Kriya Yoga: Highway to the Infinite
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The truth in these simple words has been acclaimed equally by great saints of East and West. It is a truth which every devotee would do well to ponder, for among the followers of all religions it is a common delusion that mere membership in a body of worshipers will be their passport to salvation. Yet Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are my followers, for they shall see God.” His message was universal: By the yardstick of inner purity alone is a person’s closeness to God determined.
What is purity of heart? Jesus defined it effectively, elsewhere, as the capacity to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.(1) And why is this capacity called purity? Simply because we belong to God; worldliness is foreign to our essential nature.
How, then, can one achieve such purity? Is self-effort the answer? Is grace? St. Paul said, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”(2) Christian fundamentalists often quote this passage as an argument against self-effort of any kind, and particularly against the practices of yoga. But the Book of Revelation states, “And, behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to give [to] every man according as his work shall be.”(3) Do these scriptural passages contradict one another? Not at all.
St. Paul didn’t mean that self-effort is futile, but only that God is above bargaining. Outward “works” in God’s name — works, in other words, such as building schools and hospitals — will not in themselves win His grace. It depends first of all on a person’s attitude. Love alone can win Him. Like attracts like, and God is Love. But as for those inner efforts which lift the soul up toward God — especially the unconditional offering of trust and love — they are essential, else were the scriptures written in vain. It is to this internal “work” that the Book of Revelation is referring, above.(4)
To develop love for God, the first prerequisite is that no other desire divert its flow from Him. This, then, is our first spiritual “work”: to renounce every desire that conflicts with our devotion. We need not so much destroy our desires as rechannel their energies Godward.
And it is in this true labor of love that the techniques of yoga are particularly helpful. Wrong desires, it need hardly be added, could never be transmuted by technique alone. But even as running techniques can be useful to those who hope to excel on the track field, so the techniques of yoga can help devotees to control their physical energies, and redirect them toward God. Yoga practice by itself won’t give us God, but it can help us very much in our efforts to give ourselves to Him. The yoga science helps us, in other words, to cooperate with divine grace.
Take a simple example. Devotees naturally want to love God. Many, however, have no clear notion of how to go about developing that love. Too often their efforts are merely cerebral, and end, therefore, in frustration. Yet Jesus hinted at a technique when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” For, as everyone surely knows who has ever loved, it is in the heart that love is felt — not literally in the physical heart, but in the heart center, or spinal nerve plexus just behind that physical organ. Christian saints have stressed again and again “the love of the heart.” And yogis claim that love is developed more easily if, instead of merely thinking love, one will direct the feeling of love upward from the heart, through the spine, to the brain.
Take another example. Devotees, in their attempt to achieve inner communion with God, often find those efforts thwarted by restless thoughts. Yogis long ago discovered a technique for overcoming this obstacle. The breath, they said, is intimately related to the mental processes. A restless mind accompanies a restless breath. By simple, effective techniques for calming the breath, they learned how to free the mind for deeper divine communion.
Thus, the science of yoga, by its practical application of laws governing man’s physical body and nervous system, helps one to become more receptive to the flow of divine grace, in much the same way that proficiency at playing the piano enables one to express musical inspiration freely. And divine communion, as St. Paul said, comes not by overtly “pleasing” God, but by making oneself fully receptive to His love. Divine Love wants, of its own nature, to give of itself.
In Chapter 32 I referred to the ego as a vortex of consciousness, which separates itself from the ocean of awareness by its own centripetal force. Once this vortex is dissolved, I said, self-awareness flows out to embrace infinity. At this point, however, I should explain that to speak of the ego as only one vortex vastly oversimplifies the case. The fact is, egoic awareness gives rise to countless millions of subsidiary vortices: eddies of likes and dislikes, which result in desires, which in turn lead to ego-motivated actions. Every such vortex draws energy to itself, and thereby reaffirms and strengthens the ego from which its energy is derived. Until a desire has been either fulfilled in action, or dissipated by wisdom, it may remain dormant in the subconscious, like a seed, for incarnations.
The stronger a mental tendency, the greater the egoic commitment. The amount of energy diverted toward these myriad commitments is incalculably great. Paramhansa Yogananda used to tell us, “There is enough latent energy in one gram of your body’s flesh to supply the city of Chicago with electricity for a week. Yet you imagine yourselves powerless in the face of only a few difficulties!” The reason we are unable to tap more of our energy-potential is that most of our energy has been already “spoken for”; it is absorbed by countless eddies of prior egoic commitment.
