Comments on customs
The body has to be rendered fit by a course of purification and training in posture to practise meditation. It is not ordinarily ready to do so without such previous preparation, geniuses excepted. The posture training is of two kinds. First, the spine and head must be straightened by a slight contraction of the anus, a pull of the navel region backwards and upwards, a drawing-up of the neck and head. There are psychic and energy currents from the solar plexus passing up the spine during meditation to the brain. Not only is their free movement hindered by a bent body or a sunken chest, but they are unable to attain their proper strength. The second kind of posture training is to find the fixed position in which one can sit steadily for a long time without getting uncomfortable. This is necessary because if the body is moving about, or working, or shaking, the mind cannot attain the proper depth of thought or subtlety of attention or absorption needed for meditation, nor can the collection and concentration of the vital forces needed for the same purpose occur.
We are so tied to the foolish idea which regards body and mind as two wholly separate and different entities, that all too many regard it as undignified to practise physical exercises in order to influence the mind. The discoveries of mentalism show how foolish is such an attitude, how much we miss in outer helps to inner attainment.
Less than two centuries ago most men were working on the land, the sea, and the forests and mines. In the cities they worked in hand-operated workshops and the cities themselves were not so large; the countryside was close at hand. They worked hard and long, using the muscles of their bodies, and so did their wives. This involuntary exercise of the muscular system, this exposure to sunshine and fresh air, this limitation to fresh and unpreserved foods, kept most of them healthy and strong even if the lack of better housing and sanitation kept short the lives of some of them. Then came the industrial revolution, when the machine and the civilization it created changed their habits of living. Now they crowd into cities, enter sedentary occupations, sit in chairs for long hours, or stand at mechanical assembly lines. Their bodies become soft, flabby, and undeveloped. Their organs of digestion function imperfectly. Yet such is their hypnotized condition that they do not often realize the harm which modern ways have done them; indeed, they usually pity their ancestors! But those who do realize it and feel uneasy in their conscience about it, need to make a positive effort to eliminate the deterioration and the atrophy which are the price paid for straying away from Nature.
There is no better way to bring the body under control than the way used to bring the mind under control--to put it under a daily routine of exercises and to have a fixed time for their repeated practice.
The best time naturally to do exercises is on rising from bed, but it may not be the most convenient time.
If the body is a battery and needs regular recharging (through relaxation practices), it is also a structure and needs reconditioning (through indicated exercises.)
Cicero's prescription to follow the daily period of exercise with a period of rest is an excellent one.
It is possible with only twelve months of regular, daily work to build up a perfect physical control.
The ordinary bodily exercises can soon become tiring to middle-aged people. Moreover they take twice or treble the time needed for the simple culture of the spine, which is the most concentrated form of exercise possible. It stretches the body to the limit.
It may be too much to ask students who have reached middle or old age to try all these exercises in physical betterment or follow all these instructions in physical coordination. But what they may find impossible to perform or what they may be disinclined to practise, they can still make advantageous use of in the following way. Let them bring such teaching to the notice of younger persons, to children in their teens and those just beyond the threshold of adulthood--for it is far easier for these younger persons to do than for older ones. The effort required is much less, the habits not so much encrusted.
The body is deliberately made to exercise itself in certain attitudes and gestures. Any gesture becomes an attitude when it is arrested.
Care of the physical organism will require attention to physical exercise as well as physical relaxation and to deep and abdominal breathing.
The disuse of some muscles and the misuse of others can only lead to bodily faults. Restore the first to use, correct the second.
If any exercise has unpleasant effects such as discomfort or pain, its practice should be discarded for a time. The cause should be sought for and, if found, remedied. There may be a mistake in the manner in which the exercise is done.
It is not necessary to practise vigorous exercises that quickly tire one, nor to put forth strenuous exertions that make one perspire. There are mild, simple, and slow movements which can bring about the desired results without them.
The custom of working earnestly at self-improvement through a series of exercises done every day, exercises which involve the body as well as the mind, is somewhat frightening to lazy people, somewhat impracticable to busy people, and somewhat superhuman to average ones. This is why so many of those who start any regime of regular exercises fail to continue and finish the course. The longer the daily period required, the sooner their enthusiasm wanes. Only those succeed who have exceptional determination and unusual persistence. The fact is, we are not easily amenable to rigorous discipline. But if the period of daily work were limited to essentials for a few minutes only, many more people would remain faithful to it.
The idea of doing exercises for a space of time daily carries a suggestion of monotony and boredom with it.
The value of stretching and bending exercises is twofold. First, there is the local and beneficial effect on the particular part of the body's muscles and organs. Second, there is the general good effect which comes from the deep breathing they induce.
