On the occasion of the release of his latest book titled "Les 50 mots essentiels de la spiritualité" (Albin Michel 2022), we had a conversation with Philippe Filliot, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of Reims, a lecturer on contemporary spirituality at Paris 8, and a yoga teacher and trainer. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on the fundamental human experience of spirituality and specifically its connections with modern yoga.
Citta Vritti : You teach courses on contemporary spirituality at the University of Paris 8, and your latest book focuses on the words of spirituality. This leads us to ask you the fateful question: how would you define the concept of spirituality? How does it differ from religion?
Philippe Filliot : That's the entire subject of my book! One way to define spirituality is to first clarify what it is not. Spirituality is not synonymous with religion, although the two can be distinguished without necessarily opposing each other. Spirituality can exist outside of religions, and some, like the philosopher André Comte Sponville, embrace a secular or atheistic spirituality. In Anglo-Saxon contexts, particularly in the field of sociology of religion, the category of "Spiritual But Not Religious" ndlr.has even been created to describe this phenomenon. However, a non-religious spirituality does not imply being anti-religious, and religions inherently contain a spiritual component.
Spirituality is not necessarily irrational, nor does it necessarily belong to the realm of belief. In spiritual approaches, there is a quest for knowledge – knowledge of oneself, the world, the divine, the Absolute – which, while not strictly rationalistic, remains rational. The writings of mystics are testimonies to this reflective dimension of spirituality. The philosopher Frédéric Nef demonstrates this well in his essay on what he precisely calls "Mystical Knowledge".
“Spirituality is not necessarily irrational, nor does it necessarily belong to the realm of belief.”
At the individual level, spirituality and religion may not differ significantly in terms of personal experience. It is the collective and social dimension of religious phenomena that distinguishes spirituality from organized religion. Spirituality tends to be associated with individual experiences, while religion involves communal experiences. Spirituality is often found outside formal institutions, whereas religion is characterized by institutionalization and the socialization of the spiritual dimension inherent to human beings.
To conclude, we could mention the definition of philosopher Michel Foucault, who views spirituality as a practice of self-transformation. This broad definition encompasses practices beyond strictly religious ones, such as yoga and art, which have the power to transform the self from within. According to Foucault, spirituality is not limited to an internal dimension but also involves an openness to alterity, going beyond one's own identity. It is not about "becoming oneself" as in personal development, but rather about becoming "other" than oneself. Thus, spirituality always carries a practical and existential dimension that is applied in everyday life, going beyond book knowledge or purely theoretical understanding. Spirituality can be seen as a "practical theory" or a "theorized practice," akin to the concept of "praxis" as discussed by the ancient Greek philosophers. "Praxis" is also a central concept in the field of visual arts, which I teach.
C.V : In your works, you often bring together art and yoga in dialogue. What connections do you establish between these two disciplines?
P.F: These are primarily personal connections. The worlds of contemporary art and spirituality are domains that do not often intersect. My initial background is in art and literature. During my studies in visual arts, I was not concerned with spirituality as such, but rather interested in artists who posed existential or ethical questions, or who developed a certain relationship with the sacred in the broadest sense. Like Michel Journiac (a French visual artist of the 20th century) ndlr.For example, through his sometimes extreme performances centered around the body, Michel Journiac questioned its sacred dimension. Interestingly, he did not attend the Fine Arts school but pursued theological training - he was preparing to become a priest! Subsequently, I engaged in yoga and Zen practices while maintaining my artistic references and aesthetic sensitivity, and the connections between the two disciplines gradually emerged. In my opinion, art can be an opportunity for an inner experience that leads to self-transformation and a new relationship with the world, without relying on a spiritual lineage or an established religion. Contemporary art provides an interesting example of non-dogmatic spirituality. Conversely, spirituality can be a form of art, an art without works or object production, residing in a certain way of living, an "aesthetics of existence," as Foucault aptly formulated.
I subsequently engaged in yoga and Zen practices while keeping my artistic references and aesthetic sensitivity intact, and the connections between the two gradually unfolded. In my view, art can provide an opportunity for an inner experience that serves as a source of self-transformation and redefines one's relationship with the world, without relying on a spiritual lineage or established religion. Contemporary art offers an intriguing example of non-dogmatic spirituality. Conversely, spirituality can be seen as a form of art—an art without works, without the production of objects—that manifests in a certain way of living, an "aesthetics of existence," as Foucault once expressed.
CV. Your background and teaching of yoga stem from a particular lineage, the viniyoga. However, in many of your works and articles, you question the very notion of "tradition." How do you reconcile these two aspects in your reflections and in your teaching?
P.F: I'm not particularly fond of the term "lineage," but I do align myself with what is sometimes referred to as the "viniyoga" lineage, which originated from Desikachar and Krishnamacharya. It is the foundation of my training, and I appreciate this practice. However, I don't belong to any specific school or follow any particular master. I express my own opinions and thoughts about this yoga practice, even if it displeases some zealous followers.
"I advocate for a spirituality enlightened by knowledge, culture, history, and reflection."
Translation: "It's a bit complicated as a stance because I find myself caught in between, often being criticized from both sides. For instance, in academia, I receive backlash for discussing spirituality, a completely taboo word in academic circles. However, there is still a considerable amount of research in various disciplines on spirituality: in literature, art, education sciences, philosophy, and more. There is an entire field of scholarly research on spirituality. Yet, it remains challenging to discuss it in this environment. I am reproached for being irrational, not objective, and for working on topics that are deemed non-academic, as if there were certain objects of study that were forbidden to explore. This goes against the very essence of scholarly and rational work! On the other hand, in spiritual circles, I am also met with disapproval because I am considered too intellectual, too analytical – what a horror! I am seen as being too focused on the 'mind,' as they say, and not enough on intuition and experience. It's as if yoga meant not reading books, not reflecting, and solely relying on incredible or mystical experiences and blindly following what tradition and lineage dictate. In short, I am perceived unfavorably in spiritual circles due to the critical dimension I bring, in terms of exercising critical thinking, which I believe is crucial to maintain here, even more so than elsewhere, in order to prevent irrational and even sectarian deviations."
