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The Mother and the importance of physical education in Integral Yoga

Lakshman Sehgal


The aim of Integral Yoga is to transform human nature so the body cannot be ignored. A healthy and conscious body is essential if humanity is ever to attain supermanhood. This article, written by one of the early Sri Aurobindo Ashram schoolchildren, reverberates, through the experiences of his upbringing in Pondicherry, in the value of physical education for accomplishing the supreme aim of all earthly existence.

Editor’ s note

Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, being all-encompassing, includes the body in its ambit of divine realisation. As The Mother put, “I have already told you several times that the artist infuses a very great consciousness into his hands, as the intellectual does into his brain. But these are, as it were, local phenomena, whereas the action of physical culture is more general. And when one sees the absolutely marvellous results of this culture, when one observes the extent to which the body is capable of perfecting itself, one understands how useful this can be to the action of the psychic being which has entered into this material substance. For naturally, when it is in possession of an organised and harmonised instrument which is full of strength and suppleness and possibilities, its task is greatly facilitated (1).” The body too must eventually realise its divine possibility just like other parts of our being. The body too must be infused with the psychic and spiritual states of consciousness. It is with this aim in view that the Mother gave importance to the Department of Physical Education. The author of this article had the unique privilege and opportunity to be among those students who were actively  engaged in physical education during the days of its early inception. He is kind enough to share with us his personal experience with physical education as a student of the Ashram School (SAICE) and thereafter. His personal experience lends credence and a unique perspective with a field that is hardly considered as having much importance in spiritual life except for good health. The insights he received and shares with us will surely be quite beneficial to all. It must however be understood that this is one part, albeit the most distinguishing aspect, of Sri Aurobindo’s vast and many-sided Integral Yoga whose core is the discovery of the Divine and, having discovered the Divine within, helping in the divine Manifestation outside and in the world and humanity at large.

“But for this Supramental work, the way the body is formed has an almost crucial importance, and not only in relation to spiritual elements nor even to mental power; these aspects have no importance AT ALL. The capacity to endure, to last is the important thing (2).”

My earliest recollection of the Mother goes back to around the mid 1940s. Our family was accepted into the Ashram by the Mother in1944 when I was two-years-old.

I remember my pre-school classroom which was located in what is now the gymnasium. In around 1946, the Playground was acquired. The first physical activity I did in front of the Mother was a rabbit race, hopping on all fours across half the length of the Playground under her watchful eye. Being short I was pretty good at it! When the slide was constructed in the Guest House, Badol and I were the first ones to come sliding down, with Her standing at the bottom watching us!

My first memory of the 2nd December programme1 which was held in the Playground until 1952, was Dayakar attempting a somersault over the vaulting box — which is still there — and hitting his lower back at the far end of the box. He was bedridden, but the Mother visited his home across from the Harpagon 2 every evening on Her way back to the Ashram.

Soon after, the Tennis Ground was acquired, and the athletics competition began to be held there. The running races were held in the morning on the ocean boulevard (Beach Road) with the finish line being the entrance to the Tennis Ground, closest to the tennis courts. The other events were held in the evening when She was present. I remember watching Gangaram and Suman competing for first prize in high jump.

These competitions moved to the Sportsground in 1952. She used to come to the Sportsground after Her tennis. When She played tennis, I used to be Her ball boy, along with Sunil-da and my brother. For all the running races, She held the tape at one end at the finish-line. For all the other events, She was seated close to the venue watching every performance intently, not as a casual observer. Once I was doing hop step and jump and jumped from quite far behind the line. Arun Kumar put the tape down at the take off line, as he should have. After the measurement was completed She asked him to place the tape from where I had actually taken off!

Nothing gave us more joy and excitement than being able to perform before Her. I recall, on many occasions over the years, finishing first in athletics events. And when I went in line to get prasad from Her, I got double the amount and a memorable smile!

An example of how closely She observed everything when we were in front of Her is the following incident. I lived next door to the Ashram, above the Atelier 3. One morning, I came racing out onto the street and was faced with a bicycle. Having no option, I jumped over the front wheel, landed on my legs and bruised my knee. I did not bother to get first aid for fear of drawing my parents’ attention. That evening, I came in front of her for prasad. She asked me, what I had done to my knee? I proudly stated, “J’ai knocké mon genou.” She laughed heartily at the new French word I had created! Nothing escaped Her gaze, internal and external.

