Yoga is a deeply personal journey. Of all the aspects and traditions of yoga, its philosophies get right to the heart of how personal it is. Yet this doesn’t mean that it should be navigated solo with only your own introspection for company. I am of the firm belief that to establish a fulfilling, affirming, and enlightening understanding of and relationship with yoga philosophy, community is essential. A teacher, someone who has their own intimate relationship with and diverse knowledge of philosophy, can establish a container in which to traverse not just the philosophical texts and ideas but your own relationship to them.
The first part of this series covered the history and nature of yoga philosophy, from its characteristically adaptable form, to how the philosophy was written and the Sanskrit language have important implications for how we interpret yoga philosophy today. You’re welcome to read it as a preface to this blog, but you can also dive straight into this blog which covers ways in which to forge a personal relationship with yoga philosophy to enhance and deepen your existing yoga practices.
A Personal Approach to Patañjali's Yoga Sutras
Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras offer the perfect case study for why a personal approach to yoga philosophy is not only crucial to forging a meaningful relationship with the philosophical realm of yoga but is near enough unavoidable! The adaptability and timelessness (in its myriad of meanings) of the Yoga Sutras is abundantly clear, precisely because so many versions exist. You can pick up two copies by different commentators, and the interpretations and teaching of the sutras read like two completely different texts. It is fruitless to try and seek out the ‘best’, ‘true’, or ‘most authentic’ version because those sentiments are at odds with the evolving nature of yoga.
The best version (or versions) for you are the ones you resonate with. Once you have a version you connect to, you can continue to evolve your personal relationship with the Yoga Sutras, and any other yoga philosophy you connect with. Taking exploratory dives into the text with teachers and a community with similar values and perspectives on yoga adds greater dimensionality to better understanding and connecting with the philosophy. Spending time with the philosophy in this way not only makes apparent how rooted it is in oral didactic traditions, but moves us from not seeking absolute answers from ourselves or the texts, but guides us into asking better questions — of our teachers, the texts, and ourselves.
Yoga philosophy texts can guide us into contemplating ideas that are integral to yoga and living our lives more meaningfully or in ways that align more fully with our values. Instead of just seeking answers and solutions, we can contemplate how tenets of yoga philosophy may resonate with the situations and circumstances we are in, and in turn, this can guide us in having a deeper engagement with the philosophy itself, as well as in the discussions we have with our teachers and communities.
The Vitality of Yoga Philosophy
There is a certain aliveness to yoga philosophy, which I find to be inherently connected to its timeliness. But its vitality is brought out by how we engage with it. When we treat any yoga philosophy solely as a text; a thing to be picked up, read, and taken at face value, we rob both ourselves and the text of its liveliness. Yoga philosophy, particularly a body like the Sutras, works well when it is dabbled in, mulled over, reflected on, repeated, chanted, challenged, ignored, allowed to digest, and returned to.
A parallel is a book, film, or podcast that you return to time and again because something in it speaks to you. Each time you come back to it, it takes on new dimensions, a different element stands out to you, what is familiar comes across altered and refreshed to throw a light on where you are at in your life. This is why, when it comes to yoga philosophy, finding a teacher and written interpretations of texts that you connect with are so important, and it may take some trial and error with different versions to find it.
Yoga philosophy endures because its messages and words, albeit unchanging, take on new dimensionalities as we move through life, encountering new experiences and accruing new knowledge and perspectives.
Descriptive over Prescriptive Approaches
When we seek answers solely in the text or have a rigid adherence to one teacher’s translation, we take a prescriptive attitude.
A prescriptive approach is defined as one that has a set of rules or an implicit ideology that must be adhered to in order to understand and accept the text. It is like having a set of instructions that says you must carry out the task in this way, otherwise, it is wrong.
A descriptive approach focuses on how each individual may engage with, find meaning, or make sense of a particular idea or task. It is rooted in the agency of each individual, and there is no hierarchy or binary of right or wrong. It encourages exploration to navigate ideas and reach a personal, fitting conclusion. In a group setting this means that there are many different variations, but hopefully each variation is best suited to each individual.
There are certainly times in life when a prescriptive approach may be the best fit; but yoga, be that asana, pranayama, or philosophy, is not one of those times. Yoga philosophy is a lived philosophy; there are principles and texts that are primarily theoretical, steeped in a metaphysics that is largely divorced from our day to day lives, but much of the yoga philosophy we regularly encounter (again, I am thinking of Patañali’s Yoga Sutras) is about how to live yoga. Therefore, we need a way to engage with it that supports our existing values and what we care about in life. A descriptive pathway allows this to be meaningful, joyful, and takes off the pressure of needing to be better or change.
