The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 3: A Broad Outline of the Stages of Yoga

The practice of yoga, which is the main sadhana, has to bear resemblance to the goal because, as it was pointed out, the means and the end are not cut off from each other; rather, the goal is finally going to be realised to be an evolution of the means itself. There is a continuity of process right from the beginning till the end. The path and the destination have the sympathy of nature. The path begins right from the place and the time where and when the disciple finds himself or herself. Whatever be the condition in which we are, just now at this moment, is the first step in yoga. Therefore, the first step may not be of the same character in different individuals, inasmuch as there are various types of individuals on account of the difference in the levels of their condition of evolution. Nevertheless, each one should take the first step from the level in which one is, and not from a higher step above the level of one's present condition.

The point to be remembered is that a living connection should be maintained between one step and another step. There is no such thing as a jump or a sudden rise, with a disconnection between steps. There is a vital continuity, like the gradual growth of a person from babyhood. We do not jump from childhood to the adult condition. There is a very, very slow growing process with a tremendous continuity, with no gap whatsoever. The processes in yoga are of a similar nature – a gradually growing, evolving, blossoming procedure of the practice of consciousness. Here we come to a very interesting and important essential in yoga. It is an education of consciousness that is called yoga.

Every practice in yoga, even the first step, is a method of educating one's consciousness towards the attainment of that which it is seeking in the process of this enfoldment. It has been said by educationists that education is the systematic procedure of evoking the perfection that is already within. Everyone has perfection within oneself, but it is hidden beneath, covered over by accretions of various types. In education, knowledge is not imported from outside. The teacher becomes an instrument in the bringing out of the potentialities of wisdom already hidden in the recesses of the heart of the disciple. Knowledge is inseparable from 'being' and, therefore, the knowledge that one is to acquire has to maintain this character of inseparability from the being of the disciple, right from the beginning itself.

In the most initial of stages, this identity of knowledge with 'being' takes the crude form of body-consciousness and attachment to one's own individuality. It is from this level that the evolutionary work of education should start. At every step it should be remembered that knowledge should not be isolated from being. In our modern systems of education a mistake is committed, namely, the isolation of knowledge from being, so that the student's knowledge need not have any connection with the personal life of the student. So is the case with the teacher, the professor. The knowledge he seems to have acquired, the education that he has passed through, the career of education which he regards as his achievement, does not bear a resemblance to his being, so that he is one thing in his personal life and another thing in his profession. This is the defect of modern education, and the defect of both the teacher and the disciple. Hence, we find that we are unhappy after all the knowledge that we have acquired, wherever it is and in whatever form it might be acquired.

But yoga education is of a different nature. One must be very cautious that knowledge does not become a profession – far from it. The practice of yoga is neither a religious tradition nor a profession of the academy. It is a way of living, a condition of our being, to put it very, very precisely. The condition of our being is the knowledge that is really worthwhile, and any other knowledge is an external growth which can be washed away by a bath with soap; therefore, it will not help us. But that knowledge which has become a part of our being – the knowledge which we are living, the knowledge which is inseparable from what we ourselves are – is worthwhile, and that is to grow into greater width and depth in its profundity.

The initial misconception of human consciousness is that it is a single individual in a society of beings. This misconception has been taken as the right attitude to life, because the feeling that one is a single, isolated individual among many others has come on account of one's weddedness to the perceptions through the senses. Our senses are our masters, unfortunately, and they have led us into this quandary of insisting that we are individual units, and that we are not in a position to continue in this condition of an individual unit for a long time – it has to be exceeded and made good by other means, such as contact with other individuals by way of social relationship, activity, etc. If individuality had been real, there would have been no necessity to establish relationship with other people. The very fact that we feel a necessity of relationship with others shows that we are imperfect. If we are perfect individuals, why do we want contact or relationship with anybody else? The individuality of a person is a restless incompleteness, and this incompleteness is mistaken for completeness. The inherent inadequacy of this individuality expresses itself in an urge for contact with other conditions in life – persons, things, situations, etc. – so that the lack in one's own individual make-up is made good by acquisition of characters from the external world, characters which do not belong to one's own self and cannot be found in one's own self. The individual is a transitional process. That is why there is growth, change, decay, death, and birth.

