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


Chapter 37: Preventing the Fall in Yoga

When there is attainment of pratyakcetana (I.29), or the inner consciousness, there is a cessation of all impediments, says Patanjali. But these impediments, when they come, are variegated in their number. Though they do cease eventually, after a long time, when they come, they come in large numbers. "Misfortunes do not come in one," is an old saying. When we get into trouble, it will come from every direction, and not only from one side, so that it will look as if we have no help at all. This is how higher obstacles attack us. They will come and pounce upon us like a pack of hounds, attacking from all sides.

The reason for this unfortunate condition is manifold. Why are we attacked like this when we are pursuing a right course of action? This is not really an attack in the sense of an inimical reaction of any person or set of forces. It is a natural consequence of certain cleansing processes going on inside, as has been pointed out. There are no enemies, really speaking. Even when there is a counter-posing action taking place somewhere in a most unpleasant manner, it cannot ultimately be regarded as an inimical reaction, because finally, truly speaking, there are no enemies in nature – there are only friendly forces. But sometimes they look like enemies for peculiar reasons, one of the main reasons being the inability on the part of the individual to understand the circumstances under which these reactions have been set up.

The impediments in the practice of yoga are more serious, unpleasant, painful and harassing than the obstacles that ordinary people may face in the world. The little difficulties that the common man has in his day-to-day life are not as painful, annoying or agonising as what the yogi has to confront on his path. For this also, there is a reason why it is that a student of yoga should suffer much more than ordinary people in the world. The common man does not allow the whole of his personality to function at any time; only a partial personality functions. Not even the busiest person in the world can be said to be engaged in the totality of his being. Only some percentage of his being is active and, therefore, the reactions set up by the activity of a percentage of one's being are less potent than the reactions set up by the activities of the whole of one's being.

The reason is simple. In the practice of yoga the whole being is active and, therefore, it starts waking up every blessed thing in this world – whatever may be sleeping anywhere. Even invisible forces, even distant elements may feel that some strange activity is going on in some part of the universe. We must have heard in the Epics and Puranas that even the gods are distressed by the tapas of yogis. It means that the meditative activity of a sincere seeker can tell upon even very far and distant regions like the heavens, and not merely the corners of the earth. But our ordinary little work that is going on in a shop, a factory or an office may not be felt at all in such regions. The reason is that these ordinary activities are shallow; they are not deep enough. They do not touch the bottom of things, and therefore the reactions set up are also mild.

But in yoga, what actually moves is the very root of our being. Our soul itself is yearning in the aspiration for the Ultimate Reality. It is not a function of a part of the psychological organs like mentation, intellection, egoism, etc. It is every blessed thing that is in us that becomes active, and we may say there is a sort of conscription of every part of our personality in this warfare called the practice of yoga. Every individual is harnessed into the army. Everyone is a soldier when this war takes place. There is no civilian at all in the practice of yoga; everyone is active like an army man – everyone, and no one is excluded. Every part of the personality becomes roused, and we can imagine what reactions this can set up. You may ask me why they should set up reactions. Can this noble activity called yoga not be carried on without any adverse reactions.

It is not the intention of the practice of yoga to set up reactions, but they automatically happen on account of there being certain obstructing elements within us which get stirred up automatically due to the cleansing process that is going on in the practice of yoga. They are not really enemies working, but are the impurities that are leaving. When the impurities are driven out of the personality within, they look like violent opposing elements putting on various types of faces - sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes unintelligible, sometimes very inscrutable – because we have within us, potentially, infinite latencies of past karma, impressions of previous deeds, frustrated desires, and so on and so forth, all of which have to come out one day or the other if the field is to be clean. This cleaning is done by yoga.

Then, we have what are known as the obstacles or the impediments. Though there can be endless types of obstacles in the practice of yoga, Patanjali mentions a few leading obstacles which have to be taken care of by a student, with the guidance of a competent master, because when these obstacles come, they do not come in the form of obstacles. A shrewd enemy always comes like a friend, for if we openly come as an enemy we will not succeed because the other party will know what we are. Ravana always comes as a sannyasin in order that he may succeed. If he comes as Ravana himself, nothing will happen; everybody will understand what is coming. So these peculiar reactions, called impediments, do not come openly as impediments, and we will not know that they are the consequences of our practice. We will attribute these experiences to some other persons or conditions outside us, and will not be able to understand that they are caused by certain internal practices of our own.