I had an interesting experience a few years ago relative to this energy-drain. Having, as I thought, seriously overextended myself in my activities, I had reached a point of utter exhaustion. One evening I had a class to give. I was visiting my parents. My mother, seeing how really exhausted I was, urged me, “You mustn’t punish yourself like this! Really, this is one evening you simply have to cancel your class.”
I couldn’t do that, however. I didn’t know how to reach all those students and tell them not to come. Half an hour before leaving the house, I lay down on my bed to rest. I didn’t sleep, however; instead, I reviewed in my mind as dispassionately as possible all my reasons for feeling so very tired: the endless activities (daily lectures, classes, a weekly radio program, constant travel); an unceasing stream of correspondence; constant telephone calls; numerous requests for interviews; incessant demands for personal decisions from people who could have made just as good decisions on their own. As I recalled to my mind each of these drains on my energy, my first reaction was instinctively to reject it: “Oh, no — it’s just too much!”
And then, in return, came the dispassionate challenge: “Is it? It’s a fact of your life now, whether you like it or not. Why not simply accept it?” In each case, accepting this advice, I felt as though I had closed some psychic door through which energy had been pouring out of me in my anxiety to push the unwanted experience out of my life. As each door closed, I found more energy welling up within me.
The results were extraordinary. By the end of that half hour my fatigue had completely vanished, and I was fairly bursting with enthusiasm to give that class! My mother, seeing me now, exclaimed, “What a wonderful sleep you’ve had. You look completely refreshed!”
Interestingly enough, the subject of my class that evening was “Energization.” It was perhaps the best class I have ever given on this subject. Afterwards I still felt so full of energy that I stayed up until two o’clock the next morning, talking to people after class, reading, and then meditating.
And the energy that I rechanneled that day must have been only a small fraction of the energy preempted by millions of other vortices that had formed over many incarnations in my subconscious mind!
If only we could channel all our energy in a single direction — if only, for example, we could learn with our whole being to say Yes to life instead of mixing every “yes” with a “no” or a “maybe”—our powers of accomplishment would be greater than most people imagine possible. It is important, however, at the same time to channel our energy wisely. For if we use it to achieve goals that are external to our true nature, our very success will bring disappointment in the end.
To understand how to utilize the enormous amounts of energy rightly that would be available to us, once we knew how to access them, we must understand how energy functions in the body.
Energy’s main channel is the spine. The spine, like a bar magnet, has its north-south orientation: the north pole being at the top of the head, to which the spiritual eye serves as a conduit; and the south pole, at the base of the spine in the coccyx. In a bar magnet, all the molecules, each with its own north-south polarity, are oriented in one direction. In an unmagnetized bar, the molecules, though similarly polarized, are turned every which way and thereby, in effect, cancel one another out. Most people, similarly, lack the dynamic power one associates with human greatness. They lack it not because they have less energy than the greatest genius, but simply because the “molecules” of their subconscious tendencies — desires and aversions, attachments — pull them in conflicting directions and thereby cancel one another out, even as do the molecules in an ordinary bar of metal.
A steel bar becomes magnetized not by the introduction of any new element, but simply by the realignment of its molecules. Human magnetism, similarly, depends on realigning in a single direction the “molecules” of tendencies and desires, so that they no longer conflict with, but support one another.
Limited power can be achieved, for a time, by directing at least some of our tendencies one-pointedly toward any goal. Many modern psychiatrists, in fact, recognizing this truth, recommend that people seek fulfillment by outwardly releasing their subconscious repressions. The deeper realities of human nature, however — and the way our very bodies, reflecting those realities, are made — make it impossible for us to bring all our “molecules” of subconscious tendencies into alignment until they all become adjusted to a north-south polarity in the spine. This is to say that every desire and aspiration must flow upward toward the “doorway” to the Infinite, the spiritual eye.
Likes, dislikes, and their resultant attractions and aversions, all of which induce desires and repulsions, are the root cause of our bondage. The progressive stages of involvement with maya may be traced through the progressive functions of human consciousness: mon, buddhi, ahankara, and chitta: mind, intellect, ego, and feeling.
Paramhansa Yogananda illustrated these basic functions by a horse, seen in a mirror. The mirror is the mind (mon), which shows us the image as it appears to us through the senses; the mind alone, however, cannot qualify or define that image.
Buddhi (intellect) then defines what is seen, informing our consciousness, “That is a horse.”
