Yoga Philosophy is a somewhat nebulous topic depending on who you talk to. In my experience there is more misinformation about it than there is on how to practice asana, and that’s saying something. Recently hundreds of pseudo yoga teachers and so called experts have come to the forefront to exclaim their predominant wisdom with regards to the history of yoga, in regards to it’s origin and “true” meaning.
“Yoga” as a whole is out of our grasp completely in it’s entirety, so it’s best to pull the classic western sleuth move and use a reductionist model for the endeavor, else we’ll get nowhere regardless of how much time we spend or how many books we read. The reality is that for the common householder the basic precepts of yoga philosophy are quite simple and can be grasped by most people with even the slightest interest in theoretical wisdom. Undeniably intellectual, however pragmatic in application, yoga philosophy is an aspect of Jnana Yoga, it is the kind of pursuit which should bring eventual clarity and insight.
Yoga as most westerners know it is the Ashtanga system, and by that I do not mean specifically the vinyasa method practiced by the Pattabhi Jois lineage, which came from Tirumalai Krishnamacharya; this is only a subset of Ashtanga. Rather, if we use literal sources we know that the yoga sutras of patanjali outlined Ashtanga Yoga as the method for removing the root causes of ignorance and suffering in human beings (sutra 2:29 for those so inclined). The Yoga Sutras were authored by Patanjali, but that remains only as relevant as you make it. The fact is that if you practice yoga legitimately, you can read the yoga sutras and sense the authenticity of the document. The Sutras are clear, concise, and are available to anyone interested to peruse them.
The Yoga Sutras are based on, and exist on a foundation of a dualistic philosophy called Samkhya. Samkhya, or “The Samkhya” is vast and has existed for a long time, perhaps longer than any western philosophy. Samkhya is often called the realist school, or the rationalist school, because it gives precedent to experiential knowledge rather than esoteric thought based in purely cognitive pursuits. This is in line with the goals of yoga, which is to clear the mind. So, before you even dabble in yoga philosophy, or the Samkhya, you should ask yourself one fundamental and basic question. I will ask the question in two parts. First, do you believe that your thoughts define who or what you are? Or do you believe that you, yourself, are something that exists beyond them. In other words, do you believe that old adage “I think therefore I am”. For if you do, yoga in it’s accurate form may not be for you. Yoga philosophy is clear that the concept of ego is related to a mixture of our cosmic and temporary (think human lifespan) individual existences, and that is causing us some problems and results ultimately in us losing touch with our true origins. Secondly, if you believe that there is something within you, among you, or which pervades your existence, which is something more preeminent than your thoughts, do you believe it is a good idea to try to find it. If you answered no to the first and yes to the second, then you, quite simply, are one of “us”. You’re a yogi, and you will invariably get closer to uncovering your ultimate self regardless of wether you take up asana practice or not. But, if you’re curious, and you want to indulge in the process a bit, we have a system laid out for you; how convenient!
Samkhya Philosophy, in a word, is not “philosophy” at all, to begin with. Allow me to digress. The term philosophy has a connotation to westerners because it has a latin meaning which the greeks used to coin their intellectual system of theories and concepts outlying their pursuit for truth. “philo” means love and “soph” means wisdom. Simple enough. But a philosophy Samkhya does not necessarily make, and here’s why. Because there isn’t an inherent love of wisdom within it. This may be an important distinction because if the goal of the system is to eliminate thinking it would be hard to suggest that it loves “wisdom”. Again, this may seem like a detail, but there is a certain end game in Samkhya which does not exist in western philosophy, which seems to simply desire to toil around endlessly searching for that which is intellectually gratifying. Yoga Philosophy is a system seeking an end to problems. However pragmatic westerners are by cultural definition, we tend to like our spiritual practice to be pointless; unfortunately yoga is going to bring you more in touch with your real issues and thus is going to need some space to work itself out. Using yoga as a philosophy is, in many contexts, a denial of yoga itself.
Samkhya is dualistic in a way which is foreign to most of us. Alain Danielou writes on and on about the difference, but it’s really difficult to grasp. When we think of duality, we’re used to the idea that our mind and our body struggle. When we practice yoga we are told that yoga means “union” or to “unite” or “yolk”. In this context that may be accurate. Your mind and body aren’t separate in yoga, at all. But this is not the ultimate goal of yoga, this is really just the first step. Further, yoga the word and yoga the practice have two different meanings, just like any word does. In our context, yoga means “chitta vritti nirodaha” (yoga sutra 1:2), which means “the end of fluctuations of consciousness”.
In yoga philosophy the field of chitta or “consciousness” is in and of itself a blank canvas, or like a placid lake with no current or wind. In this state the lake itself, without any intereference or outside influence would survive to infinity, but that is just not how we understand lakes. When we see a lake we often see the ripples or waves on the surface; you can think of this as our thoughts. The waves on the surface of the lake disturb the surface area of it and change the way it appears. Most of the time the deeper parts of the lake remain undisturbed by the wind, but we also know that over time the surface can have an effect on the banks, and eventually the currents which will change the deepest parts. Our consciousness is the same, with the deeper subconscious (subtle, if you will) parts being more tamasic, or more well grounded and unchanging, while the surface or more conscious aspects of consciousness being more restless and changing. The lake itself, or the consciousness, is headed towards evolution, so we can use the wind to form a lake built for liberation if we are careful. We have the power to change the smaller aspects of our consciousness; that is where asana comes in, and that is the purpose of the ashtanga system.
Samkhya is dualistic not in mind and body, but in that which is present in manifested phenomenon and which exists but yet remains in a state of non-definition. Another way of looking it is through quantum physics; there is matter and there is anti-matter. Samkhya philosophy presumes that these two dimensions are distinctly separate as they are, and only combine through the existence of sentient beings and subjective sensory perception, or ego. Other terminology that might work is “flesh” and “spirit”. Either way, yoga philosophy maintains that while both of these dimensions stem from a unified origin, that they are effectively split, to the point of it being impossible for them to be truly joined. The purpose of yoga, then, is to recognize this and not try to change the universe to fit our perception, but rather change our perception to recognize accurately the state of the universe. Somehow these concepts sound grandiose, but we deal with them every day in one way or another; we get exceptionally close to them in our yoga practice.
Yoga philosophy is built on a foundation not of “Hinduism” (the word “hindu” is a British colonial invention, but we won’t go into that here), but on non-theistic if not atheistic thought. Samkhya is like modern physics for a primordial tradition of intellectual systems. There is no room for god in them any more than there is room for the concept of god in the periodic table of the elements. The word “god” has been translated to “isvara” in some renditions of the yoga sutras, but if we study the two words separately we find they have very different connotations. While being religious isn’t antagonistic with yoga, it is just the truth of the matter that there is no god in yoga, unless someone puts it there. There is not only the issue of Samkhya predating modern Hinduism (per se), but there is also the issue that nowhere in the yoga sutras or in Samkhya is there any mention of any of the dieties of Hinduism.
Samkhya Philosophy is the root of yoga philosophy. The asanas we practice were built on the assumptions laid out in the Samkhya. The great masters of yoga were keenly aware of the truths inherent in the Samkhya system, and our art was born out and practice with an awareness of our existence as sentient beings in a dualistic universe.