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Interviewing Sankara Saranam, Part I

This is Part I of the Australia Yoga Life Interview

1) Can you tell us about the background to the founding of The Pranayama Institute?

After leaving Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-realization Fellowship monastic order, I not only continued to eat, breathe, and sleep the yogic life, but also began writing on the subject of yoga and asking questions that challenged everything I had been taught. One question I asked was: Why does learning to look within cost people so much money? The Transcendental Meditation movement teaches people a weak and fairly unscientific method of looking within for a whopping $150. Its “Sidhi” (sic) method costs thousands and is even more unscientific and disingenuous. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, yoga books contain a high percentage of matter dedicated to asanas and a relatively low amount dedicated to the practice of sense-introversion. And the material they do cover is greatly misinformed by Hatha Yoga, which developed in the Dark and Middle Ages, distorting the ancient science of pranayama. I founded The Pranayama Institute to freely teach and instruct in the theory and practice of pranayama. Over the years, we’ve taught tens of thousands of people from all over the world, many of which found personal and direct answers to their questions without having to shell out one dime.

2) How did you end up at the Self-realization Fellowship monastery?

When I was younger, I had heard stories of human beings that developed abilities as a result of some ancient science. My mother had stacks of books on the subject, which she never read. One day, she mentioned them and I expressed interest. She gave them all to me, and one of them was the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. It spoke of the science of pranayama and the abilities it develops in practitioners. It wasn’t long before I was practicing Kriya Yoga and living in one of the centres Yogananda founded.

3) You mentioned the TM Sidhi method. Can you discuss further?

If the Transcendental Meditation religion spelled siddhi correctly, it might be liable for false advertising. Since no siddhi, or yogic ability or power, results from their misguided method, calling it a siddhi technique might come with a backlash. Their Sidhi method is advertised as an advanced TM technique. Well, the delusion one would have to be under to believe such a method could work to develop the ability to levitate or fly would have to be in quite advanced stages. The method of levitation mentioned in the Yoga Sutra is a pranayama method designed to control the udana current. One way to strengthen the udana current would be to remain upright, even during sleep. Controlling it would require the application of a largely physiological method, with mental concentration placed on the locks in the neck and chest. The intense breathing regulation would make for a technique not approachable for most people. Meanwhile, TM’s method, which costs thousands to learn, is composed of sutras, which are mentally chanted while sitting on bouncy cushions, along with auto-suggestion that lift is possible through the mere repetition of Sanksrit stanzas speaking of the pranayama method. This is akin to reading a text on high-rise construction thinking that the mental repetition of the book builds skyscrapers.

4) What are the goals of The Pranayama Institute?

The mission of The Pranayama Institute is to quantitatively teach pranayama and the ascetic life via the distribution of the book God Without Religion and my ancillary writings and qualitatively teach pranayama and asceticism through concentrated retreats wherein participants thoroughly live the ascetic and mystical life under personalized guidance. Its ultimate purpose is to assist in the decentralization of power in societies inasmuch as centralized institutions of corporate, religious, and political power are behind most, if not all, of the divisiveness, vulnerability of the self, ignorance, and energy, resource, environmental, and population crises. The good news is that the answers to these dilemmas we are facing are simple, centring on the expansion of the human self and the development of self-knowledge. The tough news is that the solutions are not so simple, and simplistic solutions compound the challenges.

5) How are the answers simple, but the solution complex? What is the solution?

I am reminded of Aesop’s fable, Belling the Cat, where the mice gather to determine what to do about the dangerous cat, a young mouse suggests to put a bell on its neck so that all the mice would know when it was approaching, and, after the suggestion was met with great applause, an old mouse steps up and asks, “That’s a great idea, but who is going to bell the cat?” The easy and obvious answer may be for humans to expand their ideas of self, but how are we going to go about serving that expansion? How is it going to happen? Love is all you need, or so the song goes, but what about love’s needs? What about the sacrifices unconditioned and unrestricted love requires? Simplistic love is dangerous; love as a solution is a recipe for a nightmare because in the name of that love you can commit genocide. So the solutions have to be sophisticated and multi-tiered. And if they are to meet our challenges, they have to require a great deal of sacrifice and patience. If they are popular, or if everybody wants to do them, then they probably stink. The general solution centres on the centralization of power in the individual and community through the mimicry of social asceticism. This basically means that humans slowly come together to mimic the kinds of activities that cease to distance power toward the usual suspects of instituted power. Considering that centralized power systems, like the cat, would fight against any limitations, a solution would also have to account for the stranglehold it has on the public. Fear is potent, but in our case we have an advantage: There is no cat, or rather, we are the cat, as there is no real threat outside of us.