In the list Patanjali mentions, the first obstacle is physical disease. His sutra runs thus: vyādhi styāna saṁśaya pramāda ālasya avirati bhrāntidarśana alabdhabhūmikatva anavasthitatvāni cittavikṣepaḥ te antarāyāḥ (I.30). The antarayah or impediments which cause distraction of the mind are ninefold, of which physical illness is the first. When we have a splitting headache, we will not know why it has come; we may attribute it to heat of the sun, or wrong diet, or sleeplessness, and so on and so forth, which ordinarily are the usual causes. But when the practice becomes intense, the physical body may not be able to tolerate the intensity of the practice and there can be a revolutionary condition set up in the physical system, in the whole anatomy and the physiological functions, and painful illnesses may become the result thereof. I myself have seen some of these sincere students of yoga suffering from peculiar types of physical illness which cannot be cured by ordinary medicines. No medicine will work at that time, because the illness is not caused merely by certain physical causes; the causes are very deep-rooted. They are thrown out by the pranamaya kosha, or even something deeper than that, we may say; and the remedy is yoga practice itself.

We have to cure these reactions of yoga only through yoga. Drugs will not cure these illnesses. If a headache is caused by intense meditation, it cannot be cured by an aspirin tablet, because it is a result of an intense pressure that we have exerted upon the mind, the nerves and the pranas, and that pressure can be lifted up only by another type of meditation, of which we have to gain the knowledge only through the Guru who has initiated us. It is not an easy thing to understand. Sometimes there can be such disturbance of the digestive system that we will have diarrhoea for days or months, and we cannot stop it with medicine. Headache, giddiness and diarrhoea are generally supposed to be the immediate reactions of intense concentration of the mind. We will feel as if the mountains are revolving when we stand up. This is giddiness, and we cannot easily know why this is happening. Sometimes we may be under the impression that we are practising a wrong type of meditation, due to which these reactions are set up. It is not necessarily so. Our meditation may be correct, and yet the reactions can be there.

When there is a physical condition of the type of painful illness, the practice should not be diminished. Generally, when we have a little fever, we will not be able to sit for meditation; and of course when there is a headache, it is out of the question. But knowing that these are the necessary and expected consequences of practice, one should not become diffident, and the practice of meditation should not be brought down to a lower level, either in quantity or quality, merely because of these obstacles. They will be there for some days, and sometimes even for months, but they will pass away. Just as when we clean a room with a broom there is a rise of dust, and it may look as if we are worsening the condition in the room rather than cleaning it, that is not the truth, because afterwards all of the dust will vanish and the whole room will be clean. Likewise, in the beginning it may look as if there is something worse happening to us than what has occurred earlier, but it is not true. We are getting cleaned up, and a day will come when the storm will cease and we shall be happy.

When there is intense pain – an intolerable physical condition which prevents sitting for meditation – one can split up the sessions for meditation into one, two, three, four or five sittings, but the total quantity should not be diminished. If we are in the habit of sitting for three hours meditation, and it is not possible to do so when we have got a headache, we may split it into six parts. But it should not be completely given up on the plea that we are ill and therefore cannot do the practice, because if we miss the practice its intensity will come down, and then the reaction produced by non-practice will really be disadvantageous - more disadvantageous than the pains we feel due to the rise of reactions by correct practice.

Sometimes it so happens that these impediments persist for a long time. They do not cease after a few days. We should not worry if they continue even for a few years, in the case of certain people. Then it happens that we get fed up. There is a feeling of dullness, and a sense of having had enough with the practice. This is what Patanjali refers to as styana, which follows vyadhi; vyadhi is illness and styana is dullness. The enthusiasm comes down and all our vigour goes. The ardour that we felt for the practice vanishes because we have been suffering and suffering for months and years, and who would like that pain or agony? Then, naturally, the alternative for the mind would be to slow down the intensity of the practice, and slow down even the feeling and the longing that it had earlier. But the trouble will not end merely with this arising of dullness.

