The Philosophy and Psychology of Yoga Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 16: Yoga – the Effort of Consciousness to Regain its Status

What is the field that we have covered these days? Allow your mind to range over the entire area of your studies and contemplations. At the outset, the world presents itself before us as the only concern of our life, impinging on our consciousness with such strength and vehemence that most people have gone to the extent of feeling that the world is the only reality because nothing else is felt. No other sensation is available to us except this vast projection before our eyes called the world of objects, of persons and things, and our occupations. The impact upon our minds of this so-called thing before us called the world is so strong that for all practical purposes we as human beings do not seem to be independent, but are totally dependent on conditions provided to us by the circumstances prevailing outside, call them physical or social. Man's independence becomes a chimera if his experiences and the ways of his living are prescribed to him by the conditions prevailing outside, and if the world is to be his dictator, the regulator of his laws and the determining factor of even the thinking process itself.

It has often been felt that even our thoughts are conditioned by the world outside. Materialism and schools of thought which are akin to this way of contemplation of reality have been forced to feel that, inasmuch as even our thoughts do not seem to stand independently and are compelled to think in particular manners prescribed by the conditions of the world outside, man is a puppet in the hands of the forces of nature. The power of matter seems to be prior to even the action of the mind, so that we seem to be thinking and seeing what is already there even before we start thinking and seeing. This is something taken for granted by every person. Our hungers and thirsts, our emotional and intellectual turmoil, and our social and political anxieties confirm, as it were, our dependence on this doctrine which today goes by the name of materialism which, philosophically described, is only a way of feeling that life is impossible without dependence on external factors. And who is not forced to think in this way? If the breath that we breathe is from the air outside, if the water that we drink is from outside, if the food that we eat also comes from outside, and the frightening laws of the organisations of humanity are external to the thoughts of man, materialism seems to be the only philosophy that can be accepted.

But man is in a state of turmoil because he resents dependence on anything outside. The struggle of the human mind is to avert any imposition from outside. Though it is felt at the same time that it is impossible to get over this imposition, which seems to be stronger and more capable in its action than all the thoughts of people put together, there is a dubious atmosphere psychologically created in the mind of man where, on the one side, he feels that it is impossible to live a life of total dependence, slavery – utter hanging on things which are not one’s own self – as, such a life is worse than wretched; but on the other hand, there is the feeling that the world is too much for him. No one can conquer the world. The world has conquered man; it has destroyed all people that were born here. No one has lived forever, and even the strongest men have gone to dust. This also creates a suspicion that perhaps the world is indomitable.

Here is a great condition put by the mind of man: it is impossible to live like this. Whether or not the world is stronger, we cannot go on living in this manner. The prison walls may be stronger than the captive inside, but he cannot live in this way for a long time. He knows that he cannot do anything to the prison – it is built very strongly and is very powerfully guarded – yet no one can be happy merely with a conviction that the walls of the prison are strong. There is a desire, and a desire also seems to indicate a possibility of a fulfilment of a desire, that the walls of the prison can be broken through and freedom is possible. If freedom is not possible, why should there be this longing to be free? Are we asking for a will o' the wisp? Are we crying in the wilderness? Is our longing merely a weeping in the forest, where nobody is going to listen to us?

There is something in man which seems to be more than man. Here begins the operation of what we call philosophy, the investigation into the possibilities of attaining freedom. Freedom is a must, and it cannot be avoided. It has to be achieved one day or the other, by one means or another. This is our longing, and we want nothing else – freedom, and the impossibility to be constrained by another. A dog may be lying in the shade of a tree for hours and hours on its own, but if it is chained, it will start whining after a few minutes. It was lying there for hours, but if we tie it, it would like to move because of the bondage. “You have tied me? Don’t! I can lie down freely if I want to, but you cannot force me to lie down.” Even an insect feels this. All living creatures appears to present a picture of the impossibility of living without a promise of final freedom.

This is a point on which all philosophical investigations are founded. The longing of man is the ultimate answer to the question of life, and no one can say anything more than that. The deepest impulses within us seem to be uniformly present in the whole world. There does not seem to be any corner of the Earth where the cry for freedom is not felt. Thus, investigations in the field of philosophy take their stand on the possibility of achieving freedom. And what is freedom?

