(As featured in Yoga Magazine, June 2021)
In the wake of COVID-19, there has been increased interest among the yoga community in philosophy as a tool of reflection during times of uncertainty. While yoga philosophy, Buddhism, and Stoicism are separate schools of thought, highlighting their similarities provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of ancient philosophical principles while bringing them closer to our fast-changing modern life.
Revising our view of ancient philosophy
Pierre Hadot’s famous book, “What is Ancient Philosophy?”, is a reminder of how ancient philosophers perceived philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a way of life “justified by philosophical discourse.” Through his detailed study, Hadot presents ideas of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy to provide a means for achieving happiness by transforming the individual’s mode of perceiving and being in the world.
Over the years, the link between philosophical theory and life has weakened, as philosophy became perceived as a theoretical, academic discipline. However, in the last decade, there has been a growing interest in a more pragmatic approach to philosophy toward improving one’s life through genuine philosophical thought.
According to author and researcher John Sellars, Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London and founding member of two non-profit organizations aimed at bringing the ancient philosophy of Stoicism to a broader audience, Modern Stoicism and The Aurelius Foundation, “Over the last decade, even before COVID-19, we have seen a huge increase in interest in philosophy, including in mainstream media. There is a healthy market for popular philosophy books from all groups and ages. Applications for philosophy programs are becoming stronger with many young people interested in studying philosophy.” He adds that Stoicism is seeing a resurgence of interest in particular. Various editions of “Meditations,” where Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sets forth his ideas on Stoic philosophy, continue to feature among the top bestselling philosophy books.
Yoga and Buddhism as sister traditions
Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutra,” an ancient text that is widely referred to as the basis of the practice, outlines the eight “Ashtanga” (Sanskrit for limbs) of yoga, with “Sutras” (Sanskrit for threads) offering guidelines for living a meaningful life. Asana or physical postures is only one of the eight limbs, a reminder that in its origin, yoga was thought of, first and foremost, as a spiritual practice.
The Buddha’s eightfold path, leading to the cessation of suffering, and Patanjali’s classical eightfold limbs simultaneously took shape in ancient India. Despite some fundamental differences (for example, yoga is more theistic and part of the Hindu or orthodox school of Indian philosophy), yoga and Buddhism are considered sister traditions. They follow many of the same principles, emphasizing ethical values such as non-attachment, non-stealing, and non-harming. Both also seek to reduce suffering through cultivating a higher consciousness and reaching a form of transcendence.
Stoicism and Buddhism: The intriguing connection
The link between Stoicism, dating from the fourth century B.C. and early Indian philosophy, is less clear. “The connection between Buddhism and Stoicism is tricky because Buddhism is such a rich tradition and comes in different varieties. But there are some points of contact,” says Sellars. “For example, a focus on the transience of things, devaluation of material possessions, as well as on acceptance and awareness. I think there were more contact and knowledge between East and West than we might assume.”
In “More than Happiness, Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Skeptical Age,” Antonia Macaro confirms this view. “There are intriguing, if wispy, glimpses of cultural transmission between India and the Greek world, but few hard facts. The geographical link between the two cultural spheres was the vast area covered first by the Persian Empire and then by the empire of Alexander the Great, through which trade and diplomatic routes developed.” She also refers to The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor who remarks that there was no “East” and “West” at that time, and that the “world of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. that extended from Athens to Pāṭaliputta was in many respects a single, interactive cultural sphere.”
Although we can’t prove any direct philosophical influence of India on Greece or Greece on India, the parallels between Buddhism and Stoicism are interesting. Sellara adds, “We have quotes from Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, referring to stories from India. So, while there may not have been a direct influence, stories of India that made it to Athens suggests that the early Stoics may have been aware of Buddhism.”
Stoic inspirations for modern yogis
For practitioners committed to yoga’s spiritual practice, the Stoics can offer the following guidance and inspiration to enhance their wellness journey.
- Acceptance of things outside our control: “Cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will,” Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” In another one of the most quoted Stoic sayings, Epictetus says, “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of things.” By questioning whether things are in our power or not, people should drop their concern for things that cannot be controlled.
- Training for body and mind: Sellars explains how another influential Stoic, Musonius Rufus, prescribed a set of exercises to be performed with disciplined regularity. “Strictly speaking, Stoicism is primarily focused on the mind rather than the body. It is really about how you see things, the judgements you make, the different beliefs you have — so the core of the wellness strategy is about changing the way you think,” says Sellars. “But having said that, Rufus identified in his ‘Discourse on Training’ two types of training. One is training for the soul, a set of spiritual exercises, and the other is training for the body, which also benefits the mind. The key point is that you are not training the body only, but also the mind at same time.” He adds that Stoics were “physicalists, not dualists, who believed in embodied human beings, so followed a holistic mind-body approach.”
- Attention to virtues: Sellars adds that while the popularized image of mindfulness, such as the idea of listening to breathe, for example, did not feature in Stoicism, the Stoics do place importance on attention. “Not so much attention to your (sensory) experience but to key Stoic ideas and virtues, constantly reminding yourself of key virtues.” Macaro also makes the same point when referring to the Stoics’ “self-monitoring habit” — catching the first signs of unhealthy desires, or potentially destructive emotions, like fear or anger and paying attention to our immediate reactions to things. She quotes Seneca, “Just as signs of a rainstorm arrive before the storm itself, so there are certain signs that announce the coming of anger, love, and all those storm gusts that vex our minds.”
- More silence: Like Buddhists, the Stoics valued silence. “Epictetus has a lot to say about this. For the most part, just be quiet, don’t rush to say things or respond to things, cultivate an attitude of humility, don’t assume you have answers, and don’t rush into things,” says Sellars. In Epictetus’ words: “Be mostly silent, or speak merely when necessary, and in few words. We may enter sparingly into conversation sometimes when the occasion calls for it; but not about any of the common subjects, such as gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or food, or drink – the vulgar topics of conversation; and especially not about individuals, either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons.”
- Recognize the transient nature of things: “There is a lot about death in ‘Meditations’. Marcus Aurelius is constantly reflecting about that in the context that everything is continuously changing and that you can’t expect anything to last forever. So, one needs to accept death as a natural change,” says Sellars. “The Stoics were generally realists, accepting that we are mortal beings, and there is no need to add negative value judgment to that.”
Regardless of which philosophy or mix to follow, these ancient principles offer inspirations for yoga practitioners looking to deepen their practice. For one, they inspire an expanded definition of wellness beyond the physical body to one that is more inward focused and based on a virtuous way of life.
Like Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, once said, “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”