Blavatsky on Yoga

Since we’ve been studying the yoga suttras in the The Hague lodge of the Theosophical Society (inspiring meetings), I thought I’d look up what H.P. Blavatsky has to say about the subject. Unfortunately I find she’s so busy debunking misconceptions rampant in her time, she finds little room to talk about the real thing.

Some of what she does say is still worth repeating, but I think this post will make more sense if I start out with the main message Ronald Engelse had for us on Monday. The yoga people do in yoga classes isn’t really yoga in the religious sense at all (perhaps not even in a spiritual sense): it is yoga gymnastics. Based on the Yoga Suttras, yoga as a spiritual discipline is Raja Yoga. (more about the history and various types of yoga)

Perhaps I should once more define ‘spiritual’ in this post. It seems talking about words can’t be avoided. The word spiritual has many levels. Going from the physical to the divine – it starts with things like yoga and tai chi: exercises meant to balance the body and through that the mind as well. Climbing a bit higher on the steps of consciousness: spiritual growth is all about cleansing the emotions and the mind, so that the world is seen as it is and we can act appropriately in it.

But ultimately spirituality is about the Divine. Whether that Something is called Atma or Buddha Nature or The Holy Ghost – a connection with the divine is essential to spiritual experiences.

Blavatsky too tries to hint at this difference between the ordinary practice and the ultimate goal. She uses words like ‘black magic’, ‘becoming a medium’, ‘foolish’ and ‘dangerous’. She’s far less diplomatic than I am (and I don’t think many people would describe me as a diplomat, though I’ve grown in that direction a bit).

But perhaps I should start with the miraculous. After all – Blavatsky’s work has a lot of such examples. She claims feats as the following are simply the result of following natural law. No God or Deva involved in the process:

The well-known peculiarity of the serpent to live for months together without food, and to cast off its skin, or to rejuvenate; and, its extreme longevity having suggested to the ancient naturalists and philosophers the idea that the secret and instinctive habits of the ophidians might be tried upon the human system, they set to watching, and found that invariably before retiring for the cold season into its hole, the serpent rolled itself in the juice of a certain plant which it did by crushing the leaves. This plant—its name being a secret among the Râja-Yogis—brings on without any elaborate preparation or training for the occasion as in the case of the Hatha-Yogis—a dead coma, during which all the vital functions are paralyzed and the processes of life suspended. The Yogis have learned to regulate the duration of this trance. As, while this state lasts, no wear and tear of the organs can possibly take place, and hence they cannot “wear out” as they slowly do even during the natural sleep of the body, every hour of such a state generally produced towards night and to replace the hours of rest, is an hour gained for the duration of human life itself. Thus the Râja-Yogis have been sometimes known to live the double and triple amount of years of an average human life, and occasionally, to have preserved a youthful appearance for an unusual period of time and when they were known to be old men—in years. Such at least is their explanation of the apparent phenomenon. For one who has seen such cases and assured himself that the assertion was an unimpeachable fact, and who, at the same time, utterly disbelieves in the possibility of magic, whether divine or infernal, unless the existence of its wondrous phenomena can be accounted for on the principles of exact science and shown as due to natural forces, cannot well refuse to listen to any such explanation. It may be but little plausible, and the probabilities against the advanced theory seem great. Yet—it is not one utterly impossible; and this, till we have a better reason to reject it, than our simple ignorance of the existence of such a plant—must be considered sufficient. (C.W. vol. 2, p. 460, 461)

She goes on to define Raja Yoga (as opposed to Hatha yoga, from which most Western yoga practices are derived, as follows):

It is not that among the Hatha-Yogins—men who at times had reached through a physical and well-organized system of training the highest powers as “wonder-workers”—there has never been a man worthy of being considered as a true Yogin. What we say, is simply this: the Raja-Yogin trains but his mental and intellectual powers, leaving the physical alone, and making but little of the exercise of phenomena simply of a physical character. Hence it is the rarest thing in the world to find a real Yogi boasting of being one, or willing to exhibit such powers—though he does acquire them as well as the one practicing Hatha Yoga, but through another and far more intellectual system. Generally, they deny these powers point blank, for reasons but too well-grounded. The latter need not even belong to any apparent order of ascetics, and are oftener known as private individuals than members of a religious fraternity, nor need they necessarily be Hindus. (C.W. vol 2, p. 463)

In short: those wondrous powers exist, but aren’t important. She quotes Kapila (p. 467) to show the real object of Yoga:

To a Yogi, in whose mind all things are identified as spirit, what is infatuation? What is grief? He sees all things as one; he is destitute of affections; he neither rejoices in good, nor is offended with evil. A wise man sees so many false things in those which are called true, so much misery in what is called happiness, that he turns away with disgust . . . He who in the body has obtained liberation (from the tyranny of the senses) is of no caste, of no sect, of no order, attends to no duties, adheres to no shastras, to no formulas, to no works of merit; he is beyond the reach of speech; he remains at a distance from all secular concerns; he has renounced the love and the knowledge of sensible objects; he flatters none, he honours none, he is not worshipped, he worships none; whether he practices and follows the customs of his fellow men or not, this is his character.

