“Read Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy; but with caution, for it is very apt to mislead, being written in symbolic language.” (H. P. Blavatsky, answers to correspondence in “Lucifer” Magazine, April 1888)
“He who would know more, let him study Vedanta and Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy – esoterically.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “Modern Idealism, Worse Than Materialism”)
“The Life-winds are the various modes of out-breathing and in-breathing, changing thereby the polarity of the body and states of consciousness. It is Yoga practice, but beware of taking the exoteric works on Yoga literally. They all require a key.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge” p. 141)
Speaking about someone who had unwittingly harmed themselves psychically: “his own self-painted adeptship is entirely imaginary, he has nevertheless, by the injudicious practice of pranayam, developed in himself to some extent mediumship – is tainted for life with it. He has opened wide the door to influences from the wrong quarter, and is, henceforth almost impervious to those from the right.” (Mahatma K.H.)
~ * ~
From the standpoint of Theosophy – which is a definite Body of Knowledge, a specific System of Teaching, the Esoteric Philosophy presented to the world through the agency of H. P. Blavatsky and her colleague William Q. Judge – some of today’s most popular practices amongst followers of Yoga, Hindu, and “New Age” teachings, are in fact some of the most dangerous and harmful.
The harm is primarily to the astral and psychic part of one’s being and very often has the effect of opening oneself up to undesirable influences, whether from one’s own lower nature and/or various sorts of influences and even entities existing in the “Astral Light” or psychic atmosphere that constantly surrounds all of us but to which most of us are thankfully not usually subjected.
The main practices referred to are:
* Attempting to do anything to or with one’s chakras.
* Attempting to force the Kundalini to awaken and arise.
* Pranayama, i.e. various sorts of breath suppression and breath manipulation exercises, performed with the intent of producing various beneficial psychic and/or spiritual effects within oneself.
The first two are addressed on this site in the articles Chakras – The Centres in the Astral Body and Theosophy on Kundalini: The Serpent Power and Mystic Fire. This present article deals with Pranayama.
A huge amount of people in today’s world are practising Pranayama…and it is rare to meet a Pranayamist who does not exhibit to at least some extent a noticeable degree of imbalance in their behaviour, actions, and ideas; quite often in their ideas about themselves, which sometimes take on a grandiose form of self-delusion.
An article titled “Pranayama” in the April 1940 issue of “The Theosophical Movement” magazine published by the United Lodge of Theosophists in India began by saying:
“Of the many sacrifices, rituals and practices now in vogue “Pranayama” is on the lips of many. Having had in former times a serious occult bearing, this practice, once confined to the enlightened class of men, has by the passage of time now come to the degraded level of being regarded as a breathing exercise and a priestly prescription for the realization of God. This is a form of hatha yoga and the utmost that can come of it are some psychic powers of a trifling nature which most often are misused by unbalanced minds. The followers of the Inner Path have therefore eschewed this as dangerous and undesirable. . . . this misadventure generally ends in theomania if not in insanity . . .”
Such criticism of Pranayama is of course not referring to normal regulation of the breath. It is undoubtedly true that many of us do not breathe in as deep or as healthy a way as we ought to and thus gentle and careful exercises of breathing in, momentarily holding the breath, and then breathing out, are not inadvisable but can be very beneficial, as well as conducive to inner calm.
But this is not what most people mean by Pranayama. Pranayama, as popularly practised, tends to be something similar to how the late Swami Vivekananda describes it. He may have provided the world with a good literal translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali but his accompanying advice to his readers is far from helpful, for he says:
“Slowly fill the lungs with breath through the Ida, the left nostril, and at the same time concentrate the mind on the nerve current. You are, as it were, sending the nerve current down the spinal column, and striking violently on the last plexus, the basic lotus which is triangular in form, the seat of the Kundalini. Then hold the current there for some time. Imagine that you are slowly drawing that nerve current with the breath through the other side, the Pingala, then slowly throw it out through the right nostril. . . . The easiest way is to stop the right nostril with the thumb, and then slowly draw in the breath through the left; then close both nostrils with thumb and forefinger, and imagine that you are sending that current down, and striking the base of the Sushumna; then take the thumb off, and let the breath out through the right nostril. Next inhale slowly through that nostril, keeping the other closed by the forefinger, then close both, as before.”
This, in the view of Vivekananda and many other Hindus, constitutes one Pranayama. Most teachers and gurus recommend that this be repeated numerous times a day, some of them advising even one hour of it on a daily basis.
