What is Spiritual Yoga?
Yoga as a Spiritual Practice:
Yoga Practice Beyond Exercise
In the first part of this article introducing spiritual yoga, we explored core spiritual problem that motivates our desire for wholeness. We strongly recommend reading that article first, and then returning to this one.
Why Practice Yoga? What is the Meaning/Experience of Yoga Practice? What “Solution” Does The Yogic Path Offer for the Anxiety of Inadequacy?
The practices of yoga are just variations of no longer fleeing yourself.
‘No longer fleeing yourself’ means simply sitting with your anxieties rather than reinforcing the habits you've inherited and developed in order to avoid your anxieties, and to avoid the people and situations that produce your anxiety. Being able to sit with your anxiety means that your life won’t be determined by your anxiety. Sitting with your anxiety means being able to sit with your unwanted thoughts, difficult emotions, and the (dizzying) anxiety of your freedom—i.e., the dizzying anxiety of the uncertainty of being undefined.
When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our lives become narrower and narrower (as the list of things/people/situations that we need to avoid grows). When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our bodies become more and more rigid, as there are more and more reasons for the body to tense up. And when we are unable to sit with our anxiety, we become more and more frustrated (as our avoidance habits produce and re-produce self-sabotaging behaviours). Feelings of isolation and meaninglessness become more commonplace, and this intensifies our desires/frustrations around acquiring whatever ‘next’ thing we think will “finally” make us feel “complete”.
No longer fleeing your anxiety is ultimately no longer fleeing the anxiety of inadequacy, fleeing from the feeling that “there's something wrong with me”, from the need to fill the/our ‘emptiness’ with stuff (because the silence is simply too loud), to fill up our sense of sense of self with what we think will make it more weighty/“real” (and which—we think—will necessarily command the recognition of others). Following our impulse to make ourselves more worthy of recognition—i.e., to fix an inherent sense of inner lack—just further solidifies (what is commonly referred to as) the “ego”, the solidity of which prevents us from pursuing our most meaningful projects without prohibitive levels of doubt and insecurity.
As the ego becomes more transparent, we are able to see—on a personal level—the various manifestations of our grasping for permanent ego security. In other words, we are able to see how the manifestations of my grasping is affecting me and my life. At the same time, however, we are able to see the nature of the ego’s “emptiness” (the very thing we were attempting to avoid): the ego doesn’t self-exist but instead remains irrevocably subject to physiological and social forces and could never be anything like “self-sufficient”.
Trying to combat our anxieties with techniques isn’t enough to reduce our suffering. Stress management techniques don’t address the anxiety of inadequacy. Craving anxiety relief is still craving. And fighting with anxiety typically just results in more anxiety. And anxiety reduction—if it is the quest of an ego looking to further self-protect/elevate—only re-produces the suffering we were attempting to eliminate in the first place (by attempting to rid ourselves of our anxiety).
And so yoga practice just involves no longer fleeing yourself (a process that may or may not include āsana practice).
Yoga just is no longer fleeing yourself.
No longer fleeing yourself, the ego becomes transparent.
As the ego becomes transparent, the soul is set free.
This is yoga.
No Longer Fleeing Yourself:
“Freedom” in the Philosophy of Yoga
No longer fleeing ourself, we are able to see how our awareness is often pre-determined by our cravings/aversions. As we begin to see the various ways in which we are determined (both personally and structurally), we are able to recognize our freedom: there is something about “you” (as awareness, the “you” reading these words right now) that isn’t reducible to any of the things that determine it—society, culture, language, body, etc., and that could do something other than unthinkingly embody its hitherto habitual self. It is in bearing witness to the ways in which we are determined that we realize the part of ourselves that is essentially undefined. And this freedom, to the ego, is anxiety-producing, because being undefined or un-“real” or even “weightless” is precisely what it was attempting to avoid in the first place. The ego wants to be more substantial. And so, in this sense, anxiety cannot be disposed of because you will always be—essentially and irrevocably—a freedom.
But this freedom is always embedded. Indeed, there is something about “you”—as awareness, the awareness reading these words right now—that isn’t reducible to its determining factors, however “you”—the functioning member of society capable of reading and understanding these words—are precisely a product of determining factors. You—the functioning member of society—are the product of your pre-personal impulses/inclinations being translated into some specific, personal bodily-familial-social-historical-linguisitic context.
And so relief from the anxiety of your freedom just requires developing the capacity to sit with your anxiety (i.e., with your freedom, with yourself-as-subject). But because this freedom is always embedded in some determinate context, this requires developing the capacity to sit with the terms of your situation (i.e., with your determinacies, your particularities, with yourself-as-subject-to). Our impulse towards becoming independently in-finite prohibits the reconciliation of our particularities or determinacies with the demands of wholeness in a way that re-produces suffering. Reconciliation that minimizes suffering requires ego transparency, and ego transparency requires disposing of our inherent impulse to evade our particularities (in order to self-elevate, to seek (permanent) ego security, to become more substantial, to self [v.]) by sitting with it, by no longer fleeing it, by no longer fleeing yourself.
The process of becoming at home with ourselves releases us from the grip of our self-interested motivations. Our experience of the world (including others) becomes less centred around “me” and my personal will. And my motivations are transformed: forms of greed and aversion become less intense—I become more open and generous (often without even knowing it). And as I become less wrapped up in and by myself, I am less hindered by my deluded sense of the world (based on my self-importance), and I become more comfortable opening up to being actualized by the world’s possibilities rather than defending ourselves from a world that seems alien and impenetrable. Instead of keeping myself walled-off in contracted, restless, unpleasant self-isolation, I am more able to become an easy participant in the world, to reconcile myself with the world, and honour my natural inspirations—that is, participate in the world in way that encourages me—and my specific history and preferences/inclinations—to be more open, less determined by self-defence (including defending myself from my own past).
What is spiritual yoga practice? Becoming aware of your freedom as you become aware of your determinacies—which is called self-awareness in yoga. Self-awareness just is becoming aware of the various factors determining our awareness. Becoming aware of the various factors determining our existing ways of being allows us to (1) transcend the limitations imposed by the factors that are disposable, and (2) pursue the freedoms permitted by those factors that are ineliminable. Self-awareness is self-transcendence. But self-awareness is not available to those who habitually flee themselves.
In the third and final part of this article introducing spiritual yoga, we explore the spiritual consequences of no longer fleeing yourself.
This is the second part of a three-part series answering the question, what is spiritual yoga? In the first part, we explored the purpose of yoga—that is, the (existential) problem that yoga solves. In the next part, we explore consequence(s) or benefit(s) of yoga practice. Collectively, these three articles introduce our guide to the meaning of spiritual yoga.
For those looking to further explore the theme of the anxiety of inadequacy, see the work of philosopher and Zen teacher, David R. Loy. His 2008 book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications) offers an accessible introduction to this topic (and to Yoga in general) and is highly recommended.
For those looking to further explore how freedom is implicated in determinacy (and what this means for an ethics of openness), see philosopher John Russon' 2017 article, ‘Freedom and Passivity: Attention, Work, and Language’, Russon’s highly-engaging and accessible philosophy is a rich exploration of existentialism and is highly recommended. His lectures on YouTube are excellent companions (and introductions) to the dense (and rich) works of philosophy with which his work engages (primarily ancient Greek philosophy, German Idealism, and phenomenology).