Conscious exercise as a tool in sadhana

by Martin Berson
Mother's note to the Athletics Competition, 1962: 

 We are here to lay the foundations of a new world. All the virtues 
and skills required to succeed in athletics are exactly those the physical 
man must have to be fit for receiving and manifesting the new force. I 
expect that with this knowledge and in this spirit you will enter this 
athletic competition and go through it successfully. My blessings are with 
-Mother, Education, Part Three, pp. 56-57
Thile examining sections on will and aspiration in Sri 
  Aurobindo's Integral Yoga I noticed some surprising 
parallels to a particular physical discipline (martial arts) I have been 
involved with for twenty-two years. The body. What to do with it? The 
obstacle to our progress? Exactly. Not! 

 For most of us, exercise and physical activity are a necessary 
evil. We know we should do it to stay healthy, and we know the longer that 
our "temple'' of consciousness (body) holds out, the better chance for 
progress in Sadhana. The problem is that there just doesn't seem to be 
enough time for exercise, etc., etc.; plenty of reasons and excuses to not 
do it. 

But, what if there were a way that any physical activity (even brisk 
walking) could be used as a potent tool to penetrate the subconscient 
levels of one's being? That might put a whole new perspective on the 
concept of exercise. Well, it happens that there is at least one way, and 
I'm sure that there are many more; all that is required of the Sadhak are a 
couple of easy-to-understand mental concepts and a little self-effort. 
Whether you are preparing your vessel for the Descent of the Divine Force, 
or it has already begun its descent, and is working on you, I feel that 
practicing or even experimenting with these concepts can make an immediate 
difference in your Sadhana, and a very large difference within six months 
to a year. 

Tlthough these concepts are somewhat simplistic, they are very powerful. 
The end result of utilizing them is that powerful conscious mental 
formations will be established in the subconscient layers of being. Direct 
channels from the mental to the subconscient, consciously carved out. 
Outposts where the Divine Shakti can flow in an undiluted, undistorted form 
to do its work more powerfully and effectively on the lower levels of our 

If we follow Sri Aurobindo's Yoga to its conclusion we will have to address 
the subconscient layers of our being sooner or later. There is much the 
Sadhak can do prior to that time to prepare. It can be a kind of mental 
"Lewis and Clark" trail blazing. A conscious clearing of the rubble of the 
subconscient and replacing it with fresh new organized conscious mental 
formations, that, even though they originate from the mental, rather than 
the Divine, forge a way for the Divine to penetrate more deeply into the 
lower subconscient layers of our being. 

Some of you may recognize the concepts presented and may already be 
actively using them. View this as another perspective, or confirmation of 
the reality of them. These concepts are extremely old. 

The information I am going to transmit to you, (slightly colored by my own 
experiences and perspectives, of course) comes to us from Bodhi Darma 
(Daruma Dachi), the monk who first brought Buddhism from Tibet to China 
about 1400 years ago. Some things I read in Sri Aurobindo, especially a 
section on Raja yoga , indicate to me that these concepts were actually 
taken by Bodhi Dharma from Raja Yoga, making them quite a bit older than 
1400 years. 

After establishing a monastery in China, Bodhi Dharma found that his monks 
were meditating all day, but their bodies were wasting away. He became 
extremely disturbed by this. He devised a series of exercises for them to 
strengthen their bodies and provided them a certain 'mentality' with which 
to practice the exercises. 

The first step in this process is to determine what the "self 
 set" physical limits of our physical bodies are. The human body is 
a most marvelous instrument. It is far stronger than many of you realize. 
We've all heard of tiny women lifting automobiles off their children to 
save them, so the strength is most certainly there. How can we tap into 
that strength under controlled conditions, without having to place 
ourselves in a life-threatening or crisis situation? How can we find and 
direct that strength into our sadhana? We can do it the "old fashioned 
way," using the same concentration techniques we use in our meditation 
practice. The only difference is, that the consciousness is turned 
"slightly outward" rather than "inward." The body and its activities become 
the object of meditation. 

