A significant word in Sanskrit writings on spiritual life is adhikari–the state of being qualified or worthy, implying both fitness and capability. This is especially meaningful in the subject of yoga, for how can an individual engage in that which is the highest endeavor possible for any sentient being unless he is capable of sustaining and succeeding in his practice? The yogi is a very special person, indeed. As Paramhansa Yogananda said: “Yoga is the beginning of the end.” The yogi is one entering the last stages of ripening on the tree of life.
Krishna tells Arjuna the basic requirements for a yogi, since simply knowing the mechanics of yoga is not at all enough, any more than knowing the rules of a sport can make someone a proficient athlete. The yogi, too, must live perpetually in training if he is to win the gold of spiritual realization.
Krishna has explained to Arjuna the need for living in a quiet and retired environment, even though active in the world. No matter how spiritual we like to think ourselves, our immediate environment and the condition of our body is a major factor in how our mind behaves in meditation. The external often dictates the condition of the internal. Now he takes up the subject of what the yogi should be doing in his retreat–whether at home or on retreat elsewhere. He has already mentioned the major activity, saying: “The yogi should fix his awareness constantly on the Self.” So he proceeds:
The yogi’s seat (asana)
Establishing for himself a firm seat in a clean place, not too high and not too low, covered with kusha grass, an antelope skin and a cloth, (6:11).
Krishna assumes that the yogi will be sitting on the ground, as was usual in India at that time and even today in many instances. We will look at that first and then consider other options. The ground should be firm, neither soft nor shifting as sand or gravel or on a heap of things that could slide. Sand is pulverized stone and after sitting awhile literally becomes stone-hard. Not being soft indicates also that the ground should be dry. The place should be clean, without dirt or debris. The yogi should not perch himself in a tree, on the edge of a precipice, or in/on any place where he might fall off if he fell over, either in sleep or samadhi.
Dampness and cold are often properties of earth where the yogi might sit, so he is directed to first put down some kusha grass. Kusha grass is considered purifying, and rings woven of it are sometimes worn in worship to keep the hands ritually pure. It is also a remarkable insulator against cold and damp. In India I have used kusha mats with a blanket on top for sleeping on damp ground in bitterly cold weather, and was never bothered with either damp or cold underneath me. Such mats also make very good meditation seats, covered with a cloth. However, only dried kusha grass is used in matting, and the edges are very sharp and liable to cut the one handling it carelessly.
To compensate for this, and to increase the insulating effect, a deer skin may be placed over the kusha grass. A deer skin is the only animal skin considered appropriate for the yogi’s meditation seat (asana) because the vibration of the deerskin is neutral and therefore conducive to peace and tranquility. However, the deer must have died a natural death. To use the skin of a deer killed for its skin is to violate the precept of ahimsa. One of my vivid memories of the Hardwar bazaar is seeing deer skins for sale that had bullet holes in them. When I once expressed disapproval of this to a shop owner, he was quite sympathetic and said: “I understand how you feel about the deer being shot by a gun. Quite a few yogis object to that. If you give me some time I will find you one that was killed with a bow and arrow. And I will provide you with certification to that effect.” When I explained that I was objecting to the killing of the deer, no matter what form it took, I could see that he thought I was being quite eccentric. Nevertheless, leading yogis have told me themselves that the deer must have died naturally. This makes such a skin hard to come by, since decay will begin right away. But it is possible, for I have seen them.
To keep the deer skin from becoming worn (I knew one yogi that wore out a skin every four years because he traveled almost constantly), Krishna instructs that a cloth should be placed over that (my yogi friend did not do this). He does not specify what kind, but it is a good idea to use cloth made of natural fibers. (Not silk, which is the congealed saliva of worms who are killed to obtain it.)
The yogi’s chair
In the West many yogis prefer to use a cushion on the floor or sit on a chair. Both are perfectly fine, for the posture that will soon be described by Krishna is possible in a chair. It is important that our meditation posture be comfortable and easy to maintain. If you can sit in a cross-legged position without your legs going to sleep and making you have to shift them frequently, that is very good. But meditation done in a chair is equally as good. Better to sit at ease in a chair and be inwardly aware than to sit cross-legged and be mostly aware of your poor, aching legs.
The chair should be comfortable–not hard, yet not so soft that you bob around when you sit upright. It should also be of a design that will prevent your falling over in deep relaxation. A padded armchair can be very good for this, or one which has a curved back that will keep you upright.
The chair should not be so high that your feet cannot be resting flat on the floor, or so low that your knees are markedly above the base of your spine and can cause backache.
