Elements Common to the Paths of Inner Growth

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there are 8 limbs, or steps, systematically presented as the basis for the practice of Yoga. The first two of these, known as yamas and niyamas present preliminary practices to purify and stabilize the being to prepare for the practice of yoga. Many people consider these to be moral precepts, but in reality, they are simply ensuring that the physical, vital and mental being can effectively hold and utilize the force without becoming imbalanced, or misusing the force for unintended purposes. Long experience has shown that failure to undertake this purificatory activity can lead to grievous harm and destroy the benefits of the yogic force if it happens to come to the being. At the conclusion of the preparatory phase, the body will be solid and healthy, the vital force will be balanced and steady and able to hold and transmit the more intense energies that result from the practice, and the mind will be clear and harmonious, not getting disrupted or disturbed as it undergoes the pressure of the yogic process.

A natural result of these practices is the creation of a status of being that one may call observational rather than reactive. This status permeates all the activities of life, and is not restricted to a special time or function for yogic practice or meditation of some sort.

Dr. Dalal observes: “Though the different paths vary greatly in their methods and processes, certain elements are common to them all. One such universal element is a certain preliminary cleansing or purification of the outer nature, consisting of the physical, vital and mental consciousness. An attempt to enter into the inner consciousness without adequately ridding the outer consciousness of its turbidity is apt to fail; if at all one succeeds in some measure, one is most likely to be confused , misled or overwhelmed by the experiences of the inner consciousness without a sufficient foundation of a calm purity in the outer being.”

“A second element common to all paths of inner growth consists in developing an in-gathered attitude, a state of inner concentration which progressively replaces the state of outer dispersion characteristic of the normal consciousness. The in-gathered state is most often sought to be inculcated through the practice of meditation. That is why, to many people, the spiritual life is almost synonymous with the practice of meditation: ‘…when they think of the spiritual life, they immediately think of meditation’. [The Mother] Such an attitude tends to lead to a false compartmentalisation of life, a division and antagonism between the spiritual life and the ordinary life. However, true spirituality lies, not in any form of practice, but in living in a certain state of consciousness pervading all life and activities. Meditation — in the sense of a set practice — is not indispensable for cultivating such a spiritual state of inner concentration; action and work done with the right consciousness also produce a state of meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xix-xx


Three Primary Paths of Inner Growth and Spiritual Development

Each individual has a unique way of relating to and developing his spiritual aspiration. Those who are more intellectually inclined may find that they naturally incline towards what is known as the yoga of knowledge. Those who have a nature more inclined to devotion and emotional expression may take up the yoga of love and devotion. Those who have an active vital nature will probably find that the yoga of works is the best path.

Some believe that these choices are ‘fixed’ for an individual by their nature for an entire lifetime. Yet a close examination makes it clear that these paths are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive, nor are they static in the life of an individual. There may indeed be a leading power of the nature that predominates, but that does not exclude the action of the other powers; indeed, the further one progresses, the more the elements of the other paths may become active. Further, as the nature develops, and old obstacles in the nature are removed or ameliorated, one may find an opening to another path as the spiritual development occurs. The example of Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi, is obvious. He went to his guru Marpa with great devotion, but was put to work building, and then unbuilding, and building again various structures through heavy labour. He was not permitted to take part in any teachings or meditation practices. At a certain point in time, however, his devotion wavered and he began to doubt his spiritual destiny. It was just at that phase that Marpa intervened, and gave him the deeper teachings and set him on the path of meditation, which he then followed throughout the rest of his life. As evidenced in his compositions, the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, he had a strong devotional nature that shone through and uplifted and carried him through all his tribulations. He experienced the fruits of all three paths, intertwining and acting forcefully, one or the other, at various stages in his development.

