I dedicate this post to Nicholas Beem, who has been my principal yoga teacher since April 6, 2011 when I first walked into the Grateful Yoga studio in Evanston. I continue to enjoy there a yoga practice grounded in yoga philosophy.
A theological friend in Germany has just begun the practice of yoga. I wrote to him that I’ve enjoyed delving into yoga philosophy and more recently getting into a historical-critical study of yoga traditions. He wrote:
I would be interested in seeing what you find out. I was talking with my yoga teacher and she mentioned that historically, yogis entered into the philosophy to understand why they were doing what they were doing. Would you be willing to summarize what you’ve been learning from your studies in yoga philosophy and history?
I promised him an answer. I decided to post it here because if I’m going to make the effort he asked of me, I might as well share it on my blog. The answer will be autobiographical in terms of my yoga practice and philosophic reflections.
Frank Answers: Yes, your teacher is correct that to the extent that most people learn anything about yoga philosophy, it comes with the practice—if the teacher is willing and able to discuss aspects of yoga philosophy, and also wrestle with it in the light of contemporary practice and the insights of modern science and psychology. In other words, it’s not enough just to repeat what the yoga philosophy teaches. It must be related to our lives today—as all philosophy must be.
One of the main historical yoga texts is the Bhagavad Gita, which I first read in a course in philosophical theology at the University of Notre Dame in 1969 with Professor David Burrell. He pared it with readings from Augustine’s Confessions, portions of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia, and Kierkegaard’s Philosophic Fragments. The basic issue in the course was: how do we make a decision and act on it? That was Arjuna’s conundrum in the Bhagavad Gita . The four readings in the course pointed to “the leap of faith.”
Professor Burrell had us sit in lotus position (or at least with legs folded) as the text was read aloud. This was followed by discussion. I have to admit that I wasn’t as open minded as I should have been with this text because this was just at about the time when the Beatles were practicing Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and joining him in his ashram in India.
In any event, my real engagement in yoga philosophy came when it accompanied my actual practice of yoga over the last several years. In some instances the practice was designed to illustrate (actually, to experience) the philosophy. That’s because my teacher, Nick Beem, co-owner of Grateful Yoga in Evanston with his wife Lela (www.gratefulyoga.com/), not only brings aspects of yoga philosophy into his class lessons but has also offered series of special classes on topics that engage yoga philosophy. Among the series he has offered are the five elements of yoga cosmology (earth, water, fire, wind/breath, and space/ether), the experiential yoga philosophy of the seven chakras (engaging the Tantra subtle body), and the yoga of sun, moon, and fire. He has devised pranayamas, asana sequences, and meditations related to these aspects of yoga philosophy.
Nick Beem, who has been my principal teacher
Yoga philosophy is so vast that I began keeping notebooks. When Nick mentioned a concept in class or made the concept the focus of the practice, I went home and read up on it. If he mentioned a book, I acquired it. I began to build up a yoga library and venture beyond the Grateful Yoga studio in pursuit of a deeper understanding of yoga philosophy.
In August 2015 I took a course on the Embodied History of Yoga, taught by Professor David Gordon White and Yoganand Michael Carroll, at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurvedic Health (see “Frank Answers About His Kripalu Adventure”). Yoganand Michael devised practices that enabled us to experience in our bodies the history Professor White was discussing in his lectures (including chasing dakinis up from our darker regions with vigorous pranayamas).
Nick has also emphasized the concept of viyoga in his classes. Viyoga is the opposite of yoga. If yoga ( = yoking) means “the union of opposites” (non-dualism), vivoga is the recognition that we deal with opposites (dualisms) in life. A lot of yoga practice is actually experiencing dualism; for example, the mind telling the body what it can or cannot do. Hatha yoga as the “union of opposites” aims at bringing the mind and body together.
But I also sensed a disconnect here. If yoga is non-attachment, viyoga is attachment—especially to the body and the sensual world. The classic yoga scriptures that yoga teachers most often quote, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, recommend a disengagement of the mind and the senses from the outside world. Yet this is not what I experienced in Nick’s teaching.
Nick has a science background and has applied new research in anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and even modern cosmology to his yoga lessons. I especially enjoyed a summer of lessons devoted to exploring the body in yoga practice from the feet to the head. He also has promoted a renewed relationship between the body and the earth. He told us to spend the summer going barefoot as much as possible to regain a better sense of balance but also to reconnect with the earth. He also suggested walking and climbing to build strength through natural movement. He mentioned the NatMov (Natural Movement) movement. But the by-product of this kind of activity is a renewed contact with the natural environment.
This appealed to me because I had been simultaneously studying the Christian doctrine of creation and theology of the body, retrieving the use of the body in liturgy and Christian worship, and exploring incarnational spirituality. Nick introduced me to the writings of pioneering body worker Deane Juhan (Job’s Body), environmental philosopher David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous), and the neuroscience of Rick Hanson (Buddha’s Brain), which my wife already knew about. For myself I rediscovered the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception), which reflects on how we make the world real to us through movement, and, on a lead from my Indonesian philosopher friend Emil Salim, I caught up on embodied mind theory (see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought). The result of all this is a rejection of Descartes’ mind-body dualism, which privileges the mind (“I think, therefore I am”) over the body. The mind is part of the body, and, as Deane Juhan learned in his body work, the mind is not located only in the brain but runs throughout the whole body. The body as a whole and in its individual parts has its own intelligence that is stimulated by massage.
