Aleister Crowley Distorted the Practice of Yoga, Creating a Potential Pitfall for Students

Allan Bennett

Aleister Crowley first met Allan Bennett (1872-1923) in January 1899, in connection with Crowley’s initiation into the grade of Theoricus 2=9 in the Outer Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Bennett subsequently achieved fame as the Burmese Theravadin Buddhist monk, Bhikku Ananda Metteyya, who led the first Buddhist mission to the West in 1908. At that time, Bennett was a high-ranking occultist in the Golden Dawn and a close associate of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, the Visible Head of the Order. After the ceremony ended, in the antechamber of the temple, Bennett took one look at Crowley and accused him of meddling in “black magic.” Bennett, an extremely intelligent and accomplished mage whose knowledge of Western and Eastern theosophies was encyclopedic, fascinated Crowley. Crowley discovered that Bennett was living in extreme poverty in London and invited him to share his flat, where they studied Cabala and practised magic together, until Bennett set sail for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and subsequently Burma (now Myanmar) in 1900. 

In addition to teaching Crowley the elements of Cabala, magic, and the Western esoteric tradition, Bennett was a deep student of Asian mysticism, especially Shaivism, Yoga, and Buddhism. In August 1901, Crowley met Bennett in Colombo, where he was studying Yoga under the direction of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Solicitor General of Ceylon, and they studied and practised Yoga together, based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hathayogapradipika, and the Shiva Samhita principally.  In particular, Crowley practised asana, or hypomotility, i.e., sitting still for long periods, adopting for himself the difficult posture that he called the Thunderbolt.[1] Crowley was fascinated by Yoga because its nondogmatic, practical and experiential orientation appealed to Crowley’s scientific, empirical and experimental bent.


Crowley proceeded to write a number of instructions of his own on Yoga, including “Liber E vel
 Exercitiorum” (March 1909), Book 4, Part I (1911), and Eight Lectures on Yoga (1939). In these works, he discusses asana, the third “limb” or step of Yoga, after yama (‘ethics’) and niyama (‘self-control’). Yama consists of harmlessness, honesty, non-stealing, sexual purity,[2] and nonpossessiveness, whereas niyama consists of cultivating the personal qualities of cleanliness, contentment, self-denial, self-study, and aspiration to the Godhead. Despite Crowley’s rather tepid commitment to most of these precepts, which according to Patanjali and Vivekananda are necessary and essential preliminaries to Yoga practice proper, Crowley dove into the practice of asana and pranayama – ‘controlling the breathing’ – with characteristic enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Crowley’s personal predilections influenced his exposition of Yoga, especially asana, to the potential detriment of the unwary student.[3]

Crowley had exhibited strong sadomasochistic tendencies ever since he had sacrificed a cat as a child. He also fantasized about being tortured by “wicked women,” and inflicting and receiving pain in the context of the sexual act, and explored these tendencies in the context of his voracious sexual appetite. These tendencies clearly appear in his exposition of the practice of asana and elsewhere.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes that “posture [asana] is that which is firm and pleasant. Through the lessening of the natural tendency for activity, caused by identification with the body, and through meditation on the Infinite, posture becomes firm and pleasant. Posture being conquered, the dualities do not obstruct” (46 ff., trans. Vivekananda). Vivekananda comments that “it is quite necessary that we should find posture in which we can remain for a long time. That posture which is the easiest should be the one chosen” (Raja-Yoga, p. 23; italics added). However, despite Vivekananda’s assertion, supported by Patanjali, that the asana should be easy, firm, and pleasant, Crowley’s explanation is quite different. In “Liber E,” he writes that “you must learn to sit perfectly still with every muscle tense for long periods” (III, 1). Crowley also refers to “the severity of the pain,” a statement that he elaborates at some length in Book 4:

After a little, there will be cramp and fatigue. The student must now set his teeth, and go through with it. The minor sensations of itching, etc., will be found to pass away, if they are resolutely neglected, but the cramp and fatigue may be expected to increase until the end of the practice. One may begin with half an hour or an hour. The student must not mind if the process of quitting the Asana involves several minutes of the acutest agony.

It will require a good deal of determination to persist day after day, for in most cases it will be found that the discomfort and pain, instead of diminishing, tend to increase.

On the other hand, if the student pays no attention, fail to watch the body, an opposite phenomenon may occur. He shifts to ease himself without knowing that he has done so. To avoid this, choose a position which naturally is rather cramped and awkward, and in which slight changes are not sufficient to bring ease. Otherwise, for the first few days, the student may even imagine that he has conquered the position. In fact, in all these practises their apparent simplicity is such that the beginner is likely to wonder what all the fuss is about, perhaps to think that he is specially gifted. Similarly, a man who has never touched a golf club will take his umbrella and carelessly hole a putt which would frighten the best putter alive.

