Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras gives six main means of practice9 min read

There are not many people who can simply practise meditation on the Self, or on the Lord, aiming all the time at liberation, without becoming bored, or else being overwhelmed by waves of distraction, lassitude or fear. It is found that for most people there must be some encouragement, something tangible in everyday experience. So Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras gives six main means of practice for first purifying and then steadying the mind as it is, and for some of them he gives results by which progress can be checked. These results, however wonderful some of them may seem, are not liberation. But they mean a lightening of the present burden of living with nothing but a distant hope. They are ways of confirming at least something that the teacher and the tradition say. If some one thing, however little it may be, is confirmed, there is a surge of faith that the rest is true and confirmable also.

In a primitive country which suddenly became rich through discovery of minerals, the central government embarked on a programme of rapid education of the villagers. Young idealistic teachers were sent out from the capital to open schools in remote areas. One such teacher took with him a do-it-yourself radio construction set. His own set which he had meant to demonstrate was unfortunately badly broken during transit, but he showed the pupils photos of the people in the capital listening to the radio. They volunteered enthusiastically to help him build a set for the whole village to listen to. However after a few days the volunteers dropped off, and finally only one remained. It took a good time to finish the set, but in the end it was working and the villagers all thanked him. He asked some of the former volunteers, ‘How was it that you lost interest? Didn’t you believe me?’ They replied, ‘At first we believed you absolutely, but then it took so long, and what we were doing – joining up little wires and all the rest – seemed nothing to do with hearing music and plays which you promised us. It all began to seem impossible – that music should be coming through the air which no one could hear until we had joined up some bits of wire. In a way we still did believe you, but . . . well, we sort of thought that perhaps it might work in the capital but not in our village!’

This experience made an impression on the teacher, and when he was ordered to a new village he took not only the do-it- yourself construction kit, but some compasses and magnets too. Before he talked about radio at all, he showed the villagers the compass needle, moved by an invisible and intangible force. He used the magnets to magnetize other pieces of metal, and gave some of the pupils these pieces to take home and play with. This time the volunteers did not fall away when they began making the radio; at times when he saw their faith was wavering, he said, ‘The force we are preparing to harness in this set is the same which you have seen working in the compass and magnets.’ Then their confidence revived.

Most minds are too disturbed to be able to meditate for long on the pure Self or the universal Self, and Patanjali gives six classes of practice for purifying and steadying the mind. These easier practices are nearer to daily life and body-consciousness than the disciple feels that the universal Lord, or even the pure Self, can be. Without some practice on these lines, students tend to find the gap between the present state, darkened by passion and fear, and the absolute transcendence of the Self or the Lord, too great. Then they may give up.

Patanjali’s practices are called collectively parikarman, which could be rendered as ‘enriching’. Dr Shastri sometimes referred to it as refining the mind. The practices give results quickly – results which in the normal course may appear naturally, but in the higher stages of meditation; to experience one of them at the beginning gives confidence. For instance, a student who is particularly physically restless always turns out to be breathing irregularly. By practice on Om, his breathing will gradually become deep and slow naturally. But if he performs one of the breathing exercises consciously, he can remove the disturbance more quickly. Still, he has to remember what the aim is: to cure the restlessness, not to become expert in manipulating breath. To stop at one special practice, as if it were a sporting event, and abandon or postpone the jump beyond individuality into the universal, is to miss the point. It would correspond to playing with the magnets and refusing to build the radio.

Sutra 30 of the first part of Patanjali’s sutras lists nine main obstacles in the way of yoga, which distract the mind. They are, as explained by Shankara, illness; rigidity of mind; doubt, which is a notion – for instance, ‘is that a post or a man?’ – which touches both of two contradictory alternatives; heedlessness, being a lack of intensity (bhavana), not being constant in the practice for attaining samadhi; slackness, being lack of effort due to heaviness of body or mind; attraction to the worlds illusion about the disciplines of yoga and the path; failure to attain a stage of samadhi; instability, which is a failure to remain steady in a meditation stage when it has been achieved. They are, says Shankara, distractions, adversaries, defects in yoga. They are above all distractions of the mind. It is clear that these correspond to some of the doshas of the Chapter of the Self, and in both cases the recommendation is given to remove them by yoga practices. Sutra 51 adds that they are generally evidenced by experience of pain, depression, restlessness of the body, and irregular breathing.

