The Esoteric Purpose of Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga is seen today primarily as a course of exercise, intended to make the body supple and flexible, and thereby to enhance health and well-being. Yoga, as it is called in the West, has been touted for its ability to help one lose weight as well as improve the functioning of the body. For most people, this is what is meant by the term “yoga” and they do not appreciate the hidden intention behind the development of this science.

Sri Aurobindo provides insight to the true goal of Hatha Yoga: “Hathayoga aims at the conquest of the life and the body whose combination in the food sheath and the vital vehicle constitutes, as we have seen, the gross body and whose equilibrium is the foundation of all Nature’s workings in the human being.”

It goes far beyond this starting point. Sri Aurobindo explains that the body and its vital vehicle are set up functionally in the human being to provide a basis for the energy required to live a normal life on a more or less stable basis for a certain relatively fixed period of time. Because the aim of Yoga entails a dramatically higher intensity of energy, the Hatha Yogin focuses not solely on optimizing the normal functionality of the body, but rather, works to enhance the capacities to far exceed the usual case.

“Hathayoga therefore seeks to rectify Nature and establish another equilibrium by which the physical frame will be able to sustain the inrush of an increasing vital or dynamic force of Prana indefinite, almost infinite in its quantity or intensity.”

Even normal amounts of energy are difficult for most people to bear, and they find they must move, dissipate, off-load their excess energy (or tranquilize the energy in the course of their daily lives). The energy available to the advanced Yogin is far more intense and the body must be prepared to hold this energy and not “spill” it. The illustration frequently used is the “unbaked jar” which cannot hold the water poured into it. The “baking” of the “jar” in this case involves finding ways to increasing the holding and carrying capacity of the energy in a steadfast and calm manner.

“In Hathayoga, the equilibrium opens a door to the universalisation of the individual vitality by admitting into the body, containing, using and controlling a much less fixed and limited action of the universal energy.”

As progress is made in the practice of Yoga, the body becomes stable, balanced and solid as a basis for virtually any amount of new energy that descends into it. The increased health and radiant glow that most people seek in practicing Yoga in the West is actually a very early and relatively minor result of the practice as it was developed over its long history.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pp. 28-29

Overview of the Various Paths of Yoga

By taking an overview of the various paths of yoga, we can identify the primary correspondences as well as the differentiating principles between them. Since all paths of yoga have a similar aim, to connect the human individual with the divine consciousness, the differences are primarily related to the method and active power employed by the respective paths.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “…we find that they arrange themselves in an ascending order which starts from the lowest rung of the ladder, the body, and ascends to the direct contact between the individual soul and the transcendent and universal Self.”

The most widely known path of Yoga in the West is Hatha Yoga. “Hathayoga selects the body and the vital functionings as its instruments of perfection and realisation; its concern is with the gross body.”

Rajayoga, also known as Patanjali Yoga (named after the sage who codified this path in his Yoga Sutras), “…selects the mental being in its different parts as its lever-power; it concentrates on the subtle body.”

Next come Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga: “The triple Path of Works, of Love, and of Knowledge uses some part of the mental being, will, heart or intellect as a starting-point and seeks by its conversion to arrive at the liberating Truth, Beatitude and Infinity which are the nature of the spiritual life. Its method is a direct commerce between the human Purusha in the individual body and the divine Purusha who dwells in every body and yet transcends all form and nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pg. 28

Yoga Is Union Of the Individual With the Divine Consciousness

One thing which all the various paths and methods of yoga share is the ultimate aim, which is to bring about a union between the individual consciousness and the divine consciousness. The term “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit terms which means ‘to join”. Sri Aurobindo makes the following statement: “For the contact of the human and individual consciousness with the divine is the very essence of Yoga. Yoga is the union of that which has become separated in the play of the universe with its own true self, origin and universality.”

The different methods or paths of Yoga simply differentiate themselves by the part of the complex human being which takes the lead in the effort, and the methodology therefore to be employed. “It may be effected in the physical through the body; in the vital through the action of those functionings which determine the state and the experiences of our nervous being; through the mentality, whether by means of the emotional heart, the active will or the understanding mind, or more largely by a general conversion of the mental consciousness in all its activities. It may equally be accomplished through a direct awakening to the universal or transcendent Truth and Bliss by the conversion of the central ego in the mind. And according to the point of contact that we choose will be the type of the Yoga that we practice.”

