Srivatsa Ramaswami: chitta vritti

One of my primary teachers is Srivatsa Ramaswami, who studied with Krishnamacharya for over 30 years, longer than anyone in Krishnamacharya’s immediate family. Ramaswamiji was one of the original trustees of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, the yoga school where I have studied every year for five years.

I first met Ramaswamiji in 2003 and he inspired me to travel to the heart of yoga. I knew that I had to study more deeply the yoga that he teaches, vinyasa krama. Vinyasa krama yoga is a systematic method of practicing and adapting yoga for the individual. “Krama” is a Sanskrit word meaning “stages.” It is a step-by-step process involving the building in gradual stages toward a “peak” within a practice session. This progression can include asanas of increasing complexity or gradually building one’s breath capacity. It is the yoga that I practice for myself and that which I use with my yoga therapy clients.

Ramaswamiji says that “By integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath…a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.”

To me, Ramaswamiji is a true yogi. I consider him to be my guru but I know he would be embarassed if I called him that. I am honored and humbled to be mentioned in the Acknowledgement of his book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga as one who has “studied vinyasa yoga in depth with me” and who has “incorporated essentials of vinyasa krama into…teaching and practice even from Day 1.” I was shocked and amazed and started crying when I saw my name.

The words below are from a newsletter that Ramaswamiji sends to his students. During one of my trainigs at KYM the teachers told us that if we do not pass on the teachings we are nothing more than thieves.


“The Sanskrit word vritti is used commonly in many Indian languages to indicate one’s main activity or avocation. A farmer is said to be in krishi vritti or agriculture. A sanyasin is said to live on Uncha vritti or high way of living which is basically asking for minimal food with a begging bowl.

So vritti is used to indicate one’s jivana or livelihood, vritti-jivane as the grammar book says. One mantra in Suryanamaskara is “apa ca avrittim” which is a prayer to be gainfully employed — a+vritti meaning joblessness. Some other prefixes also modify the meaning of the word: pra+vritti or pravritti will indicate activities towards getting what one wants whereas ni+vritti or nivritti will indicate activities (and the result) associated with getting rid of what one does not want. Chitta vritti would mean the activity of the chitta. Chitta itself has an interesting meaning.

Chitta which is usually translated as “mind-stuff” or brain is that which though is inert matter appears to have consciousness. “Citiva bhavayati”, like my computer which does not even have life but appears to be super intelligent.

So what does the chitta do, what are its vrittis or activities? Basically the chitta through the vrittis gives us experiences of varied types. It projects different images within its confines — in its own space, mental space, even though the projections appear to be in the outside real space.

For the sake of convenience several works divide functionally the chitta into manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), ahamkara(ego) and smriti/citta(memory). I receive information from the outside world through my senses, eyes, ears, etc., due to the vrittis of the indriyas. Then the manas or mind which is also known as the 11th indriya collates and coordinates and presents to another faculty of the chitta called buddhi. Buddhi analyzes all the information and makes a judgment and then the ego or ahankara aspect of chitta comes into play. If it likes the presentation, it is happy but if not it shows its unhappiness and produces various reactions. When the Buddhi or intellect is active then the chitta vritti is also known as buddhi vritti, but when it is dominated by ahankara aspect of chitta the chitta vritti is known as ahamkara vritti. When some one says that I am a good person I am happy, my ahamkara vritti makes me expansive and I hit the roof. If then someone says I am a lousy yoga teacher, I feel bad and am down in the dumps due to the ahamkara vritti. So moment after moment I have a chitta vritti which includes images not only of the outside objects but also me as the subject of the whole experience. Therefore the chitta vritti is the totality of my experience at any given moment.

The one that experiences or observes all these successive chitta vritties is the real “I”, the purusha, the drashta or observer or the non-changing and hence eternal pure consciousness.

Patanjali says the chitta is capable of transcending all the vrittis and remaining oblivious to all the vrittis. To understand that state he lists all the chitta vrittis in five categories, the main purpose of it is to indirectly know or infer the state which is beyond the chitta vritti state, trying to show the unknown from the known.

What are these known chitta vrittis? The first one is called the pramana vritti or those vrittis which produce correct knowledge of the various objects. Through the senses, I get information of the outside world thanks to the tanmatras received from the objects and the knowledge produced is the pramana vritti. If the knowledge produced is incorrect then that vritti is classified as the viparyaya vritti. Either one interprets the incoming information correctly or incorrectly but the chitta produces a vritti for experience. The chitta sometimes needs no outside information to produce a vritti experience in which case it is called vikalpa vritti, the typical example is the dream vritti. Then we have deep sleep which is considered another activity of the chitta which vritti is due to the dominance of Tamas and hence is known as tamo vritti. Finally we have a lot of information stored in our chitta and when we recall something vividly in the mind it is termed smriti vritti.