In my yoga studies I gravitated toward Tantra because of its focus on the body as a value in itself, and that is the yoga tradition embraced by Nick’s and Lela’s teacher, Rod Stryker. I was excited to attend a weekend workshop given by Rod Stryker on “Tantra: Awakening the Sacred Channel”. I also had some private sessions in Tantric practice with the respected Chicago teacher Per Erez, for example in spanda and containment.
From my studies in the history of yoga, I learned that Tantra seemed to have made its way into India (perhaps from Persia) about the fourth century and became immensely popular among all segments of the population, influencing Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Kashmirian Shivaism. Tantra was anti-ascetic and anti-speculative. It emphasized the body as a microcosm of the universe, as the location of reality, including the Divine, and especially the divine feminine. Indeed, every woman became an incarnation of the goddess Shakti and Shakti is embedded in everyone’s subtle body. She is pictured as a coiled serpent (kundalini) at the base of the perineum, energy waiting to be released by vigorous movement and vibrations caused by chanting to surge up through the chakras (energy vortices) to unite with Shiva (consciousness) at the crown of the head.
The goddess Shakti
I saw Tantra as a form of yoga that could be in dialogue with Christianity’s incarnational theology. Tantra had no need to transcend the body to discover reality or divinity, as the renunciates did, because it saw the body as a microcosm of the universe. Tantra embraced ordinary, everyday biological realities like eating and drinking and having sex. As Mircea Eliade wrote, “In tantrism, the human body acquires an importance it had never before attained in the spiritual history of India” (Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, p. 227).
The body is also of fundamental importance to Christian theology. I was reading the late Pope John Paul II’s Male and Female He Created Them: A Theology of the Body at the same time as I was studying the Tantra tradition. That led me into deeper theological study as I began to make comparisons and contrasts between the yogic and Christian views of the body.
Tantra is really a theological system. It aims to understand how mundane reality is connected with ultimate reality, especially in the theater of the body. Georg Feuerstein states that
Tantra’s body-positive approach is the direct outcome of its integrative metaphysics according to which this world is not mere illusion but a manifestation of the supreme Reality. If the world is real, the body must be real as well. If the world is in essence divine, so must be the body. If we must honor the world as a creation or an aspect of divine Power (shakti), we must likewise honor the body” (Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, p. 52).
So, too, Pope John Paul II said that
The body, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (Address on February 20, 1980).
One of yoga’s main texts, of course, is the Yoga Sutras of Patajalu. Nick introduced his class to Matthew Remski’s Threads of Yoga: a remix of Patanjali’s Sutra with commentary and reverie (2012), which tries to make this ancient text more relevant to contemporary practice. Remski wants to restore embodiment to yoga, relate yoga to the needs of householders who come to yoga with concerns about their relationships with their life partners, raising children, and taking care of the environment, and draw on the new research in neuroscience and psychoneurology in teaching yoga. Remski anticipates that his project will be resisted by those in the yoga business who are still hard-wired to a mind-body dualism or who think that drawing science into yoga will deplete it of mystery. But the workings of the body can never be depleted of mystery. There are simply too many facets of the body.
Remski’s remix raises the question of what we are to make today of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which has provided so much of the yoga philosophy that yoga teachers have appealed to in recent times. This collection of aphorisms was originally compiled ca. 200 A.D. for ascetics who renounced the responsibilities of the world in a quest for the eternal. They disciplined their body in order to transcend it. They went about naked so as not to have to deal with social conventions. Yoga Sutra was not written for householders who have social responsibilities and cannot spend years meditating in a Himalayan cave.
In actuality, yoga teachers appeal to little more in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra than the eight limbs (ashtanga), only one of which is asana. Asana literally means “seat” and probably refers to the lotus pose, which is the posture usually used for meditation. Asana practice dominates modern postural yoga, but Patanjali devotes only three verses to it (2:46-48) and says nothing about physical alignment. Yoga teachers never say anything about Book 3 of the Yoga Sutra that envisions yogis as wizards who can reads people’s minds, have the strength of an elephant, become invisible, fly, and take possession of other bodies. Remski calls Book 3 “The Book of Wonders”, but his remix leaves none of Patanjali’s “wonders” in his version. Those “wonders” may scandalize modern yogis, but they are the heart of the Yoga Sutra.
Statue of Patanjali, larger than life, in padmasana (lotus position)
Remski’s “remix” is an interesting project in which he tries to renew (revise?) this ancient text in ways that speak to postmodern humans and to the actual practice of yoga today. For example, he translates the celebrated Sutra 2:46 in this way: “Poise (asana) is steady and well-spaced.” He chooses to translate asana as “poise” rather than “posture” because it suggests “movement” more than “posture” does. Why would he do this? Because the term “poise” “more readily includes what is now the majority of yoga practitioners: women who do vinyasa, who are actively hybridizing the more static vocabulary of meditation/purification postures of the hatha tradition with elements of modern gymnastics and dance” (p. 241). But is this fair to an historical text? Patanjali probably meant something more like a stationary pose than a moving body.