CV. So, how can we move beyond the divide between spirituality and knowledge? Knowledge is sometimes seen as an obstacle that hinders access to the mind and therefore to the spiritual quest due to its rationalism and even rigid scientism.
Translation: P.F: For me, there is no opposition between the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual work. In fact, I believe it is necessary to integrate the two, otherwise we risk falling into either scientism and rigid rationalism, which is also not desirable, or into a form of irrationalism, a lack of critical thinking, reflection, perspective, and questioning. What I advocate for is a spirituality enlightened by knowledge, culture, history, and reflection. We cannot discard all of these elements without venturing into slippery and dangerous paths. And one does not hinder the other: just because we engage in reflection doesn't mean we don't experience or feel! It's terrible that these two aspects are often dissociated. The ability to feel emotions or sensations and focus on personal or sensory experience does not prevent us from thinking and reflecting on our experiences at a given moment, before, during, or after. Therefore, the ideal is to combine knowing and feeling, knowledge and experience. To move beyond this "great divide" of thought. It is in this space that a profound, rich, open, and liberating dimension can emerge. I advocate for "spiritualizing reason" and "rationalizing spirituality."
One of your books is titled Un yoga occidental ("A Western Yoga" in english) (Almora, 2018). In a time of discussions about cultural appropriation, what message did you want to convey with the choice of this title?
P.F: One could accuse me of cultural appropriation by using the term "Western Yoga"… I didn't initially choose this title. Originally, the title was meant to focus on the teaching of Viniyoga, but that would have limited the book to a specific lineage and tradition. So, I wanted a title that would open up to a broader issue related to the history of this yoga movement situated between India and Europe, and vice versa. It's a kind of oxymoron because the term "Western Yoga" is highly frowned upon by traditionalist yogis, as they believe yoga cannot be Western but rather Indian. Westerners can certainly practice yoga, but yoga must remain within the cultural or spiritual boundaries of India, according to them. This formulation may seem paradoxical or even provocative to some individuals. However, once again, I find myself in-between: I affirm a Western dimension, which I fully embrace, but at the same time, I strongly emphasize the connection with yoga and everything it implies in terms of references to India and the history of Indian thought. I associate the two. If we look at contemporary yoga, even in its modern forms, it has become highly Westernized, diverging quite far from its Indian roots. Today, yoga cannot ignore its Western dimension, as it has become an integral part of its history.
CV. Through this, do you wish to affirm a universalist dimension of yoga?
P.F: I'm not sure. I am somewhat wary of universalist aspirations. Universalist discourses are championed by modern yoga gurus, and it is also the discourse of Western rationality since the Enlightenment—a sort of abstract ideal, somewhat detached from reality. It is not necessarily a value that I personally advocate for. Perhaps I am too individualistic for that... To say that yoga is universal, in my opinion, is a misjudgment because the concepts and notions of yoga are indeed Indian. So, I feel a bit uneasy about that. However, I am also uncomfortable with the opposite notion that yoga is purely Indian. Once again, I find myself in-between. By having one foot in one field and another foot in the other, I have become quite comfortable in this in-between space!
"Spirituality, for me, is a form of resistance against dogmas."
CV. Speaking of being in-between, you emphasize that spirituality involves learning to strip oneself (particularly of material objects) and to let go, as you mentioned earlier regarding Michel Foucault. How can self-loss be reconciled with the society in which we live, and from which it is very difficult to detach ourselves without becoming reclusive ascetics in a cave?
P.F: Spirituality, for me, is a form of resistance against dogmas but also against the idea that we should be assigned to a fixed identity or function. It is a stance that goes completely against the grain of dominant social values. We are constantly asked to be more efficient, more productive, to have a stronger, more assertive identity... It is the opposite of what mystics talk about, which is the erasure of the self, the disappearance of the ego, and the loss of oneself.
Indeed, what about the injunctions "Practice and all is coming" by Pattabhi Jois or "A little practice is better than tons of theory" attributed to Sivananda? To come back to these very pragmatic aspects, many practitioners feel a certain guilt about their dedication or the "level" of their (physical) yoga practice... How do you live yoga off the mat?
P.F: For example, through breath. It is not necessary to be on a yoga mat to breathe. Becoming aware of one's breath, simply turning inward, but also being more receptive to the world through the perception of breath. It is a form of invisible yoga that can be practiced anywhere, anytime, without techniques, without mastery of pranayama, without needing to sit in lotus position. It can even be integrated into our daily activities or mundane situations: we can experience them with a different perspective, shifting away from ordinary consciousness. These are what we call "epiphanies," luminous moments of revelation that arise within the most ordinary reality, as I discuss in my spiritual lexicon. These mundane epiphanies can occur at any moment and are devoid of any notion of performance, practice "level," or intentional agenda. These privileged moments are not sought after; they happen spontaneously... or not! They can be very small things. When we talk about yoga, we often think of extraordinary experiences such as ecstasies, illuminations, or existential shocks, but they can also be very ordinary things. I am a yogi of the ordinary!
To follow Philippe Filliot's activity, please visit his Facebook page.
To explore the connections between art and yoga, also read: Meditating through art, with Soizic Michelot.