How to Progress in Yoga

From Teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati Volume IV

It is not necessary to do a lot of yoga, but the same practices have to be done for a long period of time. It seems to be a monotonous affair. The same Om Namah Shivaya is practiced throughout the day and night for weeks, for months, for years, for life. Therefore, I sometimes have great difficulty in finding out what I should speak about on yoga. Should it be theory or practice?

The theory we have invented and the practice is simple. It starts with the mind, with the same mind which thinks, which worries, which is a riddle of life, which plays a lot of mental pranks. This mind has to be used for the practice of yoga, like a bad servant to be used for such a good cause. First of all, it is necessary for us to change the nature of the servant. If you have a business and your assistant, your helper, your subordinate, has the habit of stealing, you would not put him in charge of the cash department.

The mind is definitely full of latent impressions of karma, that have accumulated during the process of evolution from the animal incarnation. The habits of the mind are such that we have to deal with this object, this entity mind, first. How can we sit for concentration and meditation with a vagrant wandering mind? After all, there is an end to our patience. In order to deal with the problems of the mind, we have to classify them.

If you deal with the problems of children, first of all you have to define what the problems are. In the same way, the classification of mental problems is of the utmost importance. The great spiritual seers have come to the final decision that the mind has threefold problems or faults: impurities, dissipations and ignorance or unawareness. Everyone's mind has not evolved to the state of saintliness, and the mind which has not evolved to the state of sattwa is suffering from these threefold faults.

Purification of the mind

We have to deal with these threefold problems of the mind by a systematic approach to yoga sadhana. Karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, is important for the purification of the mind. You cannot purify the mind unless it is rid of its toxic matter. The toxic matter of the body is released by naturopathy, by natural methods, by purging or fasting. The mental body has to be purified by the incessant practice of karma yoga.

Selfless action in itself is yoga. If you have understood yoga and spiritual life to be sitting in the lotus posture with eyes closed, you have misunderstood yoga and spiritual life. If you think that the actions and activities of life do not contribute to the growth of spiritual consciousness, you are making a great blunder! Man cannot evolve without action. He cannot overcome his faults without action.

Man's evolution and downfall are caused by karma. When karma is done with selflessness, not for yourself, but for others, it does not beget any seed or consequence. The results of selfless karma are sterile; they do not generate another karma because the personal ego and attachment are not involved in the action. Where will unhappiness come from? Where will pain be generated? This selfless action is an important form of yoga for the purification of the mind, because you are releasing karmic forces which otherwise would take you to the mental hospital, or would cause mental depression or other psychological problems.

There exists what is known as mental energy, and this mental energy is backed by the karmic forces. For example, what will happen if a person is constipated and still keeps on eating? He will need some outlet for it. It may be through vomiting, purging, diarrhoea or dysentery. Then he may take some medicine from the doctor to help cure the diarrhoea, and that gives him a headache. So he takes a little bit of aspirin. Then he has another pain here, so he takes some other kind of medicine. Then he gets a backache.

The toxin is traveling through the body. If you do shankhaprakshalana, the cleaning of the alimentary canal with saline water, there will be no vomiting, no diarrhoea, no headache, no pain in the chest, no acidity, no gastric, peptic or duodenal ulcer or any kind of disease. The toxic substances in the system need an outlet, either natural or unnatural. In the same way, the mental energy needs a natural outlet and that natural outlet is karma. When karma is done for a selfish purpose, it is an outlet. When it is done with selfless motives, it is also an outlet. Both karma with self-intent and karma with selflessness are outlets, but there is a difference.

The karma with selfless motives does not generate further karma, while the karma with selfish motives keeps generating and regenerating further karma. New toxins come back to the individual. One of the problems of the mind is impurity, and this has to be eliminated by the practice of karma yoga before we take up the practices of kundalini yoga, laya yoga, dhyana yoga or any higher yoga. Otherwise, during meditation this energy causes hallucinations and illusions. This is a fact.

Dealing with dissipation

The second problem of the mind is dissipation. The mind is never steady. It is restless by nature, like a monkey. When a monkey is stung by a scorpion, it becomes all the more restless so that even a whole bottle of champagne won't quiet it – super-restlessness. This is the nature of the mind. It is always moving, never static. It is not able to hold itself still or fix itself at one point.

Even if I were to give you concentration by touching your forehead for a moment, afterwards your mind would revolt again, because activity is the natural formation and structure of the mind. The mind is made up of three substances or elements: sattwa, rajas and tamas; these are the three qualities of nature: equilibrium, activity and immobility respectively. These are the three eternal qualities of which the mind is composed.

Therefore, in order to create a state of spontaneous concentration, bhakti yoga should be practiced. According to the great gurus of the past, the mind spontaneously becomes one-pointed by the practice of bhakti yoga, in the form of kirtan, in the form of satsang, in the form of reading the lives of great saints. Without adding bhakti yoga as an element of your spiritual sadhana, dissipation of the mind cannot be stopped.