In the end, it is not so much a matter of one type of Yoga being “better” than another; it is more correct to appreciate that each individual has a unique opportunity to work with his own individual human formation, and apply the appropriate yogic practices based on his own makeup and stage of development. In fact, there may be successive times or stages in the life of the individual where one or another path may predominate in the development of the yogic consciousness, the consciousness of union between the individual and the divine.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pp. 27-28

The Seeker, the Sought and the Process of Seeking

While different terminology is used, there is considerable agreement between the precepts of Western philosophy and religion and that of the East when it comes to the question of knowledge, and the truths of human psychology in regard to the attainment of knowledge. Put in the terms of the West, there is the seeker after knowledge, there is the knowledge being sought after and there is the connection between the two which represents the process of seeking. This three-fold relationship governs all human activity, not just the seeking after knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo applies this model to the science of Yoga, in its various forms and permutations: “There can be no Yoga of knowledge without a human seeker of the knowledge, the supreme subject of knowledge and the divine use by the individual of the universal faculties of knowledge; no Yoga of devotion without the human God-lover, the supreme object of love and delight and the divine use by the individual of the universal faculties of spiritual, emotional and aesthetic enjoyment; no Yoga of works without the human worker, the supreme Will, Master of all works and sacrifices, and the divine use by the individual of the universal faculties of power and action.”

This model of course, starts from the standpoint of the individual. The individual determines to achieve some result, focuses on the object of the seeking, and applies a methodology to achieve that object. Sri Aurobindo adds another perspective, however. Inasmuch as the Divine is the causal agent of the universal creation, we must consider that the Divine intention causes the human action to occur. In fact, “Equally true is the complementary idea so often enforced by the Yoga of devotion that as the Transcendent is necessary to the individual and sought after by him so also the individual is necessary in a sense to the Transcendent and sought after by It. If the Bhakta seeks and yearns after Bhagavan, Bhagavan also seeks and yearns after the Bhakta.” (“Bhakta, the devotee or lover of God; Bhagavan, God, the Lord of Love and Delight. The third term of the trinity is Bhagavat, the divine revelation of Love.”

Sri Aurobindo introduces this terminology of the “trinity” and it is appropriate to consider the trinity as seen from the perspective of Christianity to see how there is some common understanding. The Father is the Divine Transcendent. The Son is the human aspiring to the Divine. The “holy ghost” is the relationship between the two that bonds them to one another, bringing about the raising up of the human and the embodiment of the divine in the human.

“However Monistic may be our intellectual conception of the highest truth of things, in practice we are compelled to accept this omnipresent Trinity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pg. 27

God, Nature and the Human Soul

The frame of reference defines for us the way we respond to our lives and the unexamined assumptions that govern our interactions. Starting with the individual soul, we relate to the world generally from the standpoint of our desires and with the assumption that it is there to please and serve us. We are thus locked into an embrace with Nature which has been described by some as a bondage or a chain of cause and effect. The Gita refers to a “machinery” of Nature, operated by the action of the three Gunas or qualities, which drives all our action.

Yoga attempts to gain leverage on this machinery in order to surpass the limitations of our ordinary lives. In order to achieve this result, it is essential that a way be found to transcend the fixed framework or standpoint that governs our human lives. This transcendent standpoint must be outside the frame of reference in order to truly provide any real and substantive leverage.

Sri Aurobindo describes this transcendent standpoint as the focus on God, the Lord of creation, or the Absolute, outside of action and reaction, outside of all human considerations. One may find an analogy in our view of life on earth. Normally we experience that our earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun, the moon and the stars all rotate around the earth. Scientists determined that the earth actually rotated around the sun, and that the solar system travels through the galaxy. But the true and radical transcendent experience that can galvanize our way of seeing and acting came about for those individuals who traveled into outer space and looked down upon the earth and recognized that all of humanity, all of life on the planet is part of one fragile eco-system and is united.

To achieve the results sought by Yoga, a similar transformative experience is required that takes us out of our normal standpoint. “In practice three conceptions are necessary before there can be any possibility of Yoga; there must be, as it were, three consenting parties to the effort,–God, Nature and the human soul or, in more abstract terms, the Transcendental, the Universal and the Individual. If the individual and Nature are left to themselves, the one is bound to the other and unable to exceed appreciably her lingering march. Something transcendent is needed, free from her and greater, which will act upon us and her, attracting us upward to Itself and securing from her by good grace or by force her consent to the individual ascension.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pp. 26-27

The Basis For Harmonising the Various Systems and Paths of Yoga

Sri Aurobindo bases his understanding of the means and goals of Yoga on a deeper insight into the evolutionary developmental process of Nature. Just as each successive form and power of consciousness that manifests in Nature has its basis upon forms and powers previously manifested, so we can also recognise that the processes and powers of Yoga are based on existing capabilities available to the human practitioner of the Yoga. Each of the different paths or schools of Yoga takes hold of one or more of the basic powers within humanity, whether it is the physical (Hatha Yoga), the emotional (Bhakti Yoga), the vital impulse (Karma Yoga), or the higher mind (Jnana Yoga), or other similar correlations.