From the few words of introduction I mentioned just now, you would have noticed that freedom is the conviction in the deepest consciousness of oneself that life need not mean dependence on external factors. We have studied these external factors in some detail, and I am only trying to bring about a recapitulation of the area that we have covered. Space, time and causal relations are the principle restraining factors which limit the operation of consciousness to only certain areas and certain methods of action. We cannot think as we like; such a freedom is not given to us by space, time and causality – the conditioning factors of all things in the world. We may believe that we are thinking independently, but nothing of the kind is the truth because even the independence of our so-called thinking is within the area permitted by the action of space, time and causality. Our freedom is something like the freedom of a cow that is tied to a peg by a long rope. The cow may feel a sense of freedom to move to the extent that is permitted by the length of the rope, but beyond that it is constrained. We seem to have a little bit of freedom, which is sanctioned to us by the conditions of our own individuality and personality, but that freedom is finally restrained and it cannot go beyond that prescription of space and time. We can think within a locality, within a process of time, and within a type of relationship, and not more than that.

But, are we only this much? This is not only a question of philosophy, but also a moral problem before the human being. It is an ethical question, it is the principle query, it is the significance of life, it is that which brings meaning to us – else, life loses sense. Are we limited in this manner? The investigations of philosophy are different from the studies in science in light of the fact that science studies only observable factors, objects which can be experimented upon, and cannot go beyond the realm of sense perception. It takes for granted what the eyes see, what the ears hear, what the other senses reveal, and the mind of the scientist acts merely as a synthesizer of the reports of the senses. New qualitative knowledge is not provided by the mind. What we think independently, and what we understand through our reason, is also simply a synthesized cumulative conclusion drawn from what material is available through sense perception. But philosophy differs from science. It does not study merely what is given on the surface; it reads between the lines, as they say. It is like a judge in a court. He examines all evidence, but his judgement is not based merely on what is said by the witnesses and other evidence presented. The quintessence – the implication, the hidden import secretly lying behind the outer evidence provided by the senses – is sucked out of this evidence .

Thus, philosophy goes deeper than our sense perception. In this attempt to delve into the depths of the problems of human knowledge, philosophy comes to the conclusion that everything is decided finally by the means of knowledge. That seems to be the equipment by which any judgement is passed. That we are limited, that we are not to be limited, that we ask for freedom but that we are bound, and many other things with which the world is bound, are all known to some person. ‘I’ know these factors, ‘you’ know it, some knowing subject, some centre of awareness, some principle of consciousness is what is aware that there is freedom, or there is no freedom, and so on.

Therefore, there seems to be an unavoidable necessity to take into consideration the factor of consciousness which is inextricably involved in the knowledge of anything. Though for the time being we may accept that the world is larger than anyone and more powerful, stronger than anything conceivable, yet it is certain that even this knowledge of the vastness of the world, the power of the world and the dependence of consciousness on the world is an act of consciousness. It is known by consciousness. Hence, philosophy studies not merely objects of sense but the very conditions of knowledge. The condition of knowledge takes us back to the very principle of knowledge.

What is knowledge? What is awareness? How do we know anything at all? How do we know that the world is there at all? We have been crying so much about the world, but how do we know that it exists? This is known by an act, an operation of some indescribable light or radiance that seems to be inseparable from ourselves. This radiance, this light, is called by various names – call it awareness, call it intelligence, call it consciousness, call it the Atman, Spirit.

Where is this consciousness which conditions all knowledge? Because of the fact that it is the source of all knowledge and every kind of proof or evidence, it has to be considered as a subject rather than an object. Consciousness, which knows things, is not an object like a stone, a building, a wall or a tree; because there is an object, it has to be known by a consciousness and, therefore, it itself cannot be an object. Hence, consciousness has to be a subject, not an object. What is meant by a 'subject'? A subject is that state of existence which cannot be externalised in space and time, or by causal relations. Therefore, what we call consciousness is not capable of being conditioned by space, time or causal relations. If we imagine that it is so conditioned, that knowledge of the fact of its being conditioned also is to be known by itself only. Thus, the limitation that we apparently seem to discover in ordinary consciousness is overstepped by the implications thereof – namely, knowledge of a limit is not possible unless the limit is overstepped.

Thus, our consciousness seems to be an unlimited existence. It is an omniscient possibility. Man, the human individual, has the potentiality of knowing everything, which means to say, the potentiality to have infinite power and capacity. The omniscient possibility also implies the possibility of omnipresence. Knowledge of everything may not be possible if omnipresence is denied. So there seems to be a latency of a tremendous significance in the human individual, though human beings may appear to be puppet-like nothings. Human beings are not puppets, though it appears that they are. There is a potentiality of omnipresence, all-comprehensiveness and all-knowledge, all-power freed from the shackles of space, time and causality, which means to say, immortality is hidden in the heart of man. This is a great discovery, and after coming to rational conclusions of this type, yoga takes the practical step.

