Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have provided a sturdy road map for millions of seekers over the centuries. Yet the first line of that scripture is almost ridiculously cryptic.
Patanjali says: “Now we come to the practice of yoga.”
I suspect millions of readers have skipped over that line, imagining it to be no more than a polite formula – as if to say, “Welcome to yoga. Come on in – let’s get started.”
And yet Swami Kriyananda explained that this simple sentence holds enormous meaning – especially the seemingly innocuous word, “Now.”
As Swamiji explained, “Now” means that there are certain steps we need to take before we can begin to practice the yoga path with the right understanding.
Now then, what are those steps – the necessary “prerequisites” to yoga?
Two other scriptures tell us what we need to know before we can practice yoga. One of those scriptures is Shankya, and the other is Vedanta.
Shankya describes the deficiencies of this material life. It tells us why we can never find fulfillment by pursuing our material desires. And Vedanta tells us where we can find the fulfillment our souls are seeking: in the inner experience of God.
“And now we come to the study of Yoga.” Having understood the shortcomings of this life, and with a vision of the truth that will set us free, we can now begin to practice the practical methods of yoga that will take us there.
In the West, we love the scientific approach to investigating reality. We delight in weighing and measuring, and writing down numbers from which we can draw conclusions about the natural world. Using this simple method, science has given us wonderful gifts, from machines that can move mountains, to insights into the structure of the physical universe.
Scientists of exceptional vision have even penetrated the illusion of matter – they’ve shown us that the world isn’t solid as it seems, but that it is composed of energy. Some physicists have even proposed that the world of energy from which matter is created may have its own source in a great universal consciousness.
Now, Paramhansa Yogananda came to the West to share a very different, but no less scientific approach to understanding creation.
Thousands of years ago, the sages of India tackled many of the same problems that interest scientists today. But they used a very different method. Instead of experimenting with material instruments, weighing and measuring, they succeeded in unlocking the secrets of creation by searching ever more deeply in the laboratory of their own consciousness.
The experiments of the pioneering scientists of ancient times resulted in a great body of wisdom known as the Vedas. And Vedanta is the summation – the boiled-down, condensed version, we might say, of the Vedas. The Sanskrit word Vedanta literally means “the end of the Vedas.”
Vedanta describes the truths that are the foundation of all true religions. It describes the nature of Spirit, and the eternal laws that govern all creation, including our lives.
Vedanta tells us, even as science does, that everything we perceive with our physical senses is not as it seems.
In his wonderful book, Out of the Labyrinth, Swami Kriyananda tells how the sages of ancient times turned their attention to the most fundamental questions of human life: “What are people looking for? What do they want? And how can they find it?”
By observing the human scene with calm objectivity, they discovered that all human beings are engaged in a relentless quest to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.
We want to know a bliss is that is permanent and unchanging. In Vedanta, the sages call that experience satchidananda. Paramhansa Yogananda said that this word perfectly captures the fulfillment we are looking for: the experience of “ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new joy.”
Yogananda was born fully enlightened – he was an avatar, a descent of God into this world, tasked with a tremendous mission: to bring the ancient scientific truths of life to the West, where many souls were yearning for them.
At the time when Yogananda came to America, most Indians knew little of the West beyond what they had observed of the British, and they were not inspired. It’s difficult to appreciate how heathen we westerners appeared to the Indian people at that time.
Ramakrishna, the great yoga master of the 19th century, was uneducated, in the way we think of education in the West. He never learned to read or write, because he felt that it would distract his mind from his direct perception of reality. He understood truth with inner knowing, and he didn’t need to read about it in books.
Ramakrishna would often make fun of the English. He would tie up his Bengali skirt, called a dhoti, so that it looked like trousers, and he would assume the attitude of a British gentleman, putting a walking stick under his arm and whistling and striding up and down in a comic manner. He described the English as “whistling and taking the stairs two at a time,” and he made fun of the bustling, self-important way they moved – as if to say, “we are efficient and we move fast, and we’re going to control the world.” The people who watched Ramakrishna doing these hilarious things were the conquered simple people of India, and they laughed heartily at his antics.
