Philosophy of Hatha-yoga

"Be Here Now!" Ram Dass

"Feel Good Now!" New Age Yoga

"Be Useful Now!" suami m, Director Morningside Yoga

Morningside Philosophy of Hatha-yoga

The Western mind has been conditioned to view the body and spirit as separate.  We receive inquiries at Morningside Yoga regularly from individuals genuinely perplexed about how Hatha-yoga as a physical practice can also be spiritual; and it is not easy to explain in one phone call. Attempting to put the individual's dualistic mind at ease causes us to walk a razor's edge in a conversation whose admitted purpose is to win a new client for our studio.  If we say our practice is spiritual, the individual may worry that he or she will be required to buy into a foreign religious belief system in order to participate (once during a hospital yoga/meditation class a Jehova's witness leaped off her cushion and headed for the door when the question of chanting arose, something we wouldn't do in that kind of institutional setting). If we tout the quality of the workout we offer, we may be accused (and have been many times!) of offering physical practice only. The Indian belief that our ego personality survives the body to reincarnate according to the laws of karma would seem to lend credence to the notion that body and spirit are, in fact, of different natures.  Classical yoga philosophy (ca 150 ce) formally named the distinction, purusha spirit and prakritti matter. There is also a tradition of brutal austerity in the Indian experience that appears to vilify the body in keeping with Western religious traditions of self-denial and self-mortification. For the purpose of effective yoga practice, it is important that we develop a theoretical basis for an integrated experience in the face of the apparent disparity.

Although Indian philosophers have demonstrated an ability to abstract and describe categories of reality with the best of their Western counterparts (see Samkhya Philosophy) ( their final aim has from the beginning been to resolve all discreet knowledge into a direct apprehension of Being itself, Brahman.  In other words, for the Indian philosopher, scientific knowledge of the psycho-phenomenal world is valid to the extent that it supports the effort to attain enlightenment. The ancients discovered that cognitive process alone could not resolve the cosmic paradox of matter versus spirit. Discriminative analysis was found to be insufficient to dissolve the illusion of an independent existence, the "I" of self-identification.  They developed meditation, dhyana, physical postures (asana) and breath techniques (pranayama) as a way to purify and eventually circumvent the very process of thought itself that precludes direct understanding. The premise of yoga is that philosophy in combination with a deep energetic investigation of the structures of the body itself may lead to realization of Atman or Self.  By meditating into ourselves, we discover that the fundamental template of our bodily existence is identical to the template of the cosmos at large. The body is both your mirror of, and window into, the all pervasive cosmic Mind.

Hatha-yoga evolved as a distinct branch of yoga during the Tantra period of Indian history, (mid-fourteenth century ce).  This cultural period adopted en masse the notion that the body is not a hindrance to liberation, but the very vehicle of liberation.  According to Tantra, we consecrate every aspect of life, and learn to see the sacred in the mundane.  According to Tantra and also Mahayana Buddhism, to pursue Nirvana (Absolute Understanding) apart from Samsara (Rebirth) is a fallacy based on an illusion.  You will notice that genuine Hatha-yoga teachers from the years prior to the cultural revolution (ca 1966) which popularized eastern spirituality, suffered no angst over calling their art physical. Shyam Sundar Goswami subtitled his 1959 book, An Advanced Method of Physical Education and Concentration.  Yogi Ramacharaka subtitled his 1930 book, The Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well Being. And Mr. Iyengar himself has stated that his purpose has been to make his body an instrument of wisdom.

"New Age Yoga" has not served society with an effective practice. Why?... because it was created by Westerners (with help from various Indian teachers of dubious sincerity) who brought their suspicions about the place of the body within spirituality square into the system they created.  Consider if you will, the ethos of New Age Yoga as put forth in various journals and in classes you may have attended. You will find the following mantra familiar:  It's not about physical effort, its about spirituality!  The contemporary practice thus formed threw out the proverbial baby with the bath water when it threw out the discipline of genuine asana practice.  What remains are the trappings and commercial excesses of an escapist fantasy ("Let your spirit soar!"). The great and exacting yoga science of spirituality has been conveniently displaced in the name of the much sought after state of temporary relaxation. The Astanga movement has helped reintroduce strong practice to the yoga world, and people in search of a real workout are rightly clamoring for classes influenced by this style. A pitfall of the "Power Yoga" Astanga craze is that it begins to limit participation to young hardbodies. For yoga to live up to its name, it must serve all levels of the population with the highest quality of physical and mental training appropriate to the individual's condition.

Let the public no longer be deluded about the true nature of Hatha-yoga practice.  It is an exacting physical science, albeit a sacred one.  To neglect the requirements of postural realignment and breath development, a demanding and often painful process, is to forfeit the transformational benefit inherent to practice. The physical practice of yoga (think of Sun Salute, Surya Namascar) becomes your devotion.  The labor you endure is a ritual act of karmic purification. Participation in tough training sessions under a presumably wise instructor is an opportunity for people from different walks of life to develop camaraderie and mutual respect.  Society will be much healthier with a greater prevalence of true Hatha-yoga.

To conclude this section, we believe that Hatha-yoga should take no position on the age, body build, ethnicity, diet/lifestyle, sexual orientation, or religious and political beliefs of students. All we can or should ask of our students is that they pay their dues (perhaps negotiated according to personal income) and observe school etiquette.  A yoga teacher leads by example and should offer health or spiritual advice only when asked. We at Morningside are not in the business of prescribing what shall be orthodox for another human being.  We are in the business of providing the most effective workout known to the worlds of yoga and fitness. You can pursue your interest in meditation here also, with formal sittings twice per week at Morningside.