It requires a herculean effort on the part of the individual to apply this knowledge to practical living so that the potentiality may become a revealed, conscious reality. Potentially, we are capable of infinite action, infinite knowledge and infinite existence, but in our conscious life we seem to be little bodies, small individuals. The purpose of yoga is to bring the potentialities of omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence onto the level of conscious living. Therefore, yoga is entirely practical. Yoga is not a theory, though it has a deeply philosophical theory, the outlines of which I mentioned briefly in a few words.

The whole universe, which appears as an object of consciousness, is pervaded by consciousness. This is an unavoidable conclusion that we have to draw when taking our stand on the possibility of the omnipresence of consciousness. Though there is an immanence, a subtle presence in the whole world, this immanent, subtle, conscious presence is inseparable from us. This is clear from the fact that consciousness does not seem capable of being divided into pieces because we have already known that no limit can be set to consciousness. It is unlimited. The unlimitedness of consciousness suggests its immanence, its omnipresence. It pervades the whole cosmos and, therefore, latently, potentially, in a hidden manner, we seem to be pervading all objects, without which, knowledge of the objects of the world would not be possible. If objects were totally cut off from us, if the world were not to be consciously, vitally connected with us, we would not be in a position to know that the world is there at all.

So, we are more than what we appear. We are immortal essences, not mortal, fragile, physical bodies merely. The omnipresence of our essential nature implies the organic structure of the universe with which we are not merely connected, but from which we are inextricable. We seem to be the universe ourselves. And what is yoga? It is the recognition of this fact, an awakening of consciousness to the fact of its being organically present in all things, a Universal being. What is yoga? Its aim is Universal Realisation. It is an actualisation of the potentiality within the human being. It is a waking up from dream, as it were – or rather, a wakening from sleep. The possibility of knowing the whole world is present in the state of deep sleep also; but it is only a possibility. Practically, there is nothing; it is like a dead seed. But it can become a live force when it germinates into the active operative field of what we call waking existence. Something like that is the action of yoga.

This great objective of yoga practice, which is based on this conclusion of a great philosophy which recognises the immortality of consciousness, is the recognition of the omnipresent existence as the only Reality. So, Reality can only be one, not manifold. We cannot have many universes. What we call a universe is the totality of all existence, and we individuals, we persons, we human beings, these things, are not outside this organic structure. What does yoga tell us, then? It is the effort of consciousness to regain its status, in every level of its expression. It appears the universe has revealed itself in various levels or degrees of intensity.

This is what we study in the schools of thought – the Sankhya, the Yoga, the Vedanta. These levels of being are the levels or the stages of the practice of yoga. The system of Patanjali which delineates eight limbs, the stages of knowledge which are described in such great scriptures like the Yoga Vasishtha, and the methods of meditation prescribed to us in Upanishads, etc., all mean that yoga is the return of consciousness from its present condition to that which is possible, practicable and real. The potentiality is brought to the surface of a living awareness. This is done gradually. Yoga, as far as we are concerned, should be regarded as a graduated step. It is not a sudden jump or breaking through, and no such attempt should be made. Inasmuch as we are accustomed to logical thinking and a gradational approach in everything, from the lower we go to the higher, from the effect we proceed to the cause, from the known we go to the unknown, and from the potential we reach the actual.

Our present condition is an involvement in various particulars, let alone the metaphysical involvements of space, time and cause. We have more poignant and touching involvements in human society. Our mutual behaviour, our conduct, and our obligations also seem to be a part and parcel of yoga practice. Yoga is a comprehensive science; it does not exclude any value in life. If anyone has the wrong notion that yoga is an affair not concerned with this world but with some extra-cosmic God or some immortal realisation which has no connection with the world, then that is a totally misconceived notion. All reality, in all its degrees, is taken into consideration in the gradational practice of yoga.

What is a degree of reality? Anything that is inseparable from your present state of consciousness is a reality for you. We have to be realists, and most practical. Whether a thing is ultimately real or not, is not important here. We are troubled, not by the ultimately real, but by what is real to our consciousness. Something seems to be impinging on us, and we take those things as real. The involvement of consciousness in a particular condition makes that condition a reality. We are involved in mutual behaviour.

The so-called yamas and the niyamas, and the sadhana chatushtaya of the Vedanta, are all prescriptions to consciousness, to adjust and adapt itself in a harmonious manner in regard to its outward relations. We have to be very cautious that we do not take double or triple steps in the practice of yoga. It is better to go slowly rather than to go fast and then feel a necessity to retrace our steps. Our difficulties and involvements should be made clear to our own selves by ourselves. Each yoga student should be honest to himself or herself: What are my difficulties and what are my needs? These have to be portrayed systematically in a chart, in a diary, and they have to be broken through – untied, as knots are untied. We should not have conflicts of any kind, and yoga is a resolution of all conflicts. The whole yoga and the Bhagavadgita in particular may be said to be a system of breaking through conflicts of every kind. Have we any conflict? Are we opposed to any circumstance in life?

