AHYMSIN

Love, Serve, Remember

Articles by Swami Veda Bharati

Five Pillars of Sadhana

Although there are many possible supports or "pillars" to your sadhana, this article will concentrate on these five:

  • STILLNESS
  • SILENCE
  • FASTING
  • CELIBACY
  • CONQUEST OF SLEEP

Within each of these five pillars there are many steps. If you try to jump to the highest step right in the beginning you can harm yourself. Therefore you practice these under guidance and you take them one step at a time. Take them according to your capacity or maybe just five percent above your capacity, so that the exercise of them increases your capacity.

All of the pillars are interdependent. You cannot practice only one without practicing the other four. When you practice one properly then the other four come automatically. You could just as well say that silence is the major one and the other four are its supporting pillars. Or you could say that stillness is the major one and the other four are the supporting pillars. Because of this we might say that the pillars of sadhana are a flower with five petals.

Let us begin with the pillar of:

STILLNESS

There are several possible divisions in stillness.

1. Whole body stillness 

For example, the stillness in your complete posture. It may be practiced in all three body positions:  

  • lying down, 
  • sitting, 
  • standing.

The stillness of the posture is the stillness of the meditation posture. Then comes a state of stillness in your yoga postures. There should come a point in a yoga posture when in that position you are absolutely still. One should contrast that stillness with the movement which brings you to the center point of stillness of that posture.

2. Stillness of the active senses

For example, stillness of the hands, stillness of the feet, and so on. When you are standing, are your feet really absolutely still or are they shuffling about?  One day I was in the embassy of the Netherlands in Delhi applying for a visa, and they were allowing only one or two persons in at a time. Others were standing outside the main gate. The main gate was open at the bottom and I could see the shoes of the people standing outside. It is very interesting to watch just people’s feet, or just people’s hands, moving. You can tell much about their character. Many times when my Master taught me stillness of the active senses he would call me to discuss some matter, and he would deliberately do something to excite me. And as soon as I got excited my hands would shoot up. He would look at my hands, say nothing, and I knew that I was getting unnecessarily excited.

Stillness of the active senses has three divisions: 

a. Stillness of all five active senses simultaneously.

b. Stillness of one active sense while the other senses are in motion.

c. Within the active sense, one side active and the other side without any motion. This is learned through tension-relaxation exercises or exercise without movement in which you tense one hand and relax the other. Can you move your right hand fast but have your left hand remain absolutely relaxed? 

3. Stillness of the cognitive senses

Stillness of the cognitive senses also has divisions.

a. All cognitive senses still at the same time

b. One or two of the senses are still, while the other senses are active. I am not sure if you can actually move one eye and keep the other eye still; that would be quite an accomplishment. But there are practices in which something similar is possible. For example, when we practice concentration on inner sound, we shut off the left ear and we listen only with the right ear. That does not mean that you put a cotton ball in the left ear. You just switch off the connection with the left ear. And then comes:

4. Stillness of breath

Stillness of breath is of two kinds.

a. One is that which we normally practice as the first meditative exercise, breathing, which is as smooth and gentle a flow as possible.

b. The other one that is more popular but not taught in our tradition as widely as in the tradition of Hatha Yoga, is holding the breath at a certain stage of Pranayama. Here I would like to repeat a warning that I have often given on this question of holding the breath. Holding the breath is a very powerful exercise. The first mistake people make is to start to practice retention before having mastered correct breathing technique, breathing from the diaphragm, the stomach and the navel. While still prone to chest breathing, they begin doing retention. As a result what is being held is not breath; it is a gasp, and it is held urgently. So the mind is being jerked in the process instead of being calmed through retention. Secondly, with retention, whatever samskaras and inclinations are in a person are strengthened. So if a person has the bad habit of breathing incorrectly retention will make it firmer. Psychologically, whatever negative forces are stored in a person will become stronger, so the angry person will become angrier. A lustful person will become more lustful. In our tradition we do not recommend retention until the correct breathing technique has become natural. Learning correct breathing technique also cleanses the mental contents. So for our purpose at this time, the stillness of breath that is recommended is just simply slow and gentle breathing according to the correct breathing methods. 