When we were in India with a pilgrimage group last year, we spent ten days in the Himalaya, where we lived in extremely humble circumstances. And then we had to travel back through Delhi on the way to our next pilgrimage stop.
We decided that we would pamper ourselves in Delhi – we would stay in a luxury hotel called the Trident. It’s extremely beautiful and unusual. There are huge black fountains, and at night you can watch flames shooting out of the water as it flows over the black marble. It’s a most impressive place.
In some parts of the hotel there are giant doors. The doors open automatically as you approach, and all of the Americans in our party had the same experience – we moved too fast for the doors. A door would start to open very slowly, and we would bump into it. We realized that we were “taking the stairs two at a time.” And we realized that when you travel in India, you have to move at a more sedate pace, and then you can begin to feel in harmony with the natural rhythm of the culture.
We encountered many contrasts between East and West, but this was the one we experienced most vividly – the very different speed of life, and the contrast between the rapid movement and bustle of the West, and the more inward, reflective pace of that ancient land.
When Yogananda came to the West, he was thrown into a world that was totally different from the one he’d been raised in. In 1920, the differences were even more pronounced than they are today, with our effortless global communications.
But Master knew that the human heart is the same everywhere. It makes no difference what color our body is, or what language we speak.
When we’re in heaven, and we’re choosing where we’ll be born in our next life, there will be certain characteristics that we need to express, and lessons we need to learn, and we’ll be born in East or West according to our karma.
If we want to be extremely clean and efficient and have everything run exactly right, we can be born in Switzerland. And if we want to be more heart-oriented, just relating to people and laughing all the time, we can go to Italy.
When Swamiji visited us in Palo Alto some years ago, we had a huge reception with several hundred people. Swamiji sat and greeted people as they came forward in a line. And because this is such an international area, and he speaks nine languages, he would talk with them in their own tongue. With the Americans and English, it was very loving, but more formal. They would say, “Thank you for coming, Sir. We really appreciate it.” And Swamiji would say, “Oh, I’m so glad to be here. It’s very nice to meet you.”
It would be heartfelt, but a bit formal. And when the Italians came forward, they would start laughing. The Italians would laugh and Swami would laugh. They wouldn’t be laughing at anything, they were just laughing, “ha ha!” It would be from heart to heart, and then there would be words that expressed the depth of their feelings, like “bella, bellisimo, bella” – you know, “beautiful, beautiful…” And then Swami would answer, and there would be no content as far as I could tell. But there would be an enormous extension of the heart. Because if that’s what you are, and you’ve been born and raised in Italy, then that’s what you’ll be looking for. And if you want to have lots of will power, you can be born in Germany.
Swamiji says that when he teaches Yogananda’s energization exercises, Germany is the only country where he can’t say “tense as hard as you can.” It’s dangerous to tell the Germans to tense as hard as possible, because they might injure their body with their powerful will. But if that’s what you need to develop, then you can go and be a German.
And yet, all of these differences are superficial, because behind them every one of us has the same hopes and needs. Think of a mother and her child – it doesn’t matter where they live, they all have the same heart that longs to be loved, a heart that longs to feel safe, to feel understood, to be secure, and to have some certainty.
So Master put his mind to how he could help people find happiness here in the West. And practically the first thing he did was to write a little pamphlet called The Science of Religion. He actually had an Indian disciple write it because the disciple could speak English well. But it fell short of his wishes, because the disciple was too intellectual. And so Swamiji rewrote it and called it God Is for Everyone.
It makes the simple point that everyone in the world is seeking happiness, and we all want to avoid suffering.
This is the essence of Shankya and Vedanta – why this world can never satisfy our longing for perfect happiness, and how we can be happy and avoid pain, even while living on this earth.
Before we can properly begin the study of yoga, these are the things we need to know – the illusory nature of the physical universe, and what we’re seeking, and where we can find it. And then the study of yoga comes along and tells us how.
“And now we come to the practice of yoga.” Because yoga is the method by which we can master ourselves, by controlling the restless mind so that we can receive the fulfillment that Shankya tells us we cannot find here, and that Vedanta describes so attractively.
