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


Chapter 52: Yoga Practice – A Series of Positive Steps

The great adventure of yoga is not easy for those whose minds are distracted with various occupations. The difficulty with the human mind is that it cannot be wholly interested in anything. While on the one hand there is a pressure of the mind towards taking interest in things, there is, simultaneously, a peculiar cussedness of the mind on account of which it cannot take interest in anything for all times. It has a peculiar twofold rajas, or inability to rest in itself, working behind it, inside it and outside it – from all sides – as a disturbing factor. There is no harm in taking interest in anything; but the interest should be only in one thing, not in many things.

Anything in this world can be taken as a medium for the liberation of the soul. An object of sense can cause bondage; it also can cause liberation under certain conditions. When an object becomes merely one among the many – just one individual in a group – and the interest in the object may shift to another object after a period of time, then that object becomes a source of bondage, because it is not true that any single individual object can manifest the wholeness of truth in itself.

Such an apprehension that any peculiar individual feature can reveal the whole of truth is regarded as the lowest type of understanding. Yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahaitukam, atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (B.G. XVIII.22), says the Bhagavadgita. The lowest type of knowledge is where a person clings to an object as if it is everything and there is nothing outside it – it is all reality. But, this feeling that a peculiar object is all reality is not sincere. It is an insincere feeling which can subject itself to modifications under other circumstances.

“My child, thou art everything,” says a mother to her only child. But she has a false affection because she does not really believe that it is everything, though there is an expression of that kind when emotions prevail. If that child is everything, she cannot have interest in anything else in this world. But, is it true? She has hundreds of interests other than her baby, though she falsely makes an exclamation that it is everything – her soul, her heart, her alter ego, and what not.

Likewise, under limited conditions we temporarily exclaim our feelings of brotherliness and friendliness with things of the world, but these feelings are projected by conditions. When the conditions are lifted, the feelings also get lifted. Such a state of mind is unfit for yoga. But when the very same object that has been wrongly regarded as a thing of attachment becomes an object of possession exclusively, it can also liberate the soul. One of the principles of yoga is that any object in this world has two characteristics: enjoyment and bondage on one side, and experience and liberation on the other side.

This philosophy of the twofold character of an object is vastly emphasised in the Tantra Shastra, where nothing in this world is to be regarded as evil, unnecessary, useless or meaningless – everything has a meaning of its own. And, the seed of this philosophy is recognised in a sutra of Patanjali himself: bhogāpavargārtham dṛśyam (II.18). The drisya, or the object, is for two purposes: for our enjoyment and bondage, and, under different conditions, also for our freedom.

Thus, a thing in this world is neither good nor bad. We cannot make any remark about any object in this world wholly, unlimitedly or unconditionally; all remarks about things are conditional. Things are useful, helpful and contributory to the freedom of the soul under a given set of circumstances, but they are the opposite under a different set of circumstances. Not knowing this fact, the mind flitters from one thing to another thing. This is the character of what is known as rajas – the principle of diversity and distraction. The remedy for this illness of distraction of the mind is austerity, or self-restraint. The great goal of yoga that has been described all this time will remain merely a will-o’-the-wisp and will not be accessible to the mind if the condition necessary for the entry of consciousness into the supreme goal of yoga – namely, freedom from distraction – is not fulfilled.

While desire is a bondage when it is caught up in diversity, it is also a means to liberation when it is concentrated. The concentrated desire is exclusively focused on a chosen ideal; and the freedom of the mind from engagement in any other object than the one that is chosen is the principle of austerity. We limit ourselves to those types of conduct, modes of behaviour and ways of living which are necessary for the fulfilment of our concentration on the single object that has been chosen for the purpose of meditation. We have to carefully sift the various necessities and the needs of our personality in respect of its engagement, or concentration, on this chosen ideal.

This is the psychological background of the practice of self-control. Self-control does not mean mortification of the flesh or harassment of the body. It is the limitation of one’s engagements in life to those values and conditions which are necessary for the fulfilment of the chosen ideal and the exclusion of any other factor which is redundant. It is a very difficult thing for the mind to understand, because sometimes we mix up needs with luxuries, and vice versa, and what is merely a means to the pampering of the senses, the body and the mind may look like a necessity or a need. Also, there is a possibility of overstepping the limits of self-restraint which, when indulged in, may completely upset the very intention behind the practice. Diseases may crop up, distractions may get more intensified, and the practice of concentration may become impossible.