The greatest benefit is got by bending the entire trunk, which means bending forwards, backward, and sideways.
When a muscle is regularly compelled to undergo a series of stretches and contractions, not only is it kept flexible but it is also kept strong.
By working a muscle group against resistance, he will build up willpower as well as muscle power.
Holding the spine properly allows the flow currents of this Spirit-Energy to circulate properly.
The benefit of a specific exercise is to be measured by the warmth, or kundalini, it creates--not by the time it takes.
Those who have seldom or never done bodily exercises may find it hard to start or, if started, to finish the complete daily period. It would be a pity if they gave up before sufficient time had passed to feel the benefits of the work.
Merely to lie down reduces the heartbeats by no less than ten each minute, thus saving this ever-working organ some of its heavy labour.
The simple exercise of stretching helps to counter the congestions, compressions, and adhesions which obstruct the flow of the vital force through the spinal column with its sixty-two branching nerves and thus to regain energy. This truth of the need of spine-loosening movement is instinctively known by every dog and cat, every lion and tiger, for they apply it immediately after awakening from sleep. The back, the legs, and even paws are bent and stretched and even rolled by them in this natural exercise.
(a) To make the spinal column flexible and serviceable for these purposes, it must be both loosened and stretched. The exercise which can do this is to stand with arms straight overhead and feet pointing to the front. Turn the upper trunk above the waist as far to the right as possible, repeat to the left. Breathe in deeply, hold breath and grasp an imaginary parallel bar with the two hands before making these movements, and pull yourself upward during them. An incidental effect of this exercise is to invigorate and stimulate the general tone of the body.
(b) The top of the spine and the neck area surrounding it need a supplementary exercise to complete the work. This simply consists of drawing the chin slightly inward and then giving an upward pull to the head and neck; then when this series is finished, half turn the head to the right, later to the left. All these simple semi-rotations of the upper body take little time but give a large result.
By drawing up the whole body as straight and as tall as it will go--a process which consciously uses, stretches, and strengthens the muscles--the spine is held erect and the head high. This simple exercise gives grace to the form, vitality to its movements, and resistance to sickness.
Ruth Revere offered an exercise to iron out the curves of the spine, strengthen the muscles around the spinal vertebrae, and integrate the pelvis with the spine for firm support in the upright position. It involves lying on your back on the mat or rug. Bend your knees up over your body. Clasp the tips of your fingers around your knees. Round your elbows and ease your shoulders. Now, with the right knee in line with the right shoulder and the left knee in line with the left shoulder, rock your whole body slowly from side to side. Go as far as you can without flopping or resting your elbows on the floor. Keep your arms round. Start to the other side by using your inner, centering muscles (abdomen). This forces you to straighten out your spine with every effort. In time you will get the feel of it and every attempt will help. It relaxes the back muscles.
The spinal column stores nerve force and delivers it to all the nerve-endings which terminate in it. These nerves carry this force throughout the body. Since this includes the brain, we may see how important it is to take proper care of the spine. There are three ways to do so: posture, exercise, and stimulation. The first requires us to carry the spinal column erect. The second is to turn, bend, and twist it daily so as to keep it supple. The third is to stimulate it by cold showers or wet packs. Take wet towels alternately hot and cold, fold them over until they are about four inches wide, and lay them on the back along the whole length of the spine. The water in which the towels are dipped should be alternately as hot and as cold as one can bear without discomfort.
Many persons are not hardy enough to withstand the shock of a very cold shower. Those who are not physically strong enough to endure it should be satisfied with a cool one; otherwise the kidneys, the heart, or the bladder may be injured.
The total training and balanced endeavour of philosophy are enough by themselves to avoid any danger from identification with the body. But it takes an additional precaution against it by introducing the following declaration for momentary practice during the pauses between different movements or positions: "I am not this limited body. It is my servant. I am infinite Mind."
That good posture is one of the determinants of a purified body may seem too bold an assertion to be credible even to many who may be able to grant that it is one of the determinants of physical fitness. Let them remember that the spine is the trunk of a tree, the central nerve system, crowned by the brain, the organ of thought.
The connections between the neck, the thorax, and the breathing process must be understood and brought under conscious control.
A proper self-respect will of itself straighten the posture and remove the sag in the middle. But the opposite is just as true. A proper posture will add self-respect to the character.
The poise of the head, the posture of the spine, and the functioning of the breath determine every attitude of the whole body.
By lowering the centre of the body's gravity in all its activities, whether sitting, walking, or standing, we are raising its ability to obey the will and the mind.
Proper posture does not mean stiff posture.
