Yoga Harnesses and Amplifies Nature’s Capacities

We tend to take for granted the advances of modern science in the material world. We harness invisible forces and thereby have the benefit of electricity and all of the technology that is enabled by it. Similarly, we harness solar, wind, water and geothermal power to create energy. We communicate around the world instantaneously through wireless signals on the internet, mobile phones and television. We fly through the air at tremendous speed in vehicles which are heavier than air. All these things represent the harnessing by human concentration and focus of various capacities inherent in Nature. We dig out these secrets, organize the information we have gained, and then put the information to work for our needs in the outer life.

Similarly, the practice of yoga also seeks to understand and harness, not necessarily the purely material forces in the outer world, but the powers of mind, emotion and the nervous-vital sheath and the physical body to enhance the native powers of concentration, and develop latent capacities that simply need focus and attention to be brought forth, similar to what we see in the physical sciences.

Yoga has been unduly mystified through the ages by being made to appear to be something outside of the normal capacities of Nature. Sri Aurobindo takes exception to this approach: “All methods grouped under the common name of Yoga are special psychological processes founded on a fixed truth of Nature and developing, out of normal functions, powers and results which were always latent but which her ordinary movements do not easily or do not often manifest.”

“Rajayoga, for instance, depends on this perception and experience that our inner elements, combinations, functions, forces, can be separated or dissolved, can be new-combined and set to novel and formerly impossible workings or can be transformed and resolved into a new general synthesis by fixed internal processes. Hathayoga similarly depends on this perception and experience that the vital forces and functions to which our life is normally subjected and whose ordinary operations seem set and indispensable, can be mastered and the operations changed or suspected with results that would otherwise be impossible and that seem miraculous to those who have not seized the rationale of their process.”

“Yogic methods have something of the same relation to the customary psychological workings of man as has the scientific handling of the natural force of electricity or of steam to the normal operations of steam and of electricity. And they, too, are formed upon a knowledge developed and informed by regular experiment, practical analysis and constant result.”

As humanity expands its search for the motive springs of human action and conscious awareness, we see Western science move ever closer to achieving a common understanding with the core principles of Yoga, and we see practices such as various forms of biofeedback, mind and motivational training and even the focused intensity practiced by top-tier athletes for bringing the individual into what is called “the zone”, a mind-state that optimizes human potential in action.

The principles of Yoga clearly have stood the test of time and provide relevance for the future evolutionary development of humanity in its next stage, not as something mystical or abnormal, but rather, as a science grounded in the basic and fundamental powers of Nature as they strive to manifest in higher forms over time.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 1, Life and Yoga, pg. 3


The Yoga of Nature and Yoga’s Specialised Applications in Human Development

Normally when we think of “yoga” we consider it to be some specific set of specialised practices used by an individual for achieving benefits for physical health, stress reduction or spiritual development. Sri Aurobindo, however, asks us to take a step back to look at yoga in its broader and more general sense, with the following definition: “…a methodised effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the potentialities latent in the being and a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos.”

This very broad definition implies that all life, the entire evolutionary development of Nature, is in fact a process which can be called “the yoga of Nature”. The development through successive stages of Matter, then into the evolution of plant and then animal life, represents this process, which accelerates and becomes “self-conscious” when it enters into the various stages of human development.

“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.” This bridges the general “yoga of Nature” with the more intense, focused efforts that can be made by the self-aware human seeker.

Any specific yogic system, then, is the selection and application of one or more specific powers or movements available to the seeker to encourage, speed up and enhance what otherwise might take millennia to evolve in the natural order. “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.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 1, Life and Yoga, pg. 2

The Relevance of Yoga in the Modern Age Is Being Tested

The challenge of modern society with the speed of change, the technological developments that bring about virtually instantaneous global communication and interaction, and the issues that arise as humanity tries to determine what direction to take and what its purpose for living may indeed be, has raised the question of relevance for all traditional teachings, religions and societies.

The practice of yoga, with a history going back thousands of years is also being challenged to demonstrate its relevance in the modern world, and at the same time, to adapt these practices to the circumstances and needs of modern time.

Sri Aurobindo described the situation early in the 20th century in a manner that remains fully accurate today: “We are in an age, full of the throes of travail, when all forms of thought and activity that have in themselves any strong power of utility or any secret virtue of persistence are being subjected to a supreme test and given their opportunity of rebirth. The world to-day presents the aspect of a huge cauldron of Medea in which all things are being cast, shredded into pieces, experimented on, combined and recombined either to perish and provide the scattered material of new forms or to emerge rejuvenated and changed for a fresh term of existence. 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.”