She notes that taken literally this is quite a selfish persuit. Which of course is the most vile thing in Blavatsky’s eyes, so she goes on to explain that the real adept does not really have this as his goal. Which is where she leaves off – encouraging us as usual to find her hidden masters to find out for ourselves… (but those masters will only come to those who are ready)

It’s probably useful to conclude with the explanation by Ronald Engelse on this point: This highest yoga, the yoga that helps people reach the divine, is one which requires a lot of the disciple. It’s not something that every person can just try out. It never was. This is as realistic as it is for the London Philharmonic to not just let anybody play in it. It requires talent and training to even start playing in an orchestra like that. Similarly a future yogi should train humbleness and devotion. But since those virtues are suspect in Western eyes, few of us are likely to pass muster.

9 thoughts on “Blavatsky on Yoga”

  1. I call spirit ‘intelligent energy.’ I could probably just as well call it just ‘energy’ because all energy, it seems, is intelligent. Spiritual practice seems to be a disipline of something like mindfulness accompanied by a love for reality.

  2. Just like to say that there is everything to be gained by doing Yoga asanas in combination with the higher Raja-Yoga, as the steps involved in freeing up the body also lead to freeing up the mind.

    I do agree that most of the Yoga taught in classes is just for exercise but the greatest progress can be made by following both paths in combination.

    Grá agus solas.

  3. Richard: interesting 🙂

    Suibhne: I think it depends on the person in question whether that really is the best approach. It depends I think on where one is on the path, and what the specific karmic obstacles are we face in this particular one.

  4. Hi Katinka,
    Great blog! I just found it today, I’ll have to do some exploring. The Lineage I have learned through (Satyananda Saraswati) take an integrated approach to yoga – Hath Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakit Yoga, Karma Yoga, Ritual, lots of chanting, etc. I personally find this approach brilliant, as all the practices have their specific effects.
    Hatha Yoga is specifically designed for the awakening of Kundalini, particularly the bandhas and mudras, so therefore must be considered as valid a spiritual practice as Meditation. In the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”, it states that Hatha Yoga is a stepping stone towards Raja Yoga, and in fact the last quarter of the book is all about Samadhi. However of course, most people doing Asana’s in gyms are not aware of this.
    Certainly, attainment of Siddhi’s is not the goal of Yoga, they can be distractions leading one away from the far greater achievment of Self-Realization. However, Siddhi’s do have practical uses. ESP is invaluable for counsellors, and can mean getting to the heart of an issue in far less time then would have taken place with convential techniques. Also, energy healing can massively speed up the theraputic proccess, as long as it’s directed at the cause of an illness, and not merely at the symptoms. But of course, they can also be dangerous, as Blavatsky was wise to point out.
    This is why I see no problem in following both traditional Yoga/Vedanta and New Age/Spiritualism. I see the Mysticism as being the end goal (ie the Absolute aim, long term) whilst Spiritualism deals more with the immediate problems of life (ie the Relative). I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.
    God Bless,
    Hari Om,
    Jim Clark

  5. Well, yes they practice Mediumship, and run development groups for the development of such abilities. I haven’t as yet read any of Blavatsky’s work (reading the Secret Doctrine is on my “too do” list), but I understand she was very critical of the Spiritualist’s of her day, whilst at the same time she had a name for herself as a Medium.
    I don’t actually know that much about the history of Spiritualism, although I understand that it exists in a different form today to it’s origional conception. Also, I have heard that it’s quite different in different countries, I’m in Australia.
    Clearly, Christian’s see any Pyschic phenomena as the work of Satan, I’m pretty sure that no-one with any sort of New-Age, Mystic or Occult worldview takes this view. However, clearly there are different views on whether such things as Mediumship are safe, or desirable. I would be very interested on hearing your personal opinion on this topic, as well as the general view of Theosophy on this topic. (From the reading that I have done, I have a very high view of Theosophy).
    Clearly, not all things in the Supernatural world are all love and light, however, from the research I’ve done and the people I have spoken with directly, it seems that there is always a clear reason why some people experience “Psychic Attack”, and that such experiences are avoidable.
    I do however agree, that the specific pursuit of Psychic abilities (Siddhi’s) is not necessarily “Spiritual”, I have met people who have possessed such abilities and have been quite imature, psychologically and spiritually.
    Thank you for your time, I look forward to a response.
    God Bless,
    Hari Om

  6. Blavatsky did not claim to be a medium in the classic sense. She claimed to be in touch with living masters who dictated her words to her (which is closer to today’s channeling). I think this is a good topic for my Friday post about Blavatsky 🙂 so I’ll stop it this for now.

  7. Hi,

    this is so interesting. I spent a few days in Nepal not long ago and met a new friend there. She introduced me to Blavatsky Theosophy etc. I do have many questions and it would be great if anyone would have some time and email me. What is this whole thing about 2012?

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