How do we determine our physical limits? The first step is easy. Do 
whatever physical activity you happen to enjoy until you are tired from 
doing it and want to stop. This is your "self set limit." It is by no means 
your actual limit. Far from it. We'll use brisk walking as the example of a 
physical activity. Briskly walk as far as you are able until you start to 
breathe heavily, feel tired, and want to quit. This is your baseline "self 
set limit." It's not your true physical limit; not even faintly close to 
your actual limit. You could briskly walk for miles and miles if your life 
depended on it. But it's ok. That's where you start measuring this practice 

The next day you walk the same distance, only this time you go right up to 
that limit and at the point that you want to quit and stop the activity, 
you "tighten your mind and push yourself harder" instead of giving up. The 
next thing you know you have "pushed" beyond your so-called "limit." What 
you are actually doing is making a conscious penetrating entry with your 
mind and your will force into the subconscient levels of your being. 
"Tightening your mind" is actually a gathering and focusing of the will. 
That "gathering" is directed at the "mental block" or self-set barrier, and 
pierces through it. Exercising the will in this way is like exercising a 
muscle. It just gets larger and stronger the more you use it. 

The further you push past your limit, the deeper into the subconscient you 
penetrate. This is a gradual process, so it is important to set realistic 
goals for yourself. Remember, whatever "distance" you go, that is your new 
"limit," and you must at least go up to that limit the next time. You have 
the choice whether you want to push through the limit, but you must go at 
least up to your current limit each time, and not less than it. 

This technique is a double-edged sword. If you fail to go at least to your 
limit, you will actually weaken your resolve and slide backwards. It is 
better not to do it at all if this is the case. If this event happens, only 
you will know about it. It's called "cheating oneself." It can create some 
extremely deep negative feelings and depression in the sadhak. But, 
fortunately, there is a cure for the condition. The next two sessions you 
must push even harder than you usually do and go even further. That takes 
care of any negatives and puts you back on track. Then, there will be days 
when you just don't feel like doing your physical practice. We all have 
experienced that in meditation and yoga practice. While it is good to take 
time off occasionally to rest from sadhana and refresh oneself, these types 
of days should actually be perceived as exceptional opportunities to make 
great strides forward. Why? Because if you can drag yourself to do your 
physical activity when you don't want to do it, you will be piercing an 
enormous mental tamasic streak of laziness we all have, and your reward 
will be ten times as great. The more rigorous the physical activity, and 
the more you push yourself, the quicker and more dramatic the results. 

The body is a paradox. It wants you to test its limits. It will complain at 
first, but then it will become extremely pleased and reward you in many 
ways. It takes 30,000 to 50,000 repetitions of a physical movement to train 
it into the nervous system as a reflexive action (a pro's golf swing, for 
example). 30,000 repetitions if you're a professional athlete and have a 
"smart" body, 50,000 if you're like the rest of us and have a "dumb" body. 
This amounts to 100-200 repetitions daily for about one year. Fortunately, 
it takes far less time to train a new mental formation. Daily practice 
yields measurable results when training a mental posture. Over the course 
of six months people see major changes in themselves. After one year, the 
changes are dramatic enough for others to notice. 

This "tighten your mind and push yourself harder" mentality 
 begins to spill over into the rest of your life activities. Before 
you know it, every time you encounter a problem or obstacle, or your 
intuitive mind senses a "false limit," you will find yourself reflexively 
"pushing through it." This mentality has served me well over the years and 
really helped me pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep moving forward 
whenever I have been knocked down by the events of life, especially helpful 
during those times of wanting to give up on the sadhana. 

There is one phenomena to be on guard against when doing this practice. It 
is common to all practices, actually. It is allowing the activity to become 
mechanical. This is like losing consciousness. When one becomes proficient 
in any activity, eventually it can be performed while the mind daydreams 
away. Driving a car is a great example. Sometimes we arrive at our 
destination and don't even remember the trip getting there. Performing any 
practice in this fashion makes it virtually worthless and a waste of your 
time. It is better to do something else. 

