INTRODUCTION to Practical Yoga Ancient and Modern

by Ernest Wood

By Paul Brunton

The little information we have about Patanjali is legendary and not trustworthy. Scholars have different opinions as to the date when he lived and worked, varying by as much as several centuries. But the most commonly accepted date is the second century 13.c. Indeed he is regarded by most Hindus themselves as identical with the celebrated grammarian of the same name, who belonged to that period.

Patanjali did not originate yoga. It is known to have existed long before his time. Yajnavalkya, who lived at least a thousand years before him, enjoined in his writings the duty of retirement into the forests at a certain age, for the practice of religious devotion and mystic contemplation. Yoga was also briefly touched upon in other earlier books, such as The Maitri Upanishad. What Patanjali did was to collect the experiences, the knowledge and the opinions of some other yogis and align them with his own. He then formulated definite principles and a precise teaching out of them and summarized them in a short text, which has become a classical authority in its homeland. It is also needful to remember that he belonged to a particular school, the Raja-Yog, whereas there were several others. There are today at least eleven other known schools, whilst in my researches and travels I discovered quite a few little-known secret schools.

Patanjali's meanings are somewhat obscure at times. His style makes for difficult reading. He is incredibly concise. Even Indians have felt and told me this. A commentary by a competent person is indispensable. The most celebrated was written by Vyasa. Both Patanjali and Vyasa were several years ago rendered, in a scholarly translation, from the original Sanskrit into English in the Harvard Oriental Series, but the difficulties remain. Only those who know from actual experience what they read about in the text can really understand Patanjali. This is because whereas other Indians sought truth by intellectual logic, Patanjali sought it by intellect-transcending meditation. Moreover, like so many other early mystical and philosophical Indian writings, his were primarily intended for the use of teachers rather than for the use of students. They were really a series of subject-headings of which explanations could be given personally and lectures could be delivered vocally. They are extremely difficult for the modern reader to follow coherently. Hence a modern commentary for contemporary students is necessary, and Professor Wood has filled that need in his most readable work. Moreover there is definitely a place for the new translation which he offers. While faithful to the original, it is more flexible than earlier ones. Professor Wood has practiced yoga and is well qualified to write reliably on the subject. He has lived in India for the span of a whole generation and has an adequate knowledge of the Sanskrit language.

Aphorisms on Yoga is the title which Patanjali gave his work. The term "yoga" is used in Hindu literature in different senses. In the art of arithmetic, yoga means addition, but in astronomy it is a technical term while in religion it means something else still. But the general sense always remains the same, and that is: a unification of two or more diverse elements, a whole which includes or unites several parts. In Patanjali's specific sense, it is the establishment of perfect harmony between the everyday self and its spiritual source. It is what we in the Western hemisphere often call mysticism.

Yoga, in this sense, became the basis of one of the six classical systems of traditional Hindu philosophy. But it is really independent of any particular revealed religion and is to be found in the records of all revealed religions. The true mystic may belong to the Christian church, the Hindu temple or the Muhameddan mosque, if he wishes.

In the Old Testament, the yogic condition is concisely indicated by the frequently used phrase, "and the Spirit of the Lord (Jehovah) came upon him," as the yogic method is correctly described by the Psalmist's "Be still and know that I am God." In the Christian fold something like yoga has been always practiced. Christianity has, throughout its long history, held a mystical element. Not a few men among the early anchorites round the Mediterranean shores, some of the women in medieval Catholic convents, and entire Quaker communities in the United States of America learnt to sit in meditation. It is not really something exotic and entirely alien to the West; it is only a neglected and a half-forgotten art. Yoga, if stripped of its Hinduistic forms, its legendary histories, would be quite at home in a Christian framework. We shall understand Joan of Arc better if we can understand that her phenomena were symptoms of one kind of yogic state into which she fell involuntarily at times.

The yogi achieves the ultimate in passivity, the extreme in self-absorption. His ecstatic state may be brought about by a variety of means, lower or higher, physical or mental. He may whirl his body around like an Egyptian dervish, and fall into ecstasy at the end. Or he may sit immobile, austere and uncommunicative, like the man whose cave on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea I visited a couple of years ago. Some Indians hold their breath for as long as they can, others hold their feet twisted behind their back, still others disdain all such gymnastics and plunge straightway into holding their mind on one subject-the true self as the object of their search.

Three quarters of a century ago, Tylor showed, in his Primitive Culture, that savage tribes of the earliest antiquity greatly esteemed the ecstatic condition, which they induced by meditation, fasting or narcotics. The shamans of Siberia and Mongolia, the medicine-men of North America and the wizards of Polynesia-among many others-sought and found this condition. But they did so rarely for its own sake, more often for the sake of the abnormal psychological and physical phenomena which were its by-products. They wanted to see into the future, be impervious to wounds, obtain guidance for their fellow tribesmen from above or communicate by telepathy over long distances, and so on.