Yoga has developed over the course of ages with many highly specialised paths and practices for the purpose of harnessing and uplifting the various powers of human life. Yoga, in order to remain relevant, has to show itself capable of providing real value to modern humanity in addressing the need for meaning, and the requirement to adapt to the stresses and issues put upon it by the technological age in which we live. The essential core purpose and message of the yogic tradition is being restated for the modern mind, and at the same time, the practices of yoga are being adapted to the needs of modern life. The result is a refreshing of the yogic tradition, a “rebirth” of yoga into new and modern forms, and a broadening of the active role that yoga can play in today’s world to help mankind survive the crises that it is facing.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 1, Life and Yoga, pp. 1-2

Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s The Synthesis of Yoga

In The Synthesis of Yoga Sri Aurobindo unfolds his vision of an integral (also called “purna” or “complete”) yoga embracing all the powers and activities of man. He provides an overview of the main paths of yoga, their primary methodologies and the necessity for integrating them into a complete, all-embracing and all-encompassing activity. The motto “All Life Is Yoga” is the theme of this text.

Sri Aurobindo points out that this is not intended as a fixed methodology: “The Synthesis of Yoga was not meant to give a method for all to follow. Each side of the Yoga was dealt with separately with all its possibilities, and an indication as to how they meet so that one starting from knowledge could realise Karma and Bhakti also and so with each path.” (pg. 899)

The final section begins to flesh out an integrative method which Sri Aurobindo called the “yoga of self-perfection”. While all the details of this approach were not completed to the extent desired, Sri Aurobindo has provided ample guidelines for the seeker to understand the direction and the path.

It is our goal to take up the systematic review of The Synthesis of Yoga in the following pages. All page number citations in this review are based on the U.S. edition of The Synthesis of Yoga published by Lotus Press, EAN: 978-0-9415-2465-0 Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga

Chapter headings and organization of the material follow The Synthesis of Yoga.


We have completed our review of the second series of Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, although brief in compass, is vast in scope. It addresses the human condition in a very real and direct manner, starting from the conflicting answers provided by our philosophical, ethical, moral, social and personal values to the very complex and tangled situations we face while trying to survive in the world.

Arjuna is the representative of the leading values of human existence. He has been educated in the highest principles of his time and he combines the ability to focus with utmost concentration and discipline with a sensitivity to the moral and ethical values that have formed the core of his judgments about how to respond to life.

The Gita has placed this individual in a situation where none of his past guidelines or rules of action are any longer of value. By carrying out one line of action, he supports the values of that direction while concurrently destroying other values. To protect the social order he has been asked to take action that will wrench that very fibres of that social order! He clearly needs and craves new guidance, and thus, the Gita is able to address him by providing a new approach which avoids the trenchant oppositions of the mental framework that demands “either/or” solutions, by showing him that these opposites are actually part of a larger unified whole and a greater harmony. In order to act from this new standpoint, he must move beyond the limitations of his background, education, training and mental framework. Thus, the yoga of the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita remains relevant today because it addresses issues and conflicts we face every day in our lives. We are also asked to sort out conflicting values and make judgment calls that are less than satisfying. We are asked to live our lives in a world that seemingly has stripped a lot of significance out of it, reducing life into some kind of mechanical existence, a fight for survival or a field of enjoyment, without recognizing the deeper significance and the greater opportunities available to us if we try to become the best and highest we can be, using the utmost of our born human capabilities and then finding a way to exceed even these best and highest manifestations of human endeavor.

The Gita however is much more than a philosophical treatise; it delves into the details of how action occurs and dissects for us in a very precise way the operation of the modes or Gunas of Nature. This is essential information for anyone trying to make sense of action in the world and searching for a way to respond more effectively to challenges.

The knowledge provided by the Gita takes on its ultimate value when we actually begin to try to see, observe and practice this teaching through transference of our viewpoint, our very standpoint of living, from the human to the divine standpoint. This is the ultimate secret communicated by the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita translates for a more modern humanity the ancient teachings found in the Vedas and especially in the Upanishads. Those ancient texts, revered as repositories of wisdom, have been very much closed books to us because their cryptic and symbolic language had been lost to our modern mind and methods of understanding. The Gita helps us bridge that gap.

