from The Theosophist January 1971
A member of the Theosophical Society, lately returned from Britain, told the writer that in that country "yoga" had become "a dirty word". One can see why become the stock in trade of innumerable mountebanks and has acquired many associations that are corrupt or silly. Yet the word also refers to something which humanity surely cannot do without.
Every culture has its type of religion or "re-linking" with the deeper and unitive levels of our shared human nature. And in each religion there is for some the possibility of a more intensive pursuit of union, a more specific seeking of the ground of our being. This is what yoga, or union, is intended to be.
Cultures change and new cultures arise; and although certain themes recur in them all, the temperamental approaches which they create towards the unitive basis of life, and the ways in which they interpret it, are very varied. Just now we have reached an entirely new phase of world history when we are becoming to some extent heirs of all the cultures of the past and those of lands other than our own. Traditions once remotely separated can now be placed side by side, the practices of Sufis and Roman Catholics, of Indian yogis and Zen masters, the evangelisms of Buddha, Jesus or Marx, all becoming accessible at the same time, to the same people.
No doubt the various separate traditions and cultures of different communities will in some form survive, but all of them are likely to be deeply changed by these new contacts and juxtapositions. And one is led to speculate on the likelihood of the emergence of some entirely new culture or cultures. In all this change, what is likely to be the yoga of the future? Is something quite new emerging even now? Are our existing forms and formulations of yoga adequate?
The classical definition of yoga is in the famous second aphorism of Patanjali. We are told that yoga is the stilling of the changes in chitta. Various philosophical structures - Vedanta, Sankhya and so forth - elaborate intellectual working models of still, or the mirror clean, and then the One, the Real, is reflected in it. The classical Indian tradition is the most explicit; but the same essential intentions can be perceived in the yogas of other cultures, in the Christian admonition to be still and know and in many other examples of that heart of culture which we can call its yoga.
Why, one may then ask, is there need for anything new? Is not the classical yoga of the past entirely adequate for the present? The answer must be, Yes and No. For the "pure" any formulation of yoga will serve, but what is happening all over the world is that the existing forms and expressions of yoga have been tending to lose touch with their real objective. It is, of course, the people who lose touch, and then the subtly, and largely unconsciously, change the forms. They may quote quite accurately the words of the great masters of the past, but they no longer mean by those words what was originally intended.
In this century those who have had responsibility in India have been forced to see yoga to some extent as a social problem. It has been a means whereby a large number of people, currently estimated at about a million, have opted out of social responsibility. And this has further implications, for the individual sitting in an apparently comatose condition on the outskirts of some village may be afflicted less by holiness than by malnutrition.
In the Christian world, many historians have pointed to what we may now call yoga as a major cause of the collapse of European civilization in the last years of the Roman Empire. Many of the finest minds of that age sought to withdraw from it and, in a life of meditation and monastic seclusion, to escape from responsibility; and society, deprived of their leadership and talents, disintegrated.
In effect, what has repeatedly happened is that people have been anxious enough to still the changes in chitta; but it has been a chitta personal to themselves, segregated from the chitta that is in all mankind.
Can the yoga which resides at the heart of a culture really be thought of apart from thee whole quality and social condition exhibited by that culture? Is it unfair to measure the worth of the yoga, or at least of the yogis, of any land or culture to some extent by the normal social condition of that land? May we not question a yogi as to whether, in the community in which he dwells, there is social justice, whether there are great extremes of wealth and poverty, what is the real position of women, whether one needs to register letters in order to be sure that they will arrive? And may we not ask how his yoga may influence such issues or how it is at all relate to them? To raise such questions is not at all to apply a merely utilitarian yardstick to everything but its is rather to ask whether or not a specific yoga accepts the proposition that in some fashion all life is one.
The Bhagavad-Gita is a great classic of yoga. In the translation by Annie Besant and Bhagavan Das which has for so long been so deservedly popular in the Theosophical Society, there is one phrase which lingers in memory before all others - "desiring the welfare of the world". This is the idea of yoga - not the careful cooking of one's own little pot of chitta. Indeed the Bhagavad-Gita is a great classic of social duty and social responsibility. The fulfilment of Arjuna's relationships, the carrying our of his true role in life, was to be for him the path to the Highest.
Traditionally the fulfilment of social duty was the major prerequisite for yoga. One lived one's life in the human world, did one's job, founded and maintained one's family' and only with this accomplished did one turn to the more intensive pursuit of the ultimate Real. Before one could be a yogi one had to prove oneself as a man. But many today want to be yogis before they have been men.