Now, the difficulty is that the world seems terribly complex, and the path to joy seems almost impossibly full of twists and turns, for the simple reason that we perceive the world through our ego, and the desires of the ego prevent us from seeing the path clearly. This is our conundrum – the teachings offer us a simple path to bliss, but our own desires obscure our vision of the path.
This is why the Divine, in its great compassion, offers us a simple aid. It sends a great soul who has mastered this seemingly complex reality, and who can serve us as a living example of how we, too, can be free.
I’ve spent many years explaining these teachings, and I’ve often pondered this question: “What is the experience of free souls who come back into this world?”
When a Christ is born as a little baby, does he lose his consciousness of being completely merged in the Infinite?
People often asked Yogananda that question. He had said publicly that in a past life he was Arjuna, a great warrior. And then he was William the Conqueror, a great general. William played a central role in creating the kingdom of England, which would have an enormous influence on the spiritual direction of the West.
William was a powerful figure. He was not a meek and mild monk who stayed in his cell and spent all his time chanting. He was fighting and killing and executing and leading his men.
Someone said to Yogananda, “How can an avatar live a life like that?” Master said, “Inwardly, you never forget that you are free.”
When ordinary people like you and I come into this world, it’s like we’re born into a giant prison, where we’ve come willingly in order to pursue our desires.
The soul shrinks itself and identifies with the ego, and then we’re essentially imprisoned, and for a long time we don’t realize it. And yet all the time we’re looking for the key. We try to open the door with money, human love, drugs, alcohol, and fame and power.
When I was new to the spiritual teachings, I tried to persuade one of my relatives that this path was the only way to find happiness and freedom. I tried to tell her that our desires always disappoint us. And, to my surprise, I found that she agreed with what I was saying.
“Yes, desires always disappoint you,” she said enthusiastically. “You’ve got something that you think will make you happy, and then it doesn’t.”
She said it so sagely, as if it was her deep realization. And then she said, “And that’s why it’s so important to keep on wanting new things.”
That was her method – if this door disappoints me, I’ll open another. And of course it’s hopeless, because the world is extraordinarily rich with distractions that can never satisfy us. As Yogananda said, the delusion of this world is that it “almost works.”
When I was a child, I felt so confined. It wasn’t that I was overly restricted by my parents, and that I couldn’t go where I wanted. It was an existential feeling of confinement.
When I looked for ways to find happiness and freedom, my first thought was that I would be a mother and have many children, because it certainly seemed expansive. But when I was older I realized that even if I had dozens of children, there would always be a limit to the possibilities for expanding my consciousness.
We spend many lives in this prison, looking for doors. And every so often a soul finds the way out.
If we call long enough, with enough sincerity, truth begins to reveal itself to us. As Master says, “we must be Divine Mother’s naughty baby.”
The baby cries, and at first the mother gives it toys to distract it. “Here’s your snuggie bear, dear.” And the baby is happy for a while. But then Yogananda tells us that no matter how many toys She gives us, we must keep crying for Her. Don’t be satisfied until She sets aside Her other duties and comes and comforts you.
After walking through countless doors and being disappointed, there comes a time when we’re no longer fooled. And so we come to the practice of yoga. And now we can start to follow the path that will set us free.
But we need to understand that we really do need a guide. We need someone who will stand with us and hold our hand and walk us through the process, by inspiring our hearts.
Every so often, a great soul who has found the way, who’s been a naughty child and has been lifted out of the prison by the Divine Mother, says, “I will return.”
The Festival of Light says it beautifully. “Greater can no love be than this – from a life of infinite joy and freedom in God, willingly to embrace limitation, pain and death for the salvation of humanity.”
In all religions, we see that, over time, people elevate the lives of the masters in higher and higher veneration, as if to tell us how completely unlike us they were. In Christianity, it’s even a formal church dogma to insist that Jesus was nothing like us.
In fact, he was just like us! Like us, he lived countless lives in the prison of this world. The Bible tells us that God’s grace isn’t given to His saints as a special favor to his saints, it’s given to those who have overcome this world.
Christ was born free, but he didn’t start his long journey of lives as a free soul. Out of love and compassion for us, he re-entered the prison of human life to show us how we, too, can find the same freedom.
