There are several different schools of yoga. Best known in the West is hatha yoga. It involves bodily postures and breathing techniques which are supposed to lead to the development of higher faculties, including occult powers. Various types of tantra yoga, however, are growing in popularity. Hiroshi Motoyama, a prominent Japanese authority in the field of yoga, advocates a form of tantra yoga which bears many resemblances to hatha yoga; it involves bodily postures, regulation of the breath, and activation of the chakras (the seven subtle energy centers in the body). It also involves the awakening of the kundalini — a psychic force which normally lies dormant at the base of the spine. H. P. Blavatsky calls it "a creative power which when aroused into action can as easily kill as it can create." (The Voice of the Silence, p. 77.) According to Motoyama, on the other hand, these methods are totally harmless, but this claim is called into serious doubt by his description of the experiences which he underwent when he first took up tantra yoga.
After many months of practicing tantra yoga for three or four hours every day, Motoyama had his first experience of the rising of the kundalini:
One day, when I was meditating before the altar as usual, I felt particularly feverish in the lower abdomen . . . Suddenly, an incredible power rushed through my spine to the top of the head and, though it lasted only a second or two, my body levitated off the floor a few centimeters. I was terrified. My whole body was burning, and a severe headache prevented me from doing anything all day. The feverish state continued for two or three days. I felt as if my head would explode with energy. — Theories of the Chakras: Bridge to Higher Consciousness, 1981, p. 241
He then adds that despite these unfortunate side-effects, at least he didn't experience the serious physical and mental difficulties that many people go through when trying to arouse the kundalini!
He continues: "I became overly sensitive, both physically and mentally. . . . My emotions became unstable and I was excited easily." He began to see lower astral entities with increasing frequency: "if the spirits were very strong and hostile, I was unable to help them and was adversely affected by them . . . my body and mind became unstable" (pp. 242-3). When trying to awaken his throat chakra, an irritation developed in his throat and he had difficulty breathing. He began to feel a sense of absolute nothingness:
After experiencing this state several times I found myself facing an abyss of absolute void. I experienced such a terrible fear that I wanted to stop yoga. . . . During this process, I encountered a horrible devil-like being. It was an indescribably terrifying experience. — p. 250
These are some of the negative experiences Motoyama went through. He also reports that he was able to develop paranormal powers and eventually acquired a sense of peace and optimism and greater sympathy with his fellow human beings. But it is not for nothing that he repeatedly emphasizes that the supervision of a properly qualified teacher is an absolute necessity. It is however questionable how many of the numerous yogis and self-proclaimed gurus are really knowledgeable and reliable.
Motoyama has conducted scientific research into the chakras with the aid of two electric instruments he developed. He concludes that the activation of the chakras by concentrating on them leads not only to the development of certain paranormal powers, but also to a greater risk of functional disorders in the internal organs connected with the chakras that have been aroused. He points out that overuse of the paranormal ability of one chakra is likely to cause abnormality or disease in the internal organ controlled by that chakra, and may even lead to an early death. He says that many psychics who have overworked the manipura chakra, located in the solar plexus and associated with clairvoyant powers, have died young or have had severe problems in the stomach and intestines. He himself developed a gastric ulcer.
All this confirms the warnings found in theosophical writings. The physical postures alone may be fairly harmless, but when combined with specialized breathing exercises and intense mental concentration on the chakras, and when pursued with the almost fanatical determination displayed by Motoyama, there is no doubt of there being a very real risk of disturbing the natural balance of life forces in the body, leading to disease, mental instability, even insanity. Nevertheless, Motoyama remains a firm proponent of such techniques, and even goes so far as to assert that "chakra awakening is a process which must be undergone if the soul is to evolve and if enlightenment is to be reached." (Ibid., p. 256)
Hatha yoga and tantra yoga are the lowest forms of yoga and deal mainly with the body and lower mind. Since they do little or nothing to develop our higher nature they produce no lasting benefits, for it is only those things that can be recorded by our spiritual self that endure beyond death. But there are several higher forms of yoga discipline. The main ones are: karma yoga, the yoga of action (similar to what is known in the West as "salvation by works"); bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion (similar to "salvation by faith or love"); jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom or knowledge; and raja yoga, literally "royal union," the yoga of spiritual self-discipline. Finally, there is brahma yoga, "divine union," which is a synthesis of the best and purest practices in the other yoga schools.
Real hatha yoga means keeping the body clean, fit, and healthy so that it can act as a suitable instrument for the human soul. Karma yoga means that we must do our work and duty without complaint and to the best of our ability. Bhakti yoga means devoting ourselves to the service of our fellow human beings. Jnana yoga means studying the divine wisdom, and therefore nature herself. Raja yoga means taking joy in self-discipline, in learning to become master of our lower nature rather than its slave. If we try to do all of this, we are beginning to practice brahma yoga, which eventually leads to the ultimate aim of yoga: self-conscious union with our higher self, the divinity within. This state of oneness with our higher nature — the treasury of all the wisdom and knowledge accumulated in past lives — brings spiritual illumination or enlightenment.
