June 21st has been declared the International Yoga Day by the United Nations. While it may be gratifying to see the word yoga enter the mainstream, a little elaboration of this ancient mystic practice is warranted. Yoga, like every powerful word, can be understood and interpreted in various ways and at different levels.
For the modern mind, largely shaped under the western influence, oriented towards the body, it’s health and beauty and the greater capacity for the enjoyment of life that it brings, so the word yoga is often associated with a set of exercises for physical fitness. To a slightly more intellectual humanity yoga implies not only physical but also mental health, a state of harmony between the mind and the body. Now all this is good and naturally appealing to the average human being who seeks to make his life better within the existing human frame. But the field and range of yoga goes far beyond the territories of the mind and the body and by doing so it brings a new dynamism and a new power of transformation into the very operations of the present limited human formula of our existence.
It is more than a co-incidence that 21st June is also the day when the start of a new journal “Arya” was announced. It was a monthly review brought out by Sri Aurobindo with nearly 64 pages every month running for over 5 years. The journal was to open the doors to a new conception of life and yoga born out of Sri Aurobindo’s own spiritual experience. On the very first page of one of the serialised writings later published as a book titled ‘The Synthesis of Yoga” he wrote:
Indian Yoga, in its essence a special action or formulation of certain great powers of Nature, itself specialised, divided and variously formulated, is potentially one of these dynamic elements of the future life of humanity. The child of immemorial ages, preserved by its vitality and truth into our modern times, it is now emerging from the secret schools and ascetic retreats in which it had taken refuge and
is seeking its place in the future sum of living human powers and utilities. But it has first to rediscover itself, bring to the surface the profoundest reason of its being in that general truth and that unceasing aim of Nature which it represents, and find by virtue of this new self-knowledge and self-appreciation its own recovered and larger synthesis. Reorganising itself, it will enter more easily and powerfully into the reorganised life of the race which its processes claim to lead within into the most secret penetralia and upward to the highest altitudes of existence and personality. [CWSA 23:5-6]
Sri Aurobindo defined yoga a means of conscious evolution. Of all the creatures upon earth, it is man alone who has been given this joy and privilege of participating consciously in his own evolution. This is partly because man has developed a subjective being within him that gives him the sense of a unique individual self that seeks naturally to somehow discover and become one with the Self of the Universe. The second reason is that Nature has released in man the capacity of self-reflection and thereby progress and change, which is absent in animals and other creations below man. Ordinarily this process of change through which man improves his life, and within the boundaries of humanity is termed education. By yoga he seeks to progress to exceed these boundaries set by nature and thereby bring into play new and latent powers and forces and energies to transform his life into a larger spiritual and diviner life.
Sri Aurobindo gives us a widest possible view of yoga demystifying it and at once ennobling it to the highest possible ideal that man can envisage. At the turn of the previous century he wrote:
In the right view both of life and of Yoga all life is either consciously or subconsciously a Yoga. For we mean by this term a methodised effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the secret potentialities latent in the being and—highest condition of victory in that effort—a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos. But all life, when we look behind its appearances, is a vast Yoga of Nature who attempts in the conscious and the subconscious to realise her perfection in an ever-increasing expression of her yet unrealised potentialities and to unite herself with her own divine reality. In man, her thinker, she for the first time upon this Earth devises self-conscious means and willed arrangements of activity by which this great purpose may be more swiftly and puissantly attained.
