The Theosophical Forum – July 1947


It is often thought that yoga, as expounded by the most famous authority on the subject, namely Patanjali, is something to be attempted only by highly privileged persons, either particularly endowed mentally or favored by having the agreeable karma of a pleasant existence in the countryside. This is not the fact. Many of the old books touching on Yoga say to those who read them that the reader, having had the good fortune to be born a man, and especially a Brahmin (which really means a thinking man), would be indeed a fool to miss the opportunity of taking deliberate steps to reach the goal of life. To put this in modern terms I would say that yoga is life in any environment lived intelligently with a good knowledge of human psychology, as contrasted with the same life lived according to the animal instincts we have inherited. It is a life in which we make the most of our intelligence, even to the point of the conscious enjoyment of intuitions and ecstacies.

The word yoga is to be taken in two senses: (1) as describing the goal of life, which is "union with the one life" or "the uncovering of the light" and (2) as describing the practical steps which may be taken to accelerate our movement towards that desirable end. Really, no one can escape that movement, because do what we will we are bound to learn either by thought or by experience.

If we follow what may be called the positive path of yoga pursued by the man of intelligence and love and will, we shall learn by intuition — in other words, finer elements in our active being will awaken and take hold of finer realities in our lives. But even if we follow the other and common way, the path of material enlargement — the path of quantity of things, not the path of quality of life — we shall be taught by karma, and thus we shall move towards the progressive uncovering of the light, though with pain and trouble and difficulty, instead of with freedom and ecstacy.

Now, turning to Patanjali, we find first his statement that the practice of yoga is chitta — vritti — nirodha. Chitta is the mind that deals with things. Vrittis are ideas. Nirodha means control. So yoga is control of the ideas in the mind. Patanjali goes on to say that when this control is achieved the man exists in his own true state, but otherwise he is the slave of his ideas and that implies his circumstances also. Somewhere else the uncontrolled man has been described as the slave of Nature.

Students of Patanjali do not always realize that vrittis are ideas and that ideas are objects in the mind. Ideas are not to be confused with thought. Thought is an activity of the mind in relation to objects or forms of the material world, and it uses ideas in its thinking. It is not the same as mental drift or the undirected flow of ideas.

It is quite necessary to make this clear distinction between thinking and ideas. We know it well in the study of Geometry, where first we have certain axioms, which are ideas, and then we manipulate those in various ways when we deal with propositions. In Geometry then, still further, when we have done our thinking on a certain proposition, so that that has become for us a definite result, that in turn becomes an idea upon which later on we may still further build with further thought. That vrittis are ideas and not operations of thinking becomes quite clear when Patanjali proceeds to give us a list of the vrittis.

 He enumerates them as in five classes. The first group is that of right ideas, which he says can be arrived at by perception, or by inference or from the testimony of reliable witnesses. The second division is the group of wrong ideas, as in the case when at dusk we mistake a post for a man or a piece of rope for a snake. The third group is fanciful ideas, such as the horns of a rabbit. Fourthly comes sleep. We say in the morning we slept well last night. We mean not merely that we felt well when we woke up, and therefore we infer that we slept well, but that there was some sort of conscious experience which can be described by the expression "slept well."

Lastly, we come to memory. Memories, of which there are several kinds, need not be described here.

Obviously, it is a good thing for every person, whatever he or she may be doing in life, to use his or her brains in thinking, not merely in mental drift. Mental drift occurs if, let us say, at one moment I am thinking of a cat and a few moments later I find myself thinking about a bridge which I have often admired that spans the river Indus. Now, I could ask myself how I came to think of that bridge soon after I started to think about a cat. Upon looking into my mind I find that the idea of a cat brought forth a picture of a cat lying on a hearth-rug, that then this hearth-rug reminded me of a factory where I had seen such rugs being made. That factory was near the banks of the river Indus and further up the river was the bridge of which I found myself thinking. That was mental drift. If I had controlled my ideas I might have thought of something to more purpose. I might have controlled my idea on the cat so that I would know a lot more about it. I would have directed my thought by my will. As we do in all study, I would first have concentrated and then meditated. I would have concentrated on the cat and then I would have expanded my knowledge of the cat without abandoning my concentration upon that subject. That process of thinking is really what we call meditation when we apply it to spiritual, religious, ethical, abstract or philosophical thinking.

Next, Patanjali tells us that nirodha or control becomes steady with practice and uncoloredness. (I am sorry to coin such an uncouth word, but there is nothing else for it.)

Patanjali speaks of these two as abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa is practice, and one need only say that it is helpful to practise occasionally, when there is opportunity, the art of controlling and directing our own ideas, in reference to anything that may occur to us at the moment, or that may come up in the business of life. We shall have to tear the word vairagya to pieces to get the real meaning out of it. Vai means contrary to or against; raga has to do with being red or colored, and the termination ya is here equivalent to our "ness," thus converting the whole thing into the abstract noun, uncoloredness. The idea is that just as you may put a block of glass on red paper and it will look red, or on green paper it will look green, so do persons have their thinking and feeling colored by their environment and ideas. But the instruction here is that the aspirant should stop, look and listen every now and then to see that he is not being carried away by external impulses, but is using his own faculties in every business that he deals with. This is a subject that could be expanded very much indeed, for multifarious are the ways small and big in which we become slaves to Nature. But this much should now be said — that first we should complete an idea by meditation, if we want to stop the mental process and derive some intuition by some uncovering of the light.

I have described the first few sutras in Book I of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Later in Book I that author describes the final practice of complete control, called samadhi. We can leave that for the moment and jump to the beginning of Book II, where Patanjali tells the student of yoga what he must do first of all in practical life. I have heard of cases in which a would-be pupil has come to a teacher of yoga and the teacher has sent him away, telling him to come back after a number of years, and that in the meantime he should live an ordinary life in the world and try to practise certain things in that life.