There is a continuous movement of the structure of the individual, and this is called evolution. Bluntly put, it is the process of birth and death of the individual. Why does the individual die? Why should there be rebirth? The reason is simple: there is incompleteness in the very nature of the individual, in the very structure of personality, and evolution is nothing but an attempt of this individual to become more and more perfect by an increasing growth of its nature, by repeated experiences through several processes of birth and death, until it reaches a state of completeness where there would be no further need to establish relationship with externals. As long as there is a perception of what is outside, the necessity to connect oneself with that arises automatically, because there cannot be mere perception, an empty perception without any significance behind it. The significance is that one lacks something – that is the essence of the whole matter. Otherwise, the perception itself would not be there. This perception compels the individual to maintain a contact of a positive or a negative character with that external condition, person or thing. The positive contact is called love; the negative contact is called hatred. Sometimes it is a state of indifference also when there is an ambivalence between love and hatred.

This is the philosophical background of the very practice of yoga and, therefore, the need arises to view the practice of yoga in a very scientific manner, bereft of all prejudices of creed, caste, religion, colour, etc., and take it in a very impersonal, dispassionate manner so that it is a matter of life and death for every one of us. Thus in the practice of yoga it comes to this: the nature of the goal has to reflect itself in the means adopted and, therefore, to the extent we are able to comprehend the nature of the goal, to that extent our means also would be perfect and commensurate with the nature of the goal. What is the goal of yoga? What is the aim before us? What are we struggling to achieve in the end? That would be a sufficient indication of the nature of the means that we have to adopt. Is it rice that we want, or wheat, or cloth, or vegetables, or fruit? If we know what it is that we need, we can go to that particular shop. Likewise, we are first of all to be clear in our minds as to what it is that we are seeking through thinking, or speaking, or doing anything. What is our aim? What is our end? What is our purpose.

As I mentioned sometime back, the purpose may not be very clear always, because we are used to pinpointing an immediate purpose and forgetting the purpose that may be beyond it. If we were to ask a person who works very hard, with a purpose, from morning to evening, "What is the purpose of working?" – the common man's immediate answer would be, "I must work very hard to earn my livelihood." What does he mean by "earning my livelihood"? "To maintain my social group and eat my daily bread." But why does he want to do this? "So that I may live." Why does he want to live? He has no further answer; it ends with that. Why do we want to live? Nobody knows. "I want to live, that's all." Now, the purpose takes us one beyond the other, gradually, until we come to a point of halt, and that halt is due to the incapacity of the mind to conceive the main purpose of one's existence. But that is the inscrutable point which determines every one of our activities, and forces us to behave in a particular manner in our life.

All of our activities are motivated by a condition and a purpose which is impossible to understand by the very person who does those actions, so that we are like blind people driven by blind forces, as it were. The forces are not blind, though they look blind because we cannot understand them. But yoga requires action with open eyes – it is not blind action. It is not the blind leading the blind. It is necessary that our minds should be vigilant, and eyes kept open every time, at every step that we take. If a particular step is not clear, it is better that we do not take that step. Just as in the movement of an army, if we do not know what is in front of us, it is better we do not hazard going forward until we understand what is there. First of all we should be clear as to what is there in front of us, and then take the necessary step. When a particular stage comes when it is all dark, oblivious, and clarified understanding is impossible, it is better for us to halt and then try to investigate into what is ahead.

Here comes the need for a Guru. "I am in a dark condition and everything in front of me is black. I cannot see beyond the screen that is hanging in front." With that condition the disciple approaches the Guru, who will tell us what the darkness is about. The darkness may be due to various factors. Hundreds of factors can be the causes of this impossibility to proceed further. So, until we reach the last or the penultimate step in yoga, we require the guidance of a Guru. It is impossible to walk unaided, because we cannot see what is ahead of us. We always see only one step – we cannot see a hundred steps ahead of us. There is a sense of insecurity and uncertainty because of the impossibility of piercing through the future, and it is then that we need confidence and comfort from a competent master.

Now we come to the main disciplines in yoga. We have been trying to understand them in as impartial a way as possible, as applicable to every human being in whatever condition one might find oneself. The system of yoga is a method of establishing unity with the atmosphere around, harmony with all things with which one is apparently connected – even invisibly, remotely. Ultimately, yoga has been defined as a harmony, an equilibrium. Samatvaṁ yoga uchyate(B.G. II.48): Harmony is called yoga. This force or system of harmony operates everywhere in nature, outside as well as inside. And if we go deep into it, we will find it is this principle of harmony that works as gravitation in the external physical world, as chemical affinity among the elements of matter, as that which brings into unity the various thoughts of the mind and makes us feel that we are compact individuals. Otherwise, our thoughts will be dismembered, with one thought having no connection with another thought.

