Q&A: How Do I Know If I Am Practicing Yoga Properly?
What is spiritual knowledge, and how can I attain it?
The word “spiritual” is derived from “spirit”; spiritual knowledge refers to the core of our being—the pure Self. Spiritual practices are those that help us gain the direct experience of this Self. In the modern world we identify people by their level of education or by what position they hold, rather than by who they are. That is why we have difficulty distinguishing a truly spiritual person from one who merely holds a spiritual office. Spiritual knowledge is totally different from information about spirituality.
There are two sources of knowledge: direct and indirect. Direct knowledge comes from within; it is a matter of revelation or personal experience. Only the knowledge that flows from the realm of direct experience has the capacity to guide us and help us in times of need. Indirect knowledge comes from books and other external sources, and when we are in need it is simply a burden on the brain. Revealed knowledge clears our mind; knowledge that we gather in the form of information clutters it. No matter how educated we are, or how many books we have written, if our own learning is not connected to the realm of the inner self, it is of little value when our emotions are in turmoil.
Only the knowledge that flows from the realm of direct experience has the capacity to guide us and help us in times of need.
I have met saints with no formal schooling who had great spiritual knowledge. For example, I once knew a saint who could not even sign his name, and if you asked him about worldly matters he would smile and say nothing. Yet very learned people would come to sit at his feet and ask him spiritual questions, and he would answer them simply and clearly.
For a long time I wondered how this saint could have attained the profound peace that was always apparent on his face. Then one day in the course of my own self-study and contemplation I found the answer in the scripture Tripura Rahasya: Once you gain direct knowledge of your spiritual self, you begin to see things in the light of that experience. You spontaneously distinguish the Self from the non-self, the real from the non-real, the eternal from the non-eternal. And because of your self-realization you no longer identify with the objects of the external world, including your body, mind, thoughts, and emotions. Non-attachment to this mundane world is a spontaneous outcome of self-realization. It is what the scriptures call vairagya, non-attachment. In fact these texts tell us that the highest state of knowledge is non-attachment, and they use the terms interchangeably. More clearly, the knowledge that does not lead you to vairagya is simply information.
If you have real knowledge you know you are on a journey. On your way to your final destination, you pause at various rest areas. You are entitled to use the tables and other facilities there, but they are not yours. You can park your car and stay for a while, but you cannot build a house there—you have to move on. And while you are using the rest areas you must follow the rules that have been established. You cannot claim that this place is yours, but this does not mean that you can make a mess before you leave.
That is what life is like. Use the objects that you encounter in your journey, and move on. But use them in the proper manner. They are not yours. Everything belongs to Nature. Whether you have achieved something through hard work or by chance, it is only a temporary gift. To know this, and to remain aware of it without losing that awareness for even a split second—that is spiritual knowledge.
People say they work hard. But whose hard work is it? Is it the hard work of the body, breath, mind, or intellect? Where did you get all that energy? Energy comes from Nature. If you’re an inventor, how were you able to invent? It is because of your buddhi, your intellect, and if something goes wrong with it you will become unbalanced. You might suffer from Alzheimer’s or become schizophrenic. Then all your intelligence will be gone. That means that the ability of your intelligence was not yours.
When you achieve something, it’s OK. When you lose something it’s equally OK. That is called spiritual knowledge.
No matter what you have accomplished through your intellect, it was not your accomplishment, but the accomplishment of Nature. It has been given to you as a gift. Enjoy the gift with full awareness that it is a privilege to have it, and use it properly. And when that gift is passed on to the next hand, don’t feel bad. When you achieve something, it’s OK. When you lose something it’s equally OK. That is called spiritual knowledge.
How do I know if I am practicing yoga properly?
The essential technique of yoga is to bring your mind to a state of balance—to attain control over its modifications. You become the master of your mind when you attain the ability to guide it so that it works the way you want it to work. Chitta vritti nirodha yogaha.
Controlling the mind does not mean suppressing the mind. It’s like driving your car. Having control over the car means driving it the way you want and to the extent you want. It also means that you are able to stop it when you wish and turn it when you want. Similarly, control over the mind means having the ability to let it work when it is needed, and to stop it from running when it is time to rest.
Any technique that helps you gain mastery over your mind is a part of yoga—your diet, exercise, and breathing—as well as your thinking process and your philosophy of life. But with any practice you do, see whether it is helping you become clearer, more concentrated, more organized, and more cheerful. Are you having fewer doubts, fears, attachments, and complications in your life? Is your life becoming simpler and more straightforward? If you are moving in that direction, you are practicing yoga. If not, there is something wrong either in the practice itself or in the way you are doing it. No matter how glorious a practice seems to be, no matter how popular it is, or how much others seem to admire it, if you do not notice a positive effect on your mind then such a practice does not qualify as yoga.
Aparigraha is usually translated as “non-possessiveness” and asteya as “non-stealing.” What is the difference?
Asteya, or non-stealing, is related to the concept “That which is mine is not anyone else’s, and that which belongs to someone else is not mine.” Steya means “stealing.” Taking something that belongs to somebody else is stealing. Asteya means non-stealing.
It is immaterial how many objects you own: if you are not possessed and obsessed by them, you are practicing non-possessiveness.
Aparigraha is different. It is related to the concept “Even if something is lawfully mine, I do not own it mentally.” Parigraha (possessiveness) means holding onto things, clinging to your possessions to the point that you are not able to give them up, even when you want to. More clearly, possessiveness means to be possessed by your belongings. Contrary to that, aparigraha (non-possessiveness) means to have only the objects that you can enjoy with a relaxed mind. It is immaterial how many objects you own: if you are not possessed and obsessed by them, you are practicing non-possessiveness.
To test whether or not you are established in the principle of non-possessiveness, once in a while resolve to give away some of your belongings, preferably those you like the most. Watch your own mind. How much effort is required to keep this resolve? The more easily you let objects pass from your hand into the hands of others, the more profoundly you are established in the principle of non-possessiveness.