Philosophy of Yoga

Tutor: Daniel Simpson
Start date: 10 October 2021


A detailed study of the origins and development of Yoga.

We begin with the ideas of Vedanta and Samkhya on which the earliest expositions of Yoga are based. This provides a basis for a study of teachings found in the Upanishads, Bhagavad-gita, and Yoga Sutras as well as a thorough review of the Tantric roots of Hatha Yoga practice.

This course gives a detailed understanding of the fundamental ideas on which Yoga practice is based and the ways in which it has developed over the millennia.


Why study Yoga Philosophy

Yoga today is very different from early descriptions. Although no one knows for sure when it began, the practice has been evolving for at least 2,500 years. Traditional sources are clear about one thing: Yoga is a practice, and if correctly applied, will result in liberation. Apart from having faith that this is true, there is nothing practitioners need to believe.

So, do we need to study philosophy? After all, the most famous definition of Yoga, from Patanjali’s sutras, says that Yoga is about stilling mental activity, not stirring it up. However we do find many different systems, and their theories are mixed and matched in different ways at different times. This yields changes in priorities and techniques. In order to make sense of modern Yoga, and the ways it relates to – or departs from – earlier practice, it helps to know more about this history of ideas.

The course

The course consists of seven sessions delivered on a weekly basis.

Session One: Understanding Classical Yoga

Where does Yoga fit within Indian thought? Here, we look at Vedanta and Samkhya and their influence on theory and practice. We also begin our exploration of early Yoga. Modern Yoga is derived from many different strands of Indian thought and we can trace a significant distinction between the Vedic and tantric influences. We also see how contemporary teachers have reworked and reshaped earlier teachings to a form more suitable for contemporary students.

Session Two: Yoga in the Upanishads and the Mahabharata

We can’t be certain where Yoga comes from or how old it is. However, the earliest known written works to mention it are the Upanishads and the Mahabharata. We begin with the Upanishads, often mentioned as a source of Yoga teachings. We then move on to the extensive Yoga teachings within the Mahabharata and look at the practices these very early passages advocate.

tam yogam iti manyate sthiram indriya-dharanam
apramattas tada bhavati yogo hi prabhavapyayau
This holding steady of the senses is what is considered to be Yoga. One is then properly
attentive, for Yoga can both arise and also cease to be. (Katha Upanishad 6.11)

Session Three: Yoga in the Bhagavad-gita

One of the best known sections of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-gita. Here, Krishna’s extensive teaching is threaded with Yogic concepts. In this session, we consider the most important ideas of the Bhagavad-gita and we focus on passages that define Yoga.

Click here to download our translation of the Gita in pdf format.

I was blown over by this lecture. Dr Sutton is so passionate and you can clearly feel his love for the subject. Towards the end it was almost moving. I particularly liked his explanation on karma, which I had always found difficult to understand. (Comment on course forum)

Session Four: Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras (I)

Sapta Chakra - Philosophy of Yoga an Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies online course

Sapta Chakra

Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is the foundational work on Yoga philosophy. It is the best known and least understood text on the subject. For all these reasons we give it a central place in this course. In this session we consider the theology and philosophy of Patañjali in the first two of his four chapters (On Concentration, and On Practice). And to do this properly, we delve into the essential context of Indian thought.

Click here to download our translation of the Yoga Sutras in pdf format.

Session Five: Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras (II)

We continue our study of Patañjali with chapters 3 and 4, the Vibhuti-pada and the Kaivalya-pada. We consider the ideas and practices advocated by the text. This is the conclusion of our discussion of classical Yoga. Our next sessions look at the teachings of a later period in which the emphasis moves from the mind to the body.

Session Six: Tantra and Yoga

In modern Yoga you will find much that is not found in Patañjali, Vedanta, or Samkhya. In this session we explore the extent to which contemporary Indian religion is a combination of Vedic and Tantric ideas. This helps us see the influence of Tantra. Given the modern uses of the term “Tantra”, this may seem surprising and so we will begin with a brief overview of what Tantra actually is and, equally as important, what tantra is not.

Session Seven: Hatha Yoga

In this session we examine three of the later Sanskrit texts that discuss the practice of hatha or bodily Yoga. We can see that the ideas and practices they refer to are much closer to current ideas and practices. We will compare this influence to that of Patañjali and other early sources. For this study we focus particularly on Svatmarama’s Hatha Pradipika and its spiritual and philosophical ideas. We will also look at the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita.

CPD Logo

This course is certified by the CPD Standards Office. This may be applied to certain UK-based professional bodies. For CPD purposes, the course has an estimated 43 hours of learning.


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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