6) What do you see as the role of pranayama in yoga practice?

Very much like I see the role of sugar in sweetening. Pranayama is the practice of yoga. Yoga is samadhi, or the effortless cessation of breath as the senses, intellect, and feeling unite into a single intuitive current – the non-finite avenue to self-knowledge – and pranayama is the mimicry of samadhi. Even the proscriptive and prescriptive ascetic injunctions (yama and niyama), not to mention the proper upright and still posture (asana), are performed in the service of pranayama. They were devised for the greatest amount of energy conservation, and it is no coincidence that ethical conduct and asceticism (tapas) – energy or “heat” conservation – are one in the same thing. All methods of meditation, chanting, breath regulation, prayer, and self-reflection work toward developing the non-finite intuitive avenue to self-knowledge inasmuch as and to the degree that they direct nervous energy and awareness inward. That is to say that they work so far as they are pranayama. Since yoga is solely concerned with the development of infinite self-knowledge, it employs pranayama as the sine qua non of mystical pursuit.

7) How can pranayama help us in our fast-paced lives in the 21st century?

Faced-paced conditions do not speak to asceticism or energy conservation; they speak to the opposite. Since pranayama exclusively works in the context of an ascetic life, it cannot expand the sense of self effectively when practiced by a fast-paced individual. Moreover, the fast-paced individual will not be attracted to genuine pranayama or be able to muster the concentration its practice requires. Due to these factors, pranayama is largely unheard of and unemployed in the world, even in yogic or ostensibly spiritual circles and even among its representative practitioners. Pranayama without asceticism is athletics, not a non-finite avenue to self-knowledge. Instead of being directed inward, energy will continue to expand outward. As seekers, we seek after our own kind or self, so we find ourselves learning pranayama not from a master of the breathless state, but a go-getter guru that would rather not mention such a possibility lest his or her own knowledge and ability is called into question. We are responsible for our leaders, since it is we who distance our power toward them. If pranayama without concurrent asceticism worked, then its practice would not only move us away from the fast-paced life, but also move us away from our propensity to distance our power toward individuals and institutions. Alas, it does not work without asceticism. Pranayama, like a lot of things, is a tool for us to help ourselves, and it can’t help much unless all the necessary elements are in place. Once they are in place, we become our own saviours when we practice pranayama.

8) Why do you consider asceticism and energy conservation to be important?

Boil down every mystical system of self-inquiry and self-knowledge and you are left with energy conservation and energy control or focus. Our finite avenues to knowledge are regulated by nervous energy. Developing a nonfinite avenue to knowledge, it was long since realized, requires redirecting our finite faculties back on themselves so we can know what seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, feeling, and thinking is all about. Where and what is the source of these faculties? Can they be united, exchanged, switched off and on? What happens if the current feeding the hearing is directed to the tongue or the skin or the eyes? Most importantly, where is self-knowledge in all of our knowing, finite or nonfinite? Asceticism is the method of conserving nervous energy so that freed energy might be directed toward the more intuitive portions of the cerebrospinal axis. Without input from finite faculties, nonfinite self-knowledge flourishes and reveals a nonfinite self.

9) What do you mean by saying that we become our own saviours?

