Yoga—True and False

By Swami Prabhavananda

Swami Prabhavananda was the founder and head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1976. He was the author of The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta, The Eternal Companion, Religion in Practice and The Spiritual Heritage of India. In addition, he translated the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination and How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. “Yoga—True and False” appeared in the Sept-Oct, 1968 Vedanta and the West magazine.

In recent years a great deal of interest has been aroused in this country concerning yoga. And, we may be sure, whenever there is a demand for anything, there will be people to meet that demand regardless of whether the article is genuine or spurious. As a result of this present demand, a large number of teachers as well as institutions of yoga have begun to flourish.

But first, what is yoga? According to Patanjali, the father of Indian Yoga philosophy, yoga is the method of controlling the vagaries of the mind—to make it one-pointed. In order to understand this better, try to concentrate your mind on an object for any length of time. You will soon see how many distractions begin to arise in it. Patanjali called these distractions “waves on the lake of the mind.” The ultimate purpose of controlling the mind, he declared, was to reveal the truth of God, which lies in everyone’s heart.

The word yoga literally means “union.” Similarly, if we examine the English word “religion,” we find that its early Latin derivative is religio, “to bind again.” But to bind with what? With God, who is dwelling within. Through ignorance we have forgotten that we possess this divinity within. Hence, it is the purpose of yoga to reveal it to us. Swami Vivekananda, you will recall, defines religion as the unfoldment of the divinity within.

It is also unfortunately true that to a great many people in the West, yoga has come to be identified with what in India we call hatha yoga, which mainly teaches asanas or postures, and pranayama or breathing exercises. Of course, as we shall presently see, these are limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga; but hatha yoga emphasizes them to the exclusion of everything else. We might compare these postures to various exercises, which if they are begun when one is young, can be of great benefit to one’s health. They increase one’s longevity; therefore, there are many who practice hatha yoga in order to live long and be healthy. Nothing, certainly, is wrong with that. Still as Swami Vivekananada once said: “In your country the redwood tree is the most ancient tree in the world, but it still remains a tree.”

Now we come to breathing exercises. Let me caution you: they can be very dangerous. Unless properly done, there is a good chance of injuring the brain. And those who practice such breathing without proper supervision can suffer a disease which no known science or doctor can cure. It is impossible even for a medical person to diagnose such an illness. I know of one individual who complained to me of constantly experiencing headaches; and though he had gone to a number of doctors, they were unable to do anything for him. I asked him, “Have you been practicing breathing exercises?”

“Yes.” he said, “I have.”

At once I knew the source of his problem—breathing exercises.

I know of one other case. Shortly before I left India to come to the United States, a young boy of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age joined our monastery to practice hatha yoga. When I returned to India after an absence of thirteen years, I visited one of our centers. While sitting on the porch talking to a swami, I happened to notice this young person in the distance. He was acting very strangely. He would prostrate fully on the ground, rise to full height, then repeat the performance—over and over again. The swami said that he had lost his mind.

When the fellow approached me I was amazed to see that he still looked the same as when I knew him thirteen years ago! So it was true: certain exercises did keep one youthful. Yet how costly! Then he showed me various exercises, many which I knew to be difficult to master. In jest, I told him, “You should go to America. There you will make millions.” Unfortunately, he took me seriously, and even followed me to Benares, presumably with the hope that I would indeed take him to the United States. Finally, however, he became so unmanageable that he had to be confined.

Another unfortunate characteristic of hatha yoga is that the mind becomes much attached to the body. Health is certainly important, but if too much attention is paid the body spiritual growth can be greatly hindered. The ideal, we must remember, is to completely forget the body; ignorance is identification with the body. No spiritual experience can come to us until we are completely oblivious of the body’s existence; in fact, until we are completely oblivious of the world’s existence.

Thus, Sri Ramakrishna said that it is best to avoid hatha yoga because of the attention it requires we pay to the body and its obstruction to spiritual advancement. As regards breathing exercises, I know that Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and all the disciples of Ramakrishna have warned us again and again not to practice them.

There also exists another dangerously false idea about yoga. Some teachers have recently been speaking about meditation, which, of course, is the very core and central truth of spiritual life. Real meditation is real yoga. But the kind of meditation to which these teachers refer has no real basis, but is, more than anything, pure confusion. They point out meditation to be simple and easy, demanding hardly any sacrifice or self-restraint. Continue to live as you have been living, they tell us, it doesn’t really matter. Is it any wonder then they have attracted a large number of followers!

