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Thelemic Yoga: Beginnings of Yoga

Thelemic Yoga: Beginnings of Yoga

by Frater Aletheia


Yoga and the Disenchantment of the West

The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed an increasing awareness and openness to Eastern religious and philosophical traditions.  Along with the founders of the Theosophical Society, Crowley was among the first to adopt yogic ideas and practices into a Western occult context, presenting Yoga as a means of spiritual attainment on par, or co-terminus with, the Western magical tradition.[1]

Crowley viewed the practices and results of Yoga as not only leading to high mystical experiences and trances, and the development of individual genius; but also to more mundane and practical attainments such as increased will-power, concentration, and self-discipline.[2]

The efficacy of Yoga thus being apparent as a means of spiritual attainment, Crowley took what he thought were its essential elements, simplified them, and linked them together with his doctrine of Magick, both of which would be united in the religious and philosophical system of Thelema.  This re-contextualization of Yoga allowed Crowley to shape it into the framework of Thelema, a framework which, as we will see, was uniquely suited to the attitudes and dispositions of seekers and practitioners in the twentieth century and beyond.

By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth, what has come to be known as the “disenchantment of the world”[3] was in full swing in Western culture.  Modern science and rationality had established their dominions; Nietzsche had announced the “death of God”; and traditional structures of value, meaning and morality were becoming obsolete.  The problem of disenchantment—the separation of the divine out from the world of empirical nature, the transcendent from “empirical investigation in the domain of autonomous nature”[4]—was a problem Crowley faced and, to one degree or another, drove his development of a radical spiritual philosophy based on Will and Love which aimed at the spiritual liberation of the individual and a revolutionary restructuring of society.

Such a philosophy was ripe for a “disenchanted” age, not requiring practitioners to revert back to the values of an anachronistic and idealized past, nor forsake the pursuit of spiritual liberation in the face of an increasingly mechanized world with little patience for “spiritual” pursuits.  It is in this context of “disenchantment” that we can situate Crowley’s first encounters with Yoga.

“Give up your Magick, with all its romantic fascinations and deceitful delights.  Promise to do this for a time and I will teach you how to master your mind”.

Crowley’s earliest training in Yoga began in an unlikely place and with an unlikely teacher.[5]  In Mexico in 1900, Crowley left England to climb mountains with his friend and mountaineering partner, Oscar Eckenstein (1859-1921).  While climbing mountains Eckenstein taught Crowley basic techniques for concentrating and focusing his mind, techniques which would later become central to Crowley’s own system of training in his teaching order, the A⸫A⸫.

Eckenstein was an analytic chemist and engineer who expressed no interest in the occult[6]; and, when Crowley confided in him that he had come to find ceremonial magic dissatisfying, Eckenstein replied, “Do you know what your problem is?  You’re unable to control your thoughts.  You’re scattered and you waste energy.  You have to learn how to concentrate”.[7]  Eckenstein would further implore Crowley, “Give up your Magick, with all its romantic fascinations and deceitful delights.  Promise to do this for a time and I will teach you how to master your mind”.[8]  Eckenstein was here aiding Crowley in laying the foundations for the techniques and practices that would later be included in the Book “Mysticism,” Part I of Liber ABA or Book 4.[9]

The techniques that Crowley learned under Eckenstein’s tutelage formed the initial bedrock upon which Crowley’s reception of Yoga would rest.  It is an important feature of Crowley’s use of Yoga that it first occurred in a context divorced from an explicit encounter with yogic teachings and practices.  The ground that was laid would allow Crowley to re-contextualize yogic practices and results outside of the traditional context in which they would normally be taught.

Hymenaeus Beta remarks of this initial encounter with yogic techniques that, “Crowley also took to heart an implicit lesson—that the efficacy of Yoga does not depend on the externals of the cultural matrix in which it evolved”.[10]  This enabled Crowley to integrate the elements of Yoga into his own system of mystical and magical attainment that he found most effective.  Crowley remarks:

Under his [Eckenstein’s] careful tuition, I obtained great success.  There is no doubt that these months of steady scientific work, unspoiled by my romantic fancies, laid the basis of a sound magical and mystical technique.  Eckenstein evidently understood what I was later to learn from The Book of the Law: “For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect”.[11]

Crowley understood the efficacy of Yoga and how to employ it outside of the traditional contexts in which it was normally taught, extracting what he thought to be its essential elements and integrating them into an overarching philosophy of life that it would be his life’s mission to promulgate.

