by Swami Krishnananda
All these stages of the development of our thinking are to be regarded as necessary steps in the practice of yoga. One cannot even for a moment forget the background of our earlier method of analysis, even if we have reached the last stage of its understanding. I am reminded of a small boy in a primary school. He used to get up in the morning and tear off page after page of a textbook, and when he was asked why he tore off the pages he said, “Because I’ve already read it!” Every day one page would be torn out of the book, and he had only a few more pages left. The idea of this little child was that once a page had been read, that page need not be in the book, and it should be torn out.
This should not be the case with our studies. We cannot forget the lower stages, because there is no such thing as ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ in a development or process. The higher is only another name for the sublimation of the lower, and the higher is constituted of the substance of the lower. The foundation is all-important in a building, and the foundation is always there as long as the building is there. One cannot remove the foundation just because the superstructure has been built over it. This is an important caution that we have to give to our minds, because when we reach the last stage of yoga we have a bird’s eye view of the entire process that we have undergone. We do not just cling to one stage alone as if it were all. In a way though, one could say it is all—in the sense that it includes everything from the lower realm. Our present physical condition includes all that came earlier; it transcends the earlier stages but does not exclude them.
Our investigation began with the social situation, which has led us to the inquiry into the deeper implications of experience and the methods employed by objective analysis by science, which led to the return of consciousness to itself on account of the difficulty in knowing the essence of things by a purely objective study. Later came the further discovery of there being a being-consciousness within us. Further still came an analysis of perception in which we discovered a connecting link between the subject and the object, which not only links the two but also transcends them. These analyses then planted our feet on the portals of the practice of yoga, and it is on this foundation that the practice of yoga rests. It is from this point that we will proceed with our investigation.
There is no such thing as practice without understanding. There are some people who think that there is no need to study, think, understand, etc. “We just want to do things,” they say. But what do they want to do? There is no such thing as doing without a preceding stage of understanding and a grasping of the techniques of the practice. As a matter of fact, practice is nothing but the resting of the understanding in itself. Practice does not merely mean running around on our legs or grasping something with our hands. We should not make the mistake of imagining that practice is something physical, bodily, or a movement of the limbs. Practice is a habituation of consciousness to a particular way of thinking and an inseparability of this way of thinking from our actual living. That is actual practice. This adjustment of our thinking and consciousness includes the physical as well as all the higher levels. After the philosophical and psychological analysis, we came to the moral step which was too important to ignore. We also discovered that the consciousness of morality—the ethical sense—is a very important foundation in the structure of the practice of yoga, because the moral consciousness is that character in us which exhibits our capacity to adjust ourselves with the nature of reality. When that capacity is absent, we will not even be able to practise yoga, because the practice is dependent on that capacity, and the capacity is judged by our moral consciousness.
It is like a needle in a compass which tells us where we stand. Our moral sense is the indication of our personality and the stuff within us. When the stuff is not there inside, we will not be able to do anything. From a physical, philosophical and psychological analysis we go to the moral sense, and then we come to the actual practice, which is the true attunement of personality to Reality. We came to an understanding of the necessity to adjust the microcosmic level to its macrocosmic aspect, which is the purpose of the practice of asana. I also mentioned the extended form of the practice of asana, bandha and mudra, including a touch of pranayama, which tend towards deeper practices of kundalini yoga and hatha yoga. With this foundational knowledge we go deeper into the implications of the meditational aspect of yoga, which true yoga really is. Before we go further into the internal realm of yoga, I may mention that very few people actually seem to be in a position to understand what they are doing when they practise yoga or meditation. Even in advanced stages of understanding, doubts persist. Doubts will not leave us as long as we are in this world. They pursue us like hounds in a forest.
That is why I said to not forget the lower stages, from where we have risen. We should not forget our small beginnings, because they are very important in our larger achievements. Our so-called expanded states of consciousness arise from humble seed-like origins because it is that which will come to us as our true friend, guide and philosopher. We were simple beings originally, and that simplicity finally comes to our aid. In our essence we are simple and humble beings. We look large and complicated because of many artificial relationships that we establish with the outside world. Yoga wants us to disentangle ourselves from the artificial relationships that we have established. The first and foremost prerequisite of yoga is to divest us of all our false associations and allow us to realise our unitary being. I have mentioned this time and again: we must rest simply and humbly in what we truly are. When there is simplicity, there is also humility. While we stand alone, we are a simple, unitary and indivisible something. This simple, indivisible something that we are will be realised later to be co-extensive and co-eternal with the simplicity and the being of the cosmos. The world is simple, and we are also simple. There is nothing complicated about the world as it is, and this is also the case with us, honestly speaking. When we cast off all our psychological vestments, we are a simple being to understand—there is nothing difficult about it. We make our situations difficult by imaginations of various kinds.
