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Yogic Philosophy

Yoga is becoming more accessible every day with more studios opening in towns and more people becoming instructors to help others apply yogic philosophy in their lives. Debra Diamond states, “Yoga emerged in India as a means to transcend suffering…Today, it is widely recognized around the world as a source of health and spiritual insight” (Diamond 23). While the practice of yoga in the west has been adapted to western culture, the original goal of yoga stands. Many people practice yoga in order to strengthen their bodies and calm their minds. Their practices are meant just for them, to get away from the daily hardships and stresses. While most people are unable to reach true enlightenment in their lifetime of practicing yoga and gaining that “spiritual insight,” asanas and meditation hopefully provide moments of peace, understanding, and acceptance.

Yogic philosophy contradicts the concepts of western metaphysics, which discusses intellectual theories. Yogic philosophy, instead, asks for the practitioner to look inward, quiet their thoughts, block out the disturbances of the environment. Following these steps will allow the meditant to enter the plane of the Supreme Being where complete understanding of the universe is discovered and the person can achieve enlightenment (Hewitt 395). Yogic philosophy includes an intimate connection between the mind and body, where the body is a necessary and important tool for the mind to reach enlightenment (Hewitt 390). Modern yoga masters generally instruct their students under the Vedanta philosophy, combining Brahman with Atman, which suggests the Brahman is everywhere and surrounds us and is within us, rather than labelling the Supreme Being as just the “Creator” (Hewitt 391). This concept of the Brahman as everything and being everywhere locates yoga in the disciplines of psychology and philosophy, this concept is why yoga is not considered a religion (Hewitt 391).

However, a person practicing yoga is not required to be a philosopher. Yoga is a spiritual experience that is open to anyone willing to take the time to move through asanas, meditate, and live there life in kindness and selflessness (Feuerstein & Miller 1).

Throughout the centuries, a similarity between theologies is the fact that practitioners strive to reach the same plane as the Supreme Being. Yoga’s concept of enlightenment resembles the pursuit of becoming like God, but its goal is to transcend our physical bodies by achieving complete knowledge (Feuerstein & Miller 2). Yoga is often associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, but yoga can be practiced and applied no matter what religion or belief is practiced by the person. The foundation of yoga is to become one with Brahman. This means that through physical exercise, meditation, and healthy living, we can find a unity to the world around us, and if we believe that Brahman is in everything, including ourselves, then when we focus our attention inwards, we can find that connection with the Supreme Being.

In the East, yoga has been practiced for centuries, dating back to more than 4000 years ago as written in the Vedas (Vivekananda 12). The practice of traditional yoga was more than the physical aspects of yoga, or the asanas, but included the astral body, the physical body, and the mind. When practicing yoga, the goal was to perfect all three and achieve self-realization through physical practice and meditation (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 2). Self-realization, through yoga, requires mastery of the body, mind, and senses where the practitioner frees themselves from the ego. When the ego is taken out of the equation, the yogi is able to focus on the “blissful Self,” which if the Brahman is in everything, the yogi is then focusing on becoming the divine (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 3). The state of self-realization is also the point where the practitioner frees oneself from society and cultural norms, which is achieving Samadhi (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 6). The physical world we live in where society dictates how we act and live our lives is an illusion, once we are able to focus on our self and master the body, mind, and senses, we can transcend the limitations and illusions of the world and we are closer to self-realization (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 3).

There are different yoga paths to achieve self-realization. A practitioner can abide by one or a combination of the yogas, i.e. Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra, Yantra, Kundalini, Tantric, Hatha, and Raja. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and focuses on the intellect. Bhakti yoga focuses on the divine and is for the practitioner who has a devotional temperament. Karma yoga is based on selfless practice, where the yogi acts and serves selflessly by letting go of the ego. Mantra yoga practices the repetition of sounds, words, or phrases which affects the body and mind. Yantra yoga affects the senses of sight with focus on patterns or objects such as a candle flame or a mandala. Kundalini yoga focuses on the chakra system by maintaining stable postures and meditation to alight the astral body. Tantric yoga focuses on the sexual energies and the union between male and female through physical means or imagination. Hatha yoga combines asana practice and breath control to gain mastery over the body and prepare the practitioner for mastery over the mind. Finally, Raja yoga is the mastery over the mind by stilling thought. By mastering consciousness, the practitioner can also master the body (Hewitt 6-9).