5. Stillness of mind

This is where we enter into meditation through relaxation, concentration, and contemplation. We need to be aware of an important thing about all five pillars of sadhana that we are discussing. And that is that there is a two way progression:

from outside inwards and from inside outwards.

For example, by stilling the body you still the mind.

That is the movement from outside inwards.

The easier way is to still the mind causing the body to become automatically still with very little physical training.

This is inside outwards.

There are many students whom our Master, Swami Rama, never encouraged to take up Hatha Yoga, such as all the inner washes and so on. For example; I have never done those myself. I asked him, “Do I need to do those Swamiji, Do I learn them?”  He said, “No, not necessary. Your part is the inner part.” So I have learnt to still my body by stilling the mind. In fact, I have made no effort to still the body. I have made no effort in practicing silence. I have not struggled with the question of celibacy. I used to fast before my Master came into my life in 1969, and asked, “Why do you do all of these things! I have done them already.” Many students, many disciples, when they meet their Master, have to do all this tapasya. I have a life of luxury because my Master did it for me. My progression has been from inside outwards. When you have developed stillness of the mind, all the other pillars come automatically. Among the eight constituents of Yoga, the fifth one is pratyahara.

People do not understand the differentiation or definition of pratyahara. It is when the mind is calmed down. The power of the senses merged into such a mind becomes calm and still; that is pratyahara. The exercises that we do for point to point breathing in the Yoga text are called pratyahara because those exercises cause the mind to become calm and the senses to merge with the mind. So, this movement from the calmness of the mind to the external pillars is automatic, is the easy way.

The movement from outside in is the more difficult way. If the mind is fasting you have no desire for all sorts of food. For example, I have found that when I practice silence, the desire for taste automatically begins to disappear. Now, in such an experience

the movement can happen both ways.

The silence of speech calms the mind and then the movement from inside outwards occurs, the calm mind removes the desire for physical taste. But it does not always happen and not with every one. I have seen people trying to practice one of the five pillars and making up for that deprivation by indulging in something else. For example, on the fasting day talking too much because they are compensating by one activity of the mouth for the loss of the other activity of the mouth. Or, they may, in the days of silence eat more than usual. So you must watch that the practices of any of these five pillars of sadhana are not merely physical ones. They should lead to an inward movement of mind and the mind should then automatically create the other four pillars in you. You may do this with any of the five pillars in whatever sequence you prefer.

The ultimate aim of stillness is samadhi. It is said that if you can sit absolutely still for three hours and thirty-three minutes you can have samadhi; absolute stillness means not even a wink of an eye, not even a twitch in the body. But it does not happen without a lot of sadhana of the other practices.

 

Now let us discuss the pillar of

FASTING

Fasting is a kind of silence.

It is a kind of celibacy.

It is a kind of stillness.

It is stillness of one of the active senses, the sense of taste. It is a stillness of one of the inner organs. It is stillness of the entire endocrine system. They are all related to each other.

There are many kinds of fasting.

1. The best fasting is eating moderately.

Texts on Ayurveda and on Yoga give us this advice: that half the stomach should be full of food. Space should be left in one quarter of the stomach for water and one quarter should be left for breath.

2. Eat five mouthfuls less than enough to fill the stomach.

This is the most difficult fasting. Some physicians suggest that one should not have any water half an hour before and half an hour after eating except for a few sips or limit liquids to the water which is already in the juices of the food that you are eating. I have personally found this to be very beneficial. But it is up to you to experiment.

3. Partial fasting

There are special days of fasting in all cultures of the world. The Christians have certain special fasting days. During the period of Lent, partial fasting is taken on for forty days; in the sense that you give up one or two items of food. In India when pilgrims make a pilgrimage to Haridwar and Rishikesh or are en route through these cities to a sacred place in the mountains, upon reaching their destination, besides doing their puja or worship offering, also make the offering of giving up one favorite food forever. It could be potatoes or it could be mangos. This is very common practice. This is also a form of partial fasting. Muslims fast for the thirty days of Ramazan. This is also partial fasting, because they eat before sunrise and after moonrise, or after sunset. They do not take water even in the hottest desert of Arabia during that time. One day I was flying from New Delhi to New York, a twenty four hour flight. There were Muslim travelers who did not eat or drink anything during the entire flight. They arrived at New York at 3 p.m., so there were still many hours yet before they could break the fast. That kind of fasting gives you great inner strength.

