A Balanced Approach to Dealing with Illness and the Health of the Body for the Yogic Practitioner

The traditional Western approach to health and well-being sees the human body as under attack and health is a matter for defense and counter-attack against the causes of illness in the form of bacteria and viruses. In cases where the process of illness or deterioration of the capacities of the body which are not subject to resolution through pharmaceutical drugs, surgery is considered to be a primary option.

In recent decades, this approach has been subjected to considerable modification as a deeper understanding of the interaction between mind, emotions and body takes hold, and as the influence of diet, lifestyle, stress, pollution, etc. have been recognised. This brings the Western approach more into alignment, although not fully aligned, with the long-standing approach and understanding we find in the East, both in Chinese traditional healing and in sciences such as Ayurveda from India.

For the yogic practitioner, there are several issues that need to be taken into account and balanced. First, the basic stability of the body as the ‘seat’ (asana) of the yogic practice must be assured. This means that a body wracked by illness and dominated by weakness is not generally the most fit instrument for yogic progress. While it is true that progress can be made regardless of one’s outer circumstances, including health-status, it is also true that this issue can become a distraction, obstacle and hindrance that needs to be overcome.

Second, the yogic practitioner should not have to devote inordinate time and attention to the body and its needs, so that he can refocus and tune the consciousness toward the higher spiritual endeavour. The need to harmonize between taking care, and not placing too much attention on the body, is one that requires a fine sense of balance on the part of the seeker.

The vital nature of man wants to feel that it is ‘doing something’ and is ‘succeeding’. Thus, we want to employ vigorous methods and see instant results. Yet the best approach may turn out to be the one that requires the least effort!

Yogic practitioners are not required to give up the benefits of human progress, and thus, may choose to employ medicines, vaccines, surgery, and urgent care options as they may find helpful, without at the same time adopting the entire philosophical approach underpinning the Western model of health and healing. These can be understood as supports or physical carriers of the will to health that is required.

The influence of the mind and emotions on the body is another factor that can be utilized to positive effect without undue attention being paid. Simply keeping a positive attitude about health and wellness, and treating the body with respect can go a long way toward achieving the balance and harmony needed so that the yogic practitioner can focus on the shifting of attention toward the spiritual endeavour. Yoga requires a strong aspiration and will on the part of the seeker, and needs strength on all levels of the being for the eventual success of the sadhana. In the long run, the advent of a higher spiritual force in action will have its own impact on the strength, resistance and well-being of the physical body, as it begins to change the way the cells and organ systems respond and deal with the pressures of bodily existence.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Care should be taken of the body certainly, the care that is needed for its good condition, rest, sleep, proper food, sufficient exercise; what is not good is too much preoccupation with it, anxiety, despondency in the illness, etc., for these things only favour the prolongation of ill-health or weakness. For such things as the liver attacks treatment can always be taken when necessary.”

“But it is always the right inner poise, quietude inward and outward, faith, the opening of the body consciousness to the Mother and her Force that are the true means of recovery — other things can only be minor aids and devices.”

“Above all, do not harbour that idea of an unfit body — all suggestions of that kind are a subtle attack on the will to siddhi and especially dangerous in physical matters. It has been cropping up in several people who are doing the yoga and the first business is to expel it bag and baggage. Appearances and facts may be all in its favour, but the first condition of success for the yogin and indeed for anybody who wants to do anything great or unusual is to be superior to facts and disbelieve in appearances. Will to be free from disease, however formidable, many-faced or constant its attacks, and repel all contrary suggestions.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

The Role of Medicine in Treating Illness for the Practitioner of Yoga

The spiritual seeker often is confronted with a situation that seems to pit faith against medical science. The debate between religion and science goes back millennia and this is one small part of that larger debate. Those who are dedicated practitioners are asked to face all difficulties with faith in the Divine intervention protecting and supporting them. Therefore, they are asked to call upon the Divine when they face physical illness or challenges. For many this means they should not use medicine, consult doctors or take precautions such as immunizations against virulent diseases.

They are shocked when they wind up sick, or dying, and either respond with the fatalistic idea that they were intended to suffer this, or even be ‘called’ to depart their earthly life; or else, they feel like they have been abandoned, possibly because of some failure in their expression of faith.