A Thelemite Travels to Sri Lanka: Aleister Crowley and Allan Bennett

In 1901 Crowley traveled to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to study and practice Yoga with Allan Bennett (Bikku Ananda Metteya, 1872-1923).  Crowley and Bennett were both members of the Golden Dawn and Crowley had for a time rented out his flat to Bennett in exchange for magical instruction.  Due to his poor health, Bennett eventually moved from London to a Buddhist Sangha in Burma, where he was to become one of the first westerners to receive ordination into the Theravada tradition.[12] Crowley wrote of Bennett in his Confessions:

When he was about eighteen, Allan had accidently stumbled into the trance called Shivadarashana, in which the universe, having been perceived in its totality as a single phenomenon, independent of space and time, is then annihilated.  This experience had determined the whole course of his life.  His one object was to get back into that state.[13]

Both Crowley and Bennett pursued their spiritual careers with single-minded focus and dogged determinism.  The time Crowley spent studying Yoga under Bennett proved to be Crowley’s most intense and active phase of his practice of Yoga and set the trajectory for Crowley’s understanding of Yoga for the rest of his career.

“To get into trance is of the same order of phenomena as to get drunk.”

In Sri Lanka, Crowey commenced instruction under Bennett beginning with a three day vow of silence to facilitate introspection, yogic postures (asana), controlled breathing (pranayama), vocal repetition (mantra), concentration (dharana), and meditation.[14]  Kaczynski humorously notes, that after two weeks of this intense training, Crowley “disappeared for a week, doubtlessly in search of women, alcohol, or some other diversion”.[15]  Crowley would explain such behavior from a uniquely modern and Western perspective:

Crowley contended that asceticism’s major drawback was its failure to purge distracting impulses.  Rather than submerging these buoys in the subconscious, after which they inevitably surfaced with greater force than before, he favored indulging and satisfying his impulse, leaving his mind free from distraction.[16]

For Crowley, Yoga did not require ethical norms based upon received tradition; rather, the efficacy of Yoga could be worked out along scientific, psychological and empirical principles without the unnecessary dogmatic elements that he felt had accrued around it.  Even at such an early stage Crowley was keeping quasi scientific records of all his experiments, something he would require from his students throughout the rest of his career.

The efficacy of the practices of Yoga were undeniable to Crowley, as they likely will be to anyone who takes them on with diligence and perseverance; however, what Crowley found spurious in traditional yogic doctrines were the moral interpretations that had arisen around the process and results of Yoga.  In his Confessions, Crowley remarks:

Apart from one’s normal reactions, these practices make on supersensitive.  I was not confining myself to any rigid diet; and I remember that at a certain period the idea of food become utterly revolting…One is inclined to say, ‘Now that I am becoming holy, I find that I dislike the idea of eating: Argal, eating is unholy; and it will help me to become still holier if I resolutely suppress the squeals of appetite’.   Such, I believe, is the basis of much of the fantastic morality which has muddled mystical teaching throughout history.  I do not think that straightforward a priori consideration would have carried unquestioning conviction in the absence of apparent confirmation of their hypotheses.  This ‘confusion of the planes’ is in my opinion the chief cause of failure to attain.[17]

Crowley further remarks:

To get into trance is of the same order of phenomena as to get drunk.  It does not depend on creed.  Virtue is only necessary in so far as it favours success; just as certain diets, neither right or wrong in themselves, are indicated for the athlete or the diabetic.  I am proud of having made it possible for my pupils to achieve in months what previously required as many years.  Also, of having saved the successful from the devastating delusion that the intellectual image of their experience is an universal truth.[18]

Moreover, Crowley not only recontextualized traditional moral interpretations of yogic phenomena, but interpretations of yogic phenomena generally.  While Crowley was faithful to the general outlines of traditional yogic doctrines, he discovered in his initial encounters with Yoga that these practices, and the results obtained from them, could be built, form the ground up, into a framework outside of the traditional contexts in which they were normally understood.  This re-contextualization of Yoga within a Thelemic context will be explored in in Parts 2, 3, and 4 of the present series.

