This article is a version of what was originally drafted as a presentation entitled, "Aesthetics in Yoga" for the Open Fields Conference, held on October 19-21, 2017 in Riga, Latvia. The festival's theme was "Virtualities and Realities."
During my presentation, I had made allusions to my thoughts regarding other presentations I had participated in. Since this conference has concluded, I have had time to reflect on a few of the topics which were disgusted, so I am organizing this article in two small sections; one containing the presentation, and second with considerations of yoga in the broader spectrum of conference’s theme and presentations.
I. Aesthetics in Yoga : Abstract in Presentation
The goal in presenting a paper on the aesthetics of yoga is not to objectify or define a taste of yoga, but rather, to contemplate the processes of an aesthetic experience and to propose a little of yoga’s technology which may facilitate the development of these processes. The impetus of this investigation was born out of (my own) personal experience; therefore, it is necessary to approach this subject from a perspective which is both experiential and theoretical.
From a theoretical perspective, I have chosen compare two very different philosophical systems, e.g. western and non-western, not with the intention of leading either system on a path of deprecation or validation, but as a means of providing a comparative analysis which may provide some insight into the processes which vaguely encapsulate the experiences we define as aesthetic, as well as, a means of illustrating the various styles in which language is used to describe the complexity of these ideas.
The relationship between yoga philosophy and aesthetics is not an obvious one. Many devoted yogin or yogini simply do not identify aesthetics as an aspect of yoga philosophy. Overall, yoga is the liberation from various bound systems, such as: ego, desire, the cycle of death and rebirth, and so on. However, even the properties of karma theory stipulate that not all sentient beings are destined to attain liberation within any particular lifetime; meaning it is valid to consider yoga techniques as a means of experiencing our senses as it is to reach beyond our capacity to sense. As a point of reference, we can consider the intent of the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali as a guide for practitioners who are entering into a yoga practice from a variety of innate skills and abilities. (Or, one could say, from various stages of karmic manifestation.) If this premise is true, then it is reasonable to say that a yoga practice involving aesthetics could be a valuable means of developing one’s self-awareness, leading one further down the road to enlightenment. In understanding how this is possible, we need to understand what each philosophical perspective offers and how they are related. In understanding yoga, it is first necessary to understand how key concepts have been skewed or simply left out in the transmigration of culture, particularly outside the subcontinent.
What is this yoga?
Yoga, in it’s totality of techniques and systems, can simply be defined as a science of experience. However, a practitioner need not learn entire the system, nor do they need mastery of every technique to acquire the potential benefits, but utilization of different approaches based on one’s particular state of being, can bring to one’s awareness various emotional and/or physical deficiencies or weaknesses, thus instigating a personal challenge to strengthen these deficiencies. This concept is not altogether unfamiliar, as self-awareness is an essential driver in alternative healing systems, such as art therapy, music therapy, color and sound therapy, etc.
The United States is in the midst of a yoga boom. About 36 million Americans (roughly 10% of the population) are currently practicing yoga, with roughly half of this number who have started in the past four years. As an industry, yoga is worth about 16 billion dollars USD on products and services.1 The dominant perception of these practitioners is that yoga is a physical exercise, one which is likely one to accompany other physical exercises for promoting good health.2 However, what people are calling yoga is actually a misnomer. The images of yoga promoted by popular culture are postures called asana, which is a part of yoga. Aside from invigorating vascular and endocrine systems, and drawing awareness to breath, the purpose of asana is to become aware of your physicality in preparation to sit comfortably for a long period of time. It is, by no means, an ends-to-a-mean, but a beginning to a much larger science of experience. What tends to be overlooked, is essentially, ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with ashtanga vinyasa) which is comprised of eight stages intended for the development of one’s self-awareness. Asana is the third stage. The other stages, not often discussed and very rarely taught, are: Yama, Niyama, [Asana,] Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
|Yoga Room at the Franfurt Airport|
The basic idea is that a practitioner moves from a ‘gross’ understanding of SELF, to an increasingly more subtle (and exponential) understanding of self. This process involves refocusing consciousness outward and inward, exercising the parameter of the mind's ability to concentrate, thus becoming more prepared for the experience of meditation, or the arrested mind. What this involves is an increased awareness of the details of your body, mind, and breath. This awareness forms a type of knowledge called Jnana -- knowledge inseparable from the total experience of reality. This is an important concept in yoga, as well as, in aesthetics. The basic premise is that reason and logic--the rational mind--comprises only a part of one’s intellect and only part the domain of experience.