So is the world, and so are people around us—they are simple personalities. People around us, whether they are political beings or social personalities, are essentially simple. When we see them properly, we will realise that every person is very simple at the base. There is nothing complicated about any person in this world. “Oh, he’s a very difficult person!” There is no difficult person in this world. It is all very simple when we go to the deepest essence of a person. We are simple beings, the others also are simple beings like us, and the world also is a simple affair. Yoga wishes to take us to this simplicity of substance ultimately by cleaning all the cobwebs that seem to be covering our faces, our eyes and our mental vision. These are all the networks that we have created by a complexity of thinking. All yoga texts emphasise a student’s need for humility before the might of the cosmos. We are not asked to be humble and simple just as a need of the moral requisite; and simplicity is not merely an ethical edict or a moral quality—it is a scientific fact. Simplicity is not something that we try to become—it is what we are. Our complications are not what we are. There is no need to exert to be humble, for we cannot but be that. If we are anything else, it is an artificial covering that we have put on.
Yoga therefore is a simplicity of approach to the simplicity that is the cosmos, to the simplicity that we are, and to the highest simplicity that God Himself is. In one Hindi expression, God is called Bhola-Baba which, translated literally, means a simpleton. God is a simpleton, which is a humorous way of saying that He is so simple and therefore so easy of contact and approach. The difficulty of approach has arisen on account of the difficulty that we have created by our imagination about Him and also about ourselves. We unnecessarily imagine certain things about God, which need not be true to His nature. We also imagine many things about ourselves and consequently about other people and the world outside. These are all unnecessary things that we have created. This is why it is often said that we create our own prisons, into which we deliberately cast ourselves. Inasmuch as the prison is built by our own selves, it is difficult to get out of it.
This introductory approach is the preparation for the larger simplicity of meditation. I must emphasise that yoga, which is meditation, is the simplest of things that we can do. It is not a complicated affair. “Oh, meditation, who can do it?” Don’t say that. To put it strictly, we have to do it, and we cannot do anything else. The spiritual attitude of meditation, which is the crux of yoga, is our contemplation on the simplicity of Reality. In this simplicity of approach we will realise that God, world and ourselves do not stand apart. The moment we create a tripartite division of God, world and soul, again we have created a complication which we should not have. In the simplicity of the ultimate kind, there is one unitary Being; and later on we will realise that God, world and soul are like the three legs of a stool or a table which is one. God, world and soul are only concepts after all, and not three realities divided from one another. From the multitudinous approach we go to the tripartite approach, and then further on we will realise a simple indivisibility. That which is indivisible is also the simple. In scientific terminology, when we call a substance simple, we mean it is not further divisible. ‘A simple substance’ means to say it is an indivisible substance. In earlier times people thought that atoms were simple substances. They thought they could not be further subdivided, but now we call something else—even smaller than an atom—the simple substance.
One does not actually know what a simple substance would be. When the simplicity of our substance vanishes and we are then no more a simple being, we then project further addenda and supports. If God depends on the world or the world depends on God, and we are hanging on the two, or if there is a relational set-up among the concepts of God, world and soul, they cease to be simple beings. We should not create a family reality. Reality is not a member of a larger family. If Reality is one of the members of a family, that family has to be organised by a larger Reality again, and this would be begging the question. Finally we will find that there is a force uniting all things, and that force is Reality and not any member of a more diverse group. Yoga takes us towards this indivisible simplicity of Being through the apparently difficult techniques of asana, bandha, mudra, pranayama, etc.
