Intellect and Yoga: Help or Hindrance?

This entry was posted on Nov 16, 2011 by Charlotte Bell.

Intellect and Yoga – Partners in Awakening?

In the past two days, I’ve enjoyed reading two posts on the role of the intellect in Yoga practice. One, by Ed and Deb Shapiro, posted in the Huffington Post is titled Why Your Intellect is an Obstacle in Yoga is an The other, posted today by Carol Horton on elephant journal is titled Why Your Intellect is (or Can Be!) an Integral Part of Yoga. Two totally different things, yes?

Well, maybe. Here’s an excerpt of what the Shapiros say:  “Until we open our heart, look within and rejoice in the love that is our true nature, all the teachings are just words. They can inspire our intellect but can never enlighten us. We can quote the scriptures, we can even become a learned scholar, but we are not true yogis until the intellect is no longer running the show. ” This quote acknowledges the usefulness of the intellect, but states that its capacity to bring us to awakening is limited.

Here’s a piece of what Carol says:  “… I would argue that when we bring the full power of our intellect to engaging with something like the Sutras, it can be a vital tool in opening our hearts and igniting our spirits.

“The problem in such cases isn’t too much use of the intellect – it’s too little. If we approach ancient texts like Sunday School platitudes to memorize in order to earn gold stars and assuage our egos, we’re engaging in rote learning, not critical thinking.

“Not understanding the difference between superficial rote learning and critical thinking is a problem of epidemic proportions in the U.S. today. True education mean cramming answers to a multiple choice test into your brain so that you can spit them back and earn a high score. Really educating yourself means opening yourself up to new ways of understanding your self and the world that you’re a part of. It means using the vast powers of your mind in ways that can rock your very soul.”

Here, Carol rightly defends engaged use of the intellect as a tool to opening to deeper levels of understanding.

I’m printing only small excerpts of these two pieces, so if you really want to understand the two arguments, do read both of them. They are short and easily digestible.

Rather than seeing these two articles as an argument for or against the intellect, I feel that both acknowledge the usefulness of the intellect in the pursuit of wise understanding. My understanding of svadyaya, the fourth niyama of the Eight Limbs, is that it has two facets:  self-study and study of wise and inspired texts. Committing to both facets creates a balanced understanding.

Self-study or experiential learning in yoga, which the Shapiros advocate in their article, takes us to places of profound understanding and insight. The experience of insight changes us at a fundamental, cellular level. The kind of knowing that comes from insight is unshakable.

Self-study without the context and grounding of intellectual study of the wise ones that have gone before, however, can cause us to become mired in our own perspective. Studying the wisdom of others helps us understand the meaning of our insights in a broader way.

So, are the intellect and yoga compatible or at odds with each other? I think they are compatible, but with an asterisk. Intellectual study and discernment can help us understand our experiences in Yoga. Even if it can’t enter the realm of the heart, it can give us the map to get there.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

2 responses to “Intellect and Yoga: Help or Hindrance?”

  1. Avatar Lynae says:

    Interesting articles.

    I think that when your intellect becomes your obstacle, its usually because it brought a few tag-a-longs: pride, fear, and stubbornness…

    I am grateful for intellectual wisdom. Then my intellect can apply teachings to my practice/life and compliment/catalyze the experience.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      So true, and there’s an infinite number of tag-a-longs that color our perception of what’s actually occurring.

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