Is Intellect an Obstacle in Yoga?

A recent blog by Bhakti yoga experts Ed and Deb Shapiro contends that over-emphasis on the intellect in Western cultures inhibits spiritual growth. The Bhakti yoga tradition espouses the importance of love and devotion to the Divine through chant, prayer, storytelling, and meditation.  

The Shapiros argue that traditional yoga teachings—texts, sutras, and vedas—can be easily used to obtain an intellectual understanding of yoga. In the absence of direct experience, however, the true meaning of yoga may be evasive, and a purely intellectual understanding “will never make us happy or set us free.” They note that “Until we open our heart, look within and rejoice in the love that is our true nature, all the teachings are just words … we can quote the scriptures … but we are not true yogis until the intellect is no longer running the show.”  The Bhakti path is, however, only one of many yoga paths said to foster self-realization.

Jnana yoga, for example, is the yoga of knowledge and wisdom, and refers to a theory/practice which “uses the intellect as a tool to understand that our True Self is beyond our mind.” The Jnana yogi systematically asks “Who am I?” to bring to light the enduring nature of the true self, accomplished by non-identification with thoughts, feelings, ancestral heritage, class, belief system, or personality.  Jnana yoga is said to be both a quick route to self-realization as well as one of the most treacherous, because “our rational mind is quite tricky” and can easily get in the way. Therefore while the intellect may awaken self-knowledge, it can also be a hindrance. This path “starts from direct experiences that anyone can have,” thus combining direct experience with the intellect. Here the intellect is merely a transitional tool to facilitate ultimate knowledge of reality.

As the Shapiros comment, treatises and scriptures may inspire, but taken alone may be unlikely to endow liberation. Most yoga paths emphasize the importance of direct experience. Indeed, Bhakti and Jnana are not mutually exclusive; one can discover the absolute truth of reality and true self both through opening of the heart as well as systematically questioning “Who am I,” through books, experience, and reasoning.

Kripalu and other yoga philosophies, such as the tantra rajanaka, emphasize the importance of using direct experience in all aspects of life as an opportunity for cultivating witness consciousness, the yogic equivalent of mindfulness. “Yoga off the mat”—meaning, yoga in life—is believed to be one of the most challenging and fruitful practices.

As an ancient Japanese saying stipulates, “"There are many paths up the Mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same.”

Do you find the intellect a help or a hindrance in your yoga practice?

Comments 2

  1. wow this hits the nail on the head,,I would say we have a westernised type of yoga here in the west with a less than luke warm interst in the grownth of the spiritaul matters.When I started leaning Yoga in the 1970s it was the spiritaul side that interested me; and now to see yoga as simply a form of workout is cold and not so engaging.i thought cause the western society is christain it must be this way and i was labled a devant even though i my self am a born again christain,this did not alarm me. i had hoped that the ture teaching of the yogis and the bible had to be the same,just no christain had ever found the truthes and i set out to find them. i think i have.but never in my wildes dreams did ever think yoga would be were it is today.Basicly yoga is humanism in its highest form with a heathy respect for God without a ture relatationship with God.This is sin to most but to me its heathy because i see so much hipocritic devotion to God and comtemp for fellow man and worship of the matiral world.But i firmly believe that God meant man to think like the Yogis theaching compel us as yoga practionors to find it and each must find his or hers own path to God.spiritaul gbrownth is the must important thing in life and God has made a promise to help each one of us as long as we become a conduent to help others.

  2. In general, I find that the intellect gets in my way when I try to ”do” yoga, rather than ”live” it. If I am on the mat doing a sun salutation, the feeling I get is very different than when I am ”in it” so to speak. Learning how to really surrender to my practice (for lack of a better word in this moment) space is often my personal challenge. In other cases, the intellect serves me, for example, when I really need to make a decision about something or truly analyze a situation. I may be driven by devotion to something, but blind devotion can get in the way just as much over-intellectualizing can.

    In relation to the direct experience comment: ”In the absence of direct experience, however, the true meaning of yoga may be evasive, and a purely intellectual understanding ”will never make us happy or set us free,” we can easily turn that around. ”In the absence of understanding, the true meaning of the direct experience” may not be recognized. Many people have had a direct experience, but do not understand the significance of it and so many categorize it as, ”strange experience.”

    I do not think that any one-dimensionally (bhakti, jnana, karma, mantra, etc) oriented “practice” would serve me. To live in yoga is to be open to all of them. We are multi-dimensional beings with a multi-functioning mind. We can feel, think, sense, and intuit and each of those is a necessary function to be engaged according to different situations. For me, following a path of yoga is the same ”“ I draw from what will best serve the situation at hand. My infinite well of devotion may fuel with me with the passion to keep me going, but drawing from the wisdom of my experiences will help me direct that devotion toward my life”™s purpose.

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