Aleister Crowley on Seven Practices of Yoga

Aleister Crowley has two books that provide details on yoga, and specifically, breathing techniques. Eight Lectures on Yoga details the basics of Raja Yoga, and Magick: Liber ABA (Book IV) provides detailed instructions for different practices of yogic breathing and meditation. The exercises in this series are derived from Liber RV vel Spiritus, a guide for the Zelator in the magical and mystical system of the A∴A∴. Though intended for the Zelator, these make good beginning practices in meditation as well.

Beginners to yoga and meditation may with to start with Liber E vel Exercitiorum from Magick in Theory and Practice.

Aleister Crowley: First Practice

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley doing yoga

Concentrate entirely on the act of breathing. Mentally repeat to yourself, “the breath flows in,” and “the breath flows out.”

Keep a record of your results: How long you practiced (about 20 minutes per session should be the minimum); your level of concentration; the number and type of breaks in concentration; any physical, mental, and emotional states; the date and time; and any perceptions after your practice.

Practiced diligently, Crowley says this technique may induce Samadhi, the eighth and final limb described by Patañjali in his Yoga Sutras.

Julius Evola mentions this technique in The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts. He advises the student to breathe in deeply knowing, “I am breathing in deeply,” and while breathing out to know, “I am breathing out deeply.”

Aleister Crowley: Second Practice

Aleister Crowley

Leon Engers Kennedy, “Crowley as Master Therion,” 1917-18

Pranayama is comprised of two Sanskrit words: prāna, meaning “life force” (particularly that in the breath) and ayāma, which means “extend” or “draw out.” Thus, pranayama involves controlling the breath. This clears out the energy in the subtle energy channels, the Nadis, that run through the body, and helps to awaken the Kundalini power at the base of the spine. It is an ancient Vedic practice, mentioned as early as The Bhagavad Gītā.

Crowley travelled to Mexico, where he practiced  raja yoga on the advice of his friend Oscar Eckenstein. He later travelled to Japan, Hong Kong, and Ceylon, devoting himself to the practice and study of yoga with his friend Allan Bennett (later Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya). He then studied Hindu philosophy and yogic practices in India.

This second yoga practice detailed in Liber RV refers to Liber E vel Exercitiorum sub figurâ IX, which gives detailed instructions for pranayama. This specific type of breathing has many names: Anuloma pranayama, Nadi Suddhi pranyama, Nadi Shodhona pranayama, or alternate nostril breathing (ANB) pranayama. Here are the steps:

1. Be seated in an asana. Close the right nostril with the thumb of your left hand. Breathe out slowly through your left nostril for 20 seconds. Breathe in through the left nostril for 10 seconds. Switch hands, and, holding the left nostril closed with the thumb of your right hand, breathe out through your right nostril for 20 seconds. Breathe in through the right nostril for 10 seconds. Continue changing hands and repeating, for one hour. (Beginners will need to work up to an hour, and can consult this Guide to Anuloma Pranayama — Yogic Breathing Technique for an easier-to-use mudra for the hands, and details on the breath counts.

2. Eventually increase the time of exhaling and inhaling to 30 and 15 seconds.

3. When the above is easy (and not sooner, Crowley cautions), breathe out for 15 seconds, inhale for 15 seconds, and hold the breath for 15 seconds. Practice until you can do this comfortably and with ease for one hour.

4. Increase the time of exhaling to 40 seconds, and inhaling for 20 seconds.

5. After the above can be performed with ease, practice exhaling for 20 seconds, inhaling for 10 seconds, and holding the breath for 30 seconds.

6. Crowley then tells the reader that at this stage, you can be admitted for examination, and upon approval, will be given instructions for more difficult techniques.

7. Food in the stomach (even small amounts) will make the practice difficult — so avoid eating several hours before practicing pranayama.

8. Take care to not strain yourself. Never get so short of breath that you breathe jerkily, rapidly, or have to gasp for breath.