Let me quote one of them from a recent issue of a popular American magazine: “To qualify as a meditator, a prospective convert needs no preparation, no intellectual background; [meditation] requires no repudiation of the past, and no promise to behave in the future.”

Let me again quote this same “yogi” concerning meditation. He says: “[In meditation] A man can make daily contact with the aspects of his own being.”

Wonderful! But can we do it? Let me finish his remark: “…without any effort or concentration.” How easy he makes it sound for us! But in the next paragraph he contradicts himself by describing meditation as “the transference of attention…”(Note that he avoids the word concentration!) “from the gross state of thought to the subtle state, until the source of thought is reached and the mind transcends the source.” These are indeed high-sounding words, and one wonders what they mean.

It appears to be so simple and easy to attain transcendental bliss. “You need not practice any dispassion or nonattachment to worldliness.” In other words, he said, we do not have to give up any of our old habits or our normal or abnormal ways of living. Eat, drink, and make merry, practice yoga, and attain transcendental bliss!

There is another false idea of yoga which has become popular. It states that to make our minds quiet we must make them blank. It would seem the easiest way of doing this would be to simply ask a friend to strike us over the head! Or we might drug ourselves and thereby sleep so profoundly that even dreams would not invade our minds. But from nothing can come only nothing, and if one goes into such a state a fool, one will come out of it a fool.

Still another misconception about meditation is that it involves the contemplation of some subject, say a poem by Wordsworth, from which various thoughts and ideas are expected to emerge. This is the type of definition of meditation which we find in the dictionary; but as we shall discover, meditation is anything but that. It is not many pointed but one-pointed and requires concentration as its first requisite.

Let us turn now to what we might term “true yoga.” From the lips of Sri Krishna, the Lord of yogis, issued these words in the Bhagavad Gita: “Patiently, little by little, one must free oneself from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will.”

And later:

Utterly quiet,
Made clean of passion,
The mind of the yogi
Knows that Brahman;

Released from evil
His mind is constant
In contemplation:
The way is easy,
Brahman has touched him;
That bliss is boundless.

Mark these words: “His mind is constant in contemplation: the way is easy, Brahman has touched him.” One actually does feel the touch of God and “that bliss is boundless.”

There was one great spiritual aspirant who was aware of the difficulty that arises in the practice of concentration and meditation. This was Arjuna the warrior, Sri Krishna’s disciple and constant companion. Arjuna said to Krishna: “You describe this yoga as a life of union with Brahman. But I do not see how this can be permanent. The mind is so very restless. Truly I think the wind is no wilder.”

Krishna’s response is truly wonderful. “Yes, Arjuna, the mind is restless, no doubt, and hard to subdue. But it can be brought under control by constant practice, and by the exercise of dispassion. Certainly, if one has no control over his ego, one will find this yoga difficult to master. But a self-controlled person can master it if the person struggles hard, and uses the right means.”

Before we discuss these “right means” let us study two interesting parables by Sri Ramakrishna. The first is the story of a farmer whose fields were dry and who found it necessary to water them throughout the night. But when day broke, and he looked out over the fields, he noticed they were dry. The water had escaped through holes in the walls of the channel. In the same way, unless we conserve ourselves through self-control, the mind will remain restless. Our spiritual energy will escape through the holes of the senses.

Another story of Ramakrishna’s concerns some drunkards who discovered a boat one dark night and after getting inside it began to row. They rowed all night, but when dawn broke they discovered that they had gone nowhere. They had forgotten to take up the anchor. Therefore, in order to succeed in spiritual life, we must learn how to direct our energies and not waste them fruitlessly.

Meditation is the means to one-pointedness and a primary discipline of yoga. In Sanskrit, meditation is translated as dhyana, although this is not entirely accurate, for it is a difficult word to translate. In Japan, dhyana has come to have something of the same meaning as Zen. Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, as you might know. I have had the pleasure of knowing one great Zen scholar, Dr. D. T. Suzuki. Once I asked Dr. Suzuki: “Doctor, don’t you believe in spiritual disciplines and meditation?”

“Of course we do,” he answered.

