Home / Health and Wellness / Yoga / Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Contributions to Modern Yoga


By Alex Hankey PhD


The future Maharishi Mahesh Yogi joined his Guru Dev, the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, as Bal Brahmachari Mahesh after graduating with a degree in physics from Allahabad  University at the end of the 1930’s, soon rising to be his Master’s secretary. Many years later he commented that the experience of working for his Master could be compared with that of an iron filing in an intense magnetic field – all those in his presence were automatically polarized by the force of his spirituality. His means of spiritual growth was simply service to his Master.

After his Master dropped the body in 1953, he followed his instructions to retire to the Himalayas and do sadhana in the town of Uttarkashi, after some time attaining a level of mental silence completely free of thought. Later, he was requested to give lectures in Trivandrum, when passing through the city on a pilgrimage in 1955. It was here that his teaching mission started, and for the next two years, he simply accepted all teaching invitations he received. This period culminated in his founding a world-wide movement to ‘spiritually regenerated mankind’ on 1st January 1958. Arriving in Rangoon in April of that year, some four months later, without having sent any word of his impending arrival, he was met by the representatives of a great Buddhist monk, who had had a dream of his impending arrival 12 months previously. Such were the circumstances surrounding Maharishi and his teaching that he would simply say, “It is not my doing, it is Nature’s.”

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Only such instances can account for the extraordinary reverence in which he was held. The great saints of the day like the acknowledged incarnation, Ananda Mayi Ma in Kolkata,  Tatwalla Baba in Rishikesh, and Lakshman-ju the head of Kashmiri Shaivism, all treating him as an equal. His teachings were always full of deepest insight, and the greatest simplicity, with instructions that can be easily understood and followed by anyone, a quality he himself attributed to his Param Guru, Dandi Sanyasi Swami Krishnananda Saraswati, whom his master had joined at hi ashram in Uttarkashi in the early 1880’s.  His teachings also had revolutionary aspects: that meditation is a simple and effortless process that anyone can do; that it does not and should not involve concentration; and that it benefits both the individual and wider society. His motto was, ‘Enlightenment to the individual; Invincibility for the Nation.’


Teaching the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique is set out as a professional seminar of an hour or more per day for some 5 or 6 days. The course sets out four basic reasons for practising the technique: development of full mental potential, achieving perfect health, ideal personal relationships, and helping create world peace. In all this it is thoroughly modern, but it is also traditional, since learning the technique involves Anugraha, a ceremony giving thanks to the tradition of Vedic Masters who have maintained the knowledge since time immemorial. As if justifying the creation of so many teachers to teach his programs, Maharishi remarked after creating several thousand, ‘Until now, everyone has been with me before’. In his translation and commentary on the traditional text of Yoga, Bhagavad Gita, Maharishi identified the key verse explaining his approach as II.45, containing the phrase, Yogasthah Kuru Karmani, which he translated as ‘Established in Yoga, perform action’ i.e. in the deepest level of conscious awareness within the mind, accessed and established by regular meditation. He also advised not to judge the success of meditation by experiences in meditation, but by the quality of activity, where everything should become smooth and easy, as illustrated by the instances of what he termed ‘Nature Support’, mentioned above. He also phrased much of his teaching in terms of ‘collective consciousness’, saying that meditation does not benefit just the meditator, but also family and friends, the surrounding community and the nation.


Another way that his teaching differed from others concerns the four kinds of Yoga named by Swami Vivekananda: Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Gyana Yoga. These he explained as four stages that practitioners of his Transcendental meditation would experience on the path to enlightenment. First, Raja Yoga, the regular practice of meditation, recommended as 20 minutes twice a day, applying to all stages of the path; second and simultaneously with the first, Karma Yoga, the alternation of meditation with activity in order to make the effects permanent. This he illustrated with the traditional image of alternately dipping a cloth in a tub full of dye, and then drying it in the sun – despite the bleaching effects, some of the dye is retained in a sun-proof form. When this stage is complete, and the meditator is established in the infinite, unbounded awareness, and only then, can Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion to God, begin. “God is infinite, and only the infinite can meaningfully surrender to the infinite”, Maharishi would say. The final stage of the path involves comprehending the all encompassing nature of the infinite, and for this Jnyana Yoga, the Yoga of knowledge, is given. The great sayings of the Upanishads, the ‘Mahavakyas’, such as ‘Aham tat’, are not mere philosophical statements, as supposed in all translations of the Vedas and Vedic literature, but means to help the meditator adapt to, and accommodate changes in quality of experience that occur on the higher levels of the path. This was illustrated by a meditator in 1973, who described his confusion on starting to experience the subtlety of unity, after amazing experiences in God consciousness. his confusion was resolved after being given the Mahavakya, ‘Tat tvam asi’, implying that what he had experienced first, as transcendental on the inside, was now dawning as the underlying field on the outside as well.


Maharishi was insistent that ‘ashtanga’ meant eight limbs as stated, and not eight steps, as often translated or stated by teachers of Yoga asanas. The eight limbs are divided into four external limbs, the ‘bahirangas’, and four internal limbs, or ‘antarangas’, but whereas all other approaches teach the external, bahiranga, limbs before the internal, antaranga, limbs. Maharishi taught the internal limbs first, only proceeding to the external limbs for those students keen enough to take more advanced, residential courses.

He made each limb exceptionally simple to perform, not even explaining that Patanjali, the composer of the Yoga Sutra text, describing the whole system had formally divided the process of meditation into four parts. His system of achieving Pratyahara, ‘turning the attention inwards’, forms the foundation of his procedure of ‘checking’ meditation, because as he emphasized, once the inward direction (or ‘right angle’) is obtained, everything proceeds automatically-effortlessly.