Yoga is a discipline, a practice, primarily involving the facilities of concentration and observation. Concentration, being a focus of attention, and observation, a study without presumption or judgement. The type of observation is very similar to how a scientist is trained in empirical observation. These are not unique or extraordinary behavior. We utilize these skills in most of our daily activities, from the mundane to the proverbial. The practice of yoga is merely about bringing these actions under control, and not leaving insights to circumstance.
What is an aesthetic experience?
We could spend the rest of our lives reviewing the epistemology of aesthetics from a western perspective. The history and tradition is rich. However, and for all intents-and-purposes, I am referring to Immanuel Kant’s seminal Critique of Judgements in representing traditional western concepts of aesthetics, in comparison to the terse, almost prosaic, language of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. What follows next, is the essential extrapolation from the Critique of Judgements, the Four Moments juxtaposed to what I perceive as related concepts in yoga philosophy. It should be noted that the Moments are mutually dependent, reflective of cognitive states: quality, quantity, relation, and modality.
- Disinterestedness / Non-Attachemt
- Universality / The gunic state of sattva
- Purposiveness / One-Pointedness
- Necessity / Purusha
- Disinterestedness is a quality of satisfaction without personal or moral interest.3/// Non-Attachment is an observation in terms of pure sensory experience and without judgement. And, also implicit is the understanding that in any observation there is always something to be understood.4
- Universality is the claim that everyone can make a judgement of taste, and we can agree on this subjective principle.5/// Sattva is a universal property of intelligence essential in realization of knowable material for the experience of the self.6
- Purposiveness is a specific object which has the effect of balancing intellectual capacities.7/// One-Pointedness is concentration bound to a specific locality.8
- Necessity arises when the previous moments are realized and an aesthetic judgement is inevitable.9/// Intelligence inevitability will find purpose in gravitating towards a perfect state, a release of self, e.g. purusha.10
In providing a brief explanation for one of the relationships provided, purposiveness is described by Kant as, “This sensation, whose universal communicability a judgment of taste postulates, is the quickening of the two powers (imagination and understanding) to an activity that is indeterminate ... and if the relation is not based on a concept … this relation's effect: the facilitated play of the two mental powers (imagination and understanding) quickened by their reciprocal harmony.”11 From the perspective of the yoga sutras, we can observe “Again the modifications of the chitta (mind complex) becomes one-pointed, when the subsiding and rising thought impulses are exactly the same.”12 The result is vrttis, or the restraint of mental modifications, due to the balance of mental powers, which then allows, for what Kant describes, as the experiential capacitance for aesthetics, or dharana, which is a steady state of attention.
In this sensory experience, there is no concept attached to the object, no identity system to define it; e.g. the door is not a door, it is not even a rectangle, it is simply a form to be experienced fully by complete consciousness. This is something that critics and practitioners of visual art alike, strive towards by suppressing their own perceptual bias by observing anatomic behavior and associative thought patterns. For example, the question they may pose is: “How do my eyes move through the composition of this painting?” Or, “As I am observing this sculpture, what images, ideas, associations, etc. enter into my mind?”
They are several other comparisons made in this paper, all with the intent of comparing two different philosophical approaches as a means of drawing attention to similarities as an attempt to facilitate a broader understanding and practice of the aesthetic experience. Simply by thinking about aesthetics from another perspective, we may invigorate, even demystify the import role it plays in our lives. By introducing the notion of aesthetics into a yoga philosophy, we can, by extension, consider how practicing various yoga techniques may provide us with a greater breathe and deep of aesthetic experiences. As millions of Americans (not to mention many other nationalities) introduce various forms of asana into their lives, it may be that other techniques of ashtanga yoga inevitably find their way into everyday routine of millions of people. ॐ
II. Reflections and Observations
The Open Fields Conference produced a number of memorable presentations. Karen Lancel presented the work of her performance E.E.G. Kiss, Chris Hales shared his work on the Interactive Stories for the Brain, Daniel Landau’s Time-Body Study poetically provides a premise for embodiment of the digital. These and many others were thought provoking, leaving me to ask the question: what is the difference between mind and brain?
