by Swami Krishnananda
There are two sides to the practice of Yoga, upon which the student has to bestow sufficient attention. One is the method of practice, which has to be followed with meticulous care. The other is the obstacles that one may have to face on the way for totally different reasons. While the practice of a positive nature is important enough, a consciousness of the impediments on the way is equally important. It is not enough if one knows one's own capacities and strength; one should also know what are the difficulties that one may have to confront or face due to various circumstances, difficulties which may present themselves in various colours as one advances on the Yoga path, stage by stage. It is a known fact that there is a marked difference between the mental attitudes of a student of Yoga, and of a prosaic individual with worldly instincts and whims. While everyone in the world has a programme and a routine of daily life, the programme of a student of Yoga has a marked distinction. He has to adjust himself to a new law altogether, a law of self-integration, we may say, which is Yoga essentially, as distinguished from the usual, sentimental, social, emotional and practical adjustments which one makes during the day-to-day routines of the workaday world. Thus, there is an attempt on the part of the Yoga student to accommodate himself to a law which is wider and more integrating than the systems of living with which one is acquainted in ordinary life. So, when a positive attempt is made to strike a new note in one's internal conduct, and not merely in outward behaviour, a kind of physiological change takes place in one's body, as a result of the mental change that is brought about. An ordinary mental change, an ordinary change of thought, does not affect the body. It is a little change only, and as such, is too weak to have a vital connection with the physiological function. But, an intense concentration of mind on a new outlook altogether has a positive impact on the whole body, which the body may not be able to bear sometimes. This may cause illness of various types, which an ordinary man in the world may not encounter. While there can be many reasons for falling ill, especially in the case of a serious student of Yoga, one of the reasons is this inability of the body to adjust itself suddenly to a very strong thought which is quite different from the usual thoughts of individuals that we are familiar with.
Considering this difficulty that one may have to face in the practice of Yoga, scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita warn us to be a little bit moderate in our approach and not go to extremes. Because, when the seeker takes to Yoga, he is likely to be stirred up into an emotion of holiness and religiosity, which may lead him to think of such items of exceptional practice as fasting, reducing one's sleep, eating less, talking nothing and so on. While all these practices are very advantageous, and perhaps necessary, they should not be resorted to all at once, in an extreme measure. Moderation is a greater virtue than complete abstention. Complete abstention may not be so difficult as moderation. Moderation is more difficult. For instance, to speak in a moderate and acceptable manner poses a greater difficulty for a person than to observe complete Mauna or silence. Yoga is, a moderation of conduct and an internal adjustment. It is not an extreme step that one takes, though sometimes an individual seeker goes to extremes unavoidably due to his very nature. The moment we think of spirituality, religion, God or Yoga, we are likely to be stirred internally by certain feelings which are just the opposite of the individual feelings of day-to-day life. That is why we run to monasteries and sequestered places. No human individual can escape this eventuality of being stirred inside in a holy manner, which may look like something extreme to the poor body which is not used to these conditions of thinking and feeling.
In the system of Patanjali's Yoga, in one of the Sutras, the great author says that obstacles may have to be faced by the student of Yoga; and he mentions many obstacles. The first one that he mentions is 'illness', physical illness. One has to guard oneself against this possibility. That health is very important does not require much of an emphasis. If the health of the Yoga student fails and he collapses physically, nothing can be done. Everything fails in one second. So, he should not be too enthusiastic in running after the spirit to the neglect of the body. This is because the body is an unavoidable accompaniment of the spirit, as long as the latter has to work through the individuality in this empirical world. St. Francis of Assisi used to call the body as Brother Ass. Well, it may be an ass; yet, it is a brother all right. We cannot avoid it, because, it is our brother. Like an ass, it will carry some load; so let it be. We have to live with it.
We must bestow sufficient thought on the various problems that we have to face in Yoga. This is very necessary. The difficulties that we may have to encounter are not confined only to those mentioned in the Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali draws our attention only to the general, philosophical sides of the difficulties. We may come across personal and petty difficulties, everyday, which we must tackle with intelligence, aided by the guidance of a Guru. The Sutras of Patanjali alone will not be sufficient to provide all the guidance that we require when we go deep into Yoga practice. But, broadly speaking, Patanjali has given us an idea as to the nature of the problems we are most likely to face.
