by Swami Krishnananda
The practice of yoga is more than a mere understanding of its principles, because there are many who may be able to understand it but cannot practise it. The reason for this is the peculiar preparation that one has to make in engaging oneself in its practice. A kind of unique strength is necessary in the practice of yoga. It is not anyone and everyone who can take to it with ease. Many start with enthusiasm but do not conclude it, because of certain unforeseen difficulties that sometimes confront them in the middle, and often in the very beginning itself. A peculiar kind of strength is necessary for this practice. A weak mind which is susceptible to the changing judgements of people cannot take to the practice of yoga. There are people who go on listening to everything and believe in everything so that they live in others’ minds and not in their own minds. Whatever they hear, they believe. When one belief contradicts another, there is a sense of despair and a confusion of mind.
A student of yoga should have a power of judgement, and he should not be merely a puppet in the hands of the views and judgements of other people. It is humility and goodness and also a kind of wisdom to listen to everybody’s views, but it does not mean that we should necessarily acquiesce to all of them. A judge listens to the reports of everyone in the court, but it does not mean that he will accept as final veracity everything that he hears. To receive views and opinions and to consider the judgements of other people in regard to things is one of the ways of acquiring knowledge, it is true, but knowledge is not merely a gathering of information. It is a sifting of essentials, the sublimation of principles involved in what is heard and learnt, and a gathering of the essence rather than the chaff of the outer knowledge. The student of yoga should have a mind of his or her own. We cannot afford always to live in borrowed wisdom or information and strength gathered from others.
It is futile to think that we can always be in the midst of others who will protect or guard us with their physical power or their wisdom. A time will come when the student of yoga will realise that he is alone in this world, and his aloneness is the peculiarity of the wisdom that becomes opened before the inner eye. The truth is that we are alone. That we are apparently in the midst of friends and associates is a kind of illusion that has been cast over us, and this illusion will be dispersed like a cloud when the time for it comes. We will stand alone, and then we must have the strength to confront the realities of life.
A student of yoga is one who is ready to face life. Life will stand in all its nakedness and in its barren reality when relationships which were falsely associated around us get dispersed, and we awaken to the facts of life. These are stages through which every person has to pass if one is to take to yoga earnestly and seriously. It is not wise to think that we shall always be in the midst of friends, that institutions will guard us, and that there are other things that will protect us. This is a child’s attitude towards things—that the parents will always take care of it. This attitude cannot always hold, because truth opens itself one day or the other, and we find ourselves alone in this world.
Before nature teaches this lesson with the rod, it will be proper for us to learn it of our own accord with a maintenance of our dignity. Instead of being pushed down to a place, it is better to honourably go ourselves. Even when we are not prepared to learn, we will nevertheless be taught the lesson. This is nature’s method. It is very difficult to bear the way in which nature teaches lessons to us, so it is more proper and fitting that we do it ourselves rather than do it later under compulsion. No one can escape this law of nature, and truth shall triumph.
The truth is that we are alone in our essentiality, and the final reaches in the passage of evolution will be a single person’s walk. “Strait is the gate,” we must have heard it said in the Bible. Narrow is this gate that releases us into the beyond, and two people cannot walk together in this narrow passage. Broad is the way of destruction, but strait is the gate to heaven. So narrow is this gate that we cannot take an assistant, a servant or a friend with us—we have to go alone. This is the fact and the ultimate reality of things. The evolutionary process of nature tells us that this is the truth when it comes to us as a kind of pain, a shock and an unexpected and unforeseen truth—but everyone must undergo this.
The student of yoga should be a little cautious and a little different from the common folk who learn only by receiving kicks from the world. Yoga is a conscious attempt at participation in the evolution of nature, instead of being driven like an ass by the compulsive activity of nature’s evolution. To bear this truth requires a strength to face truth as it is in its unrelatedness, and it also needs a kind of strength which cannot be developed by acquiring the possessions of the world. This is the foundation of yoga practice—the development of the inner toughness of our personality where we can sleep with confidence and wake up also with confidence. Normally, we go to bed with fear, and we wake up with anxiety. This is hard to bear, and it is not good that this state of affairs should always continue. Go to bed with a sober mind and a sense of attainment, and wake up also with a sense of strength.