Yoga, as Swami Vivekananda has said, may be regarded as a means of compressing one’s evolution into a single life or a few years or even a few months of bodily existence. A given system of Yoga, then, can be no more than a selection or a compression, into narrower but more energetic forms of intensity, of the general methods which are already being used loosely, largely, in a leisurely movement, with a profuser apparent waste of material and energy but with a more complete combination by the great Mother in her vast upward labour. It is this view of Yoga that can alone form the basis for a sound and rational synthesis of Yogic methods. For then Yoga ceases to appear something mystic and abnormal which has no relation to the ordinary processes of the World-Energy or the purpose she keeps in view in her two great movements of subjective and objective self-fulfilment; it reveals itself rather as an intense and exceptional use of powers that she has already manifested or is progressively organising in her less exalted but more general operations. [CWSA 23:7]
Essentially yoga is concentrated evolution. It is born out of the fire of aspiration in awakened humanity to exceed our human limitations and discover new possibilities and potentials latent within us. When man turns towards the discovery of understanding the world and nature outside and the latent possibilities entangled within the phenomenon, then we see the birth of Science. When man turns his gaze inwards, towards the inner worlds and psycho-physical nature to understand and discover new possibilities and potentials asleep within our complex physical and psychological apparatus, then Yoga is born. This does not mean that the two, Science and Yoga are antagonistic. They are simply two different ways of looking at Reality. Science based on the study of matter uses our natural instruments of sensory observation, rational analysis to study objective phenomenon, only to discover that all our experience is at its bottom subjective. Yoga based on the study of our intricate psychology exploring the possibility of upgrading our senses as well as mental processes and potentials by exploring our subjective side discovers that the entire universe, including the material is the objectivisation of the highest Subjective Self that we can know and become. This highest Self is called by different names and the object of yoga was to unite our little self, entrapped in the ego and its habitual workings with the highest Self in us. Yoga thereby justifies its name which means to unite, to yoke, to join the lesser with the greater, the limited with the limitless, the finite with the Infinite, the temporal with the Eternal, the transient with the Permanent.
The various forms of yoga can be arranged hierarchically, almost on an evolutionary scale. The lowest in the order naturally is Hathayoga since its focus is primarily on the body and the breath, the highest is the adhyatmayoga that focuses primarily on our spiritual being. In between we find the different forms of yoga taking up one aspect or the other of the mind and its processes such as thought and feeling, will and concentration. Sri Aurobindo who had pursued every form of yoga to its utmost limits reveals to us in a concise way the central truths underlying the various systems of yoga. But first revealing its great usefulness not only for individual but the collective emancipation of mankind he wrote.
It is only India that can discover the harmony, because it is only by a change—not a mere readjustment—of man’s present nature that it can be developed, and such a change is not possible except by yoga. The nature of man and of things is at present a discord, a harmony that has got out of tune. The whole heart and action and mind of man must be changed, but from within, not from without, not by political and social institutions, not even by creeds and philosophies, but by realisation of God in ourselves and the world and a remoulding of life by that realisation. This can only be effected by Purnayoga, a yoga not devoted to a particular purpose, even though that purpose be Mukti or Ananda, but to the fulfilment of the divine humanity in ourselves and others. For this purpose the practices of Hatha and Raja Yoga are not sufficient and even the Trimarga will not serve; we must go higher and resort to the Adhyatmayoga. [CWSA 13:73-74]
With the clarity of someone who has gone into the very depth and details of yogic lore through direct experience he reveals the core principles of the different yogic systems, their fruits as well as limitations in one of his most comprehensive works on yoga titled The Synthesis of Yoga.