The purpose of fasting may differ. Complete or partial fasting may be done for physical health or cleansing. Or there is fasting as part of a penitence.

There is a tradition in India that teaches that if you know that you have done something wrong then instead of waiting for your karma to ripen until some other lifetime you make it ripen now. There are two words related to this. One word is pashchat tapa, which means feeling an inner burning after having committed a transgression. The improper translation of this word in the west is guilt feeling. There is no guilt, rather it is simply an acknowledgment of my imperfection, my failure and responsibility. I cleanse myself of that karma by prayaschitta, which means progression of the mind, making the mind move forward. You free yourself through an act of penitence. For prayaschitta one may undertake a pilgrimage, a long period of silence, or different kinds of fasting.

4. Fasting for the collective good

Gandhi made it into a national spiritual technique. When the nation did not do what he advised them to do, he declared himself incomplete and did tapasya of fasting to purify himself with the idea that if he was purer they might listen to him. This is actually a very, very ancient tradition in India. It also happens in families and is used almost as an emotional blackmail. It is very common for people, if they are angry, to just stopping eating. This goes on for a day or two and then the whole family starts gathering around and asking, “What is the matter, come on, say something.”  It has its uses; it has its misuses; but quite often it works as a total family purification. You see, in the Indian temperament, and perhaps the Asian temperament in general, instead of acting out aggressively towards others, you transfer that force toward yourself in some form of self sacrifice.

5. Fasting on certain sacred days

In India there are also certain days that are sacred. In different families, different days are sacred. For example the astrologer may say that Mars is a bad planet for you. Now, the astrologers in India not only give predictions, they also give a preventative measure or remedy for the negative forces. The astrologer might give you a special mantra to do 125,000 times that will pacify the angry planet. At the same time, you might be asked to make a donation of 11 pieces of 1 1/4 yard red cloth, or a donation of a certain type of grain such as wheat or sesame seed, or you might be asked to give away a measure of a particular oil or a particular metal:  gold for the sun, copper for Saturn, and so on. The astrologer may also tell you to fast on the day of Mars, that is Tuesday. So people fast on a certain day for a certain period of time. People also have their favorite form of divine incarnation and certain days of the week, or of the year, which are the sacred days of that divine incarnation. Many people right here in Rishikesh fast on Tuesday because it is the day of their favorite deity Hanuman. Many people in the spiritual tradition fast on Thursdays because it is the day of Jupiter, the guru of devas, gods, and in this way the guru is honored. For each of these types of fast, you decide on the degree of fasting; it could be only on fruits or it could be only on juices and so on.

6. Physical limitations on fasting.

There are certain diseases during which one should not fast. Or, during certain types of diseases one can take special fasts, such as having certain types of juices. Fasting is internal cleansing. If you undertake any kind of a long fast, make sure that you know the principle of internal cleansing. Some of the practices of Hatha Yoga are useful for this. During a fast you will need to decide which postures and how much of them you can do. For all of this you must consult an expert. Never enter any spiritual practice with the ambition that you are going to do the highest, the utmost, the extreme. Be moderate.

7. The complete fast

Again, the complete fast may have a physical purpose and it may have a spiritual purpose. Between the two, physical and spiritual, the fasting will help the practice of the other four pillars of sadhana. I have experimented with all kinds of complete forms of fasting and observed their effects: for fifteen days eating only vegetables, for fifteen days living only on milk, for fifteen days drinking only water mixed with a little lemon juice and a little honey. These are experiments you can make. As with any other of the four pillars you should gauge your capacity and stay within that capacity.

There is one final purpose of fasting. There are certain religious traditions in India such as the Jainas. Among them this purpose of fasting is very well known. This is when a monk of a very high spiritual standing decides that he has accomplished the spiritual purpose of his life, and he or she then decides to give up food and water and slowly, while spending the time in deep meditation and japa, finally leaves the body. Do not confuse this with suicide. Suicide is a result of disturbance of mind but this kind of abandoning of the body in the Jaina tradition is a result of complete peacefulness of mind.