Dr. Dalal writes: “Numerous are the paths that have been discovered for achieving inner growth and realising the Truth. The various psychological paths may be classified into three broad types, corresponding to the three basic psychological aspects of the human make-up: the Path of Knowledge, corresponding to the cognitive or thinking aspect; the Path of Devotion, related to the affective or emotional side of human nature; and the Path of Works or Action, based on man’s conative aspect which has to do with striving and willing. Almost all paths contain elements of each of the three broad types just mentioned, though one particular type element — Knowledge, Devotion, or Works — may predominate. The seeker is drawn to one path or another depending on what predominates in one’s psychological make-up. Regarding the best path to follow, the rule is contained in the celebrated words of the Gita: ‘Better is Swadharma — the law of one’s own being — even though itself faulty, than an alien law well wrought out; death in one’s own law of being is better, perilous it is to follow a law foreign to one’s own nature.’ (III:35)”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xviii-xix


In the second section of The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo takes up the Yoga of Knowledge, Jnana Yoga. This path traditionally has focused on the systematic stilling of desire and the movement of the ego towards gratification and fulfillment in the outer world of mind, life and body. The attainment of union with the Divine is the supreme focus and goal of Jnana Yoga, and the systematic practice of discrimination between the illusory rewards of life in the world and the eternal and infinite result of Oneness with the Divine, is the recommended method.

The Yoga of Knowledge is considered an austere path, and it relies heavily on renunciation of the outer life, meditation leading to the completely indrawn state of awareness known as Samadhi, and eventually the integration of the consciousness in that larger divine consciousness which is able to manifest when the mind and senses become quiet and receptive to the higher powers of awareness.

The integral Yoga, while it insists upon the necessity of achieving this status of Oneness with the Divine, does not become fixated on abandonment and renunciation; rather it takes up the dual dicta of the Upanishads when the great call of the renunciate “One without a second” is balanced by the equally important recognition that “All this is the Brahman”.

Sri Aurobindo’s method in The Synthesis of Yoga is to first, examine each of the primary traditional paths of Yoga, the Yoga of Divine Works, the Yoga of Knowledge and the Yoga of Love and Devotion and then to integrate the goals and insights pertaining to each in the Integral Yoga, the Yoga of Self Perfection. Having now covered the Yoga of Divine Works and Yoga of Knowledge, he next turns his attention to the Yoga of Love and Devotion.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge

The Integral Yoga and the Methods and Goals of Hatha and Raja Yoga

The integral Yoga has as its goal the transformation of all life through the evolution of consciousness. The practitioners of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga utilize psycho-physical means to achieve higher states of consciousness and achieve unity with the Divine. Such methods can be powerful aids at certain stages of spiritual development, even for those who are focused on the practice of integral Yoga; however, the practitioner of the integral Yoga is neither bound within the framework of the psycho-physical practices nor limited by them. Stages may arise, particularly when it is necessary to bring the physical body, nervous sheath and the mental being into focus and overcome their limitations and uplift their capacities. At such times, the specific techniques of Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga may provide invaluable insight and assistance to the practitioner.

The major point of divergence will come when the integral Yoga asks the practitioner to not become so fixated on these practices that they substitute them for the spiritual methods native to the integral Yoga. All aspects of existence must be taken up and reworked in the integral path. Thus, there will be potentially occasions for the use of the tools provided by Hatha and Raja Yoga, yet also times where the practices themselves may become obstacles and must be set aside.

Sri Aurobindo concludes: “On the whole, for an integral Yoga the special methods of Rajayoga and Hathayoga may be useful at times in certain stages of the progress, but are not indispensable. It is true that their principal aims must be included in the integrality of the Yoga; but they can be brought about by other means. For the methods of the integral Yoga must be mainly spiritual, and dependence on physical methods or fixed psychic or psycho-physical processes on a large scale would be the substitution of a lower for a higher action.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pg. 520

Raja Yoga and the Development of Psychic Powers

In whatever field of activity one focuses, an individual gains various forms of knowledge and power of action. This is true in the physical world, with athletic performance, the world of art, music, science, philosophy or business. It is true in terms of inter-relations between people, governmental relations, child-rearing and education. So it should be no surprise that those who focus on gaining an inner psychological mastery through the practice of Raja Yoga will also acquire forms of knowledge and power that are not generally known or accessible to those who do not specialize in this field.