Sutra 32 states that these obstacles can all be removed by practice on ‘one principle’, and Shankara remarks that this refers to some one out of the six parikarman practices.

But it has also been stated in Sutra 29 that the obstacles can be removed, and are removed, by meditation on the Lord by means of Om meditation practice. The Lord is described in Sutra 25, and Shankara makes his commentary on this the longest one in the whole work. It may be wondered why the parikarman practices are given at all, when the whole process can be effected by the Om practice alone. The length of Shankara’s commentary on Sutra 25, which is mostly concerned with evidences for the existence of a supreme omniscient controlling Lord, gives a hint. Many would-be yogis are not convinced even intellectually about the matter, and in Shankara’s time, those who performed religious rituals often regarded them more as magical ceremonies rather than worship. In fact one of the sects held that it is immaterial whether the gods exist or not. If the ceremonies are performed correctly, and the names of the gods pronounced, the results follow for the sacrificer. It was not his concern whether any deity exists corresponding to the name. The sacrificial priest of that sect regarded himself as somewhat like an electronics engineer today. The engineer knows what an electric charge will do to a wire, and the knowledge enables him to work effectively. As to what the charge is in itself, he leaves that to the philosophers – perhaps it is unanswerable.

But the position of the yogi is, that he wants to know. He is more like the physicists who first investigated electricity: they wanted to know, whether it was ultimately applicable in other fields or not. And the final conclusion of the yogi is, that happiness on this earth or in some heaven, as aimed at by the ritualists, is based on illusion. It depends on identification with body or mind, which in the end is an imprisonment. The physical body dies, the soul falls from heaven after its merits are exhausted, as the Chapter of the Self commentary says at the beginning. It is said in one of the accounts of heaven, that the soul suddenly becomes aware that its stay there is about to end, and that moment is a worse agony than any of the hells.

Experience has shown, however, that few yogis can contemplate an immediate dis-identification from body and mind. The latent impressions of identity are too strong. They may try to imagine it, and think that they have an idea of it, but in fact it is not so. Children try to imagine themselves grown-up, but when they explain what they will do, it is nearly always some ridiculous exaggeration of what they are doing now.

So Patanjali gives the training meditations for those who cannot simply perform the Om practice in meditation on the Lord. The training meditations are nearer to the things of this world; they thin out the seed-bed of latent dynamic impressions called sanskaras, and then they steady the agitation of the mind. The sutras specify the results as prasadana and sthiti. The first means something like clearness: Dr Shastri also translates it as 4purification’. The second word means stability, firmness – it is in fact our English word ‘steady’. These two things, clearness and steadiness, are the essential factors in yogic practice. First the mind is made a little clear, and then it becomes able to concentrate more and more steadily on subtle things; finally it can concentrate without flinching on the Lord and on the Self – it passes away into them, and that is liberation.

A merely pure mind, or temporarily steadied mind, do not necessarily lead to liberation. There are minds which are pure, but which merely enjoy the happiness of their sattva. They have no spirit of inquiry awake in them. There are other minds which are steady in pursuit of an objective like ambition, but because they are not clear, they are unable to free themselves from the fantasy even when it is ruining their lives.

The Patanjali sutras on parikarman are:

1.33 By intensification of friendliness towards the happy, compassion towards the suffering, goodwill towards virtue, overlooking sin, the mind becomes clear

34   by either exhaling and checking the prana life-current,

35  or (by) mental perception of (divine) objects, the mind becomes steady

36   or (by) the ‘sorrowless radiant’ (mental perception)

37   or (by) meditation on a mind free from passion,

38   or on the knowledge of dream and of dreamless sleep,

39   or on the Chosen Form.

40 Mastery is when mind can be steadied on anything from the ultimate in smallness to the ultimate in greatness.

© Trevor Leggett