Philosophy of Yoga 101: How to Study Yoga Philosophy (in Self Study and/or Formal Courses)
Philosophy of Yoga 101:
How to Read/Practice Yoga Philosophy
A General Orientation to the Study & Practice of the Philosophy of Yoga: Yoga Principles for Self Study and/or Formal Courses (for the Student of Yoga or Yoga Teacher).
How to study yoga philosophy: the first part of studying yoga—yoga 101—is understanding what you’re studying. If you don’t understand what you’re studying, you are unlikely to understand yoga philosophy/practice, and can even become more liable to reinforcing the very problem you were attempting to subvert.
Yoga philosophy is the study of experience itself, the very thing in/as which you exist, the very thing that is always already happening, the very thing outside of which you could never position yourself, the very thing that doesn’t conform to your will, the very thing that contains all other things—which is the basis for all of your thinking, perceiving, behaving, feeling, your knowing, your identity, your will—the very horizons of your awareness (and its intervening space).
In other words, the object of the study of yoga is not some other time or place outside of the single tissue of experience. Or, if it is some other place/time, it is some “other” place/time within your innermost experience, within the single experiencing that you are always already having. The object of the study of yoga just is this, the single happening of experience, in/as which you happen to find yourself. A most basic description of our starting point is something like there is experiencing, or awareness just is happening or even appearing is happening, and this appearing is not subject to my will.
And so the yogin must turn to the very object of the teachings of yoga philosophy—experience itself—in order to understand what these teachings mean. The meaning of the words in these teachings are not reducible to the words themselves; instead, the words are indicating (something within/about) the very experience that you are always already having. The teachings of the philosophy of yoga endeavour to instantiate [something about] experiencing itself. And these teachings are endeavours in which you must participate in order to clearly see what they are trying to get you to see. As such, they require a different kind of paying attention.
To treat the teachings of yoga philosophy as a storehouse of facts or reasons, arguments or concepts, rules or practices (the memorization or ritual enactment of which will necessarily produce “enlightenment”) is misguided at best and, at worst, reproduces the very suffering from which you, the spiritual aspirant, are seeking freedom. As endeavours, these teachings are attempts to re-animate the living sense of direct encounters with experiencing itself. The yogin must turn to very object of these teachings—experience itself—in order to understand their meaning, asking, “how is this a description of the very experience I am always already having? How is this a description of the structure of my ‘subjective’ experience?” (Just the same, when these texts often make reference to historical figures/concepts/texts, one must turn to precisely these figures/concepts/texts in order to understand their role in the description at hand.)
The teachings of yoga philosophy often contain practices which function as preconditions for direct apprehension of their lessons about the nature of experience. The practices of yoga philosophy are not instructions for arriving at some other place outside of (or prior to) experience but are rather aimed at quieting automatic (pre-reflective) pre-occupation in order to allow for contact with the “depths” of experiencing itself (which are very much within the very singular experience you are already having—and all that it contains: other people, space, desire, thoughts, time, embodiment, things/objectivity, memory, language, freedom, etc.).
To do this—to describe the form of experience as it actually is, independent of our personal pre-occupation—these teachings often deployed new concepts and conceptual frameworks to express the unique nature of their contact with experience (e.g, prakṛti, guṇa, karma, advaita, atman, ahaṃkāra, bhakti, vairāgya, yoga, etc.). It is because their guide was experience itself that they allowed experience itself to guide how they presented it. In other words, they allowed the form of their expression to conform to their direct experiencing; they let experience say itself. Each philosophical/spiritual tradition deployed language in unfamiliar ways, inaugurating new ways of understanding—and demanding new ways of paying attention to—experience itself.
This unfamiliar deployment of language produced what is perhaps better described as a ‘poetics’ rather than as a ‘logic’ or ‘science’, something like a poetics of freedom: to know or to directly see the nature/way of yoga—to know the yoga of yoga or the yoga of the Absolute/Self—is an experience of affective insight, an insight that discloses itself in and as flesh—the flesh of the world.
Our next introductory article is a 250-word summary of basic philosophy of yoga. In our article on Prakṛti & Puruṣa, we discuss the nature of our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation. (An introduction to existentialism / phenomenology is available here.)
This article on the philosophy of yoga is part of our series of articles on the philosophy of a spiritual approach to yoga.