Forge Your Own Journey
Nowadays, the way we engage meaningfully with yoga philosophy is rarely a linear journey, where we read a text sequentially and apply ideas and principles in order. Instead, we weave in and out of concepts, expand on ideas, jump between texts, sutras, chapters, and translations.
When I teach Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras (and as is common with many yoga teachers), I start with book two. A great gateway into yoga philosophy is Patañjali’s Eight Limbs (from book two), particularly the Yamas and Niyamas, which offer a way of considering yoga as a personal, psychological, and social practice. There are limitations to the limbs, which are somewhat prescriptive in their nature, however, they are a wonderful way to begin to consider how yoga is a philosophy in which our practices and actions are enmeshed.
Book one offers a more descriptive, open way of considering what yoga is, how we may experience it, and the inevitable challenges we will face. There are a multitude of reasons why starting with book two is more helpful, from versing us in how the sutra form works to presenting us with a yoga ingredient list, and then exploring book one’s more open ideas on paths to navigate yoga, in all its pleasures and pains. A teacher can help guide us into texts that are otherwise confusing or impenetrable; when we pick up a text we expect to read it cover to cover, but with yoga philosophy, particularly when you are a philosophy novice, this can be an alienating, confusing, or intimidating process. In short, tackling the text alone (and treating the philosophy just as a book), fails to bring it to life.
To get the most out of yoga philosophy and to find meaningful connection with ideas, you need to forge your own journey. The flavour of your journey will be coloured by which individual texts and translations you are drawn to, which principles you return to over and over, what challenges the texts present, what you cannot connect to, what communities and teachers you explore the text with. All this is folded into your other yoga practices, the physical, meditative, and energetic side, as well as what yoga means to you off the mat.
Choosing communities, texts, and ways of connecting with the philosophical tenets that make sense to you is not just the first step in understanding confusing texts and big ideas, but also in actually enjoying and appreciating them.
Ways to Explore Yoga Philosophy
To keep yoga philosophy vital and to find personal meaning in the texts and concepts, there are a few practical ways to relate to them:
- Meditation and Contemplation: many of the philosophical concepts we encounter in yoga and Buddhist schools of philosophy are purposefully evasive, seemingly nonsensical, or there to challenge us. They are not meant to be taken at face value but to be contemplated in the setting of our spiritual practices. Meditating on an idea or phrase can be a helpful way to work actively with the principles without needing to ‘solve’ or fix them. Instead, dropping the phrase into your practice during meditation and letting it germinate whilst using the principles of meditation to keep an open, curious, light, non-judgemental mind can be an illuminating experience.
- Journalling: This is another lovely way to contemplate ideas or consider our relationship (including the challenges) to different aspects of philosophy. Sometimes freewriting on a topic can bring about more insights than trying to analyse something directly.
- Discussion: Finding fellow yoga practitioners to explore a few sutras or ideas together emulates how yoga philosophy was meant to be explored, in conversation and through learning from others. Of course, having a teacher and attending courses is lovely, but that may be a financial and time commitment that isn’t suitable for you. A discussion group is a great way to infuse conversation into your philosophy studies.
- Take a course: if it is a financial and time option for you, you may want to take a philosophy or Sanskrit course to guide you through certain texts and principles. Nourish offers modules from our 300-hour teacher training that can be taken as standalone short courses on different elements of yoga philosophy from deep dives into the books of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras to historical overviews on yoga.
- Mentorship: if you have a mentor you can not only focus on the practical aspects of teaching yoga, but also unpack how yoga philosophy can support your journey.
- Be open to holding opposing and conflicting views: this is less an activity you do but something to implement through your philosophy explorations. You will encounter views and ideas that conflict with your own with teachers in discussions, in texts, and within yourself. Sitting with and teasing through the conflicts (whether you end up adapting your own ideas or not) is a helpful way to develop both your understanding of philosophy and your own critical philosophical abilities.
- Text comparisons: comparing different translations, interpretations and consulting a Sanskrit dictionary is a great way to connect to yoga philosophy as a field of study. Taking a single sutra and reading three or four different commentaries shows how adaptable the text is and can help guide you on your personal philosophy journey. I often recommend having a copy of Edwin Bryant’s translation and commentary of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras on hand — it can be dry and problematic at times, but is an extremely detailed overview of the history of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, which brings together many early commenters interpretations. Sanskrit lessons or picking up a Sanskrit dictionary and breaking down the myriad of meanings in the words and etymology is also a lovely practice that speaks to the diverse interpretations of the texts.
Finding ways to infuse vitality into your personal relationship with yoga philosophy is a way to experience the philosophy as intended; principles, ideas, and concepts to fold into your life and enrich your practice.
As always, I would love to know about your journey with yoga philosophy — which texts do you enjoy? How do you create a personal, dynamic, and meaningful relationship with yoga philosophy?