Thoughts On Teaching Yoga and Philosophy

Anne-Marie Schultz, Ph.D, IYASCUS philosophy chair  and associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University

I had a chance to study with both Chris Saudek and Patricia Walden at this year’s Intermediate Gather at the River Retreat. Patricia was recovering from an illness and Chris stepped in for the first two days. It has been several years since I’ve studied with Chris and it was really a delightful surprise.

Each of the first two afternoons, Chris lead us through a few restorative poses to create the space or create the pallet for pranayama. Actually, she used Prashant’s imagery of creating a culture in the body and mind for pranayama to happen, for its effects to grow within us. Before this restorative/pranayama practice, we spent some time talking about Sutras 1.30 and 1.31, which lists the antarayas or interruptions/disturbances to yoga practice and their accompanying effects.

“These disturbances are disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, sloth, lack of  detachment, misapprehension, failure to attain a base for concentration, and instability. They are distractions for the mind.” (1.30)


“Suffering, dejection, trembling, inhalation, and exhalation accompany the distractions.” (1.31)

In his commentary to the Yoga Sutras, Edwin Bryant refers to Sankara saying that these are called “disturbances” because they move, aya, and make a gap, antara, in one’s practice. In other words, these disturbances are the things that  keep our practice from being long and uniterrupted naiantarya (1.31). It is important to note that they are interruptions of the mind more than of the body. Even an interruption like disease, which may seem physical, isn’t in and of itself an interruption. Rather, the attitude we take with respect to our disease  is more what creates the interruption. A lot of times, it is the manifestation of our ego that creates these mental disturbances. In fact, another point Chris made in both asana and pranayama class had to do with asmita, the ego.

Though the sutras make clear that avidya, ignorance is the breeding ground of all the other kleshas (II.4), she suggested that in daily life and practice the biggest obstacle is ego. She focused on that point a lot as we were in supta padangusthasana. She challenged us to consider what makes us bring the top leg closer to the torso at the expense of the bottom leg losing its grounding? What makes us truly not hear a teacher’s instruction? Ego. Simply put, we live in the world created by the confines of our identification with the ego and it’s associated judgements. Now ultimately, that ego misidentification arises from avidya, from our mistaking the ego for the purusha itself, but generally when we are stuck in the muck of prakriti it is really more the ego at work than avidya.

As I was thinking about these disturbances really being disturbances of mind, I was also reading Edwin Bryant’s commentary about avidya. I noticed that he points out that avidya is not simply not having knowledge of what is real but is  itself its own state of mind. Differently put, it is not simply that we don’t know but that we live in the state of not knowing. I think that is true of the antarayas as well. Particularly doubt (samsaya) and bharanti darsana (false perception).

This yogic insight reminds me of Aristotle’s point about the cultivation of moral virtues. According to Aristotle, virtue arises through a process of habituation. We do acts like the yamas and the niyamas, but the virtue does not abide in the doing of the acts but rather in how the doing of the acts shape our character. How we know that we have attained a virtue is that we take pleasure in the act because we have become become the sort of person that is virtuous. Pleasure is not quite the right word, due to the various connotations of the word in English. However, it is still a good word to use because Aristotle believes that the good is the most pleasant thing, though he along with Plato and Patanjali make clear that pleasure is not the good. I think Aristotle’s point about our state of character changing, ie. the attitude we have with respect to the sort of person we are and the sorts of activities we engage in affirms what Patanjali means by becoming firmly established in each of the yamas and niyamas. When we are firmly established in each of these actions, the fruit of the action comes. The fruit becomes part of the pleasure.

Chris asked us a rather challenging question in this regard. “Don’t you feel like you don’t have as much fun as you used to?” We laughed because it was sort of true. I think about that a lot living in Austin; the live music capital of the world, home of numerous eating and drinking establishments offering enticing happy hour specials and the like. I am just not the sort of person that does that anymore. I’m at yoga class or practice during happy hour, I don’t stay up late enough to go to a live music show and if I did, I wouldn’t be in the appropriate state of mind and body to have a good practice the next day. My culture is very different. Chris did point out that perhaps we have more true enjoyment but less “fun”. Indeed, practice and the fruits of practice become most pleasant rather than the pleasures of the past.

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