While indulgence in the objects of sense is bad, overemphasis on excessive austerity beyond its limit also is bad. Moderation is to be properly understood. It is difficult to know what moderation is, because we have never been accustomed to it. We have always excesses in our behaviours in life. There is always an emphasis shifted to a particular point of view, and then that becomes an exclusive occupation of the mind. The difficulties and the problems encountered by great masters like Buddha, for example, in their austerities, are instances on hand.

Enthusiasts in yoga are mostly under the impression that to take to yoga is to mortify – but it is not. The subjection of the personality to undue pain is not the intention of yoga. The intention is quite different altogether. It is a healthy growth of the personality that is intended, and the obviating of those unnecessary factors which intrude in this process of healthy growth of the personality – just as eating is necessary, but overeating is bad, and not eating at all is also bad. We have to understand what it is to eat without overeating or going to the other extreme of not eating at all.

The famous exhortation on moderation in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavadgita is to the point. Yuktāhāra-vihārasya yukta-ceṣṭasya karmasu, yukta-svapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā (B.G. VI.17): The pain-destroying yoga comes to that person who is moderate in every manner. Nātyaśnatas tu yogo’sti (B.G. VI.16): Yoga does not come to one who eats too much, enjoys too much, or indulges in the senses too much. Na caikāntam anaśnataḥ (B.G. VI.16):One who is excessively austere also is far from yoga. Na cāti svapnaśīlasya jāgrato naiva cārjuna (B.G. VI.16): One who is excessively torpid and lethargic and given to overindulgence in sleeping is far from yoga, but one who remains excessively awake – to the torture of the body and the mind – is also far from yoga.

Therefore, the wisdom of the practice consists in a correct understanding of the necessities under the given circumstances. These necessities go on changing from time to time and are not a set standard. We cannot say that today’s necessity may also be tomorrow’s necessity. Just now, when it is hot and sultry, I may require a glass of cold water, but it does not mean that I should go on drinking cold water always, because the climatic conditions may not require it.

So also, the particular placement of the human personality under a given set of circumstances, external as well as internal, may be taken as the determining factor of what moderation is. We have to judge every condition independently, from its own point of view, without reference to other points of view of the past or the future. This is very difficult indeed, and this is precisely the point where people miss the aim. Every case is an independent, genuine case, and it cannot be compared with other cases. We should not make a list of our necessities for all times throughout our life, because time, place and circumstance will tell us what a particular necessity is. At what time this condition is felt, in what place, under what circumstances, in what atmosphere, and so on, are to be taken into consideration.

It is mentioned in the Yoga Shastrasthat the essence of yoga is self-restraint, no doubt, but this is precisely the difficulty in understanding what yoga is, because we cannot know what self-restraint is unless we know what the self is which we are going to restrain. Which is the self that we are going to restrain? Whose self? Our self? On the one side, we say the goal of life is Self-realisation – the realisation, the experience, the attunement of one’s self with the Self. On the other side, we say we must restrain it, control it, subjugate it, overcome it, etc. There are degrees of self, and the significance behind the mandate on self-control is with reference to the degrees that are perceivable or experienceable in selfhood. The whole universe is nothing but Self – there is nothing else in it. Even the so-called objects are a part of the Self in some form or the other. They may be a false self or a real self – that is a different matter, but they are a self nevertheless.

In the Vedanta Shastras and yoga scriptures we are told that there are at least three types of self: the external, the personal and the Absolute. We are not concerned here with the Absolute Self. This is not the Self that we are going to restrain. It is, on the other hand, the Self that we are going to realise. That is the goal – the Absolute Self which is unrelated to any other factor or condition, which stands on its own right and which is called the Infinite, the Eternal, and so on. But the self that is to be restrained is that peculiar feature in consciousness which will not fulfil the conditions of absoluteness at any time. It is always relative. It is the relative self that is to be subjected to restraint for the sake of the realisation of the Absolute Self. The aim of life is the Absolute, and not the relative. The experience of the relative, the attachment of the mind in respect of the relative, and the exclusive emphasis on the importance of relativity in things is the obstructing factor in one’s enterprise towards the realisation of the Absolute Self.