The basic principle taught by yoga in this connection is that the back should be carried as erect as possible. As it is ordinarily and unconsciously carried, the vertebrae are pressed together so that the spinal column is actually shortened. But as it ought to be carried, they should be pulled away from each other so that the spinal column is actually lengthened.
There is a common idea, probably derived from now outdated military drills, that right posture involves lifting up and throwing back the shoulders and stiffening the knees. This is wrong as it throws too much strain on the body and fatigues the nerves.
What the head initiates, the remainder of the body follows. This, in the case of the developed man, is true of what lies inside the head. But concerning the physical head itself, it is true of all men, developed and undeveloped.
The relation of consciousness to the ego expresses itself in the use of the ego. The use expresses itself in the relation between the head and the trunk.
Beware of the student's stoop.
The writer whose head is drooped and whose neck is bent by desk work is not in the best posture to generate inspired ideas.
This training of the spine has some valuable secondary and incidental results. Although these are connected with the improvement of health and eradication of disease, and as such are not the direct object of the training, their value remains a great one for sufferers. For instance, weak and painful backs can be the result of several different causes but one of them is faulty posture when walking. The following way of carrying the torso is bad: drawing the shoulders and chest too far back and pushing the abdomen too far forward. This curves the spine in the wrong direction and unnecessarily throws too much weight upon it.
Fatigue may allow the spine to sag, thus flattening the cushion-like cartilages between its discs and impinging on the nerve branches. This in turn restricts the inflow of nerve force and lowers nerve energies.
The spine is so delicately built up that it is affected for the worse by the soft beds in which the body sleeps for several hours nightly. A harder surfaced bed is better for it.
It is not a necessary accompaniment of spirituality that a man be weak and sickly in body.
Those who suffer from spinal troubles or hip diseases should not practise any physical exercises without previous permission from their physician.
Between the two extreme forms of exaggerated posture, the slouch and the soldier, the first of course is the more serious.
Even when attending to the ordinary duties of every day routine, if this is done by throwing more work upon particular muscles than they need do, albeit unconsciously, then it is done badly. The end result is fatigue.
Entering a room, going to a chair, or walking in a street should not be done by a soul-guided man too quickly or too violently. It is ungraceful and unspiritual in appearance, while disturbing mentally. Gentle, leisurely movements are more suitable.
If you study the walking habits of men who have attained this tranquillity, you will find that slowness of movement accompanies sacredness of quality.
The nuns are taught not to rush across a room nor to run along a corridor. A paced, slowed walk is the proper way. This helps recollection, remembrance, self-control, and a growth of inner calm.
Even his bodily movements must be brought into conformity with his mental attitude. His very gait in walking must be brought frequently to conscious attention and harmonized with the deliberations, the patience, the equilibrium, and the uprightness which, ideally, exist there.
When we remember that so much of the day we are doing these very things--sitting, standing walking, breathing, resting, or sleeping--the importance of doing them in the right way may be realized. They are functions which may easily be done in the wrong way, and continue so for years, and even for a whole lifetime.
Whether it be to practise meditation or to fall and lie asleep, the position of the body should be such as to prevent it from becoming cramped or taut.
Shall the mystic walk with anaemic face and flat feet through life and let only the materialist walk with forceful step and resolute mien?
Western physical exercises seem designed to create bulging muscles, an over-expanded chest, and special athletic skills. It is enough for the healthful development of a balanced human being to bring the muscles no farther than the point of easy and instant obedience, to make the body perform its varied functions adequately and gracefully.
Whereas Western gymnastic exercises are intended to develop muscle, Eastern exercises are intended to develop control.
All physical techniques have an indirect helpfulness but their value should not be overrated, as the advocates and teachers of these techniques almost always do. They misplace their emphasis on the body and on the tricks it is able to perform. Only one detail of the human organism deserves their greater emphasis and that is intuition.
The Occidental worship of bodily arts, cultures, sports, exercises, and regimes would be excellent if it were part of a larger program of living that included the spiritual. But it is not. The Occidental mostly stops and ends with glorification of the body.
There is a most important difference between the work done in ordinary physical culture and the work done in this system. Those who jump about on a gymnasium floor or lift weights or engage in outdoor sports do so usually for the body's sake. But students who follow philosophic teachings practise their exercises for the Quest's sake. This fully respects the body and cares scrupulously for it.
It would be a delusion to believe that the practice of these physical disciplines alone can bring enlightenment. It is not obtainable by stretching the body, or holding the breath, although these may quite indirectly help to prepare the way for obtaining it. The ego must be transcended.
It is as necessary to make a daily ritual of these cleansing habits and physical exercises as it is of religious or mystical ones. They should be combined, the physical being practised before the spiritual ritual as a preparation for it and for the day's activity.
