Interview and Author Event with Stephen Phillips, Author of Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth

Stephen Phillips15.8 million people in America now practice yoga according to a recent survey done by Yoga Journal. Most of us are familiar with the mats, the apparel, and basic asanas (such as Downward Facing Dog or the Corpse Pose) but yoga has a rich heritage beyond classes at the gym.

The newly published Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy by Stephen Phillips presents the philosophy of yoga for modern audiences. In the interview below Stephen Phillips shares the philosophy behind the practice and explains his knowledge of yoga.

For those in and around Austin, Texas there will be a special event held to celebrate the book this Friday, May 22nd at Breath & Body Yoga from 4-8 PM. The evening’s activities will include a mantra lesson with the author, an all levels vinyasa yoga lesson, as well as a book signing and reception.

Question: How does traditional yoga philosophy relate to current yoga practice?

Stephen Phillips: Traditional Yoga Shastra is not just a collection of “how-to” books about Downward Dog, Pranayama, meditation, and other practices but also provides a framework for understanding the practices and the experiences to which they lead. Yoga philosophy helps us have confidence in our own capabilities and defends the testimony of our expert teachers. Also, the teachers who have given us the practices—Patanjali, for example—have in many cases explained their importance in philosophic terms and provided psychological ideas to guide advanced practices in particular. All yoga teachers in fact comprehend important theses of Yoga philosophy and psychology, which help them understand the practices holistically and to talk about them in their classes.

Q: What do you have to say about the peculiar psychological concepts found in traditional yoga teachings? Do you think there are such things as “sheaths” or koshas and chakras?

SP: Yoga is a kind a training, of the body, life, and mind, and like being trained in gardening, you need first of all to find a good teacher (who herself had a good teacher and so on) and try to understand, usually by doing. So for example, when your teacher tells you to watch your energy flow in Corpse Pose, shavasana, you don’t sit up and ask for an explanation of “energy flow” but rather without thought, in your own self-monitoring consciousness, pay attention to a kind of disembodied current, traditionally called prana, flowing from your head to your toes. This only happens, we are told by yogic authorities, when you are thoroughly relaxed. So it won’t help to try too hard or even think about what is supposed to happen. It’s a matter of internal perception when certain conditions are met.

Lots of yogic phenomena involve becoming aware of things, indeed parts of ourselves, about which formerly we were unaware. The traditional psychological concepts that are used to talk about these things are terms of art. Gardening has its own, as do wine-tasting and music. In the course of training and practice, our attitude should be trust, so far as any beliefs are concerned. Of course, when we sit down to do philosophy, some very interesting questions arise about these terms, the experiences that motivate them, and the theories that interpret them. There is a rich inheritance of Yoga philosophy on this that the book explores. But I have some things of my own to say too, particularly concerning science and the somewhat different frameworks of different yoga lineages.

yoga, karma, rebirthQ: You claim there is an ethical dimension of yoga, which you tie to the idea of karma. I thought karma was something beyond our control. But ethics has to do with personal choice. What gives?

SP: That’s easy. We make karma. Karma is a voluntarist idea, roughly equivalent to “habits.” There are some differences between the two concepts, as is explained in the book. But we are responsible for making ourselves—our character, the sum of our karma—in Yogic conceptions. What makes you think that karma is a fatalistic notion is that almost all traditional Yoga philosophies, in a history that goes back about three thousand years to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, hold that the karma you make continues into your next lifetime. So if you continue to develop the habits and impulses of a thief (habits shape desires, and karma has an impulsive side), then they will continue into your next lifetime, just as presumably your current proclivities have something to do with choices you made in your last lifetime. Do you want to have thieving dispositions in your next lifetime too, and so on potentially forever? Karma is a general ethical concept and is to be applied to everyone. But Yoga philosophy is particularly concerned with karma because we have to overcome the obstacles of bad habits to make progress in yogic practice.

Q: What’s the connection to ahimsa, nonharmfulness?

SP: Nonharmfulness is a yogic practice that makes the best kind of karma, we are told: dispositions to be nonharmful as a matter of course. I know there is a kind of circularity here, but there is with most karma, which can also be thought of in a positive way as a matter of training. To know how to write your name requires mental dispositions, called samskara in Sanskrit, the underpinnings of karma, to guide the activity, and the activity itself reinforces those dispositions. Now about ahimsa as the highest value: not all Yoga philosophies agree, but they do agree that whatever are the highest values entail ahimsa. Ahimsa is to include having a noninjurious attitude toward yourself as well as other people and animals; here the idea connects with the Yoga Sutra’s santosha, contentment or self-acceptance. Different Yoga philosophies also provide somewhat different metaphysical foundations for ahimsa (the unity of a common self or atman or the universal accessibility of nirvana, a void somehow brimming with compassion and so on). But all Yoga philosophy touts nonharmfulness as a core value. The book explores the traditional discussions and extracts about six arguments, I think, which collectively make a rather overwhelming case.

Q: What do you mean by the “tantric turn”?

SP: The book considers views about the goal or goals of yoga. In later yogic literature, and in the karma yoga concept of the Gita and the bodhisattva idea in Mahayana Buddhism, there is a fuller conception of the goal of yoga in contrast with the self-absorption ideal of the Yoga Sutra in particular. Actually, the Yoga Sutra also has a siddhi or power theme that is itself in tension with the ideal of kaivalya, or being totally self-absorbed in yogic trance or samadhi. The tantric turn hardly renounces the ideal of self-discovery; yoga has at its core becoming aware of things in ourselves or our consciousnesses of which we were unaware before, and all traditional teachers, Vedantic and tantric, Hindu and Buddhist and so on, endorse what we might call yogic self-discovery. But in tantric and neo-Vedantic views as well as in modern studios there reigns a fuller conception of the “self” in “self-discovery,” to include all the parts of ourselves, bodily, emotional and vital or desirous, mental, higher mental, self-monitoring, and so on. There is a turn to see the goal of yoga as a kind of holistic health, a transformation and harmony of all the parts of our being to include both our highest self or selves and our bodies. Historically the movement or movements responsible are not very precisely traced in the book, although lots of sources are given. But I do try hard to come to philosophic or evaluative grips with teachings about the goals of yoga, and I think my treatment reads as supportive of the key thesis that yoga practices promote psychological as well as physical development and health. I think that such an emphasis is not due just to the current climate of fitness and the popularization of health science but has forerunners in classical Indian traditions where there are increasingly rich ideas of the self and consciousness that can be fostered by yoga. Developing aesthetic sensitivity comes to be viewed as a form of yoga, for example. Bhakti yoga comes to embrace all of life, and even benighted householders are said to be capable of liberation. Such a “tantric turn” has many dimensions, including new practices or new emphases, and the book tries to chart some of this.

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