The Philosophy and Psychology of Yoga Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 9: Preparing for Yoga Practice

Since yoga is a practical science and not merely an idealistic philosophy, it very carefully considers the realism of human involvement in every bit of experience, even the lowest and most insignificant, because there is no such thing as insignificant experience, finally. Everything has some role to play in our life, insofar as it becomes a part of our experience, a content of our consciousness. Thus an excessive idealistic exuberance, minus the realism of personal involvement, may not bring the desired result in practice. Religions sometimes go to excesses, as materialism can go to its own excesses, and any excess is not going to touch even the border of the fact of life. As it is wisely said, “Truth is in the middle.” It is neither that extreme, nor this extreme. Neither is it true that the world is all and there is nothing else, nor is it true that there is nothing in this world, because the realistic approach is nothing but the consideration of the value that one attaches to any kind of experience. Whether a thing is real or not is not important. What is important is the value that we attach to any particular thing, event or experience; and anything that is valuable to us, is real to us. This is important for us to remember. Even a phantom may be real if it affects us seriously, and it has to be dealt with accordingly.

The science of the practice of yoga, based on a very vigilant consideration of all the levels of involvement of consciousness, goes slowly, stage by stage. In our studies, which were first philosophical, we noticed that it became necessary for us to also consider the cosmological stages of what we call evolution, inasmuch as the ascent of consciousness in yoga seems to be unavoidable except through these stages. Then it became necessary for us to know our own selves as psychological specimens of these cosmological arrangements because individuals that we are, or anything is, cannot be basically set apart from the total experience. We are human beings; and though it is true that the world does not consist merely of human beings and there are other things also, we are mostly concerned with human beings only because it is not essential for us to revert to the levels which we have already traversed – the animal stage, the vegetable stage, etc. Our occupation being practical – down-to-earth practical, and not merely a theorising of academic themes – it is enough if we consider the stages above us and not what we have already crossed over in the process of rising from the lesser levels.

We are now at the human stage. What do we mean by the human stage? What is the kind of life that we human beings live in this world? What are our problems and difficulties, and the causes thereof? These may be the initial stages on which we may base our yoga practice. As we have noted already, we should not take the next step unless we are clear about the first step. What is the condition in which we are living just now? We are not in our consciousness, involved in that universal cosmological arrangement.–This is not visible to our eyes, not even intelligible to our minds. What we see with our eyes is also what we think with our minds, mostly; and our involvements, which are basically psychological, are sensorily conditioned because our mind thinks as the senses react, and the intellect merely confirms what the mind apprehends in terms of the senses.

We are living in human society, though each one of us has his own or her own independent status as an individual. I am what I am and you are what you are,– and there is, therefore, an individuality and a personality and a special status which each one enjoys. Yet, we are mixed up and involved, very, very necessarily perhaps, with outer relations. Our life is constituted through and through, it appears, of external relations only, and none of us is living a totally independent, individual life. This is something which we easily miss in our attention to the processes of our life, because many of our involvements are not visible to the eye. We are involved in them to such an extent that they become part of our nature.

Political theorists and sociologists usually think that the human being is a social animal. This is something very interesting; we are defined as social animals. However, whether we are animals or not, that is a different matter; that we are social, seems to be a great truth about us. The necessity to live a social life arises on account of a defect in our individual existence. We are not capable of literally living an independent life because literal independence would mean the segregation of oneself totally from every kind of connection with everyone and everything in the world, which will lead to the death of the individual. We lead a socially coordinated and cooperative life, in the sense of give and take. In some sense, an element of commercialism seems to be present in this arrangement of social coordination. I give you what I have that you do not have, and I take from you what you have that I need and do not have. This is a kind of barter system of the psychological nature, which has become an axiom and a maxim, all which is taken for granted by us, and we are really not ourselves literally. We are something other than what we are in the sense that we partake of the relative life of external coordination with individuals other than our own selves.

Yoga takes into consideration this fact also because we often complain about the present state of the world, saying that the world is wretched, but we do not mean that we ourselves are wretched. We always mean that others are wretched. The world is bad, which means to say that all others are bad, except us. This is how we can understand these statements. Why should we make such statements, and why should we feel the necessity of even thinking in this manner, if not for the fact that we are social, socially coordinated, socially involved, and cannot exist except as a social unit?