In a few days, however, in all cases, the discomforts will begin. As you go on, they will begin earlier in the course of the hour’s exercise. The disinclination to practise at all may become almost unconquerable. One must warn the student against imagining that some other position would be easier to master than the one he has selected. Once you begin to change about you are lost.

Perhaps the reward is not so far distant: it will happen one day that the pain is suddenly forgotten, the fact of the presence of the body is forgotten, and one will realize that during the whole of one’s previous life the body was always on the borderland of consciousness, and that consciousness a consciousness of pain; and at this moment one will further realize with an indescribable feeling of relief that not only is this position, which has been so painful, the very ideal of physical comfort, but that all other conceivable positions of the body are uncomfortable. This feeling represents success.

Crowley’s explanation in Eight Lectures on Yoga is similar. In this account, Crowley turns Patanjali’s explanation of asana upside down. Whereas Patanjali advocates that one adopt a posture that is easy, firm, and pleasant – as Crowley admits – and “conquer” the tendency to bodily disturbances through the contemplation of infinity, Crowley advocates that one adopt a posture that is hard and overcome the bodily disturbances through sheer force of will after a more or less prolonged period of “the acutest agony.” This is of course exactly the type of practice in which the Buddha engaged for six years prior to his enlightenment, and which he finally rejected as producing results that are incompatible with ultimate emancipation. Pain stimulation is also a well-known technique used by shamans to induce a state of extreme psychological dissociation. For example, in the famous Sun Dance ceremony, practised by the plains cultures of North America, young men fast and dance around a pole to which they are attached by rawhide thongs that pierce the skin of their chests. Sometimes they are suspended from these poles for hours or days, exposed to sun, wind, and rain, until they experience a vision of the other world. The Sundance is typically agonizing for those who participate. Crowley implies that asana induces a kind of physical anesthesia that facilitates the out of body experience (OBE). It appealed to his fascination with pain, but these practices can be dangerous and may attract negative spiritual forces that feed off of negative energy – exactly the type of energy that we find vividly described in the Book of the Law. During Crowley’s life such dark, demonic forces became the scourge of Europe in the form of “Nazi” National Socialism, the influence of which continues to this day. They were (and are still) “in the air.”

ThunderboltCrowley’s distortion of the teachings of Yoga is typical of his persistent endeavour to pervert the spiritual teachings and recast them in the image of his own demonic Shadow, Aiwaz. It represents a trap for the unwary student who studies Crowley’s exposition of Yoga in good faith, thinking that it accurately reflects Patanjali’s Yoga, whereas in fact it represents a great danger that may produce physical and mental harm including megalomania, destructive rage, power mongering, sadomasochistic tendencies, explosive violence, physical diseases, and even psychotic dissociation. Crowley implies that it is only possible to achieve success in asana by enduring a prolonged period of acute agony (the Apophis or Apep stage of the I A O formula that he identifies with his own cult; see Magick in Theory and Practice, chap. V). However, the approach advocated by Patanjali is actually closer to the quietist methods advocated by the Buddha, based on the cultivation of wholesome dispassion in the context of compassionate altruism (metta) based on awareness. Patanjali was the first post-Buddhist author to use the word samadhi in the Buddhist sense. Crowley’s practice of Yoga resembles the extreme physical methods of Tantra, which are notoriously dangerous and are said to require the direct guidance of a qualified guru if one is not to be possessed by malevolent, destructive forces. This appears to be the fate that overtook Aleister Crowley and that threatens to overtake his unwary followers and others too.

Note

1. Crowley lists four postures in “Liber E” and elsewhere: the God, the Ibis, the Dragon, and the Thunderbolt. In Crowley’s description of the Dragon, one sits on one’s heels. In fact, this yoga pose is properly called Vajrasana, the Thunderbolt Pose. Neither the Isis nor Crowley’s “Thunderbolt” pose are suitable for the practice of the Yoga of the type described by Patanjali, since they are both unbalanced and unstable. This is why the Thunderbolt posture was so painful for Crowley. Curiously, Crowley never recommends the cross-legged posture, so prominently referenced in the dharma and the archetypal yoga pose, commonly identified with Shiva, going back to Indus Valley Civilization (2500-1500 BCE), though he clearly knew of it because that is the posture that Bennett himself used.

2. Crowley had his own interpretation of this dictum. See Magick in Theory and Practice, p. 182, n. 2.

3. Crowley was most likely influenced by the predilection of Theravadin asceticism toward pain, which one finds for example in the popular Goenka meditation method, where severe physical pain while sitting is equated with the purification of negative karmas. Allan was a committed Theravadin. I find no warrant in the Pali Canon for this approach to asana, however. The Buddha himself warns his followers against attachment to the extremes of pleasure and of pain, and seems to regard meditation as a pleasant experience. Patanjali appears to follow this advice, despite the extreme practices of some yogis.

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