Towards Pratyahara

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Hatha yoga begins with the practices of purification, shatkarma, to detoxify the body. After the purification, you move into the practices of asana, then into pranayama. The asanas of hatha yoga are dynamic and the pranayamas of hatha yoga develop control over the breath and respiration. Mudras and bandhas are also part of hatha yoga, through which you develop the skills to direct the energy flow. This is followed by practices of concentration to focus the mind. All this constitutes hatha yoga.

When this much is perfected, you come to raja yoga. It is like finishing primary school before entering secondary school. Just as there are several classes in primary school, there are several steps in hatha yoga. If a student of the first class says, “I want to join the secondary school”, will the teacher allow it? No. However, the hypocrites in spiritual life do allow it. So those who are sincere in spiritual life must understand that hatha yoga has to be perfected first and then one can move into raja yoga.

In hatha yoga you start with shatkarma to purify the body, then go through a progressive sequence of asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, and specific concentration and meditation techniques. You prepare one dimension of your existence: the annamaya and pranamaya koshas. In raja yoga you deal with manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas, and therefore raja yoga begins with yama and niyama. The first step of raja yoga is not asana, as everybody thinks. It is yama and niyama.

Yama and niyama are practices for harmonizing manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas, not annamaya or pranamaya. They are for the mind, they change the mood of the mind. Yamas create a positive conditioning, a mood, and the niyamas enforce those conditions. People ignore yama and niyama, and that is the major flaw when trying to attain mental discipline. For example, when you meditate, you try to empty out your mind, you try to remove anything that is bugging the mind. Then what? You open your eyes. The meditation is over when the mind has been emptied. The problem is, the moment you open your eyes the mind again gets filled with things that had disturbed you, which indicates that you did not create a mental condition in your meditation that could sustain when the eyes are open. You emptied the mind but you did not fill it with something positive when it was empty, therefore the result of meditation is never experienced. You only say, “Oh, I feel good, I feel relaxed, I feel peaceful, I feel quiet.” Beyond these fleeting feelings, there is no deeper experience in meditation.

When you are dealing with the mind, after you remove the dross you need to put in the positive. When there is a vacuum inside, when you have emptied the mental pot of anxiety, stress, worry, distractions and dissipations, you need to fill it with some positive content that can remain with you for some time. This is where yamas and niyamas come in. When you focus on a yama in the state of meditation, your mind gets coloured with that yama, and in the course of time it becomes a natural expression. It becomes a condition of mind, not imposed ethics or morality. Yoga does not speak about ethics and morality; it takes you into states of perception, purification, experience and expression in the most positive sense.

The focus of raja yoga is to create a positive state in the mind. The asanas and pranayamas of raja yoga are also for deepening the meditative state, the state of mental one-pointedness. When you practise asana, your priority is to find sthirata, stability in the posture. In hatha yoga you develop that sthirata. When you come to raja yoga, that stability should already be there. Therefore, when raja yogis define asana they say that asana is a posture in which you are already firm, stable and comfortable. You are not seeking stability in raja yoga, you have to gain that in hatha yoga. In raja yoga you simply continue that state of stability and comfort to deepen your mental experience, not the physical.

The asanas are defined in raja yoga as sthiram and sukham. Sthiram means stable, fixed, and sukham means comfortable. Comfort is an offshoot of the happy state of mind. If you are not happy you will not be comfortable. It is not just a physical state; mental happiness and physical stability come together to create the experience of comfort. The mind has to always be positive to come to that point of comfort. Therefore the raja yoga asanas are static postures that help internalize the mind.

It is the same with pranayama. Hatha yoga describes many different types of pranayama, while Patanjali says, “Inhale, exhale, hold - that is pranayama.” This description of pranayama is often quoted by people. While they practise hatha yoga pranayama, they speak of the raja yogic concept of pranayama. Yoga teachers will teach bhastrika or kapalbhati to their students, and then say, “Sage Patanjali says pranayama is inhaling, exhaling and retaining the breath.” That is not a raja yoga pranayama, it is a pranayama practised for a different purpose.

Whether it be yama, niyama, or raja yoga asanas and pranayamas, to come to the point of chitta vritti nirodhah, controlling the inner modifications, an important stage of raja yoga has to be attained: pratyahara. Therefore keep in mind chitta vritti nirodhah and pratyahara. These two are the directions of raja yoga.

Pratyahara begins with the understanding that ‘I am going to work with my mind, I am going to see myself, I am going to de-stress myself, I am going to observe the chatter that goes on in my mind in the form of thoughts, visions and experiences’. Pratyahara is the condition that you have to achieve when you practise raja yoga, not dharana, not dhyana, not samadhi. The entire subject of raja yoga revolves around pratyahara.

—22 October 2016, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Raja Yoga Training - Module 1 (Extract)