The external self is that atmosphere that we create around us which we regard as part of our life and to which we get attached in some manner or the other. This is also a self. A family is a self, for example, to mention a small instance. The head of the family regards the family as his own self, though it is not true that the family is his self. He has got an attachment to the members of the family. The attachment is a movement of his own consciousness in respect of those objects around him known as the members of the family. This permeating of his consciousness around that atmosphere known as the family creates a false, externalised self in his experience. This social self, we may call it, is the external self, inasmuch as this externalised, social self is not the real Self. Because it is conditioned by certain factors which are subject to change, it has to be restrained. That is one of the necessities of self-restraint.

Attachment, or affection, is a peculiar double attitude of consciousness. It is simultaneously working like a double-edged sword when it is attached to any particular object. It has a feeling that the things which it loves, or to which it is attached, are not really a part of its being – because if a thing is a part of our own being, the question of desiring it will not arise. There is no need to love something which is a part of our being, so we have a subtle feeling that it is not a part of us. The members of the family do not belong to us, really speaking. We know it very well. Therefore, we create an artificial identification of their being with our being by means of a psychological movement or a function known as affection, love or attachment. We create a world of our own which may be called a fool’s paradise.

This is the paradise in which the head of the family lives. “Oh, how beautiful it is. I have got a large family.” He does not know what it actually means. Also, it is very dangerous to know what it is because if we know what it really is, we will be horrified immediately, to the shock of our nerves. But an artificial circumstance is always created by us for the sake of a temporary satisfaction, and all our satisfactions are temporary and artificial. They are artificial because they are created out of a circumstance which is subject to change at any moment, and because the relationship that is established is not true. It is a false relationship which cannot really exist.

This externalised self is a peculiar self, known in Vedanta and Yogaas gaunatman – an atman which is gauna, which is not primary, but secondary. The son is a gaunatman for the father; the daughter is a gaunatman, etc. Anything that is outside us which we like, love and get attached to, which we cannot live without, with which we identify ourselves, whose welfare or woe becomes the welfare and woe of one’s own self – that is the gaunatman or the externalised self. It has to be subjugated, which is a part of our austerity. How do we subjugate this self? We do so by understanding the structure – the pattern – of the creation of this self, because the definition of Selfhood does not really apply to this peculiar condition called the externalised form of selfhood.

The Self, or the atman as we call it, is a principle of identity, indivisibility and non-externality or objectivity. It is that state of consciousness or awareness which is incapable of becoming other than what it is, and incapable of being lost under any circumstance. It cannot be loved and it cannot be hated, because it is what we are. This is what is called the Self. There is no such thing as loving the Self or hating the Self. No one loves one’s Self or hates one’s Self, because love and hatred are psychological functions, and every psychological function is a movement of the mind in space and time. Such a thing is impossible in respect of the Self, which is Self-identity. Thus the definition of the Self as Self-identity will not apply to this false self which is the circumstantial self, the family self, the nation self, the world self, etc., as we are accustomed to.

Also, there is another self which is known as the mithyatman – the false self which is the body. The body is not the Self. Everyone knows it very well, for various reasons, because the character of Self-identity – indestructibility, indivisibility, etc. – does not apply to the body. And yet, these characters are superimposed upon the body and we shift or transfer the qualities of the perishable body to what we really are in our consciousness, and vice versa. On the other hand, conversely, we transfer the indivisible character of consciousness to the body and regard the body itself as indivisible Selfhood.

The third step of self is the Absolute, as I mentioned, which is the goal of the practice of yoga and the goal of life itself. Self-restraint is, therefore, the limitation of the false self to the minimum of self-affirmation. Here, again, one has to exercise caution. We should not mortify this self too much. We cannot whip it beyond the prescribed limit; otherwise, it will revolt. Though it is true that false relationships have to be overcome by wisdom, philosophical analysis, etc., this achievement cannot be successful at one stroke, because even a false relationship appears to be a real relationship when it has got identified with consciousness. That is why there is so much intensity and so much attachment – so much significance is seen in that relationship. There is nothing unreal in this world as long as it has become part of our experience. It becomes unreal only when we are in a different state of experience and we compare the earlier state with it and then make a judgement about it.

