What Does Philosophy Have To Do With Yoga?
Many people approach the start of a deep dive into yoga study with an impression or inkling that there’s some kind of philosophy attached to yoga – usually from brief references made during yoga classes. But until you actually study yoga in a comprehensive way and see how all the various parts fit together, you may well be wondering, “What on earth does philosophy have to do with my yoga and why should I bother to learn it?”
Many of us will be familiar with yoga classes featuring snippets of wisdom amongst the asana and breathing practices. Perhaps you were invited to ponder how pushing yourself beyond your physical limits or paying attention to your own negative self-talk were contrary to the yogic principle of ‘do no harm’. Maybe you were invited to contemplate ‘surrendering’ into a particular posture.
For yoga enthusiasts yet to undertake any formal yoga studies, it may be difficult to see the big picture that your yoga teacher is so keen to reveal to you and why.
Even for very experienced yoga teachers, weaving the wisdom of yogic philosophy into mainstream classes can be a challenge. Yoga teachers are attempting to meet people where they are at, and for many, this is a patient and loving journey to helping people simply see that yoga is about far more than just physical postures.
This can be a slow transition. Yoga teachers are very aware that many of their students have turned up for a physical workout, and all the specific benefits that go along with physical prowess. They know that if they talk about philosophy for 15 minutes, there’s a risk this may be too-much, too-soon for some people who then don’t return, and a bridge may be lost. So yoga teachers tend to take a gently-gently approach, dropping little breadcrumb pearls here and there, to gently move people towards an interest in observing their own thought patterns and way of being.
What yoga is really all about
What your yoga teachers have been doing is fostering opportunities for you to change the way you think.
Because, let’s face it, on some level you already know that once you’ve nailed the perfect chaturanga/headstand/splits etc, the satisfaction will wear off and there will be something else to replace this desire, and we’re suddenly back to a state of striving with feelings of dissatisfaction or lack.
“You know what happened when I finally got handstand lotus in the centre of the room?
…..I still had to go home and wash the dishes” (Judith Hansen Lasater)
This snapback sensation of dissatisfaction is true of any goal or acquisition that is external to us, where we place our ‘happiness’ in the hands of things are temporary by nature (such as physical prowess…one day we will age), or where we over-identify with goals that feed our ego. Feeding our ego doesn’t satiate its appetite; to the contrary, being fed makes ego’s appetite stronger, so it needs to be fed over and over and over, more and more. The result is that we are constantly chasing something outside of ourselves to feel better.
But we need not live this way, with this restless mind, craving and heartache.
What if being human came with an instruction manual that taught us possible ways to free ourselves from suffering?
‘Enlightenment’ is a big concept – worthy of its own libraries of content – and can be tricky to wrap our heads around. Some people prefer to see themselves simply on a journey towards sustainable calm and contentment.
A sense of sustainable contentment and peace comes from within, so it is changing the way the mind works that forms the foundation of yoga.
We can use physical movements to work through the body – being the most accessible and relatable layer of our selves – but the real shift happens in our mind and emotions.
Here at The Yoga Institute, we often use the terms yoga philosophy and yoga psychology interchangeably, as we guide people to see the influence these learnings can have on mental and emotional health.
Through yoga we learn to observe ourselves as if observing a third person. This self-awareness gives us the freedom of clear-thought, so we can make conscious choices in our lives and not suffer unnecessarily at the constructs of our own minds.
For example, we’re all familiar with the little inner-critic that says things like, “You’re not good enough”, “They don’t really like you”, “That only works for other people, you can’t do it”, “You’ll never heal”, “Life will always be hard”……. Yes, that voice, we all have one! We could all benefit from being present enough to choose not to believe every thought that pops into our heads, right?
Just because a thought arises, doesn’t make it true. You are not your thoughts. This is the gift of yoga.
But we can’t exercise our right to choose which thoughts to believe, if we don’t actively practice monitoring and observing our thoughts. Without self-awareness, our thoughts will take us down some deep and self-limiting rabbit-holes faster than you can say “Yoga pants”! It is the practice of observing ourselves that allows us to select which thoughts we will engage with or entertain. We do not need to be passengers.
This is why here at The Yoga Institute, we often say, “Anything you do with attention to how you feel and how you are being, is doing yoga”. Every moment of the day is an opportunity to observe how we are being.
The human instruction manual
Yogic philosophy is often referred to as a blueprint for how to live well, how to how to live happy, healthy and peaceful lives with the double-edged gift of being born into the human condition.
Our true, unchanging self – with its calm, loving and peaceful ways – is already there and has always been there; our work in as humans is to learn how to remove the mental blockades we’ve made for ourselves to re-connect with our real selves.