Pranayama is behind a lot of old world mythology, as you could discover when you read such books as Joseph Campbell’s Inner Reaches of Outer Space, the last book he wrote in his lifetime, dedicated to an exposition of pranayama and how its science can be found world over in cultures that in some cases had otherwise little connection. The saviour of humanity to the various monotheists is the messiah or moshiach, the anointed one. The Israelites used to literally dump a bowl of olive oil on the head of the anointed king. Oil, as a conductor of prana, was applied to the hair, which when coupled with pranayama methods acted as antennae of prana. Anyway, in Genesis the saviour was, ironically, the serpent, or Nachash, hence the ophitic tradition that placed the serpent on the cross. Qabalists later pointed out that Nachash and moshiach both numerically equalled 358, when the Hebrew alphanumeric characters were added, but mystics knew quite clearly that uniting the male and female, Adam and Eve, in each human being through elevating the serpent up the tree of knowledge, or the human nervous system, was the key to returning to Eden, which is at the front of the body, or “East,” Kedem. To he Indian and Hebrew mystics, East was the front of the body, west the back, north the head, and south the tailbone. The body is Israel, the “contending” ground, or kurukshetra, the battle ground between the materialism of the kurus in us and the pandavas, or our spiritual inclination. The snake, of course, was the ancient symbol for energy, and you’ll have the caduceus of the Hermetic tradition or the uraeus of Egypt representing the elevation of prana up the spine to the forehead and brain. When it comes to developing self-knowledge, asceticism and energy control are, at bottom, the only game in town. It’s no wonder you’ll have such scholars as Yarsharter, who I was privileged to take a class with in Columbia University, saying unequivocally that all the mysticism of the world can fit in India, and to which I’d add that all the mysticism of India can fit into pranayama.

10) Are there particular pranayama techniques you recommend as a regular part of yoga practice?

Yes, I strongly advise the practice of Kevali Pranayama, which comprises 3 or four initiative techniques, depending upon from whom one learns it. I also strongly advise the avoidance of lesser methods of sense-introversion; and since all other methods are lesser by degrees, I advise the practice of Kevali (“perfect”) to the exclusion of all others. In Hatha schools, the closest method to Kevali is Ujjayi. It needs some correction and improvement, but it was the Kevali of the Middle Ages. Bhastrika is an improper execution of the third Kevali initiation. Alas, there are many variations of Kevali taught in today’s highly commercialised market of spirituality that have nothing to do with the revolution of prana up and down the spine in an effort to magnetize the spine and brain. If your ability to still the breath does not flourish after several months of practice, you might be wasting your time if you continue to practice the method in question.

11) Could you briefly describe Kevali Pranayama?

Kevali, or a perfected form of pranayama, was long ago called the solar science because it is concerned with greatly hastening the intuitive evolution of the spine and brain, which normally happens slowly over long periods of time. Instead of relying on the sun, moon, stars, earth, and our nocturnal and diurnal rhythms, seasons, precessional, and the concurrent motion of prana up and down the spine sparked by our solar environment, leading us through the effects of our past causes, the practitioner of Kevali asks: “Instead of waiting around for this current to revolve in the spine and assist in the development of my nonfinite avenue of knowledge, why not revolve it myself?” I would call it cheating the system, but it doesn’t since one still must resolve all of the effects from all causes. Only, it happens at a greatly accelerated pace. One of the best interpretations of Kevali in the modern world is Lahiri Mahasaya’s, a Varanasi yogi of the 19th century. His system came to the West via Yogananda, a student of a disciple of his, and was called Kriya Yoga, or the rite (action, kri, cognate with the English word “create”) that produces yoga. His system is comprised of four initiatory methods. My interpretation consists of three, but to an advanced student, the whole method is practiced in a breathless state with only two mudras. Again, the closest Hatha Yoga offers is Ujjayi and Bhastrika is poor interpretation of the third Kevali initiation even as the manipulation of the nostrils is a poor interpretation of the first initiation. But one thing that makes no sense to me is this: If you are going to practice alternate nostril breathing, then the whole point is to allow the air to enter the nostrils when holding the breath and both nostrils are closed by the fingers. Why close the nostrils with fingers if you don’t bother to allow the air into the nasal passages? You can hold your breath without closing the nostrils. The reason they are manually closed is to allow the air to enter them. When you do that, you at least get the prana to move up to the sixth plexus. For some reason, legions of Hatha Yoga practitioners seal their nostrils but close the epiglottis or keep the lungs expanded to hold the breath. With the addition of a few mudras, I could update nostril manipulation so that it effectively rotated the cool and warm currents in the spine, but when devising a method of pranayama, I generally do not attempt to fix what is broken but rather improve on what already works.

12) Where did Kevali originate?

