In the Light of Wisdom
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 23: The Universal and the Internal are One

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.

Being Simple

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 Vital Alignment Called Pranayama

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.

It is the predisposition and not merely the action of the prana outside that has to be set right. The regulation of the breathing process alone is not pranayama. There is a predisposition behind the breathing process, and when that tendency within is not set right, outwardly controlling the breath is not going to help. Kumbhaka (retention of the breath) and other things are a failure when the disposition within is different from this effort. We cannot convince a person of something that the person cannot understand, because the person’s brain and understanding are predisposed to something different from what we are saying. The tendency or the predisposition is to be taken into account before we try to touch the prana in any manner. Just as there has been a caution recommended in the practice of the kundalini or hatha yoga techniques, especially in their advanced stages, a caution has to be exercised in the practice of pranayama. It is very important. One should not go to excesses in the practice of pranayama.

This caution is very important in the practice of the regulation of the breath, because we must know whether we are predisposed internally to the regulation of the prana or not—otherwise we should not meddle with it. Our disposition within is a complex of a psychological nature and is very important. What is our tendency? If our mind is too full of desires, if our inclination is towards intense activity, if we have been suppressing this urge for action through a desire for yoga meditation, and if we are boiling within with energy to be expressed in some way or the other—we should not do pranayama. Otherwise, it would be like trying to build a dam across a rushing river. The river will not be manageable if we try to block its raging flow, and it will break its bounds one day or the other. The rushing river is like our energy within, which tends towards something and which has an impetus of its own in a particular direction or destination.

We need not try to build a dam across such a river. What we are to do with the river is to see that it becomes calm before a dam is built. When there is a torrent and the river is in spate, one cannot build a dam across it. Our tendency to action, the action and its fulfilment are all the forces of the prana. These will indicate how forceful our prana is. It is easier to build a dam across a lake rather than across a river that flows. The dam would be more easily placed in position by an expanded lake rather than before a moving river. Mostly our energies move—they are like rivers and not like standing lakes. When the water of the river widens its scope, its force also becomes less and less.

In the mountain regions one will find that the rivers are rushing rapidly; but when they reach the plains, they become calmer. See the Ganges—if we go higher to its source, we will find it makes a lot of noise as it rushes rapidly through gullies and ravines. Now it has come to Rishikesh but still it is not calm, and we can be drowned here by the current. The river goes further to Haridwar, then to Saharanpur and so on, and then it becomes calmer and calmer until it reaches the plains. Near Bihar it will be like an ocean. Though it is so deep and expanded, it is not rushing. The prana is something like this river which has a tendency to rush, on account of the slope of the ground through which it has to flow. If we bring it to the plains, it is calm.

Our personality is like a mountain or a hill over which the prana rushes down. We have not become a plain yet, and so we heave, gasp, run and so on. We are not at ease with ourselves, which means to say the prana is not at peace. We cannot keep quiet even for a few minutes without talking to someone, and without getting up and seeing something in order to be satisfied with ourselves. This is an external symbol of the condition of our prana within. What we do daily will tell us how our prana works. If every ten minutes we have to get up and see something, that would mean that we are rajasic in nature. Can we sit alone for a day without seeing anyone? Try this one day. Do not go out of the room, and be alone in the room. The whole day we can be in the room just seeing what our minds will tell us that day. If we feel like a fish out of water, then the prana inside is also like a fish out of water—it will not be well. One should not do pranayama in this case. The inner predisposition of our personality will be the touchstone of the condition of our prana, and this must be discerned before we undertake the practice of pranayama. This caution is to be given, because if we don’t understand this simple affair, we are likely to go wrong in the technique and press too hard. We may even have excesses telling upon our physiological system, in which case pranayama will not do us any good if we are not prepared for it.