Sri Aurobindo has done an outstanding service to us here by systematically and in detail taking up the entire step by step progression of the Gita’s exposition, showing us both the “big picture” and the fine details along the way, while keeping us focused on the essentials that the Gita is trying to communicate. He found that the Gita is not solely a text for any particular path of yoga, but was rather a synthetic attempt to take up, reshape and reformulate each of the various paths and methodologies, to organize and put them in their right place in the scheme of things, and thereby harmonize and uplift them rather than place them in opposition with one another.

The Gita’s method is in fact an illustration of its central teaching; that is, to move from the limited, fragmented, “black and white” approach of the linear mental consciousness, to an embracing, global and holistic approach of the divine consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita

The Deepest Truth of the Real, Spiritual Existence

The image of the eternal Ashwattha Tree, with its roots above, and branches and leaves down below, is symbolic of the truth of the spiritual nature. While the human consciousness ordinarily experiences and sees the world from the viewpoint of a limited being rooted in the material and vital realm, with little or no experience of or connection to the spiritual consciousness, the reality is quite other. When we finally transition our conscious awareness to the spiritual existence, and begin to see and act from that standpoint, the significance of our lives and actions is completely transformed.

Sri Aurobindo describes the results of this transformation: “The cycles of incarnation and the fear of mortality will not distress you; for here in life you will have accomplished the expression of the Godhead, and your soul, even though it has descended into mind and body, will already be living in the vast eternity of the Spirit.”

The transformation is brought about by “this complete surrender of your whole self and nature, this abandonment of all Dharmas to the Divine who is your highest Self, this absolute aspiration of all your members to the supreme spiritual nature.”

When this occurs, the individual is no longer separate, isolated, fragmented and limited. He becomes one with the Supreme. “A supreme Presence within you will take up your Yoga and carry it swiftly along the lines of your Swabhava to its consummate completion. And afterwards whatever your way of life and mode of action, you will be consciously living, acting and moving in him and the Divine Power will act through you in your every inner and outer motion. This is the supreme way because it is the highest secret and mystery and yet an inner movement progressively realisable by all. This is the deepest and most intimate truth of your real, your spiritual existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pp. 574-575

Relinquishing Responsibility For Works To the Divine

The idea of surrendering responsibility and control of one’s works from the ego-personality to the Divine is one that can only be truly implemented once a certain separation of the consciousness from the ego-personality and the play of the Gunas has actually occurred. That is why the Gita sets forth a series of steps rather than simply prescribing this initially. Abandonment of the fruits helps the seeker to prepare himself for abandoning the sense of being the “doer”. The action of the three Gunas is still primary as long as one remains even slightly attached to the ego-consciousness, and thus, there can be a form of tamasic surrender which simply gives up any attempt whatsoever to manage or discipline the actions of the being, and thus, the excuse of the divine being responsible for all works, in such a case, is a cover for tamasic ego-fulfilment. Similarly, there can be a rajasic surrender whereby the being takes on any form of fulfillment of desires and ambitions with the excuse that it is the divine working through the instrument. And a sattwic form whereby one can arrogate from a form of sattwic pride, the actions, the successes and the developments to the divine as a way of enhancing one’s personal feeling of achievement!

Sri Aurobindo points out the importance of achieving the foundational basis: “And when you are once able to do that sincerely, that will be the moment to renounce the initiation of your acts without exception into the hands of the supreme Godhead within you.”

The nature of this eventual change is to shift all initiation, all action, all responsibility and all results to the divine, working through the individual instrument as a nexus or opportunity of action. At this point, the entire issue of “sin and virtue” becomes essentially irrelevant. “The Divine Power and Presence within you will free you from sin and evil and lift you far above human standards of virtue. For you will live and act in the absolute and spontaneous right and purity of the spiritual being and the divine nature. The Divine and not you will enact his own will and works through you, not for your lower personal pleasure and desire, but for the world-purpose and for your divine good and the manifest or secret good of all.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pg. 574

Swabhava and Swadharma As the True Basis of Action

When we understand the mechanism of the outer Nature and the impact of the Gunas on the action that we are steered or driven to undertake, it becomes quite clear that we have not yet discovered the true basis of action. Sri Aurobindo points out that it is necessary to identify with the inner being: “The real truth of all this action of Prakriti is, however, less outwardly mental and more inwardly subjective. It is this that man is an embodied soul involved in material and mental nature and he follows in it a progressive law of his development determined by an inner law of his being; his cast of spirit makes out his cast of mind and life, his Swabhava. Each man has a Swadharma, a law of his inner being which he must observe, find out and follow. The action determined by his inner nature, that is his real Dharma. To follow it is the true law of his development; to deviate from it is to bring in confusion, retardation and error.”