Is there a moment in our lives when the chitta is without a vritti? No, according to the exhaustive classification of chitta vrittis, there is not a moment when the chitta stops its activities, its projections in the mental space, its vrittis. While ordinarily the chitta wallows in these vrittis, Patanjali talks about a state in which the chitta transcends all the vrittis mentioned above and remains in that state. That is the state of Yoga.

It happens when the chitta uses all its faculties and yogic training to concentrate and knows for sure the true nature of the observing self/soul, the non-changing, hence eternal consciousness. With that knowledge, with that direct experience, the chitta remains in a state of resolution, on realizing the nature of the the Self in its true form (svarupa). When there is realization in the chitta that nothing, none of the vrittis changes the essential nature of the pure purusha, it becomes quiet – completely quiet. In that state the chitta does not have any of the vrittis mentioned above. But when not in the state of Yoga, it does not know the true nature of the soul. Rather than trying to locate and realize the nature of the Self (as a Raja Yoga practitioner attempts to do), it creates and projects a shadow self using its own vritti, a viparyaya vritti. The chitta is capable of creating this deception.

Take for example what the lazy chitta does during dream state. Getting out of deep sleep, but yet unable to wake up completely, the chitta creates its own dream space, dream objects and also creates a self, a dream self, only to discard it when it wakes up.

Patanjali uses two terms about the nature of the Self and the nature of the pseudo self. He uses the term swarupa or own form to indicate the nature of the true Self. He uses the term sarupa or something similar to the form of the Self for the self image created by the chitta. It is like the difference between the subject and the wax model. The model however much it may look like the original is still a copy and not the original/Self. In fact Patanjali uses the term sarupa which would mean similar to rather than tadrupa which would mean identical with or the exact replica. The emphasis is not so much on how similar or look alike they are (like the mirror image or reflection, etc. which would be tadrupa) but that the model is not the real thing. The implication is that the created self or ego or ahamkara is a creation of the chitta itself; it is itself a chitta vritti (vritti saarupya).

The ultimate state of Yoga of the chitta is that in which it transcends all its vrittis. In that trance-like state the Yogi is oblivious to the surroundings, not sleeping, not dreaming nor thinking of the past. The brain or the mindstuff has also another set of vrittis. The samkhyas call it the samanya or samanya karanaa vrittis. This set of vrittis helps to maintain life even of the Yogi. These are vrittis of prana which itself is an aspect of chitta. These non-descript or ordinary vrittis maintain life. They are known as prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana vrittis and correspond to the life sustaining autonomic activities of the brain. They function until the Yogi decides to call it quits.

What do I do?
I teach a class.
What do I experience?
I experience that I teach a class.
In the last sentence, there are two “I”s.
Which “I” am I?”

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6 thoughts on “Srivatsa Ramaswami: chitta vritti

  1. Linda I really like reading your blog but those birds are so darn annoying – they block out the black type in your sentences which makes reading your posts really difficult. For the love of God, Rama, Sita – whatever lights your fire … could you please figure out a way of shifting the birds so that I can read your blog posts clearly?!
    I say this gently but I really wanted to read about your teacher in your latest post and the first couple of paragraphs are not intelligible because of those blessed birds!
    With much metta xx


  2. Thanks for reading, Angela!

    this is a Blogger template and unfortunately I can't move the birds. it is what it is. knowing the birds in some spots would be a problem, the type color, in fact, is not black, and I am sure it looks different on each computer monitor due to the monitor resolution. the type is actually kind of a brownish purple — I played with a few color variations so that I could read it! that's another reason I made the links RED so they would stand out against the dark bird in case that's where it landed.

    the only thing I would suggest is to wait until I post again and that moves the post down to a whiter background sans birds.

    sorry! but I feel your pain…your frustration is how I feel about blogs with black backgrounds and small, light type.

    think I will contact Blogger help to see if they have any suggestions.



  3. Thanks Linda! I checked your post tonight and I could read it – yay! although I kind of feel guilty that all the birds have flown away … 😦
    Still it was really nice to read the post – I actually looked up the book when I was in Chapters yesterday – interesting. I really like the approach where everything is built up in stages – in England (where I originally come from) they used to call this approach viniyoga however they've since renamed it (at Desikachar's request I think) although I still see that term used this side of the pond.


  4. Now that is partiality. You like Angela more (dramatic sobs here) coz you made the birds fly away for her 🙂
    It is indeed easier to read now.
    And just for the record, i was reading it every time just by selecting the text so that it would become reader friendly.


  5. ha! no crying! yes, your method is how I read blogs on dark or black backgrounds, I highlight the entire text.

    and even with the birds behind the post, I think this blog was WAY easier to read than blogs w/black backgrounds!

    all fixed now! I really did not want to change the template so I'm glad I figured out how to make the birds fly away behind the posts!


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