An unfortunate result of this is that there are some people, both among the modern Indians themselves and among the Western missionaries who have worked in India, to whom the name yoga carries sinister connotations of witchcraft, sorcery and black magic. That there are men addicted to these horrible pursuits is unfortunately a fact. That they are not followers of Patanjali's yoga is however equally a fact. For the reader will see that a whole section is devoted by Patanjali to the regime of moral self-purification which, according to him, must precede the practices of meditation exercises. Indeed a warning is needed here that such exercises should be let alone if the character is too sunk in weakness, in sin or in evil. The celebrated German occultist, Rudolf Steiner, rightly pointed out that for every step taken in mystical development, three steps should be taken in moral development. Let no one mistake fantastic notions and superstitious customs for the true yoga. Let no one seek the merely incidental strange phenomena of mysticism to feed his spiritual hunger. The phenomena may be real or pretended, but the end result will be the same-spiritual starvation.

Among more advanced peoples an aim and a technique like Patanjali's were the most respected. Today only the higher means should be used and only the higher goals should be sought. Indeed, impure seeking can find no other result than incorrect vision. In the best school, that of philosophic yoga, the pupil has first to subject himself to a discipline which will not only separate him from the weaknesses and evils in his character but will also throw off the emotional prejudices and egoistic bias which prevent making his approach to truth as impersonal as any scientist's.

The true yogic state is one of mental exaltation reflecting an ardent communion with the divine. He who enters it discovers the mentalness of `here' and `there,' 'then' and `to be,' and thus claims his freedom from an ancient tyrant. He begins to live in the time-less Now as he begins to live in the tranquillity of the spiritual mind. He realizes that Infinite Duration as opposed to finite time is always with him: he is always in it. In this sense he is immortal. But the `he' here concerned is not the lower part of human nature. The more the lower self persists in clinging to the finite sense of time's passage, the more it prevents entry into the very deathlessness which it desires. To those who have never reflected about it, there is something incomprehensible and even uncanny in the idea, but those who have done so know that there is noble power and satisfying peace in it. How much more must it mean to those who can reach its beautiful shores and sit brooding over its infinite depths!

We do not have to know much about the body's anatomy to know that an infinitely wise intelligence betrays itself therein and that atheism is absurd. We do not have to know much about the mind's anatomy either to reach the same conclusion. But whereas a few days in the dissecting room of a medical college may be enough to reach it by the first way, fifty years of life may not be enough to reach it by the second way. It all depends on how deeply our scalpel cuts through the mind's layers of thought and emotion. This operation, performed so strangely by the mind on the mind with the mind, is yoga.

The gist of this mystical practice is to explore consciousness for its very essence, to delve beneath thoughts for that out of which they are initiated. Nobody ordinarily ever becomes acquainted with mind-in-itself but only with its workings in him. For mind is not something which he can picture out in space. Now these ever-restless workings occupy almost the whole of a man's wakeful and dream life. Such an exclusive concentration of attention keeps him from becoming aware of their source. To offset this, we must use a method of self-training which scientifically proposes to divert attention from the particular workings of the mind, which everybody so well knows, to the mind itself, which hardly any-body knows. It achieves this by a process of withholding the mental energy and containing it within itself, by the checking of its externalizing movement and the bringing of it into a state of utter stillness.

The fact that we can think about the process of thinking at all shows that we are really superior to, and apart from, it. That which exists in us and enables us to do this is the element out of which all the numerous lines of consciousness arise and into which they merge. Yoga is, in its elementary stage, the isolation of consciousness from physical sensations and, in its advanced stage, the isolation of consciousness from mental thoughts. A little analysis will show that our personality is composed out of its ever-flowing thoughts. They are ever-present with us. Consequently the source out of which they originate, the stuff out of which they are fabricated, must be ever-present too. This is simply the abiding principle of pure Thought. If we can trace our fleeting thoughts back to this abiding principle, it will be the same as tracing out the secret of the holy soul, the Overself, for the two are one and the same.


Everything about his subject has been meticulously classified and somewhat drily listed by Patanjali. There are the three kinds of aspirant, the six enhancements of concentration and the five impediments to it, the four stages of yoga, and so on. However it would be a failure in duty not to mention some important points which are not brought out clearly by Patanjali's Aphorisms, and which indeed are not brought out in the average yogic circle in India at all, although well understood in the little-known and formerly esoteric school of philosophic yoga.

