Category Archives: Spiritual practice

History of Yoga – part 2

This article is a continuation of the previous post and covers a few more interesting tidbits from the book “History of Yoga” edited by Satya Prakash Singh.

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The History of Yoga

The fundamental aim of all Yogic methods is the diversion of the Prana (breath) which normally circulates in the Ida and Pingala channels into the central Sushumna channel, as was elucidated in a previous post.  Numerous yogis across the Indian sub-continent over several centuries perfected a multitude of methods to achieve this common goal.  If you ever wanted to read all about it in one place, the “History of Yoga” (editor: Satya Prakash Singh) is for you.  This is a massive work comprising 40 chapters spanning about 900 pages written by 19 subject experts which traces the origins and development of Yoga starting from the Vedas to the modern times.  It is not possible to do justice to such a large comprehensive volume in a short article.  Instead, I will present some interesting tidbits that I gained from the book.

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The rhythms of our consciousness

There are many planes and parts of our being each with their own unique rhythm. Idling in bed early in the morning, we may find that the longing for sex can seize the lethargic mind.  After lunch when the stomach is full, one might feel the irrational urge to lash out in anger at some irritating individual.  On Sunday evenings while listening to a wistful melody, one might become forlorn and slip into a state of depression.  Psychologist Kay Jamison, after reviewing more than sixty studies across countries in both hemispheres, concluded that the peak periods for suicide are late spring and summer[1].  Likewise, she found two broad peaks in seasonal incidence of major depressive episodes: March-May and Sept-Nov [2].

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On Multitasking, Avadhana-Kala and Multiple Samyama

You can drive a car while listening to a song, but when you want to see better, you instinctively lower the radio volume in the car.  You can listen to a melody while doing chores, but when you want to hear better, you inevitably stop and squint your eyes.  The American President Lyndon Johnson once claimed that his political opponent Gerald Ford could not pass wind and chew gum at the same time[1].  Such quotidian observations seem to suggest that there may be some natural constraints in our ability to do multiple tasks simultaneously.

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Dharana Shakti : the capacity to sustain spiritual experiences

The sudden inflow of energy, the rapture and the sense of release that one feels after a favourable period of meditation is not easy to sustain. The mind mostly misinterprets the experience, the heart seizes and appropriates it, while the physical body feels relieved and exhausted that it has ended.  We tend to yawn and eat junk food after a period of meditation because the physical body is tamasic(dull) by nature and not accustomed to the newly attained tranquility.  Instead of yawning and dissipating the energy gained during the meditation, the body needs to be molded to become more supple and receptive; the cells of the body have to be made more and more conscious through regular exercise and refined eating habits so that it can sustain longer and greater spiritual experiences.  Sri Aurobindo denoted this power of the body as Dharana Shakti or Dharana Samarthya (retention capacity; Samarthya or Shakti = capacity, Dharana = retention).

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The equipoise required for Yoga

Napoleon once remarked that a great general must have equilibrium:  “The object most desirable is that a man’s judgment should be in equilibrium with his physical character or courage. This is what we may call  being well squared both by base and perpendicular. If courage be in the ascendency, a general will rashly undertake that which he can not execute; on the contrary, if his character or courage be inferior to his judgment, he will not venture to carry any measure into effect”[1].

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The psychic joy derived from a selfless act

In the course of her talks with Ashram inmates, the Mother Mirra Alfassa would from time to time casually reminiscence incidents which had occurred in France.  One particular anecdote she discussed was that of a woman who had experienced a spontaneous psychic joy after an act of generosity.  Even though the woman is unnamed, given the personal details revealed, it is quite possible that this woman was the Mother herself.  Alternately, it could be her friend Alexandra David-Neel.  Irrespective of who the woman was, the incident is uplifting to read.

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Surmounting the unpleasant images and negative thoughts which occur during meditation

Many novices to Yoga discover that once you have pacified the restless body and harmonized the breathing process before meditation, you might experience a few minutes of mental silence, but this illusory peace is quickly shattered by the sudden uprush of disturbing images and negative thoughts.  These unpleasant ideas come partly from within and partly from outside.  Within us, there are repressed parts of the personality which rebel against any imposition of harmony while on the external front, we are constantly bathing in the vibrations of the world and a desultory attempt to cut our mind off from these pervasive vibrations is bound to fail.  In an age of rapid technological change where we are being continuously bombarded by powerful and seductive audio-visual content on a wide variety of electronic devices, the frequency of this problem has probably increased rather than decreased.  These are some remarks by the Mother on this perennial botheration.

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The Nachiketa fire sacrifice

It doesn’t matter how great your religion is or how ancient your scriptures are if you will not attempt to independently rediscover the Truths which were discovered by your forerunners.  Much too often, people forget this cardinal dictum and fall into the egoistic trap of boasting of the greatness of their religion without actually living it.  The practice of Yoga provides a pathway for rediscovering the verities recorded in the scriptures such as the Upanishads and Vedas.  This article examines the Nachiketa fire sacrifice as experienced by a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

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Sattwic ego, Rajasic ego and Tamasic ego

When we say someone is egoistic, we often imply that the person is proud. Sri Aurobindo observed that egoistic movements are actually of three types – sattwic(illumined), rajasic(kineticism) and tamasic(indolent).  The sattwic ego revels in the brilliant power of its intelligence, the rajasic ego is eager to dominate, and the tamasic ego wallows in self-pity.

