Yogi holding a gong

What Yoga Philosophy Means To Me

Is It Intuitive Or Academic?

Is yoga philosophy an essential part of any yoga practice or is it an academic sideline that just distracts you from your asana practice? Is yoga philosophy just the ramblings of old Indian men—gurus?—or are they the deep thoughts that ground a lineage of yoga teachers in a way of thinking that can speak to your inner soul?

These are deep questions themselves. There are, I suspect, no answers just thoughts and feelings that inform your personal practice—or not!

The Study of Philosophy

Before I dive into this subject I should declare that I have studied a lot of yoga philosophy. I know a lot of the texts and, to some extent, understand them. But the question of whether they inform my practice is one that I will answer later. Whilst I am not an academic, I have an academic bent, I love reading and analysing texts and trying to apply the lessons I learn to my life. I have studied philosophy widely and love comparing the different viewpoints expressed.

A couple of years ago I committed to reading the bible in its entirety in the course of a year. I followed a plan of daily readings that took me through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and the Psalms twice. I managed to stick to the plan and succeeded in something I had spent most of my life trying to achieve. I first started this as a teenager and didn't even get through Genesis. But I digress.

In reading the bible like this—not studying it, just reading it—I was able to put a context around the period of my life when I was an evangelical/charismatic christian. I understand what I had been taught and was able to form my own views on it. The textual background enabled me to see the relevance, or otherwise, of the many bits of the bible I had studied over the years. Surely taking this approach will open up the context around yoga for me?

Yoga's Major Texts

The two major texts studied by yoga students and practitioners are the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. They are very different texts and they both have a curious connection to yoga as we know it today—the practice of asanas. They are both ancient and are both part of Indian literature and Hindu heritage.

This is an aspect that cannot be over-looked in trying to understand the context of yoga. Yoga is apparently a deep part of Indian culture and today it has been adopted by Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, to bolster his nationalist religious approach. Despite the protestations of many teachers that yoga is non-religious, it has been adopted as religious by many Indians. Reading the Sutras and the Gita tends to encourage this view. While the practice of asanas are not themselves religious they can be seen in a religious context.

The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras is a collection of terse aphorisms that lead a practioner towards samadhi—the ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth. It is possible to put a non-religous interpretation on the text but the concept of god is at its core. The nature of god is, of course, open to interpretation, thus enabling the text to be seen in many different ways. What is not in doubt, though, is that it is absolutely based on a view of existence that is completely Indian. The idea of karma is centred around a person's continual rebirth until they are capable of releasing this.

This release is achieved, on a simple level, through meditation. This meditation is undertaken by going through a number of levels set out in the eight-fold path. Interestingly the practice of asanas is only one level on this journey. Physical strength, suppleness or balance are not the point of this journey, purification through physical means is. The text gives no instructions for asana practice other than stira and sukha—steadiness and ease. You are to practice consistently and with dedication.

The text is a marvellous exposition of a deep journey of meditation towards what we call enlightenment. It is not a great text for the practice of asanas, unless you see yoga in a religious context.

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is the story of Arjuna and Krishna, his charioteer, who is actually god. It is the story of Arjuna's attack of doubt in the middle of a battlefield and Krishna's attempts to set him on his karmic path. It is part of an enormous book, the Mahabharata, which is part of the canon of Hindu sacred scriptures. It is rooted in a Hundu religious view of life and is, again, about the question of rebirth and release from it.

At various points in the text Krishna makes reference to different aspects of yoga but, again, does not set out any instruction on its physical practice. What becomes clear from reading the Gita is that yoga is a way of life and an approach to existence.

There are other ancient texts which specifically refer the asana practice, as well as meditation and pranayama, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. These do form a historic basis for the development and practice of physical yoga practice.

Yoga as a Way of Life

What becomes clear in delving back into the historic roots of yoga is that yoga is much bigger that most people's understanding of it. Yoga is a way of life, it's a way of thinking and a way of looking at the world. It is a philosophical approach to life that should be adopted as a complete way of life. The physical aspects of yoga, asana and pranayama practice, are a critically important part of this way of life, but they are not the totality of it.

So yoga philosophy is not a background or context to the study of yoga, it is the study of yoga. This an aspect that practitioners discover when they delve into it and it is one that most often surprises them. This the core of becoming a yogi.

To go back to the original question, yoga philosophy is not just an essential part of yoga practice, it is yoga practice. There is also a deep academic study of yoga philosophy centred around critical study of the texts. This is a fascinating discipline that informs and expands our understanding of the original intentions of yoga.

My Personal Practice

In my personal practice I love to explore my relationship with my body through asana and pranayama practice because my body is my earthly representation. My exploration takes me deep into my psychological, emotional and spiritual core, a core that informs my physical existence. On another level my asana and pranayama practice creates a body that is able to drop easily into meditation to thus enable this exploration. As the Yoga Sutras states at the beginning,

Atha yoganushasanam, chitta vritti nirodha—Now begins the study of yoga, the calming of the turnings of the mind.

This is the heart of my practice. My difficulty is with the focus on god in the texts of yoga.