Hence, yoga takes its stand on the basic requirement of human nature, which is a day-to-day affair that is pre-eminently a social existence. Whatever be our individual philosophy, learning or inward idealism, we live a social life practically. All our dealings and thinking appear to be social in their nature. This is perhaps the reason why it is sometimes over-emphasised in certain circles of thinking, and socialistic philosophy seems to think that it can gain an upper hand and create a philosophy of its own and go to the extent of declaring that the very life of the individual is only a product of social arrangements. This is, in a moderate form, socialism; in an extreme form, it becomes communism. This is an overemphasis laid on a weakness of human nature: taking advantage of our weakness and then exploiting us, making us feel that we cannot exist without social relations and economic considerations. Though it is a fact that, under given circumstances, we are socially and also economically conditioned, we are not only that.

It is an apparent fact that we are politically, socially, economically conditioned; but it is not the ultimate fact. The ultimate fact is that we are independent; we do not want to be conditioned by anybody else. There is no desire in us to be slaves, and yet we are slaves economically, socially, politically because, coming back to the essential studies we made earlier, we live in two worlds, as it were, the empirical and the transcendent, at the same time. The transcendent aspect of us, which is the Reality in us, affirms total independence and that we would not like to be servants of anybody; but the empirical side says we cannot be but servants. We–cannot exist independently, as empiricality is nothing but dependence on external conditions. This is why we say the world is relative, it is not absolute.

We live in a relative world, which means to say, everything – every event, every person, every circumstance, every condition – is related, conditioned by everything else. Everything hangs on everything else. Such is this world, and also such is the need we feel in our life, insofar as some important part of our personality, individuality, is purely empirical, physical, vital, mental, emotional, social, and everything of that nature. The transcendent side is buried; it is never visible. Though it is not visible, it is powerful in its voice, and the power of its voice is what keeps us restless, day and night, in spite of our wealth, property, association, power, authority, and so on. All greatness, glory and magnificence bestowed upon us empirically does not satisfy the transcendent in us. At the same time, we are pulled by the devil of empiricality, and we feel that we cannot exist without breathing external air, drinking external water and hanging on external officials of an administrative authority. So, these being the aspects of the realism of human empiricality, they also have to be dealt with.

Though the illness is false, medicine may have to be administered to cure it. Real medicine may not be necessary to cure a false illness, but some sort of medicine is essential. “As is the deity, so is the worship,” says an old adage. In this regard our deity is our weakness, our foibles and our needs in our present condition. This is the god that we have to worship, and the offering has to be of a similar nature. A transcendent offering cannot be accepted by a relative god, nor can a relative offering be accepted by a transcendent god. As we are worshipping relative divinities, relative offerings have to be made. This is the realistic and practical approach of yoga. It understands us thoroughly in our present condition, whatever be that condition.

We are grief-stricken in many ways; unhappy individuals we are, and we go to yoga merely because we are unhappy. If everything is fine with us, why think of God and yoga? There is something that agonises us, something is dead wrong somewhere, and nobody is satisfying, nothing is pleasing. There is dread of death, illness and anxiety of various types. These make us turn to yoga, turn to religion, turn to spirituality and to God-experience. Why are we unhappy? What is our grief? Who has caused the sorrow in our minds?

Nobody feels that they are the cause of their own sorrows; everybody feels that somebody else, something else, is the cause. This somebody, this something, this event, this circumstance outside which is apparently the cause of our difficulties, is the outcome of our relationship with it. So, the first requirement in yoga practice is setting right our relationship with things, and not immediately jumping to the skies. We have been told again and again that we have to be very kind, we have to be compassionate, we have to be serviceful, we have to be good, and we must do good to people. The idea behind these ethical and moral instructions is that we should not create conditions in ourselves which will set up adverse reactions from outside. This is a difficult thing for us to practice because there is in us a thing called egoism, which affirms itself and which will not yield to the egos of others. There is, therefore, a clash. The ego is a mischievous imp working within us which always says that it is right, and it will not accept that anybody else can be right. If this attitude continues, any kind of social coordination is not possible. We become dictators, and if every one is such a person, perpetual war will take place, and the law of the jungle will operate.

Yoga does not envisage such a daily conflict among egos of people, since the ascent of consciousness in the direction of higher reaches can be possible only by a sublimation of these causes of conflict. The word 'sublimation' is very important. It is not a withdrawal or a running away from conditions, creating sorrows, conflicts, etc., because we cannot run away from the devil. It will catch us one day or the other. We have to master it, make it yield to us and, in a way, absorb it into our own self, making it a friend of our own self, and so on.