Sri Aurobindo takes a deeper look at the issue and points out that the individual is not consistently and harmoniously perfect in bringing their faith and aspiration into all parts of their being, and thus, there is a process that takes place, through time, that needs to understand the complexity of the transformation that is called for, the various different aspects of the being, and the need to systematically open up the receptivity and acceptance of the transformative change in each part of the being. This does not happen overnight, and thus, there will be divergences between the faith and the response of the physical body along the way. Yoga depends on strength of body, life and mind, and thus, taking support from means developed by mental processes, such as medical science, is not a deviation from faith, but a support of the evolutionary growth that needs to occur.

There are many potential causes of illness, including some that arise through the pressure of the sadhana acting upon parts of the being that are not sufficiently receptive, as well as overbearing pressure of some mental idea, overly ambitious vital activity as well as purely physical issues that impact the body. Fear also can set up a reaction that weakens the protective vital sheath and opens the way to what one fears. One way or the other, illness eventually needs to be rejected or overcome, and this can take place through the action of any particular force or combination of forces in the being, including, for the spiritual seeker, the action of the higher Force as it descends and opens up the being to its action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Illness marks some imperfection or weakness or else opening to adverse touches in the physical nature and is often connected also with some obscurity or disharmony in the lower vital or the physical mind or elsewhere.”

“It is very good if one can get rid of illness entirely by faith and yoga-power or the influx of the Divine Force. But very often this is not altogether possible, because the whole nature is not open or able to respond to the Force. The mind may have faith and respond, but the lower vital and the body may not follow. Or, if the mind and vital are ready, the body may not respond, or may respond only partially, because it has the habit of replying to the forces which produce a particular illness, and habit is a very obstinate force in the material part of the nature. In such cases the use of the physical means can be resorted to, — not as the main means, but as a help or material support to the action of the Force. Not strong and violent remedies, but those that are beneficial without disturbing the body.”

“As for medical treatment it is sometimes a necessity. If one can cure by the Force as you have often done it is the best — but if for some reason the body is not able to respond to the Force (e.g. owing to doubt, lassitude or discouragement or for inability to react against the disease), then the aid of medical treatment becomes necessary. It is not that the Force ceases to act and leaves all to the medicines, — it will continue to act through the consciousness but take the support of the treatment so as to act directly on the resistance in the body, which responds more readily to physical means in its ordinary consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

Illness and Immunity

The human being is composed of a number of different forces working along their own lines and attempting to find some kind of harmonious interaction between the parts of the being. There is the physical body, the vital being, the mental being, the psychic being and the spiritual planes beyond that. Many times, the vital or the mental adopts a mode of action without taking into account the needs, and limitations, of the physical body. This is true for spiritual seekers as well as those living the life of the world. In such instances, actions or decisions are taken which force the body and push its past its limits. If proper care is taken, training and development done, and time spent wisely in creating the right circumstances for the physical body, one can see what appear to be extraordinary results. However, in many cases, people believe that holding a mental idea about something means that ‘with faith’ they have actually succeeded in the needed transitions and changes. People can read all about swimming for instance, understand the principles of swimming and ‘how to do it’, but in the end, until they actually get in the water and work to coordinate the body to the action, they don’t actually know how to swim.

Similarly, spiritual seekers frequently extrapolate the achievement of the end result from the aspiration held in front of their vision. This can lead, however, to extraordinary breakdowns when the seeker finds that the body simply is not prepared or readied for what the mind is prepared to exact upon it.

This same issue arises with respect to illness and the ability to marshal the immune system to prevent illness from taking hold. Certainly there is a truth to the power of the mind, and the vital nervous envelope, the aura, to withstand and reject the advent of certain illnesses. Many people have the experience of “feeling a cold coming on” and then strengthening their will and prevent its development. This does not mean, however, that the body itself has been transformed and can withstand any assault no matter how powerful, of forces that can cause it dis-ease.