We perceive that as Hathayoga, dealing with the life and body, aims at the supernormal perfection of the physical life and its capacities and goes beyond it into the domain of the mental life, so Rajayoga, operating with the mind, aims at a supernormal perfection and enlargement of the capacities of the mental life and goes beyond it into the domain of the spiritual existence. But the weakness of the system lies in its excessive reliance on abnormal states of trance. […]
The triple Path of devotion, knowledge and works attempts the province which Rajayoga leaves unoccupied. It differs from Rajayoga in that it does not occupy itself with the elaborate training of the whole mental system as the condition of perfection, but seizes on certain central principles, the intellect, the heart, the will, and seeks to convert their normal operations by turning them away from their ordinary and external preoccupations and activities and concentrating them on the Divine. It differs also in this, — and here from the point of view of an integral Yoga there seems to be a defect, — that it is indifferent to mental and bodily perfection and aims only at purity as a condition of the divine realisation. […]
The Path of Knowledge aims at the realisation of the unique and supreme Self. It proceeds by the method of intellectual reflection, vicara, to right discrimination, viveka. It observes and distinguishes the different elements of our apparent or phenomenal being and rejecting identification with each of them arrives at their exclusion and separation in one common term as constituents of Prakriti, of phenomenal Nature, creations of Maya, the phenomenal consciousness. So it is able to arrive at its right identification with the pure and unique Self which is not mutable or perishable, not determinable by any phenomenon or combination of phenomena. From this point the path, as ordinarily followed, leads to the rejection of the phenomenal worlds from the consciousness as an illusion and the final immergence without return of the individual soul in the Supreme. […]
The Path of Devotion aims at the enjoyment of the supreme Love and Bliss and utilises normally the conception of the supreme Lord in His personality as the divine Lover and enjoyer of the universe. The world is then realised as a play of the Lord, with our human life as its final stage, pursued through the different phases of self-concealment and self-revelation. The principle of Bhakti Yoga is to utilise all the normal relations of human life into which emotion enters and apply them no longer to transient worldly relations, but to the joy of the All-Loving, the All-Beautiful and the All-Blissful. Worship and meditation are used only for the preparation and increase of intensity of the divine relationship. And this Yoga is catholic in its use of all emotional relations, so that even enmity and opposition to God, considered as an intense, impatient and perverse form of Love, is conceived as a possible means of realisation and salvation. This path, too, as ordinarily practised, leads away from world existence to an absorption, of another kind than the Monist’s, in the Transcendent and Supra-cosmic. […]
The Path of Works aims at the dedication of every human activity to the supreme Will. It begins by the renunciation of all egoistic aim for our works, all pursuit of action for an interested aim or for the sake of a worldly result. By this renunciation it so purifies the mind and the will that we become easily conscious of the great universal Energy as the true doer of all our actions and the Lord of that Energy as their ruler and director with the individual as only a mask, an excuse, an instrument or, more positively, a conscious centre of action and phenomenal relation. The choice and direction of the act is more and more consciously left to this supreme Will and this universal Energy. To That our works as well as the results of our works are finally abandoned. The object is the release of the soul from its bondage to appearances and to the reaction of phenomenal activities. Karmayoga is used, like the other paths, to lead to liberation from phenomenal existence and a departure into the Supreme.
We observe, first, that there still exists in India a remarkable Yogic system which is in its nature synthetical and starts from a great central principle of Nature, a great dynamic force of Nature; but it is a Yoga apart, not a synthesis of other schools. This system is the way of the Tantra. […]
We have in this central Tantric conception one side of the truth, the worship of the Energy, the Shakti, as the sole effective force for all attainment. We get the other extreme in the Vedantic conception of the Shakti as a power of Illusion and in the search after the silent inactive Purusha as the means of liberation from the deceptions created by the active Energy. […]
The eventual omnipotence of Tapas and the infallible fulfilment of the Idea are the very foundation of all Yoga. In man we render these terms by Will and Faith,—a will that is eventually self-effective because it is of the substance of Knowledge and a faith that is the reflex in the lower consciousness of a Truth or real Idea yet unrealised in the manifestation. It is this self-certainty of the Idea which is meant by the Gita when it says, yo yac-chraddhah sa eva sah, “whatever is a man’s faith or the sure Idea in him, that he becomes.” CWSA 23:37-44
Having experienced the truths of the different systems of yoga, Sri Aurobindo was not satisfied in his yogic seeking with partial and limited approaches or any one-sided realization that comes through yoga. He embodied a world-wide seeking since his yoga was not just an effort towards individual liberation but also towards the collective emancipation of the human race itself. It is this widest possible view of yoga, this largest possible goal that he set for himself and for humanity for the coming millenniums that truly ushers in a new age and finds a deepest resonance in man’s aspiration towards the perfectibility of the human race. While developing a new system of yoga called by various names such as Integral Yoga, Supramental Yoga, Yoga of Transformation, he revealed:
All Yoga starts from the perception that what we are now or rather what we perceive as ourselves and so call is only an ignorant partial and superficial formulation of our nature. It is not our whole self, it is not even our real self; it is a little representative personality put forward by the true and persistent being in us for the experience of this brief life; we not only have been in the past and can be in the future but we are much more than that in the present secret totality of our being and nature. [CWSA 12: 345]
What is the integral Yoga?
