Despite the fact that millions of people practice yoga worldwide, many are still unaware of its underlying philosophies. This trend has perhaps developed because yoga incorporates everything from meditation, chanting, and worship ceremonies to the study of scripture, asana, and breathing techniques. Uniting all of these components into one practice has become challenging in our modern, high-speed lives—which ultimately means that the full scope of yoga is largely untapped and goes unnoticed.
Yoga philosophy, and many aspects of yoga practice, have an enduring nature precisely because of their ability to teach people how to live with nature for better health, happiness, and wisdom. Yoga traditions are also adaptable for changing times, which has enabled them to influence modern society as a whole. (The statistics around how many people practice in the United States alone and how profitable the yoga Industry has become are testament to this.)
Yet, while yoga has taken off in society at large, yoga is still written off in some sectors as "religious" or "superstitious," which is to misunderstand the practice. Some people see it as purely physical with no ties to spirituality and others as too spiritual. In both cases, they are missing the point.
It’s important to understand that yoga, rather than being one unified theory of thought or religious doctrine, has always encompassed vast, diverse, and varied philosophical schools, paths, and interpretations—and that traditionally, holding different points of view was not seen as bad, but merely as a refinement of one’s vichara (critical thinking).
At the same time, yoga philosophy does have a consistent underlying message: that yoga fundamentally means "union with the supreme.”
The key to maintaining integrity in our practices is to ensure that as we move forward in innovative ways, we are still grounded in tradition.
While this message has remained consistent throughout the twentieth century, modern Western yoga has adapted so much that it often no longer regards or honors the original wisdom of its roots. The key to maintaining integrity in our practices, however, is to ensure that as we move forward in innovative ways, we are still grounded in tradition.
Even though most yoga schools fundamentally agree that yoga means “union,” there are significant differences in general yoga philosophy worldwide among yoga schools. Historically, there are three different traditional philosophical systems, and modern practices embrace different elements of each of these philosophies: Classical Yoga, Vedanta, and Tantra. Therefore, there is not one philosophical foundation for all Hatha yoga practices today: Rather, Hatha as we know it is an integrative practice woven from threads of each of these schools.
The Classical viewpoint developed from the writings of Patañjali between 100 BCE and 500 CE. In his Yoga Sutra, he described yoga as a state in which purusha (spirit) is separated from its entangled identity with prakriti (matter). The aim, then, is kaivalya, or the liberation of spiritual consciousness from the energy field of the mind-body. In other words, the goal of yoga, according to Classical philosophy, is to understand and experience that purusha is not bound by prakriti so that we can become aligned with our genuine nature. This is a more dualistic approach that shares commonalities with Samkhya philosophy.
The second philosophical strain is the Vedantic, in which practitioners define yoga as a path of awakening that occurs when the yogi's practice neutralizes maya, an illusion-causing force that conceals consciousness. According to Vedanta, consciousness is always present within the material realm. Once the yogi destroys maya's power, their consciousness unveils the grand unity of being, and when they remember their true nature as oneness, they have a direct experience of yoga. In this specific philosophical viewpoint, “being” is synonymous with ananda, the highest bliss and joy imaginable. So, in Vedanta, yoga is ultimately a state of realization with one's own pure, blissful nature, which is not separate from the supreme.
In Tantric philosophy, yoga is defined as a state of union with the essence of Shiva-Shakti, or supreme consciousness and its creative power. This is considered the absolute level of reality where infinitely vibrates with pure auspiciousness, bliss, self-luminous awareness, freedom, and fullness. In contrast to Classical Yoga, Tantra sees purusha and prakriti as having the same essence of Shiva-Shakti; since everything is supreme and pure consciousness at its core, there is no need for isolation and separation. In contrast to Vedanta, Tantra sees maya not as an illusion, but rather as the differentiating power of consciousness itself; a playful kind of energy that allows individual souls to experience a variety of divine creative expressions of supreme consciousness.
Yogic practices within Tantra encompass a wide variety of techniques to control energy, from the chanting of mantras (i.e., transforming consciousness by use of Shakti through sounds and words), to breathing practices and the use of yantras (specific geometric images to invoke energies or deities) and mandalas (intentional diagrams) that are often used in meditation practices. All Tantric yoga practices use sophisticated techniques designed to affect subtle energy within the mind/body. In general, Tantric schools seek creative power as the highest goal or delight as the pinnacle of sadhana (spiritual practice).
Knowledge is both power and bliss in Tantra, so expansion of education and awareness is a crucial endeavor. The goals of Tantric techniques differ among schools and range from life extension to increasing worldly power to experiencing the ultimate blissful freedom of the soul while embodied. Much of Hatha yoga practices derive from Tantric philosophy, in which the body and mind are considered different frequencies of the one supreme, divine energy that enlivens everything in the universe.
While knowledge can be gained from studying sacred texts that analyze the philosophy of yoga, someone can gain knowledge directly by deeply experiencing a moment of living that philosophy.
Understanding that there have always been varied and diverse paths of practice is important in today’s world. Many agree that the direct knowledge gained from applying the philosophy in daily life is a more effective path than just thinking or talking about it. Yoga can be something that we explore with our bodies as well as our hearts and minds. And exploring, or deepening in yoga philosophy can help us expand into an entirely new world of practicing.
Understanding that there have always been varied and diverse paths of practice is important in today’s world.
A concrete next step could be picking up a yoga philosophy text (there’s a vast array available), or enrolling in a course, book club, or study group to learn more and bring yoga philosophy alive through study, exploration, and practice!
Basham, A. L. (1976). "The Practice of Medicine in Ancient and Medieval India." In Leslie, Charles (ed.). Asian Medical Systems. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 18–43.
Barbara D. Metcalf & Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, “Devi, Indra,” Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Infobase Publishing, February 2007).
Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Ranganathan, Shyam, The Yoga Sutras, Penguin Classics (May 30, 2008).
Sharma, Priya Vrat (1999). Suśruta-Samhitā With English Translation of text…. 1. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Visvabharati. pp. 7–11.