For those who are willing to devote considerable time and attention to the process of strengthening the nervous sheath and the body, such as through practices of Hatha Yoga or Pranayama, certain signal advances can be documented. Some yogis gain extreme control over the body and its reactions to the point of being able to control not only the voluntary actions, but even the autonomous nervous system and the actions of the organs themselves, slowing the heartbeat, entering into deep states of trance without eating or drinking for days at a time, etc.

The Western celebrity, Harry Houdini, was said to be able to withstand extreme cold, freezing water for extended periods of a time, after habituating his body systematically to endure and accept the cold. Some Tibetan yogis practice the art of tummo, the generation of psychic heat, and they are able to wear freezing wet cloths and dry them with the heat generated without experiencing any form of physical suffering as a result.

For those who have not, however, devoted the time or attention needed to practice these external controls and train the body to accept and endure, the mental formation is generally insufficient, on its own, and they remain subject to ill-health from time to time. There is of course a natural strengthening of the immune system through a positive and focused purpose in life, and it can thus help the seeker avoid numerous inconveniences; yet in the end, until the physical body itself is transformed and fully opens and responds to the higher force, it remains subject to the weakness of the physical plane, and there remain limits to what can be imposed on it without breakdown.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “All illnesses pass through the nervous or vital-physical sheath of the subtle consciousness and subtle body before they enter the physical. If one is conscious of the subtle body or with the subtle consciousness, one can stop an illness on its way and prevent it from entering the physical body. But it may have come without one’s noticing, or when one is asleep or through the subconscient, or in a sudden rush when one is off one’s guard; then there is nothing to do but to fight it out from a hold already gained on the body. Self-defence by these inner means may become so strong that the body becomes practically immune as many yogis are. Still this ‘practically’ does not mean ‘absolutely’. The absolute immunity can only come with the supramental change. For below the supramental it is the result of an action of a Force among many forces and can be disturbed by a disruption of the equilibrium established — in the supramental it is a law of the nature; in a supramentalised body immunity from illness would be automatic, inherent in its new nature.”

“The complete immunity from all illness for which our yoga tries can only come by a total and permanent enlightenment of the below from above resulting in the removal of the psychological roots of ill health — it can’t be done otherwise.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

The Source and Cause of Illness

Western medical science holds that illness has several potential causes. Failing to digest food properly is one such cause. Stress on the body and its organ systems is another. A third is failure to obtain proper nutrition or fluids. Aging is considered a contributing factor in the breakdown of the bodily systems and reduction of the ability to withstand stress and external attack. But the primary cause that Western medicine recognises nowadays is due to the influence of germs — bacteria and viruses — that are separate life-forms that attack the body and, when they gain a foothold, begin to break down or take over its functioning to the detriment of the individual.

For an individual, if the basic needs of the body are being met and there is not excess stress, the primary function to defeat the impact of germs is assigned to what is called the immune system which marshals defenses to destroy the invading life-forms. A powerful force, such as a pandemic overwhelms the immune system easily and thus, causes large numbers of people to fall ill.

If we now look at the view from the side of Ayurveda we see that a being who stays in balance, eats nourishing food and keeps everything attuned, operating from a sattwic level, tends to stay healthy for the most part. An excess of rajas causes overstrain and an eventual falling back into tamas, and it is tamas, the weakness, ignorance and darkness in the body that manifests illness. Food plays a large role in this, so that tamasic foods, that have lost their virtue of nourishment, will tend to weaken and lead the individual toward illness.

Sri Aurobindo points out that illness comes from outside, creates a vibration or suggestion for the being, and if accepted, this suggestion can turn into illness. There is no essential conflict here with the idea that the vibration is carried by some physical form, whether bacteria or virus, and that it is the acceptance of the vibration, through a weakness or failing of the inner resistance (immune system) that can lead to the manifestation of the illness. Sri Aurobindo goes on to point out that the body tends to respond to these suggestions and particularly if a fear or panic arises, the opening in the vital sheath creates more opportunity for illness to arise.

It is possible, with this understanding, for an individual to withstand even virulent disease, and there are instances where people have gone into an epidemic, treated numerous people dying from the illness, and walked away without themselves becoming ill. This points to a mechanism outside of a purely mechanical action of a virulent germ attacking a physical body.