The first point is that the inhibition of thinking,, emotion, and passion which produces the inward stillness that Patanjali calls "union," is not a final goal but only a background for that goal. When this stillness has been fully attained and expertly mastered, thinking has then to be resuscitated. For the root of that self which really separates man from truth, which blinds him to God and chains him to earth, that self which Jesus asked him to give up if he would find true life, is still there. Its activity is quelled and not annihilated, its self-consciousness lulled and not destroyed. Its last lair must be sought out. The ego itself must be openly confronted until, by a supreme act of insight, it is thoroughly understood in all its depths and ramifications. This insight finally overcomes it and does away with the illusions which it constantly breeds. Orthodox yoga quietens the ego but does not kill its dominance; to achieve this last indispensable task it is needful to go a step beyond yoga. The ego itself is so cunning, its wiles are so clever and tricky that the average yogi is easily deceived into believing it to be subdued when, in fact, it is merely biding its time. Gautama the Buddha had to take this step and tread this ultimate path. He describes how his first teacher, Alara Kamala, was such an adept in yoga that "he would not, sitting on the roadside, be conscious of a caravan of five hundred carts rattling past him." Gautama studied and practiced with Alara Kamala until he became perfect in yoga and reached the same stage as his teacher. He clearly states that he himself fully realized the same goal. Nevertheless he became dissatisfied with it and left Alara Kamala to seek a higher doctrine and a deeper practice.

This should warn us not only that it is not enough to find peace, that we should seek truth also, but that the help of Grace is in-dispensable in the end. The yogi's will can produce the necessary conditions for bringing about a mystical experience but cannot of itself produce the final consummation of that experience. It must be met by a descent of divine Grace, by a self-revelation from a higher source, if this is to happen.

The second point concerns Patanjali's criticism of mentalism. As this could not be adequately answered without a long discussion rather than a short mention, I shall merely remind the reader once more that, after all, his conclusions are those reached by some schools of yoga only and that there are other schools which advocate mentalism as strongly as he repudiates it.

Thirdly, the yogic self-absorbed contemplation in which all this discipline and training culminates is not the ultimate goal at all. It is only a stage on the way to that goal, which is, to be able to live in the world, not deserting it, while living in the soul at the same time; to be fully alert efficient and conscious while discharging all worthy duties and tasks, yet keeping the innermost part of the mind anchored in the divine stillness which transcends the world.

Fourthly, nor should impoverishment of personal life and in-difference to personal development be regarded as the goal. The anti-intellectual, the anti-artistic and the anti-practical attitudes which are so commonly found in the circles of yogis, are merely temporary means to an end and do not constitute permanent ends in themselves. Provided the seeker guards against the dangers of being side-tracked by the conceits of intellect or deceived by the fascinations of art, that is, provided he learns to keep his balance, he will find that the very contrary-the enrichment and development of his individuality are required from him by evolution and by Nature. For instance, whenever mysticism develops on a solely religious foundation, it needs to add the psychological foundation later. Thus balance is preserved. When it develops on a psycho-logical one only, it needs to add the religious to secure the same balance.

The last two points indicate a need of the caution and discrimination with which Westerners should receive any attempt to implant yoga in their midst. We should use it as a help to inspire life, not in the denial of life. We should not throw off the spell of Occidentalism's spiritual superiority complex only to pick up its Oriental analogue. Those who seek truth should not make the mistake of limiting its stretch to a particular hemispheral mind or locating its presence in a particular hemispheral type. They should not, because they have become convinced that there is something to be learnt from the East, cease from a realistic appraisal of the state of things there. They should not, for example, indulge in a superficial condemnation of everything Western and chant an equally superficial paean of praise for everything Eastern. The Very Rev. Dr. Inge points out that Western civilization is very sick but the doctors disagree. "The Indians," he says, "lookers-on, who see most of the game, have their own opinion. They tell us that there are two paths-the path of wisdom and the path of pursuit. The West has chosen the latter. It confounds civilization with comfort and progress, with multiplication of wants, and has made nobody any the happier." But such Indians are not correct in implying that the East alone has chosen the right path and we the path of foolishness. The present day East, like the present day West, does not offer an ideal example. It is an error to ascribe to the East qualities and virtues, knowledge and power which properly belong to no race but to all races. The fact is wisdom is not the exclusive possession of any one people or country. It has been found in the past by individuals scattered everywhere and may be so found again.

The real need is for a new form, not one which shall imitate unsuited past forms or limited hemispheral ones. It should be a twentieth century and global one, wedding mysticism to practicality. An Orient which was mentally and physically incompetent to deal scientifically with the external environment of man is now feeling the results of this deficiency. An Occident which despised rneditation, ascetic self-discipline and metaphysical values, is now feeling the painful consequences of this profound lack in its life. We must experiment creatively until we find a composite culture that suits us. The Orient and the Occident are not mutually exclusive in these days of universal inter-communication. The culture of man cannot be modern and complete until it combines the knowledge which has resulted from the labors of the West with that which has resulted from the labors of the East. Both contributions must be put into a common basket. We can profitably use the research-results of the brown men, as we have used those of the white men, and this need not make us any less Western in our standpoint than before. We can still remain loyal to the heritage and the circumstances which are peculiarly our own, even though we take advantage of the knowledge and the discoveries of those who inhabit the lands of the rising sun and add them to our own. We must free ourselves from such narrowing bias as is supplied by the accident of birth or the preference of temperament.

