Yoga and Expansion of Consciousness

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, talk at the National University, Bogotá, Colombia, May 2006

Yoga deals with the evolution and development of the human personality. The word yoga means a process of uniting the different phases of our personality. Although in many texts yoga is defined as union of the individual self with the higher self, when we look at the classical teachings, we find the system described is a very practical approach to knowing oneself.

Human beings are composed of two forces: prana, the cosmic energy, and consciousness, the evolving energy. Energy is dynamic, but consciousness is static. It is like a blind person and a lame person. One cannot see but can move, the other can see but cannot movef. What will they do? The lame person will sit on the blind person’s shoulders and act as the guide. This is exactly the concept of consciousness and energy in yoga. Energy is dynamic, but it does not have cognition, awareness, or consciousness. Consciousness can see everything, but is unable to move without the help of energy. These two forces govern our body and mind, emotions and feelings.

The mind is an extension of that cosmic consciousness which is interacting in the sensorial world, continuously interacting with the world of sense objects to try and find happiness and fulfilment. The mind is the extension of that consciousness which is not material but spiritual, transcendental, beyond the senses, beyond the grasp of the interactive mind. Our life is guided by the mind, the interactive consciousness.

It is the mind which experiences happiness, suffering, pain and joy, which creates desires, thoughts, ideas, philosophies and also religions. It is the mind which rules our life in the form of attractions and repulsions. We are attracted to something pleasant, but we reject something unpleasant. It is the mind which decides and which expresses its qualities of wisdom and ignorance. So, we can say that all our experiences are guided by the mind, and the body becomes the medium and the senses become the tool to achieve the goal set by the mind. This understanding is the beginning of yoga.

Classical definition of yoga

What is yoga? The classical texts define yoga as a process of channelling the forces or expressions of the mind. How? By following a discipline. What is the aim of discipline? To establish yourself in your real nature. These are the first three statements in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and are the foundation of yoga practice and philosophy. If yoga was only physical exercises, these statements would reflect that physical component. But they do not. If yoga was a religion, these introductory statements would reflect that religious inclination. But they do not; rather, in the yogic tradition yoga has to be seen as a discipline, a lifestyle and a science of practical living.

In order to create a system, a progressive practice, and to immerse oneself in yogic disciplines, there is a very beautiful sequence. Yoga begins with the body, goes to the mind and aims to realize the inner nature. The question can arise: If yoga deals with the mind, why does it begin with the body? Yoga looks at the well-being of the total personality, of the body, mind and spirit. Body, mind and spirit have to come together so that we can become a complete human being and experience the wholeness of life.

Role of yoga for physical well-being

In the classical texts, the yoga postures have been defined as physical postures, asanas, in which one is comfortable and still. Physical stillness and comfort reflect the state of mind that the body is experiencing. Although initially we do dynamic movements to loosen up stiff joints and muscles, the final aim is to come to a point of stillness and comfort where movement becomes irrelevant. It is very difficult to sit comfortably for an extended period of time without moving or changing the posture. Physical instability reflects a disturbed mental state. It is like tuning a guitar. Each string has a different tension which creates a different sound and the combination of these sounds creates the music. If the tension is correct, the sound is melodious, otherwise not. You can use this principle to look at yourself and how you are able to tune your life.

What do we tune in our life? We start with our body because the normal daily routine creates stresses in the body and internal organs. These tensions are so subtle that we don’t even feel them until they manifest as an irregularity, illness or imbalance. We lead a normal family and professional life, but we also confront various stresses. If we are unable to manage them, our inner mental clarity and relaxation are affected. We go to sleep at night with our problems, which builds up psychological tension. In the course of time that stress becomes high blood pressure or insomnia. We then try to manage these symptoms by taking medicines, but this only treats the symptoms, not the cause which is subtle, subconscious and unconscious.

Take hypertension, for example. We take medicine to lower the blood pressure and as long as the medicine is effective we are all right, but once the effect goes away the pressure rises. Then we become addicted to the medicine, not by choice but by force, not because of wisdom but because of ignorance about how to handle ourselves. We are treating the symptom, not the cause.

In Australia, in the 1970s, six cancer patients were taught simple yoga posture, breathing techniques, deep yogic relaxation and ajapa japa or meditation on the breath, with positive results. It was found that meditation can enable people to isolate the past experiences which have led to the development of cancer, to cancel the effects of the past and to release the frozen energies producing the cancer. Meditation also brings about a profound reduction in anxiety which allows an individual to mobilize their energies to fight the disease.

Practising the physical postures relaxes the disturbed, stressed organs of the body and increases immunity. The breathing techniques increase the body’s vitality and assimilation of oxygen. Relaxation helps one to manage fears and insecurities. It is not the disease, but the fear of the disease, DIFS – Disease Induced Fear Syndrome, which kills a person. Deep relaxation or yoga nidra practice frees the mind and the cognitive faculties from the influence of fear. The mind regains its vitality and energy and begins to influence the body to behave in the right manner. Meditation enables one to be more centred and to accept life.

In the UK a group of HIV positive patients were taught physical, respiratory, relaxation and meditative practice. Some improved, which indicates that through the practices of yoga there is a process happening in the body which harmonizes the imbalances in the defective organs, allowing them to function again at an optimal level.

