Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Yoga: A Basic Philosophical Introduction

[subscript diacritic dots missing]

Yoga: from a verbal root, “yuj,” which is often taken to mean “to yoke” or “to unite” (with God: here, as īśvara, an ‘impersonal, acosmic, detached presence whose inherent contentlessness can only show itself as what it is not’), however, as Gerald Larson explains, “[B]oth Vyāsa and Vācaspatimiśra [point] out that Yoga in the context of Pātañjala Yoga does not mean ‘yuj’ in the sense of ‘yoke’ or ‘join,’ but rather ‘yuj’ in the sense of samādhi or concentration [these being the two possible associations of the verbal root ‘yuj’].” It entails unswerving commitment and concentration as a meditative discipline that harnesses bodily and psychic energy on behalf of techniques designed to still the mind (the fluctuations of ‘mind-stuff’) and finely focus the mental powers of discrimination and concentration. It is a combination of physiological, psychological, and spiritual methods fashioned to alter routine states of consciousness or awareness.

Sometimes the term “yoga” is used in a general and loose sense to mean something like “disciplined thought” or meditative concentration, in which case it can refer to “disciplined work in any number of areas, including law, medicine, art, ritual, language, and so forth” (Larson). Our focus here is on the first and more technical meaning of Yoga as “that specific system of thought (śāstra) that has for its focus the analysis, understanding and cultivation of those altered states of awareness that lead one to the experience of spiritual liberation. [here: kaivalya, elsewhere: moksa]” (Larson).

Patañjali’s Yoga system is one of the six āstika (orthodox) darśanas,* hence a distinct philosophical school and a spiritual praxis, as elaborated in his Yoga Sūtra (3rd to 4th century CE; the Sūtra, usually read together with its indispensable commentary, Vyāsa’s Bhāsya), is also known as the “Eight-Limbed Yoga” (astānga-yoga), only one limb of which, the third and “outer member” (āsana), is found in contemporary “YMCA” and “classified ads” yoga (there are all-too-few exceptions to this generalization). In other words, in most contexts of contemporary public discourse, the word “yoga” is used in reductive reference to āsanas, although the two terms are not interchangeable. We might describe this as emblematic of the commodification and commercialization of religious praxis in conjunction with New Age orientalist nonsense. The long-term goal of yoga is asamprajñāta-samādhi, a non-conceptual awareness beyond all thought, attribute and description (nirvikalpa). As such a state of awareness becomes more than intermittent, it is capable of eliminating samskāras (karmic predispositions, i.e., it is karmically ‘seedless’). Classical Yoga largely assumed or took over Sāmkhya metaphysics: as Larson reminds us, Pātañjala Yoga “as a philosophical tradition is unintelligible without the Sāmkhya ontology and epistemology,” sharing many of the latter’s basic philosophical presuppositions and assumptions, but most importantly, the aim of disassociating pure consciousness from the mind-body complex (the latter a product of prakrti). Unlike Sāmkhya, however, Yoga introduces a deity essential to contemplation (īśvara-pranidhāna) and a model of the yogi’s ultimate goal, for “The Lord is a special [kind of] purusa, untouched by hindrances, karma, its fruition, and latent-deposits [of karmic actions]” (Yoga Sūtra 1.24). This is a peculiar deity indeed, for the Lord does not create the universe, remaining an utterly transcendent deity never in touch with the world (thus completely set apart from the manifestations of prakrti). Here, the deity appears to have a wholly functional spiritual and psychological rationale, dispensable and utterly transcended with asamprajñāta-samādhi. While ultimately on the order of an ‘illusion’ therefore, this deity is viewed as no less necessary until such time as the devotee has reached a certain pinnacle of meditative attainment or realization, a formulation not unlike its counterpart role in Advaita Vedānta.

Although Patañjali’s Yoga is both a darśana and an ascetic or meditative practice, we can distinguish Yoga as a classical philosophical system and school from Yoga as a spiritual tradition of “experimental or experiential practice (whether ritualistic, devotional, meditative, therapeutic, alchemical or magical)” (Larson), for there are many traditions of Yoga “that run parallel to philosophical Yoga from the earliest centuries of the Common Era through the medieval and modern periods,” only two of which we’ll mention here: the Yoga of the Bhagavad Gītā and Moksadharma portion of the epic Mahābhārata (e.g., bhakti-, karma-, and jñāna-yoga), and the yoga praxis (Kundalinī yoga) found in the monistic Śaivism of Abhinavagupta and Ksemarāja. (In a future post, we’ll introduce the former three yogas by way of a prelude to a discussion of Gandhi’s preference for karma-yoga). Alas, among the later, “popular extensions” of these parallel traditions one finds “peripheral” and “tangential” sub-traditions, writes Larson, “which sometimes have degenerated into pointless superstition and aberrant psychological behavior. Unfortunately, some of this peripheral and tangential material has found its way into New Age spiritual practices. New Age bookshelves continue to be filled with the most incredible nonsense that passes itself off as Yoga, ranging from so-called Yoga massage books to au courant techniques for new and improved tantric orgasms.” Both New Age “Yoga” and commodified gymnastic āsanas are, to put it feebly, a far cry from Patañjali’s Yoga philosophy and praxis or the yogas of the Bhagavad Gītā. Somewhat distinct from either of these contemporary expressions of Yoga, what we’ll term “hybrid-Yoga,” is well represented in the following article from the Los Angeles Times, “Bending yoga to fit their worship needs:”