It is the way of a complete God-realisation, a complete Self-realisation, a complete fulfilment of our being and consciousness, a complete transformation of our nature, – and this implies a complete perfection of life here and not only a return to an eternal perfection elsewhere.
This is the object, but in the method also there is the same integrality, for the entirety of the object cannot be accomplished without an entirety in the method, a complete turning, opening, self-giving of our being and nature in all its parts, ways, movements to that which we realise.
Our mind, will, heart, life, body, our outer and inner and inmost existence, our superconscious and subconscious as well as our conscious parts, must all be thus given, must all become a means, a field of this realisation and transformation and participate in the illumination and the change from a human into a divine consciousness and nature.
This is the character of the integral Yoga. [CWSA 12: 358]
The supramental Yoga is at once an ascent of the soul towards God and a descent of the Godhead into the embodied nature.
The ascent demands a one-centred all-gathering aspiration of soul and mind and life and body upward, the descent a call of the whole being towards the infinite and eternal Divine. If this call and this aspiration are there and if they grow constantly and seize all the nature, then and then only its supramental transformation becomes possible.
There must be an opening and surrender of the whole nature to receive and enter into a greater divine consciousness which is there already above, behind and englobing this mortal half conscious existence. There must be too an increasing capacity to bear an ever stronger and more insistent action of the divine Force, till the soul has become a child in the hands of the infinite Mother. All other means known to other Yoga can be used and are from time to time used as subordinate processes in this Yoga too, but they are impotent without these greater conditions, and, once these are there, they are not indispensable.
In the end it will be found that this Yoga cannot be carried through to its end by any effort of mind, life and body, any human psychological or physical process but only by the action of the supreme Shakti. But her way is at once too mysteriously direct and outwardly intricate, too great, too complete and subtle to be comprehensively followed, much more to be cut out and defined into a formula by our human intelligence.
Man cannot by his own effort make himself more than man, but he can call down the divine Truth and its power to work in him. A descent of the Divine Nature can alone divinise the human receptacle. Self-surrender to a supreme transmuting Power is the key-word of the Yoga.
This divinisation of the nature of which we speak is a metamorphosis, not a mere growth into some kind of superhumanity, but a change from the falsehood of our ignorant nature into the truth of God-nature. […]
The object of this Yoga is not to liberate the soul from Nature, but to liberate both soul and nature by sublimation into the Divine Consciousness from whom they came.
The aim of the ordinary Yoga is to liberate the soul from Nature or, perhaps sometimes, to liberate the soul in Nature.
Our aim is to liberate both soul and nature into the Divine. [364-366]
Our Yoga is a Yoga of transformation, but a transformation of the whole consciousness and the whole nature from the top to the bottom, from its hidden inward parts to its most tangible external movements. It is neither an ethical change nor a religious conversion, neither sainthood nor ascetic control, neither a sublimation nor a suppression of the life and vital movements that we envisage, nor is it either a glorification or a coercive control or rejection of the physical existence. What is envisaged is a change from a lesser to a greater, from a lower to a higher, from a surface to a deeper consciousness-indeed to the largest, highest, deepest possible and a total change and revolution of the whole being in its stuff and mass and every detail into that yet unrealised diviner nature of existence. 
In the end and with the coming of the Mother, all these different sides and aspects of his vast yoga of the soul and nature in man fused into one single beautiful word that henceforth became the key to the path and the goal of his yoga, – the Mother. He revealed in one his essays on the Path.
Man cannot by his own effort make himself more than man; the mental being cannot by his own unaided force change himself into a supramental spirit. A descent of the Divine Nature can alone divinise the human receptacle. […]
Self-surrender to the divine and infinite Mother, however difficult, remains our only effective means and our sole abiding refuge. Self-surrender to her means that our nature must be an instrument in her hands, the soul a child in the arms of the Mother. [CWSA 12:170-171]