Aleister Crowley’s “scientific” approach to yoga

Crowley Hat Aleister Crowleys scientific approach to yogaFirst associations with Aleister Crowley usually go between satanist and weird occultist, less people know him as one of fathers of modern magic and New Age, still less know that Crowley studied and practices yoga, and was one of first western practitioners who tried to do it rationally and methodologically.

When I first met this connection Crowley and yoga, I was surprised because we, religious studies, philosophy people usually don’t really care about all those occultists, magicians, and people like…

Crowley amused me with his Scientific or at least scientific-like approach to the discipline.

Crowley’s first account on yoga was his trip to Sri Lanka where he, as he told his readers had seed his friend Alan Bennet “Levitating in the air as a tree leaf”. (In one of “Eight Lectures” Crowley admits that he had never seen levitation, though).

Main yogic text for Crowley was the Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra. In his Eight Lectures on Yoga he says: “not more than ninety percent of it can be thrown away as delirium of infected brain.” That’s one of the highest appraisals a sacred text could get from the Beast.

Other important texts that he urged his followers to go through were the Shiva Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipica, Vivekananda’s “Raja Yoga”, and other Shaiva texts. Crowley spent three years in Sri Lanka and India studying yoga and tantra and was so inspired that when returning to U.K. he taught yoga to students promoting himself as Swami Paramahamsa Shivaji.

A.Crowley’s works dealing with yoga

Crowley wrote a number of instructions on Yoga, including

  • “Liber E vel Exercitiorum” (March 1909)
  • Eight Lectures on Yoga (1937)
  • Liber 4 quattuor or Magic Liber Aba (1911)
  • Magic in Theory and Practice

Going through these texts, we see that opposite to for example theosopers’ approach to yoga and everything “Eastern” Crowley’s is very critical, sceptic, and rational.

Crowley tried to keep up to date with his time’s science, he had students and friends that kept him acquainted with latest developments in many fields: he had a good notion of  philosophic debates around quantum mechanics and the problem of observer influencing the object, which he implemented into his system as a form of Gnostic relativism.



Basically what Crowley did with yoga was trying to strip it off all kinds of unnecessary and empty ritualistic actions and beliefs– to leave only the psychotecnics that he thought to be working.

It’s a very pragmatic approach: he saw rituals and magickal work he conducted as kind of laboratory experiments and demanded strict records. “The more scientific the record is, the better”.

It looks like Crowley was familiar with some works of William James, they do have much in common, even besides their mind expansion experiments like James’s nitrous oxide inhaling — for both of them the Truth was not mere practical side of idea, but its usefullness. Any theoretic problem gets important only its relation to current needs or interests. For Crowley as for James what’s important is not the idea of God itself, but only its implications. James didn’t care if God did really exist, same was true for Crowley – he had used to seriously describe same phenomenon to different students using opposite models – an Angel could be a highly intellectual entity with it’s own being in other planes for one disciple and Forces or Archetypes of own unconscious for another.

We might even use the word “cultural reductionism” – for Сrowley’s approach tended to go beyond cultural and ethical elements which often distract a practitioner from yoga’s or any other religion’s sense. Though some of these elements are seen as necessary in India. Crowley called for experiment and critical checking of phenomena that arise during yoga practice and dismissing “mystical superstitions” as “by-products of weak minds”.  If you see Shiva while meditating, you do not allow yourself to run around happily but just mentally notice it and go on meditating. His reduction of yoga correlates with phenomenological approach to religion of mid-XXth century with which Crowley had been acquainted.

Crowley emphasised yoga’s practical and experiential orientation, its non-dogmatism contrary to theosophic mystical interpretations popular at that time and still popular in New-Age discourse.

What Crowley does might be called using Derrida’s terms deconstruction of Indian yoga he met – it happened before Iyengar, Sivananda, and Desikachar had become popular names in the west or demystification for purely practical reasons – he needed concentration, he needed control over his senses, and he needs revelations, higher states, and ecstasy.

When Crowley speaks of the sixth limb of yoga, the dharana, control of senses, a philosopher might even find vulgurized similarities with Husserl’s epoche and phenomenologic Reduction in Crowley’s quest for pure, undeluded consciousness

At this point eclectics, syncretism, all-inclusivness, become the strong points of his system at least from the point of view of proseletizing and influencing on western culture. He mixes yoga with astrology, tantra with christianity, for the sake of comfort and understanding. In his view all religious systems have the same inner mystical core, hidden behind terrabytes of delusions, delirium, and senile wanderings of those systems’ old patriarchs. This works for him and for his followers.

Thus, put superstition and cultural fleur aside, for Crowley yoga becomes just a mental discipline. This approach suddenly looks quite similar to the interest of modern psychology of religion and modern neuroscience (like A.Newbergs). Using yoga Crowley had worked out his early intuitive, though quite rational methodology of working with altered states of mind induced or achieved by practicing psychotechnics.

Thus Crowley’s purposes in yoga were quite different from most of today’s western practitioners, who, according to reasent research do yoga mostly for health and fitness.

Crowley’s modifications to yoga:

Crowley didn’t like yoga in its flawing, relaxed Indian way. His practical teachings for his disciples are full of “must”, pain, forced control, overcoming, — things popular in branches of modern yoga that deal with body development, building muscle, etc. — This might be due to some masohist side of Crowley’s personality, or he might have thought that with forcing asanas, he might have gotten to quicker results.