Then I told him that one of his disciples, who was a great student of his writings, was preaching that it was not necessary to practice any disciplines.

“I wish I could burn all my books,” Dr. Suzuki said with a sigh.

Real meditation means that there must be a flow of thought directed toward an ideal, the ideal of God, without any break in continuity. You see, most of us can’t meditate, but we can concentrate, if only for a short time, and through the practice of concentration we reach a stage where we begin to meditate; that is, where there is no break in our thought. The illustration has been given of oil being poured from one vessel to another without any break in the flow of the liquid.

In order for us to reach this stage in our meditation we must create an interest in God; that interest causes us to continue thinking about God until love grows within, without love, meditation is not possible.

Let us see what Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:

Though one be soiled
With the sins of a lifetime,
Let him but love me.
Rightly resolved,
In utter devotion:
I see no sinner,
That man is holy.
Holiness soon
Shall refashion his nature
To peace eternal;
O son of Kunti,
Of this be certain:
The man that loves me
He shall not perish.

And in the Bible, we find the first commandment to be: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength and with all thy mind.”

In order to achieve this state of meditation we must practice spiritual disciplines and the main principle behind these disciplines is purity of heart. But in order for such purity of heart to arise in us, we must be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal; to realize that today everything is, tomorrow it is not.

Of course, this does not mean that we must give up all our possessions and live in the woods! The real ideal of dispassion and nonattachment is to cover everything with the presence of God. I see you before me. But what is that you? None other than Brahman or God—each one of us. It is He we must learn to see. This we must learn to love. We must love each and every one, all of humanity. How is this possible? By seeing that one divinity, that one Reality existing everywhere.

We should remember, however, that before such discrimination and love can arise we must develop a desire for God. How many really want God? How many are struggling for the knowledge of God?

We have mentioned earlier the philosophy of Patanjali; now let us examine the so-called eight limbs of his Yoga system. The first limb is called yama. Yama consists in abstention from harming others, from falsehood, theft, incontinence, and from greed in thought, word, and deed. Let us try to understand what this means. “Abstention from hurting others” means that we must not cause pain to any living soul, nor must we think such thoughts.

The positive aspect of this discipline is to see the one Reality, God, in every being. Love your husband, love your wife and your children; serve them, but know that you are serving God in them. Thus it is said in Yoga philosophy: “When a person has been steadfast in his abstention from hurting others, then all creatures will cease to feel enmity in his presence.” You see, people say, “Oh, he thinks badly of me. He hurts me.” We always complain that others cause our troubles.

In this connection, let me tell you one example of how in the presence of a holy man even a wild beast loses its savageness and becomes calm. Swami Brahmananda, my guru, was once walking with two of us down the road near our monastery. Suddenly we heard a cry: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way! A mad bull is coming!” In order to protect our guru, both of us stepped in front of him to face the charging bull. But Swami Brahmananda suddenly grabbed both of us (and though he was then an old man, we were like feathers to him!) and thrust us behind him. He simply stood there and stared directly at the charging bull. Then an amazing thing happened. The bull almost at once came to a halt directly in front of us, shook its head, and quietly trotted off.

And regarding truthfulness, Swami Brahmananda told us: “Tell the truth, but never a harsh truth.” Never have malice in your heart for anyone.

Next, Patanjali mentions abstention from theft. Although nobody would call us common thieves, we are, according to Patanjali, thieves in a certain respect. Everything in this world really belongs to God, but don’t we label this “mine” and that “yours”? You say you have earned something. But does it belong to you? Are you not, in a sense, constantly stealing from God or from nature? Patanjali does not ask us to be beggars or give away all we own; but instead consider ourselves trustees. Do not own anything, for when you possess something, that thing will possess you. Then you are bound!

Next, we are asked to abstain from incontinence, which means chastity in word, thought, and deed. Perhaps one remark is suitable here. Married couples are considered chaste if they remain faithful to one anther; but the spiritual teacher is expected to abstain totally from sexual activity in order to store his or her energy, that he or she might give truth to others. All of these, of course, are ethical virtues which are taught by every religion in the world.

In addition to these ethics, we are asked to undergo certain regular practices which serve to cleanse us, to purify us. These should become habitual with us. What is a human being, after all, but a bundle of habits? We can remold our character by creating a new bundle of habits. These habits are purity, both physical and mental, contentment, austerity, study, and devotion or surrender to God. Let us examine them briefly.

