In the second part of our interview, Bill offers guidance on how to approach the study of yoga philosophy and concrete suggestions about choosing what to study. And, he shares his reflections on how yogic wisdom can offer us a valuable perspective on understanding and responding to the tragic events of our times.
Is there something that Westerners approaching yoga philosophy often misunderstand about it?
I might mention two general misunderstandings. One is that students may feel that the philosophy will be too hard to understand and may not be relevant to their practice. Yes, traditional yoga philosophy draws from a long and respected history of inquiry and commentary by sages in the tradition that itself may seem rather abstract or subtle. But I also feel that people sometimes don’t give themselves enough credit for their ability to understand subtle yet important and influential philosophical perspectives. And those perspectives can be so illuminating and inspiring!
The other misunderstanding I might mention is sort of the opposite. Some people may feel that they already know all that is important to know about yoga, so they hesitate to give more time to study yoga philosophy. To me, this is unfortunate. The study of yoga philosophy is like the experience of beauty. Study adds texture and a sense of wondrous complexity, spaciousness and subtlety to the yogic life, and there is always more to relish.
The Bhagavad Gita is fairly widely read in the west, perhaps because it’s fairly accessible in narrative. Are there some texts that are less well known in the west, but would also be quite accessible and rich reading for yoga students?
I suppose the answer depends, in part, on what general direction the student’s larger path is oriented toward or what aspect of the yogic life she or he wants to explore.
If the student’s yogic life in general is inspired by contemplative sensibilities, for example, then the Upanishads can serve as long-honored foundations for study. There are a number of accessible translations.
If the student is interested the relationship between body and spirit and ways in which yoga brings clarity, stability and light to the mind through physical practice, ethical living and meditation, then a close and sustained study of the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries could be very helpful.
If students’ interests are oriented toward the relationship between yoga and nondual Tantra, for another example, then texts such as the Shiva Sutras, the Pratyabhinjna-Hridaya (“Heart of Recognition”) the Vijnana Bhairava (a title I might translate as “Divine Wisdom”), could serve beautifully as resources for study, although perhaps they can be somewhat less accessible without some informed commentary. All have been translated.
If the student’s interests are oriented toward yoga and the refinement of spiritual love, then there is the Bhakti Sutra, which is a favorite of mine.
Actually, every text I have mentioned is a favorite of mine!
What advice would you offer, from the perspective of yoga philosophy, about what we as yogis can do in response to tragic events like the recent attacks in Paris and the United States?
One of the beautiful affirmations within the many schools of yoga philosophy is that there is a deep, inherent value to each human being. Most schools of yoga philosophy also say that this inner light within the true heart can be and is often trapped, ensnarled and even smothered by an inner darkness that is thickened and encumbered by the weight of people’s disrespect for that light itself. Acts undertaken intentionally to extinquish another’s life and to bring terror to others are deeply tragic expressions of that darkness.
Tragic acts such as those we have seen recently can make us question whether or not that light is real. I would want to say, though, that it is real, and that it is powerful.
This does not mean that we should not acknowledge the darkness or allow it to continue smothering the light. The dignity of the human spirit is to be honored. It does mean, though, that darkness is not and cannot be dissolved simply by adding more darkness. The way to respond to degrading darkness is to nourish light.
Terrorist acts naturally pull us away from a sense of inner balance and our commitment to the inner value of human life. Our yoga is to keep our balance, as it were, so that our actions can stand firmly in the strength and dignity of the human spirit. As we do so, we will need to draw on our courage and on our faith in the power of that light. I do not think I am being naïve here. There is much in the world that can discourage us. Yet, I do feel strongly that we can bring more light to the world, for we have those qualities within us.
On January 29-31, 2016 Bill will be teaching a weekend workshop entitled “ The Heart of Divine Recognition: A Weekend of Nondual Tantra Philosophy for Today’s Yogis" at Shri Yoga, Montreal. This is a wonderful and rare opportunity to study a deeply profound set of teachings from a 10th-century text from Kashmir Shaivism, namely, the Pratyabhijña-Hridaya or “Heart of Recognition” and explore some of the core elements of Tantra and their relationship to Yogic life.