As yogins, it is common to begin our yoga journey on the mat, with asana practice, but many of us reach a point where we want to know more about the meaning and purpose of yoga. For some, but not all, this will come as we approach our first yoga teacher training. While we are eager to further our journey, delving into yoga philosophy can sometimes leave us feeling confused and intimidated. The language may seem inaccessible and the concepts extremely complex. Rather than opening us up to a whole new world, yoga philosophy can leave many of us feeling shut out or just plain stupid.
The truth is that yogins have struggled to unpick and unpack the meaning of the sacred, ancient yoga texts for centuries. We should not, therefore, feel embarrassed or deterred if we, as modern-day yogins struggle to understand the teachings of yoga philosophy. The principles that underpin yoga were, after all, developed more than 5,000 years ago, with the ancient texts that record these ideas dating as far back as 1700 BCE. That’s about 3,000 years before Shakespeare and we all remember how hard that was to understand when we studied it at school. To make things more challenging, these texts were written in Sanskrit, a language that has been effectively dead since the turn of the first millennia CE and is used today only in religious rituals, in literature and by scholars. Furthermore, Sanskrit is an enormously complex language, with a vast vocabulary, that may express a single meaning or object in hundreds of different ways. This renders ancient Hindu and yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutra, open to wide interpretation and the subject of much disagreement and controversy.
To make things even more complex for the 21st Century yogin, the single most important yoga text, the Yoga Sutra, written by sage Patanjali, most likely around 350 CE, is written in something called aphorisms. Aphorisms are brief statements, intended to express wisdom in as few words as possible, so they are easy to remember. The Yoga Sutra contains 196 short aphorisms- sets of phrases which leave out unnecessary words, similar to how a telegram would have been written. It should come as no surprise that leaving out key words and phrases, while allowing the sutras to be easily remembered, also makes them hard to understand. Historically, it was, therefore, common for sutras of this kind to be accompanied or followed by a more detailed commentary, probably written by another author, which contained an explanation of the meaning of the text. This commentary is called a Bhashya. The Bhashya not only explained the sutras, but also discussed issues arising from them, so that a short sutra could generate several pages of Bhashya. The Bhashya itself was, unfortunately, also often complex and hard to understand and, in due course, more authors came forward to write commentaries on the Bhashyas, sometimes over a period of hundreds of years, leaving us with commentaries upon commentaries to navigate in order to establish the meaning of an original sutra. This process leaves the meaning of the original words contained within the sutras open to wide, and often controversial, interpretation.
So the key principles of yoga philosophy are written in a language that very few people understand and are also recorded using a style of writing that renders them easy to misinterpret. After thousands of years of discussion and debate, even the most committed yoga scholars should accept that the meaning and purpose of yoga may be open to individual interpretation.
We must also take into account that yoga was developed as an approach to life and set of practices to be followed by Brahmins, an elite cast of male priests, who often lived an ascetic and renounced lifestyle outside of society. Yoga was not, therefore, originally intended to be practised by the average person, living in the material world. It was only around 500CE, with the development of Tantra, that yoga reached the householder and began to become more mainstream. Is it hardly surprising, therefore, that ancient yoga philosophy can seem inaccessible and intimidating to the modern-day yogin?
Another layer of confusion comes with the many branches and schools of yoga. It is commonly accepted that there are 6 branches or paths of yoga -Raja or Classical Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Must we treat these paths as mutually exclusive or can we practice more than one branch simultaneously? Within the Hatha Yoga tradition there is also a multitude of modern-day schools of yoga, mainly focused upon asana practice, including Viniyoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Yin, Bikram, Forrest, Jivamukti, Power and Anusara Yoga. Most of these schools have been created and passed down through a guru tradition, based on patriarchal lineage, which can often be dogmatic and, to some extent, divisive. Are we as practitioners and teachers obliged to throw our hats in with one of these traditions? If we wish to mix and match are we failing to respect the purity of the practice as it was conceived? Does this mean we are not real yogins and does it make our practice less valid than that of others?
It is important to remember that each of the traditional yoga paths and modern-day yoga schools first began and grew from differing interpretations of yoga, its purpose and practice. I would argue that there are many ways to be a yogin and to state that there is one right way is at best grossly misleading and at worse may be harmful. Recent scandals engulfing a number of modern schools of yoga are testament to this. The concept of patriarchal lineage, the passing down of “the right way” to practice has led to well-documented abuse. This abuse has, however, opened up a new conversation about how we practice, which has begun to shed doubt on the idea of yoga as a dogma and brought into the spotlight the importance of more flexible approaches to practice that suit the individual practitioner.
So how do we proceed as well-intentioned yogins seeking to understand more about the meaning and purpose of yoga? My advice is to begin a journey of inquiry, seeking to find interpretations of yoga that resonate with us and our own life experiences. Whilst we must remain humble in our inquiry, we should not feel intimidated by the complexities of yoga philosophy nor alienated by the rigidity and seemingly unattainable goals of dogmatic approaches, which are now being openly questioned. We should see yoga as a set of tools for self-improvement available to us all. As practitioners and teachers, the yoga tradition remains powerful only in as far as we can make it relevant to modern-day life and to an individual student’s life experience. We must respect and seek to understand the philosophical underpinnings of this ancient practice but not be afraid to make it our own.