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Applied Yoga

The ancient sages believed that thinking was at least as important as Downward-Facing Dog in reaching our full human potential.

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Once a student of mine asked me if any television character embodied the ideal yogi. “Not perfectly,” I said, “but how about half perfectly? I would pick Mr. Spock. You know, the half-Vulcan, hyper-logical, emotion-free character on Star Trek.”

She immediately protested, “But I thought yoga was about getting into your body and your emotions.”

“It is,” I replied, “and I said Spock was only half perfect. But his example reminds us that yoga is not only about the body and the emotions; it’s just as much about learning to think with crystal-clear logic. Yoga teaches us to use all our resources, body and mind.”

Unlike the Western philosophies where reason and emotion are often treated as separate forms of experience, yoga locates feelings and thoughts in the same “place”—in the faculty called the manas—and teaches us how to integrate these essential human experiences. We usually translate manas as “mind,” even though it often means something more like “heart”: the seat of true feeling, the place where thought and feeling are fully present. To value our feelings over our thoughts or vice versa brings us to only half our true potential. But when we cultivate our physical and emotional experiences, as we do in an asana practice, yoga traditions teach that we will naturally want to go more deeply into our intellectual and rational abilities. All practicing yogis are, by necessity, yoga philosophers. At stake is whether we will become as supple in our minds as we are in our bodies.

As Mr. Spock might say, it’s not only what we think and feel that transforms our lives; thinking clearly and effectively is itself transformative. As the renowned sixth-century Buddhist philosopher Jnanagarbha went so far as to say, “Reason is ultimate.” By this he meant that logic is essential in creating the highest yogic experience. Logic and intellectual cultivation are this important because we all can do it and we all must do it. We can’t really function in the world without it.

The Need for Philosophy

Like the student who was surprised to hear me cite Mr. Spock as a half-exemplary yogi, some yoga practitioners seem to believe that being logical somehow blocks us from more direct, personal levels of experience. Certainly yoga has always taught that there is more to us than logical truths. Yet the great yoga masters never suggest that transcending logical boundaries means forsaking logic itself. Thinking and expressing ourselves rationally isn’t a liability that somehow prevents us from going more deeply into our emotions or ourselves. In fact, being able to give a logical, coherent account of one’s deepest experience has always been considered a vital part of a yogi’s development. We cannot hope to reach our full potential without developing effective practices based on sound thinking.

The importance of yoga philosophy is actually part of yoga’s emphasis on practicality, which historically has meant that yogis prefer results they can measure one way or another and also that people are held accountable for their claims of experience. Failure to give a persuasive account means you are describing an experience that we can’t share or one that you yourself don’t fully understand. If your experience is so overly personal that it is just yours, if your account fails to convey a deeper, common human experience, what good is it to the rest of us? Yoga traditionalists are pragmatic. They insist that we make sense of our experience. This emphasis on clarity as well as accountability has resulted in texts and teachings that continue to inspire and guide us today.

The Purposes of Yoga

Although the ancient yoga masters taught that we must integrate minds and hearts and be able to give a full account of our thoughts and feelings, we might ask ourselves if this requirement is still relevant to our practice. Our answer depends on what we think yoga is for, what purpose it serves in our lives. Do we practice yoga primarily for physical exercise? Or do we practice yoga for more spiritual reasons? The ancients created the paths of yoga because they believed these were the best ways, indeed the only ways, to realize our full human potential. No one makes this any clearer than Patanjali, the second-century author of the Yoga Sutra.

Patanjali states that yoga has two distinct purposes or goals. In Chapter II, verse 2 of the Yoga Sutra, he states that yoga’s “purpose or goal is to cultivate the experience of equanimity [samadhi]” and “to unravel the causes of negativity.” Patanjali tells us, in effect, that yoga will help us figure out and eradicate the reasons why we suffer, even as it leads us to feel the deepest of human experiences.

Because Patanjali describes yoga’s two distinct projects—cultivating true equanimity and unraveling the causes of negativities—he suggests that yoga creates two different but yet connected results. A practice that leads to deeper equanimity empowers us to bring our joy to others as well as to ourselves. In this way, we become free to act for a higher purpose. (At the same time, we need to uncover the causes of negative experiences so that we learn to avoid them and thus to become more free from the sources of negativity.)

Becoming more free to live with ourselves confers on us a greater sense of empowerment and joy. Our actions become more meaningful because we know their true purpose. “Freedom to” gives perspective and depth, the feeling that what we do does matter. The world’s everyday indignities bother us less, and from our more grounded experience we naturally act more decisively and compassionately.
In a complementary way, as we unravel or attenuate the causes of negative experiences, we will feel free from them because we understand more deeply how our experience has evolved. To give a simple example, we learn from experience that touching a hot stove will cause a painful burn, and so thus we learn from understanding the cause how to avoid the effect. “Freedom from” gives us a clear sense of the relationship between past experience and what we might expect in the future. Yogis strive to become free to live life from true equanimity and free from the causes we know will bring us suffering. Our experience of freedom is not “irrational” or anti-rational but rather is rooted in more deeply understanding our relationships: with others, the world, nature, and ourselves. Over time, what is logically true becomes experientially true for us, and each type of experience complements the other.