In meditation, we attempt to focus on something, or the silence, and when 
our mind drifts, we gently bring it back to the meditation. Same in the 
physical practice. We hold our mind on our body's activity. When the mind 
drifts off to daydream, we do exactly as we do in meditation and bring our 
awareness gently back to the body and its physical activities. Once again, 
an effort must be made using the will to perform "conscious exercise" or 
it's a waste of your time and you might as well be doing some other 
activity like sleeping. 

Conscious exercise strengthens the will rapidly. Sri Aurobindo has this 
comment on the will: "If there is a constant use of the will the rest of 
the being learns however slowly to obey the will and then the actions 
become in conformity with the will and not with the vital impulses and 
desires." (Bases of Yoga, p. 106) 

Ts one's body becomes stronger and more healthy through 
  exercise, certain urges (usually worse in spring) may (and 
probably will) rise to the surface as is natural for healthy, living, 
bodies. These times should be viewed as excellent opportunities for working 
with these natural forces and vital urges. Dealing with these energies 
face-to-face on a conscious level is much more effective than trying to 
deal with them on a subconscient level where they exert their influences 
subtly. It is much harder to reach them there and transmute them. 
It is very important during any exercise and physical activity to "control" 
one's breathing. This is pranayama, and another very potent subconscient 
penetration tool (See Raja Yoga in Synthesis of Yoga, page 514.) When the 
body is exerted, oxygen is depleted and carbon dioxide levels rise. The 
body wants to hyperventilate and one breaths shallow and rapidly. This is 
"unconscious" breathing. At these times, focus on the breath and take long, 
slow, deep breaths, Filling the naval area first, the lower chest next, and 
then the upper chest. Exhale slowly, pushing from the naval. Do this until 
the urge to breath shallow and rapid passes. 

This is very similar to ujjayi breath in Hatha Yoga. Ujjayi breath is 
"conscious" breathing. You can use Ujjayi breath if you want. By 
controlling the breath, you are focusing the mind and the will to control 
an autonomic nervous system reflexive action. This penetrates the 
subconscient very powerfully and strengthens the will quite effectively. 
When you are gasping for air due to heavy exertion, that is the most potent 
time to exercise control over the breathing. Don't worry, you won't 
suffocate. I believe Satprem called pranayama a "scientific method of 
choking." This practice isn't choking, but the same control used in 
pranayama is used here. 

Something else I would like to add is that it seems (in my personal 
experience, but I suspect it is general) that the Divine Shakti can do its 
work more effectively if there is an organized, balanced Ki (Chi) (Physical 
Prana) flow in the body. This comes about as a result of doing conscious 
exercise. When you exercise consciously, Ki flow in the body becomes 
stimulated and extra Ki drawn into the body from the Earth becomes stored 
in the Manipura chakra, like electricity in a battery. Eventually the body 
becomes literally "saturated" in Ki and is always "ready," always "awake." 
 My feeling is that this provides an excellent environment for the Force to 
perform its work on the mental, vital and physical layers. I can tell you 
that although Ki is a form of Shakti, it is a contracted, more narrow form 
(but still extremely powerful) because it can be manipulated using the mind 
and will. It has no intelligence. 

The Divine Force, on the other hand is completely intelligent and no one 
can tell it what to do. My personal experience with the Divine Force and 
the Ki force is that larger amounts of Ki, and balanced Ki flow in the body 
seem to allow for easier reception, assimilation, and integration of larger 
amounts of Force into the body over shorter periods of time. The Widening 
is accelerated. 

For those who are Descending, the Ki force comes up out of the earth into 
the body, through the feet and into the Manipura chakra. I believe Ki to be 
an ascending ray of Shakti ascending upwards towards the Divine. I am going 
to make a leap here and conjecture that it is rising from, and anchored 
into, the nescience, and may be useful as a means of descending deeper and 
more rapidly. The Ki-line Express, if you will. 
During those times when the sensations of the Force become somewhat 
overwhelming, physical activity helps me to diffuse and integrate the Force 
within the body. Exercise wakes the body up and allows the force to 
integrate evenly and more smoothly with less resistance. I have begun to 
understand the logic of a "step by step" ascension towards samadhi, rather 
than shooting up there like a rocket, like we all want to do. 
Twenty years ago, a yogi threw me into samadhi four different times. The 
experience for me was being wide awake and conscious, no body, no weight, 
soaring freely and rapidly upwards, in an infinite golden, luminous 
expanse, with an ecstatic feeling. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, coming 
back here wasn't so great. In fact it was awful to be back, slogging around 
in a "heavy" awkward body, moving through the molasses of the physical. But 
it did show me the reality of the samadhi state. 

