Dual and Nondual Yoga Philosophy: What it Means for Your PracticeDec 07, 2022
In last week’s post on the differences between dualist and nondualist yoga philosophies, we saw that whether we adopt a dual or nondual perspective makes a huge difference in how we see our relationship to the world and the nature of reality. Therefore, it has significant implications for how we understand the aims of our yoga practice, it’s role in our lives, and the forms that our practice takes.
As I mentioned last week, dualistic yoga philosophies view spirit and matter as essentially different and independent from one another. They see the goal of yoga as liberating the soul from its entanglement with the body/mind and the outer world. This gives rise to practices that serve to detach and disengage our spirit from everything else, thereby strengthening this sense of separation and allowing us to experience the peace and tranquility that is its true nature.
Nondual philosophies see all of reality as arising from one conscious, universal energy. They view yoga as a path toward recognizing this fundamental unity. Therefore, nondual-oriented practices are designed to help us experience the singular essence that underlies all the diversity in the world, including all parts of ourselves and our lives.
What does this mean for your practice?
Firstly, for all of us who practice asana, or yoga postures, we might be surprised to learn that postural practice is not traditionally part of Classical Yoga, which is based on dualistic philosophy. The central practice taught in the Yoga Sutras is meditation. In fact, asana is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras only three times, and in each instance it refers to the sitting posture for meditation, not the poses of Hatha Yoga, which as far as we know, came about centuries later.
In fact, the practices of Hatha Yoga, including asana and pranayama, arose out of and are reflective of a nondual perspective that sees body and spirit as arising from the same source.
Liberation in nondual schools is not seen as an “up and out” kind of transcendence, as in the dualist schools, but as a state that happens in the body, through the body, and even with the body. The body isn’t seen as a problem to be overcome or an impediment to spiritual attainment in nondualism. Rather, it is affirmed as a form of universal consciousness that we can explore to experience our innermost essence. This gave rise to the body and breath-centered practices of the later Hatha Yoga tradition that eventually evolved into the many forms of postural and breath-based practices we see today in what’s called Modern Postural Yoga.
Beyond this purely educational point, only you can know what feels right for you in terms of which perspective you feel aligned with. As with everything in yoga, I believe it’s important to try things out and to examine both teachings and practices through the lens of your experience so you can discern what works for you.
As someone who has studied about yoga philosophy for the past 30 years, here are some thoughts from my own experience that might be helpful:
For myself, I see yoga as a set of tools for more responsible and purposeful living and a way to be more skillfully engaged with the world I live in, rather than transcending it. Therefore, the nondual perspective feels more relevant, realistic, and applicable to how I want to live my life. Some of the other reasons I am drawn to Nondual philosophy are that it affirms the full spectrum of my embodied experience, it honors and celebrates all the diversity of the world as a form of one universal consciousness, and it helps me to experience less and less separation between myself, others, and the natural world.
On the other hand, I know many modern practitioners who are dedicated to following the eight-fold path outlined in the Yoga Sutras and feel completely aligned with its underlying philosophy.
For everyone, I think it might be helpful to know that even though you might believe in one perspective, there’s nothing wrong with using any practices you find helpful, regardless of which school they come from. For example, you can practice yoga poses from the Hatha Yoga tradition, which is based on non-dual philosophy, at the same time that you follow the eight-fold path in the Yoga Sutras, which is based on dual philosophy.
In my case, even though nondualism is my belief basic orientation, there are practices that come from dualistic traditions that I find to be tremendously effective.
For example, I often adopt the stance of the seer, or my witnessing awareness, as described in the Yoga Sutras, in my everyday life. Practicing witness consciousness when I’m in conversation with another person by observing both myself and the other person helps me to be more present and listen more attentively to what they are saying. In charged or difficult circumstances, it helps me to manage strong emotions so I can pause before reacting and respond more thoughtfully. Like many of you, perhaps, I also often use my witnessing awareness in meditation as a way of disengaging from the chatter of my mind.
On the other hand, the nondual perspective has been instrumental in deepening and expanding my asana and pranayama practice over the years. Relating to my body and breath as manifestations of absolute consciousness has made postural practice into a powerful vehicle for fostering a positive, honoring, and loving relationship with myself and forms the foundation of my approach to teaching.
Interacting with nature with the understanding that everything is alive with the same universal energy brings me into a living connection with the natural world that feels vibrant, dynamic, and deeply supportive.
In meditation, seeing my thoughts as pure consciousness has changed my relationship with my mind. I no longer see my thoughts as an obstacle to meditation and I’m able to let them arise and subside without resisting or fighting against them.
I have seen time and again—in myself and others—how immensely helpful the nondual vision is for all of us householder yogis who aren’t as interested in transcending the material world as in finding ways to live better and more happily in it.
Whatever path of practices you’re drawn to, reflecting on how it’s helping you become the person you wish to be over time is, I think, the best yardstick to measure how it’s working for you.