I hesitated before writing a blog about yoga philosophy. Yoga philosophy is the element in my own practice that tends to leave me most resourced and often the aspect of my teaching that is most vitalising. But I paused here, because yoga philosophy is meant to be a discussion; an active, dynamic process of exploring concepts through language and the weaving together of each person’s ideas, reflections, and opinions drawn out by the philosophy. The acts of writing (me) and reading (you) are solitary, often linear, and much more limited and directional than the spirals, orbits, processes of contraction and expansion that yoga philosophy requires.
So this blog is perhaps best considered as a preface to yoga philosophy instead of directly about yoga philosophy. My intention is to provide a gateway into beginning to think about yoga philosophy — and for those of you who have been embarking solo, or only armed with written and read ideas on yoga philosophy, then this blog might help with any roadblocks, confusion, or frustration (or boredom) you have encountered. Or, my perspectives on yoga philosophy may act as a challenge to your current relationship with yoga philosophy — whether you agree with me or not, the process of being challenged can be fruitful in maturing and evolving our ideas.
Although we may understand our yoga practices to be individual and unique to us, often yoga philosophy is approached as a generalised, historical discipline. But forging a personal approach to yoga philosophy can help take us deeper into our own practices. To fully appreciate why and how yoga philosophy is a personal journey, we need to understand its history. Contextualising yoga philosophy in this way throws a critical light on why it is such a shifting, illuminating, and diverse aspect of yoga.
This blog is part of a two-part series that navigates how we approach yoga philosophy and how we may find more personal and meaningful ways of engaging with the philosophical concepts that support our practice. The second part offers more practical ways on establishing a personal relationship with yoga philosophy.
What Does Contextualising Yoga Philosophy Mean?
To contextualise something is to take a nuanced, inquisitive, and critical approach to how we arrived where we are today. It offers a way of seeing how the past throws a light on the present, but also how the present forms how we see the past. When it comes to yoga philosophy we can begin to untangle how and why we got to our current conceptions of yoga philosophy.
For this reason, instead of starting at the beginning of yoga philosophical traditions, it’s perhaps easier to start at where we are today — or with the quality that has characterised it across the epochs — its adaptability and ability to evolve.
Today, yoga has blossomed into many forms and styles in the West, on a vast scale from spiritual practices to fitness regimens. Yoga has also experienced a huge resurgence in India as a cornerstone of oppressive Hindu Nationalism under Modi. Yoga is also a well-positioned stakeholder in the 4.5 trillion dollar wellness industry. Yoga is a pathway for social justice and meaningful personal and collective change. Yoga can support individual and community healing. And yoga will keep adapting and evolving with the times, whilst still retaining its essential essence of a practice unity and oneness in all its multitudes of meanings.
To return to Yoga’s roots, perhaps one of the reasons why it is possible to argue that it is anywhere from 10,000+ years old to a few thousand years old, is because we can locate the principles, philosophies, and language we now associate with yoga in a wide variety of traditions and texts. Yoga was never established as a cohesive entity; instead, different philosophies, ideas, and practices emerged, intersected, and then branched off again, which we nowadays place under the sprawling umbrella of ‘yoga’.
The Timelessness of Yoga Philosophy
Yoga constantly evolves and adapts, fitting within multiple contexts. This durability gives it a certain quality of timelessness. The descriptor of timelessness is perhaps best suited to the philosophical arm of yoga, and perhaps of all the many philosophy texts (as we encounter them primarily in textual form today), there is none more timeless than Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is not the oldest yoga text by a long shot, and nor is what it says unique. Most of its content can be traced to other earlier spiritual teachings — so these elements don’t affirm its timelessness. Its timelessness is, in my opinion, linked to the fact that it entered a period of obscurity, largely forgotten, for nearly a thousand years before it re-emerged in its current influential form in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Since Patañjali entered the yoga mainstream, firstly under Vivekananda, it has been, literally, re-written time and time again to appear both contemporary and full of ageless truths, and often to form itself to different beliefs and agendas. (For a continued discussion on the Yoga Sutras, check out this section. )
We can certainly say the sentiments of the Yoga Sutras, or other philosophical texts, are timeless — making them applicable across epochs, generations, and individuals. But this vast applicability is also to do with the forms of Yoga philosophy: how it was traditionally taught, how the texts were compiled, and the Sanskrit language. All these forms lend themself to mutability and reinterpretation. When it comes to yoga philosophy, the sheer adaptability of it is what makes it timeless.
When I talk about the timelessness of yoga philosophy, it has a myriad of meanings, encompassing both the seemingly universal applicability of the texts, how the texts manage to stay of the time, and how they reflect the historical and cultural sentiments of the time they were taught or interpreted.