I should mention that those experiences were followed by 20 years of boring 
sadhana without even one experience of anything. Not even a glimpse. That 
finally changed last August in the 25th year. 

I feel that the Ki force keeps one's feet on the ground and allows for a 
slow gradual ascent, each level building on the foundation of the previous 
level as Sri Aurobindo suggests (see triple transformation). Then, you get 
to experience each level of consciousness on the way to samadhi, building 
slowly, firmly upwards on a solid foundation. I suspect that ascending in 
this fashion one might even enter into samadhi with eyes open and directly 
experience samadhi in the body as Sri Aurobindo and Mother did, without 
ever losing body consciousness. Maybe not. But, I would bet the border of 
the last level prior to samadhi is fascinating. It would be nice to stand 
there and gaze in both directions simultaneously. towards the finite and 
the infinite. 

The other alternative seems to be what I like to call the "Yo Yo." You soar 
high, right into samadhi. Eventually your psychic momentum (karma) drags 
you back here. You crash back down into the physical and try to make sense 
of your experience and integrate what you learned. Unfortunately, most of 
the experience is just a "faint memory" that made "so much sense" at the 
time, but from the finite perspective is very difficult to grasp onto and 
integrate. You bounce up and down like a yo yo, each time rising a little 
higher. I believe it could be very disconcerting and disorienting, from my 
own limited experiences of it. Of course, I crave those soaring ascensions 
as much as anyone, but it looks like we have to sacrifice them for the most 
part in the gradual ascension method. Maybe an occasional foray above for 
inspiration, or to get a "birds eye" view of where one is heading, but not 
as permanent practice. 

In conclusion, conscious exercise will: (1) prepare the vessel for 
reception of the Force; (2) strengthen and focus the Will force; (3) focus 
the Mind; (4) create powerful conscious formations in the subconscient 
which will help one in sadhana or any life activity, and especially in 
persevering in Sri sadhana; and (5) allow assimilation and integration of 
the Force into the physical body more easily and quickly. 

Miscellaneous exercise notes 

Do not jump into any rigorous physical activity without assessing your 
current physical condition. See your doctor for a physical. "Jumping in" is 
the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. 

Muscle pain is natural and OK. Joint pain is not. If your joints hurt from 
your activity, you are doing something wrong and making an "unnatural" 
movement. For instance, knee and foot should point as much as possible in 
the same direction whether you are walking, or going up the stairs. 
Otherwise you will be putting undue torque stresses on the knee joint. 
If you accidentally injure yourself, ice the injury first to inhibit 
swelling, (use an instant cold pack) and then apply moist heat to promote 
blood flow and accelerate healing. Only moist heat penetrates. 
Without re-injuring yourself, try to regain full range of movement as 
quickly as possible. It turns out that the quicker you can get up and 
return to your normal activities, the quicker you will heal. 

It's a good idea to do some stretching before strenuous exercise. Don't 
bounce or do stretching like a calisthenic. Stretching is a mental 
exercise. Go to your limit slowly, gradually, and then back off slightly. 
Then breathe to the place of resistance. It's gentle. If you bounce, the 
muscle will lock and you will tear the fascia and connective tissue. (ouch!) 
The practice regimen: Conscious exercise, followed by asana practice, 
followed by meditation, followed by conscious exercise. This regimen has 
worked well for me. It wakes the body up and makes it more receptive to the 
force, allows it to assimilate and integrate it into the body more 
smoothly. The body should get slightly aerobic first, then calmed with 
asana. The last part is to help with the assimilation and integration. 