The Dawn of Dawns: Dhyana

In early October of that year, after eight hours of breathing at a reduced rate of once a minute, Crowley experienced what he called the “Golden Dawn,” his first experience of dhyana.[19]

I became conscious of a shoreless space of darkness and a flow of crimson athwart it.  Deepening and brightening, scarred by the dull bars of slate-blue cloud arose the Dawn of Dawns.  In splendor not of earth and its mean sun, blood-red, rayless, adamant, it rose, it rose!  Carried out of myself, I asked not ‘who is the Witness?’ absorbed utterly in contemplation of so stupendous and so marvelous a fact…And this, then, is Dhyana![20]

Crowley’s successes in Yoga would lead him to integrate the practices into the system of the A⸫A⸫, aligning Yoga practices with tasks corresponding to each grade in the Order.  The mark that Crowley’s early exposure to Yoga left on him is unmistakable, and understanding the manner in which Crowley viewed both Yoga and Magick as twin methods aimed at the same results sheds light not only on Yoga, but on the religious and philosophical system of Thelema itself.

What Crowley’s early encounters with Yoga show us is that, from the start, he was integrating the elements of Yoga he found efficacious and building them into his religious and philosophical system of Thelema.  Crowley’s integration of Yoga into his own system of Magic and Mysticism cannot be properly understood outside of this context.  The system that Crowley developed was a response to the problem of disenchanted that had entrenched itself in the Western world at that time, a problem that many are still grappling with today.

Yet Crowley did not abandon modern epistemic attitudes in favor of the values of an anachronistic and idealized past, nor did he forsake the pursuit of spiritual liberation in the face of an increasingly mechanized world; instead, he utilized empirical and naturalistic approaches to spiritual phenomena without denying the authenticity and life-transformative power of spiritual experience itself.

This tension allowed Crowley to re-contextualize elements from a variety of traditions while shaping them into a framework of spiritual practice and attainment uniquely suited to the attitudes and dispositions of seekers and aspirants in the twentieth century and beyond.  What Crowley left us was a system that could be adapted to the demands of the modern world; and, it is up to us, as individual actors and practitioners, to allow Thelema to continue to speak to our present needs and concerns, to make the Law available for all.


 


This is Part One of a series on Thelemic Yoga:


References

[1] Djurdjevic, Gordan.  “The Great Beast as a Tantric Hero.”  Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 108.

[2] “The results and mastery of āsana are of use not only in the course of attainment of Yoga, but in the most ordinary affairs of life”. Crowley, Aleister. Eight Lectures on Yoga.  New Falcon, 1991, p. 57.

[3] The phrase originates in Max Webers’, “Wissenschaft als Berfut” (“Science as a Vocation”).

[4] Asperm, Egil.  The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse 1900-1939.  Brill, 2014, pp. 1-2.

[5] Much of the material that follows has been thoroughly documented.  See for instance Kaczynski (2010), pp. 86-98; Djurdjevic (2012), pp. 105-115; Pasi (2012), pp. 57-64; Crowley (1979), Ch. 25 & 28.

[6] Eckenstein was however interested in telepathy. Pasi (2012), p. 58.

[7] Kaczynski, Richard.  Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley.  North Atlantic Books, 2010, p. 86.

[8] Crowley, Aleister.  The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, eds. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant.  Penguin, 1979, pp. 214-215.

[9] Crowley, Aleister.  Book 4—Part I, “Mysticism.”  Weiser Books, 1997

[10] Crowley, Aleister. Eight Lectures on Yoga, ed. Hym  New Falcon, 1991, p. 8.

[11] Crowley, Aleister.  The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, eds. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant.  Penguin, 1979, pp. 214.

[12] Djurdjevic, Gordan.  “The Great Beast as a Tantric Hero.”  Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 109.

[13] Crowley, Aleister.  The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, eds. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant.  Penguin, 1979, pp. 237-238.

[14] Kaczynski, Richard.  Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley.  North Atlantic Books, 2010, p. 95.

[15] Ibid, p. 95.

[16] Ibid, p. 95.

[17] Crowley, Aleister.  The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, eds. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant.  Penguin, 1979, pp. 238-239.

[18] Ibid, p. 240.

[19] Kaczynski, Richard.  Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley.  North Atlantic Books, 2010, p. 95

[20] Ibid, p. 95.


Frater Aletheia is an Ordained Priest of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.G.C.) and a chartered initiator of Mysteria Mystica Maxima (M∴M∴M∴). He currently serves as the Treasurer of Blazing Star Oasis O.T.O in Oakland, California.

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