“From where does this strength come?” may be the question. It is not muscular strength that we are speaking of, for then the elephant would be the best student of yoga. It is a peculiar kind of strength which most people lack, and this strength is different from a robustness of the body. It is not the strength that we gain from proper nutrition. With all this nutritional sustenance we may nevertheless be weaklings and frightened even by the movement of a mouse. The strength which enables us to be confident in this life is a different kind of strength, which is more than just bodily strength. This is the essential prerequisite in the very commencement of the practice of yoga. There is a famous saying in the Upanishads, “This Atma cannot be attained by weaklings.” This does not mean, as I said, physical robustness. It is an inner toughness that we maintain by a peculiar training that we voluntarily undergo in our lives. We may become weak for some particular reasons and these reasons have to be avoided.
Why we become weak and feel that we are weak is to be the subject of our analysis at the outset. What makes us feel diffident and incompetent, to lack confidence, to feel that we cannot walk firmly on our legs and that we expect only suffering in the future? Why should it be like this, and what is the reason behind all this? The reason is dissipation of life in many ways. The energy and inner strength that we are supposed to garner in ourselves is already in us, because the strength that we are speaking of here does not come from outside. Nobody can give us this strength. We have been born with this strength to some extent, and we have also been born with a joy which may afterwards take leave of us due to certain other reasons.
We have seen small children who look so beautiful, with rounded faces and brilliant bodies. We feel a kind of affection for children due to the harmony of the elements in the children. This harmony gets disturbed later on due to the formation of certain characteristics in the face and body on account of the intensification of desires and ego. The elements which constitute the physical body in a child are distributed in a harmonious manner, and that is why they are so attractive. In adults however the ego hardens itself gradually and desires get channelised in particular directions. The localisation of desires in particular objects disturbs the harmony of the elements of the body, and our faces become ugly. We know how badly an old man’s face droops, and it grows uglier and uglier as the body gets more distorted and unattractive as age advances. The beauty of childhood passes away when the ego begins to manifest itself. Ego and desire finally mean one and the same thing. The ego is the motive force behind the channelisation of desires. That the child has no particular desire is a very important psychological fact. On account of their incipient state, the child’s desires are distributed generally and not channelled particularly in any direction. The child’s desires are general and not particular, and so there is an undisturbed maintenance of the harmony of the elements of the body.
Wherever there is harmony, there is a sense of freedom or happiness which the intellect cannot understand. The children are happy. They run about skipping and jumping and do not understand the realities of life. This ignorance itself makes them so happy. The child’s simplicity is the reason behind its joy, the harmony of its body and even the harmonious working of its physiological organs. Children sleep well, eat well and digest everything, but elders often cannot eat, cannot digest and cannot sleep. The reason is the same: there is an unequal distribution of the energies of the body on account of localisation or channelisation of desire.
This is the beginning of the dissipation of human energy, and the older we become, the weaker we feel in our systems. “Oh, I cannot stand, I cannot walk, I cannot digest anything well, I do not get sleep,” is a general complaint of many people. It is a self-created problem, due to ignorance of the laws of life. We imagine something to be good for us, but it turns out to be contrary to our well-being. We try to fight with fundamental principles in the attempt to fulfil our desires, but the facts ultimately succeed because our illusions cannot stand before them. By hook or by crook our desires want to be fulfilled.
These ways which we generally adopt to satisfy our desires due to the impulse of ego are not in harmony with the laws of society or the laws of nature. Though desires are also present in the child, they are present in seed form and are therefore as yet unmanifest. The desires are not directed toward any particular object and are not lodged in any particular form of the body. They are in an equally distributed, unmanifest condition. While the symmetry of the system of the child is due to its ignorance, a later stage may come in the lives of certain adept people where the same symmetry can be established by a conscious adjustment to life.
This is the case with a saint or sage. He is as lustrous, beautiful and powerful as a child, whereas the ignorant man suffers. The scriptures of yoga tell us that rightly practised yoga produces a lustre in the body similar to that seen in small children. A capacity to do hard work without feeling fatigue and a capacity to have good sleep are characteristics of a saint, and not of a worldly man. While the reasons may be quite different for a child as compared to a saint, the consequences are the same. The harmony that is maintained in the body of a child is due to ignorance, whereas in a saint it is due to wisdom. But the others, who are neither children nor wise men, are the sufferers in the world, and they constitute the majority of mankind.