Kevali, defined as the most sophisticated method to accelerate the natural revolution of currents, was devised in ancient India back to a time of pre-recorded history. In what we’d call ancient times, it was already ancient, if that gives us any indication of how old it is. Naming things does not explain them, but then half of knowledge, as I’ve said elsewhere, is in knowing what to call things. Calling it pranayama says it all, for the entire method of developing a nonfinite avenue to knowledge depends upon the expansion, or release (ayama), of prana from its routine sense-bound motions.

13) With the ever-increasing popularity of yoga, how can yoga practitioners help develop an expansive view of yoga (and avoid it being perceived as a system of physical exercise and breath control)?

They can develop an expansive view of yoga by critically probing the yogas offered and consciously patronizing the teachers and classes that avoid commercialised feel-good versions. It would be wonderful if teachers took responsibility by teaching only comprehensive outlooks, but people are looking for different things, even if deep down our expansion is key to our fulfilment, and a great many people only want what’s skin deep. And let’s face it, a lot of the teachers of so-called yoga would not, as customers, seek after much more than that either. People will take themselves to and project themselves onto yoga and everything else. People are attracted to narrow gods and saviours because they want something or someone to justify their own narrowness. The superficial aspects of yoga are given the most attention because most people live on the surface of self-awareness. So the commercialisation of yoga is merely a reflection of the inordinate commercialisation and consumerism of our lives. When the perception and appreciation of yoga among the millions of its enthusiasts expands, you’ll find similar expansive trends in all niches and mainstreams of the economic market.

14) Do you regard the large number of styles of yoga currently practised in the West as a beneficial development?

Not really. The yogi Gautama was a single ascetic and taught the yogic way to develop a nonfinite avenue to knowledge. Now we have dozens of sects of Buddhism with nary a one focusing on that. For all the yogas found in the Gita, the mythic Krsna taught one thing: the mastery of the senses, for it is in controlling the floodgates of the finite avenues to knowledge that we embark upon the nonfinite avenue to knowledge. As human beings we have only one avenue to nonfinite knowledge, if that. We don’t have two or twenty. There is the sense of self as the seed for infinite self-knowledge and the conduit to self-realization, and that’s all, folks. These styles are all exercises in distractions from the practice of looking within with intensity of concentration. If people who have little inclination to ask too many questions or search deeply are roundly told they can grow spiritually and be consider spiritually hip without a great investment of energy and concentration, then how many will reject that by investigating the avenue to self-knowledge proposed? The universal spirituality is the sacrifice of the narrow sense of self and its universal practice is to look within. And isn’t it beautiful that it’s the only spirituality that does not sound dogmatic? It feels right inside us all not only because it is true, but because it considers each person’s own awareness and sense of being as the avenue to knowledge. Gone are the gurus, gods, and go-betweens of human invention. Any variant spirituality that does not expand our identity is worthless, and all styles are worthwhile by degrees only inasmuch as they contribute toward that self-expansion. The one cosmos of which we are all a part is woven of the fabric of expanding self-awareness. As I write in God Without Religion: The cosmos will tend to the expansion of a single individuated self as if it had nothing else to do.

15) What criteria do you think are important when evaluating a yoga practice/style/class?

Does it contribute to the expansion of the sense of self? Does it increase my power to look within with deep concentration? Does it support my self-reliance? Does it set up any authority or distance my power and esteem toward any institution or personage? Does it increase my sense of unconditional contentment? Does it make the life of ascetic energy conservation easier? Are my narrow identities slipping away or am I adding to them or merely replacing them with another narrow identity? These are the kinds of questions people can ask as they evaluate yoga classes or religions or just about anything else.

16) What do you see as the role of asana in yoga practice?