Tai Chi is a system of slow, gentle, graceful movements combined with meditation. It can be used either for self-defense, health, or aesthetics. Breath control is a vital element of this practice. Weight and pressure are made to sink down to what is called in Zen the Hara Centre (near the solar plexus). This system belongs to Chinese Taoism.
Long ago the dervishes in the Near East used a system of training which gave extraordinary control over the muscular system, swift reflexes, and striking mental concentration. For example, they would direct the movements of one limb while at the same time they directed another limb in a different way.
Too much exercise may be as harmful in the end as too little, while improper exercise may be more injurious than either.
Posture exercises: (1) Stand with feet together. Pinch buttocks together. Hold for five counts; relax. (2) Stretching neck straight up, automatically pulls stomach in. Stretch--using, for example, a cool radiator as a ballet dancer's bar--legs and torso.
Those who show their impatience by constantly tapping with their fingers or who betray their nervousness by fidgeting with their feet would benefit by a course in hatha yoga.
All such exercises are prohibited to anyone suffering from high blood pressure.
We do not deny but on the contrary fully accept the ingenuity and effectiveness of hatha yoga methods. They are cleverly designed to achieve their particular aims and are capable of doing so. But what we do deny is first, their suitability for modern Western man and second, their safety for modern Western man. And we make these denials both on the ground of theory and on the ground of practice. These methods are extremely ancient; they are indeed remnants of Atlantean systems. The mentality and physique of the races for whom they were originally prescribed are not the same as the mentality and physique of the white Euramerican races. Evolution has been actively at work during the thousands of years between the appearance of the ancients and the appearance of the moderns. Important changes have developed in the nerve-structure and brain-formations of the human species. According to the old texts which have come down to us from a dateless antiquity, the trance state constitutes the pinnacle of hatha yoga attainment. But it is an entirely unconscious kind of trance. This we have learnt from the lips of hatha yogis who had perfected themselves in the system. It is indeed nothing more mentally than an extremely deep sleep brought on deliberately and at will, although physically it bestows extraordinary properties for the time being on the body itself. Even where the trance is so prolonged that the yogi may be buried alive under earth without food or drink for several days or weeks, he is throughout that period quite inactive mentally and quite unaware of his own self. His heartbeat and respiration are then extremely low, in fact imperceptible to human senses although perceptible to delicate electric instruments like the cardiogram.
In what way does this condition differ from the animal hibernation? In northern climates certain types of reptiles, rodents, bears, lizards, marmots, and bats retire to secluded places, mountain caves or sheltered holes under the ground, when the cold weather arrives and when food becomes scarce, and pass the whole winter in a state of deep-sleeping suspended animation. In tropical climates certain kinds of snakes and crocodiles do exactly the same when the hottest months arrive. It is particularly interesting to note that birds like the tinamou fall into a rigid cataleptic trance under the shock of terror and then become as immune to pain as the hatha yogis do in the same state. In both cases there is only a hypnotic and not a spiritual condition. Its value for mental enlightenment, let alone moral improvement, is nil.
Twentieth-century man has better things to do with his time and energy than to spend several years and arduous efforts merely to imitate these animals and birds. Such a trance benefits the animals who cannot get food and it is therefore sensible procedure for them to enter it. But how does man demonstrate his spiritual superiority over them if he follows the bat to its cave in the hills, lets the same torpor creep over him as creeps over it, and permits every conscious faculty to pass into a coma? In terms of consciousness, of spiritual advance, the hatha yoga hibernation has nothing to offer man in any way comparable with what the higher systems of yoga have to offer--unless of course he disdains the fruits of mental evolution and takes pleasure in atavistic reversion to the state of these wide-winged yogis, the bats, and those four-footed mystics, the rodents! We should therefore remember that there are different types of trance state and should seek only the higher ones, if we wish to make a real rather than illusory progress.(P)
Choose those exercises which come easiest to you. You will have to do them every day.
Body purification and strengthening are prerequisites and preparations for spiritual awakening and development. They allow the passage of kundalini and also awaken it. Hence, hatha yoga is prescribed to start with.
The practice of any physical yoga posture will necessarily be difficult in its early stages because it throws the body into unfamiliar and unaccustomed positions. The muscles need to be re-educated little by little. It is dangerous to try to force oneself into such a posture all at once. Therefore, the exercise should be done for a few seconds only at the beginning, and the period extended by a few more seconds after several days, and further extended after a few weeks. In any case, it must be followed by a rest period before being repeated.