 

The third pillar of sadhana is

SILENCE

Like the other pillars silence also has many levels.

1. The principle of silence in practice is part of our proper cultural upbringing everywhere.

We are taught a certain amount of silence right from childhood when our parents tell us not to shout so loud or not to gossip about others. These are all parts of the principles of the practice of silence. In some matters we automatically keep silence. For example, certain things between conjugal partners, are kept silent. A wife is not supposed to bear witness against her husband, and vice versa, in a court of law. One does not have to break marital confidence. So often when we are surrounded by noise we long for silence. The principle of silence is extended to moral and ethical silence. You know somebody’s secret; you keep silent about it.

2. Every night we are forced to become silent for eight hours.

Sleep is an involuntary practice of silence.

3. The practice of silence can also be a part of the practice of patience.

For example, when someone is angry and you are patient with him and do not shout back. Here, silence becomes a part of forgiveness.

4. Silence concerning selective spiritual matters

For example, one does not tell one’s mantra to anyone; one is silent about it. The purpose of that silence is to absorb the mantra to oneself by retaining the energy that you would otherwise lose by speaking.

5. Silence about spiritual experiences

One does not speak to others about the spiritual experiences one has had unless you are a teacher and some reference to some spiritual experience will be helpful to a student. Make especially sure that you are not speaking of any spiritual experience out of ego to show off, “Oh look what great spiritual experiences I have.”  Just as husband and wife do not speak to others about certain matters between them, teachers and students and gurus and disciples do not speak of certain matters that are between them. The guru knows the secrets of your mind and keeps them concealed from others. Or the guru does not reveal prematurely anything about the future that he knows. He could sit down and tell every event that is going to take place in a disciple’s life, but he remains silent.

6. Silence is also appropriate in the relationships among disciples.

For example, you know that your spiritual preceptor scolded a fellow disciple. You keep silent about it. What passes between the preceptor and another disciple is between them; you have nothing to do with it. Another aspect of silence between the preceptor and the disciple, concerns the disciple growing more and more sensitive to silent communication on the part of the preceptor. It may be done in the form of actions done by the preceptor which indicate something to the student without the preceptor saying so in words. Or it may be one small gesture that gives a very detailed direction to the disciple who has become sensitive. And then there is teaching in silence without any action and without any expression in which direct knowledge is passed from the guru to the disciple’s mind.

7. Periods of time when you choose to be silent as a spiritual practice.

Whatever principles you apply to fasting you may apply to silence. Let us say that you have two hours in the house all to yourself and you decide to be silent. There is nobody to speak to so you say you have practiced silence. It’s like the story of a very religious man I read about a long ago. Three days a week he used to fast because of a religious conviction. He was very, very, very poor and he said, “I am so glad I am a religious man who fasts three days a week, otherwise I would have to starve.”  Starving is not fasting. So what is the difference between starving and fasting?  In one there is intention and in the other there is not the intention. Without the intention it becomes a suffering; with intention it becomes purification. It is the same with silence. When you begin your silence, even for one or two hours, you must do in your mind a sankalpa; you must express the intention, “I shall be silent.”  The mere silence of speech is no silence at all. Silence must be the silence of the mind. It must be a peacefulness of the mind. Also during that one or two hour period, what kind of silence are you practicing?  Are you turning on the television?  Then it is not silence. Pacifying the emotional turmoil, pacifying the conflicts of thought during that period is silence. Slowly you can deepen the practice of silence, not listening to a cassette, not  reading a book, not writing a letter. But also not sitting there and getting bored. Do something with your mind, practice contemplation or do your japa. Slowly you increase your period of silence. It may be half a day, a week, or longer or more frequently. And one thing to watch out for is that many people who are not used to the practice of silence do become emotional. If you are ambitious, then you can set yourself the goal: in three year’s time or five year’s time to take a forty-one day silence.

Silence is of two kinds.

a. One is called akara mauna where only the speech communication is suspended.

b. The other is called kastha mauna where there is a level of silence in which one expresses nothing, even with the eyes or hand gestures.

