The limitations of books in Yoga

Ever since I was a child, I have been extremely fond of reading books. They provided information about the nature of things and how they work. They sometimes acted as a catalyst for my imagination and became a window for me through which I could see the world. Books can indeed be extremely helpful as they can sometimes provide effective shortcuts to learning new things. However for most things in life, nothing beats direct personal experience and Yoga is no different .

With an education system which rewards rote learning and information processing ability, books become the central pivot around which knowledge transmission happens. The fact that many a times these books are tampered with by people with ulterior motives is a subject for another time. Anyway, the way children are conditioned by the modern system of education, books become the hallmark of authority. As a corollary that follows from this phenomenon, when that child becomes an adult he tries to find books whenever he wants to learn something new. In addition, if his personal experience diverges from the book, he may even discard his personal experience as false or at the very least become confused due to the dichotomy.

When trying to decipher the secrets of the inner realms, the approach of acquiring requisite knowledge through books has many inherent drawbacks. In fact, it may even sometimes be better to have never read anything at all. This may sound very counterintuitive as after all even spirituality is a form of knowledge. Esoteric though it may be, but it is knowledge nonetheless. I have made the following observations on some of the pitfalls I experienced due to my excessive reliance on books written about spiritual subjects.

1. Intellectual meandering where one may not progress but an illusion of movement is there – There is a tendency in all of us that we want to feel as though we are ‘special’ and ‘unique’. Our brain is always looking for evidence to support this delusion. Books with viewpoints which support our inherent laziness and entitled mindset may firm up the delusion even more. So we may end up seeing confirmation of our delusions and feel that we have become ‘spiritual’ when in reality nothing would have happened. A lot of the so called ‘new age’ stuff revolves around and feeds off of this phenomenon.

2. All books on yogic instruction are incomplete and they leave out a key piece of the puzzle -There is an old rule in Yoga that instruction has to be in person because of the inherent nature of the process. Hence even detailed instruction manuals like the Bihar School of Yoga books would not be giving out the complete information. Someone practicing yoga using books without guidance may end with no discernible movement on the path or even worse.

3. Varying approaches of different books can confuse a seeker further – There are many different routes to the mountaintop. Depending on where a climber is standing, what equipment he has and what his innate capability is, the route to be taken would be different. So reading books by people who have climbed differently may create a confusion as to which is the right route. It is best to find a trustworthy guide to undertake such a journey.

4. Ego can pretend and create a fake spiritual persona based on the books – The danger with books is that it is easy to memorize the terms which represent a seemingly spiritual vocabulary and start identifying with it without direct experience.One can talk to others using the terms from the books and ego gets trapped further from this validation by others of one’s fake spiritual self. A spiritual master however sees through such verbal jugglery as he sees the core of the person rather than the outer accoutrements.

5. When one has taken diksha from a realized Guru then sometimes during the seemingly quiet phases there can be a feeling that one is not making progress. The reality is that there is a lot going under the surface of the conscious mind. However there may be a situation where one can read a book where a contrarian view is given. This can cause further confusion which could have been avoided.

Books do have their merit on the path. In the initial phases they can provide much needed confidence to a seeker. They can (if done with proper discernment) serve as motivator when the seeker is going through the quieter or turbulent phases of the process. Sometimes the Guru can also recommend something specific to read which would help the disciple at their current stage of progress. When one has advanced in Yoga, there is also an ability to access deeper truths in the scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras.

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