I've had a few requests for some discussion of yoga philosophy. While I offer my private students an overview of the Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads, I hope to use this forum to expand this exploration and to support even more reflection in the TogetherYoga community.
Considering how hard it can be to find an hour just to do yoga with a clear mind, it's easy to see how the philosophical aspect of the practice sometimes falls by the wayside. Too often, we find ourselves moving through vinyasas for their physical benefit without tapping into the philosophical framework that gives the asanas a more profound purpose. Muscling through the poses, we get so bound up in our binds that we forget the ultimate goal of yoga is liberation. Sure, the asanas condition our muscles to give us physical freedom, but the philosophy behind them offers spiritual and emotional freedom as well.
Because there's never enough time in class to explore yoga's philosophical foundations, I will do my best to nourish that side of the practice here and to facilitate a dialogue through the comment section below. Assuming no prior knowledge, let's start this week with an introduction to the Upanishad texts, which form the foundations of what evolved into yoga philosophy.
While the Upanishads may seem esoteric and remote at first, their influence flows throughout the world around us. Without necessarily knowing what we're listening to, we hear an echo from the Upanishads every time we chant OM,
which the Mandukya Upanishad first identified as the cosmic sound that vibrates through all creation. Likewise, when we perform or benefit from bhakti,
we experience a spirit of service that the Upanishads conceptualized for refinement later in the Bhagavad Gita. And when we move through the vinyasas, we engage in a practice that the Upanishads first recognized with mentions of the earliest yogis—the "ascetics whose bodies move at will.”
We also encounter the legacy of the Upanishads in our lives outside of yoga. Migrating across lands and through languages over time, the Upanishads influenced Sufi mystics and poets. Later, the Upanishads spread across Europe at the start of the 19th century with their first publication into Latin. Schopenhauer was so impressed by this translation that he wrote: "From every sentence of the Upanishads, deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. In the whole world, there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. They are the products of the highest wisdom. They are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people."
His enthusiasm for the Upanishads' uniquely subjective, experiential philosophy was shared by other German Idealists and eventually spread across the Atlantic, bringing the Upanishads home for us with American Transcendentalism. Here, the inspiration of the Upanishads flows through the writings of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, whose affection for Vedic philosophy inspired him to proclaim that “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” Following the diffusion of this influence, we can see the Upanishads' experiential view of the Divine radiating through the paintings of Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and other Hudson River School painters, who were inspired by transcendentalism. We can even feel its presence in Central Park, where it springs up in Olmsted's landscapes.
Seeing the threads of the Upanishad woven into the world around us, our first access point to their wisdom lies in the double meaning of their name itself. Translated as syllables, upa
, means sit down beside and invites the truth-seeker to sit beside the sage. Divided into two parts, however, with upani
used as a prefix to shad
, the meaning shifts to destruction of ignorance, and the word becomes an objective. Together, the two meanings complement each other, offering us both an invitation and a goal.
Written by several authors starting as early as the 4th century B.C., the Upanishads comprise a collection of 108 selected texts that form the Vedanta. The Vedanta are the lessons taught at the end of the Vedas, an ancient compilation of writings whose name means sacred wisdom
. Though their writers believed they were divinely inspired, the Vedas and the Upanishads contain a genuine spirit of inquiry and insist that finding truth requires both contemplation and revelation. The oldest Upanishads predate Buddhist influence in India and spark two major paradigm shifts in Vedic philosophy. First, they close the divide between Brahman and Atman so that the infinite universal spirit (Brahman) is one with the immortal spirit of every being (Atman). Second, they provide a bridge away from the dogmatic, ritualistic practice of religion and towards the subjective, experiential inquiry that we associate with yoga.
In the Upanishad tradition, philosophy is nothing less than the pursuit of wisdom by a way of life. Acting more as vehicles for spiritual illumination than rules in a metaphysical system, the Upanishads encourage us to seek Truth by living. As Radhakrishna explains, the Upanishads convey a "core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life.” The text is not the answer to our cosmic questions, but a catalyst for our own personal, experiential investigations.
Breaking with dogma, the Upanishads reject the ritualization of spirituality and the subordination of soul to creed. Instead, the passages prescribe a project of individual inquiry that encourages us to seek the Real, the one reality that operates "beyond the flux of the world." The writings map out a path for inner ascent, which guides an individual's journey to freedom through truth. The goal is not heavenly bliss or a better rebirth; it's freedom from the cosmic law of karma and fulfillment through self-identification with what is Eternal, Real, and True.
Lest this seem like a tall order, the Upanishads insist that we are not as far away from this goal as we might think. Rooting for us (in every sense of the word), the writers maintain that all spiritual progress is the growth of a hunch into a revelation. Our search for the Divine, the Real, and the Eternal reveals that we already know something instinctive about what we hope to find. Our challenge—both in yoga and in life—is to give ourselves a chance to stretch far enough and reach deep enough to seek and find our answers.