The Role of Intellect

Even among the many schools of yoga that pay homage to Patanjali, however, there are somewhat different views on the role of logic in yoga. In the view of Classical Yoga, which claims to be Patanjali’s rightful heir, we become as free to experience our joy as we are free from the limitations of our bodily and mental nature. The ultimate Self is beyond all logic yet cannot be experienced without it. The immortal Purusha, or Spirit, pervades reality, but we confuse this with our mortal psychophysical Prakriti, or material nature. Logic fills an important role in sorting out the immortal Spirit from the limited material self. Put simply, Classical Yoga treats having a body and a mind as a problem to be solved. For Classical yogis, the challenge is to isolate the Self of pure Spirit. The true Self, Classical Yoga proclaims, was never truly tainted by our material nature or the causes of negativity, which can only belong to limited matter. Recognizing these facts about our material and spiritual natures depends as much on our logical understanding as it does on forms of experiential learning. As we clearly see and become free from the causes of negative experience, the Classical yogi says, we become free to revel in our spiritual nature.

The strength of Classical Yoga’s vision is the way it leads us to consider a deeper level of reality, beyond material forms, while it affirms that the experiences we have as limited, embodied beings are real. Logic belongs to our limited, material nature, but like our bodies it is useful in the process of distinguishing Spirit from matter. Indeed some critics of the Classical view have questioned the coherence of severing Self so completely from the experiential self; to them, it seems ironic and even puzzling that we are asked to get into our body, mind, and heart so that we might transcend them for a Self that has no qualities at all. On a practical level, since this Self is not our bodies or minds, it becomes a kind of abstraction until (and unless) we experience it directly as pure Spirit.

In the important and influential tradition of Advaita (nondualist) Vedanta, all of yoga is for the sake
of becoming free to experience the Self as Oneness. Samadhi reveals that we are, and always have been, only the one true Self that abides in all beings. We need not cultivate the experience of the Self, as in Classical Yoga, but rather open up to its being the sole reality, the All, the One. At the deepest level, we are already free from the negativities; in truth, these are only forms of ignorance. Advaita Vedanta teaches that these forms of ignorance are unreal in light of the true Self or, at best, only provisionally real experiences that evaporate with the knowledge of ultimate reality. Ignorance is like darkness that vanishes when the light of knowledge enters to take its place. Advaita Vedanta tells us that yoga’s purpose is to realize Oneness and that all other experiences are ultimately rooted in error or illusion. As Advaita leads us out of the maze of worldliness and into the light of Oneness, it also leads us to believe that the world is itself an illusion based on a limited, flawed understanding.

Advaita Vedanta’s critics have countered that it’s hard to believe that the “I” who experiences a root canal isn’t really in pain because distinctions are ultimately false. And on a pragmatic level, the Advaita position seems to imply the idea that there is nothing to achieve and therefore no need for yoga practice. As an activity, yoga can have no direct role in liberation—knowledge alone liberates, according to Advaita Vedanta. We may practice yoga for pleasure if we choose so, but it seems to have no higher purpose. While perhaps true on one level, this view can also leave seekers adrift and rudderless.

In the Tantric-based yoga that is my lineage, philosophers such as the great Abhinavagupta and those practitioners of the goddess-centered Srividya traditions maintained that all of reality is the Divine expressing itself. This Divinity includes all temporal and material realities, including anything we experience as negative. Yoga, according to the Tantric philosophers, empowers us to experience every facet of ourselves as a manifestation of the Divine. Our recognition that the self of ordinary experience is none other than the same true Self that is present as the infinite forms of the universe occurs at every level of our experience, from logic to emotion. This One Self appearing as the Many does not diminish the value of the material world nor does it make our emotional or intellectual experience irrelevant by dissolving it into pure Oneness, as Classical Yoga or Advaita Vedanta can seem to do. Rather, the Tantric position maintains that yoga means we are free to experience everything as Divine because we are free from the misconception that our mortal experience is a barrier to the immortal. Thus for the Tantric tradition, we are not so much bound by our limited experience as we are simply informed by it; this is the gift of experience as well as the insight that yoga provides. But, as the critics of Tantra have pointed out, its radical affirmation that the senses and the body are Divine can lead to overindulgence and abuse by those who have more interest in their own pleasure than in Divine joy.

From its origins, yogis have debated rationally and with deep emotion what yoga’s purpose truly is and how we might best go about reaching our goals. But no matter what goals we set for ourselves or what understandings we create from our human experiences, yoga asks us to bring all of ourselves—our body, emotions, and thoughts—to its practice. In this sense, yoga truly lives up to its literal meaning, “union.” Without logic and clear thinking, we might have strong feelings but no way of evaluating and knowing if we are meeting our goals. But, just as Mr. Spock comes to realize from being half human, feelings are equally crucial, for they can boldly transport us to realms where logic alone can never go.