Similarly, for the sixth limb, Dharana, focusing the attention, his instruction guarantees a focus at a far deeper level than other systems. The Vedic tradition defines four levels of creation of sound, external (vocal), mental, conceptual and transcendental. The aim of Transcendental Meditation is to bring the meditator to the fourth level. Unique among systems taught today, the technique, correctly performed, starts its practitioner at the third level. Also unique to Maharishi’s system are specific instructions facilitating transitions to the fourth level, something that cannot happen when any effort or sense of concentration arises, consciously or even subliminally. Maharishi’s emphasis was always that meditation is an ‘innocent’ process, no expectations, no rationalization, and an attitude of trust.

His instructions concerning the inevitable occurrence of thoughts and trains of thought in meditation are highly comforting, allowing meditators to come to terms with this potentially difficult aspect of practice. They precisely follow the sequence of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Chapter 4, particularly Sutras 8-11 explaining purification of mind, Sutras 15-17 concerning qualities of thought, and Sutras 27,28 on the removal of deepest latent impressions in the mind. The result is a thorough understanding of traditional Yoga meditation practice, couching the ancient wisdom in an easy to understand modern form. Similar is Maharishi’s treatment of long-term effects of meditation based on a modern scientific treatment of Mandukhyopanishad, explaining the development of higher states of consciousness according to the ability to ‘witness’ the three normally experience states, waking, dreaming and deep sleep.

The result is a course that many people practice with full satisfaction without returning to a teacher for many years, though Maharishi recommended participation in group meditations at a local TM center at least once per month, or once a week if possible.

For teaching of further, possibly more advanced, practices Maharishi established residential courses, lasting from a two day weekend, to week-long or even month-long courses. For these he prepared audio and video lectures. He always emphasized when referring to them that the angas are ‘limbs’ and that the value and understanding of each grows in experiencing and understanding all eight together. For example, of ‘Satya’, ‘Truth’, one of the five Yamas, the first limb, he would say, the roots of the word satya are ‘sat’ (eternal) and ‘ya’, so the word means ‘that which is eternal’. ‘How can you understand the deep aspect of ‘Truth’ without experiencing timelessness in the eighth limb, Samadhi?’, he would ask. Limb 8 is necessary to begin to understand Limb 1. Similarly to be content and without desire, greed or the tendency to grasp for things, you must experience the state of eternal contentment that arises as the bliss of Samadhi begins to pervade the mind during outward activity. The Yamas (Limb 1) and Niyamas (Limb 2) are more criteria to judge the extent of a person’s progress, than injunctions on behavior and moral principles – useful as they may be as such. Indeed when asked for moral guidance, Maharishi would give two principles, ‘Never do what you know to be wrong’, and ‘Look to your tradition’. Also for weekend courses were three graded courses of Yoga asanas (Limb 3), and Pranayama (Limb 4), short periods of Sukha Pranayama.

For students keen to progress farther and faster, Maharishi developed his TM-Sidhi program based on Yoga Sutras Pada III. The process of transcending during Transcendental Meditation practice is such that, after only a few weeks of regular practice, the process of Samayama, defined as the simultaneous practice of Yoga limbs 6 to 8 together (Yoga Sutras III.4), is easily mastered. The purpose of the TM-Sidhi program is more to accelerate personal development and bring harmony-creating benefits to the surrounding society, than to develop the powers of mind described in Yoga Sutras, Pada III, though this does happen, particularly simple ones like, contentment in life and friendliness, compassion etc., all of supreme practical value when acting out in the world of professions and preferment. Its first purpose is to develop the capacity for Ritam-bhara-pragya, the state of intellect that can access any required information.

For those trained in Yoga practice in the west, where emphasis tends to be on Yoga postures (Asanas, Anga 3) and breathing (Pranayama, Anga 4), all this may seem surprising. Maharishi emphasized the value of these two Bahirangas as preparation for meditation, to make it deeper and smoother, and made them an integral part of his advanced programs, particularly the TM-Sidhi program. Later, he capped his three graded courses of Yoga asanas, with a superb 16 hour course, unlike anything else on the market. A key instruction is to use the phrase, ‘Sthiram Sukham’ from Yoga Sutras II.46, very precisely translated into one’s mother tongue – no easy task, on the level of Ritambhara. Nothing can compare with the improvement in the resulting subjective experience of asana practice. It takes a Maharishi to penetrate the depth of another Maharishi. As regards pranayama, he emphasized not using Kumbhaka (breath holding), and prescribed Sukha pranayama for relatively short periods (compared to systems based around pure Pranayama practice). Nevertheless his pranayama prescriptions make big differences to physical fitness and to subtle energy levels in the body, easily detectable by subtle energy practitioners.


  • Respect from Ananda Mayi Ma & other Saints
    • The Sadhus laughter – teach westerners to meditate in armchairs
  • Yoga Antarangas
    • Teach them first
    • Meditation for everyone
      • Four reasons for learning
    • Use of Grihasta techniques
      • Grihasta mantras
    • Explanations of
      • Pratyahara
      • Dharana and its significance
      • Dhyana
      • Samadhi – initial experience
      • Samyama
    • Explanations of the Bahirangas
      • General ethical instruction
        • Don’t do what you know to be wrong
        • Look to your own tradition
      • Commentary on Satya – the Eternal
        • Needs Samadhi to understand it
      • Instructions on Yoga asanas
      • Commentary on Pranayama
    • Scientific Research
      • Major Findings
        • EEG synchrony & coherence
        • Breath Stoppage
          • Criteria for transcendence
        • Decease in dominant Alpha frequency
        • Decrease in hearing thresholds
        • Decrease in blood pressure
        • Decrease in ill-health
      • Collective consciousness
        • The Maharishi Effect
        • Creation of World Peace
      • Yagyas – need to recite the Vedic mantras from para
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