In ancient times when those who pursued yoga practices usually retired to peaceful forests and rugged mountains, lived simple disciplined lives, ate less rather than more, took little or no flesh food, and kept settlements, they were often out of reach both of professional medical help and professionally prescribed medicines--so they usually learnt to depend on wild-growing herbs as far as these were available, and on applications of intense pressure applied to diseased parts of the body or to the breathing process. The healing herbs are Nature's gift to man and many of them have indeed been incorporated in the pharmacopoeia used by modern Western scientific medicine but more wait to be added. The pressures have possibilities of being equally efficacious but, like a double-edged sword, constitute at one and the same time an instrument of some power and some danger. We have seen both striking cures and terrible disasters follow the practice of these physical yoga exercises when done without the careful personal supervision of a trained teacher and in several cases even when this supervision was available. Our final conclusion is that it is not enough to have a teacher who merely knows how to do them. It is really necessary to have during the earlier attempts the watchful supervision or veto of a qualified medical man who understands the anatomical dangers and physiological changes involved.
The purpose of assuming such an unusual posture as that depicted in Buddha statues is manifold. One of them is to make such an abrupt break from the habits and postures of everyday ordinary life that the world, its cares and difficulties and temptations, is more easily forgotten.
These hatha yoga exercises seem to involve unnatural distortions and unnecessary struggles. Why should we contort the body and assume disagreeable postures which merely copy the forms of lower animals and reptiles like the tortoise, the cobra, and fish? Why should we, as human beings, so degrade ourselves and submit to these indignities? Are the benefits of these exercises real or alleged ones?
The artist, the thinker, or the mystic must not neglect the muscular vigour and health of body that can be obtained through physical yoga. This would include deep breathing, stretching exercises, and a diet of light and easily digested foods which will not dull inspiration.
If hatha yoga remains only a matter of muscle and sinew and breath, then the practitioner has touched only the surface of yoga.
When the hatha yogi continues a single practice for an abnormally long period, a change takes place in the pressure and the circulation of his blood stream. The fixed holding of breath, the fixed posture, the fixed gaze--any of these may bring it about. Spiritually, it has no more value than a fainting swoon and leads to no more illumination or happiness than that does.
Philosophical training puts much value on the quality of mental calmness, emotional composure, and on its reflected state in the body--physical stillness. The more a man's mind is self-composed, the more will his whole personality be self-possessed. The passions of hatred, greed, lust, and anger cannot then blind him to the truth about his human situation or about the world's nature. The bodily postures prescribed by the yoga system of physical control serve their highest purpose, and fulfil their ultimate intention, when they train a man in the art of being perfectly still. For such a man will gradually transfer some of the body's outer quietude to the mind's inner stillness. But he will do so only if properly instructed by book or teacher or correctly guided from within.
The Shavasaha or "Dead" posture is most useful. It is practised on the floor or on a stiff mattress. The arms are stretched, the palms face upward, and the feet are kept apart. Focus attention on the inhalation and exhalation of breath and shut the eyes. Held for ten to twenty minutes, this posture relaxes the entire body and removes fatigue.
The yogis assume the Buddha posture not only to save themselves from a fall should they slip into the trance state, but also should they inadvertently enter the ordinary sleep state. It is to prevent the drowsiness which develops into sleep that they sit stiffly erect. These are all surface reasons; there are deeper ones, which refer to Spirit-Energy.
The lotus posture draws much blood away from the feet and draws more blood into the brain. This helps the concentration of thought.
According to the classic yoga tradition, such a position must be steadily maintained without a change and indeed without a movement. Once the aspirant has found ease and comfort in a posture, subject to the rules already explained, he must establish himself in it and remain there.
All hatha yoga exercises are most conveniently done by spreading a rug, a carpet, or blanket on a clean floor.
Hatha yoga breathing exercises: The deep breath is drawn in suddenly, violently, and noisily, and then held. The spine is straightened up when inhaling.
There are several different traditional crossed-hand positions from which to choose to complete the crossed-leg posture: (a) the left hand may be placed on the right thigh and the right hand on the left thigh; (b) the left wrist may be crossed diagonally over the right wrist, both resting between the knees; (c) the left hand, palm upward, may be placed inside the right palm; (d) the left hand may clasp the right one as if shaking hands; (e) each hand may cross the breast and rest on the opposite shoulder; (f) both hands may rest together in--and be supported by--the lap, the left palm inside the right one, both vertically upright.
The refusal to study hatha yoga is short-sighted, narrow-minded, and unjustified, for this--as the yoga of body control--lays some foundation for the mental and higher yogas. Hatha yoga is not concerned only with gaining abnormal physical power as the opponents seem to believe, but also with gaining physical health, freedom from sickness, abundant vitality, and especially a purified nervous system and disciplined instincts. The Indian government subsidizes an ashram for the scientific study of hatha yoga, not far from Bombay, because of the resultant physical benefits.