Being good in gymnastics, specifically vaulting and agility (floor exercises), I had been participating in the 2nd December programmes in Her Presence from a pretty young age. In all the years I participated from the late 40s, I only missed one, in 1952, due to an ankle injury during the practice. I got to perform on Pranab-da’s birthday, October 18th, every year. I was chosen to perform floor exercises in the Playground when Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Ashram.

Even after She had retired from external activities, She remained involved and informed about the Physical Education activities. I recall that in 1961 or 1962, I cut my chin while practising on the trampoline and required a few stitches. When Udar, who kept Her abreast of the preparations for the 2nd December programme, informed Her of my injury, She wanted to know whether I would be able to participate on the 2nd, which I did.

In the US

I left Her physical presence in 1964 to pursue a doctoral programme in Chicago. I left with her Blessings and the love and discipline of physical education that I had imbibed by the example She had set, day after day, year after year. I promised myself that I would make every effort to keep myself as fit as the last time I performed before Her.

The author on the voulting box during the 2nd Dec programme, 1950

The author (3rd from left) during a demonstration in front of the Mother and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Playground, 16.1.1955). Tara Jauhar; Lata Jauhar and Manoj Das Gupta are also among the participants.

In those days there were no gymnasiums or fitness centres of any kind in the U.S.A. I exercised in my small room in the attic of a house, where I used my chemistry textbooks as dumb-bells! Later, I had access to tennis courts but no place for gymnastics. The luxury of the Ashram facilities were non-existent in the richest country of the world! Note that She started the gymnasium in the 1940s, but health clubs came into existence in the US, and later in other parts of the world, four decades later. Note also that both girls and boys participated in the same activities together, based on ability, not gender. It is still not the case in most parts of the world. Neither was one’s age an issue. I recall Nolini-da participating in the long jump competition with children much younger than him!

From the time of our marriage (with the Mother’s Blessings in 1966), Hansa and I have both remained focused on keeping our bodies fit by exercising regularly, in addition to working professionally together for two decades and raising two sons, Niraj (name given by the Mother) and Uday (named by Champaklal-bhai).

Every time we came back to Pondicherry I would practise my gymnastics. When we came to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Mother’s birthday, as usual I was practising my back flips in the Sportsground. I was thirty-six years old then. Chitra-di must have noticed because she went and asked Pranab-da if I could participate in the darshan day performance in the Playground. He consented, and for the first time I did multiple back flips, finishing off with a back somersault. Being permitted to participate after being away for fourteen years was, for me, an affirmation from Her. Looking back at those years I recollect all the time She spent every evening, setting an example Herself, playing tennis every day from 4 to 5 in the Pondicherry heat, while we stood in the shade of the umpire’s chair! She would then spend an additional hour or more, watching us very intently. There can be no greater motivation than to perform in front of Her. I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to do so, for over two decades.

One may ask, as many older sadhaks did, why She spent so much time each day, participating and overseeing physical education. All of us who grew up in the Ashram know that we needed a chit from Nripen-da at the Ashram Dispensary, if we were going to miss any physical exercises. That was not required for the School! I believe that is still true today. She had found the most able individual in Pranab-da to help maintain a strict discipline. We did all the assigned activities each day of the week, thinking nothing of it because She was there.

Integral Yoga and the body

The most crucial and distinguishing feature of Their Integral Yoga is the emphasis on the body, something that was ignored for the past 2000 years, viewing this world as an illusion and this body to be rid of. She says:

1. “Very few people understand this and generally those who are against the outer discipline of sports, this concentration on the material realisation, are people who completely lack control over their physical being. And to realise the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo the control of one’s body is a first indispensable step. Those who despise physical activities are people who won’t be able to take a single step on the true path of integral yoga, unless they first get rid of their contempt. Control of the body in all its forms is an indispensable basis. A body which dominates you is an enemy, it is a disorder you cannot accept (3).”

Systematic and purposeful exercise rather than widespread āsana was preferred by the Mother:

“From our experience we have found that a particular system of exercises cannot be stamped as the only yogic type of exercises and we cannot definitely say that participation in those exercises only will gain health because they are yogic exercises.

“Any rational system of exercises suited to one’s need and capacity will help the participant to improve in health. Moreover, it is the attitude that is more important. Any well-planned and scientifically arranged programme of exercises practised with a yogic attitude will become yogic exercises and the person practising them will draw full benefit from the point of view of physical health and moral and spiritual uplift (4).” In order to break the mindset, that is still prevalent, despite her best efforts, we did not have asanas as part of our daily physical exercises. In fact, only Ambu bhai performed asanas in front of Her every darshan day.