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How can Sri Aurobindo smoke while practising Yoga?

This article is motivated by a recent comment on this blog.  Those who have gained some familiarity with Sri Aurobindo are often baffled by his conduct: How could he smoke or eat meat while practicing Yoga?  Doesn’t it violate the central tenets of Yoga?  If that didn’t hinder his practice, can I emulate him?  The answer is: “No, you shouldn’t emulate him” as we shall see by the end of this article.

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Progress reports of Sri Aurobindo

The path of the Yogin demands dogged persistence because final perfection  depends on two qualitatively different factors: one’s own refractory psychological habits whose complete dissolution requires multiple rounds and a whimsical Divine power which intermittently showers its Grace but leaves you in the dark at other times.  These are a couple of progress reports that Sri Aurobindo had jotted down in his diary The Record of Yoga during his early years in Pondicherry.  They indicate the ceaseless struggle and the subsequent reversal of consciousness that he underwent in the quest for yogic perfection.

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Handling Rejection by the Guru

Growing up in a social milieu, we develop into gregarious beings who are accustomed to being praised, respected or at least acknowledged for being an individual. Humiliation in any form comes as a sharp blow to the ego.  When our expectations are not met, we instinctively become resentful and hold grudges instead of handling the situation with dispassion.  What do you do if the Guru, the very person you expected to be an epitome of  boundless compassion, suddenly turns cold and hard?  It can be a particularly acute  test for the disciple as the two anecdotes here illustrate.

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Gorakhnath’s enumeration of contemplation methods

Goraknath was a yogi-philosopher belonging the Nath Path (Brotherhood of the Supreme) who lived around the 9th-10th century.  His Guru Matysendranath was the progenitor of this influential brotherhood of ascetics.   Gorakhnath authored several works on Yoga including the Goraksha Samhita, the Goraksha Gita, the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, the Yoga Martanada, the Yoga Siddhanta Paddhati, the Yoga-Bija, and the Yoga Chintamani. You can read more about him on wikipedia.   This article briefly outlines the meditation methods that Gorakhnath first enumerated in his work Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati.   The material is condensed from A.K. Banerjea’s Philosophy of Gorakhnath[1].

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Can I have more than one Guru?

Genuine Gurus are rare these days, so this question shouldn’t arise, but for what its worth, these are some insights by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on the question of multiple Gurus.  The gist of the matter seems to be that as long as you don’t feel strongly drawn to any particular sage, it is permissible to draw inspiration (through reading and interaction) from multiple sages.  But once you get initiated by a particular Guru, you must stick to that Guru, otherwise the spiritual energies of different Gurus can interfere to create a frightful mess within your consciousness.  Furthermore, if you have reached the apex with one particular Guru, you can certainly look for another.  The cases of Kapali Sastry and M.P.Pandit can be cited in support of this clause; they were initially disciples of Ramana Maharshi but later choose Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as their Guru.

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Sri Aurobindo on lawyers

Ethical quandaries abound for those hardy souls who, shunning the sheltered existence of a remote hermitage, aspire to practice spiritual ideals  in the chiaroscuro of everyday life.   How does one make a living while surrounded by insecure people who are themselves struggling to secure their own financial and other physical comforts ?  Whom to trust and how much truth to disclose ? When should one take a principled stand and when should one just let go?  One can be forced into some pretty disappointing and unsavoury choices in this ambiguous battle of life.  In this article, we read the advice given by Sri Aurobindo to a disciple who was dismayed by the corrosive effect the legal profession was having on his soul.

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Further remarks on sexuality

These are some general observations by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa on topics related to sexuality: sex education; touching; whether indulgence, starving the flesh or mixing freely can alleviate sexual difficulties encountered in spiritual practice. This article follows on the previous articles on this subject: Should women dress modestly?, Sublimation of the sexual urge through Yoga and The transmutation of sexual energy.

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Should women dress modestly?

For centuries, religious clerics have railed against women for tempting men with their seductive and skimpy clothing, and sought to sequester them and restrict their dress choices.  Such rash and narrow social impositions often create a deceptive illusion of purity without addressing the sexual turbulence which continues unabated within the individual consciousness.  A more sagacious solution has to be based on the recognition of the complexity of human consciousness.  This article examines some insights provided by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa) on this matter.

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The story of a soul

The course of yogic transformation never did run smooth, to paraphrase Shakespeare.  Life on the spiritual path tends to oscillate between radiant moments and gloomy nights.  One goes through phases where the determination wavers, mood swings exacerbate and the recalcitrant ego fights back to reclaim lost territory.  Amidst these internecine battles, it is the Guru’s light that serves as a bulwark against the disintegration of the jittery personality.  This article reviews some uplifting messages of  guidance that the Mother Mirra Alfassa gave to one of her disciples, Huta, during some particularly demanding stages of her transformation.  These excerpts are from Huta’s book “The story of a Soul“[1].

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