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


Chapter 7: Initial Steps in Yoga Practice

It is generally believed, often wrongly by people, that the sitting posture or asana is a simple affair and that it is, perhaps, a non-essential in the practice of yoga. It is not true. Sitting in a single posture is not a simple affair, because it is not practicable for all people. If we actually do it, we will see the difficulty. The asana is not a non-essential. It is very, very important and essential in the practice of yoga, because the body – the muscles, the nerves, the pranas – are all essential parts of what we are. How can we say that the body is a non-essential in our personal make-up? It is an essential, and our individuality, our personality – whatever we are, here and now – is inseparable from this physical set-up. Hence, a systematisation of the workings of the physical body becomes not a non-essential, but a very important feature of personal discipline. We have been referring to this subject of discipline, and in this context we had occasion to observe that discipline is not a force exerted on us by somebody else. It is not a compulsive activity we are undertaking under the pressure of some external power.

Discipline, at least from the spiritual point of view, is a voluntary, dedicated attitude adopted by me, you or anyone, which is deliberately undergone like a medical treatment for the purpose of gaining true health. The initial stage, called the physical posture for the purpose of meditation, is very important, and its importance will be realised if we actually try to sit for a protracted period. How many of you can sit for an hour or two without jerks and shakes and agitations felt in your body? There will be uneasiness in the mind even at the very commencement of this practice. Suppose you are told, "Now sit for two hours and do not get up." The moment I say this you will feel a sense of uneasiness. "Oh, he is asking us not to get up for two hours; it is better to go away now itself. We don't want to sit here." The mind is restless because of being asked to do something to which it has not been accustomed and which it cannot regard as its normal activity. The normalcy which the mind feels is really a kind of chaos; it is not a real normalcy. We are accustomed to chaotic activity. We never stick to time; we never stick to principle; we never stick to any kind of method either in our speaking, or thinking, or acting. We are used to such a kind of life. We get up at any time; we eat at any time; we walk at any time; and, at any time, any work that we do is done in any manner whatsoever, which is the usual habit of the mind that is marked by an absolute absence of punctuality. Now we are telling such a mind that things cannot remain so. There must be a system in every bit of its activity, right from its physical level.

To reiterate, this discipline is not a kind of imposition on the mind or the body, but it is a necessity. If the doctor tells us that we must take a capsule or a tablet at a particular time in a day, in such a quantity, he is not intending to impose upon us any kind of torture – definitely not. It is a kind of method that he is introducing into our life for the purpose of regaining health. An introduction of a method cannot be regarded as a torture. It is not a compulsion and, therefore, discipline in this sense is not only necessary but indispensable, considering the nature of the goal that is before us. Why then this insistence on system, method, organisation, punctuality, tenacity, persistence, etc., in the practice? The reason is that it is the nature of the goal itself. The goal of life is the ultimate point of system.

Nothing can be more systematic than consciousness itself. The highest method that can be conceived is deducible from the structure of consciousness, the nature of existence, the pattern of life – everything is methodical. The whole of nature works in such a systematic manner that it is impossible to conceive chaos as a part of natural activity. Chaos means an indeterminate causative factor operating behind the effects visible in life. Any cause can bring about any effect – this possibility would be regarded as a chaos. But that is not the way in which nature works. It is not that any cause will bring about any effect. Particular causes, arranged in a particular manner, will bring about particular results at a particular time and in a particular intensity. All this is decided and laid down due to the structure of things, the nature of life itself. The pattern of life is finally an organised whole and, therefore, organisation, which is another name for method, becomes a necessity in the practice of yoga. Just as we have social or political organisations, we have here an organisation of activity, conduct, procedure, and way of life.

The simple features called for, or the factors contributory to success at the outset are, to mention only a few, having a definite time, a particular place, and a chosen method for sitting in meditation. When we are students of yoga, it is necessary to choose a definite time for the sitting. This is a very important thing to remember. We should not change our timings according to the whims and fancies of the mind or the changing conditions of social life. Whatever be the difficulties in our external life, a certain amount of insistence on a chosen time for sitting should be regarded as essential. If we find that a particular time cannot be chosen on account of the kind of life that we are living, it is better to choose such a time when all our commitments are over. Generally, though people say that the early morning is good for meditation, it has one disadvantage: that we have got an anxiety in our minds about the future work. We will not be free in the mind in the early morning, especially if we are social bodies. If we are absolutely alakniranjan, that is a different matter – nobody bothers about us, and we can sit as long as we like.

But if we are social bodies with commitments and duties, a subconscious itching will be there at the bottom that, "I have to start work at eight o'clock." And that will be worrying us, though we will not be aware of it. The subconscious activity of the mind is a terrible activity and, therefore, when we actually start sitting for meditation, it is necessary that the period be a little before this time of commitment for catching the train, going to the court, etc. These commitments should not be very imminent or just near. The period of sitting should be such that it should be removed as far as possible from the point of activity which is of a distractive nature. And if it is towards the later part of the day when our commitments are over and the only commitment left is that we have to go to bed and sleep as there is nothing else to do, then the agitations will be a little less, because we have no other thing to do except to go to bed. Whatever it is, these are only minor details which have to be chalked out, each for oneself. The point is that there should be no feature, condition or factor that will even remotely cause distraction to the mind and draw attention away from the point of concentration. Thus, a particular time has to be chosen.