The texts on Raja Yoga, including the seminal work by Patanjali, as well as commentaries such as the famous series of lectures by Swami Vivekananda, describe a number of occult powers, known as Siddhis, that can arise during the practice of Raja Yoga. These powers may include things such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, levitation, traveling out of the body and observing phenomena while having the out of body experience, telepathic powers, and many others that occasionally are exhibited in a non-practicing individual here or there, since these are latent powers of evolving humanity. Of course, they make it clear that these can (and are) distractions from the main goal, but they feel obliged to describe them and advise the student of this science of what may take place as the practice advances.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “These powers and experiences belong, first, to the vital and mental planes above this physical in which we live, and are natural to the soul in the subtle body; as the dependence on the physical body decreases, these abnormal activities become possible and even manifest themselves without being sought for. They can be acquired and fixed by processes which the science gives, and their use then becomes subject to the will; or they can be allowed to develop of themselves and used only when they come, or when the Divine within moves us to use them; or else, even though thus naturally developing and acting, they may be rejected in a single-minded devotion to the one supreme goal of the Yoga. Secondly, there are fuller, greater powers belonging to the supramental planes which are the very powers of the Divine in his spiritual and supramentally ideative being. These cannot be acquired at all securely or integrally by personal effort, but can only come from above, or else can become natural to the man if and when he ascends beyond mind and lives in the spiritual being, power, consciousness and ideation. They then become, not abnormal and laboriously acquired Siddhis, but simply the very nature and method of his action, if he still continues to be active in the world existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 519-520

Methods for Quieting and Focusing the Mind in Raja Yoga

Sri Aurobindo describes the traditional practices recommended in Raja Yoga for attaining the one-pointed indrawn, concentrated status called “Samadhi”: “Rajayogic concentration is divided into four stages; it commences with the drawing both of the mind and senses from outward things, proceeds to the holding of the one object of concentration to the exclusion of all other ideas and mental activities, then to the prolonged absorption of the mind in this object, finally, to the complete ingoing of the consciousness by which it is lost to all outward mental activity in the oneness of Samadhi.” This step-by-step progression of the movement of the awareness inward is intended to separate the mind from the outer, transitory details of existence and focus it on a status of divine realization.

For a being based in the outer world of the senses and the active, interactive life, the end-result does not come immediately or without some intervening steps. In order to pull the mind away from the sense impressions and reactions, Raja Yoga utilizes one or more techniques, including the use of Mantra, which creates its own “master wave” within the mind-stuff, drowning out all the smaller waves of sense-impressions, emotions, desires, reactions, and thoughts. There are of course other techniques available such as Tratak (concentration on one point of light) or, as we see in some of the Buddhist systems, an elaborate visualization schema that occupies the mind and fills it with one image at the end, held in exquisite detail, and thus, superseding every other form or movement. “By this concentration on the idea the mind enters from the idea into its reality, into which it sinks silent, absorbed, unified.”

Sri Aurobindo observes that there are alternative methods which, although not generally taught in classical Raja Yoga, nevertheless have a similar basis and result: “Some of them are directed rather to the quiescence of the mind than to its immediate absorption, as the discipline by which the mind is simply watched and allowed to exhaust its habit of vagrant thought in a purposeless running from which it feels all sanction, purpose and interest withdrawn, and that, more strenuous and rapidly effective, by which all outward-going thought is excluded and the mind forced to sink into itself where in its absolute quietude it can only reflect the pure Being or pass away into its superconscient existence.”

Elsewhere Sri Aurobindo has described his own experience of achieving what he called the “silent mind”. The method described there more or less fits into the description of excluding the outward-going thought and forcing the mind into a state of pure, silent awareness of Being.