This is what The Mother said after She witnessed the Russian Olympic gymnasts perform in front of Her in 1958:

“Well, that mastery is already a great step forward towards the transformation of the body. And these people who, I could say, are materialists by profession, used no spiritual method in their education; it was solely by material means and an enlightened use of human will that they had achieved this result. If they had added to this a spiritual knowledge and power, they could have achieved an almost miraculous result…. Because of the false ideas prevalent in the world, we don’t usually see the two things together, spiritual mastery and material mastery, and so one is always incomplete without the other; but this is exactly what we want to do… if the two are combined, the result can reach a perfection that’s unthinkable for the ordinary human mind, and this is what we want to attempt (5).”

Recently, Hansa and I have been encouraging the devotees at the Los Angeles Centre to exercise every day. It is in this connection that Vikas, who manages the Centre, brought to our attention what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have written about the crucial importance of physical education in Integral Yoga. That is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the yoga. Nearly eight decades after the Mother established and emphasised physical education irrespective of gender or age, the rest of the world is recognising the benefits of exercise.

Health benefits of physical exercise

• A rigorous scientific study of over four thousand adult non-clinical population and over ten thousand similarly selected population showed significant reduction in depression in the former and alleviation of anxiety attacks in the latter.

• Exercise, by increasing blood-flow to the brain has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain vital for memory and learning. It has also been shown to reduce changes in the brain that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

• Aerobic exercises from active sports that increase the heart rate, lead to improved blood circulation. This raises the oxygen levels in circulation and also increases the strength of the heart muscle. It significantly reduces the risk of heart disease.

• Exercise has been shown to reduce your blood sugar levels by improving the functioning of the pancreas that produces insulin. There is steady rise in the incidence of diabetes around the world. In addition, approximately 35% of world population is obese.

• Exercise can also be a very effective means of combating chronic pain. For many years, the recommendation was rest and inactivity. Several studies have now demonstrated that exercise reduces pain and improves the quality of life. Participants in these studies included those with chronic lower back pain, fibromyalgia and chronic soft tissue shoulder disorder to name a few.

Parallel to these material aspects is the cultivation of our physical consciousness, which was something deemed essential by Sri Aurobindo Himself:

“A development of the physical consciousness must always be a considerable part of our aim, but for that the right development of the body itself is an essential element; health, strength, fitness are the first needs, but the physical frame itself must be the best possible. A divine life in a material world implies necessarily a union of the two ends of existence, the spiritual summit and the material base (6).”

The work She accomplished in her own body in the final years of her physical Presence, was to bring the supramental consciousness into the cells of her body. That, She says, is out there for everyone. Sri Aurobindo says it best in His poem, ‘The Body’:

“Too small was it to meet the giant need
That only infinitude can satisfy:
He keeps it still, for in the folds is hid
His secret passport to eternity (7).”

She has uncovered that ‘secret passport’ for us all!

The world is becoming increasingly aware of the value of physical education, with supporting scientific evidence of its benefits. The goal of their yoga is to set the stage for that of the next species, the supramental race. To achieve that goal, a more conscious, strong, elastic and enduring body is imperative.

The first human ancestors appeared on earth between five and seven million years ago, probably ape-like creatures who began habitually walking on two legs. The first humans, Homo Erectus, appeared 1.8 million years ago. The Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans appeared 300 to 200 thousand years ago.

The first Homo Sapiens, our immediate ancestors, appeared 200 to 100 thousand years back.

Based on comparisons of astronomical charts, Sri Krishna is supposed to have lived in India about 5,000 thousand years back. Sri Aurobindo brought the overmental consciousness down into the physical on November 24th,1926. In 1950, at his passing, Sri Aurobindo embodied the supramental consciousness. It was something even I could see, as an eight-year-old.

Walking by his body, one saw this indescribable glow, as though His body was being lit from below his bed. By contrast, when the supramental consciousness left His body on the 9th, that glow was gone and his body began to show signs that one would have expected to see.

By the late sixties, the Mother had been able to open the cells of her body to this consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother state that the supramental species could be on earth in 300 to 1000 years, with some transitional forms in between. How is that possible given the pace of evolution up to this point?