Whenever we approach any historical text or concept, we need to contextualise it. Two questions to ask are: Who has it been written for? And, Who is writing it?
Contextualisation is essential because it acknowledges the historical traditions of yoga, which is critical to help mitigate cultural appropriation. It also allows us to take a more nuanced approach, as we can appreciate how the sensibilities of the time, lineages, politics, castes, the popularity of different yoga practices, the broader Zeitgeist and — importantly for nowadays — who and how the text has been translated, may have flavoured the interpretation.
The staying power and relevance of historical yoga texts and principles do embody a certain timelessness, and yet, when I return to some traditional interpretations (and even some contemporary ones), I can feel very alienated from the sentiments. Understanding the context of the tradition is imperative, and from here, as I cover in part two, a personal, nuanced, and enlivening approach to yoga philosophy becomes essential.
Critical Awareness in Contemporary Yoga Philosophy
This critical awareness is particularly important in contemporary yoga as it acts as a multi-fold tool, particularly when it comes to the simplification and homogenisation of yoga philosophy. The tendency to homogenise yoga philosophy and history occurs for a few different reasons. Often, particularly in the condensed nature of 200-hour teacher trainings (which is why Nourish’s is considered a foundational training) and magazine articles or blogs, ideas are simplified to make accessible complex and sprawling theories and principles that are spread across many historical traditions. Sometimes it is altered to make it more palatable. Perhaps it has been condensed and adapted to make up for the fact that many texts have been lost and destroyed, or there are general holes in knowledge. Other times the history and philosophy are altered to suit an agenda, be that ideological or commercial.
Yoga philosophy nowadays is often in a hodge-podge form of different key (and surviving) texts that originated in South Asian spiritual communities and traditions that have been rolled into one collective philosophy. It frequently — at least in Western settings — consists of an amalgamation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps snippets of the Upanishads, Tantric principles, Hatha texts, and Buddhist concepts and frameworks. We may find something in all or some of these, but we also must be able to recognise that these are disparate traditions and belief systems.
Critical awareness also stops us from seeking the ‘right’, ‘pure’, ‘proper’, or ‘true’ yoga philosophy. This is, as I hope this blog demonstrates, impossible — and not only that, at odds with a tradition that can be defined by its adaptability. In fact, a major yoga red flag you can be on the lookout for is when anyone tries to sell you the ‘truth’ of yoga or their brand of yoga as THE ‘authentic’ yoga. If you find yourself in these situations, run in the opposite direction.
Not only is there no singular authentic yoga, but if we try to create the ‘true’ history of yoga and an ‘objective’ philosophy, we deprive ourselves of a great opportunity — the opportunity to foster a personal and evolving relationship with these texts.
To be a yoga teacher or long term practitioner means the continual engagement with the texts and traditions of yoga’s heritage. These texts may seem conflicting, complicated, and often intimidating, but making an effort with them (and it’s okay to disagree with them!) pays homage to yoga’s origins and evolving history. If we only focus on asana, alignment, and anatomical elements, we are likely not studying or practising yoga in its fullest depths: we are studying physiology and movement principles (and there’s nothing wrong with that, we should simply be mindful of reducing yoga down to just these elements). Finding a teacher and community who can connect us to the richness of yoga’s history and philosophy is integral for not just honouring yoga’s roots, but also offers ways of deepening and expanding our definition of practice, often in surprising and fulfilling ways.
The Form of Philosophy
Traditional yoga practices, including philosophy, were taught, evolved, and passed down as an oral tradition. It is challenging not to talk about philosophical ‘texts’, as that is how we encounter them nowadays (and how we are ingrained to understand them with the historical legacy of western thought, which often privileges the written word). However, when it comes to yoga philosophy, the texts succeeded the ideas and were used as a stimulus for philosophical exploration and practices led by a teacher.
For example, Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras were (and still are) in and of themself a practice; they were intended to be chanted. The Yoga Sutras need to be expanded on and unpacked by a teacher for them to actually make sense and have coherent meaning, otherwise, they are just a string of seemingly nonsensical Sanskrit words and terms.
The Sutra tradition was a commonly used style in a range of ancient Indian texts, from the religious to the political, the spiritual to the grammatical. Texts in the sutra style often take the form of a short sentence or aphorism of key principles, which are intended to be unravelled and expanded by a teacher. Sutra, literally means thread, and the use of this word for the tradition has been interpreted in a few different ways. Sutras are a ‘manual consisting of strings [of aphoristic] rules [which] hang […] together like threads, but they also ‘bind in written form a previously oral tradition’.