Then there is also a different division of two kinds of silence.

a. Maintaining silence of speech is one level.

b. The other level is that in which you practice the silence of the mind without having to practice the silence of speech. This is the most difficult kind of silence. In this practice of silence the mind is kept silent and only a very small part of the mind is used for speaking. A meditation teacher needs to be a master of this kind of silence. It is with this kind of silence that one can run organizations, one can sit in board meetings, and one can do all of one’s activities and still be silent. You also need this kind of silence when you are confronted with the negative emotions of others. You can even protest and express anger if necessary while maintaining silence of this kind.

There is a word in Hindi, kiriya. It is used when someone swears by some thing. It is short for saccha kiriya, that is an “act of truth.”  An act of truth is performed by using the accumulated power of some form of secret you have kept for a long time. There are many stories about such “acts of truth.”  Here is one of those stories.

It is said that emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC, was standing by the river Ganges (Ganga) near his capital. In the history of India Ashoka is well known as the most noble king.  Being an emperor Ashoka could naturally follow whatever whim he wished. So he said to his ministers, “I wonder if it is possible for anyone to make the river flow back towards the mountains!”  The ministers, not wanting to offend the emperor, very gently told him, “Sir, many things are possible but perhaps this is not one of them.”  A courtesan was passing by. She said, “You are all wise ministers, and who am I to speak in the presence of a great emperor, but may I have permission to speak please?”  So, she was granted permission. She said, “Even someone as lowly as myself can make the river flow backwards.”  They asked her to demonstrate. She stood there, closed her eyes and did a saccha kiriya, an act of truth. And the emperor saw that, indeed, the river was flowing backwards towards the mountains. “That is enough,” he said, “Let the river flow naturally.”  And she let the river flow. The king and his wise men asked her what her secret was. How could a prostitute have such power?  She said “When I was younger and circumstances led me into this kind of life, I said to myself that there is very little good I can do in this life to raise myself, but I must do something. So I made one vow to myself, that though I lead the life of a prostitute, whether a prince comes to me or a leper comes to me, in mind and body I will treat them absolutely equally. And I have kept to that secret truth in my life. I have not let it out to this day. It is by the power of this truth that I have been able to make the river flow backwards. However, for this kind of power you must keep your truth a secret.”

 

Now we come to the very difficult topic of

CELIBACY

There is a whole detailed art and science of celibacy. This is the most difficult practice for modern people. Celibacy is in the same category as stillness and fasting. It is a kind of silence. It is a silencing of one’s senses because sexual activity is an activity in which the five active and five cognitive senses and the mind, all eleven, are totally absorbed at the same time.

So whereas fasting and silence are partial practices, celibacy is the totality of fasting, silence and stillness.

The tradition of celibacy is found in all the religious and cultural traditions of the world. Unfortunately I find in the western world that the poor Catholic nuns and monks are not taught the reason for it. Nor are they taught the fine art and science of the practice of celibacy.

1. One form of the practice of celibacy is marriage.

Being celibate in relation to all men and women except the married partner is a form of celibacy. In India it is still the common rule that eighty percent of men and women have had no sexual experience before marriage. So that when they take the vows of renunciation it is much easier for them. There is no point in fasting or keeping silence while your other senses remain restless. By mutual agreement a husband and wife can set aside one day of the week for prayer and rise above the flesh. Further, because marriage is an initiation and sacrament, for the first three nights after the wedding the bride and bridegroom in India always remain celibate in preparation for the sacred life ahead. The marriage is not based on rushing into the relationship of flesh but is understood as something deeply spiritual.

Again just as with silence and fasting, so with continence within marriage, go slowly. I have seen people thinking that celibacy is an essential part of spiritual progress, so they suddenly become celibate within marriage, and then boast about their accomplishment. But this only creates immense tension in both partners. Be moderate about it. Reduce the frequency and thereby increase the intensity of love. In this way you can appreciate the other partner beyond the physical appearance. There are many other subtler things for husbands and wives to enjoy in each other. In deciding to set aside a day of celibacy, just like a day of fasting or of silence, where the two sit in silence together, the richness of that nonphysical silence will be such that you will realize what the spiritual union of two persons means. You may choose to slowly increase the frequency and duration of such stillness, silence, fasting, and celibacy.