Overall, it seem much of the creative work involving E.E.G. data and Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCI) is looking at the brain as sense organ driven by sensory input, designating the brain is a passive instrument of the environment. Thus, the output is essentially filtered sensory data that is more-or-less random. The onus of brain as a controller falls on the ability of the user to discipline the mind. Otherwise, the brain isn’t really in control, it is merely reacting to sensory activity.
The presentations which arouse my curiosity, following a different line of more critical questions, were Chris Salter’s presentation entitled, “Immersion: What For?” and Ellen Pearlman’s “The Approaching Storm.” Two very different perspectives on the purpose and application of physical computing with a related core question: what is this hoping to achieve?
The particular reason these presentations stand out to me is that they emanate a critical reflection on self. This is closely related to my interest and motivation in practicing yoga. By removing gadgetry and technology from the equation, as you would distraction from thought processes, a question of purpose becomes naked and exposed to the elements. I am not suggesting an answer, nor do I think these presentation sought to provide answer to this inquiry. I think both of them, among others, are recognizing the necessity for a dialogue about research leading towards an invasive relationship between technology and humanity. (In this context, invasive is a mild word.) There is a danger in being directionless and unaware of the potential reshaping of body politics brought by these interface technologies. This is, more-or-less how I interpret the message of “The Approaching Storm.”
Again, what are we trying to achieve through all of this? From a the perspective of yoga, or any similar philosophy, the ideal state of the human conscious in one in which identity is not dependent on factors of influence from the external world. Identity because, ultimately, the realization of self. However, to come to this epiphany, the mind, through discipline, needs to become the controller.
I think that yoga--when understood--as a science of experience, provides techniques that allow us to be in control. In considering those decisive steps towards human-technology integration, a prerequisite dialogue is
essential. Unless some other spirituality or technique for developing self-awareness emerges, it doesn't seem likely that we, as a species, will move forward with technology in any measure of profound meaning.
- PR News Wire, <https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/2016-yoga-in-america-study-conducted-by-yoga-journal-and-yoga-alliance-reveals-growth-and-benefits-of-the-practice-300203418.html>
- Forbes, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2016/03/15/how-yoga-is-spreading-in-the-u-s/#57f5fe43449f>
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 52.
- Swami Ajaya, Yoga Psychology. (Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Himalayan Institute Press, 1976), 107-110.
- Kant, Critique of Judgment, iv.
- Jayadeva Yogendra, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali stray thoughts of Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra Hansaji, 3rd edition. (Mumbai: Yoga Institute Prabhat Colony, 2015), 173.
- Hannah Ginsborg, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2014 Edition), 2.2.
- Shri Yogendra, Guide to Yoga Meditation 2nd edition. (Mumbai: Yoga Institute Prabhat Colony, 2014), 65-88.
- Kant, Critique of Judgment, 87.
- J. Yogendra, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 163.
- Kant, Critique of Judgment, 63.
- J. Yogendra, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 307.
- Ajaya, Swami. Yoga Psychology: A Practical Guide to Meditation. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: The Himalayan Institute Press, 1976.
- Ginsborg, Hannah. “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2014 Edition): accessed February 26, 2017, URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/kant-aesthetics/>
- Walton, Alice G. September 26, 2017, “How Yoga Is Spreading In The U.S.,” Forbes, March 15, 2016, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2016/03/15/how-yoga-is-spreading-in-the- u-s/#57f5fe43449f>
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.
- Yoga Alliance. Septermber 26, 2017, “2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance Reveals Growth and Benefits of the Practice,” PR News Wire, January 13, 2016, <https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/2016-yoga-in-america-study-conducted-by-yoga-journal-and-yoga-alliance-reveals-growth-and-benefits-of-the-practice-300203418.html>
- Yogendra, Shri. Guide to Yoga Meditation 2nd edition. Mumbai: Yoga Institute Prabhat Colony, 2014.
- Yogendra, Jayadeva. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 3rd edition. Mumbai: Yoga Institute Prabhat Colony, 2015.