It is also possible to recognise that various mantras, various practices of Hatha Yoga, various breathing techniques and a strong action of will can help the practitioner create a virtually impenetrable wall of force to protect the body from the attack. Even without specific techniques, some individuals who are sensitive can ‘feel’ the pressure or onset of an illness and push it away. In some cases, they may use an herb or medicine to aid in the process as that helps convince the physical consciousness that something is being done. As a side note, research shows the powerful positive effect of what is called the ‘placebo effect’ which is the use of a non-active physical support, such as a pill, to convince the mind and the body that they will withstand or throw off the illness. A considerable portion of the benefit attributed to a pharmaceutical drug has been shown to actually be produced through the placebo effect, and people have been healed through such mechanisms.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Attacks of illness are attacks of the lower nature or of adverse forces taking advantage of some weakness, opening or response in the nature, — like all other things that come and have got to be thrown away, they come from outside. If one can feel them so coming and get the strength and the habit to throw them away before they can enter the body, then one can remain free from illness. Even when the attack seems to rise from within, that means only that it has not been detected before it entered the subconscient; once in the subconscient, the force that brought it rouses it from there sooner or later and it invades the system. When you feel it just after it has entered, it is because though it came direct and not through the subconscient, yet you could not detect it while it was still outside. Very often it arrives like that frontally or more often tangentially from the side direct, forcing its way through the subtle vital envelope which is our main armour of defence, but it can be stopped there in the envelope itself before it penetrates the material body. Then one may feel some effect, e.g., feverishness or a tendency to cold, but there is not the full invasion of the malady. If it can be stopped earlier or if the vital envelope of itself resists and remains strong, vigorous and intact, then there is no illness; the attack produces no physical effect and leaves no traces.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

The Qualities of Food and Spiritual Practice

When people take up spiritual practices, they are exposed to many different ideas about the proper diet. With the idea that ‘you are what you eat’, there is a long list of foods that are considered suitable for spiritual practitioners to eat, what are called in the ancient traditions of India, ‘sattwic’ foods. Foods that are considered rajasic, or tamasic are to be avoided. This has led to some very strict dietary regimens which pick out certain foods as helpful and others as detrimental to spiritual growth.

This approach varies markedly from those that leave everything to ‘whatever comes’ into the begging bowl!

There are also stories about whether food should be taken from or in the presence of certain individuals who are considered low caste, or outside caste. One such story had a sage being offered the nectar of immortality by the god Indra, who had taken the form of an ‘untouchable’. The sage turned down the offer because he could not see through the illusion and was bound by the customs of the society as to what could be taken and from whom.

Another instance had Lord Rama accepting food from a low caste woman who was his devotee, despite objections from his brother Lakshmana, because he saw the pure love and devotion, without concern about the specific embodiment of the individual in this lifetime.

The issue of vegetarian or vegan diet adds another dimension to the question. The animals which embody a higher vibration of consciousness than the plant kingdom, are able to suffer pain and the vibrations at the time of their death can impact the person eating that food. Many spiritual paths forego eating meat therefore, and avoid the entire question of imbibing the energy of the animal that has been slaughtered for food. In today’s world, with the intense suffering attendant upon the vast cattle raising and slaughtering industry around the world, the question raises even greater concerns than in the past.

Food today has further issues with the chemical and pharmaceutical contaminants, and pollution, and the intense breeding that changes the essential qualities of various foods and makes them in many cases devoid of much life energy or nutrition. Taking nourishing food that is grown in a more traditional and focused manner certainly provides values that highly processed foods cannot possibly duplicate.