The veil of ignorance

The third problem of the mind is ignorance or unawareness of the principles of consciousness, chit. There are true principles which we do not know because our parents did not teach them to us, and they did not teach us because they did not know themselves. Ignorance of the truth, the true principle of life, is called avidya. This veil of ignorance can be rent asunder by the practice of jnana yoga, the yoga of philosophical rationality.

Questions like, why am I doing all this? What for? What is this body? What is the mind? What is the spirit? How is all this related to time and space? What is time in relation to the mind? What happens when I go to sleep? Who is there? Who witnesses the sleep? What happens in dreams, and why do I dream? Who is the witness of the dream? Am I the same person who is waking, sleeping and dreaming? Or am I three different beings, three different personalities? If I am, then who dreams, who sleeps and who is awake now?

These and many other questions come into our minds and we have to come to a conclusion on the basis of the dictums of the great saints and philosophers. This is jnana yoga – I am a part of the cosmic nature. It is the first truth which we have to know, believe and keep in our minds. This body is not the ultimate substance. The awareness of time and space through this mind is a finite concept, not an infinite concept. Therefore, it is not absolute, and when it is not absolute, it cannot be truth. That which is truth must be absolute. This is jnana yoga.

In jnana yoga we come to the principle of truth, we know what it is, on the evidence of saints, revelations and the dictums of the great philosophers who said, ‘I am That.' That becomes the guideline, Aham Brahmasmi, I am the cosmic light. The saints have said, "Realize your real nature," which means that behind the shadow of the body and mind, behind passions and emotions, behind the ever changing experiences, there is an eternal consciousness within us which has homogeneity at its root and which is just cosmic, without beginning and without end. The experience is an absolute experience which has no other dimension of experience.

Adding the basic ingredients

It is necessary for spiritual aspirants to equip themselves with karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga, and along with these three, we must add raja yoga to our curriculum. Why does raja yoga not succeed? Why does it not bring the desired results? In spite of all our honest and sincere practices, we do not seem to have gone anywhere; we may even have gone backwards a little. We are where we were. Why? Is it because the system of raja yoga is incomplete, or is it because the principles of raja yoga are fraudulent? Is it because the practices of raja yoga are either oriental for Orientals, or occidental for Occidentals?

I think that what we have done is something like preparing a nice dinner and placing it on the table, but we have forgotten to add the necessary ingredients to make it tasty. In our ashram life we have added karma yoga as the most important ingredient. Many aspirants who come to our ashram are surprised and they say, "Hey, we came for meditation and all we do here is work!"

What can I say to people who are not wise enough to know the glory of karma yoga as the outlet of energy in man? Karma is not just physical mobility; it is mental and emotional mobility. The energy is moving whether you work in the garden, kitchen, office, building or carpentry section, or cleaning the toilet. Wherever you work, it is not just the physical body which is working.

In India, monasteries are called ashrams. The root of the word ashram isshram, which is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘effort'. Ashram is a place where you make a twofold effort. First is the work in the ashram – the physical labour in the kitchen, in the construction, in the press, in the bank, in the post office, and so on. Second is the spiritual effort which you make.

Therefore, an ashram is a place where you make physical and spiritual effort. We have made it a compulsory rule that everyone who comes to the ashram to live, no matter how great a scholar, how rich or intellectual he may be, he has to participate in the activities of ashram life in order to evolve, in order to make himself competent for raja yoga.

For years, when I was living with my guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, in Rishikesh, I sometimes thought that if I had to work like I did, it would be better if I went back to my family and worked there, because I was not working like a man; I was working like a bull, like a donkey. Eventually I think that work became my passion, my second nature. Sometimes for weeks I had no time to think, I just worked.

Once I asked Swami Sivananda, "Why should we work so hard in the ashram when we have renounced everything?" He said, "Have you renounced karma? If you have renounced, then do not go to the toilet because that is karma. Do not eat because that is also karma. Do not talk because talking is karma. Do not desire because desiring is also karma." I said, "Hey, that is very difficult!"

If the renunciation of karma is such a difficult task, why try to renounce it? Adopt it. This is what is written in the Bhagavad Gita. It says, "There is not a moment in life when man can remain without action." As long as he remains alive, man must act. The nature of his mind will compel him, his desires will compel him to act. If his desires, passions and ambitions are not able to compel him to act, he will become slow, lethargic and dull. Desire, passion and ambition stimulate karma; they are the fuels for karma.

Karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga should be practiced simultaneously in our day-to-day life. Side by side, you should practice asanas, pranayama, mudra, bandha, kriya, and whatever else you practice. Then you will not be able to say, "I have been practicing raja yoga for six years and nothing is happening. I am not progressing. I seem to be at the same point." You will be able to say, "My practice is going very well. Every day I feel something; I have some new experience or insight about truth and about life." You will be satisfied. The three conditions of the mind, impurity, dissipation and ignorance, should be removed first, and then raja yoga will become constructive. Raja yoga will become a fulfillment and the truth in your life.

—17 October 1978, Melbourne Ashram, Melbourne, Australia