True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

  A- A+

Chapter 16: The Spiritual Connotation of the Practice of Posture, or Asana

The problem of yoga practice is a single and concentrated problem, right from the beginning until the end. It is that elusive something which we call the object of our quest. The whole of life is an effort at obtaining, acquiring, possessing, enjoying, or becoming one with what we seek. Now, this is the precise foundation of not merely yoga, but of every kind of effort anywhere in the world. How are we going to possess the object of our quest? Difficulties in the practice of yoga, or difficulties in achieving any kind of success in the world, arise on account of not knowing the method and the means of properly contacting the object of the quest and coming in union with it for the satisfaction that one seeks through such a union. The object of the quest of yoga is similar to any other object of a quest in secular life as far as the difficulty in acquiring it or possessing it is concerned, though the nature of the object is quite different in different cases.

How will we possess anything? We have a very unclear notion of possession, search, enjoyment, and so on. We are born with an unclear notion about all things, and we die with an unclear notion about all things; therefore, all our struggle and effort throughout life is based on a misconception about things in general. A misconception about one thing is equivalent to a misconception about any other thing, because there is only one object of our quest. If there is any object of our quest other than the one which we have in front of our mind’s eye, it will present before us a similar problem because the problem is a scientific one; it is not a social problem or even an ordinary psychological problem in the academic sense.

It is very difficult to be precise in the understanding of things because the mind is always in a hurry to acquire the object of its quest, and it is not enough if we are merely seeking an object and are in a hurry about it. It is also necessary to properly acquire a knowledge of the means thereof. This means, or the method of acquiring or possessing the object of our quest, is directly concerned with our relationship with that object, and there is nothing more difficult to understand than this peculiar thing called relationship. But we may ignorantly imagine that the relationship is very clear, that there is nothing difficult about it. “I am related to this person. He is my brother.” What is the difficulty? The relationship is very clear. “This is my father, this is my sister, this is my brother-in-law, this is my boss, this is my peon.” What is our problem about knowing the relationship?

But this is a child’s answer to a very scientific problem, and unless this question is clearly answered in one’s own mind, the object of the quest will not come near us. It will recede like the horizon. The more we approach the horizon, the further it recedes from us. We will never touch the horizon, whatever be the effort we make in running towards it. The Upanishad says that the object of the quest runs away from that person who does not understand it properly. This is very strange. The object of our quest runs away from us, instead of coming near us, if we do not understand it and have a wrong notion about it. And, unfortunately, we have a wrong notion about it.

What is our notion about a thing, an object? I have attempted to give some idea about this sometime earlier. Our idea is that everything is disconnected. We have an ambivalent attitude, as I mentioned previously, which means to say that we have a double personality in ourselves which emphasises one thing at one time and another thing at another time. We both like and dislike a thing at the same time. This is called psychological tension. We may wonder how is it possible to like and dislike a thing at the same time, but this is exactly what our attitude towards things is. That is why sometimes we look all right, and sometimes we do not look all right.

To recall to your memory what I mentioned sometime back, this double attitude of ours towards objects is born of a peculiar structure of our personality. There are two realms of being implanted in us—the eternal and the temporal. These two realms are working simultaneously in us, and there is a war going on, as it were, between these two values of the two realms. This is, to repeat again, the Mahabharata war taking place everywhere—inside me, inside you, inside everyone, everywhere in creation. The battle between the eternal and the temporal is called the epic war of the Mahabharata. In Puranic language, it is sometimes called the war between the gods and the demons.

The pressure of diversity and the pressure of unity are two aspects which work simultaneously in us, and in everyone and everything in the world. The senses—the eyes, ears, nose, and all the apparatus of perception—insist on a diversity of things because unless there is diversity, there is no such thing as seeing, hearing, etc. Because the senses have an egoism of their own and want to assert themselves and keep their position intact, they affirm a diversity of things. Otherwise, they will have no status, because they have no function to perform when there is no diversity. They will die out. But who would like to die out? Everybody would like to live as long as possible. So the senses maintain their position by hook or by crook.