Sri Aurobindo points out that without getting into all the minutiae of individual food substances and their various micro impacts on the being, the underlying consideration was more about the virtue of the food as to its energetic qualities. Tamasic foods were devoid of energy due to being spoiled or stale. Rajasic foods were over-heating. Sattwic foods were nourishing and uplifting. People have made a science out of this, but in reality following these simple guidelines is probably as much attention as needs to be paid by the spiritual practitioner who needs to shift the focus away from the physical body toward the spiritual endeavour.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I think the importance of sattwic food from the spiritual point of view has been exaggerated. Food is rather a question of hygiene, and many of the sanctions and prohibitions laid down in ancient religions had more a hygienic than a spiritual motive. The Gita’s definitions seem to point in the same direction — tamasic food, it seems to say, is what is stale or rotten with the virtue gone out of it, rajasic food is that which is too acrid, pungent, etc., heats the blood and spoils the health, sattwic food is what is pleasing, healthy, etc. It may well be that different kinds of food nourish the action of the different gunas and so indirectly are helpful or harmful apart from their physical action. But that is as far as one can go confidently. What particular eatables are or are not sattwic is another question and more difficult to determine. Spiritually, I should say that the effect of food depends more on the occult atmosphere and influences that come with it than on anything in the food itself. Vegetarianism is another question altogether; it stands, as you say, on a will not to do harm to the more conscious forms of life for the satisfaction of the belly.”

“As for the question of practicing to take all kinds of food with equal rasa, it is not necessary to practice nor does it really come by practice. One has to acquire equality within in the consciousness and as this equality grows, one can extend it or apply it to the various fields of the activity of the consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

Fasting and the Practice of the Integral Yoga

At some point in their spiritual quest, seekers are generally confronted with the question of ‘fasting’. Some paths recommend fasting as a method to lighten the heaviness of the ‘earth consciousness’ and make the being more receptive to higher vibrational energies. Some point out that fasting aids in achieving a ‘vision quest’. Some practice fasting to habituate the body to become less reliant on the material energy and switch its source of energy to higher vital and eventually spiritual realms. In the daily ordinary life, people undertake various forms of ‘fasting’ as a means of gaining control over their weight, although they call it in that context ‘dieting’.

There is no doubt that fasting changes the energetic flow of the being, that one feels lighter and more in tune with the vital and mental energies and less subject to the downward pull of the physical body. There is also no doubt that in certain contexts, the achievement of a ‘vision’ is aided by the practice of fasting.

It is, however, also true that the physical body requires adequate nutrition and that fasting, if practiced over the longer term rather than as a very short-term exercise, can undermine the physical substance and stability, and can create a nervous condition of the being that is not healthy for the spiritual practitioner who is not simply trying to abandon the outer life of the body.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is a fact that by fasting, if the mind and the nerves are solid or the will-force dynamic, one can get for a time into a state of inner energy and receptivity which is alluring to the mind and the usual reactions of hunger, weakness, intestinal disturbance, etc., can be wholly avoided. But the body suffers by diminution and there can easily develop in the vital a morbid overstrained condition due to the inrush of more vital energy than the nervous system can assimilate or co-ordinate. Nervous people should avoid the temptation to fast, it is often accompanied or followed by delusions and a loss of balance. Especially if there is a motive of hunger-strike or that element comes in, fasting becomes perilous, for it is then an indulgence of a vital movement which may easily become a habit injurious and pernicious to the sadhana. Even if all these reactions are avoided, still there is no sufficient utility in fasting, since the higher energy and receptivity ought to come not by artificial or physical means but by intensity of the consciousness and strong will for the sadhana.”

“The first thing I tell people when they want not to eat or sleep is that no yoga can be done without sufficient food and sleep (see the Gita on this point). Fasting or sleeplessness make the nerves morbid and excited and weaken the brain and lead to delusions and fantasies. The Gita says, yoga is not for one who eats too much or sleeps too much, neither is it for one who does not eat or does not sleep, but if one eats and sleeps suitably — yuktahari yuktanidrah — then one can do it best. It is the same with everything else. How often have I said that excessive retirement was suspect to me and that to do nothing but meditate was a lop-sided and therefore unsound sadhana?”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

Understanding and Attaining the Right Attitude Toward Food for the Yogic Practitioner