Originally, none of the postures of yoga existed as part of the ascetic and mystical yoga of the ancient world. Asana as a limb of yoga was essentially added to stress the importance of a particular posture that is useful in the magnetization of the spine, which is accomplished through Kevali Pranayama. A yoga master would simply lie down before entering samadhi to avoid a fall, but the prone position is not effective if revolving currents in the spine is in order. The upright position was beneficial though standing was not since it took more energy than sitting. Stillness was also essential, so asana was mentioned in these terms but proactive physical culture as we see it today was not. Then the Dark Ages came. The immutability and eternality of the self was projected onto the body, so a gross amount of attention was paid to perfecting the body as the vehicle for infinite expression. Little did they know in those darker times that the most perfect body can only assist in developing infinite self-knowledge only inasmuch as it could sit still, and sitting still for hours is best accomplished by sitting still for longer and longer durations. Moreover, physical culture does not create the ideal yogic body because it creates too much body identity and concern for the minutia of the body’s health and condition. Less is usually more when it comes to physical culture in the context of yoga pursuits. Give the body its due, no more, and learn to sit still and transcend the imperfections of the body as they will only compound as time progresses.

17) Do you think asana has a role in development of the expansive self?

Yes. Concentration is not intense in pranayama when body movements and preoccupations linger. The pleasant and still posture is essential. The best way to achieve it is by practicing it and pranayama along with it. Tension-relaxation methods and a brisk walk in fresh air, all totalled taking perhaps an hour a day, are more than enough physical culture as far as expanding the self is concerned.

18) What is meant by tension-relaxation methods, and how do they assist in the development of the expansive self?

Tension-relaxation (TR) is a natural physiological auxiliary to pranayama. Tensing a muscle directs energy to it and, after all, pranayama is little more than a breathing ritual (and sometimes not even that) coupled with mudras, or tensions in certain parts of the body. The tension of TR trains the student to remove all extraneous tensions that persist in the body, whether in a twitch, foot shake, worry, or tightness. Those excess tensions keep the faculties of knowledge extroverted and superficial, thus limiting the intuitive capacity and narrowing the sense of self to the body. Slow tension and slow relaxation heals and energizes. Quick tension and quick relaxation results in a totally relaxed pose. When coupled with double breathing (laughter is a form of double or multiple exhaling), TR is highly effective in not only training the body and preparing it for pranayama, but even removing restless patterns of energy and awareness coursing in the body. Yogananda devised a TR routine, which he called Energization Exercises. His includes a lot of motion performed while standing. I devised a routine that is done in the sitting posture and requires little motion.

19) What would your ideal yoga class consist of? Specifically, what roles would asana, pranayama, meditation, and relaxation play?

It’s hard to answer in realistic terms because nothing is ideal. I can idealize with the best of them, but the realities are that the context is not ideal, conditions are not ideal, level of interest is not ideal, appreciations and perceptions are not ideal, and so on. My ideal class, therefore, is nothing more than to assess where the class is and take a step or two with the class members. Since I am not interested in anything but the development of a nonfinite avenue to knowledge, I am not an ideal teacher for people primarily interested in physical culture. My ideal class, therefore, would be composed of students who want to investigate pranayama in greater depth. I would devote some time to the proper sitting position for pranayama practice, give initiation in pranayama by directly helping students move the currents up the spine, assist them to focus their energies to see the light of the medullar plexus, and instruct in the combination of pranayama and meditation with the aid of mudras or localized tensions along the cerebrospinal axis, and other manipulations of the orifices of the head.

20) What do you mean by seeing the light of the medullar plexus?

The sixth plexus is the medulla oblongata at the base of the skull, not the point between the brow. The point between the brow is merely the positive pole of that plexus. All the plexuses, sixth and lower, reside along the spine. The medulla is an orifice, and when one gazes upward, one can see the prana that flows through it in the form of light. Considering its shape, or rather the shape prana takes in the human body, it has five points of a star. Two legs, two arms, and the head, or the five senses, are its split. Then comes in another current that waves in through the brain. Another goes to the heart and yet another goes to the point between the brow directly, oscillating. Any competent student can feel these currents and their motions, controlling them as well.

21) How do manipulations work to enable a vision of the inner light? Can you provide an example?

The head is the seat of intuitive faculty, though the brain actually extends down the spine. The head has several orifices that allow prana to escape. Manipulations, in one important instance related to seeing the light passing through the medulla, work to get prana up to the skull and seal the orifices so that the medulla can be revealed. Once the ascetic can hold the sight of that gate, exiting it becomes possible. Exiting it is desired because it allows superconsciousness to expand into an awareness that extends to wherever prana extends, which is not merely everywhere, but to knowledge of reality prior to the very division of space and time.