Thus, the assertion of diversity is the primary activity of the senses; and we are wedded to the senses. We are living in a sensory world. We are slaves of the eyes, ears, nose, etc. We are not the masters thereof. Whatever the eyes say, we believe. The eyes say, “There is a wall.” I say, “Yes, there is a wall.” What a slavish mind I have got! Merely because the eyes tell me that there is a wall, I say, “Yes, there is a wall.” That means I am a servant of the eyes, not the master. My finger touches something: “Oh, there is a desk.” I say, “Yes, I agree. There is a desk.” That means I am a slave of the sense of touch. Why should I believe this sense? Because the sensations from my fingers and the perception from my eyes work together to deceive me, I agree with them and say, “Very good! There is a desk.”

Hence, my intelligence is only this much. Whatever be my rationality, understanding, it is a slavish rationality, very culpable and unbecoming of the dignity of the soul of man, of which he boasts so much. We are in a sensory world throughout, root and branch, and so we assert diversity. Who can say there is no desk? Every sensible man will say there is a desk; and if I say there is no desk, you will call me a fool, an insane person whose brain is out of order. That is what you will think because everybody lives in a sensory world, and the sensory appreciation of things is regarded as the highest of rationality. This is one side of our problem.

We do not know the consequence of this acquiescing ourselves to the reports of the senses. What is the consequence? We have taken for granted that there is diversity in the world; otherwise, we will not say that there is a desk, there is a man, there is this, that, and so on. Therefore, all our philosophy has finally ended in an inviolable decree that there are sense objects, and one object has no connection with the other.

Why is it that we are pulled towards an object? Who is it that pulls us, if there is no connection between us and the object? We have already decreed that there is no connection of one thing with another thing by agreeing with our senses that everything is discrete, that there is diversity in the world. But, now we have to answer another question: Who is it that pulls us towards an object? It is not the object, because the object has no connection with us. Already we have declared that there is a discrete or isolated existence of one thing unconnected with the other. There cannot be a pull of one thing in respect of another if everything is disconnected. Now we have to answer this question: Why is there a pull? Why I am pulled towards you, and you are pulled towards me? Why is A pulled towards B, B towards A, etc.? Why is there talk of collaboration, universal brotherhood and organisation? Why should there be such a thing as symmetry of action and methodology of approach? Why should there be anything like this in a world of absolutely disconnected things?

This means there is another thing speaking from within us. The senses say: “Everything is different, and one thing has no connection with another thing. Therefore, we will assert the diversity of things.” But something else says: “It is not so. We have a connection with things. Therefore, I shall not leave you in peace. I shall pull you towards it.” We are caught between the devil and the deep sea. This is called love and hatred. We are in the middle, listening to one voice at certain times and the other voice at other times.

The practice of yoga is a masterstroke which is dealt at the root of this problem, and no other educational technique, or even all the qualifications of the best educational institutions, will be able to solve this mystery. We have been in this dilemma for ages, and even today we are in the same difficulty. We love a thing and hate a thing at the same time, because we have two aspects in us—the aspect of unity which calls for love, and the aspect of diversity which urges us to disregard the unity aspect. So, there is affirmation of egoism and expression of anger, wrath, and a tendency to battle when we lean too much upon the diversity aspect of things; and there is a great feeling for oneness of mankind, unity of things, etc., when we listen to the other aspect in us. Are we to go on like this forever, drifting with the wind that blows as it pleases? Or have we a say in this matter?

The yoga technique is the method of gaining control over these various forces, which up to this time had sway over us and made us their subjects. The yogi is not a subject of anybody; he is a master. He does not wish to be a slave of forces, and he is awakened to the consciousness that his connection with things is such that he need not be a slave for all times. He has a place in the parliament of the cosmos, as it were, and he is not merely a subjected slave of this universal government. Or, we may say, he has a place, a voice, in the government of the universe. To this fact, he is awakened by the knowledge of yoga. He is not merely a puppet in the hands of forces over which he has no control.

These two aspects are brought together into focus even in the preliminary steps of yoga, and not merely in the advanced stages, because unless this point is made the pivot of activity in the practice of yoga, we may miss our aim and go astray. One of the most important factors to remember in this connection is that our aim is very clear. We know the direction in which we have to move, and there is no use or need to ask others. The direction has been pointed out already, and the aim is clear before our mind.