Hatha yoga is the most frequently practiced yoga in the West (Hewitt 8). Hatha yoga is considered to be the most practice yoga with its focus on postures and breath control, making it desirable to westerners seeking to enrich their lives holistically (Hewitt 9, Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 2). Yoga is non-discriminatory and can be practiced by anyone across all beliefs and lifestyles (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 5). Asanas and pranayama can be practiced independently from a philosophy. Therefore, those practicing Hatha yoga, especially in the West, are not adhering to the philosophy of “cultivating moral observances and habits” or purifying the body to prepare themselves for a more spiritual practice (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 6). It is the responsibility of the yoga instructor to teach not only the physical benefits of asanas and pranayama, but also the benefit of preparing the body and mind for spiritual awakening and self-realization.

The reason for yoga to have been strictly practiced in the East, until recently, is due to the fact that yoga was reserved for those who practiced severe self-discipline and was passed down from teacher to student in the guru-shishya tradition (Jain & Hauswirth-Jain 9). Humans differ from other animals on the planet because we are capable of self-discovery, or analyzing our own thoughts and actions. Humans progressed and evolved intellectually due to our ability to be aware of our own thoughts and state of being. This progressed first with “knowledge of the body and its functions was the beginning of self-understanding, knowledge of the mind and its processes was the beginning of self-awareness, and experience of the transcendental force/spirit was the beginning of self-realization” (Vivekananda 11). This awareness and understanding then realized in order to reach the ultimate awareness of consciousness, the body had to be taken care of and perfected, this led to a healthy diet and physical activity (Vivekananda 11). Yogic philosophy strives to make sense of our awareness of ourselves and our purpose within the universe (Vivekananda 12).

Yogic philosophy attempts to understand our placement within our society and our relationships with other people and the environment (Vivekananda 12). Yogic philosophy strives to understand those sublime concepts that can only be understood once we reach enlightenment. Even if enlightenment cannot be achieved, the practice of yoga through asanas, pranayama, and meditation still benefit the body and mind and we can live our lives peacefully (Vivekananda 13). Our focus on ourselves with the intention of becoming harmonious and balanced in mind and body opens the door to becoming self-aware of our physical body and our astral body within the universe and gives us the ability to heal ourselves physically and mentally (Waller xiii). Yoga is a holistic practice that enhances our relationship with ourselves, others, and nature (Waller xiii). Everything is connected, i.e. our emotions, our thoughts, our physical bodily functions, and our spiritual body. When we are stressed, we feel the stress mentally, physically, and spiritually. When we become connected with the world around us, we can also feel that connection physically and mentally.

In the West, the link between the body and mind is easily explained and understood because when we stub a toe, our brain registers the pain, when we are in a good mood, our bodies feel stronger and capable. The more difficult concept to comprehend in western culture is that yogic philosophy includes the spirit, or soul. The soul is not visible; it has been discussed in theology as the piece of us that will ascend to the divine after our bodies die. However, in yogic philosophy, the soul can be felt and even mastered through yoga practice. There are extreme emotions that are experienced through the body and spirit, emotions that you are not able to vocalize, such as the overwhelming beauty of seeing a sunrise over the ocean. Yogic philosophy suggests that the spirit can be accessed through yoga practice and we can ascend to the divine before our physical death. Our ascension to the plane of the divine is our knowledge and acceptance of the universe around us.

Tias Little, in his book “Yoga of the Subtle Body: A Guide to the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Yoga,” explains that the subtle body is the unseen particles of an atom, our spirits, and a name of Shiva (the Supreme Being in Hinduism), therefore, the subtle body is spiritual material or energy that is contained in everything and connects the universe, the soul, and the divine together (Little, 1). The subtle body is generally represented by the chakra system, which is vital body energy. Little discusses the relationship and connection between the physical body and the subtle body by analyzing sections of the physical body, starting with the feet, and how the subtle body is present within our physical body and its actions. An example is the feet in yoga; the feet provide grounding both physically and spiritually. When we feel well-grounded, we are capable of improving our endurance and strengthening our resolve (Little 11).

