How I Teach Yoga Philosophy
Well first of all, as with Ayurveda, I don’t really teach. How could I? What – do I know something? Not really. Even less as I get older. But I have gathered a ragged bouquet of question techniques that range from musings to proddings to provocation. Gentleness is key, because the discussion has to explore and penetrate belief, which is sometimes all a person thinks they have in defense against despair. Musings are good icebreakers for where we are frozen; provocations require familiarity and trust.
The most repeated question for me, which I try to apply to every yoga-claim about the origin of the world or consciousness or the nature of the internal self-sense, is “How is this idea useful?” Further: “How will it promote justice and resist the destructive impulses of the heart and civilization?” The demand for psychic and social utility exposes the word “philosophy” as insufficient to the project of yoga, which doesn’t “love wisdom” from an ivory tower so much as it wants to know: “Who will I/we become if I/we see/feel things (darśana) this way?”
As I’ve cooked my questions and shared them at the buffet of the seminar, here are some flavours that have emerged through the conversation that makes it all worthwhile.
- It used to be that the unexamined life was not worth living. Now, the unexamined life is killing the planet. Staying mindful of our collective condition will keep things on point and our heads out of the stars. We are cooking ourselves toward a 3.5C temperature rise by 2035 in a world of gross injustice and inequality, masked by neo-liberal marketing and drowning in smarm. Maybe there’s something to that old idea of Kaliyuga after all. Except it probably doesn’t help to feel all orientalist-romantic-mythic-pious-resigned about it. One thing is for sure: if we’re going to indulge in yoga philosophy, it ought to do something for the salmon, the redwoods, our children, other people’s children, people who are recovering from or still oppressed by colonization, and people who don’t have enough to eat.
- Beliefs conceal and suffocate unsolved problems. Describing the problem really well brings it back to life, generating a heat that can dissolve the belief, so that something new can form.
- Allowing one’s beliefs to stand unquestioned can be an act of passive violence against others.
- Do we even care about philosophy? Didn’t we get into yoga for the postures, the endorphin rush, to feel the flesh again? Well that’s how many of us arrive, but at some point, barring a premature demise, our asanas will be limited to a few pelvic tilts in a hospital gurney, and this will be much enhanced if you can have meaningful and mentorly conversations with the younger people who come to visit you. According to Svātmārāma and other Haṭha yogis, philosophy and ethics flow naturally from the physical practices that dominate modern postural yoga. They suggest that if you reason and debate and try to improve your ethics before sitting in gomukhasana to barf up your excess phlegm on a cotton rag or holding your breath until you’re purple you’ll just aggravate your internal psychic splitting. This may be true for some, but I imagine it’s too rare to be significant. There are way too many posturing cotton-rag-barfing-purple-faced savants who are – surprise! – still assholes for Svātmārāma to be simply taken as gospel on the point.
- Let’s seriously absorb the fact that all yoga philosophy arises prior to humanism, democracy, scientific method, and feminism. This means we really have to dig for the problems it can still dialogue with effectively. We’ll have to peer into the ancient, internal, always-unnamed spaces of flesh and thought, untouched (if this is possible) by the last two centuries of technological change and industrial expansion, the last fifty years of post-modern ironic self-reference, and the last thirty years of identity politics. Is there something underneath our cultural constructions and oppressions that an Iron Age practitioner like Patañjali can address? Maybe – if we try to look past his own constructions (if this is possible) to questions like “What does my breath mean?” or “What can my attention do?” or “How many layers of wordless silence can I experience if I get really still?” or “How can I act with integrity, faith, and dispassion?” Because he sure can’t tell us anything about the ethics of climate or genetic engineering. If yoga philosophy has something to offer, it’s probably the general encouragement to pay rapt attention to everything. (Not half-assed internet attention.)
- Other essential questions include: How should we live? (cf. Gita) What is this sense of witnessing, and what does it mean? (cf. Sūtras) What is this flesh capable of? (cf. Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā)
- In years of conversation with fellow students, I’ve noted six general fields over which these questions unfold. Existential honesty. The problem of the body. Feeling versus thinking. How we form, discover, manage, and change our patterning. Our capacity to witness. And: what’s the best balance between enjoyment and discipline?
- But wait a minute. Even if we think we’re finding “essential” questions beneath the cultural constructions that an archaic text cannot speak to, we have to ask: If there are people in the world who literally don’t have the time or resources to consider them, are they really that essential? In other words: let’s not let doing yoga philosophy amplify privilege or distract us from the business of justice. You’ll know this might be happening if you go for more than a day or so in your practice of memorizing the sūtras without thinking about the state of polar ice, or what the lives of people who sew yoga clothes are like.
- We have to be careful about the psychological hazing that can proceed from moral relativism. “Would you rather be right, or happy?” is supposed to back a person into the ecstasy of surrender. But in some areas we must never surrender, if we love the world and animals and other people. It may take longer to make us happy, or it may not make us happy at all, and we might need to take holidays from it for our personal health, but it is always good to campaign for what is right.