“Yet it is always through something which she has formed in her evolution that Nature thus overpasses her evolution. It is the individual heart that by sublimating its highest and purest emotions attains to the transcendent Bliss or the ineffable Nirvana, the individual mind that by converting its ordinary functionings into a knowledge beyond mentality knows its oneness with the Ineffable and merges its separate existence in that transcendent unity. And always it is the individual, the Self conditioned in its experience by Nature and working through her formations, that attains to the Self unconditioned, free and transcendent.”

Sri Aurobindo dismisses the idea that the true and final goal of Yoga is to achieve the Absolute Transcendent and thereby abandon the world and its processes as developed by Nature. The question then is to draw upon the powers developed in Nature and find a way to optimize their function, focus them on the achievement of higher forms of awareness, including the awareness of the Transcendent, and, eventually, harmonize them in such a way that all the aspects of the being are taken up and transformed. “And if we seek to combine and harmonise their central practices and their predominant aims, we shall find that the basis provided by Nature is still our natural basis and the condition of their synthesis.”

The various paths and forms of Yoga, therefore are not mutually exclusive or antagonistic to one another; rather, they provide the seeker with leverage to address each of the elements of his natural being and raise it up to its highest potential.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pg. 26

The Complete Aim of the Synthesis of Yoga

The ultimate goal of the Divine Creation cannot simply be the individual spiritual fulfillment accompanied by escape from the world. When we recognize that the individual is also part of a larger collectivity and an even larger universal creation, it becomes clear that the individual progress is, and should be, an element in the increasing evolutionary development of the entire manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates the aim of the synthesis of yoga that he recommends: “Spirit is the crown of universal existence; Matter is its basis; Mind is the link between the two. Spirit is that which is eternal; Mind and Matter are its workings. Spirit is that which is concealed and has to be revealed; mind and body are the means by which it seeks to reveal itself. spirit is the image of the Lord of the Yoga; mind and body are the means He has provided for reproducing that image in phenomenal existence. All Nature is an attempt at a progressive revelation of the concealed Truth, a more and more successful reproduction of the divine image.”

The evolutionary process in Nature is a long and slow affair. The practice of Yoga attempts to concentrate and speed up this process in the individual. “It works by a quickening of all her energies, a sublimation of all her faculties.” Yoga unifies the Transcendent with the Universal and the Individual, thereby bringing to bear the sanction and consciousness of the Supreme to adapt and modify Nature in fulfillment of the Divine intention. This is the transformation of all existence, with the individual acting as a nexus of this change.

“The generalisation of Yoga in humanity must be the last victory of Nature over her own delays and concealments. Even as now by the progressive mind in Science she seeks to make all mankind fit for the full development of the mental life, so by Yoga must she inevitably seek to make all mankind fit for the higher evolution, the second birth, the spiritual existence. And as the mental life uses and perfects the material, so will the spiritual use and perfect the material and the mental existence as the instruments of a divine self-expression. The ages when that is accomplished, are the legendary Satya or Krita Yugas (Satya means Truth; Krita, effected or completed), the ages of the Truth manifested in the symbol, of the great work done when Nature in mankind, illumined, satisfied and blissful, rests in the culmination of her endeavor.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 3, The Threefold Life, pp. 23-25

The Compromise Between the Spiritual and the Material Life

The ultimate aim of the spiritual impulse is to realize the Eternal. Historically in India particularly, this impulse has been very strong, and it led to a virtually exclusive concentration on spiritual matters and the development of a spiritual culture that stressed the realisation of the Absolute and the liberation of the individual from the material world. The ideal of the Sannyasin, who abandons the desires and goals of this world, to achieve the spiritual heights, has been raised up as the highest goal. In order to preserve the purity of this goal, and to create a social order that would accept it, the pure spiritual impulse found a way to coexist with the material life. A religious custom was established whereby individuals could lay aside the duties of the householder and take up a mendicant life, for instance. Ordinary people throughout this society supported those who made the sacrifice of the outer life through provision of food and honoring with respect. In return, they received blessings, prayers and fulfillment of the rites of passage laid down in the religious principles.

What was missing here was the active mind of progress which we have seen developed to a very high degree in the West in recent centuries. The outer life of the world in the traditional society of India was therefore doomed to relative stagnation. One lived and tried to satisfy one’s desires, enjoying and suffering, as long as one remained in the outer life. If the impulse arose to seek the spiritual salvation, a break was made with the ordinary life. They lived side by side, with the outer life one of relative stagnation, and the solution provided was abandonment rather than development and perfection of that life, which, after all, was looked upon as an illusion or an impediment to the spiritual aim.

