Saturday, January 22, 2011

Art, expression of emotion, and the yoga practice

Taught my first Philosophy of Art class this morning. Very stimulating and refreshing, especially for me, because I am not an aesthetics person (my area of specialization is supposed to be ethical theory and moral psychology).

We discussed R.G. Collingwood's views about what art is. According to Collingwood, art is closely tied to the expression of emotion. The artist is a person who gives unique expression to a particular instance of a particular emotion at a particular point of time.

The emphasis here is on expression: Expressing emotion is to be distinguished from giving vent to an emotion or merely describing it. Take, for instance, the emotion of love. If one were to simply give vent to the love that one feels, there wouldn't be a work of art. All we would see would be the physical signs that accompany love: Longing gaze, parted lips, raised blood pressure (?) etc. On the other hand, if one were to simply describe the emotion by saying something like, "I love x very much", or "I am in love with so-and-so", one would be placing this particular emotion that one feels at this very moment into an intellectual category (the category labeled "love") while failing to convey the uniqueness and specialness of this particular feeling that one is feeling right now.

To give expression to an emotion of love is to tread the middle path between giving vent to the emotion and merely describing it. It is to maintain sufficient conceptual distance between oneself and the emotion, so that one does not simply vent the emotion. At the same time, in order to be able to express an emotion, one must not distance oneself so much that one ends up just describing the emotion. To express an emotion is to render in language the particular emotion that one feels in terms of the effect that this emotion has on one's perception of things around one. An example might be the following excerpt from Lord Byron's She Walks in Beauty:

She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


What has any of this to do with yoga? Well, I have always felt that yoga is an art form, in addition to being a physical and spiritual practice. I think that there is a sense in which asana constitutes a language by which we give expression to certain things. What are these things that asana is supposed to express? Consider this particular quote from Dharma Mittra: 

"Yoga practice is an act of adoration to the Lord. You do it because it has to be done. If you have this mental attitude, your selfishness disappears and the benefits come."

Yoga practice has to be carried out with an attitude of adoration and love. It does not have to be love of any particular deity, but there is a certain love present nonetheless, a love which is neither abstract description nor mere venting. Rather, it is an emotion that we give expression to by allowing the practice to sublimate whatever fears or anxieties we may bring to the mat. For example, on many mornings, I begin the practice with all kinds of fears and anxieties about the day ahead running amok in my monkey mind. But by committing myself to the practice in spite of these mental and emotional fluctuations, I am able to uncover and bring to the surface of my consciousness a feeling of joy and love: Joy at being alive and kicking and practicing, love of the practice and all that it does for my mind and body. 

With that, I shall sign off here, my friends. May our actions and practices be motivated by joy and love for all living beings (even if this is not always apparent!). May we never speak or act from hatred.


  1. I just read "The Faith Instinct" (started last night, finished today.. had to flip through it quickly because it's 3 months overdue). The books doesn't say much about Eastern religions at all, but does talk about how ancient and present tribal religions always involve a lot of dancing and music (drumming). That totally made me think of yoga, exactly as you describe it, as an act of adoration to the Lord.

  2. Interesting. I've never read "The Faith Instinct", but yes, I do believe that dancing and drumming have a very strong affinity with yoga, especially the devotional component.

  3. I was actually going to ask you after class how you felt about the yogic arts in the context of Collingwood puts art in his article. I must say, I agree with every word you said in your post.

  4. Cool, Chris. Thanks for your feedback on this post :-)

  5. "May our actions and practices be motivated by joy and love for all living beings (even if this is not always apparent!). May we never speak or act from hatred."
    Perfectly Said