The chakra system has become a more common teaching in the West. Each chakra is associated with an element, a shape, a color, and a petalled lotus. A chakra is a spinning vortex of energy that allows us to access parts of our spiritual body to improve our health, our relationships, or connect us to nature, and ultimately reach the plane of the divine. The chakra system provides spiritual wealth when there might not be material wealth. Opening up spirituality allows us to influence our health (mentally and physically) and ultimately our lives (Judith 5). For example, by meditating on our heart chakra, we open ourselves to loving ourselves and others, which enriches our lives and gives us a sense of belonging. Anodea Judith states, that “the chakra system is an evolutionary program and can be used to reprogram our lives” (Judith 9). Therefore, if we address certain deficiencies or excessive behaviors in our lives, we can rearrange our energy in the chakras to produce a more loving, balanced, and healthful life.

Instructing students on the chakra system can be a challenge for those who are not open to the spiritual aspects of yoga. During practice, if meditating on a particular chakra is not on the agenda, certain asanas or pranayama can be practiced to activate a chakra. This could manifest as standing poses, which provide stability and grounding for the first chakra, muladhara. When visualizing the chakra system, the practitioner can imagine spinning wheels of energy running along the spine and up to the crown of the head. Nadis are the channels that connect the chakras. They are spiritual pathways through the subtle body that can also be visualized as bringing prana into our bodies and spreading energy (ed. Shamdasani xxiv). We can move energy toward or away from chakras using meditation. Our visualizations come into manifestations when we form them into words then into substance. As part of the chakra system, thoughts and imaginations are established in the 7th and 6th chakras; we move those thoughts and visualizations downward through the chakras and they become manifestations at the root, or the 1st chakra (Judith 14). The first chakra is connected more with our physical bodies and establishes our presence within the world around us (Judith 26).

Focusing on the chakra system draws our attention inward. Inner realization is the first step toward complete knowledge. Jakob Wilhelm Hauer believed that when practicing yoga, the practitioner would know and understand the structure of matter and understand the laws of matter (Shamdasani xxxviii). The goal of yoga is to understand the universe. This would then suggest that by reaching enlightenment, all knowledge is available, even notions difficult to explain or even comprehend on the earthly plane. The practice of yoga has been of interest to philosophers and psychologists for many years as they attempted to understand the physical benefits of practicing mental discipline, but their research focused on the intellectual aspects of yoga rather than acknowledging the importance of the body, mind, and spirit interaction that yoga employs.

Carl Jung considered yoga to be a psychological practice. He claimed that in India, the practice of yoga was a psychological discipline that was not appreciated, understood, or respected yet in the West. He believed that in the west, people were not practiced enough in psychological awareness to practice yoga to its fullest and most beneficial point (Shamdasani xxviii). Jung’s analysis of yoga was not incorrect; part of the practice of yoga is becoming aware of one’s own thoughts and placement in the world, which can only be done psychologically. However, Jung’s examination does not account for the mind/body connection that is quintessential to yoga practice. When we practice yoga, we strive to transcend our physical form by reaching the plane of the divine, but we practice asanas, pranayama, healthy diet, and other cleansing practices in order to protect our physical body because it is our temple that houses our spirit that will eventually reach enlightenment. We cannot discuss yogic philosophy without including both the mind and body and the interaction between the two.