9. Aim for “depth, fullness, and regularity of breathing.”

10. Keep a journal or magical diary of all of your experiences during the practice, and analyse the results.

The comments in the “second practice” section of Book IV suggest that the student master a cycle with a ratio of 10:20:40 seconds, or even 16:32:64 seconds and longer–being careful to build up to such lengths gradually.

Next, Crowley lets us know what will happen when pranayama is performed properly:

  • The body will become covered with sweat. However, this sweat is of a different character than that produced from exercising or heat, and can be rubbed into the body to strengthen it.
  • Then the body will become “automatically rigid.”
  • Next, the practitioner will experience “a state characterised by violent spasmodic movements of which the Practitioner is unconscious, but of whose result he is aware.” The body remains in its asana, but “hops” from place to place, and may seem to be weightless and moved by an unknown force.
  • The body will levitate, and remain in the air for a second to more than an hour.

All of these experiences should be recorded in one’s journal or magical diary and analyzed.

Aleister Crowley: Third Practice

Aleister Crowley

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Bodhidharma,” 1887

The third yoga technique detailed in Liber RV draws upon the pranayama that was learned in the previous practice.

This is a form of walking pranayama, a common practice among yogis. Besides being a meditative technique, it has the added benefit of being able to be done while getting a little exercise or walking around town. It is referred to as Bhraman pranayama (walking breath).

Then, follow these steps:

1. Practice deep, full breathing while taking walks.

2. Repeat a sacred mantra while walking, so that your footsteps are in keeping with the rhythm of the mantra (“as is done in dancing”). Another option is to count, according to Crowley, but a mantra such as OmOm mani padme hum; or Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti seems like it will yield better results.

3. Start a modified form of pranayama: It is similar to the second practice, except don’t hold the breath between inhalations and exhalations, and use both nostrils rather than closing one (as Crowley says, “paying no attention to the nostrils otherwise than to keep them clear”). Instead of breathing in and out for specified counts, you’ll use how many steps you take. To start, inhale for four steps and exhale for four steps, continuing for as long as it’s comfortable.

4. Increase the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Go up to 6 steps per inhale: 6 steps per exhale. Then increase this to 8:8, 12:12, 16:16, 24:24, or more if you’re able.

5. Next, practice a double ratio of inhalations and exhalations. Start by inhaling for four paces and exhaling for eight paces. Increase the inhale:exhale ratio to 6:12, 8:16, 12:24, and more if you’re able.

6. Finally, add the retention of breath (called the Kumbhakam). Crowley does not give specific instructions for this step. I recommend starting with a ratio of 4 paces per inhale, 4 paces per hold, 4 paces for exhale, and 4 paces for hold, then moving to longer times if you prefer. Then, switch to 2 paces for inhale: 8 paces per hold: 4 paces per exhale: 8 paces per hold. Increase the count, always keeping the 1:4:2 ratio.

Aleister Crowley: Fourth Practice

Aleister Crowley

Nataraja, Lord Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer

The fourth yoga technique detailed in Liber RV is a continuation of the pranayama technique in the third practice.

To start, begin doing the walking pranayama from the third practice. Get in a rhythm with your walking, breathing, and mantra.

Here are the instructions:

1. Speed up your mantra and your steps, until your walk turns into a dance.

That’s it. Although Crowley does provide some addition points to remember:

  • You may want to try using a basic waltz step (right-left-right, left-right-left, etc.). Doing this requires using a mantra in three-time. Suggestions are: επελθον, επελθον, Αρτεμισ (Epelthon,  Epelthon,  Artemis, which Crowley references in Moonchild and Liber Astarté vel Berylli, also found in Book IVor Iao, Iao Sabao.
  • If using a mantra to a deity, like those mentioned above, you also can turn this meditative dance into an act of worship. Liber Astarté discusses this in detail, with recommendations such as: choosing a deity suited to your highest nature, being sure to acknowledge the existence of the Supreme deity; acts of devotion that could be performed before walking pranayama, such as obtaining an image and creating an altar to that deity; continuing the practice for a period of days, until the deity seems to be a part of your own being; choosing a location appropriate to that deity; and extending the devotion so that it radiates throughout every part of the body.
  • Rather than a deity, however, Crowley recommends using a mantra that evokes a more abstract and supreme idea of God, such as Το ειναι, Το Καλον, Το Αγαδον (The I AM, The Kalon, The Agadon, which translates roughly to The I AM, The Beautiful, The Platonic Good).