“Whaaaat?” Ok, let’s re-phrase this a bit more plainly for the modern era:
Put another way, Yoga is ultimately about mental and emotional health, with an array of wonderful physical side-benefits.
People who have experienced the benefits that yoga can bring – benefits that go well beyond the physical level, such as a sense of calm or greater patience – make ideal candidates for teacher training. Their own lived experiences tell them that yoga isn’t just an exercise class, that there’s something more here.
Yoga, spirituality, religion – how do they all fit together?
It’s important to note that Yoga is not a religion, as can on occasion be misinterpreted. With consciousness, humans sought to find practical answers to life’s most profound questions. History shows us this quest can lead to the existence of religions, but there is an important distinction between philosophy and faith.
In yoga we contemplate the concept of ‘self’ – that unchanging part of ourselves, that part of ourselves that knows that despite how our physical appearance changes over a lifetime, and despite how much our opinions, attitudes, likes, dislikes and so on are all subject to change over our lifetimes, we recognise it’s still us inside, there’s something unchanging within us – and this can feel quite spiritual for some people.
Nothing in the study of yogic philosophy asks for you to accept or believe anything on face value. We discuss at length the lessons Patanjali may have been endeavouring to impart, looking at multiple interpretations and translations. Your part is simply to be curious, see what resonates for you, and to see how things may show up in your own life.
Yoga does not seek to override or supplant anyone’s existing religion. It can co-exist and even enrich people’s faith systems. Yoga does not tell us what to think, it teaches us how to think with greater clarity.
To connect with one’s unchanging self is to simultaneously witness that we are also connected to – and part of – something greater than ourselves. This process and experience is not restricted to people who align with a particular earthly set of beliefs, it is the birthright and potential of every single human being, irrespective of the presence of a religion or not.
“A lot can be said about what is yoga. One meaning of the word yoga is to tie the threads of the mind together. Yoga is not a religion. But a religious person can use yoga. Whether you’re a religious person on non-religious person, you need a mind to understand life….. Yoga is not a religion, it is a discipline.” (TKV Desikachar)
Sources of Yogic Philosophy
You may on occasion hear of ancient texts such as The Bhagavad Gita, Patanaljali’s Yoga Sutras, and their older forebears, The Upanishads and The Vedas.
The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras are often seen as the distillation of the existential wisdom that had – up to their creation – been passed down in either in oral tradition or in extensive volumes of literature.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
For thousands of years before Patanjali write the Yoga Sutras, humans had been contemplating who was the observer of their own actions, reflecting on the concept of ‘self’.
As you may well expect, a comprehensive instruction manual for how to live with the human condition, may get very long and complex after all those years.
Patanjali sought to condense the recipe for freedom from suffering into a more succinct text, elegant and almost poetry-like. Each sutra is about one sentence long (sometimes two or three), and totalling less than 200 all together.
The resulting text, consisting of 4 main chapters, was abundantly more portable and easy to reference. However, so much depth has been packed into the careful and deliberate choice of words in each sutra, that its richness is best revealed with the help of someone to guide us and help us unpack each sutra and guide us around how we can observe this for ourselves in our real life.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga are perhaps the best known section of the Sutras, including ‘codes of conduct’ referred to as Yamas and Niyamas. Books and books can be written on each sub-topic and the sub-topics under that, and so on. However, the 8 Limbs are only a comparatively small piece of the broader wisdom on offer.
With the help of an experienced guide to unravel the ancient wisdom, and the encouragement to then notice these aspects showing up in our lives and to experience their teachings beyond their academic contemplation, well, this is when aha! moments happen. And the seeds of transformation start to grow and bear fruit.
Why we place so much importance on yogic philosophy
Our mission is to help people deepen their love and understanding of yoga, and to help people share the healing power of yoga. Particularly for those people who feel drawn to learn how to teach yoga to other people, there is a significant mantle of responsibility.
At The Yoga Institute, we dedicate a lot of time exploring yogic philosophy and helping people see the mind-body-spirit connection.
Having a suitable guide, plus the time and spaciousness to allow aha! moments to occur is critical to quality yoga training, so that you may in turn guide other people towards their own shifts and transformation.
As people grow and change with their yoga journeys, they not only become calmer, more resilient to change and stressors, with a greater sense of wellbeing and contentment, they love and accept themselves better. They then go on to foster better and more caring relationships with others, and to be more responsible custodians of the planet.
Learning and living yogic philosophy helped former student Natalie in her own life, as well as how she connected to others as a teacher. Read more here.
When we can love and accept ourselves, that peace will radiate outwards to others.
Yoga: making the world a better place, one person at a time!
Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute
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