Yoga scriptures tell us that we must also choose a particular place, as far as possible – not that today we meditate in Haridwar, tomorrow in Delhi and the day after tomorrow in Benares. That is not all right if we want real success. We must be in one place. As a matter of fact, people who practise mantra purascharana, or disciplinary chanting of mantras for a chosen period, do this – and what can be a greater purascharana than meditation? So when we take to exclusive spiritual practice as a very serious affair and not merely as a hobby, it would be necessary, I would say for beginners, that a period of at least five years is called for. If we are very serious and in dead earnest about it – not taking it only as a kind of educational procedure for informative purposes and not being very earnest about achieving anything substantially – we may have to stick to one place for five years continuously, and not less than that. If our point is to achieve something substantial, concrete and definite, then this amount of discipline is called for, which is a definite place, a definite time, and a chosen method of meditation – a definite system, arranged in one's own mind, which should not be changed continuously.

Whenever there is repeated persistence in one given direction with reference to any chosen point of attention, we will see that some sort of success results. If a laboratory scientist is to analyse the structure of an atom, he will analyse a particular atom repeatedly by bombarding it with various kinds of light rays, but he will not go on changing the atoms – today this atom, tomorrow that atom, today a hydrogen atom, tomorrow some other thing. That will not lead to success. A particular object will be taken up for consideration, observation and analysis, and a repeated attempt will be made to go deep into its structure until its mystery is revealed. So for this, great leisure is necessary, persistence is necessary, energy and willpower are necessary, and there is no need to mention that we must be free from all other outward distractions. When one takes to the practice of yoga, there should be no distraction of any pronounced nature. Minor distractions may be there, but serious distractions which will divert our attention markedly from the point of attention should not be there.

A fixed place, a fixed time, and a fixed method of concentration are called for. In one of the aphorisms of the sutras of Patanjali, which is very relevant to this point, it is said that the practise should be for a long period: sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra āsevitaḥ dṛḍhabhūmiḥ (I.14). If we want to establish ourselves in yoga, some conditions are to be fulfilled. One condition he mentions is that the practice should be for a protracted period – I said at least five years, and not less than five years. It should be repeatedly done every day, without missing even a single day. Even if we have a temperature, fever or a headache, we should not miss it, because these are obstacles. The more we try to exert our will in the practice of concentration, the more will the body also try to revolt. It will create all kinds of complications – we will have indigestion, we will have a stomachache, we will have a headache, we will have fever – all sorts of things will come. As a matter of fact, it is specifically mentioned in the Yoga Sutras that we will fall sick. It will be an obstacle, and we should not think, "Today I am sick; I will not meditate." That is what it wants, and then it has succeeded. So, first of all, a little guarded way of living may be called for to see, as far as possible, that we do not become so ill that we cannot even sit for a few minutes of meditation. By a regulation of diet and living in a climate that is not too extreme, etc., one can be somewhat free from the anxiety of falling ill to the extent that it would prevent us from doing anything at all in the spiritual field.

Dirghakala is a protracted period of practice. Nairantarya is practice without remission of effort; that means to say, it has to be done every day at the same time. The third condition is that we must have great love for it. We must have immense affection for our practice. We know how much affection a novelist has for his own work; how much affection an artist has for the painting that he does; how much affection a musician has for his ragas. Every artisan, every engineer, every artist, and every professional has immense affection for his own or her own profession. One cannot have disgust for a profession and then succeed in it; nor should one take to it as a kind of suffering or pain. Suppose an artist feels, "Oh, this painting is a great torture and suffering for me," then a good painting will not come forth, because there is no love for it. So, the practice of yoga will yield fruits only if we have a real love for the practice; and if we have love for it, it will also have love for us. When we protect it, it will protect us. It is said in the yoga shastras that yoga will protect us like a mother – it will feed us and take care of us, protect us in every direction at all times, visibly as well as invisibly. Sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra āsevitaḥ dṛḍhabhūmiḥ (I.14) – then we get established. .

To come to the first point once again, the maximum time possible for sitting should be selected. I do not say that it will be a common directive for everyone. It may vary from person to person according to circumstances, occasions, etc., but under the prevailing conditions one can choose the maximum period possible. For certain types of professionals or workers in social life, sitting for more than half an hour may be impossible. Well okay, we shall take it for granted – sit only for half an hour, or I would say even for fifteen minutes, but let it be a regular feature. Sit for fifteen minutes every day, and later on, perhaps after a few years of sitting like this, conditions will change automatically.

Circumstances adjust themselves mysteriously when there is persistence in the practice. These circumstances are internal as well as external. The more we advance, we will find that conditions will become more and more congenial. We ourselves will get adjusted, inwardly as well as outwardly, and we will find that conditions change suitably. This is something very interesting. We will be wondering how external conditions will also change. They will change because, for the world, there is no such thing as external and internal. There is only one Universal, and so when a change occurs in one place, it will be felt sympathetically in corresponding places relevant to it. So there is no need to be afraid of conditions in life as being non-conducive to the practice.