On pushing oneself 

If you're wondering just how far the "tighten the mind and push oneself 
harder" concept can be taken, let me tell you. The discipline I practice 
offers an intensive a couple times per year which is (thank God!) optional. 
It consists of 11 two-hour, non-instructional, rigorous physical practices 
over 4 days. The final day has only one practice, so each of the other days 
have 3 hour practices, and one day has 4 of them. It is called "Special 
Training" and it's only purpose is to create an environment to "push 
oneself" as close as possible to one's actual physical limit. 

Each two-hour practice addresses one aspect of the discipline. By the fifth 
practice it feels as though one has been there one's whole life and will be 
there for the rest of it. Time dilates fiercely. At the point where we are 
truly physically exhausted, and want to curl up into a little ball of fluff 
and blow away in the wind, we really push ourselves even harder. The end 
result is that the mentality becomes "ingrained" in the subconscient. 
Always there, to be drawn on whenever needed. An automatic reflex. 
 In my 23 years of practicing, I have attended 10 of these trainings. They 
do not get any easier as one does more of them because there is virtually 
no limit to how hard one can push oneself. The longer a person has been in 
the practice, the more they are expected to push themselves. 

When a human body reaches its actual physical limit, the person will lose 
consciousness. This is the body's defensive circuit breaker to avoid 
damage. It is extremely difficult to reach this limit and takes a very 
concentrated, powerful mentality and many years of training to even have a 
chance at doing it. In my early 20's, during the very first practice of my 
first Special Training, an older gentleman who was near me passed out after 
the first 20 minutes. I became horrified and thought he was having a heart 
attack. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. People came over 
and resuscitated him. I was told after the practice that the person who 
passed out had been training for 20 years and that if someone does pass 
out, it usually only happens during the first practice, and only to those 
who really know how to push themselves. It is an honor to pass out because 
it means you have actually pushed yourself to your physical limit, and that 
turns out to be a very rare occurrence. 

Once you start Special Training, the rule is that you have to finish. You 
could leave, but if you do, you can never come back and practice with the 
group or the organization ever again. A perfect Special Training starts out 
from the very first technique with a strong mentality and is continuous all 
the way through until the very last technique. My 10th one was like that. 
About 4 years ago. It was exhilarating. 

I have not encountered anything like Special Training anywhere. It is a 
good place to "meet the cells." As a result of the experience, the weak 
cells in the body die, but the organism is stronger and more healthy as a 
whole. The "cell death" memory is kept in the cell consciousness of the 
ones that survived and the information is passed on to new cells. 
 Forever after the first training, whenever one decides to do another 
training, a queasy feeling comes. The closer the training gets, the more 
intense the feeling becomes. The cells who will die know exactly who they 
are and start to raise a great clamor. They don't want to die. They upset 
the others. It can become quite a loud clamor and supersede all other 
activities when it gets within two days of the training. 

The cells will wake one in the middle of the night. Wide awake. I recall 
years ago, driving to a training I had neither prepared mentally or 
physically for. I was going to do what we call "jumping in." No 
preparation. It is highly recommended to start preparing mentally and 
physically for the training a minimum of 6 weeks previous. The cell clamor 
became so great that I felt that if I did the training, I would die. This 
is impossible of course, but I turned around and decided not to do the 
training. It took quite a while to work through emotional upheaval caused 
by turning around. 

It's been said that conscious exercise is 99% mental and only 1% physical. 
And you wouldn't even need that 1%, except that you need a physical 
instrument as a means to express the mentality. I believe that would 
classify conscious exercise as Raja Yoga. Interesting.... 
"You are not in the body, the body is in You."   (Kashmir Shaivism) 

Martin Berson started sadhana in Boulder, Colorado in 1972, but did not 
start to practice Sri Aurobindo's yoga until last April. When he found the 
description of the descent in Satprem's book, he began to plunge into Sri 
Aurobindo's yoga. It took him from August to about April to determine what 
was happening (beginning of descending force). He now lives in Avon, 
Connecticut. All his disciplines and practices are in the application stage 
of development, and he belongs to a non-profit, international martial arts 
group that teaches interested, sincere students at no charge. 

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