The processes of the limbs of yoga are really meant to clear the path to this simplicity of realisation. Their importance lies only in their being helpful to us in clearing the way to this indivisible Reality. This is the reason why we practise the asanas and pranayama and the other techniques. Just as we take a broom and sweep our house to remove the cobwebs and clean the corners of the house, in the same way we do asanas and many other techniques to clear up the passage. Finally what we reach is the more simplified form of Reality. In the beginning it looks large, extended, complicated and forbidding. That is why in the beginning we are terrified even by the name of yoga. “Oh, it is not for me!” But we will eventually realise that nothing else can be for us—this thing alone is meant for us. The knowledge comes to us later when we know what it actually means. Nobody can be a non-yogin in this world, because nobody can afford to be out of tune with themselves. Thus, the preparatory stages of asana and pranayama constitute yoga, and they lead to the further techniques of adjustment and the supreme art of meditation. Towards that end we have been cleaning our path a little.
Instead of saying something new altogether, I will try to give a review of the past so that you may not forget what you learned earlier. Every day you have to recollect the memories of what you have learned already. This should be a very important step in your further studies. We have come now through these winding paths, as it were, to the need for an adjustment of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic which is yoga. The practitioner passes through the different levels, commencing with the physical level which we call the practice of the asanas, bandhas and mudras. Now we have further sets of layers through which we have to pass in the process of self-adjustment. We have to be adjusted to the microcosmic in every level of our being, not merely the physical. All that we are has to be adjusted. We cannot be in tune externally and out of tune internally.
Therefore, the asanas are not the whole of yoga. Asanas are one of the forms of physical adjustment with the physical forces in nature, but there is also a vital personality in us. This acknowledgement takes us to the practice of pranayama. We have seen that we have at least five sheaths. The five layers of our being are called the five sheaths, or the koshas as they are called in Sanskrit. We have the physical, the vital, the sensory, the mental, the intellectual and finally the spiritual. Again I have to emphasise that the higher stage is inclusive of the lower—transcending the lower but comprehending what has been in the lower. Thus the higher is not merely an isolated step, but all that has been below it. When we become a graduate, we have already included within the compass of our knowledge whatever we have studied earlier in the elementary levels. When we are fifty years old, our personality is inclusive of everything that has been already outgrown in our younger age. So is it with knowledge, so is it with yoga and so is it with everything that we do in this world in the evolutionary development and process leading to a more vital life.
The further adjustment called upon is the vital alignment called pranayama. I do not propose to go into the technical variations of the practice of pranayama. I shall be content to speak about what it actually is and why we should practise it, just as I tried to speak to the fundamentals of the practice of asanas. The word ‘pranayama’ comes from a Sanskrit complex word—prana and ayama. The bending of the prana or the harmonisation of the prana is what it really means. We bend it flexibly in the direction we need, and this would be the function of the pranayama process. We must be aware that we breathe in different ways at different times. When we climb up the steps or run fast we breathe in one way, after a meal we breathe in another way, and when we go to bed we breathe in a different way. When we are anxious or in a state of emotional tension we breathe in one way, and when we are angry we are in a different kind of breathing process. All these examples show how external conditions can affect our breathing.
Our breathing process does not merely connect itself with our internal psychic functions, but it also has an impact on the physical system. If we are terribly upset, we may have no hunger that day. We might say, “I don’t want to eat anything; I am very much bothered.” Our botheration is such that even our hunger has gone. The physiological functions have been affected so dramatically that one is thereby able to recognise the organic structure of the system. The body, the pranas, the mind and the senses together are all internally related to one another.
Hence, the process of pranayama has a relation to asana physically and externally, and it also has a relation to the mental condition within. The breathing process, which is ordinarily irregular in people who are very busy with the things of the world, has to be set right. The setting right of the breathing process means the setting right of the power or the mechanism which is impelling it from inside. The prana is different from breath, just as the hands of a watch are different from the structure within, or the electrical force that drives a motor is different from the structure of the motor itself. We may say the breathing process is the motor activity, and the propelling force within is the prana. The energy within is the prana. It is difficult to translate this word into English, as there is no equivalent in English for the term ‘prana’. In all the yoga texts we will find the word ‘prana’ repeated again and again without an English equivalent. It is not breath and it is not even energy in the ordinary sense—it is impossible to define what actually it is. Suffice it to say, it is the precondition of any kind of motion. If motion is a possibility, and if there is such a thing called kinetic energy or dynamism in any manner in the world, it has a predisposition. The predisposition to any kind of dynamism in the world is prana.