Yoga, Karma and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

Reviewed by Peggy Kelley

Written by Stephen Phillips. New York: Columbia University Press,
2009. ISBN 978-0-231-14485-8. 368 pages. $22.95.

Although not a large book, Stephen Phillips' Yoga, Karma and Rebirth bears the stamp of a broad mind, a generous heart, and long years of studying yoga philosophy in the original Sanskrit. His intention in writing it was dual: "to help yoga teachers and practitioners appreciate the breadth and depth of yoga… [and] to chart common and uncommon suppositions of the central manuals of the more prominent types." In the process of actualizing these purposes, Dr. Phillips literally has brought himself into the stream of yoga philosophers, offering his own very learned and high-minded interpretation of seminal texts. In fact, he explains that the book grew out of his teaching of an upper-level course in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor for many years, entitled "Yoga as Philosophy and Practice." In addition, the book is informed by his own yoga practice.

Five chapters form the heart of the book: "Theory and Practice," "Yoga and Metaphysics," "Karma," "Rebirth," and "Powers." Five appendices offer Dr. Phillips' readable and yoga-practice–informed translations of passages from a handful of Upanishads (the Taittiriya, the Katha, the Mundaka, and the Shvetashvatara), the Bhagavad Gita, Kashmiri Shaivite texts, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The first chapter, "Theory and Practice," gives very useful historical background outlining the course of what we call "yoga philosophy." Indeed, the question of exactly what yoga philosophy might comprise is also a central one of the book, because India historically has been looked to as the home of consciousness studies. Although he does not dwell on far-flung correspondences, Phillips does note that some scholars have analyzed links between the yoga tradition of India and Sufism, and even between the yoga tradition and Christianity. Recognizing that yoga practice in the West has led to
the phenomenon of group yoga classes, most of which focus on asana practice, Dr. Phillips gives an outline of a typical class. Then he proceeds to offer his historical outline of the literature from the earliest Vedas to the early modern exponents of yoga, including Vivekenanda, Krishnamacharya, and Aurobindo. His discussion and scholarly historical review will be a boon to any contemporary yoga teacher wishing to deepen her understanding and to communicate that deeper understanding of the tradition to her students.

The second chapter, "Yoga and Metaphysics," gives a refreshing critical view of Patanjali's rendering of yoga philosophy. Phillips gives full credit to the Yoga Sutras for their lasting contribution to the yogic understanding of the workings of the mind in contemplation and meditation, yet he has his differences with Patanjali as a philosopher. I will save details of the critique for the reader to discover on her own. Suffice it to say that Phillips emphasizes that he is not alone in seeing a type of what he calls "self-stultification" in Patanjali's philosophy, culminating in its final chapter on aloneness. Kaivalya, the Sanskrit word for aloneness, can be seen as a kind of self-absorption that refuses to be involved in the world.

The "tantric turn" is Phillips' phrase describing the spin that (among others) Kashmiri Shaivite philosophers put on the possibility of "marrying yoga with the world," rather than using yoga to suppress and reject nature. This turn, although prefigured in the Bhagavad Gita (which predates the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), had its flowering in the tenth and eleventh centuries, well after the date of the Yoga Sutras. The philosophers of this period in Kashmir, in particular Abhinava Gupta, offer a remarkable commentary on the possibility of involving yoga practices in the appreciation of art and beauty and the life of the senses.

Phillips raises these questions, yet rather than giving answers, wisely offers instead
this overview of the strengthening expanse of a wide range of yoga philosophy.

In his chapter "Karma," Phillips outlines his philosophic loyalty to the notion that an emotional and mental self can survive physical death (after all, no yoga philosopher or practitioner versed in the philosophy could possibly be a materialist, as Phillips points out) and that this survival indeed depends on one's actions during this life. Finally, the chapter "Powers" invokes John Rawls, a professor at Harvard Law School (Phillips' own alma mater) and his famous work on the theory of justice. What more could the yoga practitioner want than a culture in which she would be allowed to develop natural talents freely? Why would it be important to be born into wealth if the temptations of wealth might lead one away from a yogic ability to appreciate the ephemeral beauties of art and life while remaining conscious of death? How can classical yoga philosophy, with its emphasis on purity and nonviolence, serve us in developing holistic health and seeing our way through our environmental crisis?

Phillips raises these questions, yet rather than giving answers, wisely offers instead
this overview of the strengthening expanse of a wide range of yoga philosophy. The confidence he exhibits in the beauty and ethical soundness of the tradition considered as a whole will fortify the resolve of any yoga practitioner or teacher. What a noble calling we have found! And what a gift this book is to broaden our understanding of
our tradition.

Peggy Kelley has been a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher for over 25 years and an assessor for six. She directs the Austin Yoga Institute in Texas, where Iyengar teachers receive training, and is writing a book on the interface between Iyengar Yoga and Ayurveda.