Each of these methods has its adherents, based on the individual development and capacities of the seeker. The specific method is not as important as the end result, obviously.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 518-519

The Method of Raja Yoga Practice

The quieting of the mind-stuff, and the elimination of the waves of desire, attraction and repulsion and egoistic reactions prepares the seeker for the liberating practices that open up the being to higher energies and capacities. Without that preparation, the ultimate aims of Raja Yoga cannot be achieved, but they remain preliminary. The next stage integrates Asana, Pranayama and Mantra. Asana in Raja Yoga is simplified down to its basic elements: a comfortable and secure posture that allows the head and neck to be aligned in a straight line, and which can be held unmoving for a sustained period of time without discomfort or pain. Whereas in Hatha Yoga, the use of Asana is a central practice with numerous different poses coming into play, Raja Yoga moves quickly to the essential point of allowing the psycho-physical energies to come into play, be held and circulated, and to do so in a stable mental, emotional, nervous and physical body. It is really the action of Pranayama combined with Mantra that represents the core method of Raja Yoga that can lead to the results of the forms of meditation, concentration and Samadhi that represent the next and final stages of the practice.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “In order to bring about this manifestation the present nodus of the vital and physical body with the mental being has to be loosened and the way made clear for the ascent through the greater psychic being to the union with the superconscient Purusha. This can be done by Pranayama.”

“The Rajayogic Pranayama purifies and clears the nervous system; it enables us to circulate the vital energy equally through the body and direct it also where we will according to need, and thus maintain a perfect health and soundness of the body and the vital being; it gives us control of all the five habitual operations of the vital energy in the system and at the same time breaks down the habitual divisions by which only the ordinary mechanical processes of the vitality are possible to the normal life. It opens entirely the six centres of the psycho-physical system and brings into the waking consciousness the power of the awakened Shakti and the light of the unveiled Purusha on each of the ascending planes. Coupled with the use of the Mantra it brings the divine energy into the body and prepares for and facilitates that concentration in Samadhi which is the crown of the Rajayogic method.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 517-518

The Preliminary Practices of Yama and Niyama in Raja Yoga

Sri Aurobindo observes that people frequently try to start Yogic practice with Asana and Pranayama without observing the preliminary foundations set forth as requirements for the practice of Raja Yoga: “In modern India people attracted to Yoga, but picking up its processes from books or from persons only slightly acquainted with the matter, often plunge straight into Pranayama of Rajayoga, frequently with disastrous results. Only the very strong in spirit can afford to make mistakes in this path.”

The problems that arise are due to the influx of new powers and energies into a mental, vital and physical framework that is simply unprepared to deal with them, and thus, the practitioner can be easily thrown out of balance and aggrandize the ego, the desire-soul and the greed for powers distracts the seeker from the true higher goals with which he started.

Raja Yoga insists that the starting point is what are called “Yamas” and “Niyamas”. Sri Aurobindo describes them thus: “The first are rules of moral self-control in conduct such as truth-speaking, abstinence from injury or killing, from theft, etc.; but in reality these must be regarded as merely certain main indications of the general need of moral self-control and purity. Yama is, more largely, any self-discipline by which the rajasic egoism and its passions and desires in the human being are conquered and quieted into perfect cessation. The object is to create a moral calm, a void of the passions, and so prepare for the death of egoism in the rajasic human being. The Niyamas are equally a discipline of the mind by regular practices of which the highest is meditation on the divine Being, and their object is to create a sattwic calm, purity and preparation for concentration upon which the secure pursuance of the rest of the Yoga can be founded.”