This unfortunate condition exists in most people because of an unintelligent manipulation of desire and a foolish way of tackling things in the world. To allow a desire to run riot is not wisdom, but this is what most people do. Our desires run amok like wild horses which cannot be controlled, and if horses drag a chariot crazily, we know what will happen—it will be thrown into a ditch. The human condition is beautifully illustrated in the Kathopanishad, and is seen as comparable to a chariot driven by the horses of the senses. Our desires pull us in different directions, and we are unable to know which desires should be fulfilled and which should not. The condition worsens when we are not in a position to know how to fulfil a desire.
Our ways of approach are wrong due to the ignorance of the nature of things. Due to this ensnarement in desires and the objects of the world, we run hither and thither like water which runs in different directions when it falls off a cliff. Our energies are psychologically dissipated due to the squandering of our strength. Even though all people innately possess this energy, it is wasted through this process of desire fulfilment. When there is this wasting of bodily and psychic energy due to unnecessary activity, restlessness and anxiety of various kinds, we become lost to our own selves. We feel a sense of weakness, not only in the body, but also in the mind.
When such a weakness creeps into our system, we cannot concentrate our minds on anything. We feel dazed, we feel sleepy. Even if we sit in a lecture hall and listen to a discourse, we feel sleepy because our minds cannot concentrate. We neither hear anything that has been said, nor can we understand what has been said, because the mind builds castles in the air, runs hither and thither, or gets torpid and sleepy. These are signs of weakness. Oversleeping is also a kind of weakness of the body. We constantly feel tired and feel like to go to bed. “Oh, let me lie down.” We always feel like lying down. The feeling that we are always tired shows that we have no strength within, and that the strength has gone away due to maladjustment of the energy of the body.
Too much emotion, too much longing which cannot easily be materialised, too much anxiety, and an excess of any kind of emotion—all these drain our energy. We may have taken a very sumptuous and nourishing meal, but upon receiving shocking news our nerves may be agitated, and immediately we feel as weak as if we were going to die. The diet we have taken is no support for us at that time. Shocking news which affects the nerves creates such a psychic disturbance that the meal we have taken is of no use. It looks as if we had eaten nothing for months, and we will feel like sinking into the earth. Such is the power of emotion.
It is useless for a student of yoga to think that he can have strength merely by eating well. There are people who eat well in this world but who are not happy, and they may be very weak and rigid. We should not imitate these people. Those who wear nice clothes, live in spacious houses and eat well are not necessarily happy people, and these are not going to be our examples. The path of yoga is a different way of approach altogether, where we try to understand ourselves in relation to nature. Our relation to nature is such that we cannot take liberties with nature. We should not take too many liberties with nature or even with our own body. “Oh, I cannot digest well.” Well, if this is so, then one should not eat so much that one falls sick afterwards. Nature has a principle of its own, and while it tolerates errors to some extent, it cannot tolerate them for a long time. God and nature work in the same way. Their mills grind slowly, as it were, but very finely, and we should understand this as citizens of the universe.
The energy that a student of yoga is called upon to retain in his or her system is the predisposition to concentration of mind. All of yoga is concentration of mind, we must remember. Whatever be the type of yoga we may be performing, concentration of mind is necessary. It may be a practice of asanas, it may be pranayama, it may be hatha yoga or anything else, but if the mind is not there, it is not going to help us. Even in a simple posture like the savasana (corpse pose), at which we may laugh when it is being called an asana—it is the most difficult asana to perform, because due to agitation we may not be able to properly perform savasana, even though we may be able to stand on our heads.
Concentration of mind properly done relaxes the mind, but to be relaxed is a most difficult thing. Concentration is the same as relaxation; however, it is not an exercise of the will. Many students of yoga think that concentration is a tremendous effort of will, where we have to put pressure on our nerves, as if we were walking on the edge of a sword. It is not so. Concentration of mind is at the same time ease of the mind. At any level of the practice of yoga, even in the first rudimentary level, what we are called upon to achieve is ease in the system and not concentration in the sense of undue pressure exerted on any part of the system.