Patanjali here gives us three things which are to be practised in the world as a kind of preparatory yoga, and in conjunction even with more advanced yoga if that is being carried on in the world of ordinary life. I must mention that these three practices are intended to weaken five difficulties or obstacles, instincts which arise in a man himself. These five are called the kleshas. They are: (1) mistake, (2) I-am-ness, (3) liking, (4) disliking, (5) clinging to form.

The first is the error of identifying oneself with the game of life. It is as though a chess player were to forget that his game is only a game. The yoga practice in this connection is to observe the distinction between the self and not-self as often as possible, to watch the business of life going on as a spectator but not as a passing spectator rather as one who is playing a very important game with a very definite purpose, and yet is playing that game outside himself. In this one watches not only the external activities but also the flow of one's own thought and feeling. One sees the vrittis and becomes aware of the kleshas which build and sustain them. One has no need to pronounce sentence upon them. The mere viveka or perception uncovers the light. There is nothing to be done or made. The second klesha is self-personality. We know that our personality is a definite compound, let us hope well coordinated and useful in the world. There is a certain type of body with certain abilities and accomplishments, accompanied by a collection of ideas and habitual feelings. Such personality is a definite thing. As long as we recognize it as such and use it as our instrument in the business or game of life, it is well, but as soon as we fall into thinking "I am this" we lose our true character. For the character or core of a man is something different, which expresses itself in certain powers of thought, feeling and will.

The third klesha is akin to that coloredness which I mentioned before. It is a strong desire to obtain something, or even more, it is wishing. The implication is that we can become agitated and enslaved because we cannot get the thing that we want, or we cannot get enough of it, or, having obtained it, we are afraid of losing it. It colors our life. If we have it not, it worries us so that we do not employ our powers in dealing with other things that are in our power, or in our possession.

The fourth of these kleshas is just the opposite of that. It is the troubled condition which arises when we want to get rid of things or persons that we have, or conditions that we cannot get away from. If we allow this desire to escape from undesired conditions, to dominate our thinking and feeling or to govern our actions, again we lose our character and independence.

The fifth is clinging to things, even to the extent of fear of death. We have to come to that point of understanding in which we can feel that such possessions are simply for use, that they must come and go, that there is no such thing as static wealth; that life can only live on the wing — in brief, there is not life but only living, in which everything is to be used as a possession. If we fail in this, it is a fact that we become possessed by our so-called possessions. This applies to everything, even to the body itself, in regard to which there is such widespread and quite unnecessary fear of death.

I do not want to dwell particularly on these kleshas at the moment, but the three practices enjoined on the novice will deal with them quite effectively. These three practices are called tapas, swadhyaya and ishwara-pranidhana. They pertain to the three parts of our nature — body, thoughts and feelings. Tapas means literally ardor. It is from the root tap, which means to heat. It almost means effort but not quite. Some have exaggerated it into the idea of mortification of the flesh, and there are instances in India of people doing very absurd things, such as sitting on spikes or holding an arm up until it withers, with the idea of practising tapas. Those are only superstitions for the real thing. Put simply, tapas means that the novice must do for his body whatever he knows to be best. If, for example, he thinks that it is not good to take mineral salt with his food, then he will not take it. If he thinks that a certain amount of exercise at a certain time is good, he will do it. With regard to action or abstention from action, he will live his bodily life in accordance with his best understanding, in relation to its own best functioning and his social environment, in which it should be harmonious with others.

The second practice means self-study. It is just that a certain amount of time should be given to studying the nature of man and his relation to his environment.

The third klesha is bowing to the Divine. This means a feeling of devotion with regard to everything. It is that religious life which includes both ethics and devotion. Everything has to be thought of as providing the best opportunity for self-development. This puts an end to a great many of the bad emotions in life, such as resentment, envy, jealousy, greed, pride, anger and fear. It makes the aspirant look out upon the word very much as an architect does, who takes all materials for exactly what they are: wood, stone, etc. Stone is stone, iron is iron, glass is glass, and he would be a very curious architect who would sit at the roadside and weep because he could not bend a sheet of glass as he would bend a sheet of iron. There is, however, in this practice not a mere intellectual acceptance of all things as useful. It is more than that. It is a glad and joyful devotional response to this great fulness of life in which we find ourselves. It should carry with it all that intense devotion which is sometimes found with very narrow outlooks in religious circles, but it involves a recognition of the highest in everything.

I need not carry this idea of yoga in daily life much further. It is quite open to all of us to spend part of our day in concentration, meditation and contemplation, and in that contemplation to receive occasional inspirations and intuitions, accompanied by a corresponding ecstacy. To be able to control our thoughts, to expand them, and then to suspend them in an act of contemplation of any thing or idea, is not outside our reach and in fact should become easy when the three preliminary practices are carried on in daily life. These three practices weaken the kleshas. Later on we may perform a "meditation" that will entirely destroy them.

Patanjali mentions certain siddhis or abnormal powers which arise in a man as he progresses in the art of mind control or the control of ideas. But he mentions also that these are not of importance. If they become a source of pleasure or amusement, the man will stop at that subject and go no further. They will come, but he has merely to note them and pass them by. He can use them as white magic for the benefit of mankind, or the welfare of the world, but that will only be part of his particular business in life, and in his yoga practice they too will have to become subject to nirodha. If he delights in them he comes within the sphere of the kleshas, and will fall into black magic from which he will ultimately escape only by the tuition of karma.

I have said enough, perhaps, to show that yoga is for all of us and that there is no need to treat the subject with that kind of false respect which would make us think that it is only for uncommon people or people more advanced than ourselves.

The Theosophical Forum