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Is Your Mind a Furious Elephant?

From Asana to Samadhi: Exploring the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The mind, which is like a furious elephant roaming in the garden of the senses, is controlled by the sharp goad of nada.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1:10

An elephant is a magnificent creature—nine feet tall at the shoulder (put a yardstick on the top of the head of a six-foot man and look up); legs bigger around than your torso; and weighing in at 6,000 pounds (that’s about three times more than your car). He can pluck a dollar bill from your shirt pocket or a peanut off the palm of a child, or, just as casually, rip a branch the size of your leg off a mango tree while sauntering through the orchard. Recently, in the village of Palakkad in South India, an elephant suddenly went on a rampage, tossing auto rickshaws and Jeeps into the air like a child might throw his toys across the room. Just imagine a chronically furious elephant!

To the yogis, our untrained mind is like a furious elephant blinded by uncontrolled passions.

The Sanskrit matta, translated in this verse as “furious,” also means “intoxicated,” “inebriated,” or “in rut.” To the yogis, our untrained mind is like a furious, drunken elephant: intelligent and capable of being subtle and gentle, but blinded by uncontrolled passions. In the garden of life defined only by the senses, we are mad with desire for pleasure and power. It is as if we are hypnotized by the phenomenal world, perhaps even doubting the existence of life outside the narrow confines of the garden walls. The problem is that sensual satisfaction is fleeting, and the mind remains restless and relentlessly hungry. Ignorant of its true nature and inherent powers, the untrained mind does not hear the soft voice of inner intelligence and doesn’t heed its inner guide.

Mahouts (elephant handlers) train and control elephants with an ankusha, a sharp, hooked stick or goad (think of the spur a rider uses to signal her horse, a cattle prod used to drive a pen of steers through a chute, or the cane used to guide a prize pig around the ring at the state fair). This verse in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us that one such goad for the mind is nada, an inner sound heard not by the ear but by the mind. Nada, a subtle vibration arising from transcendental consciousness, prods the mind out of its drunken hypnotic stupor and arrests its roaming tendencies. Similar verses in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika liken nada to “the net which snares the deer” or to “the bolt that locks a horse inside.” Another verse alludes to nada as a snake charmer—the mind is charmed, its attention captured and drawn away from its fixation on sensory awareness.

Alas, nada is not easy to come by; you won’t find it on anyone’s playlist. Nada arises spontaneously in the purified and concentrated mind. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes a range of practices, including asana, pranayama, kriyas, and cleansing and alchemical practices, to train and transform the mind. Other aspects of yoga, such as mantra meditation and devotion, also purify and concentrate the mind and sensitize awareness to the subtle vibration of nada.

Contained, concentrated, and charmed, the mind becomes stable and reclaims its innate, joyous nature. “Just as a bee drinking nectar is unconcerned about the fragrance, so the mind engaged in nada does not crave sensual objects,” the Pradipika explains. The implication in this metaphor is that fragrance does not satisfy the bee’s hunger, however pleasant it may be. Only the nectar is truly nourishing. Likewise, the deep hunger of that furious elephant-mind finds little lasting satisfaction in the objects of the senses. Gratification of the senses is merely the fragrance that signals the presence of nectar within us. We enjoy music or a sunset because it triggers our innate capacity for joy—but distracted, angry, or tired, we find little pleasure in either.

Gratification of the senses is merely the fragrance that signals the presence of nectar within us.

If only we could convince the outward-looking, happiness-seeking mind that the source of lasting joy is not in the experiences and objects of the world, nor in the senses, but in the depths of the mind itself! This is the power and promise of yoga; and this is the fruit of practice. For those whose sadhana matures, the goad of nada guides the mind to the nectar that satisfies the existential thirst of life. Drinking deeply, those blessed ones experience maha-mattam, the great drunkenness—the blissful intoxication of God-awareness.

About the Teacher

Sandra Anderson

Senior faculty at the Himalayan Institute, Sandy teaches yoga, meditation, and philosophy, and is a key instructor in the Institute's teacher training programs. She is the coauthor of the award-winning book, Yoga Mastering the Basics, and a frequent contributor to the Himalayan Institute's online Wisdom Library. Her work draws on her immersion in the living oral tradition, traditional texts of hatha yoga and tantra, training in Sanskrit, and her background in environmental science. A long-time resident at the Himalayan Institute with a diverse background and life experience, Sandy has a unique capacity to convey the richness of spiritual life in the contemporary world.

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