First Steps in Raja Yoga Wisdom of Ancient Veda Explained By Swami Vivekananda-II

The next step is Asana, posture. A series of exercises, physical and mental,
is to be gone through every day, until certain higher states are reached.
Therefore it is quite necessary that we should find a posture in which we can
remain long. That posture which is the easiest for one should be the one
chosen. For thinking, a certain posture may be very easy for one man, while
to another it may be very difficult. We will find later on that during the study
of these psychological matters a good deal of activity goes on in the body.
Nerve currents will have to be displaced and given a new channel. New sorts
of vibrations will begin, the whole constitution will be remodelled, as it
were. But the main part of the activity will lie along the spinal column, so
that the one thing necessary for the posture is to hold the spinal column free,
sitting erect, holding the three parts — the chest, neck, and head — in a
straight line. Let the whole weight of the body be supported by the ribs, and
then you have an easy natural posture, with the spine straight. You will
easily see that you cannot think very high thoughts with the chest in. This
portion of the Yoga is a little similar to the Hatha – yoga which deals entirely
with the physical body, its aim being to make the physical body very strong.
We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult,

and cannot be learned in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual
growth. Many of these practices you will find in Delsarte and other teachers,
such as placing the body in different postures, but the object in these is
physical, not psychological. There is not one muscle in the body over which
a man cannot establish a perfect control. The heart can be made to stop or go
on at his bidding, and each part of the organism can be similarly controlled.
The result of this branch of Yoga is to make men live long; health is the
chief idea, the one goal of the Hatha-Yogi. He is determined not to fall sick,
and he never does. He lives long; a hundred years is nothing to him; he is
quite young and fresh when he is 150, without one hair turned grey. But that
is all. A banyan tree lives sometimes 5000 years, but it is a banyan tree and
nothing more. So, if a man lives long, he is only a healthy animal. One or
two ordinary lessons of the Hatha-Yogis are very useful. For instance, some
of you will find it a good thing for headaches to drink cold water through the
nose as soon as you get up in the morning; the whole day your brain will be
nice and cool, and you will never catch cold. It is very easy to do; put your
nose into the water, draw it up through the nostrils and make a pump action
in the throat.
After one has learned to have a firm erect seat, one has
to perform, according to certain schools, a practice called the purifying of
the nerves. This part has been rejected by some as not belonging to Raja –
Yoga, but as so great an authority as the commentator Shankaracharya
advises it, I think fit that it should be mentioned, and I will quote his own
directions from his commentary on the Shvethashvatara Upanishad: “The
mind whose dross has been cleared away by Pranayama, becomes fixed in
Brahman; therefore Pranayama is declared. First the nerves are to be
purified, then comes the power to practise Pranayama. Stopping the right
nostril with the thumb, through the left nostril fill in air, according to
capacity; then, without any interval, throw the air out through the right
nostril, closing the left one. Again inhaling through the right nostril eject
through the left, according to capacity; practising this three or five times at
four hours of the day, before dawn, during midday, in the evening, and at
midnight, in fifteen days or a month purity of the nerves is attained; then
begins Pranayama.”

Practice is absolutely necessary. You may sit down and listen to me by the
hour every day, but if you do not practise, you will not get one step further.
It all depends on practice. We never understand these things until we
experience them. We will have to see and feel them for ourselves. Simply
listening to explanations and theories will not do. There are several
obstructions to practice. The first obstruction is an unhealthy body: if the
body is not in a fit state, the practice will be obstructed. Therefore we have
to keep the body in good health; we have to take care of what we eat and
drink, and what we do. Always use a mental effort, what is usually called
“Christian Science,” to keep the body strong. That is all — nothing further of
the body. We must not forget that health is only a means to an end. If health
were the end, we would be like animals; animals rarely become unhealthy.
The second obstruction is doubt; we always feel doubtful about things we do
not see. Man cannot live upon words, however he may try. So, doubt comes
to us as to whether there is any truth in these things or not; even the best of
us will doubt sometimes. With practice, within a few days, a little glimpse
will come, enough to give one encouragement and hope. As a certain
commentator on Yoga philosophy says, “When one proof is obtained,
however little that may be, it will give us faith in the whole teaching of
Yoga.” For instance, after the first few months of practice, you will begin to
find you can read another’s thoughts; they will come to you in picture form.