We see here, then, that we can discover our true nature of being and acting by focusing on and identifying our Swabhava and Swadharma, and then acting in accordance with them, regardless of what our mind and vital reaction to the outer forms, forces and actions may be.

There is a period of time when we have come to identify in consciousness with our true inner self, that the outer nature still acts based on its habitual patterns and remains thus linked to the action of the three Gunas; however, this is something that we observe and treat it as the sacrifice to the Master as Sri Aurobindo has described: “It is true that even when you have found yourself and live in your self, your nature will still continue on its old lines and act for a time according to its inferior modes. But now you can follow that action with a perfect self-knowledge and can make of it a sacrifice to the Master of your existence.”

The difference that arises is we no longer identify with these things from the point of view of the ego-personality. “Reject all motive of egoism, all initiation by self-will, all rule of desire, until you can make the complete surrender of all the ways of your being to the Supreme.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pp. 573-574

The Three Gunas and Action In the World

The Gita spends a considerable amount of time describing and explaining the operation of the three Gunas of Nature. This is so because it is extremely useful for the seeker to understand how the “machinery” of Nature works and drives the choices and results of what the ego-personality tends to consider to be the action of “free will”. True free will does not operate until the soul is identified with the Supreme Person, the Purushottama.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the role of each of the Gunas in the action of the individual: “Man in his natural being is a sattwic, rajasic and tamasic creature of Nature. According as one or other of her qualities predominates in him, he makes and follows this or that law of his life and action.”

“His tamasic, material, sensational mind subject to inertia and fear and ignorance either obeys partly the compulsion of its environment and partly the spasmodic impulses of its desires or finds a protection in the routine following of a dully customary intelligence.”

“The rajasic mind of desire struggles with the world in which it lives and tries to possess always new things, to command, battle, conquer, create, destroy, accumulate. Always it goes forward tossed between success and failure, joy and sorrow, exultation or despair. But in all, whatever law it may seem to admit, it follows really only the law of the lower self and ego, the restless, untired, self-devouring and all-devouring mind of the Asuric and Rakshasic nature.”

“The sattwic intelligence surmounts partly this state, sees that a better law than that of desire and ego must be followed and erects and imposes on itself a social, an ethical, a religious rule, a Dharma, a Shastra. This is as high as the ordinary mind of man can go, to erect an ideal or practical rule for the guidance of the mind and will and as faithfully as possible observe it in life and conduct.”

As the human individual evolves, eventually the highest sattwic level gets to the point where the individual attempts to act from a fully disinterested viewpoint for the greater good, and the being is prepared for the transition to the new divine standpoint, beyond the limits of the Gunas entirely.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pp. 572-573

The Solution to the Problem of Human Action

The problem of human action has troubled humanity for thousands of years. On the one side, we have what we call our animal nature, with our desires, as well as instincts, that drive action toward the attainment of various fruits of our efforts. In addition, however, we have an internal sense that there must be a greater meaning to our lives, and that we are other and different than the grasping, desire-filled ego-personality trying to achieve satisfaction through acquisition of material or vital results for our lives. We then experience a sense that our aspirations and dreams reflect one reality, while in the outer world we remain limited, bound and filled with suffering and struggle. The disconnect between our outer sense of bondage to the limitations of the world and our desires and the inner sense of independence and freedom, even mastery over the life we are living, leads to the search for a deeper meaning and a seeking for Truth, for God, for the Soul, for freedom and mastery.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the yoga recommended by the Gita actually provides the radical solution to this problem: “This high consummation of the Yoga will at once solve or rather it will wholly remove and destroy at its roots the problem of action.”

“His imperfections can cease only when he knows himself, knows the real nature of the world in which he lives and, most of all, knows the Eternal from whom he comes and in whom and by whom he exists. When he has once achieved a true consciousness and knowledge, there is no longer any problem; for then he acts freely out of himself and lives spontaneously in accordance with the truth of his spirit and his highest nature. At its fullest, at the highest height of this knowledge it is not he who acts but the Divine, the One eternal and infinite who acts in him and through him in his liberated wisdom and power and perfection.”

The radical solution, then, is to move the standpoint of the consciousness away from the human mental being and the ego-personality, to the divine standpoint that participates in the world manifestation as the immanent Divine.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pg. 572