Physical illness apart, the Yoga student may face, in the course of his practice, a sort of lethargy, a certain dullness of spirit. His enthusiasm cools down after some time. While he might have started on the Yoga course with an intense longing to catch something higher, later on, this burning desire-fire slowly comes down in its intensity, because of a reaction that is set up by the other constituents of his personality. Of the three properties of Prakriti, it is Sattva that stirs up in a person an aspiration for divine living. While the aspiration is good and very praiseworthy, one cannot ignore the presence of the other two properties, namely, Rajas and Tamas, which will not always keep quiet. If one pays too much attention to one side, the other aspects of the personality which are ignored will have their own say, one day or the other. It will not be correct to strike a comparison between these properties. It cannot be said that something is good and something else is bad, though usually we say that Tamas is bad, and that Sattva and Rajas are good. In truth, the three properties of Prakriti are neither good nor had, but appear to be useful or not useful under different conditions of one's life. Our body has all the three properties in it. It is mainly Tamasic. We may say that it is heavy like a log. Therefore it is very weighty, and its characteristic is, principally, fixity. And Rajas is something well known as an active nature causing distraction, a desire to run about and do something or the other at all times. Everyone has all these urges inside. While we all have a spark of a longing for a higher kind of living, we also have a desire to be very active in human society, doing something for ourselves as for others. And there is also the lethargic attitude. So, these urges, when they are not properly attended to, sometimes come to the surface of one's life and bring about a reaction of a melancholy nature, of a moody nature. This is something known to every person. Even when we take to such small simple routines like chanting of the Divine Name with a rosary, it does not mean that everyday we will be concentrating the mind in the same way. Sometimes the Maala might drop from the hand in a mood of sleepiness and we might get fed up. Who can do Japa for three hours, four hours, five hours? Though it may be the Name of God, for the glorification of the Almighty, yet the mind will refuse; because, it has got other things inside than merely this urge for God-realisation. So, Patanjali tells us that there is a dullness of the entire constitution that may prevail sometimes, about which also one has to be cautious.
Then comes another problem, a difficulty which is of a psychological nature, mentioned by Patanjali in the Sutras. Doubt is in the mind. This is a very terrible problem which many seekers are faced with. It looks as if the majority of seekers have this difficulty. "Am I right? Or am I a foolish person, wasting my time in doing something under the impression that some great thing will come about? Perhaps I am entirely mistaken. Perhaps this teacher is not the right sort or, maybe, I am not the proper person to do this. I am unfit at the present moment." Hundreds of doubts of this nature will assail the mind, and under desperate conditions, the seeker may doubt even the existence of God Himself. He may go to such extremes. People curse God Himself when they have great problems and sufferings. Then they give up every spiritual practice. There is a snap in their Sadhana automatically. Anybody can get angry with the Almighty. And when that happens, everything goes wrong. Now, this eventuality is occasioned by doubts, which creep ever so slowly into the mind, as the result of insufficient education and training under a proper teacher. In such a case, the seeker must have been jumping into Yoga suddenly, without guidance.
In ancient times, the system of teaching was through the programme called "Gurukulavasa", a system altogether different from the one followed in our schools these days. The Guru or the teacher, the guide or the master, is expected to know every little detail of the mind of the student, because only then can he teach that which is appropriate under the circumstances. And if the student goes astray, the Guru will know what has happened to him and what is the remedy for it. But these days, in modern times, circumstances being different, this system does not seem to work. Therefore, there is not much of an advantage accruing even from a serious study of Yoga or the so-called practice of it. It has mostly become an academic affair or a joke practically.
So, when there is something serious working in our minds and we are intent upon achieving something palpable, in spite of all the oppositions that may come upon us, when we desire to transform ourselves into a nobler type of existence, we have to see that these doubts do not assail our mind. Therefore, even today, in this most modern of times, the necessity for a Guru cannot be avoided. Because, no one is so wise as to know everything about the future. All problems are new when they come. They take a new shape when they appear before our eyes. They may be old problems, but when they come before us, they look new. And we will not know what to do with them. So, we require a superior to guide us. Correct guidance is an unavoidable requisite in the path of Yoga. It should be very clear to our mind that we have chosen the path, and we know what to do, and we know whom to refer to in case of difficulties. Everything must be clear to the mind and there should be no doubt. It is, therefore, impossible to take seriously to Yoga meditations when any kind of doubt exists in the mind. There can be metaphysical doubts, there can be personal doubts, there can be doubts concerning the day-to-day adjustments in life. Misconceptions cannot be removed by a study of books, because the books cannot speak to us and answer to our questions. Book knowledge is knowledge, no doubt, but it looks like dead knowledge. Whereas the seeker wants living, vital answers to his poignant queries that arise freshly from his heart, now and then, almost everyday. So, the need for a teacher cannot be gainsaid, and one should not be under the impression that he can stand on his own legs in the Yoga path. No one can do that, unless one is a blessed master, come like an incarnation. That is a different matter. Usually, it is not possible. Before a person takes to Yoga practice, he should question himself: "Have I got any doubt in my mind in regard to the course that I have taken in the name of spirituality? If doubts are there, he must get them cleared immediately. Even if it takes months to get the doubts cleared, it does not matter. He must see to it that there is no doubt in the mind. Everything should be clear like daylight. Then he will make progress.