Patanjali on Pranayama
The original Ashtanga Yoga system (literally “Eight-Limbed Yoga” for it consists of eight successive stages) of the ancient Hindu sage Patanjali is known as Raja Yoga. It is primarily a mental form of Yoga, in which through progressive degrees of perfection in meditative concentration one elevates one’s consciousness to the point of eventually attaining reunion in consciousness with the Higher Self, the One Spirit, the Divine Essence which is all and in all.
Raja Yoga is not the same as Hatha Yoga, which is the system that has traditionally placed great emphasis on Pranayama, physical postures (Asanas), chakras, and Kundalini. However, it is undeniable that the third and fourth of Patanjali’s “Eight Limbs” are Asanas and Pranayama. These follow extensive self-purification and ethical development and precede the practice of real meditation.
How then can Theosophists – who often study, recommend, and even publish the book of Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms – be critical regarding the practices of Asanas and especially Pranayama?
William Q. Judge published his edition of Patanjali in 1889, its “Dedication” stating “THIS BOOK IS LAID UPON THE ALTAR OF MASTERS’ CAUSE, AND IS DEDICATED TO THEIR SERVANT H. P. BLAVATSKY.”
This is still in print today, in 2018, and is regularly used, studied, and referred to in the United Lodge of Theosophists (or ULT for short), the international association founded by Robert Crosbie to keep the original Theosophical teachings (not the numerous later versions that arose after the time of HPB and WQJ) unaltered and alive in the world.
WQJ, in his version, avoids using Sanskrit terms most of the time and thus renders Asana and Pranayama as “Postures” and “Suppression of the breath” respectively.
Book II, Aphorism 46, says “A posture assumed by a Yogee must be steady and pleasant.” In his note on this, WQJ says, “For the clearing up of the mind of the student it is to be observed that the “postures” laid down in various systems of “Yoga” are not absolutely essential to the successful pursuit of the practice of concentration and attainment of its ultimate fruits.”
Here then is an assertion – no doubt disagreeable to many followers of Patanjali – that even the attainment of the ultimate fruits of Yoga practice can be achieved whilst bypassing Asanas. Naturally, one ought to sit up straight and well aligned when meditating but nothing much beyond this seems to be posited as essential in Theosophy. The next aphorisms proceed:
“. . . when the mind has become thoroughly identified with the boundlessness of space, the posture becomes steady and pleasant. . . . Also, when this condition has been attained, there should succeed regulation of the breath, in exhalation, inhalation, and retention. This regulation of the breath, which is in exhalation, inhalation, and retention, is further restricted by conditions of time, place, and number, each of which may be long or short.” (II:47, 49-50)
As he readily admits in the Preface, WQJ’s rendition is not a literal translation of Patanjali but rather “an interpretation,” based unfailingly on the original scripture but worded for “Western minds unfamiliar with the Hindu modes of expression, and equally unaccustomed to their philosophy and logic.”
Nonetheless, the way the above aphorisms are worded in this rendition suggests that “regulation of the breath, in exhalation, inhalation, and retention” may follow on, almost of their own accord, as a natural result “when the mind has become thoroughly identified with the boundlessness of space.” Then comes Aphorism 51:
“There is a special variety of breath regulation which has reference to both that described in the last preceding aphorism and the inner sphere of breathing.”
So this “special form” of Pranayama relates, according to this Aphorism, to both the physical breath regulation described in Aphorism 50 and the “inner sphere of breathing.”
WQJ, in his comment, states that Aphorisms 49-51 “allude to regulation of the breath as a portion of the physical exercises referred to in the note upon Aph. 46 [i.e. where it was said that they “are not absolutely essential to the successful pursuit of the practice of concentration and attainment of its ultimate fruits”] . . . Aph. 50 refers merely to the regulation of the several periods, degrees of force, and number of alternating recurrences of the three divisions of breathing, – exhalation, inhalation, and retention of the breath. But Aph. 51 alludes to another regulation of the breath, which is its governance by the mind so as to control its direction to and consequent influence upon certain centres of nerve perception within the human body for the production of physiological, followed by psychical effects.”
This “inner sphere of breathing” – called Kevala Kumbhaka in Sanskrit – is therefore said to be the mental direction of the breath within the body, in order to effect and influence various chakras.
Another article from the magazine “The Theosophical Movement” (“The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali – Practices Conducive to Concentration” May 1962) adds regarding this last aphorism and the comment upon it: “This seems obviously unsafe for anyone who is not under the direct care and guidance of a living spiritual Teacher. We should, moreover, remember H.P.B.’s warning in the Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge (p. 141): “. . . beware of taking the exoteric works on Yoga literally. They all require a key.””
Indeed, as was shown at the start of this article, HPB maintains that –
* Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms should be studied but should be studied esoterically.