Lately it was asked who was the greatest known yogi of India today. The suggested answer was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She has not turned away from the common condition of mankind to cultivate the stilling of her chitta. She saw and understood those who are ill, starving, dying, alone and without hope, and she set about doing what she saw needed to be done. She holds that to help the poor one must be poor oneself.
Perhaps to do what needs to be done is the best way of stilling chitta. It would not appear that Mother Teresa would have much time in her life for practising asanas.
To turn from the inherent majesty of somebody whose yoga it is to meet squarely the paramount claims of common suffering humanity and consider instead the frequently self-centred and rather effete fiddling with supposed yoga that goes on in so many parts of the world today is to feel in some way ashamed. Yet those who are fiddling with yoga are also part of humanity and some of them are greatly in need.
Anybody who writes and lectures and moves about in the Theosophical Society will meet a good many of these people who have been attracted to yoga or to what they regard as yoga. The sad thing is that the very statement that a person is pursuing yoga has come, in the writer's experience, repeatedly to represent a confession of some failure. One finds oneself wondering at once what the trouble is. Is there an alcoholic husband or a disappointed wife in the background? Is there job inadequacy, childlessness where children were unconsciously longed for, enslavement to some more or less destructive habit, some general sense of inferiority of adjustment? So often the nice young man who tells one that he is practising yoga proves to be something of "drop-out", anxious to escape from all or part of life before he has lived it.
To many, of course, it is an innocent hobby and as such it may be helpful to them in several ways. If they have been unable to sit still, they may now learn to dos so. If, as is so incredibly common among young people nowadays, they are so stiff and muscle-bound as to be unable to touch their toes without bending their knees, they may get loosened up a little. If they had been forgetting to breathe, they may now learn to remember. But still the question remains of why this hobby and not another.
The advertisements for yoga courses tell much. Many of them appeal frankly to a sense of inferiority. They remind one of that advertisement for recorded tuition in modern languages which carried the caption., "The waiter was astonished when I answered him in perfect French!". That appeal was directed to persons who desired to astonish a waiter, presumably because they were rather afraid of waiters. Rather similar claims are made for yoga courses. They are to give business and sexual success and a superiority of adjustment in relation to other people. And the teacher of yoga is a paternal figure upon whom the inadequate person can project responsibility an thereby the better cling to the irresponsibility of immaturity. The deeper issues of life are evaded.
If yoga has become for anybody "a dirty word," it is because it has become removed from its true function and has lost its true orientation. It has ceased to be motivated by compassion and responsibility.
But as well as this decadence and break up, one can see much in the world today that hints hopefully at better things to come. A new culture is being born and a new and remarkable generation is growing up. In the basic attitudes of the cream of that new generation one can see emerging what may well be some of the principles of the yoga of the new culture, the yoga of the future.
Thus, there is disillusionment with authorities and techniques. Surely it is being seen by some that the spiritual life creates its own techniques, but techniques do not create a spiritual life. The primary can give rise to the secondary but cannot itself be an end product of the secondary. And, as for authority, why have a master if you can have a brother?
There is a yearning for immediacy - instant coffee, instant sex, experience now. May not the time have come to scrap the old image of "the Path"? Of course it is a valid image after its fashion, but a path must necessarily lead away from "here," away from "now;" and where is the Real if not here and now?
There is an almost fierce readiness for commitment, involvement, participation, with no segregation or protection from experience of any kind. Holiness is in and with humanity, not apart. Some inkling of this must have come to the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church when they initiated the short-lived worker priest scheme; but the wine was too new and strong for the ancient bottles into which they tried to pour it.
There is a readiness to accept responsibility. In responsibility alone there is freedom, liberation, the supposed goal of the yogi. In responsibility is power, though not the sort of power that so many desire; for they want power that is irresponsible. One of the European existentialists asserted that freedom means to be totally alone and totally responsible.
There is care for others, sometimes almost identity with others. There are many today who would respond to the thought, though probably not to the literary images, of The Voice of the Silence: "Let thy soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun. Let not the fierce sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer's eye. But let each burning tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed".
Often yoga is described as self-culture. But the best in modern youth does not ask, "How shall I cultivate myself?" The question is rather, "How shall I spend my life or on what shall I spend it?" We find ourselves with a mass of outgoing energies and capacities. To what shall they be directed or to whom shall they be given? The answer is often found at a fairly personal level. Nevertheless there is today a far wider understanding of that principle of sacrifice which is expressed in the words, "He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it". And this is a saying that goes to the heart of yoga.
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