Purity is both inner and outer. Of course, physical purity is relatively simple; after all, we have to bathe! But even more important than physical cleanliness is purity of mind. Swami Brahmananda taught us this truth: “When you sit for meditation, try to feel that you are bathed in the presence of God. You have become pure. Think yourself pure.”

When I was a young boy, I remember reading in a book that one should repeat to oneself: “You are pure. You are pure. You are pure.” Sri Ramakrishna used to say that the wretch who says he is a sinner, a sinner becomes. Of course, we all make mistakes. But chant the name of the Lord and feel that you have become pure; then do not repeat the mistake. And from this purity comes cheerfulness, the power of concentration, control of the passions, and a general fitness for the vision of God. Such is the power of purity.

Contentment is the next habit we must develop. Contentment means our ability to maintain inner poise—even in the midst of the opposites of life. So long as we live in this world there will be a mixture of happiness and sorrow. There is heat and cold; pleasure and pain; birth and death. But in the midst of these opposites we must hold on to the pillar of God and maintain calmness and poise.

Next is austerity, which is of three kinds: austerity of the body, of speech, and of mind. The Bhagavad Gita defines austerity in this way:

Reverence for the seers, the teachers and sages; straight-forwardness, harmlessness, physical cleanliness; these are the virtues whose practice is called austerity of the body. To speak without ever causing pain to another, to be truthful, to say always what is kind and beneficial, and to study the scriptures regularly: this practice is called austerity of speech. The practice of serenity, sympathy, and integrity of motive is called austerity of mind.

Following austerity is study. By study is meant chanting the name of the Lord, repeating your mantra. That is the highest study.

Next, we must surrender the fruits of our actions to God. Each day, as you finish your work, think of God and surrender everything to Him.

The next limb is asana or postures. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the correct posture for meditation: “Motionless, with the body, head, and neck held erect….” Swami Vivekananda has pointed out this steadiness of posture comes to one who meditates on the presence of the all-pervading Existence. In the Brahma Sutras, the meditator is compared to the immovable earth. While he is concentrating, the yogi is beyond the law of place. Worship should be performed wherever the mind is concentrated, says this scripture.

Following asana is pranayama or control of the vital energy. One method for controlling the prana is through concentration. Breathing exercises, as we have mentioned earlier, are discouraged.

Next we come to pratyahara or detachment of the mind from objects of sense by not allowing the mind to join itself to the organs of sense—the centers of perception. There is a beautiful passage in the Bhagavad Gita which says: “The tortoise can draw in its legs/The seer can draw in his senses./I call him illumined.”

Swami Vivekananda has given us a fine lesson on how to detach ourselves from the sense organs. He writes:

The first lesson is to sit for some time and let the mind run on. The mind is bubbling up all the time; it is like the monkey jumping about. Let the monkey jump as much as he can, simply wait and watch; knowledge is power, says the proverb, and that is true; until you know what the mind is doing, you cannot control it. Give it the rein. Many hideous thoughts may come into it, you will be astonished that it was possible for you to think such thoughts, but you will find that each day the mind’s vagaries are becoming fewer, and less violent; that each day it is becoming calmer. In the first few months, you will find that the mind will have a great many thoughts; later you will find that they have somewhat decreased, and in a few more months you will find they are fewer and fewer, until at last the mind will be under perfect control. But we must patiently practice every day.

Another limb of Patanjali’s Yoga is concentration or holding the mind in the center of spiritual consciousness in the body. Or we may fix the mind on some divine form outside or inside the body—whichever is simplest. If you begin to think of Him outside, gradually bring Him inside. Of course, here again there is no uniform rule for everyone; temperaments differ and so must the teaching. That is why you need the help of a guru.

In one of the Upanishads we read: “The supreme heaven shines in the lotus of the heart; they enter there who struggle and aspire. Retire into solitude; seat yourself on a clean spot, and in erect posture, with the head and neck in a straight line. Be indifferent to the world.” I remember one of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna saying: “When you go to meditate, forget even the Ramakrishna Mission. It is just God and you.”

The Upanishad continues: “Control all the sense objects; bow down in devotion to your guru, then enter the lotus of the heart, and there meditate on the presence of Brahman, the Infinite, the Blissful.”

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Yoga—True and False