What is it that compels one thought to be related to another thought so that there is a system of ideas and a feeling of unity of one's personality? It works as a necessity for social collaboration and social brotherhood, harmony in external society. It works as the logical principle in the intellectual world so that we can deduce conclusions from premises. How can conclusions follow from premises unless there is a connection? The system of harmony present in the logical universe of discourse is also a manifestation of this ultimate principle of harmony, and it is this force which works as love and hatred. It is that principle of harmony that manifests itself as love and hatred in the world, without one's knowing how it actually works. We are simultaneously pulled and repelled by the very same force for different purposes, leading to the ultimate purpose of reconciling ourselves with all things around us. The pull of our individuality, with a vehemence that is unthinkable, towards things outside is due to the presence of this principle of harmony. Even the repelling forces – that force which cuts us off from certain things in the world through a dislike – even these forces are ultimately the negative operations of the same force of harmony. It adjusts and readjusts itself in various phases for the purpose of bringing about ultimate harmony.

This principle it is that is before us, not merely as an abstract legal formula like a law operating in another concrete world, but as the very system and order of things in which we also find ourselves, with which we are inseparably connected, so that in the practice of yoga we become at once friendly with all things and all conditions, in various degrees of comprehension. Maitri or friendliness becomes the principle of action in the practice of yoga of consciousness where, by the various modulations of adjustment and readjustment, by inclusion and exclusion at various stages, the intention behind it is to bring about a complete inclusion of all factors so that there would be no further necessity for the individual to feel a sense of incompleteness in itself, and it rests in a state of perfect harmony or kaivalya, as they call it – absolute freedom and independence achieved through a harmony which does not see a necessity for further evolution.

Therefore, in the very first and initial step, it is necessary to visualise the presence of the goal, just as in the psychology of education the purpose of education is kept in view even at the kindergarten stage. It may be the ABC of learning that the child has just started in the elementary or primary school, but the teachers are fully aware of what they are doing and why these things are being done at all. In the same way, even the most rudimentary discipline that is prescribed in yoga has a connection with the ultimate aim that is in the mind of the teacher.

One of the defects of individual life is an inherent feeling of exclusiveness, and this feeling of exclusiveness is called egoism in its various manifestations. We feel as if we are totally different from others, and this feeling, when it asserts itself with great force, becomes the principle of self-affirmation or egoism. Therefore, egoism is not a virtue. It is a defect of personality, which on account of its false feeling of exclusiveness, resents any kind of assistance from externals, though it cannot exist without such assistance from externals. So, the principle of egoism is a contradiction, and it brings sorrow to the person. It cannot exist without assistance from others, and yet it resents assistance from others because it asserts its own completeness. The knot of this exclusiveness has to be gradually untied by systematic inner discipline - such as intellectual, moral, social and spiritual educational processes.

To give a very prosaic, common and very broad outline of the stages of yoga – I am not referring to the stages of Patanjali's yoga which, of course, are a different thing altogether – it may be said that there are four stages. The most fundamental and the immediate stage would be the need for social collaboration and adjustment of personality with society. One cannot be an enemy of society and then live in it. The method, the degree or the nature of this adjustment of oneself to society is an art by itself. This is a very important thing to remember, even by those who think that their aim is God-realisation and that they have nothing to do with temporal events. It is not true that we have nothing to do with temporal events, because the temporal is the face of the eternal – and not simply cut off from it. There is some connection even between our dream life and waking life, though they are poles apart in their character.

Therefore even yogis and teachers of yoga, like Patanjali, insist upon this necessity to bring about the needed harmony of relationship in one's social existence so that there is no insecurity and unhappiness caused by social factors. Each factor has to be very carefully and intelligently manoeuvred by us, independently if possible, otherwise with the guidance of a master. The second stage is individual self-discipline, which is still a higher stage. After social adjustment comes individual discipline, which is a very clear and palpable step that we have taken in the direction of spiritual achievement. This personal or individual self-discipline is, of course, a very difficult thing to conceive of and practise. It has many sides and many aspects to consider, and it takes many years to achieve certain concrete and tangible results. The intention of this is to reach the third stage, which is very advanced. Most people cannot even conceive of what it is – namely, a consciousness of universal interrelatedness. That is the third stage we reach in yoga. The last one is, of course, absolute oneness. That is where we are driving at, finally.

So from external diversity, we gradually rise to greater and greater harmonious wholes of achievement by disciplines which look individual in the beginning, but they assume greater and greater universal character as we proceed further. Thus we have a very symmetrical and systematic science before us which touches every little act and function of our life, so that in the practice of yoga we have no such thing as something unimportant or an unconnected event or affair. Every little thing seems to be connected with our goal, and the smallest thing will demand recognition – a fact which will come to our notice as we go further.