Epigenetics and evolution

First, man is the first species that can consciously participate and collaborate. Second, the science of epigenesis is starting to define a path that can make this goal very possible. Sri Aurobindo envisions cross-breeding between man and the intermediary beings. The science of epigenetics suggests a pathway where Matter and Spirit can collaborate.

Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way that can be measured, this is called epigenetics. When a change in environmenthas biological consequences, long after the triggering event itself has disappeared, we witness an epigenetic effect, that is, outside the normal functioning of genes. In other words, it has an effect that cannot be explained by the longstanding Mendelian genetics and the change lasts long past the event that caused that change. This change can carry over from parents to grandchildren. Epigenetic changes can be demonstrated with changes in lifestyle.

Science is finally beginning to discover the missing link between nature and nurture. We can understand why the Mother started accepting families with little children in the early 40s. We were growing up in her enclosed bubble, with Her personally nurturing us by example and educating us with Love, without lecturing. Her classes in the Playground were always responses to questions posed.

A lifestyle that includes a comprehensive, scientifically organised programme of exercises that build endurance, strength, flexibility and balance as a form of conscious or dynamic meditation can bring about epigenetic changes in the body and that can hasten the first step in the establishment of an enlightened body.

As the preparation of the body is of crucial importance, the conscious practice of physical education, the sādhanā of the body, can alter the expression of genes in the cells of our body. Our activities serve as new on and off switches that can control genetic expression rather than being slaves to random genetic events. Furthermore, these changes are passed on to the subsequent generations. Both our sons exercise regularly. Even our granddaughter Maya is taking gymnastic lessons in addition to other physical activities.

Integral Yoga is not only a path for individuals to raise their consciousness and experience the Highest. We also have to attend to matter. The yoga involves making this material envelope a safe haven for the highest consciousness, the supramental. She made that abundantly clear by her own example. This is what She wanted from us, Her children, to collaborate consciously by participating in the acceleration of evolution.

I would like to close with the following two quotes from the Mother to remind us again the crucial importance that Their Integral Yoga gives to the development of the body:

“It may be good to remind you that we are here for a special work, a work not done anywhere else: we want to come in contact with the supreme consciousness, the universal consciousness, we want to receive it and manifest it. For that we need a solid base, and our base is our physical being, our body. We therefore need to prepare a solid, healthy, enduring body, skilful, agile and strong so it may be ready for anything (8).”

“EVEN he who might have attained a perfect contemplation in silence and solitude, would have arrived at it only by withdrawing from his body, by disregarding it; and so the substance of which the body is constituted would remain as impure, as imperfect as before, since he would have left it to itself; and by a misguided mysticism, through the lure of supraphysical splendours, the egoistic desire to unite with Thee for his own personal satisfaction, he would have turned his back upon the very reason of his earthly existence, he would have refused like a coward to accomplish his mission done so by extracting himself from his body,  by making an abstraction of himself; and thus the substance of which the body is constituted would remain as impure, as imperfect as before, since he would have abandoned it to itself; by a misguided mysticism, by the attraction of supraphysical splendours,  by the egoistic desire of being united with Thee for his personal satisfaction, he would have turned his back upon the reason of his earthly existence, he would have refused like a coward to accomplish  his mission — the redemption and purification of Matter. To know that a part of our being is perfectly pure, to commune with this purity, to be identified with it, can be useful only if this knowledge is later used to hasten the transfiguration of the earth, to accomplish Thy sublime work (9).”


1. The Mother. The Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 10. Cent ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1977, p.30.

2. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 2. Paris: Institut de Recherches Évolutives; 1993 English translation, p. 261.

3. The Mother. Collected Works, Volume 9; 2004, p. 83.

4. The Mother. The Collected Works Volume 12. 2nd ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust: 2002, p. 285.

5. The Mother. Collected Works, Volume 9, pp. 04: 87-88.

6. Sri Aurobindo. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 13. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; pp. 521-22.

7. Sri Aurobindo. Birth Centenary Library, Volume 5. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1970, p. 149.

8. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 7; 1993, p.67.

9. The Mother. Collected Works, Volume 1. Cent ed; 1979, p. 20.

1 A sports programme organised by the Department of Physical Education at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram each year.

2 An Ashram warehouse.

3 An Ashram workshop

*The Mother. The Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 5. Cent ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1976, pp. 182-85.

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The Mother


Early years of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram


The Ashram tennis ground


Jawaharlal Nehru


The Mother at the Ashram Playground




Los Angeles Centre




Homo Erectus




Sādhanā of the body