The insulation provided by kusha grass and deer skin are unnecessary when meditating in a chair so you need not bother with them. It is good if the chair can be used only for meditation. (The same applies to a pad or mat used for cross-legged meditation on the floor.). This will pick up the beneficial vibrations of your meditation, and when you sit on it your mind will become calm and your meditation easier. If you cannot devote a chair to your meditation, find some kind of cloth or throw that you can put over a chair when you meditate and remove when you are done.
The inner seat
Shankara wrote a short essay in which he analyzed the symbolism of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga. He says that the yogi’s asana (seat) must be a steady mind which remains focused on its object of meditation. With this in mind, Krishna adds:
There, having directed his mind to a single object, controlling thought and activity of the senses, sitting on the seat he should practice yoga for the purpose of self-purification (6:12).
The senses, their functions, and the inner memory of their past sensations in various forms are to be held at bay by the meditator. As he does so, absorbed in his meditation on the Divine, his heart becomes increasingly pure.
The yogi’s posture
Holding the body, head and neck erect, motionless and steady, looking toward the origin of his nose [nasikagram] and not looking around, (6:13).
Holding the body, head and neck erect. The Kaivalya Upanishad (5) says: “Keeping the head, the neck and the body in a straight line.” The purpose of this is to ensure that the upright body will be balanced and not move. The head should be held so the chin is parallel to the ground. You need not be painfully exact about this. The idea is to hold your head at such an angle that it will not fall forward when you relax. Otherwise you will be afflicted with what meditators call “the bobs”–the upper body continually falling forward during meditation.
Motionless and steady. As the yogi meditates his body should not move back and forth or side to side, but be completely still. This is ideal, but please do not think that Krishna is advocating some kind of self-torturing coercion of the body. He does not say we should sit as stiff as a petrified mummy, for that is just self-torment. The great yogic adepts also say that the posture must be comfortable–easeful and relaxed. The Yoga Sutras say: “Posture should be steady and comfortable” (Yoga Sutras 2:46). The Yoga Vashishtha simply says: “He should sit in a comfortable posture conducive to equilibrium” (Yoga Vashishtha 6:1:128). Shankara comments: “Let him practice a posture in which, when established, his mind and limbs will become steady, and which does not cause pain.” Relaxation is the key, for the Yoga Sutras further say: “Posture is mastered by relaxation” (Yoga Sutras 2:47).
Looking toward the origin of his nose [nasikagram]. It is equally reasonable to consider that the nose originates at the nosetip or at the point between the eyebrows. But since Krishna says later on (5:27), “turning up the eyes toward the two brows [bhruvoh],” we can be sure he means the eyes should be turned gently upward as though looking at a distant point. He should not focus them on the point between the eyebrows as that will pull the eyes slightly inward and cause strain.
Not looking around. This is not so hard to manage–keep your eyes turned up and closed!
Common sense must always be used. For example, those with back difficulties should make compensation for them, and not mind if they cannot sit fully upright.
Krishna makes no mention of the hands, because it does not really matter. Just rest them in your lap or on your thighs and forget about them.
The yogi’s inner work
With mind quieted, banishing fear, firm in the brahmachari’s vow, controlling the mind, with thoughts fixed on me, steadfast, he should sit, devoted to me (6:14).
Just as there are several points for the yogi’s outer practice, so it is with his inner practice, and we should consider them.
With mind quieted. Many people become impatient with themselves or their practice if right away their mind does not calm down, but that is why yoga is a practice and not a matter of instantaneous effect. After all, each day we spend hours and hours stirring up our mind and forcing it into reactions of all kinds. Moreover, it is a living entity, not a machine that can be switched off with the flick of a finger. Right meditation practice will certainly still the mind after a while. But we must be helping it by arranging our life in such a way that distractions will be minimal. Diet is also crucial here. A rajasic or tamasic diet (to be discussed in the seventeenth chapter) hinders the efficiency of yoga meditation. And most of all, our thoughts and emotions condition the mind substance, making it either easier or more difficult to still.
Banishing fear. This is not often discussed in writings or talks on yoga, but it should be given attention. It is no surprise that when we sit for meditation we will find that our mind is restless and trivial. We also realize that long-buried impulses from the past (including past lives) may surface, such as anger, lust, greed, and so forth. But in so many lives, as well as this one, we have been in situations that produced a great range of fear in us, from simple apprehension to absolute terror. When such things surface we are not aware of the cause, only the fear itself, and this actually compounds the fear. The fear of death also can arise, because in meditation, as in sleep, there is an approximation of the withdrawal of the life force that occurs in death. I have known a few people who were bothered by the fear of death in the beginning of their meditation practice. How did they overcome it? By the determined practice of meditation itself–nothing special was needed. So when unreasoning fear rushes over us, we need only keep on as usual and it will be banished. At times we may feel anxiety at the onset of peculiar sensations in the body as well as the mind, and fear that we may be harmed by whatever is producing them. There is also fear in the form of doubt to be contended with: fear that our meditation may be of no effect, or fear that we will not attain as much as we should, and even fear that we will not live long enough to make any significant progress. All these are just vagaries of the ego-mind and should be ignored.
