The Hatha Ratnavali states that the lower yogic techniques like asana, pranayama and mudra are useless without having the goal of Raja Yoga in mind.[1] Raja Yoga means royal yoga. It is a term that denotes the ‘high road’ of yoga, generally used to indicate the antarangas (inner limbs) of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (the sixth through to the eighth limb). Through asana, pranayama and mudra you may obtain a perfect body, perfect health and maybe even some occult powers to manipulate people, but all this will still let you die ignorant of the Divine hidden within your heart, your own true nature.[2] Raja Yoga and devotion to the Divine are those aspects of yoga that actually do make a difference on your deathbed. People nowadays are attracted to yoga to harvest its health benefits. You may hope that, if you obtain perfect health and a perfect body, you can experience pleasure and comfort for longer and subconsciously push away the hard fact of your own death and the day of reckoning. In some regards this is right, but even 20 to 30 years’ life extension through yoga is really just a blip compared to the eternity of your existence. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says – and he addresses not just Arjuna but every single one of us – ‘You and I are ancient beings. The difference between us is that you do not know your past but I do.’[3]

The few decades of life extension gained through yoga will rush past like a second, after which the great moment arrives when you must forsake your body. Then the pleasure and comfort you managed to gain through yoga will provide no solace in an old dying body when you ask yourself what your life was about and whether you came from an attitude of giving, whether you contributed any good to this world and fulfilled your destiny. Think about it for a moment: To make your body perfectly proportioned and healthy may just give you the opportunity to ignore the reality of your death for longer. But even then you will die, and, if you ignore that fact longer, you may actually die a bigger fool than if you hadn’t been involved in life-extending yoga practices at all. By ‘bigger fool’ I mean even more attached and identified with body and mind and even less appreciative of your eternal, spiritual nature. Not long ago I talked to a yoga student about yoga being about a school of preparation for death. She got really upset with me and told me she had just figured out her body through yoga, had attained health and was enjoying her body, and didn’t want to hear anything about death. This is very concerning. In this case the student had actually successfully used yoga to push further away from her the most burning and important issue of life, the moment of truth, and yoga enabled her to live longer as if she would live forever – to live a lie. Here yoga has actually been used to lead somebody further into the darkness.

It is not the case that from mere practice of postures you will automatically grow spiritually. You may actually spiritually shrink as in the case of this student, who used postures to become even more obsessed with her body – her material aspect – than she already had been. Traditionally yoga postures are not to be engaged in to gain health (although they will have that effect) but they are to be done with an attitude of prayer to the Divine. Postures are prayer in movement. That is why K.P. Jois called his book Yoga Mala: you use the postures like the beads of a mala to remember the Divine. The Bhagavad Gita says that, unless they are performed as an offering to the Divine, all actions lead to bondage.[4] This is also the case for asana and pranayama.

Such are the dangers of modern postural yoga. The intention of yoga is to fix your health only so that your mind becomes clearer and you have more energy to focus it on the big questions of life. The true purpose of yoga is to give you the visceral experience of something that actually holds up even at the moment of death. In the throes of death, most/all of what we were/are is stamped out by the intensity of dying, but there is one experience that holds up even right through the process of dying, and that is intense love for God, sometimes also called knowledge of the Divine. To get this knowledge is not only our birthright but also our divine duty. Only if we fulfill this divine duty can we die in complete and perfect peace. With this experience we can die in peace, since we know that we can leave because we have found completion. In this regard it is much more important to die a perfect death than to live before death in perfect health. The new obsession of postmodern, materialistic society with health is born out of the need to be able to compete for non-renewable resources for longer. We just don’t want to die any more – to vacate that spot on the cappuccino strip, on the beach and in the casino for somebody else. ‘Let me live and enjoy pleasure for longer! That’s why I do yoga!’

That’s why the Hatha Ratnavali says that asana, pranayama and mudra are useless without Raja Yoga. By themselves, without Raja Yoga, they are a form of bodybuilding in the regard that, if done without Raja Yoga, they are only aimed at perpetuating the body. A true yogi is one who would rather be dead, having died with divine knowledge, than be alive in a perfectly healthy body only to just go on consuming resources. In that regard the new fad of using yoga solely for body beautifying and health may be more dangerous to the sacred essence of yoga than many other adversities it has encountered in its long history.

© copyright Gregor Maehle 2011

[1] Hatha Ratnavali of Shrinivasayogi I.19

[2] Bhagavad Gita X.20: ‘I am the self resting in the heart of every being.’

[3] Bhagavad Gita IV.5

[4] Bhagavad Gita III.9