I came home a couple of years ago from several years' work and travel in the Orient convinced that humanity's sickness was global. Since my return, the observations made during journeys in post-war America and Europe have completed this diagnosis and confirmed it. Whatever remedy will have to be found to cure this sickness, our need meanwhile of emotional repose, mind control and inner peace is more than ever before, not only for the personal benefits they give but just as much for the public capacity to judge calmly and rightly the momentous issues confronting us. The future is dark. Millions of people are being converted to a teaching, or forced to walk unwillingly under a banner, which denies the existence of God and denounces the temples of religion, which propagates hatred, practices robbery and spreads violence. We need all the inner strength we can gather to meet this error and terror of our age. We should therefore not let cultural ignorance or racial unfamiliarity prevent us drawing on whatever the Orient can contribute to that strength. We are in such sore plight today that no chance to enlarge our inner resources should be missed, no legitimate way of finding inner relief should be rejected. We need hope and help, not from one quarter alone but from all quarters; therefore we should accept, not only the stimulations of faith which religion brings us but also the stimulations of will and mind which yoga proffers us. The first yoga text as such ever written down was the one which Professor Wood has here so successfully translated. Certain it is that the successful practice of yoga would free us from these obsessions by fear and rid us of these visitations by anxiety. We, poor mortals, who are in Wordsworth's lines:

"Rolled round in earth's diurnal course With rocks, and stones, and trees,"
may not be able to stop the calamities which personal destiny or national history thrust upon us, but if we have been self-trained in yoga we can certainly control favorably our mental attitude and emotional reaction to such calamities. Those who seek relief from contemporary anxieties can find it therein, and those who seek a refuge from contemporary perils can find it there too. However, because both relief and refuge are at first entirely inward and mental, society tends to undervaluate them, to regard them as vague dreams of little worth. This is society's great mistake.

If Patanjali's aphorisms have any message at all to the Western world today, it is a message of the need of meditation. This need arises because the need of a personal and inward experience of illumination arises. Historicity and tradition in religion are, we find today, not quite enough. They may lead to lifelessness. Indeed one man who seemed to me to understand Jesus best was not born a Christian at all. He was born a Hindu. In the Maharishee of Arunachala I found the authentic and admirable example in the flesh of what yoga means. More than nine years have passed since I last met him, yet his memory keeps ever-fresh with appreciation and reverence in my heart.

  There have always been persons who are attracted towards meditation or who are willing to try it. There are others, especially among creative artists, who practice it quite unconsciously at times; still others who follow it unwittingly by the innate trend of their temperament. Yet meditation is not easy. It involves reaching right down into the very roots of consciousness. This is hard, as those who have tried it can testify, as hard as trying to climb the slippery slopes of a precipitous mountain. Indeed, the ancient Sanskrit texts say that the chances of full success are only with the man whose patience in persevering with the exercises is unwearied and whose efforts are inspired and helped by a competent teacher. The impulses of the personal will have to be conquered. The struggles against personal desire have to be fought. But the gains are great-a true well-being, the doing-away with all the little wars and large divisions within oneself, an end to the agony of being torn from different sides at once. But even if anyone falls short of this, there are lesser rewards on the way. Enchanted hours, which take the sorry bitterness and heavy care out of life, will be thrown to him. Its difficulty should not deter us from trying to learn something of it, for no effort in this direction will be wasted. What we need is the resolution to find a little time for it, the willingness to make a little place for it in our everyday life.
Even if yoga is too unfamiliar and too hard to become popular, that does not really matter. What matters is that our face should be Godward-turned in some way or other, that we should not forget the higher power behind all our lives. There are different ways of approach to this power and each person has to find the way that suits him. The way of yoga attracts a certain type, but it does not attract other types. For them, the simplicity of prayer or the discipline of a good life may perhaps be enough. Let them follow their own road, for it will lead them in the same direction as yoga; that is, it will bring them closer to the holy source of their being. Indeed, there is a point where prayer as communion with the divine or as the adoration of it, is sometimes so overcome by its own feelings as to fall into a state of rapt absorption hardly distinguishable from the yogic state.

This call to religion, this attraction to mysticism, this interest in philosophy comes, if traced to its source, from one and the same place-from the higher part of our being. It is in the state of deep tranquil reverie upon it that the mind receives its loftiest revelations and the heart its holiest suffusions.

The Overself waits with everlasting patience for each man to find it anew. This is the mysterious and glorious secret of human existence, this is the sublime guarantee of human redemption.