Therefore, for physical well-being, which is the medium for our existence in this world, the first practice of yoga is asana, postures. Then we begin to work with the mind, to manage our thoughts, desires, inner weaknesses and inner strengths. Desires, thoughts, ideas, aspirations, feelings and emotions are all experiences and expressions of the individual mind according to the environment. A jar of water can be perceived as half full or half empty, according to the state of mind. But the nature of the mind is different to the projection of thoughts, emotions and desires.

Three states of mind: sattwa, rajas and tamas

Yoga has defined three types of natures, which reflect different states of mind, perception and expression. The three natures are the conditioned mind, the aggressive mind and the balanced mind. The conditioned or tamasic mind is like a sheet of paper totally covered in writing so that nothing more can be written on it. You live that conditioning for the duration of your life.

The second nature is the aggressive or rajasic mind in which the person’s needs, expectations, ego and so on become the centre of their life. We all have this type of mind when we are only aware of ourselves and whatever we do is to fulfil our needs. If we love somebody, it is because of our need. If we hate somebody, it is an expression of a feeling from within. The experiences are contained inside and the aggressive nature of the mind relates to those experiences by making oneself the centre of that experience.

When the aggressive mind does not find a sense of fulfilment and achievement, it goes wild. There is a swing from aggression to depression, then to aggression and another swing into depression. It is a common experience in our daily life. Satisfaction and dissatisfaction, like and dislike, an upswing in our desires and a downswing when they are not fulfilled. When we are anxious, there is no mental clarity. When one is totally self-centred, there is confusion, mental conflict and the destruction of peace and happiness, not inner wisdom.

The third type of mind is the balanced or sattwic mind. In the balanced mind one is the experiencer and observer of events that happen outside and inside. In this state of mind, one becomes the guide of the mental forces and does not remain subject to their influence. The mind management that yoga speaks of is coming to this point of balance by shifting the perceptions from the conditioned and aggressive natures to balance. Then there is the experience of peace, happiness and creativity.

In the system of yoga, there is a sequence of mental training which begins with self-observation. First you become aware of the normal mental expressions and behaviour. Are you aware of what you are thinking now? Are you aware of your feelings? Are you aware of your desires? They continue to exist, but at this moment you are not aware of them because you are focusing on what I am saying. It means that when the mind is focused, you are not aware of the peripheral behaviour and activities in the form of emotions, thoughts, desires, ego, arrogance, anxiety, stress, etc. But when the mind is dissipated and not focused, then all these factors suddenly affect the natural state of the mind.

Consciousness, the spiritual aspect of yoga

In yoga, the purpose of mental training is to come to a state of relaxation and concentration where you are able to filter the unnecessary influences from outside and from within, and to achieve a point of focus and balance. Once you are able to manage the interactive mind, then you move into the realm of consciousness and there the spiritual component of yoga begins.

The spiritual component of yoga is your understanding and realization of the creative energy within you. It is very difficult to describe consciousness. There is a broad understanding of consciousness as conscious, subconscious, unconscious and beyond unconscious, the transcendental self.

In order to understand consciousness, look at the ocean. If you dive into the ocean, at first there is enough light to see clearly, but as you go deeper, the light diminishes so that only movements, shapes and shadows can be seen. If you go even deeper, there is absolute darkness and you cannot see anything. We can say light is the conscious mind, dim light is the subconscious mind and darkness is the unconscious mind.

In the ocean there is no line demarcating the gradations of light and darkness. It is only a feeling or perception of light that allows us to know which depth we are at. Consciousness has to be treated in the name manner. There is no such thing as conscious, subconscious and unconscious, rather it is the perception of the different levels of mind according to our awareness.

Awareness is the light which helps us to interact, realize and see things as they are. For example, we are all sitting here wearing different coloured clothes, but if the light goes off, we will be unable to see the colours in the dark. The colours continue to exist, but in the absence of light they cannot be seen. It is the same with awareness. As long as there is awareness, we are able to perceive ourselves and the world, but without awareness we continue to exist without that knowledge. So, when you think of the illumination of consciousness, you can understand that it is the awareness which is now filtering into the dormant and dark areas of consciousness. The stronger the light of awareness becomes, the more the darkness decreases. That is what happens in the meditative systems of yoga.

While meditating, a person had a vision of a childhood trauma which later became the cause of his asthma. The moment he was able to realize it, the asthma disappeared. This example indicates that the experience is there, but not the awareness. This traumatic experience was in his subconscious mind, he was not able to release it and it was manifesting in the weakest organ of his body. But when in meditation he was able to extend his awareness into the subconscious and become aware of the trauma, it no longer had a hold over him.

This indicates how the development of awareness illuminates other dimensions of our mind, balancing them out by removing the factors which disturb the mind. Therefore, consciousness is treated along with the mind, not separately. If we are able to manage our mind, then we are able to develop our consciousness so that the creativity of life comes forth in all its glory. What we need today in our lives is creativity, not peace. Peace can be a desire, but our necessity is to learn how to manage our mind and our life. Yoga provides us with the means and understanding to do that.