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.

Viewing ads supports YogaBasics. Remove ads with a membership. Thanks!

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?

Disclosure: participates in several affiliate programs. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. When you click on external links, we may receive a small commission, which helps us keep the lights on.

  • Yoga Therapeutics

    Yoga Therapy is the use of yoga postures, meditation and pranayama to help the body naturally heal and balance itself. Check out our Yoga Therapy section to learn which yogic practices have been shown to have healing qualities for common complaints. Yoga Therapy Guides

    Each month YogaBasics’s readers can enter a new giveaway for a chance to win a great yoga prize. Previous prizes have included yoga books, clothes, and yoga festival tickets! Enter This Month's Giveaway!
  • Our Premium Membership

    Like what you see...and want more? Our premium members have access to deluxe features and premium content including: advanced asanas, yoga pose sequences, yoga therapy, and downloadable MP3s. Join Now!