Just as lions, tigers, and elephants are gradually controlled, so prana is controlled through practice. Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed.—Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:15
How well-trained is your inner lion-tiger-elephant? This verse from the preeminent hatha yoga text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, suggests that we all have a beastly inclination in need of taming. This is probably not news to you; most of us know our inner lion-tiger-elephant all too well! It’s the part of us that wants what it wants when it wants it, regardless of the consequences. It’s the blind instinct of life: the powerful drives of hunger, fear, sex, and sleep. It’s our inner two-year-old stamping her foot and refusing to share her cookies, eat her peas, or go to bed on time. This untrained lion-tiger-elephant resists any efforts at discipline or restraint. Unregulated, it rampages blindly through life, driven by instinct and habit. From the yogic point of view, we are acting out patterns laid down in the unconscious mind, spinning on the wheel of karma, mindlessly squandering prana, our precious life force, on worldly affairs without making an attempt to realize the purpose of life.
We have the inherent capacity to control prana and regulate the life force that animates our body and mind.
However, the verse also implies that although we have inherited a beastly side, we have also inherited an inner-wild-animal trainer. In other words, we have the inherent capacity to control prana and regulate the life force that animates our body and mind. This trainer has intelligent self-awareness, and serves as an inner locus of control that is not thoughtlessly driven by unregulated passions, selfish desires, fear, or greed. Our inner trainer has discrimination, intention, and purpose. Our inner trainer has the capacity to train the exuberant pranic force and create a harmonious, enjoyable inner world.
Now the question becomes: what kind of training, and how do we train ourselves? As for what kind of training, here’s a hint: the verse appears in the chapter about pranayama practice, in a text on the practice of hatha yoga.
As for how: prana gradually comes under control with practice. Perhaps that reminds you of what Patanjali tells us right up front in the Yoga Sutra (YS 1:14): “That becomes firm only when done for a long period of time, with no interruption, and with reverence.” He’s explaining abhyasa, the “ardent effort to retain the peaceful flow of the mind free from roaming tendencies.” Bringing prana under control reins in the wild-animal mind, roaming under the spell of its habits and instincts, but mastery is achieved only with sustained, uninterrupted, reverent practice.
Like instincts, our individual karmic samskaras can be deeply ingrained in our unconscious mind. It takes time and consistency to create positive new habits that are just as strong as our undesirable old habits. This is true of training elephants and tigers, and it is true of training our mind. Patience is required in training wild animals, and that is just what is needed in working with our inner lion-tiger-elephant. Patience means having reasonable expectations, avoiding condemnation, staying the course in the face of setbacks, and cultivating commitment for the long run. It also requires having faith in the practice and in the process of training. Faith, or shraddha, develops from knowledge and understanding, from our own experience, and from confidence in the experience of those who have gone before us—the lineage and tradition of teachers and practitioners who have shared their accomplishments and their methods. Without faith, doubt undermines our dedication and consistency of effort.
Finally, practice with reverence. Have respect for the inner lion-tiger-elephant and its enormous strength and power. After all, our animal nature is also an expression of the divine, worthy of our respect, and essential for our life here in the phenomenal world. The Sanskrit word sevita, translated in this verse as “practice,” has connotations of protection and preservation, as well as pursuit and practice. We must be firm and consistent in practice, yes, but we must also feed and protect our inner lion-tiger-elephant self. Think of it this way: love and serve your teeth and claws, and they will love and serve you.
Love and serve your teeth and claws, and they will love and serve you.
And now we come to the consequences of not training ourselves. “The sadhaka (practitioner) is destroyed,” reads the last stanza of this verse. At the mercy of haphazard experiences, instinct, social conditioning, and deep-seated distorted perceptions, the untrained mind creates enormous stress in the mind and body, and so we fall victim to distress, sorrow, anger, and disease. Untrained, the pranic force runs amok, exhausting our vitality in the pursuit of worldly and instinctive desires. We suffer; we die in ignorance; the practitioner is destroyed. The great gift and promise of yoga is that we can bring the wild animal to heel. Then our passions, in the service of a greater intelligence, operate joyfully and harmoniously at every level of our being. Our vision begins to clear, and we realize that our life’s beastly inclinations and all—is emanating from the source of divine consciousness, eternally pulsing in the depths of our heart.