Yoga teaches us how we can grow spiritually through the work that we do, and how we can use every event in life for spiritual growth.
Integral yoga is a powerful synthesis of traditional schools of yoga. The synthesis was worked out by Sri Aurobindo about a hundred years ago. The synthesis was necessary because by that time the traditional schools had become so preoccupied with form that the spirit underlying yoga had been forgotten. Sri Aurobindo looked at yoga as a method for self-improvement that affects all parts of the being. While self-improvement is the broad goal of all schools of yoga, the emphasis differs. Sometimes the emphasis on one aspect of self-improvement is so strong that the result is lop-sided development. What Sri Aurobindo did was to capture the central principle of yoga, and look at the particular principles of the major traditional schools of yoga. Then, keeping the central principle of yoga intact, he combined with it the particular principles of various schools in the right proportion. Finally, he worked out from the combination a harmonious entity. He also went beyond where any other school had gone; but of that, later.
The emphasis of hatha yoga is on physical perfection, and that is important because the body forms the basic tool for all action in the world. The emphasis of raja yoga is on mental perfection, and that is also important because an emotionally stable mind and an agile intellect are essential for all our activities. But if the focus shifts to the techniques of asanas, pranayamas or meditation, and either physical or mental perfection become so important that working towards them takes away all our time, there is no time left to use the perfect body or peaceful mind in our work. Secondly, such preoccupation and perfection are beyond the capacity and goals of an average person. That would make yoga suitable for only a select few. The yoga of the Gita takes care of these pitfalls by making yoga a graded process in which each step counts, and by letting each seeker select a path that suits him best. Further, the Gita guides us on how to bring yoga into our daily life, how to choose between clashing alternative duties, and how to achieve lasting inner peace. But the Gita hardly talks about the techniques by which physical or mental improvement may be achieved. Integral yoga takes into account the focal points of all these schools. It neglects neither the body nor the mind, and also brings yoga into daily life. Further, integral yoga gives each seeker the freedom to carve his own path.
The underlying philosophy of integral yoga is the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, which treats the world not as an illusion but as a manifestation of the Divine. Hence integral yoga does not reject the world but seeks to transform it so that it befits the One that it manifests. Integral yoga is not technique-intensive, but it does not reject the techniques. The dictum of integral yoga is “All life is yoga”, which means that all life gives us an opportunity for the practice of yoga. While Sri Aurobindo had laid down the basic philosophy of integral yoga in his The Synthesis of Yoga, it acquired a practical shape in the hands of the Mother. The Mother treated the Ashram at Pondicherry as a laboratory for the creation of a new life based on the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo.
Thy acts are thy helpers, or events are signs,
Waking and sleep are opportunities
Given to thee by an immortal Power:
So can thou raise thy pure unvanquished spirit
Till spread to heaven in a wide vesper calm,
Indifferent and gentle as the sky,
It greatens slowly into timeless peace.
SRI AUROBINDO (In: Savitri, Book 6, Canto 1, p. 434)
The idea of treating all life as yoga is quite different from the popular image of yoga as something to be practiced for an hour or two a day. Let us see why yoga has to be more than a set of techniques for improving the body-mind complex. The body and the mind are mere instruments. Sharpening an instrument is good, even necessary, but not sufficient. For example, a sharp knife may be used for chopping fruits and vegetables, or for stabbing somebody. Yoga is a spiritual discipline not because it sharpens the body-mind complex, but because it also tells us how to use the sharpened instrument. True practice of yoga means using yogic techniques for an hour or two a day to sharpen the body-mind complex, and using the yogic principles during the remaining twenty-two or twenty-three hours to determine how the sharpened instrument will be used. Yoga teaches us how we can grow spiritually through the work that we do, and how we can use every event in life for spiritual growth. That is how yoga becomes a twenty-four activity, and a life-long commitment.
How does integral yoga go beyond the traditional yogas? In traditional yogas, the goal is spiritual perfection of the individual. Integral yoga goes beyond the individual. Its goal is spiritual perfection of the human race. Its goal is a higher level of consciousness on earth. While the collective element of yoga is not new, never before had the collective goal of yoga been spelt out so clearly, and never before had it been set up as the major goal of yoga. However, the individual is the unit of the collective; therefore, the individual and collective yoga are closely related. When the number of individuals with a distinctly higher level of consciousness crosses a critical point, the earth consciousness will register a perceptible change. The change will be reflected in the standard of human interactions, which will then be governed by more love, a greater sense of oneness, and a better perception of our interrelatedness. That will be the ultimate solution to evil and suffering in the world.
Thus, integral yoga:
• Is open to all: The inability to do a few postures, or the inability to meditate, does not disqualify a person from the practice of integral yoga because sadhana is primarily through the work that the person does, not through techniques. Starting with the point where a person is, integral yoga can take him towards perfection.
• Accepts all schools: Integral yoga incorporates the central principle and focal points of all the major traditional schools of yoga.
• Accepts all worldly life: The world is not an illusion but a manifestation of the Divine. Therefore, integral yoga does not reject worldly life, but seeks to transform it so that earth and heaven become one.
• Accepts all parts of the being: The body, the emotional part of the being, and the intellect, are all manifestations of the Divine. Therefore, although they are imperfect manifestations they are not incapable of moving towards perfection. That is why, integral yoga does not suppress or reject any part of the being but seeks to transform all of them. The transformation aims at each part of the being working in light of our divine essence. The culmination of the transformation would be our feelings, thoughts and actions being entirely in tune with our soul; and our will coinciding with the will of the Divine. That is the true ‘union of the body, mind and spirit’, a hackneyed and over-used expression today.
• Uses all life: Integral yoga uses all work and all experiences – pleasant or unpleasant, inner or outer – for spiritual growth. This does not mean that life, no matter how lived, is yoga. What it means is that life itself is the field for the practice of yoga. Within the life that we have, choices have still to be made. It is only the choices that come from the deepest Self that fulfill the requirements of yoga.
• Approves all techniques, insists on none: Integral yoga makes moderate use of all techniques such as asanas, pranayamas and meditation, but insists on none. No techniques are specifically prescribed; no techniques are proscribed either.
• Changes all: Integral yoga changes all aspects of life – material and mental. A person on the path finds himself looking at life more positively and responding to people with greater love and understanding.
• For all: Integral yoga does not aim at individual salvation. Its goal is a collective rise in the level of consciousness of the human race. This would change the plane from which the affairs of the world are conducted, and make the world a much better place to live in.
Thus, integral yoga is integral, or total, in ways more than one. It accepts all methods, uses all life, and and helps all humanity. It seems an easy yoga because it does not prescribe a single rigid path for all. But the freedom that it gives to each seeker to carve his own path is not easy to use. Further, since it encourages engaging with life, the tests and trials posed by the temptations, conflicts and obligations of life make the path of integral yoga a razor’s edge.