Hatha yoga can give lithe movements to the body without the long arduous hours of gymnasium practice, can bestow youthful elasticity to it without the violent labours of the amateur or professional athlete.
To the young, hatha yoga is a new system of acrobatics. To others who say, "I don't want the religious and philosophical side of yoga," it seems purely practical. The proper value of hatha yoga is as a preparation for the spiritual path. But how remote is all this posturing and sniffing, this preoccupation with physical exercises, from real spirituality!
Although most of hatha yoga's postures seem contorted, queer, and even dangerous, they have their merits and usefulness. The risks come in when one tries to do too much too soon.
Hatha yoga exercises practised at night give deeper, more refreshing sleep; also, one passes into sleep more quickly.
Hatha Yoga: These pressures were self-applied through forcing the body to assume a particular immobile posture for fixed periods of time. The steadiness which was maintained during such postures had a steadying effect on the consciousness, too, and so they were also adopted by healthy yogis, as an indirect means of attaining the requisite concentration, and ultimately, because of the effect on the interaction of heart and brain, the requisite inhibition of thinking. Thus, the yoga of body control has come to be traditionally handed down to the present day.
Hatha yoga operates on the physical body only, and only so far as it is an instrument useful for inner development. Its ultimate use is to awaken the Serpent-Power.
Physical yoga postures exercise pressure upon the psychic nerve centres.
According to the system of Patanjali, the aim of a yogi should be to stop all movement of the mind and body. Consequently he cannot but become a recluse if he is to follow this system completely.
That these disciplines, methods, and exercises have a preventive value as regards possible disease and a therapeutic value as regards actual disease is fully believed in the Orient.
There is another possible view of hatha yoga which is that so far as its severe distortions of the body impose actual pain upon it, the suffering cancels evil karma of the past. The exercises thus seen are a form of penance and self-mortification.
The twists and poses of the body which physical (hatha) yoga requires may empty the mind, if sustained at length, but cannot attract the Spirit. But the inner and outer rest they bring have a value in their own place.
If we look at some of the yogis who can perform these extraordinary feats, we find their muscles to be quite ordinary in development. This indicates that it is not the size of the muscle but the force put into it which is the real agent in making the feats possible.
In A Hermit in the Himalayas, I have told of those practisers of hatha yoga who held their breath too long and exploded a blood vessel in the lungs, causing serious injury. There are others, however, who have been luckier, for with them the exploded vessel is in the brain, but it has not gone far enough to cause a paralytic stroke. It has gone far enough, though, to disrupt those parts of the brain which concern past memory and future anticipation, so that the yogi is left with a consciousness dwelling only in the immediate moment. This is something like The Eternal Now sensed by the philosopher and gives the yogi a kind of peace, a freedom from cares and fears. He will then declare that he has entered samadhi, not understanding that he has become a case for medical attention. His physical movements will slow down to the point of uncertainty, his fellow yogis will admire his attainment and become his followers, and he will become a guru!
Are there difficulties and dangers for the Westerner in Indian yoga? The answer is that this is true of some kinds of yoga technique but not of all, and for many Westerners but not for all. I have come across many cases during my travels where aspirants have wrecked health or mind through plunging blindly into yoga, and this is equally true of Indians themselves. It has always been my endeavour to protect readers of my books by communicating only what I know to be safe methods. I have deliberately kept silent about the others. However, if the student keeps his feet on earth, if he does not renounce common sense and a balanced life, and if he stops practising if untoward signs should ever appear and consults an expert about them, there is really little to fear. Most of the people who have gone astray though yoga have been neurotics, fanatics, and the mildly insane.
The physical yoga teachers rarely possess a knowledge of physiology. They do not know the precise physiological effects of the breathing exercises and postures they prescribe upon muscles, organs, and bones. This is why some of their pupils come to serious injury.
Because everyone can see and touch a body whereas few can sense a mind, the teacher of a physical yoga method will find many more followers than other teachers do. But the results of following it will leave its practisers with as much egoism as they had before. In some cases, where unusual powers and tricks of the body can be displayed, it will leave them with even more egoism than before!
The danger of an excess of physical yoga--as of all physical culture--to a person who at the same time is practising meditation and seeking a subtler consciousness, lies in the loss of sensitivity caused by greater immersion in the body.
He must begin this work by accepting the tenet that he is not the body, only a tenant in the body. Otherwise he may fall into the danger that so many hatha yogins fall into: the inability to achieve mystical experience or practise metaphysical thinking.