Pranayama for Equilibrium

Pranayama implies a proportion of sattva in our bodies and minds. Sattva means the tendency to equilibrium. Just as I said, we can try and test ourselves by sitting alone in the room for a day. Our response will tell us how sattvic we are. Rajasic persons cannot sit in one place—they will be writing something, looking in different corners, putting one thing in another place, taking it from that place and putting it in a third place. Our pencil is here; we lift it and put it there. We take it from there and put it here. Why do we do it? It means to say that our minds are not calm—otherwise we could let the pencil be wherever it is. The actions outside are expressions not only of the thought within but also of the way of the working of the prana. We have to be more cautious in dealing with the prana than even with our minds in meditation. The reason for this is that the prana is directly connected with our bodies, whereas the mind is connected with the body through the prana. When the prana gets out of order, it may do more harm than a mind that is not able to meditate. In the beginning, therefore, the process of the control of the prana should not take the form of the retention of breath. We should never try to retain our breath in the initial stages of the practice of pranayama.

The first things we do should be the most initial things. Generally we do not take a deep breath. If we just think of our breathing process a little bit for a few seconds, we will realise that we typically breathe shallowly. We neither inhale deeply nor exhale deeply. We are too much excited—that is why we cannot inhale or exhale deeply. The first thing would be to try deep inhalation and deep exhalation. It has nothing to do with retention—do not even think of that just yet. Sit in a well-ventilated room, or in the open if the air is warm. Take a deep breath, and after that, breathe out. If we do merely this technique of deep inhalation and deep exhalation for fifteen minutes, we will feel that we are tremendously refreshed. It has nothing to do with retention—again, do not think of retention just yet. Deep inhalation and deep exhalation continuously practised for fifteen minutes at least will give us a refreshing feeling within that we will like to experience daily.

The first step then would be only deep respiration. The second stage would be to prolong this process from a few minutes to a lengthier period. Remember that this should be done in a well-ventilated room, or even better, in the open. It should not be done in cold air, or in the very hot air that we have for example in Rishikesh in June. It should be warm air—not too chilly nor too hot. The breathing should be very calm and very slow, with no engagements in our minds. If the train is whistling to leave and we have to catch it, we should not sit on the platform and try to start our breathing practice—our minds would be lost in the whistle. We must have no engagements of this kind when we sit for deep breathing.

Everything should be done with a sense of immediacy and with attention—then we can sit for it. The other factor that is to be remembered is that this should be done preferably on an empty stomach and not after a heavy meal. When the stomach is empty, when the air is fresh and when our mind is not engaged, this breathing exercise should be started. We will see how refreshing this becomes and how our health improves. This practice can even prevent illnesses of various kinds. We need not call this pranayama—it is a big word. Let us simply call this deep breathing exercise. Let us not go for big words or technicalities. Deep breathing exercise—yes, that is sufficient. Practise daily in a calm atmosphere and with a calm mood, and this will drive off many of our sicknesses. Sicknesses may not come at all, so it may not even be a question of driving off diseases. We will be immune to many of the illnesses to which people are prone. We will have a reserve force within us, and we will have enough strength to prevent the absorption of toxic matters from outside. Pranayama therefore commences with this simple technique. The reason behind the practice is the harmonisation of the prana, just as asana was the process of harmonisation of the muscular forces and the nervous energy. The physical equilibrium was established through asana, and now through pranayama we try to establish the equilibrium of the vital energy within.

Equalisation of the Vital Energy

The necessity for the equalisation of vital energy within arises from the fact that it is usually not distributed properly in the system. The prana is not usually equally distributed in the system, just as our thinking process is not usually harmonious. We always think certain particular things, and therefore the prana is particularly directed in certain corners of the system. People who are prone to too much thinking have their energy concentrated mostly in their brains, and their physical health may become comparatively weak. We can see it in our practical lives. People who do a lot of intellectual work—writers or others who do mostly sedentary mental work—often do not have vigorous physical health. This is possibly due to inadequate intake of fresh air and shallow breathing, and then driving the energy mostly to a particular part of the body.