For psychologists and philosophers, the concept of enlightenment is one of mystery. In Western thought, the idea of healing through the spirit is a foreign concept and believed to have limits. In the West, physical ailments have been generally viewed to only be curable through physical means (Cortright 2). While philosophers and psychologists struggle to understand the innerworkings of the mind and grasp the concept of enlightenment, they have concluded that the human mind cannot comprehend the ultimate “Truth,” meaning our mental capacity for understanding the universe and the divine is limited and we cannot fully understand these concepts. Yoga, however, offers the ability to unite with the knowledge at the 7th chakra. The seventh chakra, sahasrara, offers self-knowledge of the divine within and complete consciousness. Through the seventh chakra we can see and understand that the divine is all around us, in all matter, including ourselves. The seventh chakra is the most difficult chakra to activate especially for those in the West whom have been raised and exposed to a materialistic culture. In the West, we surround ourselves with attachments and socially constructed illusions that hinder our spiritual progress. Until we can separate from those illusions and attachments, we will not be able to unite with the divine (Judith 393). The chakra system provides the rainbow bridge connecting the physical to the consciousness. In order to keep ourselves from “getting lost in the infinite,” from spiraling in the astral plane, we need an anchor, which is our physical body. The chakra’s and the nadis give us the tether to return to our bodies and ground us to the surrounding world (Judith 393).

Being an instructor of yoga means you are doing more than directing students through asanas and pranayama, but also infusing your practices with yogic philosophy as you walk them through pranayama and asanas. Yoga is more than a fitness class. It is a spiritual experience developed to discover the Truth of our Self (Roundtree & Desiato viii). In the eight fold path of yoga, to discover peace and eternal contentment, one must adhere to the yamas (abstentions), niyamas (lifestyle observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (senses withdrawal), dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (unity with the divine) (Dowdle 2017). The yamas and niyamas are the ethical values that are the first two steps in the yogic journey (Dowdle 2017).

The first ethical commandment in the yoga discipline is Ahimsa, or non-violence, which is an important concept to include in your practices (Roundtree & Desiato 48). Ahimsa is more than not harming others but includes not harming yourself. A non-violent existence encompasses physical and mental practices. In a state of mind of no-harm we open ourselves to love, loving others, loving the world, and loving ourselves. When we welcome love into our lives and move with the intention of love then we live a life full of enrichment and contentment (Roundtree & Desiato 48). Also, when you fill yourself with love, the love radiates outward to affect those around you. The instructor can open with an intention of focusing on the fourth chakra, perhaps starting with a chant to instill love in the student’s mind, then throughout practice, remind them to breathe and open the chest and the heart as they move. Once again, a chant can be used at the end of the practice so the student can take the feeling of love and peace with them outside of the classroom.

By teaching the yoga sutras within the yoga practice, the student is more likely to take what they have learned with them and will be able to apply the practice outside of the classroom. Even if a student does not seek to find the truth of the universe, or unity with the divine, teaching yogic philosophy in the classroom through small meditations, chants, and gentle reminders of being kind to themselves and others, being open to the beauty in the world around them, and accepting who they are and what they have, are important concepts to relay that would ideally follow them in their everyday lives. Yogic philosophy offers the ability to understand our problems and suffering. Once there is understanding, we can transcend that suffering and be at peace and unite with the divine (Vishnu-devananda 11). As an instructor, if we can relay even a small portion of this truth to our students, we can bring them some semblance of contentment.

Cortright, Brant. Integral Psychology: Yoga, Growth, and Opening the Heart. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2007.

Dowdle, Hillari. “Path to Happiness: 9 Interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas: The 10 Pillars of Wisdome from the Yoga Sutra lead the way to True Freedom.” Yoga Journal. May 23, 2017.

Feuerstein, Georg, PhD and Jeanine Miller. The Essence of Yoga: Essays on the Development of Yogic Philosophy from the Vedas to Modern Times. Inner Traditions International. Rochester, Vermont. 1971.

Hewitt, James. The Complete Yoga Book: Yoga of Breathing, Yoga of Posture, and Yoga of Meditation.Schocken Books. New York, NY. 1977.

Jain, Ram and Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain. Hatha Yoga: For Teachers and Practitioners: A Comprehensive Guide to Holistic Sequencing. White Road Publications. Monee, IL. 2017.

Judith, Anodea. Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self. Celestial Arts. New York, NY. 1996.

Shamdasani, Sonu ed. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932 by C. G Jung. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1996.

Vivekananda, Rishi. Practical Yoga Psychology. Yoga Publications Trust. Munger, Bihar, India. 2005.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. Three Rivers Press. New York, NY 1960.

Waller, Pip. Deeply Holistic: A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care: Know Your Body, Live Consciously, and Nurture Your Spirit. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, California. 2018.

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