Luke Jordan

Why should we study the philosophy of yoga

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the famous yoga guru, is well remembered as saying that yoga is 99% practise, 1% theory. Did he mean that philosophy is a secondary, dispensable part of yoga?
When we look in the yoga marketplace there are lots of references to the philosophical aspect of yoga but seldom with much in the way of actual engagement. If anything, these cultural and philosophical references have become the throw-away packaging used to sell the product of yoga. Yoga’s image is stylised and glamorised through the use of Sanskrit lettering and Hindu iconography, emphasising yoga’s exotic, other-worldliness. Is this what Jois meant by the 1% theory?

Despite the emphasis on practise, however, Jois would at the same time recommend that students engage with the time-honoured yoga texts – the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, among others. The culture and philosophy of Yoga was part of the fabric of his being. He held professorships in Sanskrit and Yoga and was very deeply engaged with yoga’s philosophical dimension. At afternoon conference (if he was not reading the paper!) he might suddenly quote by heart from long sections of the same recommended texts. His book, Yoga Mala, is full with references to yoga shastra, giving the grounding and foundational authority to his yoga method. To him, at least, it appears that this 1% was an indispensable part of what he was teaching.

And for us as yoga practitioners/teachers, too, yoga philosophy has a key role to play. Without it, yoga has the potential to be shorn of its purpose, meaning and identity. It has the potential to degenerate into a narcissistic ego pursuit, a Frankenstein version of the yoga that is talked about in the philosophical texts. It is a bit like if you tried to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture without the instructions. There is no knowing how it will turn out. By the end you’ll have a few screws loose and the whole thing falls apart!

The yoga philosophical tradition is the instruction manual for yoga, it provides the rooting, foundational grounding of our bodily practises. Yoga is not just about getting your legs behind your head, getting to the next series or getting that nice laminated teaching certificate. This is not even the tip of the iceberg. Yoga philosophy draws our attention to the deeper dimensional possibilities beyond these surface goals. It gives yoga its directional bearing, reminds us of yoga’s true intent, has the potential to deepen the profundity of our own practises ‘both on and off the mat’.

For me, yoga is primarily about inquiry. It is, ultimately, the inquiry into who we are and just what this whole thing called existence is all about. It is an incredibly rich and profound philosophical tradition and if we focus on just the practise of postures we really are mistaking the wood for a very small tree. Yoga philosophy, while it comes to us from a distant past, engages the questions that affect all of us in the present. “The unexamined life is not worth living” said one Western yogi and yoga philosophy is rich in-road on this path of examination and inquiry. Sometimes the concepts can be challenging or difficult but more often than not they are intuitive and deceptively simple. They have the capacity to make us question our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us and in doing so contain a certain transformational capacity. Yoga philosophy can change the way we see things.
And this is the point! Yoga philosophy is not mere idle theory. In the Indian system it is known as a darshana, a way of seeing. Rather than being purely speculative (as much of western philosophy is) it is interested in bringing about an actual shift in our experience. Rather than being solely part of that 1% then, yoga philosophy joins (yokes) with the other 99% giving it context and meaning. It is a part of what makes a whole practise.

The philosophy of yoga offers us so much to enrich our lives, our thinking and our experience. Through it we come to learn that what we really mean when we use the word ‘yoga’ is more than ‘just making an asana of ourselves’. In fact, through engagement with the philosophical aspect of yoga we are led to inquire into the very nature of these ‘selves’ that we take ourselves as being! Best not to throw away the instruction manuals! Better to use them and dive deeper into this mysterious thing called ‘yoga’. There’s nothing (except maybe your ‘self’) to lose!