2. In India it is customary to refrain from sexual activity at least one night or three nights before any sacraments or during sacred days.

For example, the parents giving away their daughter as a bride is a sacrament. They maintain celibacy on the previous night and fast on that day. Only after the bride has been given away do they break the fast.

In the traditions of India we have four stages of life.

The first stage is brahmacharya, the period of the celibate student seeking spiritual and secular knowledge.

The second stage is grihastha, the stage of householder in which you practice celibacy by exclusion. One gives oneself as a gift exclusively to the person one loves.

The third stage is known as vanaprastha or the forest dweller. People who take the vows of this forest dweller stage, may stay right at home, but the husband and wife thereafter become friends rather than marriage partners. They agree to devote the rest of their lives together to finding God. Let God and the spiritual Guide be the link between us. Let our human love rise to the level of divine love. In ancient times those who took such a vow initially slept with a stick between them. It is a more difficult period of life spiritually than the period of renunciation. One may fail, one may succeed, one may fail again, and then may succeed more and more often. When my Master advised me to take the vow of vanaprastha he said, “Sex is just a habit and like any habit it can be changed” . So vanaprastha, the forest dweller stage is the stage when husband and wife spend time together in prayer, in sadhana, in spiritual practices, encourage each other, help and guide each other and share God between them.

The fourth stage which a very few rare ones reach is the state of renunciation, sanyasa, when stillness, silence, fasting, and celibacy all come together and become natural.

Once upon a time there was a king. The king had a brother. The brother had left the kingdom long ago to go and become an ascetic. Having received blessings and powers through his tapasya he returned and lived on the other side of the river from the royal palace. He lived in a mud hut as an ascetic, as a sadhu.

The king’s wife became pregnant. Now, in India there is a tradition that a pregnant woman should spend her time in spiritual pursuit, so that a spiritually awakened child is born. And there are certain practices, certain things the woman does during pregnancy, which the family helps to make possible. The king’s wife had the strong desire to sit at the feet of her husband’s brother the saint. She expressed this desire to her husband. “Oh yes,” he said, “go tomorrow and spend the day with my brother on the other side of the river.”  The tradition is that you never go to a holy man empty handed, you always bring him some gift, some fruit, some such offering. So in the morning before leaving, the king’s wife prepared some food and was ready to go. As she had to cross the river, she said to her husband, “Have you arranged a boat for me?”  He said, “What do you need the boat for?”  She said, “To get across.”  He said, “No, no you do not need the boat. Just go stand by the river and do a saccha kiriya, an act of truth.”  She said, “What act of truth?  I don’t have any powers.”  He said, “Take mine. Go, stand by the river, close your eyes and say in your mind, ‘Since my husband the king was initiated by his Master three years ago, if my husband has never broken his vow of celibacy, by the power of that truth, may the river part and let me go across dry’.”  “The king’s wife was very puzzled because she was carrying his child, but she went and stood by the river and made the act of truth. And right in front of her eyes the river parted and made way for her to cross. She could not understand it.

She went to the sadhu, served him, received his teachings, fed him the food she had prepared and in the evening it was time for her to return to the palace. But again she had no way to cross the river. The sadhu said, “Do a saccha kiriya, an act of truth. Stand by the river, close your eyes and say in your mind, ‘If the sadhu, the master whom I have served this day, has never since his initiation by his Master broken his fast, may the river part and let me go across’.”  The king’s wife was again puzzled because she had been feeding him the whole day. But she went to the river and did the act of truth and, for the second time, the river parted and she went across. Now, really confused, she went to her husband and asked, “What is going on?  I am carrying your child and you make me swear by your three-year celibacy. I fed the sadhu, your brother, the whole day and he makes me swear by his fast.”  Then the king, who was also a wise man, explained, “Lady, mind is a vast force. If in one little corner of the ocean there is some small amount of dirt, the rest of the ocean is still clean and pure. Mind is even vaster and deeper than the entire ocean. Others live by only that little part of the mind which is active. They see only that part of the ocean, that tiny corner where there is some dirt. So to them the mind has no fasting and the mind contains no celibacy because they have been breaking the vows. For them, that little portion of the sea being dirty, the whole sea is dirty. Those who are on the path to enlightenment know the rest, the vast expanse, of the mind. And with that awareness the little indulgence in marital duties or the little eating in the day does not break their celibacy and does not break their fast. Myself and my brother, I as a king and he as an ascetic, have understood this and in the major portion of our minds we are always celibate, always fasting, always silent.”