There is a deeper occult significance to these practices and they are not simply preliminary, but necessary from the viewpoint of the actual focus of the path of Raja Yoga. One of the primary stages of Raja Yoga is the ability to view the “mind-stuff” (“chitta”) and to bring it to a state of absolute unmoving quiet, without waves. This is the basis for the ability to enter into states of meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana) and Samadhi. Every sense impression creates such waves, and every feeling of desire or attraction, hatred or anger obviously creates large waves which overwhelm the mind’s foundation of calm in the practice. Thus, when new energies come into the being through the later practices of Pranayama, for instance, if there is not this solid basis of non-attachment, and the mind is still able to be thrown up in waves, the entire focus of the Raja Yoga is simply destroyed. From this viewpoint, Yama and Niyama, in the expanded sense described by Sri Aurobindo, are some of the most important aspects of the practice of this path of Yoga. Without them, success in this path is essentially impossible.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 516-517

Overview of the Psycho-Physical Practices for Opening the Centers of Consciousness

Scientists of consciousness have existed for millennia in India. In the West, the science of psychology is still considered to be an “infant” science. While Western psychology has generally looked at the processes of consciousness from outside and tried to interpret what this may mean, Yogis, Rishis and Sages in India have tried to achieve inner awareness that provides them real knowledge, not inferential knowledge, through a process of realizing or achieving states of consciousness not normally or always accessible to most individuals.

The various paths of Yoga use a variety of specific methods to achieve these inner states. In general, however, many of them utilize quite similar techniques, including Asana, Pranayama and Mantra.

Sri Aurobindo provides an overview of the psychological processes and the methods used to achieve results: “…the real energy of our being is lying asleep and inconscient in the depths of our vital system, and is awakened by the practice of Pranayama. In its expansion it opens up all the centres of our psychological being in which reside the powers and the consciousness of what would now be called perhaps our subliminal self; therefore as each centre of power and consciousness is opened up, we get access to successive psychological planes and are able to put ourselves in communication with the worlds or cosmic states of being which correspond to them; all the psychic powers abnormal to physical man, but natural to the soul develop in us. Finally, at the summit of the ascension, this arising and expanding energy meets with the superconscient self which sits concealed behind and above our physical and mental existence; this meeting leads to a profound Samadhi of union in which our waking consciousness loses itself in the superconscient.”

Hatha Yoga relies primarily on Asana and Pranayama with the aid of the Mantra. The power of this combination, whether Asana takes the lead (as in Hatha Yoga) or the Pranayama and Mantra take the lead, as in some of the other systems, is one of the secrets of psychology uncovered by the Yogis and codified in systems such as the Tantra. “This secret of the power of the Mantra, the six Chakras and the Kundalini Shakti is one of the central truths of all that complex psycho-physical science and practice of which the Tantric philosophy claims to give us a rationale and the most complete compendium of methods. All religions and disciplines in India which use largely the psycho-physical method, depend more or less upon it for their practices.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pg. 516

The Principles Underlying Kundalini Yoga

The Chakras are subtle energy centers found in the subtle body, also known as the psychic body, but there are correspondences for their action in the gross physical body. For most people the corresponding physical centres of energy are closed and they do not have immediate, complete and direct access to the force that is available to them when the chakras open. Yogic practices, however, can open these chakras, move the energy from the lowest center to the highest and awaken the practitioner into a state of superconscious awareness in Samadhi.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process briefly: “These Chakras or lotuses, however, are in physical man closed or only partly open, with the consequence that only such powers and only so much of them are active in him as are sufficient for his ordinary physical life, and so much mind and soul only is at play as will accord with its needs….The whole energy of the soul is not at play in the physical body and life, the secret powers of mind are not awake in it, the bodily and nervous energies predominate. But all the while the supreme energy is there, asleep; it is said to be coiled up and slumbering like a snake,–therefore it is called the kundalini sakti,–in the lowest of the Chakras, in the muladhara. When by Pranayama the division between the upper and lower Prana currents in the body is dissolved, this Kundalini is struck and awakened, it uncoils itself and begins to rise upward like a fiery serpent breaking open each lotus as it ascents until the Shakti meets the Purusha in the brahmarandhra in a deep Samadhi if union.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 515-516