Perhaps you will hear something happening at a long distance, when you
concentrate your mind with a wish to hear. These glimpses will come, by
little bits at first, but enough to give you faith, and strength, and hope. For
instance, if you concentrate your thoughts on the tip of your nose, in a few
days you will begin to smell most beautiful fragrance, which will be enough
to show you that there are certain mental perceptions that can be made
obvious without the contact of physical objects. But we must always
remember that these are only the means; the aim, the end, the goal, of all this
training is liberation of the soul. Absolute control of nature, and nothing
short of it, must be the goal. We must be the masters, and not the slaves of
nature; neither body nor mind must be our master, nor must we forget that
the body is mine, and not I the body’s.
A god and a demon went to learn about the Self from a great sage. They
studied with him for a long time. At last the sage told them, “You yourselves
are the Being you are seeking.” Both of them thought that their bodies were
the Self. They went back to their people quite satisfied and said, “We have
learned everything that was to be learned; eat, drink,and be merry; we are
the Self; there is nothing beyond us.” The nature of the demon was ignorant,
clouded; so he never inquired any further, but was perfectly contented with
the idea that he was God, that by the Self was meant the body. The god had a
purer nature. He at first committed the mistake of thinking: I, this body, am
Brahman: so keep it strong and in health, and well dressed, and give it all
sorts of enjoyments. But, in a few days, he found out that that could not be
the meaning of the sage, their master; there must be something higher. So he
came back and said, “Sir, did you teach me that this body was the Self? If so,
I see all bodies die; the Self cannot die.” The sage said, “Find it out; thou art
That.” Then the god thought that the vital forces which work the body were
what the sage meant. But, after a time, he found that if he ate, these vital
forces remained strong, but, if he starved, they became weak. The god then
went back to the sage and said, “Sir, do you mean that the vital forces are the
Self?” The sage said, “Find out for yourself; thou art That.” The god
returned home once more, thinking that it was the mind, perhaps, that was
the Self. But in a short while he saw that thoughts were so various, now
good, again bad; the mind was too changeable to be the Self. He went back
to the sage and said, “Sir, I do not think that the mind is the Self; did you
mean that?” “No,” replied the sage, “thou art That; find out for yourself.”
The god went home, and at last found that he was the Self, beyond all
thought, one without birth or death, whom the sword cannot pierce or the
fire burn, whom the air cannot dry or the water melt, the beginningless and
endless, the immovable, the intangible, the omniscient, the omnipotent
Being; that It was neither the body nor the mind, but beyond them all. So he
was satisfied; but the poor demon did not get the truth, owing to his
fondness for the body.
This world has a good many of these demonic natures, but there are some
gods too. If one proposes to teach any science to increase the power of sense
– enjoyment, one finds multitudes ready for it. If one undertakes to show the
supreme goal, one finds few to listen to him. Very few have the power to
grasp the higher, fewer still the patience to attain to it. But there are a few
also who know that even if the body can be made to live for a thousand
years, the result in the end will be the same. When the forces that hold it
together go away, the body must fall. No man was ever born who could stop
his body one moment from changing. Body is the name of a series of
changes. “As in a river the masses of water are changing before you every
moment, and new masses are coming, yet taking similar form, so is it with
this body.” Yet the body must be kept strong and healthy. It is the best
instrument we have.
This human body is the greatest body in the universe, and a human being the
greatest being. Man is higher than all animals, than all angels; none is
greater than man. Even the Devas (gods) will have to come down again and
attain to salvation through a human body. Man alone attains to perfection,
not even the Devas. According to the Jews and Mohammedans, God created
man after creating the angels and everything else, and after creating man He
asked the angels to come and salute him, and all did so except Iblis; so God
cursed him and he became Satan. Behind this allegory is the great truth that
this human birth is the greatest birth we can have. The lower creation, the
animal, is dull, and manufactured mostly out of Tamas. Animals cannot have
any high thoughts; nor can the angels, or Devas, attain to direct freedom
without human birth. In human society, in the same way, too much wealth or
too much poverty is a great impediment to the higher development of the
soul. It is from the middle classes that the great ones of the world come.
Here the forces are very equally adjusted and balanced.
Returning to our subject, we come next to Pranayama, controlling the
breathing. What has that to do with concentrating the powers of the mind?
Breath is like the fly – wheel of this machine, the body. In a big engine you
find the fly – wheel first moving, and that motion is conveyed to finer and
finer machinery until the most delicate and finest mechanism in the machine
is in motion. The breath is that fly – wheel, supplying and regulating the
motive power to everything in this body.