We have a personality which is complicated in nature on account of this peculiar thing that I mentioned, which is that we have what we call the soul or consciousness, which asserts the indivisibility of its character, and we also have a biological personality which seeks objective satisfaction in the world of space and time, and regards itself as a helpless tool in this world of diversity. We are slaves from the point of view of the body, but masters from the point of view of the soul.

So, are we masters or slaves? This is very peculiar; we have got two aspects combined in us. There is, therefore, the necessity to rise from bodily subjectivity to the mastery of the soul, stage by stage, in the practice of yoga. Even the first step—the asana, the position or the posture—is a preparation for this mastery that we have to gain in the practice of yoga. The padmasana or sukhasana or some such posture that we assume in the practice of yoga is itself a very great step, and not an ordinary step that we have taken, because the stability of the body at once stabilises the biological forces of our personality.

Earlier I mentioned that we are not persons or bodies, we are centres of force. We are not Mr. So-and-so or Mrs. So-and-so, as we are imagining. This is a wrong notion of things. We are only centres of force, energies circling, rotating and revolving in a particular manner, whirling in a particular direction for a purpose. We are like eddies in the ocean of power.

This is something our present state of mind cannot understand. We think that we are Rama, Krishna, Gopala>, Govinda>, Jack or John, but we are really something else. We are centres of energy, forces. What we call chapatti is only a heap of particles of wheat flour spread in a particular manner, and we have given it the name chapatti because it has assumed that shape. There is no such thing as chapatti; it is only small grains of flour held together by some means. Similarly, a building is nothing but a conglomeration of small units called bricks, but we do not call it a heap of bricks; we call it a building. We have given it another name altogether, such as ‘palace’ or ‘mahal’, but really it is a heap of bricks or small stones kept one over the other. We can as well say that it is a pattern of small bricks, instead of saying that it is a palace.

We are made up of such small elements—microbes, cells, atoms, centres of force and energy. We are neither men nor women. All these are false notions into which we have been born and with which we are brought up; and due to this prejudiced thinking, we are caught up in what we call samsara.

We are only particular centres of energy, and this asana practice, to come to the point, is a first step that we take to attune ourselves to the atmospheric condition of the forces outside, so that the condition of the forces which constitute this bodily personality is set in harmony with the very same forces which are external to us. It is as if a small drop or a wave in the ocean tries to tune itself with the vast ocean of which this small wave is made. If the wave concentrates itself on its own little localised individuality, it forgets that it belongs to the ocean, that it is a child of the ocean. It thinks, “I am a small particle of water.” Yoga is this small particle awakening itself to the consciousness: “Oh, I am the entire ocean.” It is really that! It is not gaining any new knowledge or making a new discovery; it has forgotten that it itself is the ocean. Such a terrific thing it is, but it looks like a small drop because of its self-affirmation.

Thus, yoga is a gradual, systematised technique of overcoming the prejudice of self-affirmation—the egoistic assertion of the bodily individuality—towards which, the next step is asana. The confused movements of the body, the chaotic postures we assume, are put into a proper order, and we refuse to be chaotic any more. We make a determination to be systematic from today onwards. The first system, which we considered earlier, was that of the social harmony we establish by the practice of the yamas—ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. Now from the social aspect we come to the personal aspect of this discipline, by which we refuse to give undue credit to the affirmations of the body’s clamouring for satisfaction. With applied educational psychology, we reduce the pressure of the ego upon the body and allow ourselves to get harmonised with a larger and larger approach to things—which is, in other words, a growing into wider and wider forms of unselfishness.

The more we advance in the practice of yoga, the more we become unselfish—which means to say, we get into the realm of a wider self. It does not mean that we are losing our self. Unselfishness is not a loss of self. It is a transcendence of the lower self in gaining mastery through the higher self. So, ‘unself’ means no self; or, in the present context, it means gaining mastery over the lower self by the higher self. When we rise to the higher self, we need not think of the lower one, because the lower one is already included in the higher. All the values that we find in the lower self are found in the higher self, in a transmuted and rarefied form. Thus, we come to the recognition of the importance of the practice of posture, or asana, in the practice of yoga, which spiritual connotation I have tried to place before you today.