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Yoga for the Mind - Yoga Philosophy

I’ve been hosting a Yoga Philosophy Reading Group for several months now. I’ve found it immensely helpful for my teaching practice because it helps me keep the yoga practice well-rounded and comprehensive. Instead of a practice limited to the physical body, I’m able to help students of yoga to connect all of the dots.  One of the big draws to yoga is that it helps people to reduce the stress and strain that comes with living a human life. For a long time, I practiced with an “embodiment first” approach, since the beginning of my training fourteen years ago. This served me well because I did not grow up to be connected to my body.  I have realized so many benefits from this practice that I continue to share every week in my in-person classes in San Francisco (such as at Yoga Mayu on Potrero Hill) or online in small groups. But I always knew that I would also need to study the thought processes of the yoga masters through their words. For this reason, I took up studies in a graduate program.

One of the centerpieces of studying yoga in an academic setting, such as the one I’m enrolled in at Loyola Marymount University, is that you are spending A LOT of time reading about yoga. Often a lot of the popular work on yoga is second hand knowledge, but in the University setting we read primary texts or commentaries by experts. These scholars are well-versed in the language of Sanskrit, one of the most complex languages ever created, and they well-read in the domains of South Asian religion, philosophy, culture and history. Through these studies, it becomes clear that yoga is not an easily defined, singular concept, but that many individuals and groups have placed their mark on the theory and practice over time. Yoga philosophy came about in a milieu of many traditions that all competed with each other in the South Asian subcontinent. Yoga is not in the least bit linear in nature. Coming to yoga philosophy takes some basic knowledge. As facilitator of the reading group, I enjoy providing that knowledge to the participants. In leading my weekly Philosophy Group, we have started picking apart this complex web by reading the Bhagavad Gita, which is a book that incorporates many philosophical points of view. We’re reading a version that has minimal commentary and includes the original Sanskrit in devanāgarī script, Latin alphabet transliteration and grammatical notes. These details allow us to see that there is always more to consider at first glance and that all is not black and white. 

I recently came upon an article in the New Yorker about the rise of philosophical counseling as an adjunct to psychological or medical care.  Trained philosophers, with Masters degrees and  additional certifications, help clients by offering different views from which to face their dilemmas. Somewhat like these philosophers, the group that I offer is a space in which to consider different perspectives. For example, considering the Samkhya perspective, which is a sister philosophy to Yoga, one may understand that one’s existence is for the purpose of awakening to one’s purpose through interactions with the manifest world.  Another key concept is action without attachment, which can help in circumstances where we may be paralyzed by overwhelming emotions, much like the protagonist Arjuna is in the epic story of the Bhagavad Gita. Reading the Gita, you may not know that Samkhya is embedded into the story, as are some competing philosophies. It’s this background knowledge that is helpful for bringing the text alive, getting more clarity of what is being conveyed and that gives one the ability to consider which mode of thinking may be helpful in a certain scenario in their own lives.

Philosophy is not psychotherapy or counseling and these have an important place in one’s healthcare and wellness program. Where the liberal arts can support you is in the valuable stories and thought traditions that address the various dilemmas of everyday life. Materialism, the idea that we are only our physical existence, is a way of thinking that is common in today’s world. It says that we are only that physical matter of which we are composed. Empirical science, which measures observable phenomena, is important and has yielded so many benefits, yet it sometimes doesn’t address certain aspects of human experience, such as spirituality, the metaphorical heart or the soul. Changing our thoughts is ultimately up to us, and coaches and therapists provide valuable help in this regard. Philosophy is open to all and can be valuable when not in crisis. If you are having psychological issues, please seek medical care from a health care professional first. When we are in a stable state, we can take the time to contemplate our experience. Yoga can be supportive because it provides not only a way to think through things mentally, but also physically through your embodied practice. One may say it is the original “self help” program. Yogis know that change is made through various means. Yama and Niyama are principles of interpersonal and internal restraints that give us an opportunity to reflect. They are philosophy in action. For example, truth speaking and non-harming are two well known ones that you can take concrete actions to enact. Like a laboratory, you can see how these principles impact your experience of life.

If you’re interested in joining the Philosophy Reading Group, please check Momence for the latest meeting dates and to sign up. If you have any questions, feel free to visit the Contact page for ways to reach me. Sessions are held on a drop-in basis with no prior experience or prior attendance necessary. Just come with an open mind and patience if you're jumping in midstream. It's free and held virtually on Zoom. Hope to see you there!

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