The teachers and followers of the religious devotion, mental concentration, and metaphysical study schools generally condemn physical yoga. Does not this show that they are as biased against it as those who teach physical yoga are biased for it? Only an independent attitude can remove the unfairness of the one and the exaggeration of the other.
The yoga of body control has a distinct and useful place in human life and constitutes a valuable system of practice. But when we hear exaggerated claims on its behalf, then it is time to remind its intemperate advocates that no amount of standing on their head will ever bring them into the realization of God.
Consciousness of the Spirit is not obtained by contortion of the legs.
Tsong Khapa, in his younger days, mastered hatha yoga enough to gauge its real worth and place and then proceeded to the higher yogas which led him to fitness for his mission, which changed the history of Tibetan religion.
A modern Indian holy man, Shukacharya, of the Province of Gujerat, who died as recently as 1929 and who had thousands of followers who regarded him as a divine incarnation, told his disciples in one of his discourses: "Your Guru has practised all of the hatha yoga asanas for quite a long time and it is his definite verdict that it's all labour wasted, insofar as the ideal of self-realization is concerned. In fact, the human mind is the home of all maladies; it is vulnerable at each end and it is necessary to purge it of all diseases and to stitch all leakages; if it is so, where is the earthly sense in wrestling with the muscles? The primary concern, therefore, is to treat the mind and not the body."
We must keep a proper proportion in our minds between these different branches of self-preparation and purification. A man whose spine is straight but whose conduct is crooked is doing worse than a man whose conduct is straight but whose spine is crooked.
The physical regimes and disciplines of hatha yoga purify the body and restore health, but they are not sufficient to answer the mind's questionings, nor to still the heart's yearning for peace.
The hatha yogis are inclined to give too much importance to the practice of these bodily disciplines. When this happens they become obstacles on the way, new attachments that have to be broken.
Eugene Sandow, once the strongest man in Europe, confirms the point. He said, "It is a matter of the mind. If you concentrate your mind upon a set of muscles for three minutes a day, and say `Do thus and so,' they respond."
The practices are not dull if the beneficial end results are kept in mind. And although they were originally designed for other purposes, they are all health-giving and some are therapeutic.
Another of the beneficial purposes of these fixed postures is that they sustain and maintain a bodily stillness. Those persons who are subject to fidgeting limbs, restless fingers, or twitching muscles are trained and disciplined by this practice to overcome the fault which left alone would make meditation impossible.
These stretching exercises tend to produce freer movements of the body by making the muscles more elastic, the joints looser, and the sinews less stiff. The spinal exercises tend to produce a fine, erect carriage which particularly improves the appearance of middle-aged persons or even older ones.
Although from the standpoint of the special psychic purpose of these exercises, their physical benefits are secondary and incidental, this does not make them less valuable. The aged, the studious, and the overworked particularly need these benefits of more vigour, more buoyancy, quicker response, and better functioning.
Instead of following the ordinary Western methods of carrying out certain movements of bodily parts which are designated "exercises," to improve the condition of those parts, this system uses fixed postures and muscular pressures, and even more, takes advantage of, and utilizes profitably, the ordinary movements by which everyone has to carry on daily activities.
These are exercises for people without the time and certainly without the inclination to become skilled gymnasts or tumbling acrobats. They are brief, simple, and convenient. No special apparatus is needed.
The orthodox kind of gymnasium exercise, with its long, violent exertions which tend to stiffen the muscles and tire the body, is unsuited to sedentary middle-aged person. Its drudgery exhausts them whereas the philosophic exercise invigorates them.
Some of the exercises are artificial and violent because they are intended to bring about the greatest result in the shortest time. Others make use of natural movements and are not only intended to correct the errors which wrong habit has introduced into these movements, but also to let them, when they are perfectly done, assist in keeping the body fit and vital.
Westerners tend to do these exercises too violently as they actually expect to do all those of their own systems.
Some have tapped the power in these postures to kindle the body's own natural healing forces. This may happen if two conditions are provided. First, the posture must be assumed along with inheld breath. Second, it must be sustained for as long as possible without change. Third, the mind must be concentrated at the same time upon the bodily part affected and its perfect healthy condition inwardly "seen."
1. Draw the diaphragm inwards so as to hollow the body immediately under the ribs.
2. Then draw the diaphragm upwards, spreading out the chest.
3. This exercise must be accompanied by appropriate aspiration toward the ideal.
Here are two unusual exercises: (a) Sideways Walking, that is, extend the right leg to the side and draw the left one after it; then extend the left leg to the side and draw the right after it. (b) Backwards Walking. Both these movements use the body in a way it is quite unaccustomed to, and therefore develop another side of it.