What is important to note about these early philosophical texts is that they originated in an oral and dynamic tradition that depended on a teacher to interpret and infuse life and meaning into the text. Yoga philosophy enlivens when it is taught and explored in community. Although it is possible to pick up and read a translated and expanded copy of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, I still adhere to the principle that these ideas are best navigated through conversation, facilitated by a teacher.
The Nature of Sanskrit
Anyone who has had the opportunity to spend some time learning Sanskrit will have an inkling that it is the most gorgeous as well as most evasive language.
One of its determining characteristics is its mutability; depending on the word’s context, the word’s meaning changes, sometimes it will appear to mean multiple things at once. A useful tool for determining a meaning is to look at the etymological constituent parts of a word, as often they take you on a poetic journey to arrive at the meaning of the word.
As a result, the same Sanskrit sentence or sutra can be interpreted in wildly different ways. This makes unpacking yoga philosophy a deeply personal endeavour, as the very nature of Sanskrit means it cannot be locked down to a precise and empirical meaning. It will always be coloured by the interpreters’ relationship to the language and likely infused with their values and belief systems. Furthermore, how we come to know a text is formed by our philosophy and Sanskrit teachers, as they will have formed their own relationship to the texts guided by their teachers. When we as practitioners acknowledge our teachers, we are also acknowledging their teachers, and the intersecting yoga lineages of all our teachers’ teachers.
Sanskrit was also a language preserved largely for the writing of important texts, as opposed to being employed as an everyday vernacular. Not only this, but the use of Sanskrit had important social connotations — only the highest caste, Brahmins, were permitted to use it. Sanskrit was an exclusive language, whose use, traditionally, was preserved for the minority elite. It’s important to bear this in mind when we engage with yoga philosophy texts, many of which were written in Sanskrit, including Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, as this helps us answer the questions of who wrote the text and who it was written for. It’s also a good indicator for considering how much yoga has transitioned from an elite spiritual pursuit to something that can be for everyone.
What the broadness of the history of yoga philosophy, the nature of Sanskrit, and the vast textual interpretations indicate is that to forge a meaningful and joyous relationship with yoga philosophy, it’s important to find teachers with whom you resonate. This may mean finding textual interpretations and translations that speak to you, but ideally this also means finding an in person teacher to guide you through the texts, answer your question, and who supports your own philosophical enquiries.
Navigating Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras
This section is a deepening on the above discussion of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. If the Yoga Sutras are a core text to your understanding of yoga philosophy, then it’s worth reading this section.
When yoga philosophy is discussed nowadays, whether on a teacher training or woven into a class, it is, nine times out of ten, about Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The meteoric rise of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is the result of a constellation of compounding factors. It is a wonderful text, one I personally connect deeply to, but its status in contemporary Yoga is not because it is a superior philosophical discourse. It re-emerged at the right time to infiltrate yoga on the journey the practice has taken over the last one hundred years.
The Yoga Sutra’s ubiquity is, once again, in part to do with the malleability of the language and sutras style. It has been successfully bent to ideological agendas, commercial imperatives, New Age sentiments, and — somewhat miraculously for a text that says very little about asana — postural yoga. In present-day India, amongst the current Yogis, Sadhus, and Swamis, who are part of enduring Tantra and Hatha lineages that have had a fairly consistent presence over the past one thousand years, Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras are not a significant text. When Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras originally came to light, around the first century CE, it was an influential yoga text for several hundred years (alongside other texts and divergent yoga traditions) before slipping into relative obscurity. The re-emergence of the Yoga Sutras, ushered in by Vivekananda less than 150 years ago, set the stone rolling for Patañjali’s influence in the global rise of yoga.
This does not detract from the fact that the Yoga Sutras is, for many, an illuminating and deeply resourcing text, full of generous wisdom on the practice of yoga and navigating life more generally. But it’s also important to acknowledge the context of the text, from its unique history, to how the sutra form and Sanskrit have also lent their flexible nature to keeping this text relevant and timeless.
How Do We Engage With Yoga Philosophy in our Practices?
The dense, complex, and sprawling nature of the history of yoga philosophy can feel overwhelming, but ultimately we don’t need to engage with it as a way to over analyse our practices or relationship with yoga. We can acknowledge that yoga and its philosophies have been a constant state of evolution and dynamism to help guide us in choosing translations and seeking out teachers whose approach to yoga philosophy supports our own.
To take myself and Nourish as a case study, our values are rooted in being person-centred, joyful, and social justice. How I relate to and teach yoga philosophy honours its past — in all its complexities — but also supports these values. Within the texts and under the guidance of my philosophy teachers I have been able to deepen my yoga practice and actions to align with these values.
The second part of this series offers practical guidance on how to relate to and engage with yoga philosophy in a way that supports your personal practices and aligns with your values.