Yoga vs. Philosophy?

Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy, “orthodox” in this context meaning grounded in the Vedas, the most ancient written scriptures in human history. As a developed philosophical view, Yoga is surpassed in longevity only by Samkhya, which predates the Vedas, and from which Yoga appropriates its metaphysics. Systematized by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras sometime around the third or second century B.C.E., some of the defining spiritual and physical practices of Yoga are nevertheless described in some detail in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, one of the culminating philosophical treatises of the Vedas, which are estimated to be at least six thousand years old. The Bhagavad Gita, probably written around the sixth century B.C.E., condenses and renders accessible to a more general, educated readership the basic philosophical doctrines of the Upanishads. These include the defining principles of jnana yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga – the yogas of analysis and scholarship, of action, and of devotion respectively. Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies ably describes the multiple channels of historical transmission through which the essential philosophical issues that defined the Vedic and Buddhist traditions were bequeathed to the Pre-Socratics – and thence to Western philosophy in classical Greece. As we see, Yoga has a very ancient and distinguished pedigree as a bona fide philosophical view itself – a view that influenced the thinking of the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. Yet my decision to devote an independent section of this website to Yoga, separate from the section on Philosophy, suggests that it is a different and unrelated activity. This requires explanation.

Yoga started to become “yoga” in the United States when Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), founder of the Ramakrishna Order, re-introduced it to the West in 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Vivekananda presented Yoga not as a distinctive philosophical system in its own right, but rather as the set of practical spiritual disciplines – of meditation, breath control, physical postures, personal hygiene, and ethical precepts – in which Vedanta, another one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy, found concrete personal application. This was not misleading: Yoga does contain these practical applications, in addition to the abstraction, analysis and argumentation of Samkhya, Vedanta, and its own distinctive metaphysics and epistemology. And traditionally, Yoga philosophy has been adapted and put to practical use in many Indian philosophical systems, both Vedic and non-Vedic.

Yoga philosophy’s gradual divorce from philosophy proper, and transformation into the Western conception of yoga as physical fitness was accelerated by the approach to Yoga of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), a hatha yoga adept and scholar of the six orthodox philosophical schools. Krishnamacharya transmitted the practical yogic disciplines he had learned from his father to his four most famous students: Indra Devi (an influential European teacher in North America in the 1960s), B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar. The first three developed Krishnamacharya’s teachings in directions that emphasized the physical postures and breath control over the other practical spiritual disciplines with which they were intrinsically connected. Iyengar and Jois became and have remained extremely popular in the United States. Other teachers such as Swami Satchidananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, both students of Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) of Tamil Nadu, taught more integrated versions of yoga in North America in the 1960s and ‘70s. But these, too, tended to emphasize its practical holistic health benefits rather than its spiritual and philosophical background.

However, none of these influences would have been sufficient to reduce a complex philosophical view containing highly ramified metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical analyses to a method of physical fitness training in which virtually no trace of this complexity is to be found. To understand this, we must turn to the audience that received these teachings, and rewarded its teachers for adapting them to the American landscape. America is the land of new beginnings, of erasing the past and starting over, without the weight of memory, history or tradition. It has always been the weightlessness of the country, the multiplicity of possible futures it offers, untrammeled by complicated prior obligation, which leads emigrants from troubled lands to want to resettle there. Without the weight of these complicating factors, the many opportunities it promises are merely neutral objects, events or states of possibility, there to be used, pressed into service to further one’s goals and dreams.

The advantages of such an approach to Yoga are obvious. Strip it of its spiritual and intellectual significance, its ancient philosophical tradition, its complex connections to other Vedic philosophies and to Hindu culture and history, its ultimate point and purpose (which is to confront one’s own death with courage and grace), and the austerities and disciplines of mind and body needed to achieve that purpose – and it becomes yoga, a quite potent program of physical exercises that firms the tummy, moulds the pecs, improves the complexion, and reduces stress no matter what one’s goals or dreams or ultimate purpose might be. And then one can certainly see how such a program might be enhanced by further reflection on how to use it, and on the proliferating varieties of ways in which it can be used: to promote corporate bonding, for example; or to increase the efficiency and volume of labor output; or to enhance one’s competitive advantage whether in sports or society.

These pages of my website cannot compensate for the prior philosophical contributions, constitutive of the Yogic philosophical tradition, which must be ignored in order to believe it to be disconnected from philosophy proper. Without comprehending and acknowledging that tradition as one that inspired and still undergirds the Western one, and without a serious acquaintance with that absent tradition, it is unlikely that we Western philosophers can do more than reinvent the wheel. It is to be hoped, therefore, that this section of my website will at least serve to recall and honor that tradition from the personal perspective which that tradition itself honors.

But my deeper hope is that professional philosophers who visit these pages will eventually take it upon themselves to begin the long, slow process of reintegrating the Eastern philosophical tradition with the Western one, of reminding us what we have lost – by restoring the application of theory to practice as a central measure of philosophical worth; by restoring, too, the more generous conception of the self extending beyond the ego that Western philosophy has forgotten; by restoring to a central place in our thinking the insights of Yoga into the structure of the ego and its relation to change, desire, and acquisitions; and thereby restoring the methods, practices and wisdom of Yoga to its rightful place among the many philosophical traditions that express our capacities for intellectual analysis and spiritual growth.

*© APRA Foundation Berlin 2012

¹ (New York: Allworth Press, 2002)
¹ “Hatha yoga” is a general term referring to any method of teaching the physical postures, or asanas. It is not one among those methods but rather a blanket term that refers to all of them. Thus Iyengar Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and Power Yoga are all schools of hatha yoga.