 

The fifth pillar of sadhana is

CONQUEST OF SLEEP

Why is the conquest of sleep necessary?  For one thing, if you could sleep two hours less, how much more you could do. But more than that the conquest of sleep is conquest of the second state of mind out of the five that I have mentioned in the commentary on the Yoga Sutras. The conquest of sleep is to overcome the state of stupor, the state of tamas. The conquest of sleep cannot occur without purification of emotions. Swami Rama said that no one sleeps more than three and half hours. The rest of the time we dream. Dreaming is a disease because we dream to deal with suppressed emotions. If we purify our emotions we need less and less time to dream and are enabled to experience more of the sattvic sleep. In less time you achieve a deeper rest and you wake up in a joyful state of mind. But be moderate. Just as with the other pillars of sadhana, reduce your sleeping hours slowly, otherwise you can drive yourself crazy. In the process of trying to get rid of the disease of dreaming, you can end up with diseases that arise from deprivation of sleep. So, reduce your sleeping time by 15 minutes at a time. Spend those 15 minutes in shavasana practices or meditation before going to sleep at night. Then you have calmed your emotions and you will not feel as if you have slept 15 minutes less. Slowly go to half an hour. As your emotions purify and as the shavasana practices leading to yoga-nidra intensify, your need for actual sleep will become less and less.

Twenty years ago when my Master used to tell me that I should not need to sleep more than three and a half hours, I used to wonder how it would be possible!  Now I seldom sleep more than three-and-a-half hours. I do sometimes because of physical illness, but otherwise three-and-a-half hours is enough. If you have the right kind of mind when falling asleep you will wake up with the right kind of mind, because a certain level of mind remains active underneath the blanket of sleep. And just where your mind left off before falling asleep, that is where it picks up as you wake. Over the last fifteen years I have developed a habit that (even if I sleep for two hours) when I wake, I get into the shavasana position and wake up through yoga-nidra. Then I am alert and joyful.

This is not a practice of suffering a deprivation, but a practice of the subtle art of life. I learn languages in the time that I am falling asleep and when I am waking up. My inspirations, my poetry, my lectures come at that time. My answers to problems and my decisions come at that time. These benefits come about because the time while falling asleep and the time of trying to wake up is not wasted. Few techniques for conquering sleep have been devised anywhere, in any other path. However, there are the following instances. In India, it is common to do jagaran, in the Punjab known as jagrata, the all night vigil of worship to one’s favorite deity or the listening to sacred scriptures. In the Christian tradition there are matins, morning prayers at four or five in the morning. In the monasteries one can hear the recitation of prayers at that time. The morning mass is one of the most sacred and in strongly Catholic societies one sees people going to the church washed and clean at that early hour. For the injunction of the namaz five times a day in Islam the most sacred, the most important one, is at 4 a.m. Similarly in the Indian tradition, brahma muhurta, from 3 to 4:30 a.m. is the most sacred and is the time one should get up and do one’s prayers. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna repeatedly calls Arjuna Gudakesha, lord of sleep, because it is known that when the lower three states of consciousness, wakefulness, dream, and sleep have been mastered only then samadhi ensues. Again and again Krishna seems to remind Arjuna, “Now that you have conquered the third state of consciousness, sleep, you are ready for the teaching I am about to impart.”  These are examples of partial conquest of sleep similar to those of partial fasting, partial silence, certain nights of celibacy, and partial stillness.

There are other pillars of sadhana besides these five, such as the progression of japa, relaxation, concentration, contemplation, meditation; but that is another direction of sadhana. Yet another channel of sadhana is the practice of purifying one’s emotions, so that you can practice principles like non-violence.

All of the five pillars of sadhana are supportive of each other. If you practice only one, your practice is incomplete. They all should be balanced with each other. On the other hand if you perfect one, the others will also be perfected.

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