The various paths, practices, and disciplines of yoga are intended to help us realize our eternal or divine nature, which is pure awareness that transcends all duality and desire. This is the ultimate goal of human existence for which all other labors are merely preparatory. Even so, since the beginning of history we have always looked for a quick and easy way to God, a spiritual path without tears or struggle, a path free of pitfalls that we can follow to the end quickly, without great effort or sacrifice.
The various paths, practices, and disciplines of yoga are intended to help us realize our eternal or divine nature.
Today in the age of speed, affluence, and instant access to all kinds of information, the search for a shortcut to enlightenment has intensified, and naturally there are those who are willing to promise it. Owing to the information revolution, we have access to teachings of all types and can move quickly from one to another. We can do Zen meditation one week, Vedic chanting another, study the Kabbalah the next, try to contact UFOs, take up Native American practices, and so on, and never come to an end of new and stimulating “spiritual” activities. In the New Age sphere, the main emphasis is on producing experiences—from extrasensory phenomena to instant enlightenment—quickly and easily (as if this were possible). The drama and excitement involved in seeking spiritual experiences keeps us so distracted that we can avoid looking at ourselves realistically and assessing our fitness to succeed on any path, and avoid preparing ourselves to contain a higher force.
But genuine attainment is not possible without preparation. An instructive simile is found in the Vedas: before we are able to drink the divine soma (the nectar of immortality) we must have a properly prepared vessel, one that can contain this hot and penetrating nectar without breaking. If the nectar is poured into an unbaked vessel, it will shatter and the soma will be lost. We are the vessels, and yoga is a methodology for preparing us to contain the divine soma, or inner bliss. We are properly prepared when we have attained a certain degree of purity, maturity, and strength of body, mind, and heart. Without preparation, we are like the unbaked soma vessel that cannot hold the nectar. We are running after the spiritual nectar without concerning ourselves with our ability to handle it.
Classical yoga first addresses the issue of the competence of the student; the central issue is not finding the soma but preparing ourselves to contain it. The Sanskrit term for competence is adhikara, “the ability or authorization to do.” To change our consciousness radically, as yoga requires, depends upon changing how we live and act on a day-by-day and moment-by-moment basis, removing the dross of ego-consciousness and replacing it with divine awareness.
The yogic path has two basic stages. The first is purification of body and mind, which develops adhikara. The second is advanced meditation practices, which depend upon adhikara. The problem is, we don’t like to hear the word “purification” these days. We would prefer to be “natural,” which often means not challenging our conditioning, but remaining our same old undeveloped selves. We are like the unbaked soma vessel. Purification is the oven in which the vessel is baked.
The yogic path has two basic stages.
Yoga is a way of liberation, and so in a deeper sense is not for those who are seeking enjoyment in the world. Yoga is a special practice for the dedicated few. There are yogic practices, of course, like simple asanas, that can be beneficial to everyone, but these can have little or nothing to do with the spiritual dimensions of yoga.
There are also simple forms of meditation, like sitting in silence, that can be attempted by anyone. Higher meditation techniques, however, have prerequisites; they are not something anyone can do anytime. Even simple forms of meditation can have their dangers. If people try to meditate without having put their lives in order, or without having gained control of their attention, they may fall into the confusion of their subconscious minds and become even more disturbed.
Therefore, the first question all students who set out on the spiritual path should ask themselves is, “What is my current ability to undertake spiritual practices? What can I realistically attempt?” Yet the question of fitness is seldom addressed—perhaps because there is something about the question itself that many of us resist. Shouldn’t yogic teachings be accessible to everyone, like the sunshine or the rain? Why should there be a bar to anyone’s right to take up any spiritual practice they might find helpful? Doesn’t saying that some people have not developed the ability to undertake certain practices deny the yoga dictum that the divine presence is in everyone?
Even the most cursory examination exposes the flaws in this thinking. In all fields of human endeavor, from business, to sports, to science, there are differing levels of competence because the capacities of individuals vary. Can we say that all people are competent to practice a headstand? If everyone immediately plunges into a headstand the first time they take an asana class, how many people will be hurt? Similarly, pranayama practices can be injurious without proper preparation. Forceful breathing practices, for example, can derange the nervous system. Meditation if done improperly can leave people emotionally confused.
The problem is that we confuse the fact that something is accessible with our ability to deal with it. Are all people equally competent to climb Mount Everest? Is it elitist to tell people that they should prepare themselves properly before attempting such a journey? Can anyone reach the summit by any route or in any manner they like? Those who are not physically prepared, who do not have the climbing skills, who do not know the right trail cannot succeed. The same is true of yoga or any other authentic spiritual path.
Because they refuse to recognize the importance of aptitude and preparation, people today are attempting yoga practices without having laid the foundation that would enable them to benefit from these practices. Wishful thinking is so powerful, and the ability to see themselves clearly often so weak, that aspirants commonly think they are making great spiritual progress when in fact they have failed even to become grounded.