The New Age movement offers a whole range of techniques and courses, including hatha and tantra yoga, which are supposed to enable us to develop paranormal powers, obtain contact with other entities, recall past lives, and achieve enlightenment. Many of the practices offered are of highly dubious value, and the ability to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit has never been more necessary.
A general rule is that practices should not be undertaken if they are aimed mainly at personal advancement and profit, or at obtaining influence over others, or if they open a doorway to malignant lower astral influences and cause mental instability. On the other hand, there is no harm in taking time for relaxation and self-examination, especially if this enables us to act in a more brotherly and balanced fashion in our everyday lives. The more we are at peace with ourselves, the more balanced and harmonious we are within, the greater will be our ability to act as a source of peace and harmony in the world around us.
Motive is of vital importance, and all too often there is a strong element of selfishness in psychic practices. Naturally there are also sincere people who want to use their paranormal gifts to help others, but in the case of psychic healing, for example, it is quite possible that treatments which seem to be successful may have harmful side-effects later. Loving deeds are not always wise deeds.
The path advocated by all the great spiritual traditions the world over is the path of compassion, brotherhood, and self-mastery. As Hindu scholar T. Subba Row put it: "All the great teachers have put forward a few broad moral principles and not astral wonders as the path to be followed." (Esoteric Writings, 1933, pp. 535-6) From Krishna to Buddha to Christ, the Golden Rule has always been: Love one another.
There is nothing intrinsically spiritual in the ability to bend a spoon, to see auras, or to levitate a table. There is far more spirituality in helping neighbors. Those who succeed in forcing the development of paranormal powers before they have purified their minds and learnt to control themselves, are merely putting an extra temptation in their way and run the risk of physical, mental, and moral injury. At this stage in our evolution, it is preferable to try to understand the rationale of paranormal powers rather than to develop them in ourselves. According to theosophy, in the further course of our evolution two higher senses (associated with clairvoyance and intuition) will develop in a natural manner, but only when we have evolved to the stage where we are fit to possess them and are able to use them wisely.
There is however one power that we should seek to cultivate, and that is our spiritual willpower. Every time we give in to a selfish or unworthy impulse we weaken our will and our moral sense and make it a little easier to yield to that impulse again; while every time we resist a selfish or unworthy impulse we strengthen our will and our moral sense and make the next victory a little easier. By developing our will we become able to gradually improve the quality of our thoughts, and therefore of our desires, feelings, and actions.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that there are no shortcuts to self-transformation and spiritual enlightenment. Listening to a meditation tape, chanting a mantra, following a weekend course, or reading a book will not automatically lead to the attainment of cosmic consciousness. They may help us — or they may hinder us — but lasting progress can never be achieved by external means alone. Nor can it be bought. Self-realization is the fruit of many lives of self-purification and altruism. In the words of H. P. Blavatsky:
The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. — The Secret Doctrine 1:17
In other words, there is no favoritism in nature. The circumstances of our birth, our basic character traits, and the trials we undergo in the course of our lives are not the result of chance, nor are they dictated by the whim of some scheming deity; they are of our own making, the product of our thoughts and deeds in past lives. And while we cannot change our past karma, we can mold our future by how we live now.
Motoyama claims that through the practice of tantra yoga he acquired the power to alter other people's negative karma. If this were true it would border on black magic, since it is only by suffering the consequences of all our thoughts and deeds, life after life, that we learn better, acquire inner strength and evolve. There is no attainment unless we make the progress ourselves. William Quan Judge states that the advanced human beings who watch over humanity could conceivably use their occult powers to cure humanity of its ills, but, he says, "they do not: humanity has to struggle on as ever in misery until they acquire self mastery and self knowledge. It may be hard but it is the law." (Practical Occultism, p. 196.)
Everything in nature is interconnected; nothing can live unto itself alone. Our every thought, feeling, and deed impact upon the world around us, for good or ill. The idea that anything is totally separate from anything else is called in Buddhism the heresy of separateness. We are all part of one vast, incomprehensible Whole; we all sprang from one divine source aeons ago, and to that source we shall all return. It is our duty to work with nature rather than against it, and to help one another along the path. Every effort at self-improvement and every effort to help others, make a contribution, however small, to the progress of all humanity.
The highest and most noble ideal that we can try to live up to is called in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is a human being who has advanced so far on the path of spiritual progress that he has attained enlightenment and reached the threshold of nirvana. But rather than entering the peace and bliss of nirvana, which would rule out any further active involvement in human affairs, he renounces nirvana and returns to earth to help struggling humanity. This spirit of self-sacrifice is beautifully captured in the vow of the Chinese bodhisattva Kwan Yin:
Never will I seek or receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever, and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world.
It is the constant aspiration to realize this ideal, and above all the constant effort to practice compassion and brotherhood in our daily lives, that is the surest path to enlightenment.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)