Thursday, August 25, 2011

Aesthetic experience and the yoga practice

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts that I just started about yoga and philosophy of art. I have discovered from my previous post on this topic that there are interesting parallels as well as differences between yoga and art. Because of this, I think it is worthwhile to continue blogging on this topic (I also got some interesting comments on my previous post, which really encouraged me to keep thinking and blogging about this :-)). Moreover, with the beginning of the school year, time is tighter, which means there is less time for blogging. So it is very useful for me to be able to find ways to bring my academic work and my blogging together.

So, in my philosophy of art class today, we discussed Monroe Beardsley's views on what an artwork is. For Beardsley, an artwork is "something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest." One has an aesthetic interest in something if one receives (i.e. views, listens to, contemplates, apprehends, watches, reads, thinks about, peruses, etc.) something with the intention of obtaining aesthetic experience. 

Which brings us to the question: What is aesthetic experience? According to Beardsley, aesthetic experience is experience that is characterized by "a sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing received, an intense affect that is nevertheless detached from practical ends, the exhilarating sense of exercising powers of discovery, integration of the self and its experiences."

Hmm.... all this is a bit abstract. To make this a little more concrete, suppose you are contemplating a painting by Vermeer, say, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring
[Image taken from here]

In contemplating this painting, one might pay attention to and appreciate the contrast of light and dark in the painting, the subdued colors that are chosen for the clothing the girl wears, as well as the choice of a black background, all of which serve to highlight the face and the intimacy of her gaze. In contemplating the play and effects of these formal qualities, one gets transported into the world of the painting, and achieves a temporary "sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing", and becomes temporarily detached from whatever practical concerns one may have. And yet, at the same time, such a detachment from practical concern, rather than leading to a sense of fragmentation, actually leads one to feel more in control of one's powers of discernment and discovery, and leads to a feeling of integration with something bigger than one's mundane self and mundane concerns. 

Where is the yoga in all of this? Well, if one were to adopt a very liberal understanding of yoga, and simply understand yoga in terms of "union of mind and body with something that is greater than oneself", then one might say that being fully absorbed in the aesthetic contemplation of a painting is a yogic experience.
But here's another interpretation. In a comment on my previous post on this topic of art, Ellie made the following suggestion about the relationship between the asana practice, the yoga practitioner, and art:

 'if in art there is an artist and an audience, and going with my supposition that yoga is an art, then perhaps the "artist" is not the practitioner but the yoga itself, and the audience is the practitioner. The "art" of yoga draws out the emotions from the practitioner that need to be released.'

I think her suggestion fits very well with Beardsley's view of what aesthetic experience is. The idea, as I understand it, is that the yoga practice draws out the emotions in the practitioner that need to be drawn out and "processed". As a result of such "emotional processing", the yoga practitioner comes to experience a sense of freedom from matters outside the practice, and experiences a certain detachment from practical concerns. Such detachment, paradoxically, leads the practitioner to feel more in control of herself, and more in touch and integrated with something greater than herself, in much the same way in which the contemplator of a painting might feel a similar sense of integration.

Of course, I suppose one difference between contemplating a painting and asana practice is that in asana practice, a much greater amount of physical effort needs to be expended in order to arrive at that feeling of integration, compared to the amount of physical effort required in contemplating and appreciating a painting. And it may be quite difficult to imagine how challenging asanas (like, for example, Kapotasana) can ever have this integrating effect. But perhaps the more accomplished one becomes at working with a particular asana, the more one will be able to feel this integrating effect, so that perhaps, one day, doing Karandavasana will come to feel as integrating and empowering as contemplating and appreciating a painting. When will this happen? I don't know. As Guruji would say, "Do your practice, and all is coming..." 

Anyway, just some thoughts here. I hope you had fun reading this :-)      


  1. I came across your blog recently and I very much enjoy it. I am writing this comment because I can seem to find your contact information. I would like to share some of your articles on our website if you give me authorization.
    It's called and lists some of the top yoga workshops, retreats, conferences in the nation and abroad with the aim to promote attendance to yoga events. We recently started a blog with some great articles from teacher bloggers and writers such as yourself.
    If you would like to be a contributor with your current material, I will make sure your name and website figure with the article, thus sending more traffic back at you.
    Let me know if you have any questions and if you would be interested in contributing.

    Thanks & Namaste!
    Stephanie Labay

  2. Hello Stephanie,
    Thank you for thinking so highly of my writing. Yes, I will be happy to share my work with readers on your blog.

    Would it be possible for you to notify me as to which articles/posts of mine you are posting, just so I know? Thanks! You can get in touch with me at