- The books we use in yoga are old and aphoristic and deep and hard to read. It’s good to accumulate many translations. If you can find an oral commentator to sit with that can be useful, but remember that they will hold their point of view as strongly as they hold the text. It’s good to slowly cozy up to Sanskrit, as much as you’re able. The roots and etymologies are especially amazing. Above all, it’s very good to realize that the commentarial tradition for each root text exposes so much variation in interpretation that it becomes obvious that each successive reading is a political act. The question of “What did Patañjali mean exactly?” is not only unsolvable by even the most elite Sanskritists and oral tradition-keepers (who themselves are separated from “original meaning” by millennia and incomprehensible cultural change), but also much less important than “What should a collection of sūtras say to us now?” Doing yoga philosophy today means making active, creative choices about what kind of person you want to be, and what kind of world you want to live in. The old books provide limited, but sometimes crucial guidance. Their authority is often overblown: the inverse projection of self-doubt.
- Many 19th century haṭha and tantra yogis were guerrilla warriors. Their ethics demanded armed resistance to colonial occupation. There are reports of gangs of yogis hijacking stagecoaches filled with English, killing them, and roasting and eating their flesh. With the India Arms Act of 1878, the British Raj specifically forbade “yogis” from bearing firearms. They displayed a material pragmatism and political ferocity virtually absent in today’s yoga culture. They would be interesting philosophy teachers to have. They would perhaps advocate that yogis engage in material sabotage of the industrial infrastructure that is killing the planet. They would have very convincing arguments, and they might be very confused by the idea of protesters meditating for peace beside the bitumen pipelines upon which their economy depends.
- The subthemes of various Yoga philosophies have been relativized or displaced by later developments: each specialized, compartmentalized. Cosmology now belongs to physics. Ontology belongs to phenomenology. Psychology belongs to clinicians and psychodynamic psychotherapy practice. Neither the Laws of Manu nor the Gita can give appropriate policy advice. So it is really the scope of yoga philosophy that matters now: its impulse as a grand project. It’s an attitude that encourages the interdisciplinary heart with the whisper: make connections, make connections. Yoga intuits that there are no hard lines between physics, biomedicine, and psychology. Yoga says: think as generalists as well as specialists. E.M. Forster’s epigram to Howard’s End says it well: Only connect the poetry and prose of life…
- Foucault points out in The Order of Things that our narrowness of imagination is exposed when we encounter the outrageous mixing of disciplines and categories flaunted by ancient systems. He writes of “the laughter that shatter[s]… all the familiar landmarks of my thought… breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.” In this vein: we may no longer (must no longer) believe in the power of the moon to enhance or shrivel the amniotic fluid of pregnant women depending on whether it is new or full, as did the old practitioners of Vedic astrology. But we can feel in the thrill of such a metaphor what it means to exist in a world in which every piece of knowledge is coherent with every other piece. It is this feeling of interdisciplinary exuberance that yoga philosophy (mythology, early natural philosophy — whatever we should call it) being as old as it is, as scattered amongst metaphysics and naturalism as it is, can contribute to the lab of modern human sciences.
- Neither “dualistic” nor “non-dualistic” are adequate descriptions of anything, because: intersubjectivity! Various forms of Tantric philosophy seem to say this as far as I can tell, but I don’t know enough about it yet. I hope to learn more about this this year.
- The reason that “yoga philosophy” has been excluded from the philosophy departments of Eurocentric academia is because it has been accused of being indistinguishable from religious practice. (Bina Gupta details how this works.) This is true, but that same argument might also eliminate Platonic, Aristotelian, medieval, Renaissance, continental and analytic philosophy as well, governed as they are by varying degrees of metaphysical abstraction, priestly elites, protected by initiation rituals, and worshipped through sacramental books. At least with yoga philosophy, religion is never actively excluded (except in whatever the Cārvākas practiced, who we think were hunted into extinction by the brahminical hegemony sometime around the era of the Buddha). This is an honest presentation, given that the unconscious life that religion massages and molds with its poetry and archetypes will never leave us. Rationality believes it is always uncovering the unconscious. The fact that its effort is endless merely describes the endlessness of the unconscious. The unconscious is an infinitely receding horizon, and no language will capture it. Religious language is one among many languages of the infinite: an evocative one, a chaotic one, a language through which delicate subjective agreements can be shared, a language that can sometimes balance other languages that get too up themselves. Of course if it’s authoritarian it’s worse than useless.
- Deconstruction, disenchantment, disillusionment are all means, not ends. The end is a renewal of curiosity and dignity.
- So yoga is not comfortable with the category of “philosophy”. It has religious origins and elements and contemporary devotees, but many deny it is a religion. Then we come across the Isha Upanishad: “Wholeness taken from wholeness; wholeness yet remains.” (Easwaren) Or the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā 4:56 – “Empy within, empty without, empty like a pot in space. Full within, full without, full like a pot in the ocean.” (Akers) And we realize it’s also poetry. Written with bones, breath, on banana leaves, vellum, paper, and now screens of light. What is poetry? The active re-enchantment of the inner voice. (This is a passing definition of meditation.) Poetry is the active enrichment of how we confess to each other. Poetry is anything that feeds us for the difficult journeys ahead.