The energy of the body needs correction because it has not been equally distributed, on account of particularly directed thinking. Just as the practice of the asanas was a correcting process of the muscles, this process corrects the disordered flow of energy. Whether it is asana, pranayama or the higher processes of thinking, the aim is to equally distribute the energy—physical as well as psychological. The equal distribution of energy becomes possible when it is prevented from moving in any given direction. The mind is the reason behind the energy moving in particular directions. Excessive thinking of sense objects, or even of any particular object for that matter, would concentrate the energy in that direction, and all the force would tend towards that object of our thought or affection.

People who are given to too much love or too much hatred are also not healthy in their systems, because here again, the energy is driven in certain directions. Any excess in any kind of activity—physical or psychological—is not good for the system. All yoga is harmony and the golden mean of action, and not tolerating excess of any kind—neither to the right nor to the left. We move equally in all directions, as it were, when we practise yoga. We have no preferences of any kind, and all things are all right. That should be our mood and attitude later on. Whereas before we would say, “This should be like this, and this should not be like that,” these notions will slowly vanish. The prana is regulated towards this end of harmonising the thought without any tendency in any particular direction.

I should say something about this prana, so that we may know how to regulate it. The prana is an energy which is supposed to channelise itself through the tubes of the nerves. The nerves are so many in number that we cannot even count them. They are everywhere in the body—there is no part of the body where we cannot find a nerve. Wherever we touch the body, there is a nerve. They are thousands in number, and we can say the whole body is constituted of nerves. Therefore, everywhere there is prana, which means to say everywhere there is life force, so that any part of the body that is touched tells us that there is life there. Prana is everywhere.

This prana which is moving through the nerves is not equally distributed—from the point of view of yoga at least. In the same way, ordinarily we appear quite healthy, but actually, from a very strict medical point of view, there will be something wrong with our system. The doctor examines us, and the doctor will tell us that there is something not all right, though we may for all practical purposes look all right. Similarly, with the prana and our life system, things look all right for all practical purposes, but for the yoga purpose at least there is something not all right. That something wrong is that we breathe alternatively through the nostrils, and that there is no concentrated attention of energy. The alternate breathing is supposed to be a kind of disturbance.

In one of the aphorisms of Patanjali, we will find that he says that one among the many obstacles in yoga is alternate breathing—he calls it svasa-prasvasa. Alternate inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils is regarded as an obstacle in the practice of yoga. We may be wondering how this could be an obstacle. It is an obstacle because alternate breathing in this manner also creates a kind of alternate thinking, in terms of opposites—love and hatred, like and dislike, subject and object. Just as there is alternate motion of the breath, there is alternate motion of the thought system. Yoga does not want us to think in this alternate way—swinging from object to object, or from pleasure to pain, or love to hatred. The breathing process, as I mentioned, is an indication of the way in which we are thinking—they are mutually related. Therefore yoga thinks that by a particular kind of manipulation of the breathing process we can advantageously affect the prana, which is driving the breath in this manner.

Gradually the mind is also enticed away from its usual discursive way of thinking, and it is concentrated in such a way that it does not swing from subject to object or from emotion to emotion. This is done by an easy technique which goes by the name of kumbhaka. It is a retention which has to be achieved in a very cautious manner—not merely by holding the breath, but by educating the movement of the prana so that it ceases its alternate activity and becomes calm of its own accord. “Of its own accord” is very important—it should not be by force. When the mind becomes deliberately calm of its own accord, it tends to cease its irregular activity. The cessation of this irregular activity is what we call kumbhaka, which many people try to do forcefully by holding the nostrils closed. The beneficial effect I mentioned cannot be achieved like that.

Yoga is more a growing from within rather than an imposing of things from without. Yoga is an inwardly growing evolutionary process. In every step of yoga these important aspects have to be remembered. Hence, I emphasise our predisposition as an important factor which must be taken into consideration in the practice of pranayama. A gradual diminishing of the activity of the breath means a diminution in the activity of the prana within. This process can bring about a gathering of energy which makes us strong physically, and which also brings about the concentration of the mind, which is the next higher step.