Shifting the awareness away from the ego-consciousness to the divine standpoint takes place as a ‘tuning’ process which Sri Aurobindo designates as ‘aspiration’. This represents a focus of the attention of the being on the higher consciousness and away from the normal fixation on the outer life of the normal human consciousness. Food is one area that occupies an enormous role and significance in the human sphere, whether it is obtaining food, preparing food, enjoying food or talking or thinking about food. We have a fixation that involves, on the one hand, a ‘greed’ for food, and on the other, a desire to control our weight and appearance, which leads to a constant stream of diets that claim to have the solution to weight control. For many people in the world, who live in a status of starvation or near starvation, the seeking for food is one of primal survival. For those who live the lifestyle of the West, there is generally an over-abundance of food, and an ongoing campaign of marketing by food companies to generate desire and support for their specific forms of food. There is also a lot of research done by various companies to enhance the “addictive” effect of the foods they sell, which adds a biochemical component to the normal drive or craving. This shifts food from its ordinary status of being a basic need of the body to one that reflects all types of vital desires and artificially created demands that we try to satisfy through food.

For the practitioner of yoga, then, it is essential to disassociate oneself from the artificial constructs that cause greed for food, or which turn food into a substitute for cravings of the desire-soul.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is the attachment to food, the greed and eagerness for it, making it an unduly important thing in the life, that is contrary to the spirit of yoga. To be aware that something is pleasant to the palate is not wrong; only one must have no desire nor hankering for it, no exultation in getting it, no displeasure or regret at not getting it. One must be calm and equal, not getting upset or dissatisfied when the food is not tasty or not in abundance — eating the fixed amount that is necessary, not less or more. There should be neither eagerness nor repugnance. To be always thinking about food and troubling the mind is quite the wrong way of getting rid of the food-desire. Put the food element in the right place in the life, in a small corner, and don’t concentrate on it but on other things.”

“Greed for food has to be overcome, but it has not to be given too much thought. The proper attitude to food is a certain equality. Food is for the maintenance of the body and one should take enough for that — what the body needs; if one gives less the body feels the need and hankers; if you give more, then that is indulging the vital. As for particular foods the palate likes, the attitude of the mind and vital should be, ‘If I get, I take; if I don’t get, I shall not mind.’ One should not think too much of food either to indulge or unduly to repress — that is the best.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

The Attitude Towards Food and the Practice of Yoga

There is considerable confusion, and a resultant variety of ways that spiritual seekers respond, to the question of food. Ordinarily food should not lead to any sense of bewilderment, as it is simply a necessity for the maintenance of the physical body in general. The issue arises when food becomes something else, a sublimated vital response to life, or a means of enjoyment, etc. In particular, spiritual seekers who carry out a discipline of avoidance of other forms of vital enjoyment may channel the latent desires into their relationship with food.

The numerous ways of addressing food includes ascetic fasting on the one end of the spectrum, to abandonment of any attempt to control the drive for food on the other, and everything in between. Mendicant renunciates eat whatever is given them in their begging bowl from day to day. If nothing comes, they do not eat. Others practice careful control over the food they eat, seeking out sattwic foods, avoiding foods that are considered tamasic or rajasic, as part of the spiritual discipline. Still others try to optimize their enjoyment of food and make the preparation and presentation of food into an ‘art form’. Some treat food as the basic building block and fuel for the physical body and try to eat based on principles of what the body needs to function optimally and properly. Some look on food as an object of desire, and work to control the action of the desire as they would do with any other vital drive. Others may treat food as a reward for their efforts and thus gorge themselves on it. And some treat moderation, the ‘middle way’ as the path of success in yoga, and thus, try to find a balanced approach in their relation to the question of food.

Tibetan yogi Milarepa had his own unique experience in relation to food. He was so concentrated on achieving realisation in one lifetime that at one point he entered into a cave for strict meditation practices and did not try to obtain food on a daily basis. He subsisted on nettles which grew in the area, to the extent that it was said that his skin took on a green shade. Eventually he reached a crisis where he could not focus on his meditation and he took that as a reason to open a scroll his guru had provided him ‘to be opened in extreme emergency’. The scroll advised him that he would not progress further in his meditation without adequate nourishment to his body, so he went out and obtained food, after which he achieved the realisation he was seeking.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “What is necessary is to take enough food and think no more about it, taking it as a means for the maintenance of the physical instrument only. But just as one should not overeat, so one should not diminish unduly — it produces a reaction which defeats the object — for the object is not to allow either the greed for food or the heavy tamas of the physical which is the result of excessive eating to interfere with the concentration on the spiritual experience and progress. If the body is left insufficiently nourished, it will think of food more than otherwise.”