There was once a minister to a great king. He fell into disgrace. The king, as
a punishment, ordered him to be shut up in the top of a very high tower. This
was done, and the minister was left there to perish. He had a faithful wife,
however, who came to the tower at night and called to her husband at the top
to know what she could do to help him. He told her to return to the tower the
following night and bring with her a long rope, some stout twine, pack
thread, silken thread, a beetle, and a little honey. Wondering much, the good
wife obeyed her husband, and brought him the desired articles. The husband
directed her to attach the silken thread firmly to the beetle, then to smear its
horns with a drop of honey, and to set it free on the wall of the tower, with
its head pointing upwards. She obeyed all these instructions, and the beetle
started on its long journey. Smelling the honey ahead it slowly crept
onwards, in the hope of reaching the honey, until at last it reached to top of
the tower, when the minister grasped the beetle, and got possession of the
silken thread. He told his wife to tie the other end to the pack thread, and
after he had drawn up the pack thread, he repeated the process with the stout
twine, and lastly with the rope. Then the rest was easy. The minister
descended from the tower by means of the rope, and made his escape. In this
body of ours the breath motion is the “silken thread”; by laying hold of and
learning to control it we grasp the pack thread of the nerve currents, and
from these the stout twine of our thoughts, and lastly the rope of Prana,
controlling which we reach freedom.
We do not know anything about our own bodies; we cannot know. At best
we can take a dead body, and cut it in pieces, and there are some who can
take a live animal and cut it in pieces in order to see what is inside the body.
Still, that has nothing to do with our own bodies. We know very little about
them. Why do we not? Because our attention is not discriminating enough to
catch the very fine movements that are going on within. We can know of
them only when the mind becomes more subtle and enters, as it were, deeper
into the body. To get the subtle perception we have to begin with the grosser
perceptions. We have to get hold of that which is setting the whole engine in
motion. That is the Prana, the most obvious manifestation of which is the
breath. Then, along with the breath, we shall slowly enter the body, which
will enable us to find out about the subtle forces, the nerve currents that are
moving all over the body. As soon as we perceive and learn to feel them, we
shall begin to get control over them, and over the body. The mind is also set
in motion by these different nerve currents, so at last we shall reach the state
of perfect control over the body and the mind, making both our servants.
Knowledge is power. We have to get this power. So we must begin at the
beginning, with Pranayama, restraining the Prana. This Pranayama is a long
subject, and will take several lessons to illustrate it thoroughly. We shall
take it part by part.
We shall gradually see the reasons for each exercise and what forces in the
body are set in motion. All these things will come to us, but it requires
constant practice, and the proof will come by practice. No amount of
reasoning which I can give you will be proof to you, until you have
demonstrated it for yourselves. As soon as you begin to feel these currents in
motion all over you, doubts will vanish, but it requires hard practice every
day. You must practise at least twice every day, and the best times are
towards the morning and the evening. When night passes into day, and day
into night, a state of relative calmness ensues. The early morning and the
early evening are the two periods of calmness. Your body will have a like
tendency to become calm at those times. We should take advantage of that
natural condition and begin then to practise. Make it a rule not to eat until
you have practised; if you do this, the sheer force of hunger will break your
laziness. In India they teach children never to eat until they have practised or
worshipped, and it becomes natural to them after a time; a boy will not feel
hungry until he has bathed and practised.
Those of you who can afford it will do better to have a room for this practice
alone. Do not sleep in that room, it must be kept holy. You must not enter
the room until you have bathed, and are perfectly clean in body and mind.
Place flowers in that room always; they are the best surroundings for a Yogi;
also pictures that are pleasing. Burn incense morning and evening. Have no
quarrelling, nor anger, nor unholy thought in that room. Only allow those
persons to enter it who are of the same thought as you. Then gradually there
will be an atmosphere of holiness in the room, so that when you are
miserable, sorrowful, doubtful, or your mind is disturbed, the very fact of
entering that room will make you calm. This was the idea of the temple and
the church, and in some temples and churches you will find it even now, but
in the majority of them the very idea has been lost. The idea is that by
keeping holy vibrations there the place becomes and remains illumined.
Those who cannot afford to have a room set apart can practise anywhere
they like. Sit in a straight posture, and the first thing to do is to send a
current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat, “Let all beings be
happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful.” So do to the east,
south, north and west. The more you do that the better you will feel yourself.
You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see
that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see
that others are happy. After doing that, those who believe in God should
pray — not for money, not for health, nor for heaven; pray for knowledge
and light; every other prayer is selfish. Then the next thing to do is to think
of your own body, and see that it is strong and healthy; it is the best
instrument you have. Think of it as being as strong as adamant, and that with
the help of this body you will cross the ocean of life. Freedom is never to be
reached by the weak. Throw away all weakness. Tell your body that it is
strong, tell your mind that it is strong, and have unbounded faith and hope in


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