“Christian pop music played quietly in the background as instructor Bryan Brock led a recent yoga class at the nondenominational Church at Rocky Peak in Chatsworth. Incorporating prayer and readings from the Bible, Brock urged his class of about 20 students to find strength in their connection to their creator through yoga’s deep, controlled breathing. ‘The goal of Christian yoga is to open ourselves up to God,’ he said. ‘It allows us to blur the line between the physical and the spiritual.’ The instructor then recited the Lord’s Prayer while his students moved slowly through a series of postures known as the sun salutation. Such hybrid classes, which combine yoga practice with elements of Christianity or Judaism, appear to be growing in popularity across Southern California and elsewhere. Some Christians call their versions of the discipline holy yoga or Yahweh yoga and some teachers urge participants to ‘breathe down Jesus.’ Jewish yogis, in turn, have developed—and in some cases, even trademarked—Torah yoga, Kabbalah yoga and aleph bet yoga, applying Eastern meditative movements to Jewish prayer and study.” [….]

Among its philosophical virtues, the Yoga tradition of Patañjali spells out in some detail the essentials of karma theory: paraphrasing Karl Potter’s concise summary, an act (karman) performed with purposive intent and desire or passion creates either a meritorious or unmeritorious karmic residue depending on the quality of the act (including its motivation). This karmic residue includes dispositional tendencies (samskāra) of various kinds, including two kinds of traces (vāsanās), one of which, when activated, produces certain mental and emotional afflictions (including ignorance, egoism, attachment) (kleśas). The kleśas color or characterize the thinking, feeling, and actions of one engaged in purposive activity and, in turn, causally lead to the production of yet more karmic residue, assuring the person’s continued bondage. At death, a person’s unactivated karmic residues, including his vāsanās, gather together within that individual’s citta (here, and loosely, ‘mind,’ as intellect, the ego and senses). Citta is the term for the bodily and mental evolutes or aspects of prakrti (material substance, from grosser to finer), made up of the three gunas (sattva, tamas, and rajas) whose fluctuations affect the thinking, willing, and feeling of individual selves. The citta associated with a jīva of the just-deceased body immediately passes on to a new body-mind configuration (assuming human rebirth here)—presumably a fetus—and accords the new body a citta appropriate to it. The karmic residues determine the individuation of the body-mind configuration, ceteris paribus, the length of its life, and the affective tone (bhoga) of the experiences the person will have (i.e., whether pleasurable or painful). When the person acts (as a purposive agent), karmic residues directly affect the tone of experience: ‘good’ residues producing pleasurable experiences, “bad” residues producing painful experiences. It is the individual’s response or reaction to those experiences (e.g., attached or non-attached) that determine whether or not she will create further karmic residues and associated vāsanās. According to the Gītā (cf. XII.12, 13-20; XVII.12), for example, it is “non-attachment” to or renunciation of the “fruits” of one’s actions that forestalls further karmic production. Such non-attachment or renunciation may require, as in Patañjali’s Yoga system, attainment of the highest state of meditative concentration (samādhi), an enduring state of non-conceptual awareness of reality (‘pure witness-consciousness’). (Please see Potter’s essay, ‘The Karma Theory and Its Interpretation in Some Indian Philosophical Systems,’ in O’Flaherty, ed., 1980: 241-267)

* The Wikipedia entry on “Hindu philosophy” is also fairly reliable.

References and Further Reading:
  • Alter, Joseph S. Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Bryant, Edwin F., trans. (and commentary). The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. New York: North Point Press, 2009.
  • Chapple, Chris and Eugene Kelly, trans. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1990.
  • De Michelis, Elizabeth. A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. New York: Continuum, 2004.
  • Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
  • Dyczkowski, Mark S.G. The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Feuerstein, Georg. The Philosophy of Classical Yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
  • Feuerstein, Georg. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997.
  • Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali: A New Translation and Commentary. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1989.
  • Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, new ed.
  • Jacobsen, Knut A. Prakriti in Sāmkhya-Yoga: Material Principle, Religious Experience, Ethical Implications. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002.
  • King, Richard. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999.
  • Larson, Gerald J. Classical Sāmkhya. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross/Erikson, 1979 ed.
  • Larson, Gerald James and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies,Vol. IV, Sāmkhya—A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Larson, Gerald James and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. XII, Yoga: India’s Philosophy of Meditation. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008.
  • Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom—The Yoga Sūtra attributed to Patañjali. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Minor, Robert N., ed. Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gītā. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.
  • Mishra, Rammurti S. The Textbook of Yoga Psychology (includes translation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras). New York: Julian Press, 1987 ed.
  • Muller-Ortega, Paul Eduardo. The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-Dual Shaivism of Kashmir. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Patañjali (Chip Hartranft, tr., with commentary). The Yoga-Sutra of Pantañjali. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2003.
  • Phillips, Stephen. Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  • Potter, Karl H., ed. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991 (first published in 1963).
  • Sargent, Winthrop, trans. The Bhagavad-Gītā. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994 ed.
  • Silburn, Lillian (Jacques Gontier, trans.) Kundalinī: The Energy of the Depths. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988.
  • Stutley, Margaret and James. Harper’s Dictionary of Hinduism. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
  • Sullivan, Bruce M. The A to Z of Hinduism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yoginī: ‘Tantric Sex’ in Its South Asian Contexts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • White, David Gordon, ed. Tantra in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Woods, James Haughton. The Yoga-System of Patañjali. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1966.
[A slightly different version of this post was first written for ReligiousLeftLaw.com on May 9, 2010.]


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