“Too much eating makes the body material and heavy, eating too little makes it weak and nervous — one has to find the true harmony and balance between the body’s need and the food taken.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

How to Make Sleep Conscious

Much research has been done to monitor the various stages of sleep and to try to determine what is taking place during each stage. People have been experimenting with learning during sleep, and some people actively ‘program’ their minds before they go to sleep to solve certain problems they are facing, letting the subconscious work out the solutions. Aspirants frequently report dreams or experiences that occur during sleep that help to guide them or solve issues they are facing. Many find that teachers or gurus come to them and provide instruction or guidance. While for the most part sleep is an unconscious period for the waking mind, these breakthrough experiences make it clear that a lot is going on during sleep-time.

Sleep, however, is frequently a time when the waking consciousness not only departs temporarily, but it can be a time when the overall state of consciousness falls under the influence of tamas, and progress made during the day is lost during the night. This gives the seeker the feeling of having to always repeat and rebuild the experience each day upon waking. Several strategies have been developed including rising for meditation at 3 am, the ‘Brahma muhurta’ or attempting to overcome the power of sleep itself through various disciplines and austerities. Neither of these methods fully resolve the issue however.

Nowadays, a practice known as Yoga Nidra has gained substantial recognition as a mechanism for bringing deep rest to the body while holding a state of consciousness that is effortless and at the same time luminous. This is based on ancient teachings of the sages relating to the various stages of the development of consciousness and the various states of sleep. It has become clear that the physical mind can be programmed through an act of focus, will and aspiration prior to sleep, so that it does not lose the thread of awareness entirely and sleep can be an active continuation of the daily yogic practice.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “You have to start by concentrating before you sleep always with a specific will or aspiration. The will or aspiration may take time to reach the subconscient, but if it is sincere, strong and steady, it does reach after a time — so that an automatic consciousness and will are established in the sleep itself which will do what is necessary.”

“At night, you have to pass into sleep in the concentration — you must be able to concentrate with the eyes closed, lying down and the concentration must deepen into sleep — that is to say, sleep must become a concentrated going inside away from the outer waking state. If you find it necessary to sit for a time you may do so, but afterwards lie down keeping the concentration till this happens.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314

The Need to Overcome the Subconscious State of Sleep

Normally when we sleep, the body goes into a state of tamas and with it, the consciousness loses the thread of the progress of the preceding day. While the progress is not ‘lost’ in the long run, it does mean that we tend to have to re-establish what was done previously time and again. Something similar is said to happen in rebirth, that the being, no matter how advanced, has at least some remedial work to do to get back to the final stage prior to passing from one body to the next. The deepest consciousness uses the time of sleep to move off into other planes and experience things there while the body recuperates its energy and renews its sense of well-being. When we awake there is generally a feeling of starting over that encapsulates the sense that the mood, energy, aspiration, dynamism of the prior day has disappeared. This is one reason why those who undertake spiritual practices sometimes try to go to the extremes of pushing away sleep and trying to remain awake and focused, although, as noted previously, such a process tends to fail and actually can increase the tamasic feeling in the body over time.

It is possible to establish a yogic discipline of preparation for sleep and remaining fixed in the aspiration, to eventually find ways to overcome this slipping back and even turn sleep into a state of yogic progress.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The consciousness in the night almost always descends below the level of what one has gained by sadhana in the waking consciousness, unless there are special experiences of an uplifting character in the time of sleep or unless the yogic consciousness acquired is so strong in the physical itself as to counteract the pull of the subconscient inertia. In ordinary sleep the consciousness in the body is that of the subconscient physical, which is a diminished consciousness, not awake and alive like the rest of the being. The rest of the being stands back and part of its consciousness goes out into other planes and regions and has experiences which are recorded in dreams….”

“At night when one sinks into the subconscient after being in a good state of consciousness we find that state gone and we have to labour to get it back again. On the other hand, if the sleep is of the better kind one may wake up in a good condition. Of course, it is better to be conscious in sleep, if one can.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314