Crowley rethinks in his own way the role and culture of guru: Guru is important, and no difficulties should stop the student from finding one. Yet, as Liber E states (Lib E. VII.5): “Let him further remember that he must in no wise rely upon, or believe in, that master. He must rely entirely upon himself, and credit nothing whatever but that which lies within his own knowledge and experience.” That’s for sure the victory of western scientific culture over millennia-long Hindu tradition.


Science-like methodology in “Magick in Theory and Practice”.

Another thing is what can be called “participant observation” in terms of modern cultural anthropology and ethnology, less so in sociology, communication studies. We know that Сrowley was acquainted with the works of Frezer, but probably none of later anthropologists. He taught his disciples that when doing Vishnuit yoga dress like vaishnava, act vegetarian, when do Shaiva, smoke ganja, when studying the practices of islam, quit eating pork…. He demanded diving into practices’s culture.

If we consider the Beast’s methodology to be something similar to participant observation like deWalts’s or Bronislav Malinovsky’s it’s interesting to see how Crowley tried to evade the risks of active and complete participation – I mean going native and loosing all objectivity – he insisted that the magicians strong will and self-control with his strive for higher religious aim, should turn off all the criticism during the experiment, but when the experiment in religion is over, the disciple should strip off all the guise, his mind and ego had gotten so used to, and be as rational, scientific and non-attached as at the faze of planning the experiment.

By the way, this approach is similar to the approach of another famous occultist of XXth century – Georgij Gurdjieff, who, when planning his trip to Kaaba decided to mask himself for a learned Muslim, and studied culture, dress, learned lots of Quran’s suras and hadises by heart, did all the practices required from a serious Muslim like namaz five times a day, etc.

What’s really interesting, Crowley’s attempt to use Eastern practices in esoteric Thelemic framework via scientific-like approach shows both his own and his system’s flexibility, ability to perceive and incorporate new techniques, experiment – a rather radical vision for his time’s esoteric thought, which relied more on European esoteric and Judeo-Christian religious traditions.

So, at this point the question should arise: does it have something to do with science or is it pseudo-science or parascience?

In his book Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley defined his Magick as “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will”.

Crowley saw Magick as a third way or even a bridge between religion and science/

Remember the moto of A.A: “our Method is Science; our Aim is Religion”. In his Equinox he expressed positive notions toward scientific method, though we don’t know did he believ he was doing something scientific or was just trolling. He was a careful reader of Frazer, and liked his view on magic as a precursor to science in a cultural evolution. Crowley believed that magic had to be adapted to suit the new age where science was becoming King.

Thus in relation to religious studies it looks like some parts of Crowley’s approach can be useful in what we call “practical religious studies” or anthropology. Or para- or pseudo-religious studies….

Using any part of Crowley’s “research” or “methodology” we should be careful and remember, that Crowley had never been a scientist in academic sense, and he had always reserved a place for maneuver either to make fun of his disciples or to use mystics and magic tinsel to shock them.

As for yoga, Crowley had it rebuilt for his own purposes. To understand it we need to have at least some glimpse into his personality. It’s not the purpose of my research but it seems that psychoanalysis might help. Crowley admitted that his Christian education in childhood had been a really traumatizing one. All of his biographers describe him as a man of violence, cruelty, and sometimes masochism. Note that as a homosexual Crowley used to act the passive role often and according to Israel Regardie, considered it to be a sort of self-punishment. His true life’s desire might have been what Stanislav and Christina Grof later labeled a “Thirst For Wholeness”.

Biographer Tobias Churton considered Crowley “a pioneer of consciousness research”. Crowley stormed higher states of consciousness with all the passion and immense energy he had. He used every psychotechnic he could find. Even his late years addiction to heroin can be understood from this angle – “Sir Aleister” had just found an “easy way”.

We know that besides Hindu yoga, Crowley plunged into Sufism, Buddhism, tantra. We are not going to analyse what he did with those traditions, but the pragmatic framework and scientific-likeness of his approach to these religions is same as with yoga.

Another notion that Crowley’s scientific discourse is important for is that it inspired scientific research of altered states – both in Academia and in esoteric and schizoteric circles all over.

Crowley has gained a really rebellious place in counterculture and he had set a trend. To be a cool magician you can do all kinds of traditional stuff, but you’ll be cooler and have more audience if you pay some homage to science.

Today ignoring science and its achievements becomes increasingly more difficult for all the mages, esoterics, and other occult people. Popular occult speakers and writers incorporate scientific discourse and concepts: psychology, quantum mechanics, and recently — neurosciences are very important in their discourses, they help sound professionally, often justifying pseudo- or parascience. Besides, both quantum mechanics and neurology are so complicated that noone except of professional physics and neurologists do really understand it, but still the hard science sounds really cool and hard to question of debate.

The one to blame for this was Crowley’s follower Robert Anton Wilson, who popularized simplified and “magified” interpretation of quantum mechanics among occultists and newagers.

So, is Crowley’s approach to yoga somehow important today?

More yes, than no. — Crowley’s “scientific” or pseudo-scientific approach to yoga can be perceived as set of empirical guidelines for getting to “mystical states of consciousness” via pure yoga; his parallels with other religions and traditions are still of interest in light of  search for common  basis for higher religious experiences in different psychetechnic traditions.

Like it or not, but  pragmatic, rationalist, and scientific-like methodology A.Crowley’s approach to yoga laid base for yoga’s perception of many serious modern practitioners in the West, and can still be of some interest as a stаrting point for modern consciousness-related research in anthropology, practical religious studies, neurology or psychology of religion.

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