Aleister Crowley: Fifth Practice

Aleister Crowley

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Whirling Dervishes,” c. 1895

The fifth yoga technique from Liber RV is a continuation of the pranayama technique learned in the third and fourth practices.

To start, do the walking pranayama from the third practice, getting in a rhythm with your walking, breathing, and mantra. Let it continue into a dance, as described in the fourth practice.

Then, for the fifth practice of yoga:

  1. Let the dance become independent of the will.

Those are Crowley’s only instructions, so I’ll offer a few comments on the practice. “Will,” in this use, should be thought of in the sense of making something occur intentionally. So, for this yogic practice, one should enter what could be called a trance state, where the spirit is flowing through the body in its dancing, chanting, and breathing, rather than consciously forcing it to occur. It’s likely that you’ll fade in and out of this “independence of the will,” but will stay in such a state for longer the more it is practiced.

Crowley also mentions that similar phenomena to those described in the second practice will occur:

  • The body will become covered with sweat. However, this sweat is of a different character than that produced from exercising or heat, and can be rubbed into the body to strengthen it.
  • Then the body will become “automatically rigid.”
  • Next, the practitioner will experience “a state characterised by violent spasmodic movements of which the Practitioner is unconscious, but of whose result he is aware.” The body remains in its asana, but “hops” from place to place, and may seem to be weightless and moved by an unknown force.
  • The body will levitate, and remain in the air for a second to more than an hour.

Aleister Crowley: Sixth Practice

Aleister Crowley

Vishuddha chakra

The sixth yoga technique detailed in Crowley’s Liber RV is a method of rapid and shallow breathing.

This practice can involve meditation on the Vishuddha chakra, the mantra for which is “ham.” This chakra corresponds to Binah in the Qabalistic Tree of Life, which is the passageway to the Supernal Triad. Due to its location in the neck, the Vishuddha chakra is associated with communication and self-expression. Its primary function is as a purification center. It is from this chakra that the elixir of life, amrita, flows down and causes either immortality or acts as a poison. When the chakra is open, we are open to wisdom; when it is closed, it leads to death and decay.

The method for the sixth practice of yoga is as follows:

  • Breathe as shallowly and rapidly as possible.
  • Crowley says the practitioner “should assume the attitude of his moment of greatest expiration.” Taking this statement to mean one should assume the position of just having forcefully exhaled, it corresponds to the Jalandhara Bandha: dropping the chin slightly so it’s tucked close to the chest and pushing the tongue against the palate.
  • Breathe only with the muscles of the throat.
  • You can also practice lengthening the period between breaths.
  • This practice can be combined with concentrating on the Vishuddha chakra.

Aleister Crowley: Seventh Practice

Aleister Crowley

Buddha in meditation, surrounded by demons of Mara.

The seventh practice of yoga from Liber RV is simple in terms of steps. The only instruction is: “Let the Zelator breathe as deeply and rapidly as possible.”

There are similarities in this technique to Ujjayi breathing (also called “the ocean breath”), which is common in both Hindu and Taoist yoga practices. In Ujjayi breathing, you breathe as deeply as possible, filling the lower belly, then the rib cage, upper chest, and throat. It is hard to do the ocean breath too rapidly, however.

This practice of yoga has more in common with a technique taught by the Kundalini Yoga teacher Yogi Bhajan, called the Breath of Fire. For this practice, breathe very rapidly, pumping the breath in and out with the force of the abdomen. As soon as the lungs fill with air, force it out, and as soon as the lungs are empty, force it back in. Eventually, the rhythm will become almost automatic. You should use force, but not so much that you actually contract the diaphragm.

For most posts on Aleister Crowley and Thelema, please see the archives here.