Yoga class undoubtedly improves a person’s flexibility and serenity. But Lisa Miracchi, a philosophy professor at University of Pennsylvania who is teaching a seminar called “Yoga and Philosophy,” says that the poses can also enhance your reasoning, behavior, and relationships.
Miracchi, who typically teaches philosophy of mind courses, explains that yoga is the practical element of a complex philosophical worldview. And this focus on practice, which is largely missing from contemporary Western philosophies, can help make you a better person.
In the isolated and focused conditions of a yoga mat, it’s possible to examine the body’s sensations and emotions, Miracchi says. She has personally become more aware of her own anxiety and competitiveness, for example. “It helps me think through how I relate to myself and how I relate to others,” she adds. This contemplation of her own being and relationship to herself then allows her to become a better partner, sister, daughter, teacher, and friend.
These benefits are not a coincidence. Yoga is part of a Hindu philosophy that, alongside a metaphysics and epistemological perspective, teaches yoga as a practical element.
As Miracchi’s course explores, there’s such a complex and broad history behind yoga that it’s far from straightforward to pinpoint one philosophical theory behind the practice. To oversimplify, there are two major schools of thought: One originating from the Yoga Sutras of 400 CE, and one connected to tantric philosophy.
According to the Yoga Sutras, the underlying nature of the world is purusha, or pure awareness. Everything else, including physical objections, conscious thoughts and experiences and emotions, is considered derivative and less real than purusha. The Yoga Sutras assert that you can experience and come to know your true nature, namely purusha, through meditation.
“The idea is your body, your thoughts, your relationship to other people are not really real and so they’re problematic,” explains Miracchi. “The goal is to distinguish yourself from your body, your relationship to others, your worldly needs, and desires and ambitions and so on.”
This strain of thinking runs through much of contemporary yoga, such as Bikram hot yoga. “The idea is you take your body to the extreme so you can overcome your body and purify your body. That’s a process that’s very much in line with the aesthetic world view that the Yoga Sutras present,” adds Miracchi.
Tantric philosophy, meanwhile, does not subscribe to the metaphysical view that purusha is the most pure element. “If the world just as fundamental as purusha, it’s no longer a problem,” says Miracchi. “Your body is not a problem, your relationship to others is not a problem, the goal is how to live most in harmony with others.” This means that physical experiences, such as yoga, can be spiritual in their own right, rather than simply as a means of preparing yourself for isolated meditation.
The importance of action and practice is largely overlooked in contemporary Western philosophy, though Miracchi notes that there are some elements of it in the historical canon. For example, Aristotle believed that virtue requires practicing virtuous actions, says Miracchi.
But much of Western philosophy is focused on abstract moral problems rather than on how we can become moral people who can appropriately respond to such problems. Figuring out answers to hypothetical trolley problems is all well and good, but it doesn’t help much if we’re rushing through life without the time to sit down and analyze our actual lives’ dilemmas. Yoga can give its practitioners the calm and reflective mindset necessary to help them behave in a more rational, moral manner.
“You have to slowly change your dispositions over time,” says Miracchi. “I think Western analytic philosophy would do well to re-introduce or think harder about how practice is related to what is it to be a good person.”
Despite the depth of yoga philosophy, often even yoga teachers are unaware of these fundamental ideas behind the practice. “Depending on what studio you walk into, the practice can look very different and how people talk about what they’re doing can be very different,” Miracchi says. “Contemporary yoga in the US is a big melting pot of ideas, various lineages, ascetic ideas, tantric ideas. Often people pass down these practices to one another without too much knowledge or reflection on the ideas that are motivating them, but I think they’re there. I think it’s worthwhile for both philosophers and yoga practitioners to think about what it is that they’re trying to practice.”
Figuring out the precise meaning behind yoga takes reading and consideration. But it’s clear that the philosophical theory that underlies the practice of yoga makes it much more than simply a workout.