There is a series of difficulties that follows this condition of lethargic inactivity and the slowing down of the intensity of meditation. The mind will expect only one chance to enter in, and if we give the least chance for this peculiar trait of the mind to counteract any good thing that we do, it will set up a tempest, a cyclone of counteracting work, which will prevent us from taking further steps in the practice of yoga. It will create doubts in the mind. "Oh, maybe something is seriously wrong – either with the initiation that I have received, or I may not be fit for the practice. Otherwise, why have I been suffering like this for years? I have achieved nothing. I have not had the vision of God after ten years or fifteen years of meditation, and the only thing that I have is purging. I have no desire to eat anything, and I cannot sleep.

Then doubts will start rising up in the mind and tell us all sorts of stories about our Guru and our sadhana, our scripture and religion, and everything. We will start doubting everything; and only a single doubt has to arise in order for ten doubts to rise up as the result of that one doubt. Then we will change the Guru. Many people change their Gurus, change the method of meditation, change the mantra and move from place to place, because they have found that there is something wrong. "Otherwise, why is it that I am not achieving anything after so many years of effort?" So, after vyadhi and styana comes samsaya or doubt. This is an obstacle, says Patanjali.

We may doubt the existence of God Himself – this is something that is not unexpected. "After all, is there such a thing called God? Buddha does not believe in God. Perhaps Buddha may be right. He never uttered a word about God. So why am I crying for Brahma, Vishnu, Siva and all that? They may not be there at all." These doubts also will arise. "If they are not there, why am I praying to them? And if they are there, why didn't Buddha mention them? Buddha was not a fool. And there are other religious teachers who do not mention these things. They have other methods, such as upasana meditation, Vipassana meditation, and are all sorts of things.

So we change the technique, and this change of technique, this change of initiation and Guru can be compared to digging a well a foot deep, in one thousand places, for water. We have dug only one foot, and we do not find water anywhere, and so we go on digging for a lifetime. In the same way, one thousand Gurus will bring us nothing. This is what will happen. This has happened to many people, and nobody can be exempted from this possibility, because doubts do not come like extraneous factors. They are internal illnesses that are conditions of the mind itself.

Vyādhi styāna saṁśaya pramāda (I.30) Pramada is the other obstacle in the sutra that is mentioned by Patanjali. Blunder, floundering and gross error are called pramada. What can be a greater blunder than to forget the existence of God and our purpose in life? Most of the students do not go beyond this stage; they end with this. Their life closes with this difficulty. They make a serious blunder in choosing a different line of activity altogether. For example, suddenly there can be an emotion fired up within to save the world from falling into to hell. They will think that, "We have come to a stage now where we have to lift the world from perdition." There will be arguments after arguments, logically deduced, justifying this attitude, because logic also comes from the mind – it does not come from outside. The aspiration of the spirit for God-realisation will be dubbed as selfishness of the worst type. Even today we have thousands of people before us who have such suspicions in their minds. These suspicions do not arise merely in idiotic minds, but they also arise in minds of those who are very intelligent, very learned, very honest and sincere in their approach. Such people will have doubts of this type, and come to think that working for the liberation of others is better than working for the liberation of one's own self, because one's own self is a selfish centre. The thinking is: "This is very clear – everybody knows that, and it does not require very much argument to prove that a single person's salvation is selfish compared to the salvation of many others."

So we give up the aspiration for the salvation of the soul, and work for the salvation of others. The result is that both will be in equal bondage, and neither will we get salvation, nor will the other. This will not be understood by the mind. It is a trick that is played, because there is no such thing as a salvation of the type that people are arguing for in this manner. It is a gross error of thinking; it is a blunder of the first water. But this pramada or mistake will be committed by most people, and even advanced seekers will not be free from this mistake.

Even masters, great Mahatmas and Mandaleshwars are not exempt from this error of thought, because it is a very subtle form of difficulty which is easy to justify by specious logic, and it may look very wonderful and beautiful to the public eye, though it may be a gross mistake. This pramada is death itself. Nothing can be worse than this idiocy in the practice of yoga. A student of yoga is free from this blunder. This pramada is the worst thing that we can expect on the path. So, one should not be heedless or careless in the evaluation of one's spiritual way of living. Let there be persistent practice with caution, intelligence and understanding that we are moving in the same direction that we have chosen earlier, and we have not taken a different line of approach.