Ahankara (ego) then appears, declaring, “That is my horse.” Up to this point we are not necessarily yet bound by the thought of ownership; the identification, though personal, may still remain more or less abstract.
If, then, chitta (feeling) comes onto the scene, saying, “How happy I am to see my horse!” true ego-bondage begins. Chitta is our emotional reaction, including likes and dislikes, desires and aversions. It is the true source of ego-bondage, and the essence of all delusion.
Thus, the ancient classical exponent of the yoga science, Patanjali, defined yoga itself as “the neutralization of the vortices (vrittis) of chitta.”(5)
Master once told me, “When I applied to the Maharaja of Kasimbazar for permission to transfer my school to his Ranchi property, he asked a group of pundits to test my knowledge of spiritual matters, since my request involved forming a religious institution. I could see those scholars all set for a theological bullfight, so I turned the tables on them. ‘Let us talk only,’ I said, ‘of truths we have actually realized. An ability to quote scripture is no proof of wisdom.’ I then asked them a question for which I knew no answer can be found in the scriptures.
“‘We read,’ I said, ‘of the four aspects of human consciousness: mon, buddhi, ahankara, and chitta. We also read that these four aspects have their respective centers in the human body. Can you tell me where in the body each center is located?’ Well, they were completely stumped! All they knew was what they had read. I then explained, ‘Mon (mind) is centered at the top of the head; buddhi (intellect), at the point between the eyebrows; ahankara (ego), in the medulla oblongata at the base of the brain; and chitta (feeling), in the heart.’”(6)
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “for they shall see God.” The teachings of the Galilean Master, and those of India’s great yogis, were “cut from the same cloth” of Self-realization. Likes and dislikes in the heart manifest as vortices of desire and aversion. Only when these have been dissolved — in short, when the heart has been purified of every downward-flowing tendency in the spine — can Self-realization be attained. The vortex of ego itself is then dissipated with relative ease, for without objective attachments the ego soon loses its centrifugal power, and is dispersed at last by the powerful upward flow of energy which accompanies divine inspiration.
Most efforts to transform oneself involve a laborious struggle to correct an endless array of individual faults — a tendency to gossip; over-attachment to sweets; physical laziness; anger; greed; and a host of other weaknesses. The devotee must of course fight his battles as they present themselves to him. To attempt to win the whole war in this piecemeal fashion, however, would be like trying separately to realign every molecule in a bar of steel. Purely psychological efforts at self-transformation are a never-ending task. Once one has finally succeeded in turning a few mental “molecules” in the right direction, there is no guarantee they’ll remain that way after one leaves them to work on the next lot.
The way to magnetize a bar of steel is to cause its molecules to turn in a south-north direction. One way of doing so is to place it close to an already-magnetized bar. Spiritually speaking, a person can be magnetized, similarly, by the company and influence of saints, and particularly in close attunement with his own guru. For the guru’s special job is to uplift his disciples’ consciousness. Because his energy and awareness flow naturally up the spine toward the spiritual eye, attunement with him generates in the disciple a similar upward flow of energy and awareness.
Another way of magnetizing a bar of metal is to introduce into it an electric current flowing in a single direction. The guru’s blessings, similarly, can be augmented by the disciple’s own efforts. Any disciple, indeed, who relies only passively on the guru’s blessings will make only halting progress. Man is, after all, not inert metal; he can and must cooperate in the process of his transformation. Moreover, he can and often does, by disobedience and unwillingness, resist the guru’s influence. As Yogananda put it, “The path is twenty-five percent the disciple’s own effort, twenty-five percent the guru’s effort on his behalf, and fifty percent the grace of God.” The guru needs the disciple’s cooperation. And the disciple can cooperate best when he understands how this magnetic influence actually works in the body, raising subtle currents of energy through the spine to the brain. Cooperation with the guru’s efforts, and with Divine Grace, means doing what one can, personally, to direct energy upwards through the spine.
The correlation between spiritual awakening and this upward flow of energy can be observed to some extent in ordinary human experience as well. Any increase of happiness or inspiration, for example, or any firm resolution to do something wholesome and positive, produces an upward flow of energy through the spine to the brain. One may even find himself standing or sitting more upright, holding his head higher, looking upward, turning the corners of his mouth up slightly in a smile, and feeling lighter on his feet.
On the other hand, accompanying depression or discouragement is a corresponding downward flow of energy, toward the base of the spine and away from the brain. One may even slump forward a little, look downward, depress the corners of his mouth, and actually feel, physically, a little heavier.
