Yoga Musings / Yoga Philosophy

Yoga and Philosophy

Recently, I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the widespread perception that yoga is un-philosophical, or that it does not comprise a serious philosophy. For instance, an emeritus Religious Studies professor who recently spoke here at Indiana University in Bloomington characterized the kind of yoga that many of us do as “gymnastic yoga”, the implication being that our yoga practice is merely athletic and lacks philosophical substance. Initially, I was personally offended by this characterization; but upon further reflection, I’ve come to think that there is something right about what he says, as well as something horribly wrong about what he says.

Certainly, it is true that many yoga classes today, particularly those at gyms or high-end “sports clubs”, are not very philosophical or spiritual in their orientation. In many cities, yoga classes have become something of a pick-up scene, and, for many people, the practice of yoga is just about looking good, burning fat, toning up, and getting a great workout. Is this really a problem, though? I don’t know that I can criticize here, since there seems to me to be nothing inherently wrong about working out or finding a date. After all, these are both activities that people engage in all the time, and they have every right and reason to do so. It’s also not my place as a yogi who happens to be interested in getting something more out of his practice to pass judgment on others who pursue yoga for some other reasons. Moreover, it’s not as if yoga itself — i.e. the institution/tradition of yoga as an abstract entity — can be corrupted or harmed in any way by the fact that some people practice it for what are perceived to be less than pure reasons.

Indeed, many experienced yogis, myself included, got into yoga in the first place for some pretty un-philosophical and un-spiritual reasons. But the longer one practices yoga, and the wider the range of teachers one studies with, the more one begins to realize that there is some very serious, rigorous, and legitimate philosophy behind the various schools of yoga. In the coming months, I will start to post more frequently about yoga philosophy, both as it is discussed in actual historical texts, and as I perceive/experience it personally. I should also mention that, as part of my PhD program in philosophy, I will begin the study of Indian philosophy in earnest starting next semester, and expect that many of my readings and discussions in class will be of at least tangential interest to readers of this blog. If anyone wants to engage more seriously in a discussion about Indian philosophy, I invite you to email about being a guest blogger on Om Shanti. (I can be reached at eugene24_99 at yahoo dot com.)

This time around, I’d like to set the stage for future postings by discussing, in general terms, the plausibility of philosophical and spiritual claims that one might stumble across in the course of studying and practicing yoga. Now, I am admittedly a sceptic about just about everything — this is perhaps one of the curses of being a student of Western philosophy in contemporary academia — so I tend to believe only that which is empirically verifiable, logically deducible, or at least inferentially justified (more on this below). As such, I tend to be wary of many aspects of the popularized yoga culture in this country. Talk about “the third-eye”, “chakras”, and the like is all very suspicious to me, and I tend not to incorporate such dubious entities into my own worldview. Rather, I prefer to discuss topics and entities that have at least some evidentiary support for them. This is not to say, however, that if someone were to make a good case for believing in, say, chakras, that I wouldn’t have a change of heart. Rather, my point is that as I slowly work my way into the philosophy and spirituality of yoga, I do so with caution and care. I am admittedly areligious; and lest yoga turn into a kind of dogmantic religion, it is important, at least for me personally, to avoid accepting things on faith. I suspect that many others share my concerns. Unfortunately, many people are so sceptical about anything that sounds even vaguely religious in nature that they quickly dismiss all of yoga philosophy and spirituality as hocus-pocus. For this reason, I think it is particularly important when speaking to a Western audience to set a high standard for truth when dealing with topics that might otherwise be disparagingly characterized as “New-Agey”.

In contemporary Western philosophy, many of the issues I bring up here fall under the general categories of epistemology and metaphysics. Epistemology is concerned with knowledge. In particular, epistemology is concerned with things like the nature of knowledge, the necessary conditions for knowledge, the ways of properly obtaining knowledge, and the limitations of human knowledge. Epistemology is also very much concerned with justification with regard to knowledge — roughly, how can I be justified in believing some claim X? Now, the general sentiment among Western philosophers is that no one is justified in believing any claim if he/she does not come to believe in the claim in the right way; just what constitutes “the right way” of coming to believe in a claim is, of course, very controversial, and there is no general consensus on that. At the very least, however, most philosophers agree that there must be some standard for a person’s coming to believe that a claim X is true — I can’t, after all, legitimately and justifiably believe in just any old thought that pops into my head, or any old thought that someone else puts into my head.

Metaphysics, as the term is used by contemporary Western philosophers, refers generally to the area of philosophical inquiry that is concerned with the nature of reality. Importantly, the term metaphysics in contemporary Western philosophy does not (typically) refer to the studies of the occult, ghosts, ghouls, or things of that nature. Rather, metaphysicians are concerned with questions like “What is substance?”, “What is time?”, “What is the self?”, etc. (Some metaphysicians, but not most, are also concerned with questions like “What is the nature of God?” and other religiously oriented questions.) Clearly, epistemology and metaphysics are intimately intertwined; you can’t, after all, be concerned with knowledge without also being concerned about the nature of the proper objects and subjects of knowledge.

So what does all this mean for the study of yoga philosophy and spirituality? Well, personally, I want to separate out the unjustified claims from the justified ones. And I want to believe in the justified claims and reject (or at least cast some serious doubt on) the unjustified ones. To put it more succinctly, I want to sort out the BS from the not-BS. My postings on the blog under this new category of “Yoga Philosophy” will be directed towards this end. I should emphasize clearly that my entire approach to yoga philosophy will have in the background certain methodological principles and assumptions. These are as follows:

1) Nothing should be accepted as being true merely on faith.

2) We should accept as being true anything that is necessarily — i.e. deductively — true. (Whether or not anything is, strictly speaking, necessarily true is a separate issue.)

3) We are at least sometimes defeasibly justified in believing things that we come to believe through direct experience. (By “defeasibly justified”, I mean to say that the possibility remains open that we might be wrong in what we believe, and if our experience gives us reason to believe otherwise, we ought to reevaluate our belief. But until our experience demands that we reevaluate our belief, we are justified in continuing to believe as we do.)

4) We are at least sometimes defeasibly justified in believing things that we come to believe through acceptable processes of inference. (Of course, it will be a major point of debate as to what constitutes an “acceptable process of inference.” I suspect that this is the battleground upon which much of the discussion on this blog about yoga philosophy/spirituality will be played out.)

5) We are never justified in believing something just because we want to believe it (even if we really, really want to believe it!), because we wish it were true, or because someone told us so.

With these principles and assumptions in hand, I’ll discuss next time topics that are a little more concrete and accessible. I’ll try in the future to be less abstract and philosophically technical in my writing, but it may be unavoidable at times to pull out the heavy analytic machinery in order to really get at certain complicated and controversial issues.


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