Master emphasizes this point again and again – how the great saints come back into the prison of this world and allow the gate to clang behind them, and put on a physical body that will age and be subject to pain, and a heart that is tender and subject to disappointment, and a love that reaches out and is rebuffed. The masters come back into this prison for one reason alone, to live among us and show us how to be free.
The blessing of a master is not that he takes our hand and opens the door for us and invites us to walk through it to freedom. It’s nothing like that. The master simply radiates what is true. He radiates an unbounded vibration of freedom and bliss. And he sets an example for us of choosing God in every circumstance.
In our services, we celebrate the little bird who tries to fly by his own strength and gets in trouble, and then the universe lifts him up and he finds himself soaring high above the clouds. But then the night comes, and the passage about the night is powerful. “Night fell, and the little bird said, ‘how can I fly in this darkness?’ And the night whispered – ‘Lo, peace awaits you in the unknown.’”
It’s so comfortable to live in our old, familiar ego. But it can be lovely to meditate on what it might feel like if we could let go of all our ego attachments.
Think of your attachment to your personality, to being astute, to being effective, to being loved – to being responsible, to being efficient, all the attachments that seem so ludicrously insignificant when we confess them openly, but which are not ludicrous at all. We’ve spent a very long time convincing ourselves that this is who we are. And it’s not so easy to let it go. Just imagine – what if suddenly you weren’t any of these things? What if your ego was completely dissolved?
It’s amazing how scary it is when you meditate on it. If I weren’t this ego, what would I be? What if the ego that I’m thoroughly identified with were to suddenly disappear. Would I be nothing?
This is the “unknown” that the Festival of Light speaks of – being lost in darkness without the support of the familiar ego. But then comes the promise. “Lo, peace awaits you in the unknown.”
How can we find the courage to make that supreme renunciation and be released into the great Self that lives in everything? Not by ourselves. We can never find that much courage on our own. But when the Masters are there with us, we can attune ourselves to their reality, and that’s what gives us courage and strength. As Sri Yukteswar says in The Holy Science, the guru can give us moral courage, if we will “follow him, lamb like.”
The guru assures us that it’s a very simple kind of courage. “You can do it,” he says. “I have done it. I have walked through that fire. Keep your eyes on my eyes and walk with me.”
It’s a wonderful exercise to meditate on that freedom. It’s why we have photographs of the masters, and beautiful paintings of those who lived a long time ago.
Swamiji often told us, “Meditate on Master’s eyes.” Look into those eyes and let that power move you out of who you think you are, and into the great Self of which we are all a part.
Why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth? This is a time of year when the whole Christian world rises to a higher level of freedom and joy and kindness. Because the gatekeeper has come, the one who holds the keys to the prison of our confinement in ego-suffering. And we rejoice, “Oh, thank you, Divine Mother – hallelujah, Christ has come!”
We greet the one who can lead us out of darkness. But it’s not enough merely to understand that the guru has that power. We must receive that power. And what keeps us from it? It’s really very simple: fear.
What will happen if…? What if I won’t have enough money, if I won’t have this relationship, this comfort, this home, this familiar self-image?
Years ago, I had a problem in meditation. I would go into a state that made me nervous. I don’t want to make it sound impressive – it wasn’t samadhi, but it was more than I was used to. I asked Swamiji about it, without mentioning my fear. I told him that such-and-such would happen, and then something else would happen. And Swami said so sweetly, “Don’t be afraid.”
My voice blurted back: “I’m not afraid.” But then I thought, “Why am I responding with panicky fear?”
We don’t actually know who we are. We don’t even know what we think. We don’t know what we feel. We’re so accustomed to protecting the disguise of the ego. But when that constancy of divine love, and that vibration of freedom comes into the prison of our ego, we suddenly find a light that dispels all our darkness. And we realize that is sufficient by a thousand fold to drive all our fears of loss away, because that love satisfies our hearts forever.
“To all who received Him, to them gave He power to become the Sons of God.” Having entered our true reality by receiving Him, we can become as he is. By ascending into Christ consciousness, we can be born in Him this Christmas.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on December 17, 2006.)