After that, something else can come, says Patanjali. This working for the world and merging oneself in social liberating activity cannot go on for a long time, because the world will give us a kick. All great saviours of mankind were thrown to the pits because they could not save mankind. A day comes when society will dislike and even hate us, though we are utmost sincere in trying to help it. We have only to read history – that is sufficient. All masters in the political field and most sincere workers in the social field were finally doomed by society. They were either killed by the very same people for whom they were working, or they were condemned to a condition worse than death. This is what happened to great leaders of mankind right from Pedicles, Plato and Aristotle, and nobody has been exempted from this, right up to modern times – which is the tragedy of human effort. Then we will realise what is in front of us. People generally leave this world with a sob and a cry, not with joy on their faces, because they realised this fact too late. There was very little time for them to live in this world, and all the time had been spent in wrong activity under the impression that it is right activity.

When it is too late to realise this, there is a deep sorrow supervening in oneself, and then people wind up all their activities, spiritual as well as temporal, and nothing happens. There is the condition of torpidity – alasya, as Patanjali mentions. If there had not been lethargy in people, who would not be successful in life? We are not successful because of lethargy. We are not active, really speaking. A little finger is active, but the whole body is not active. A little part of the mind is functioning, while the other part is sleeping. Alasya, or the lethargic condition of the whole personality, will swallow up all effort. The mind and the understanding cease to function. There is a complete hibernation that takes place, and oblivion, both inward as well as outward, occurs. This oblivion is most dangerous. This total inactivity which a person may resort to, and an extreme type of negativity that may become the consequence of the difficulties on hand, may stir up another storm altogether, because these forces of nature will not allow us to keep quiet for long. They will neither allow us to do the right thing, nor will they allow us to keep quiet. They always want us to be punished, harassed and put to the greatest of hardship. This lethargic condition may continue for a long time.

The lethargic condition can be of two types – one of them being a disgust for everything in life on account of a failure from all sides, and the other type is a peculiar sleepy condition of the mind, which it has resorted to merely with one intention, which is to stop further activity on the path of yoga. This sleepy condition of the powers of the mind is only a pre-condition to an outburst of negative activity of the senses as well as the ego, which may follow after some time. Intense desires may arise in the mind, which may not arise in the minds of even ordinary householders. The egoism of a spiritual seeker may be worse than the egoism of an ordinary man in the world, and the desires of a spiritual seeker in this condition may be more inscrutable than even the strongest cravings of a worldly man, because here unnatural desires can arise in the mind, while it may be said that the desires of the ordinary man are mostly natural and are taken for granted. But here, attachments of a very peculiar nature may arise - attachments to silly things in the world, not necessarily valuables – and any interference with the expression of these desires or wishes may stir up anger of the most violent type.

Avirati is a sudden flare-up of buried desires in a very vehement manner, pouncing on anything and everything that is in front. It may be even an inanimate object – it may be a fountain pen, a wristwatch, a transistor, or it may be a donkey. It does not matter what it is, because the desire that has been kept suppressed for years together wants only an immediate satisfaction, even through the silliest object possible. This condition of avirati (avirati means the absence of virati, which is the same as rati) – attachment, affection, craving, and longing for the smallest satisfaction available – will completely divert the attention of the mind from the original ideal. Even a little stream can draw the entire mass of water of a large river with a force that can burst all boundaries and devastate everything that is around. This is what we call 'the fall' in yoga. When a person reaches this state, he has fallen. We talk of a fall and hear of these things happening in the Epics and Puranas, where the mind has come back to the original condition from where it wanted to rise; only it is in a worse state.

All of these virulent flare-ups are to be guarded against before they actually happen. It is better to prevent the rise of a disease by prophylactics, etc., rather than to try to treat the disease when it has already come up in a violent form. This is only to present before the mind of the seeker the possibilities of impediments and the nature of the difficulties that may arise. The teacher also prescribes methods of remedying them in a proper manner.