Before I came to the spiritual path, my primary tool for accomplishment was willpower. It worked very well in many areas — school, job, sports — and I soon found it valuable in spiritual pursuits as well. I also was heartened to learn that Paramhansa Yogananda said that a strong will is vital for anyone who wants to succeed. “Maybe,” I hoped, “I already have the tool I need.”

Yet some inner doors remained closed to me. In time, I realized the truth of something else that Yoganandaji emphasized: Higher success, whether in worldly or Godly pursuits, requires creativity, intuitive understanding, and direct perception of truth. In short, I needed feeling.

What is feeling?

Feeling is a response that’s awakened in us as we focus our awareness on something: a person, an event, a circumstance. It’s a way of gaining understanding, and it’s very different from the way the intellect understands. The intellect understands via description and analysis, from the outside; it is centered in the brain. Feeling understands via relationship and, in its higher expressions, from the inside; it is centered in the heart.

Examples of feeling include the speechless appreciation of a beautiful nature scene, or the sense of expanded awareness that comes from gazing at a sky full of stars, or a mother’s sense of complete self-giving when looking at her child. Feeling also has negative expressions: emotional reactions like anger, fear or despair.

Feeling is the only way we can truly know something. Reason and intellect can be misled because they are forever at the periphery of their object. Only feeling has the potential to penetrate to its essence.

This is the highest expression of feeling: soul intuition, our ability to perceive reality directly and accurately. It’s only through intuition that we will realize the Self. As Swami Kriyananda has said, “The way to God is through the heart.”

But feeling, too, can be misled. The more we cling to the ego, the more we tend toward emotion, which distorts our perceptions. But as we relax away from ego and calm our feeling nature, we get a progressively more accurate picture of reality, until at last we see reality as it truly is. This higher expression of our feeling nature is what I will call “deep feeling.”

In contrast to willpower, which is all about doing, feeling is more about awareness. It’s subtle, but not mysterious. It simply requires sensitive listening, from a place of calmness, expansiveness, and receptivity.

I’d like to share a few simple ways in which the principles of Ananda Yoga can help you develop and refine those qualities, and thereby deepen your feeling capacity.

The power of calmness

Calmness is the first step toward deep feeling. Without calmness, we can become mired in the shallow feeling of emotion. A calm mind is important, but as Swami Kriyananda points out, deeper feeling requires a calm heart as well:

In teaching meditation, people speak of the need to calm the mind. In fact, it is the heart that needs to be calmed. That is why devotion is fundamental to success in meditation. When the heart is calm and one-pointed in its focus on God, the mind is also still because there are no restless feelings to disturb it.

“Calm” doesn’t mean “inactive.” It’s powerful and dynamic, yet refined and relaxed. The practice of yoga postures is a wonderful way to calm the heart.

Forward bends and twists do this beautifully. So do simple sitting poses like Vajrasana (Firm Pose), which not only quiets the body and mind, but also imparts an inward direction to your energy. Its affirmation, “In stillness I touch my inner strength” helps you still the heart as well as the mind, thus deepening your feeling capacity.

Yoga breathing techniques promote calmness as well. For example, Measured Breathing: inhale 6, hold 6, exhale 6 (or 8-8-8, or 4-4-4, or whatever works for you). The smooth, even cadence calms the breath, which in turn calms both mind and heart. For even deeper calmness, practice it in Vajrasana.

Feeling involves listening

Calmness sets the stage for listening. To truly understand something, we first must slow down and listen to it, feel it. Meditation is the ultimate listening exercise, but for many people, listening to the body is easier. In our fast-paced culture, many of us will benefit greatly from being more sensitive to the body, rather than merely ordering it around. Following are two ways to practice listening.

Select any yoga posture that you enjoy. Enter the pose s-l-o-w-l-y, gracefully, over the course of many breaths. “Place” your body in the pose, rather than forcing it. Notice every little movement; feel the different muscles as they engage and disengage. Listen to how each body part feels. Is it relaxed, or tense? Alert, or dull? Comfortable, or uncomfortable?

That’s a good warmup, but deeper listening is not about myriad details, but rather a single essence or direction. With that in mind, do the pose again, letting your body tell you how to proceed. Don’t think about each movement; instead, listen and follow. Try to feel inwardly the essence of the pose — not the body’s habits — leading you into position.

Do the same thing with Measured Breathing. Listen to your body to feel the right count for you, the count that gives you the greatest degree of calm awareness. Yes, use willpower to ensure the equal counts, but don’t “dominate” your breath. And don’t try to think your way to your perfect count; try to feel your way to it.

Such simple listening exercises can help you significantly to develop your listening capacity, and thereby your capacity to feel.

Expand beyond the “little” self

Another key to deep feeling is expansion. In Art as a Hidden Message, Swami Kriyananda writes, “an inward contraction upon the ego limits a person’s ability to experience deep feeling.”

Just think of the many ways in which people contract upon the ego: a superiority or inferiority complex, selfishness, fear, greed, defensiveness, judgment, desire for fame or power — the list goes on. Here’s a lovely exercise that shows how self-expansion increases your ability to experience deep feeling.

Choose a person whom you know and sit for a minute or two, trying to tune in to that person — to feel some part of that person’s deeper reality in whatever way you can. Then do your entire asana or meditation practice with the thought of sending the benefits of your practice streaming to that other person. Let every technique, every moment, be completely for the benefit of that other person. You’re merely a channel for those benefits.

At the end of your practice, try once again to tune in to that person. You’ll find that you’re much better able to do it, because you’ve expanded your awareness to include him or her. You have a feeling connection, not merely a personality connection.

Receptivity: the most important key

Calmness, self-expansion and a listening attitude prepare you to engage your receptivity, the subtlest — and in some ways the most important — key to deeper feeling. Receptivity is much more than openness; it is magnetic openness, being intensely and expectantly welcoming to what you wish to feel. And there is nothing that fosters such magnetism more than love.

George Washington Carver, the great American scientist and saint, put it succinctly, “If you love it enough, anything will give up its secrets to you.” By giving love, you open a channel of understanding with the object of your love. Whether it’s an inanimate object, an activity (e.g., cooking or a sport), or a living entity (plant, animal, human, or God), love helps you begin to resonate with it, which promotes an intuitive understanding of the object of your love.

Here’s a practice that can help you cultivate love within yourself. In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda writes, “To practice the yoga postures with spiritual feeling is to find that they help to develop that feeling.”

To apply this in yoga practices, make every movement with love. Love the vitality you get from the practices or techniques as well as the relaxation. Love what you can do, and love the challenge of what you can’t yet do so well. Love the process of ever-easier breathing. Love the quietness of body and mind. Love the blessing of the priceless gift of yoga from the great masters. Feel love as a quality that always exists in your heart, even when you’re not practicing postures or meditating.

Then, at the end of your practices, send that love to another person. (Hint: If you choose a person you don’t know, it will be easier to feel a deeper, impersonal love because your love is not about anyone’s personal qualities.) After a time, stop sending, and simply feel love in your own heart, a love free from any outward associations.

Meditate on that love — a love that is self-existing because it’s not about anything or anyone, and offer that feeling upward. The more strongly you can do this (strong feeling, that is, not strong will; willpower’s only role is to help you stay focused), the more magnetic and receptive you will be to God, the Source of all love.

Small steps to deep feeling

Any of the above practices can help us develop feeling. And like lifting weights to gain strength, exercising our feeling capacity will help it grow ever stronger, until at last we can perceive, we can feel, the subtlest levels of our own being. That is when — and how — we will know God.