* It should not be taken literally, for “a key” is required for its correct comprehension.
* It is written in symbolic language.
* It is VERY liable to mislead and therefore ought to be read “with caution.”
This can be difficult to remember when reading Patanjali, seeing as it appears to be such a straightforward, matter-of-fact, literal text, giving directions which seem to be intended to be read literally and followed literally. But as HPB emphasised these points repeatedly, we as students of Theosophy would do well to bear them in mind. We do, after all, habitually read the Bhagavad Gita symbolically and esoterically, so it should be no surprise that Patanjali can be read in like manner.
Shankara on Pranayama
And if it be considered unlikely that Patanjali’s references to Pranayama were meant symbolically and esoterically rather than literally – or if it be thought, as is said by some, that this is just the Theosophists’ excuse to avoid having to become engaged in “real Yoga” – we can point to no less a figure than Adi Shankaracharya, founder of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism and widely considered one of the greatest Yogis, Saints, and Gurus, in the whole history of Hinduism, who said exactly the same on this point as Theosophy does.
Shankara is most well known for his formulating and popularising the system of Jnana Yoga (Union with the Divine through the Path of Spiritual Knowledge) but in his Aparokshanubhuti he taught a system of Raja Yoga which was fifteenfold; it included the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga but had seven more added to it. Commenting on what is really meant by Asanas and Pranayama, he explains in Sutras 114-119:
“Restraint of the mind is based on THAT – Brahman – which is the Root of all existence. This is called the “restraining root” (Mulabandha) which should always be adopted, since this is what is fit for Raja Yogis.
“Absorption in the uniform and ever-balanced Brahman causes the real balance and equipoise of the limbs and body (Dehasamya). Without this, mere straightening and stretching of the body like a dried-up tree is no equipoise at all.
“Converting ordinary vision into vision of Knowledge, one should view the world as Brahman Itself. That is the noblest vision and not that which is directed to the tip of the nose.
“Or, one should direct one’s vision to THAT alone, where all distinction of the seer, seeing, and seen, ceases; not to the tip of the nose.
“The control of all life-forces and modifications by realising nothing but Brahman in all things, this is Pranayama.
“The negation of the phenomenal world is known as breathing out (Rechaka), the thought “I am verily Brahman” is called breathing in (Puraka), and the steadiness of that thought thereafter is called restraining the breath (Kumbhaka). This is the real course of Pranayama for the wise, whereas the ignorant only torture the nose.”
In the thirteenth sutra of Vivekachudamani he wrote:
“Realisation of Truth results from reasoning and reflecting upon the teachings of the Wise Ones, not by bathing in the sacred waters, not by making donations, nor by hundreds of Pranayamas.”
And if we “reason and reflect” surely this makes sense to all? For how can manipulation of the physical body plausibly bring about enlightenment or spiritual states of consciousness?!? With a knowledge of Theosophy we can understand how it could induce astral or psychic states but certainly not anything higher. The real work of real Yoga is done on the inside – in our mind and consciousness – and not on the outside. This at least is the stance of Theosophy.
Even in the 20th century Hindu world, this point that we are discussing as made by Theosophy and also Shankaracharya has been made by a very prominent and well known spiritual teacher who is widely revered as a great Yogi, namely Sri Aurobindo, who lived from 1872 to 1950. Readers of “The Theosophical Movement” magazine may have noticed that he is quite often quoted in there, as is his colleague Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), generally known as “The Mother.” Aurobindo’s remarks on Raja Yoga, Pranayama, and Asanas, can be found in our article Sri Aurobindo, Raja Yoga, and Theosophy.
The Raja Yoga of Theosophy
Students of Theosophy, particularly in the ULT, quite often speak of “Raja Yoga” and of it being the practical path of inner development most recommended in Theosophy.
But is the Raja Yoga of Theosophy identical with, one and the same as, the Raja Yoga of Patanjali? No, not quite.
Is it then the same as the Raja Yoga system of Shankaracharya? No, not quite.
“The Voice of the Silence” and other writings of H. P. Blavatsky show that there is a truly esoteric Raja Yoga system which is greater in detail, depth, and effect, than that found in publicly available texts. A few brief hints about it are given but not very much. It has commonalities with Patanjali’s and Shankara’s systems but also incorporates the Bodhisattva Path and the Paramitas, things found in Buddhism rather than Hinduism.
In its higher levels it is the Path of chelaship, leading to initiation and Adeptship – i.e. becoming, at some distant point, one of the Masters of Wisdom. It is thus the real Practical Occultism.