Sri Aurobindo describes the status: “…it was a compromise, not an absolute victory. The material life lost the divine impulse to growth, the spiritual preserved by isolation its height and purity, but sacrificed its full power and serviceableness to the world.”

This exclusive concentration, while serving a real purpose temporarily, could not be the conclusion or final answer. Sri Aurobindo points out that this inevitably led to the society so constituted to be forced to face the imperatives of the progress in the mental realm, with the meeting of “east and west” and the enormous changes that were set in motion thereby. “Therefore, in the divine Providence the country of the Yogins and the Sannyasins has been forced into a strict and imperative contact with the very element it had rejected, the element of the progressive Mind, so that it might recover what was now wanting to it.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 3, The Threefold Life, pp. 22-23

Spiritual Consciousness Transforming Life in the Material World

For the most part, spiritual seeking has been seen as the affair of an individual. The result has been either an attempt to abandon the life in the world by treating it as something inferior, illusory or distracting to the search for spiritual illumination; or else, the spiritual realization is turned back on the world in some form of compassionate action to ameliorate the suffering and provide comfort to those who have not yet overcome the suffering of the life. Or else, with a wider aim, there is an attempt to teach and guide others to the realization so that they can take one of these two routes upon achievement of their spiritual goal. In only very rare instances has the spiritual seeking gone beyond an acceptance of the world of duality “as it is” with the goal of transforming the life in the world to more nearly approximate and be able to truly represent the Truth of the Spirit. It is this goal which Sri Aurobindo sets before us in his development of the yogic path and its aims.

He explains: “It is possible for the spiritual life in the world, and it is its real mission, to change the material life into its own image, the image of the Divine. Therefore, besides the great solitaries who have sought and attained their self-liberation, we have the great spiritual teachers who have also liberated others and, supreme of all, the great dynamic souls who, feeling themselves stronger in the might of the Spirit than all the forces of the material life banded together, have thrown themselves upon the world, grappled with it in a loving wrestle and striven to compel its consent to its own transfiguration.”

The changes may start with the elements most receptive in our lives, the mental and moral elements, but they may also go further and attempt to transform the culture, the vital life of the society and the world, even the very interactions with Matter. “These attempts have been the supreme landmarks in the progressive development of human ideals and the divine preparation of the race. Every one of them, whatever its outward results, has left Earth more capable of Heaven and quickened in its tardy movements the evolutionary Yoga of Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 3, The Threefold Life, pp. 21-22

Spirit Interacting With Life and Matter

What the mental ideal seeks as perfection is a pale imitation of the truth of the Spirit. Sri Aurobindo sets forth the juxtaposition of these two forms of consciousness: “For the spiritual man the mind’s dream of perfect beauty is realised in an eternal love, beauty and delight that has no dependence and is equal behind all objective appearances; its dream of perfect Truth in the supreme, self-existent, self-apparent and eternal Verity which never varies but explains and is the secret of all variations and the goal of all progress; its dream of perfect action in the omnipotent and self-guiding Law that is inherent for ever in all things and translates itself here in the rhythm of the worlds.”

The ideal of the spirit is therefore much more widely separated from the reality of life in the world we see around us, and this has led to the call for the spiritual aspirant to abandon the world and focus solely on spiritual realisation. The ideal of the ascetic yogin, the renunciate, the cloistered monk, the anchorite in the desert represents the exclusive concentration on spiritual progress that has seemed to be the true answer to the apparent falsehood, illusion and weakness of the life of desire, the obstacles of matter and the resistance of the mind acting in the world. “But if it is often difficult for the mental life to accommodate itself to the dully resistant material activity, how much more difficult must it seem for the spiritual existence to live on in a world that appears full not of the Truth but of every lie and illusion, not of Love and Beauty but of an encompassing discord and ugliness, not of the Law of Truth but of victorious selfishness and sin?”

Sri Aurobindo points out that even this withdrawal from life provides a benefit by creating an example and a question for those engrossed in the things of the world, but it is clearly not a full and complete solution to the conundrum, nor can it be the solution to the divine aim of life.

“The spiritual life also can return upon the material and use it as a means of its own greater fullness. Refusing to be blinded by the dualities, the appearances, it can seek in all appearances whatsoever the vision of the same Lord, the same eternal Truth, Beauty, Love, Delight. The Vedantic formula of the Self in all things, all things in the Self and all things as becomings of the Self is the key to this richer and all-embracing Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 3, The Threefold Life, pp. 20-21