Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Sadhana : Spiritual Practice in Yoga
Part 1: An Introduction
Sadhana is a common term in Sanskrit used for a regular and persistent spiritual practice to achieve self realization. To experience truth or divinity according to one’s own belief is also a different form of self realization and can still be called Sadhana.
As there are many paths in yoga there are also many types of Sadhanas. However, the fundamental purpose of all Sadhanas is to experience the spiritual truth in a higher consciousness state called Turiya.
A person who practices Sadhana is called Sadhaka, a spiritual practitioner.
There are millions of religious or spiritually minded people who are practicing some sort of spiritual practice around the world. Prayer, pilgrimage, chanting etc., are some common religious practices we see in different cultures and religions across the globe. Are they also practicing Sadhana? Can they also be called Sadhakas?
Technically, yes. But in the world of yoga, a Sadhaka practices Sadhana only when he/she yearns for some sort of ‘spiritual experience truth’ in higher states of consciousness, something beyond our day-to-day life consciousness called Jagrat. The wise may call ‘It’ by various names but truth is the same, as the Rig Veda proclaims.
So, in yoga, we don’t say that all the religious/spiritual people around the world are practicing Sadhana or are not called Sadhakas. This term, Sadhana, is reserved for only spiritual practitioners who are seriously devoting committed time in their daily life to achieve something spiritually substantial, rather than just fulfilling some sort of religious/spiritual practice as dictated by society or culture.
When we go to a monastery or yoga ashram or zen center etc., we can see spiritual practitioners practicing meditation, hatha yoga, kriyas, mantra japa, kirtan or even sexual intercourse for the sake of achieving the spiritual experiences known as nirvana, enlightenment, self realization, liberation, being one with the beloved / God / the universe / Brahman etc. Or one may also practice them just to experience pure being, with no goals to achieve.
Now, how many of these ‘weird’ people really achieve that? Let’s stick to the word ‘that’ for any kind of spiritual goal or experience of the pure being/truth without any so-called supreme goals or achievements.
Back to our question: how many people do you think achieved their goal or something spiritually substantial? Well, how can we know what’s happening inside of other people? We can’t, unless we have experienced those higher states of being ourselves. But most of the time, we have some judgmental ideas, that a spiritual person does this and that… or doesn’t do this or that… or we have complete faith in the words of gurus or someone we consider spiritually more advanced than us.
Kena Upanishad says: “The one who thinks he knows, doesn’t know It. The one who knows It cannot speak about It.” It is very true even in these modern times of commercialized spiritualism where we can see advertisements promising enlightenment or students and gurus proclaiming themselves enlightened.
Well, I can’t talk about all the spiritual paths around the world at different times of history. But as a monastic practitioner of yoga who committed his life for the sake of the study and practice of yoga, I will limit myself to the world of yoga I have seen over my 15 years of travel across several spiritual melting pots within India and a few other countries, and my interactions with some great teachers and a few hundred yoga students I was privileged to meet.
Actually, in several ashrams or monasteries, it is not encouraged to ask or talk about other people’s spiritual experience. The instruction is clear and on the wall: mind your own business! It also means ‘don’t talk about your own spiritual experience’ to others, except with your own gurus or spiritually advanced Sadhakas.
Now, as yoga teachers, how can we ask our students to practice this or that, without talking about what we are supposed to experience deep inside us? Most of us give the examples of some great yogis like Ramakrishna and inspire students to keep practicing with a promise that one day they will get there. Ramakrishna says: “If you get into water for a swim or are thrown into the water, the experience of water is the same.” Likewise, if you keep practicing with patience-perseverance-purity, the experience itself will teach you and lead you further. The real Guru is inside our hearts and he has been calling and waiting to walk with us… as the yogi poet Kamalakantha says.
Is there a necessity to talk about and understand what is Sadhana? Yes, very much. Especially beginners on this pathless path need to have some mile posts to check if they are going in the right direction or not. More than understanding what is Sadhana, we need to know what Sadhana is not. Because many so-called spiritual people delude themselves into believing that they are spiritual or end up in conditional judgments. Actually, it is one of the biggest spiritual obstacles where many yoga students or monks are stuck into believing or thinking ‘I am a spiritual person’ and making mental or emotional judgments about what is spiritual and what is not.
The tradition says that if 100 people attempt a spiritual life, 80% end up pseudo-spiritual (they fool themselves into thinking they are spiritual), and 15% end up mentally or emotionally confused and seriously in need of a psychiatric help. Then, only 5% actually walk all the way till they hit the threshold of super-consciousness where they are in a spiritual state of being, from where there is no fall. The numbers here are not so relevant and this is just to inspire the Sadhakas to keep up the fire on this pathless path, called ‘walking on the razor’s edge’, in the Katha Upanishad.
In the next article we will study the fundamentals of yoga which make up the basis or guide map for the inner experiences we go through during Sadhana.