Recently I came across a statement to the effect that “anyone can realize the supreme truth.” Perhaps, but the odds against it are astronomical if we are simply waiting for it to happen. As wonderful and inclusive as this statement sounds, it is a form of wishful thinking. All yogic traditions have clear guidelines about the preparatory disciplines and requirements for undertaking various levels of practice. There is a certain organic development to yoga that requires a step-by-step process, like learning how to walk before attempting to run. In its fullest sense yoga is an intense life discipline, and the further a student advances the more stringent these requirements become.
According to classical yoga as set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, those who want to really practice any type of yoga on a spiritual level must have a dharmic, or spiritual, lifestyle. They must live in accordance with the principles outlined in the yamas and niyamas, the first two rungs of the eight-rung ladder of the classical yoga system. The yamas are restraints related to our social dharma that allow us to have a right relationship with the external world. These are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), control of sexual energy (brahmacharya), nonstealing (asteya), and nonpossessiveness (aparigraha). Practicing these restraints frees us from hatred, dishonesty, lust, greed, and attachment. (The yamas are also monastic vows, and in their strictest sense they include celibacy and renunciation of all possessions.) The niyamas relate to our personal dharma, the principles of spiritual living that we must observe in our daily lives. These are purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas), the study of spiritual teachings (svadhyaya), and surrender to God (Ishvara-pranidhana).
If we really want to practice yoga, working with the yamas and the niyamas is the first step.
Living as we do in a materialistic society, there is no cultural support for such practices, and we are unlikely to have mastered all of them—in fact we are not likely to have gone very far with any of them. But if we really want to practice yoga, working with the yamas and the niyamas is the first step. Keeping these observances and restraints in mind, and implementing them in our lives as best we can, is the surest way to develop the ability to undertake some of the higher practices of yoga.
As with many other endeavors, people often go through a romantic or infatuation phase at the beginning of their spiritual life. Inspired by the stories of those rare individuals who did not appear to have adhikara, but who suddenly took up spiritual practices with immediate and dramatic success, they may imagine that great gurus will soon come to them, or that they are an avatar, Bodhisattva, or guru. They may feel ready for instant enlightenment, destined to save the world, or at least to help usher in the golden age. These are obvious signs that a student is falling into delusion and grossly overestimating his or her capacity.
Such people like to quote the example of Ramana Maharshi, who as a lad of sixteen, spontaneously and on his own asked himself the question, “Who am I?” and after a few moments of contemplation entered into a permanent state of self-realization. This could come about only because he was able to die on a psychological level, withdrawing all of his attention from the body and mind, and never looking back on them again. Only one in millions (if not billions) can do this.
Although few of us are so grandiose as to compare ourselves with Ramana Maharshi, most of us do tend to overestimate our ability, to think that we are ready to do advanced practices when we are not. As a result, we take up a practice, but fail to work with it consistently. By contrast, when we are really competent to undertake a specific practice, it remains a daily and lifelong endeavor, not one of many short-term experiments.
So how do we assess our adhikara? One way is to follow the suggestion of the great Swami Sivananda, who advised each student to keep a daily spiritual diary. He suggested that they keep track of how much they have meditated, chanted, prayed, fasted, thought of God, and done other spiritual practices every day, relative to how much of their time they have spent seeking personal enjoyment or pursuing worldly activities. This practice helps us be honest about where we really are in our practices.
Let us look at what we eat, at the impressions we take in during the day, and at the type of people we associate with. Are we in control of our senses? Are we free of lust, greed, and anger? Are we free of the need for flattery or adulation? How enlightened are our ordinary actions and thoughts? Do we have control over our thinking? Can we focus on the task at hand, or does the mind wander wherever it wishes? It is easy to talk about enlightenment, but if we look at how we practice self-discipline in our daily lives, we can see how far we really have to go.
When it comes to ascertaining our competence for specific yogic practices, a teacher is required. Students cannot be expected to develop their own curriculum, much less test themselves. What happens when a student enters a new school? He is first given a competency test to see what he has learned already. What is the value of a school that allows all students to take whatever classes they like? Similarly, yogic practices are available to anyone who has the competence, but this does not mean that everyone will be in a position to benefit from whatever practices they may feel the urge to undertake.
Both gradual and direct paths to self-realization exist in the yoga tradition; the former involves a series of complex practices and disciplines, the latter offers the promise of direct or immediate realization without any formalities. Direct paths offer instant realization through advanced meditation practices or contact with an enlightened teacher who transmits the realization by mere presence. Direct paths are quite exciting, and the prospect of quick realization is particularly enticing. But a careful examination of the direct spiritual paths reveals that they are like trails that run directly up the steep side of a mountain—they require strong adhikara. The prerequisites for this route are tremendous austerity, renunciation, and self-abnegation.
Without preparing ourselves through preliminary practices the only answer to the question “Who am I?” is “The same old fool.”
Swami Sivananda, himself a master of the direct path as well as other yogasadhanas, said that there are very few souls who have the adhikara for the “Who am I?” inquiry (which is the basis for the direct path). Without preparing ourselves through preliminary practices the only answer to the question “Who am I?” is “The same old fool.”