The difficulty is only in taking the first step; then afterwards, we will be carried by the stream. The sitting for a chosen period is regarded as essential, because it is the first tap that we strike upon the vital point in our personal life in bringing about some sort of a harmony between the body and the mind. All stages in yoga are stages of bringing about harmony. Instead of confusion and unmethodical movement, there would be a more methodical and harmonious adjustment of the various units of life.

Life is very large; it is not confined only to our little room or to our body, and so this adjustment may have to be effected in all the fields of life with which we are directly connected. Though it is true that we are ultimately connected with everything in the universe, for the time being it is enough if we take into consideration those visible factors with which we are immediately concerned in our practical life. These factors have to be adjusted with our life, and vice versa. These factors are, of course, of various kinds. What are the factors in life with which we are connected? There are many things – physical, geographical, social, political, moral, and intellectual – all these, of course, are things with which we are connected. It is no use, therefore, laying emphasis only on the personal level while the person is also connected externally to the geographical, the historical, the political and the social aspects of life.

The principles called yamas and niyamas especially, or the sadhana chatustaya, as they say in the Vedanta philosophy, are intended to bring about the necessary adjustment of personality with those conditions and factors which are going to affect one's life, especially when they are meddled with or interfered with. Things look all right when we do not interfere with them. The moment we touch them, they then show their real nature. So it is necessary not to oppose these forces or really meddle with them. We are not going to meddle with them. We are going to adjust ourselves with them in the beginning, and later on we will find that they will adjust themselves with us. When we become friendly with one aspect, that aspect becomes friendly with us also. Later on there is a mutual adjustment of values. All these things are difficult for a single mind to understand at one stroke.

A novitiate cannot comprehend all these things, because generally we are fired up with a kind of sudden enthusiasm. That is all – we don't know anything else. "I want to realise God in this very birth – now itself, if possible." This is all we say. But what are the things necessary for this purpose? How many difficulties are there? These things will not come to the mind easily, because every little event in this world is connected with many other events and conditions. There is no single, isolated event in this world. This is why we say that steps in the direction of the practice of yoga particularly, should be taken only under the guidance of a competent teacher, one who is an expert in this field. It is more dangerous and more difficult than flying an airplane, because we cannot know what is ahead of us. We also cannot know what influence our past will have upon our present, what effect external conditions will have upon us, and what sudden reactions will be set up from factors within – nothing of the kind will be clear in the beginning. When we take a few steps in the practice of yoga, an all-round change will take place. There will be internal change, external change, and even a feeling that God Himself is getting related to us in a more tangible manner than it appeared earlier.

Even after we succeed in sitting for awhile in a particular posture, the mind will refuse, after a time, to continue the practice. We will not find anyone in this world as clever as the mind – very clever in everything. It will look quite all right for some time and the path will appear rosy, but after awhile there will be resentment of the mind even to sit, and it will produce excuses. There will be rationality behind our inability to practise, and we know very well that rationality is the highest thing that can justify anything. When there is reason brought forth in a very judicious manner, justifying our inability to sit for some time and the worthlessness of the practice itself, then there is no argument against it. The greatest danger is rationality, when it is used as a weapon against what is good for us. It is a double-edged sword – it can cut us this way and can cut us that way also – such is reason. Reason can justify what is good for us, and it can also justify what is dangerous or what is not good for us. Many sadhakas justify themselves in a wrong way altogether, by bringing about reasons which try to point out that the way of life they are living is quite inevitable and unavoidable. "If it is unavoidable, what can I do?" This is what the sadhaka will say. But it would not be unavoidable if proper precautions had been taken. We make initial mistakes without proper thought, and then these small mistakes look very big and, like a mountain, they stand before us. Later on I shall have occasion to refer to the mistakes we generally commit initially, without proper understanding.

We have a wrong notion about everything, including our own self. And with this wrong notion we go headlong into such a serious practice as is meditation because, just as a small sand particle getting stuck in the eye causes us annoyance, so too a little mistake in the beginning will loom large and become a serious obstacle in the end – a factor which can be studied from the history of institutions and the lives of saints, sages and sadhakas. These small mistakes look like normal things, and not serious obstacles, because they do not stand against us. They appear to be unconcerned externals; but there is no such thing as an unconcerned external. Every external is connected with us, and the very fact of our perception of it will be enough reason why it can take action, for or against us, one day or the other.

So, we have to chalk out very carefully, as in a spiritual diary, the little mistakes that a person can commit by injudicious thinking, irrational analysis of conditions due to a false view of life, a false judgement of things, and due to a woeful lack of knowledge of human nature and psychology. These are the difficulties that arise due to ignorance of the true nature of things that drives us into committing small mistakes, which will stand before us like devils one day and prevent us from going further. These mistakes must be avoided, and we have to consider them in some detail.