But for those of us who are not yet ready for such lofty heights, it is still practical and accessible, for its everyday message and system is simple even if not necessarily easy:
Each day, endeavour to live life consciously, harmlessly, and at the highest point of consciousness possible. Continually make the effort, regardless of what you may be doing, to keep the consciousness elevated and the mind concentrated. Remember the Self in all things and all things in the Self. Do what you can to help and serve others, in the spirit of divine Compassion.
This may not sound especially exciting or thrilling but it is rewarding. It is the Yoga of Life. To sit down and practice meditation can be a part of it but your 24/7 life is your most important meditation. This is an approach guaranteed to help everyone who does it, whilst a literal and physical practice of Pranayama cannot help but will very often do just the opposite.
In the brief enumeration in “The Voice of the Silence” of eight stages of Raja Yoga (p. 18-20, original 1889 edition) the third stage – that which would correspond to Asanas – is entirely omitted and replaced with a row of dots . . . . . . . . . The fourth stage, which would correspond to Pranayama, is simply summed up as:
“When the disciple sees and hears, and when he smells and tastes, eyes closed, ears shut, with mouth and nostrils stopped; when the four senses blend and ready are to pass into the fifth, that of the inner touch – then into stage the fourth he hath passed on.”
It is significant and of value to note that whatever may be said in the Book of the Golden Precepts (the esoteric Buddhist text of which “The Voice of the Silence” is a translation into English of but a few “Fragments”) regarding the Asana stage was left untranslated by HPB and that what is said about “stage the fourth” does not consist of directions or instructions of what to do or how to do it. Its wording does suggest that there may be a genuine physical aspect of Pranayama but, as it says, this is for “the disciple” and so when one becomes a real and accepted disciple of the Trans-Himalayan Esoteric School one may perhaps learn about it but not until then.
It could also be the case, however, that those words, like Patanjali’s, are “written in symbolic language” and to be understood esoterically rather than exoterically.
“There is another way of reading, which is, indeed, the only one of any use with many authors. It is reading, not between the lines but within the words. In fact, it is deciphering a profound cipher. All alchemical works are written in the cipher of which I speak; it has been used by the great philosophers and poets of all time. It is used systematically by the adepts in life and knowledge, who, seemingly giving out their deepest wisdom, hide in the very words which frame it its actual mystery. They cannot do more. There is a law of nature which insists that a man shall read these mysteries for himself. . . . The whole of “Light on the Path” [i.e. a Theosophical book dictated by an Adept to Mabel Collins and which is also partly derived from the Book of the Golden Precepts] is written in an astral cipher and can therefore only be deciphered by one who reads astrally.” (“Light on the Path” p. 29-30, 33)
Hence one more good reason – i.e. the presence of an astral cipher in many of the original Theosophical writings, those of HPB in particular but also Mr Judge – for the ULT’s insistence on those original texts not being altered, edited, abridged, “revised,” and so forth.
Damodar K. Mavalankar, colleague of HPB in India and disciple of the Master K.H. and who eventually was called to go and live with the Masters Themselves, wrote in an article titled “Contemplation”:
“Raja Yoga encourages no sham, requires no physical postures. It has to deal with the inner man whose sphere lies in the world of thought. To have the highest ideal placed before oneself and strive incessantly to rise up to it, is the only true concentration recognized by Esoteric Philosophy which deals with the inner world of noumena, not the outer shell of phenomena.”
~ BlavatskyTheosophy.com ~
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12 Things Theosophy Teaches, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, Antahkarana – The Path, Atman – The Higher Self, The Psychic is not the Spiritual, The Two Paths, Living Consciously, Maji – The Yogini of Benares, Damodar and The Hall of Initiation, The Life & Times of Adi Shankaracharya, Who are you, Madame Blavatsky?, Who was William Quan Judge?, The Welcome Influence of William Q. Judge, William Q. Judge and The Masters of Wisdom, and Sri Aurobindo, Raja Yoga, and Theosophy.
“H.P.B. ∴ has not reincarnated. That Ego is quite conscious and working toward the final accomplishment of the end in view, which depends very largely upon the members of the Theosophical Society [Note: now we would say “Theosophical Movement” as since 1895 there has not been just one Theosophical Society organisation], and on their loyalty. If the plotters succeed, the Black Lodge will win by turning our thoughts to the modern East with its Yogis and Fakirs, its hide-bound castes, its subtle and magnificently intellectual theology, its Hatha Yoga and all the dangers attending that. . . . Practices, such as the Indian books are full of, lead to unwise vibrations, . . . We are all therefore face to face with the question whether we will abide by Masters and their Messenger on the one hand, or by the disrupting forces that stand on the other, willing to destroy our great mission if we will but give them the opportunity.” (William Q. Judge in November 1894)