relaxed” or “I don’t like being on a plane and I feel anxious.”

See also: What Is Mindfulness, Really?

Managing the mind

Any challenging situation can send alerts to the nervous system. Even if the signal isn’t prompted by anything dire, it can still be difficult to settle the mind. The next time you face an experience that triggers rippling thoughts, breathe and reflect on the following:

  • What conclusions is my mind drawing (buddhi) from my senses (manas)?
  • How is my mind personalizing this to me (ahamkara)?
  • Which thoughts might not be true?

For example, if someone doesn’t like a meal you worked hard to prepare, you might be hearing (manas) words that your mind determines to be criticism (buddhi). Your mind might personalize this so that you begin to question whether you are a good cook (ahamkara). By questioning your thoughts (as opposed to letting your thoughts question you!), you can productively shift your mindset to a healthier one: I cook delicious meals; everyone is entitled to their tastes.

This type of reflection is yoga in practice. It involves keen, persistent self-study to transform habitual patterns in the mind, body, and spirit.

Learning to regulate your mind without guidance can be daunting. You might find support in your virtual or in-person yoga community. Having a trusted sangha can help you through the effort and discomfort in transformation. Mental health care can also provide a support that yoga practice can bolster.

During a cultural gathering, I learned that one of my relatives shared my anxieties about flying. Though we both traveled frequently, it was difficult for us to board planes. Over the next few months, we reflected together on positive experiences and stayed committed to our practices. Our attitudes started to change. Today, I’m able to sit back and simply enjoy the flight.

See also: This Meditation Will Help You Shut Out Chaos So You Can Relax Deeply


Rina Deshpande, EdM, MST, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher. Learn more about yoga’s rich philosophy with Rina’s course “The Culture & Practice of the Yama.” This on-demand course, a $300 value, is included with your Outside+ membership. Sign up at yogajournal.com/outsideplus.