Other difficulties are also mentioned in the Sutras of Patanjali. An indifference of attitude comes in even after everything seems to be clear. Complacency sets in. The seeker sometimes tells himself: "After all, I have made some progress. If today I do not sit for meditation, what does it matter? I shall do it tomorrow. Today I am a little busy". Some questions will arise in the mind, and the mind itself will give answers. In the Mahabharata, there is a great episode called the Sanatsujatiya, where a great master, Sanatsujata, gives this immortal advice to Dhritarashtra, that there can be nothing worse for a man than neglect of duty. Pramada: this is the word used in Patanjali's Sutra to signify neglect of duty. And our duty being the practice of Yoga, neglect of it is worse than death or Mrityu. Yes, it is worse than death. Everyday we have to resort to Yoga as we resort to our breakfast or lunch or supper. We have to love it as our own mother or father; brother or sister. There is nothing so dear to us as our Yoga. Yoga is not an abstract thought. It is a living, vital, substantial existence, and to think of it as an abstract thought is also a doubt in the mind, which has to be removed. Yoga is not an idea in the head. It is a name that we give to a concrete, substantial manifestation of the Absolute Itself, with which we have to unite ourselves, by gradual stages. So, there should be no step-motherly attitude towards Yoga. Everyday, the time devoted to the practice should be almost the same. The allotted time should not be diminished. It is better to diminish the time for other activities than for meditation, for meditation is the seeker's central vocation. But the instincts inside, which have not been properly attended to or sublimated or fulfilled, may create unforeseen difficulties and speak like angels or sometimes threaten like devils. All these are possible, and we have to know who is in front of us when a voice speaks or an object presents itself before us.
When the seeker sits to meditate or do Japa or even to study or think, he may feel sleepy. Sleep is very essential for the health of the body. Yes. And one should not cut short his sleep beyond a certain limit, so that it may not trouble him when he is at his worship or prayer. If the seeker unduly scissors off his sleep in the night, by getting up very early at about 2 o'clock or 1 o'clock then it will have an adverse impact on him in his meditation. He will not be able to concentrate properly. He will have a little bit of a creeping sensation in the nerves in the head, as if ants were crawling and he will feel miserable and wretched, and he will like to close his meditation as early as possible. It is not the quantity of time that we devote which is important, as the quality of concentration, which cannot be there if the mind is not prepared. And if the mind is not happy, how can it be applied? So, if we have not given to the mind what it requires, it cannot be happy; and if it is not happy, it cannot be ready also. So, like a wise psychologist or a psychoanalyst or a school master, we have to teach the mind the lessons which it will be able to accommodate itself to and appreciate from the level in which it is. Also, if there is a mood of laziness or sleepiness, the seeker may admonish himself thus: "What for have I seriously taken to Yoga? What is the intention behind? If my intentions were holy, pious and clear enough, what makes me now close my eyes to my goal and lessen the intensity of my longing for it?"
The theory of Yoga may sometimes look very simple, but when the seeker actually sits for practice, he will find it not so easy. The beginner cannot independently live a life of Yoga for sometime at least. That is why he is asked to keep the company or Satsanga of like-minded people. They can then have a group discussion among themselves. People of similar aspiration may have a sitting, a chat – or, may be, a discussion. In addition to this mutual exchange of ideas that the Yoga students may have, among themselves as friends and co-students, for their own benefit and necessity, they can also have a time set apart for study. Yoga does not always mean meditation with closed eyes. It means many things that are contributory to it ultimately. A little bit of study also is very necessary. Perhaps it may also have to be maintained as a necessary routine always. Some amount of reference to a text on Yoga may be required to brush up the mind into higher thoughts. Otherwise, we cannot always entertain noble thoughts. It is not easy to accommodate in the mind lofty thoughts of God always, throughout the day. That is impracticable. So, we take to various methods of practice in order to accommodate the mind to this habit of lofty thinking. Discussion with good people, friends, is a help and is something like a secondary Satsanga. Also helpful is a study of great texts on Yoga, given by great masters, incarnations, prophets and divinities of the past.
If the student finds that there is something seriously wrong with himself, and he does not know what has happened, and it is not possible for him to study or talk to anybody or even meditate, he may even close his practice for three days. It does not matter. Because, he may have to recover himself first, when he has fallen due to some exhaustion or incapacity of some kind. If a soldier acquires some sort of incapacity in the battlefield, it does not mean that he is permanently incapacitated and cannot fight. On the other hand, the wounded soldier is taken away from the battlefield, and given some treatment and rest, until he recoups himself and makes himself ready. Similarly, in the battlefield of life, in this war called Yoga, it is possible that one gets exhausted and is not able to fight everyday, every moment, unremittingly. Though Patanjali teaches that the practice of Yoga should be unremitting, unceasing, that there should be effort without any break, we have to use some discretion. A war may be continuous, but when the soldier is incapacitated, naturally, that day he cannot fight. He has to take rest, which means that that rest also is a part of the fighting process. Even so, rest is a part of the practice of Yoga itself. Here again, a Guru is necessary to guide the student, as to when to rest and when to step up practice.