Firm in the brahmachari’s vow. Certainly, part of the brahmacharin vow is celibacy, for even non-monastics must live a disciplined and non-sensual life. The idea that God created or ordained marriage so men and women could have all the sex they wanted in an approved setting is outrageous. All who aspire to true humanity–much less divinity–must be chaste in body and mind. Those who do not wish to so live should do as they please, but leave yoga alone. This is why Patanjali says that the first step in yoga is moral observance (yama-niyama) which includes brahmacharya.
The Dharma Shastras which describe the correct life of non-monastics are quite explicit about the need for husband and wife to lead lives of continence. See how the yogi parents of Paramhansa Yogananda lived it as presented in Autobiography of a Yogi. In the very first chapter we find: “Mother made a remarkable admission to my eldest sister Roma: ‘Your father and myself live together as man and wife only once a year, for the purpose of having children.’” The fact that Yogananda, a devoted son and a pure-hearted yogi, would reveal this to the world in the pages of a book show how necessary he felt it was for both Eastern and Western readers to be shown the standard of chastity that yogis should observe in their life, not using their non-monastic status as excuse for lesser behavior. He underlined this later in the forty-fourth chapter, giving these words written to Mahatma Gandhi by his wife Kasturbai: “I thank you for the most perfect marriage in the world, based on brahmacharya and not on sex.” Please note that these are examples of married yogis, not monks imposing their ideas on others. Also remember that the guru of Yogananda’s parents was himself a married yogi, so there is no monastic influence in their case.
Having said all this, I must point out that the brahmacharin vow (vrata) involves the discipline, purification, control, and non-indulgence of all the senses. Furthermore, it is a vow–a voluntary resolution. Those who do not wish to make such a resolution need not do so. But they should not lie to themselves and others by claiming to be yogis.
Controlling the mind. When the mind is quieted, rendered fearless, and strengthened by the power (virya) accumulated through continence and discipline of the senses (for the word “virtue” is derived from the Latin word for power), then–and only then–it can be controlled.
With thoughts fixed on me. The mind must not be made empty and static, for that would be stagnation and conscious coma. Rather, mantra japa that impels the consciousness toward God must be generated in a constant, though calm, stream.
Steadfast. The mind must be gathered up and made unitary. This is the meaning of the word “yukta” in this verse. The mind must be joined or “yoked” first to itself and then to God in the state of yoga, of union.
He should sit. Both body and mind need to be steady. Shankara says that asana means steadiness of mind as well as of body. It has been said that Buddha became enlightened because he knew how to “sit” through firm resolution, holding body and mind under his control.
Devoted to me. Such union is not abstract, it is a filling of the consciousness with God as the eternal Object-Subject. The first step, the precursor to God-awareness, is Self-awareness. In that awareness we find our true Self and then the Self of our Self, God. That is why Jesus spoke of “losing” our life to “find” it in the greater, primal Life that is God (Matthew 16:25).
The yogi’s Goal
Always disciplining himself thus, the yogi whose mind is subdued goes to the supreme peace of nirvana, and attains to union with me (6:15).
Ever keeping this in mind and following what Krishna has just told us, the yogi will come to the Goal unerringly and, comparatively speaking, easily.
A general principle
Now Krishna gives us a general principle for our way of life:
Yoga is not eating too much, nor is it virtually not eating at all; not the habit of sleeping too much, and not keeping awake too much, either. For him who is moderate in food and diversion, disciplined in action, moderate in sleep and waking, yoga destroys all suffering (6:16-17).
Prabhavananda puts it very smoothly: “Yoga is not for the man who overeats, or for him who fasts excessively. It is not for him who sleeps too much, or for the keeper of exaggerated vigils. Let a man be moderate in his eating and his recreation, moderately active, moderate in sleep and in wakefulness. He will find that yoga takes away all his unhappiness.”
Except in the matters of yama and niyama, which are absolutes, moderation is the yogi’s motto. Cool-headedness is essential for him. As Sri Ramakrishna often remarked, crazes and extremes are detrimental to spiritual life. This is especially true because crazes and extremes often mask or express mental and spiritual pathologies. We should be enthusiastic about the spiritual life, but we must be equally sensible and moderate. Then yoga will be for us.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Union With Brahman