Often, we do not sublimate the psychological and social causes of our sorrows. We keep the causes of conflict repressed in our personality, and this repression causes complexes in our nature. We become abnormal in our behaviour, irritated at once, and intolerable of even the smallest event that takes place outside. This irritability, intolerance and incapacity to accept the validity of anyone’s opinion in the world is a reaction set up by the repressive attitude of our own ego, which is unable to manifest itself due to the strength of the reality of society outside. This is again unfortunate. This is the theme of psychoanalysis.

Thus, a repressive attitude is not the way of yoga. Yoga does not ask us to run away from realities. As I mentioned, a reality is that in which we are involved and which we consider as real. Something may be real to one person but not real to another. A mother clings to her dead baby, and we may wonder why she is clinging to a corpse. But for her there is a value and a reality in it, and our arguments have no meaning to her. Monkey mothers sometimes carry their dead babies for days. They know it is dead, but the infatuation is such that take it with them wherever they go. There is a reality in it; we cannot laugh at it. Therefore, our reality is what is real to our emotions, our understanding and our present involvements.

This is why we have to analyse ourselves at the outset in the practice of yoga. We are gradually moving towards the practical side of the yoga system. It is very, very important to be honest to our own selves, and then it is possible to be honest to others also. There is no self-deception before nature. Nature is an open book; everything about us is written there, publicly, and anyone can read it. No one is a private individual here; everyone is a part of the natural whole and, therefore, any hiding from the facts of nature will not work.

We have peculiar difficulties which are sometimes known to us, and sometimes cannot be easily known – public problems and private difficulties. We have publicly known problems which are advertised by our personal expressions to people in our correspondence and even in newspapers, but there are peculiar, private sorrows which always cannot be made public. Both these have to be considered in the reality. There are certain difficulties which we can rationally understand and investigate into, and we can deal with them by ourselves, but there are certain difficulties which we cannot deal with by ourselves. Rational, scientific types of problems can perhaps be tackled by our own selves, but where sentiments and emotions are involved, we cannot be our own physician. Here we require a very strong guide; this is unavoidable.

The realism of yoga practice goes so deep into the problems of human nature that it asks us in the beginning to adopt gross means of solution rather than subtle appliances of an invisible and intangible nature. For instance, many people imagine that mental detachment is all–that matters and one can physically be anywhere. This is true to some extent, but it is not the whole truth because, again, we come to the realism of our psychological makeup. It is not true that we are merely minds and so we can merely think something and be happy. We are also bodies, though we are not only bodies. Not only that, we are not just a mix-up of bodies and minds; we are also another type of involvement, which is social relations. Thus, the grossness of our involvements becomes as much a reality to us as the subtlety of our nature inwardly, and so yoga's ethical mandates tells us that a seeker who is honest to himself or herself should be physically away from circumstances which are detrimental to practice. But this does not mean it is a solution.

Physical isolation from adverse circumstances is not a solution to problems; it amounts to a kind of repression or running away. A physician may ask you to observe a fast before medical treatment is administered. Though fasting is not the cure, it is a necessary stage. Sometimes the patient is quarantined when the disease is infectious or of a dangerous nature. Though quarantining is not the cure, it is not the final treatment, it is necessary under given circumstances. In yoga, quarantining is called living in an ashrama, in a convent, in a church, in a temple, in the Himalayas, in a holy place, and so on. Though it is accepted that this is not the solution to the problem, it is necessary because we have to take the first step in a realistic manner. We should not be in the midst of tempting atmospheres or distracting environments which will pull us this way or that way, positively or negatively.–Therefore, a holy environment, sequestration, isolation and living in a conducive atmosphere are prescribed, so that we may have sufficient leisure to prepare ourselves for the coordination and the cooperation or harmony that is expected of us in regard to human relations.

Why does a scientist work in a laboratory, closing his doors, not seeing anybody, concentrating his mind? Why does he not work in the street? We know the reason very well. Though scientific observations can be done in the open street, circumstances are not favourable, and so he closes himself in the quarantine of a laboratory and then conducts his experiments. Similarly, these holy places are places where we conduct experiments in the laboratory of our life, for creating circumstances under which we can know the facts of life and then prepare ourselves for the next step, namely, harmony. At the initial stage and at every stage of yoga is a procedure we adopt in establishing harmony within ourselves and the atmosphere. Yoga is nothing but harmonisation of relations, until we establish the final harmony with the Supreme Being Himself.