Advaita Vedanta, the direct nondual yogic path, has the strongest set of prerequisites—the sadhana chatushtya, or fourfold sadhana. These are discrimination between the eternal and the transient (viveka), renunciation of the fruit of all actions (vairagya), desire for liberation (mumukshutva), as well as the sixfold practice which consists of control of the sense organs (shama), control of the motor organs (dama), cessation from wrong or unnecessary actions (uparati), patience (titiksha), concentration (samadhana), and faith (shraddha).
Chances are that if you think you are ready for the direct path, you probably are not. If you haven’t considered your competence for it you are most certainly not ready. Those who are determined to follow such direct paths must strive to develop the proper adhikara, which may take an entire lifetime. Those whose adhikara is not extraordinary must follow gradual paths to enlightenment, emphasizing long-term training rather than attempting too much too quickly.
Like the direct paths, the path of kundalini yoga requires very strict adhikara. It is dangerous to undertake kundalini-type practices prematurely—the nervous system and even the subtle body can be damaged, and this can breed delusion or imbalance the pranas. Anyone who wants to work with this energy must first strive to live a disciplined life and must seek the proper instruction. If those whose bodies are toxic or who are emotionally disturbed take up such practices, they may experience some awakening of energy but it will have adverse side effects. There are certain teachers who claim to be able to awaken anyone’s kundalini, as if adhikara didn’t matter. This only means that they are ignoring the competence of the student and are themselves lacking adhikara.
The most important and effective way to develop adhikara is the company of a good teacher. In this situation, the learning capacity of receptive students is increased automatically, and they can learn subjects far beyond their usual capacity. But it takes some degree of adhikara to be able to find a good teacher, and bad teachers, who themselves do not have the proper adhikara, always exist. There are teachers today who offer instant enlightenment to anyone who comes into their presence. Other teachers give practices en masse, without any real consideration of what each individual needs. In an effort to become popular, some teachers relax traditional restrictions (and some may not even know that such restrictions exist).
Unfortunately, in the West today anyone can claim to be a guru, and since their adhikaras are not known, people often believe claims that have little foundation—even when the knowledge or behavior of the so-called teacher contradicts these claims. Even in the East there are those who claim to be enlightened when they are not, particularly when this can be used to gain power over naive Westerners who come to them. In the West such “teachers” can also speak in the name of masters and traditions they don’t really represent. Someone who learns a little about a tradition can begin taking on its forms or speaking its jargon, but this may be little more than acting. Generally years of practice are required before giving teachings. That is why it is important to find out how long someone has actually practiced a teaching and under what guidance before accepting the teaching from them.
Lack of real competence leads students to false teachers or false teachings, and they in turn give false promises and encourage fantasies of quick or easy attainment. This is something of a “chicken and egg” dilemma. There is no easy way to resolve it other than vigilance, humility, and perhaps a few learning experiences that may not be entirely pleasant. After one has seen such false teachers, one will be less likely to be fooled by them again!
Fortunately there are adhikaras for teachers, and these can help us determine who is a good teacher and what a good teacher can teach. The adhikaras for gurus consist of, first, a high standard of inner realization. A guru capable of giving self-realization should permanently abide in a state of self-realization. This should not be just a passing experience or a verbal skill in explaining such an experience. A sanction or recognition by traditional sources is another factor. A teacher should be part of a real tradition of self-realization and have genuine connections with it. This doesn’t mean that anyone who is recognized as a great swami in a traditional order will be a great guru, but it does give more credibility.
A true teacher will first of all determine the competence of the student. He will discover where the student really is and provide him with realistic practices on an individual basis. A true teacher will burst our bubbles of great spirituality and show us the hard work required to really change ourselves. While we thought we were ready to graduate, they may put us back into grade school!
The foundation of adhikara is maturity of character, which means humility and self-control. Once this exists adhikara can be developed further through yogic practices of mantra and pranayama. Mantra helps clear out subconscious obstacles, and pranayama increases our energy for higher practices. Both help us control the unruly mind and senses. Yet there are prerequisites for these methods that must be considered as well. The best way to develop adhikara is to be consistent with our practices over time, regardless of the results (or lack of results) that we get through them, and at the same time to follow a lifestyle that supports our practices.
When we try to invent ways to believe that control is not necessary for higher yogic practices we are merely breeding deception.
Another way to raise our level of adhikara for deeper spiritual practice is to control our sexual energy, preferably celibacy. Direct paths and kundalini paths particularly depend upon it, a fact that is largely ignored today. That we may not succeed in controlling our sexuality is a sign that we need to develop our adhikara further. When we try to invent ways to believe that control is not necessary for higher yogic practices we are merely breeding deception.
Divine grace also serves to raise our level of adhikara. Having a chosen form of God or the Goddess to worship is like having a divine helper in our work. In fact in our human condition we can never achieve the proper adhikara. It always requires divine help. For this reason bhakti yoga, or the path of devotion, is important in developing adhikara—though it can be distorted as well. Genuine devotion should not be confused with mere emotionalism, which is self-serving rather than self-effacing.
A realistic ascertainment of our adhikara can be quite humbling, but it also brings clarity. It is better to take one real step forward on our path, however small, than to believe we have gone a great distance when we are actually stuck in the mud, or simply dreaming.