Lie flat on the back, with the hands resting at the sides. Tense all the muscles throughout the body and press it against the floor as hard as you can. By drawing in the abdominal wall and contracting the abdominal muscles, the lower spine can be more flattened against the floor. Try to bring as much of your back in contact with the floor as possible. When tired, rest. Repeat the rhythm of pressure and rest five times. Variation (a) Perform the same exercise but raise both feet six inches in the air, still tensing their muscles. When tired, rest. Repeat three times. Variation (b) Sit on hard chair, hands on hips, feet flat on floor. Straighten the lower back curve by contracting the abdominal and gluteal muscles, the pelvis will then be held at the proper angle, the trunk will be at a right angle to the thighs. Then relax these muscles. These exercises invigorate the whole body in a very short time and force the breath to deepen itself. They straighten the lower back curve.
Where a parallel bar is not available, an alternate exercise can be substituted by lying flat and stretching spine and feet and toes to the utmost.
The length of the period of rest between the movements cannot be prescribed for general use. It must vary with each individual's varying strength. The sooner he tires, the longer should the rest period be. If a few seconds will suffice for one person, especially a younger person, a full half-minute may be needed by another, especially an older person.
He should inject his whole self into doing the exercise so completely that he is almost unaware of anything else at the time. Such mental concentration is one of the secrets of champion professional strongmen.
Except where specially instructed not to do so, take a short rest after every exercise to let breathing return to normal and sore muscles become comfortable, and only then repeat the movement.
The faithful practice of these mind-concentrated physical exercises must lead in time to better bodily self-control.
The order of procedure is: first stretch the body with one or two of the physical exercises, then cleanse and invigorate it with one or two of the breathing exercises, then sit in meditation.
It is the combination at one and the same practice time of exercise plus breathing plus concentrated thought which evokes the greatest power and brings about the greatest results.
He may practise meditation until Doomsday, mutter the hundred and eight different mystic spells, sit in all the sixty-four postures of the yoga of body control, hold his breath for a whole hour or vary its rhythms in every conceivable manner, but the Overself will remain stubbornly remote unless he frankly faces and successfully fights out his struggle against his own ego in his own heart. No physical contortion, exercise, or manipulation can ever take its place. Such yoga exercises can discipline his body, give him control over it, but they cannot provide a passport into the higher region. This and this alone is the only yoga that really counts in the end on this strange quest, because demanding all it gives all.
It is not necessary to give more than a little time to these exercises, not more than is necessary to keep the body reasonably strong and fit.
Those who have any part or organ of the body in a defective or weakened condition, which has led their physician to forbid their imposing any strain upon it, should consult him or her before practising any of these exercises. This is because the latter do achieve their results by imposing strains.
Those whose advancing age suggests a similar carefulness may, with their physician's prior consent, take up the easiest only of these exercises. But they ought to proceed toward mastery very patiently and by very slow degrees.
I have seen an elderly Oriental successfully master some of these exercises at the age of sixty-three, and heard him speak of their beneficial results. Aged persons should approach such methods cautiously and slowly, but they need not let themselves be frightened away altogether merely because they are aged.
It should be understood that the seeker does not need to undertake all the exercises presented here. He should select those that seem best suited to him, or experiment where he is uncertain until he finds those which prove most useful.
The technique which suited those ancient conditions will not quite fit our modern ones. Those who disregard this fact open a door to mental derangement.
It would be certainly foolish to perform any of these exercises on a full stomach, and imprudent at least to perform them at a time or in a place where the temperature is excessively hot.
An isolated physical exercise is futile. Three minutes every day is better than one hour once a week.
Coordination: The way the mind takes hold of the body and muscles.
Exercises get reduced in value if done only occasionally. It is better, and in the end easier, if a regular habit is formed.
All these yoga exercises and physical practices are praiseworthy. They are recommended to aspirants--but only as accessories. They are not, and never can be, substitutes for that moment-to-moment struggle with the ego in daily living which is fundamental and inescapable. No forcible holding of the breath and no strained contortion of the body can take its place. The attempt to avoid following this discipline of the ego by substituting disciplines of the breath or flesh is a futile one, if it is an attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by violence. It cannot be successful. This desire to enter the kingdom in a hurry is pardonable. Yet if it were fulfilled the fulfilment would be a premature attainment and consequently lacking in fullness, falling short in wholeness, and uncertain of steadiness. All the different stages of development are needed in experience and can be missed only to our loss. Although timelessness is the quest's end, the journey itself must take place in the measured pace of time to prepare us properly for this end. It may be that this is because we may not take hold of spiritual possessions which we have not rightfully earned by personal labours and to which we have no honest legal title. It may be that a spiritual treasure cannot become our own in advance of the requisite efforts to develop adequate fitness and understanding for such vast responsibility.