I think Remski could have interpreted and applied this classic yoga scripture without rewriting the text into another book that better fits postmodern practices and sensibilities. (I don’t like rewrites of the Bible either!) For example, Yoga Sutra 2:47 says that asana “is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity.” (Translation of Barbara Stoler Miller, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali, p. 56.) As my teacher has said, the aim of effort is non-effort. With the aid of breath control (pranayama) the attainment of effortlessness could be applied to any posture. At least we could practice with this aim and see if it works. Yoga is an experiential science.
After I read David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (2014), I’m also left wondering why Remski would do this re-mix. White demonstrates that this collection of 195 difficult-to-translate Sanskrit aphorisms was virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered and translated by Western Indianologists in the 18th century. Why was it forgotten? Why were no commentaries written on it after the twelfth century? White is probably too good a historian to venture a guess. But I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that the medieval and early modern periods were the heyday of Tantra and Hatha Yoga.
Tantra was rooted in everyday life whereas the Yoga Sutra provided a practice that sought to transcend everyday life. In Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex and Its South Asian Contexts (2003), White makes the case that Tantra represented the mainstream of Indian religion and that it spawned the more vigorous Hatha Yoga practice. Tantra was more concerned with ritual than with meditation and Hatha Yoga was an active rather than a passive practice. One might conclude, therefore, that there was no market for Patanjali’s guidance into deep meditation after the twelfth century. (At least that’s my hypothesis.)
This largely forgotten text was discovered in the 18th century by European Indianologists such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke and translated into various languages as a primary example of Indian philosophy. It was even discussed by the German philosophers Humboldt and Hegel in the early 19th century. Perhaps because of Western interest in the work, Swami Vivekananda expounded on the Yoga Sutra during his triumphant tour of the West in the 1890s and wrote a commentary on it that was well received in the West.
Yet the Yoga Sutra is not mentioned in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946). Moreover, as White observes in “the strange case” of T. M. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga used the text of the Yoga Sutra only as a source of chants during poses, according to his son, T. K. V. Desikachar, in The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (1995). Only later in his life did Krishnamacharya dictate a commentary on Yoga Sutra. The implication is that the Yoga Sutra did not provide a philosophical foundation for Krishnamacharya’s revitalization of Hatha Yoga. Yet today yoga teacher training courses require the students to read Yoga Sutra (which is surely a good idea whether the work applies to modern postural yoga or not).
I think Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra has a place in the annals of yoga philosophy. Its eight limbs (ashtanga, listed in 2:29) provide an excellent approach to the practice of meditation, and it offers a deep philosophic foundation for the practice of yoga, as yoga teacher Richard Freeman demonstrates in The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind (2012)—although, typically of contemporary yoga teachers, he only comments on Books 1 and 2.
I wonder whether the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t hold more promise for postmodern householder yoga practitioners who are enmeshed in the realities of daily life with their countless duties and decisions big and small. This epic presents a situation in which an excruciating life-and-death decision must be made by the warrior prince Arjuna on the field of battle. Relatives and friends are lined up on both sides of this fratricidal war. Arjuna sees no good outcome because even if the good side is victorious and a just society is established, many who might enjoy it will be dead. In conversation with his chariot driver, who turns out to be the god Krishna, Krishna introduces Arjuna to the yogas of karma, bhakti, and jnana—the yogas of work or action, devotion or worship, and knowledge or wisdom. These yogas teach Arjuna about his duty to his king and brother, his devotion to his God and Lord, and his knowledge of himself.
Perhaps these three yogas taught by the guru god Krishna could be related to Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga (the yoga of action) in terms of:
karma (action/work) = tapas (heat);
bhakti (devotion/worship) = Isvara pranidhana (surrender to God); and
jnana (knowledge/wisdom) = svadhyaya (self-study).
Here’s an approach to yoga that is accessible to everyone: effort, devotion, self-awareness. I also wonder whether Krishna’s three yogas could be related to the Hatha yoga of sun (physical energy = karma or effort), moon (calmness of mind = Jnana or study), and fire (an internalized form of the Vedic fires of sacrifice = bhakti or devotion). In other words, wouldn’t Bhagavad Gita provide a more appropriate philosophic foundation for the kind of yoga actually being practiced today than Yoga Sutra? The Gita‘s context of battle certainly provides a background for the modern practice of vigorous postural yoga, including the five warrior poses.
I don’t know. I’m only a yoga student, more inept than adept at both the practice and the philosophy. So I continue my practice and studies and turn to my teachers for further guidance along the yogic path. But I believe that if we’re going to do the practice we should understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. Yoga is more, much more, than just another exercise regimen. It is an embodied philosophic system—a way of understanding the relationship of body and mind and the body-mind’s relationship to the realities that we deal with in life, relationships that we are always exploring anew.
Yogi Frank Senn