Inasmuch as our external relationships – which constitute the outward form of the relative self – have become part and parcel of our experience, they are inseparable from our consciousness. It requires a careful peeling out of these layers of self by very intelligent means. The lowest attachment, or the least of attachments, should be tackled first. The intense attachments should not be tackled in the beginning. We have many types of attachment – there may be fifty, sixty, a hundred – but all of them are not of the same intensity. There are certain vital spots in us which cannot be touched. They are very vehement, and it is better not to touch them in the beginning. But there are some milder aspects which can be tackled first, and the gradation of these attachments should be understood properly. How many attachments are there, and how many affections? What are the loves that are harassing the mind and causing agony? Make a list of them privately in your own diary, if you like. They say Swami Rama Tirtha used to do that. He would make a list of all the desires and find out how many of them had been fulfilled: “What is the condition? Where am I standing?” – and so on. This is a kind of spiritual diary that you can create for yourself: “How many loves are there which are troubling me? How many things do I like in this world?”

The percentage of attachment that you have towards these things also has to be properly understood. What is the percentage of love for ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, etc.? In a gradational order, tabulate the objects of sense or the conceptual objects, whatever they be, and note the degree of attachment involved in every particular case. Take the least one, the simplest, as the first. If you have a desire to sleep on a Dunlop cushion – well, you may think over this matter. “Is a Dunlop cushion very necessary? I can have a cotton mattress instead.” This is not a very serious attachment, though it is an attachment. There are well-to-do aristocrats who may like to sleep on Dunlop beds, Dunlop pillows, have air-conditioning, and so on. These are desires, but they are not so vehement. There are other desires which cannot be touched immediately, and they have to be tackled later on.

By a very dispassionate and unattached attitude, one can diminish one’s relationships with things which are really not essential for one’s comfortable existence. Let us assume that a comfortable existence is a necessity; even that comfortable life can be led without these luxuries. How many wristwatches have you got? How many coats? How many rooms are you occupying? How much land have you? How many acres? – and so on.

These are various silly things which come in the way of our yoga practice because the extent of trouble that they can create will come to our notice only when we actually touch them, or interfere with them, or try to avoid them. As long as we are friendly with things, they also look friendly, but when we try to avoid them, we will see their reactions are of a different type altogether. It is very necessary to use tact even in avoiding the unnecessary things; otherwise, there can be a resentment on the part of those things. This is the philosophy of moderation – the via media and the golden mean of philosophy and yoga – where the self that is redundant, external and related has to be made subservient to the ultimate goal which is the Absolute Self.

The social self is easier to control than the personal self, known as the bodily self. We cannot easily control our body, because that has a greater intimacy with our pure state or consciousness than the intimacy that is exhibited by external relations like family members, etc. We may for a few days forget the existence of the members of the family, but we cannot forget for a few days that we have a body; that is a greater difficulty. So, the withdrawal of consciousness from attachment has to be done by degrees, as I mentioned, and the problems have to be gradually thinned out by the coming back of consciousness from its external relationships, stage by stage, taking every step with fixity so that it may not be retraced, and missing not a single link in this chain of steps taken. We should not take jumps in this practice of self-restraint, because every little item is an important item and one single link that we missed may create trouble one day. There may be small desires which do not look very big or troublesome, but they can become troublesome if they are completely ignored, because there is nothing in this world which can be regarded as wholly unimportant. Everything has some importance or the other; and if the time comes, it can help us, or it can trouble us.

Everything has to be taken into consideration so far as we are related to it, and a proper attitude of detachment has to be practised by various means, external as well as internal. This is the principle of austerity which, to re-emphasise, does not mean either too much indulgence or going to the other extreme of completely cutting off all indulgence. It is the allowing in of as much relationship with things, both in quantity and quality, as would be necessary under the conditions of one’s own personality in that particular stage of evolution, with the purpose of helping oneself in the onward growth to a healthier condition of spiritual aspiration.

Again, it may be pointed out that every stage in self-restraint or practice of yoga is a positive step, so that there should not be pain felt in the practice. When we feel undue pain, suffocation or agony – well, that would be an indication that we have made a slight mistake in the judgement of values. We should not feel restless or troubled in our practice. That would be the consequence of a little excess to which we might have gone, not knowing what actually has been done. So when we feel that one side of the matter is causing us some trouble, we should pay a little special attention to it and see that it is ameliorated to the extent necessary. We have to bear in mind that the goal of yoga is the consummation of a series of practices that we undertake, every step therein being a positive step without any negativity in it. Really speaking, every step in yoga should be a step of happiness, joy and delight.