A Basketful of Earth

Swami Swayambodhananda Saraswati

As a new sannyasin to the ashram I felt strange, and was hardly aware of what was happening around me in those first few days. It was like a dream. During this period Swamiji once casually advised me, 'Just do something, and you will become interested in your sadhana'. There was nothing new in that advice. I'd heard it before, but out of respect for Swamiji, I acted upon it. I felt that Swamiji was being considerate towards me also; you see there was, I thought, practically no job in the ashram which I was capable of doing.

One day I happened to see another swami working in the ashram garden. He toiled from five a.m. to six p.m., sweating in the sun as he carried earth in a basket across the garden. I thought I could help in my small way, so I began lifting baskets full of earth and throwing them in a corner of the garden.

As I worked, I thought about the job, and was surprised to discover that this seemingly worthless task was perhaps the most important thing I could do in life. I was performing a complete sadhana, and herein I will try to convey why a labourer is more blessed than any king or president in history.

This simple act of lifting a basketful of earth encompasses most of the techniques of hatha and raja yoga. I was practising truth because I was following my guru. The labour brought my mind constantly into the present, which was the practice of brahmacharya. The action did not injure any living being, thus constituting the practice of ahimsa or non-violence. The strain forced me to withdraw my feelings of association with the body, which in effect was pratyahara. During the time I separated my body and mind, I began to observe my thoughts. I was then practising antar mouna. This was further strengthened when a scolding from another swami about my laziness forced me to withdraw from the mind even more to escape the misery. The practice of nishkam karma yoga was inherent in my job, as I was not paid for my efforts.

Shancha, or cleanliness, came naturally because of increased blood circulation, sweating, drinking water continuously, and bathing at least twice a day to remove the mud. Having to bear with the monotony of the job led me into the practice of vairagya or detachment. Tapas or austerity was natural as I worked in the hot sun to the point of exhaustion. Swadhyaya or self-study was essential, because I continually wondered why I was doing this work. My practice of swadhyaya also included ajapa japa, as I did japa in synchronisation with the breath. I saw no useful result for my future life eventuating from this work, so this uncertainty about my future forced me to practise ishwara pranidhana or self-surrender. All this constituted the practices of yama and niyama.

While lifting the baskets of earth, I contracted the urogenital, abdominal and neck muscles, and held my breath for two seconds. This was equivalent to one round of maha bandha. Throwing the soil down from my head also involved maha bandha. Thus I practised two rounds of maha bandha with each basketful of earth, so I must have done one hundred rounds each day. The scriptures are full of praise for the bandhas and consider them a greater practice than all the asanas put together. The weight on my head induced heavy breathing which combined with the mantra, led me automatically into ujjayi pranayama, the psychic breath.

Being inclined towards music, I started a tune to alleviate my fatigue. But due to the heavy load on my head, my lungs were compressed and my mouth was closed, so I had to hum. Under these conditions, the same effect was induced as in brahmari pranayama.

Of course, the ground I walked on was rather uneven, and I had to be well balanced to keep the basketful of earth on my head. So I had to concentrate upon my body so intensely, that I was practising dharana or concentration.

Finally I realised that I was doing this seemingly nonsensical work of carrying earth because my guru had initiated me into action. I became aware of the continuous flow of inspiration which was itself a practice of dhyana or meditation. Thus, I found that lifting a basketful of earth was an integral sadhana in raja yoga.

In this way, I discovered that anyone who has the proper attitude and frame of mind can also convert his work into yoga. I can speculate now, that many of the old sages grasped the same essence as they carried out many unsophisticated jobs like chopping wood or watering the fields. They developed these essential actions into advanced systems of sadhana to accelerate individual growth.