We have a dual opposition primarily, though we have a more difficult opposition or conflict of a different type which we may have to encounter after some time. We have a difficulty felt every day with our relationships outside, and we have a difficulty felt in our own selves. We cannot always get on with people outside and the conditions of life; the ways of the world and the course which people seem to be following do not always seem to go hand in hand with our requirements, our present ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, necessary and unnecessary, etc. So, we have a social conflict. We are always in dread of the externals. We guard ourselves, we dress ourselves, we behave in a particular manner, and we put on appearances because we are afraid of the outer atmosphere, with which we are not reconciled.

There is simultaneously an inner non-alignment of ourselves. We are not always honest even to our own selves. We have a specious argumentative logic which always justifies its own whims and fancies, and our emotions and passions often are justified by reason, which creates a conflict within our own selves. There is something in us, which may tell us that all our emotional reactions are not necessarily correct, but reason says that they have to be correct; otherwise, they cannot be fulfilled, because the necessity to fulfil even irrational instincts will call for a rational justification of these instincts.

In psychoanalysis this is called a rationalisation of instincts, which is what we do practically every day. There is a self-justifying attitude of every individual which tears our personality to shreds. We think in one way, speak in another way, and act in a third way. We are one thing today, another thing tomorrow; one thing with this person, one thing with that person, and a third thing altogether with our own selves, so that we can never have peace of mind. We are in awful fear of everything in the world. What will happen to me tomorrow? What will the world think about me? Such fears arise on account of a principle and central non-alignment of the layers of our own personality – physical, vital, psychological, rational, instinctive, emotional, volitional, and all things. These are like children fighting with one another inside us, and every day we spend a lot of energy in seeing that we do not go mad; otherwise, they will tear us into pieces. Our psychological difficulties are so intense that we may not be able to live a sane life for even three days if we do not put forth great effort to see that a cementing factor is somehow or other applied to these otherwise dissenting elements in our psychological personality. This difficulty within us is projected outside into the social world and even the physical world, and whatever is wrong within us, is also seen outside. This is a twofold conflict: the social and the physical or, rather, the outward conflict – the irreconcilability of ourselves with the world outside – which is mainly caused by a torn personality inside.

Philosophical investigations, the foundations of yoga practice, have gone so deep into this matter that they have proclaimed the only panacea possible for all these ills. No drug, no medicine, no good word, no delicious dish, can make us all right. Something is seriously wrong at the very root; that is the isolation of ourselves as beings from the cosmic whole. This is the fall of man, as scriptures say – the cutting off of consciousness, which is the true subject, into the condition of a little part which is shrouded in a physical vesture, which is the human personality.

There is, therefore, a cosmic problem before us, apart from the social and outward problems and the inner psychological tensions. These inward difficulties and outer conflicts are caused by a cosmical difficulty. There is a vaster problem before us than what we can see with our eyes or envisage with our little minds – namely, our isolation from the cosmic whole. While yoga is very eager to see that we do not come in conflict with people outside and the world externally, it is also equally clear that our inner personality should also be set in tune and be streamlined into an alignment; but yoga is more particular to see that we are tuned up to the cosmos.

The procedure that yoga practice adopts in bringing about our alignment with the outer atmosphere and with our own inner constituents of personality may be considered as the outer court of yoga. The real yoga starts when we feel competent to tune ourselves with the universe itself. Here meditation becomes pre-eminently active and important. Dhyana, the yoga of meditation with which we are all familiar, is not an ordinary step that we are taking. It is, perhaps, the last plunge into the ocean of life. The other preparatory stages are not unimportant because psychological sanity is not unimportant, social harmony is not unimportant, good behaviour is not unimportant, ethical and moral conduct is not unimportant, a good sleep is not unimportant, and so all these are also to be taken into consideration in our great enthusiasm for yoga, union with the Absolute, though it is true that we are aiming at that finally.

Thus, be careful to note that yoga is not merely one of the sciences or one of the schools of thought or a philosophy; it is the philosophy of life. It is the final answer to our questions. And yoga is not something taken to by just a section of people in the human world, but it is the unavoidable need felt by every living being. Yoga is not meant only for the so-called religious people or spiritual seekers, as people wrongly think. It is the science of existence, the art of living. It is the system of living a happy life, and who does not want to be happy? Thus, yoga is a necessity for all humanity.