Spiritual awakening takes place when all one’s energy flows upward, toward the spiritual eye. Hence the saying of Jesus, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy strength”: that is, “with all thy energy.” We see here the basic purpose of Kriya Yoga.
This upward flow is obstructed in most people by countless eddies of chitta, or feeling. Once these eddies form in the heart, they are distributed along the spine according to their anticipated levels of fulfillment — the lower the level, the more materialistic the desire; the higher the level, the more spiritual. These eddies or vrittis of feeling can be dissipated by directing through the spine a strong enough flow of energy to neutralize their centripetal force. Numerous yoga techniques have, for their main objective, the awakening of this energy-flow.
Of all such yoga techniques, so taught Paramhansa Yogananda and his line of gurus, the most effective, because the most central and direct in its application, is Kriya Yoga. Kriya Yoga involves deliberately directing a flow of energy through the spine, thereby realigning in a single south-north direction every “molecule,” or tendency. The Kriya technique, so our line of gurus said, was the one taught to Arjuna in ancient times by Krishna. And Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, states that he bestowed this technique on humanity in an incarnation long prior to the one in which he taught Arjuna. Of all the techniques of yoga, Kriya is not only the most ancient, but the most central and essential.
Kriya Yoga directs energy lengthwise around the spine, gradually neutralizing there the eddies of chitta. At the same time it strengthens the nerves in the spine and brain to receive cosmic currents of energy and consciousness. Yogananda called Kriya the supreme science of yoga. Beside it, other yoga techniques, most of which work on calming the breath and concentrating the mind, though important in themselves (Yogananda also taught a number of them), must be classed as subsidiary.
Other aspects there are to Kriya Yoga that relate to the subjective reactive process, but I do not feel it necessary to burden the reader’s mind at this point with this long explanation.
Yogananda often said that Kriya Yoga strengthens one in whatever path — whether that of devotion, discrimination, or service; Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Judaic, or Moslem — one is inclined by temperament or upbringing to follow.
Once there came to Master’s Ranchi school a visitor who for twenty years had been practicing Bhakti Yoga, the path of single-minded devotion. Though deeply devoted, he had never yet experienced the Lord’s blissful response.
“Kriya Yoga would help you,” the Master earnestly suggested to him. But the man didn’t want to be disloyal to his own path.
“Kriya Yoga won’t conflict with your present practices,” Master insisted. “It will only deepen them for you.”
Still the man hesitated.
“Let me explain,” Master finally said to him. “You are like a man who for twenty years has been trying to get out of a room through the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Kriya Yoga will simply show you where the door is. There is no conflict, in that kind of aid, with your own devotional path. To pass through the doorway you must also do so with devotion.”
The man relented at last, and accepted initiation. Hardly a week later he received his first deep experience of God.
“I wasn’t sent to the West by Christ and the great masters of India,” Yogananda often told his audiences, “to dogmatize you with a new theology. Jesus himself asked Babaji to send someone here to teach you the science of Kriya Yoga, that people might learn how to commune with God directly. I want to help you toward the attainment of actual experience of Him, through your daily practice of Kriya Yoga.”
He added, “The time for knowing God has come!”
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Revelation 22:12; italics mine.
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In The New English Bible, St. Paul’s words, “By grace are ye saved through faith,” are rendered, “For it is by his grace you are saved, through trusting him.” These words, through trusting him, help to emphasize the point that the right kind of self-effort is needed. For trust implies an active gift, and not a merely passive acceptance.
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“Yogas chitta vritti nirodh.” Yoga Sutras 1:2.Chitta is usually translated “mind-stuff.” Paramhansa Yogananda himself, in his autobiography, accepts this translation. But the translation fails in specificity, and I cannot but suspect that his editor supplied it, unnoticed by him, from other recognized translations. Yogananda himself, in a series of classes on Patanjali, and in private discussions with me, defined the word more exactly as I have given it here.
“Vritti,” moreover, doesn’t mean “fluctuation,” or “waves,” as it is often translated, but “whirlpool,” which more graphically describes drawing feelings inward to a center in the ego.
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I have referred earlier to the fact that love is experienced in the heart center. It may be of interest to note also that intense intellectual effort is often accompanied by a slight frown: evidence that energy is being directed to the point between the eyebrows. Again, note how pride tends to draw the head backward: a sign that energy is being focused in the medullary region. That is why we speak of a proud person as “looking down his nose” at others. A bow, on the other hand, which in every culture is a gesture of humility and respect, is suggestive of a release of tension in the medullary region.
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