Is Yoga Really “Everything”?

So, you practice yoga. Do you think of yoga as comprised of traditional practices intended to help you achieve enlightenment? Perhaps you conceive of anything being yoga, as long as it is fun and feels good? Or do you think you’re already enlightened (or divine), and all of life can be a form of yoga if intentionally executed? A recent blog highlights this debate by questioning the intention of music in yoga classes. In this 2-part series, we discuss some of the philosophical presumptions and limitations of each of these perspectives, using music as a metaphor for how external stimuli can enhance our practice.

Philip Urso claims that non-kirtan “music can hinder teaching Vinyasa yoga” for a host of reasons, including being able to hear the class as a teacher, and experiencing the class free of distractions as a student. Chief, however is Urso’s contention that yoga is intended to be an internal process free of distractions.

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To support his point, Urso notes that many yoga instructors justify their usage of music in class because “yoga is everything.” His main beef is that actually, “yoga is not everything”; according to Patanjali’s yoga sutras, the only path to awakening is through the map of the eight limbs. He continues: “The Sutras do not say, do everything you want and you will awaken. And nowhere does it say to play music.”

Urso’s appraisal of Patanjalean yoga, as we’ll call it, is correct. Fundamental to Patanjali’s metaphysical position is our problematic attachment to the illusory physical world, including mind and body, held to generate unnecessary suffering. Liberation is thus achieved by renouncing the world and identification with body and mind by employing the eight-limbed path.

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Yet Patanjali, while widely credited as yoga’s chief pioneer, represents but one of yoga’s many philosophic lineages. For example, the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism (KS) contends that we are already divine, body and mind; we need only attune to this. The Rajanaka (Shakta Tantra), an offshoot of Kashmir Shaivism, takes this a step further and posits all aspects of reality, internal and external, light and dark, to represent the multiplicity of the divine. These tantric lineages build on Patanjali’s classical dualism, but make a radical departure in suggesting the experience of embodiment evidences our divinity, as does the entirety of the macrocosm, or external environment.

Thus, Ursa’s comment that entities outside yourself, “such as in music, wine, pleasure” are neither good nor bad but fail to sustain one in a state of yoga, clarity, union, and happiness, is both true and false. As human beings, we tend to seek fulfillment externally, which alone may fail to sustain. Yet to the fully awakened being, KS or Rajanaka would argue, these externalities, just like our selves, are aspects of the divine. Thus the pleasure derived from a glass of wine or soulful piece of music can serve as a poignant reminder of the infinite in us all. However in the absence of awareness or default modes of functioning, these same indulgences may reinforce samskara (habits or patterns), and engender suffering.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss the differences between a) using “yoga as everything” as an excuse to cop out, and b) holding yourself accountable, as well as how the intentional use of music can enhance your yoga practice.

What is your philosophy of yoga?

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