Non-Imitative Yoga and Becoming Virtuous in Aristotle and Plato
In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it. This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral. The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous. By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person. Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation. One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.
On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character. The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do. A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be.
I think Original Hot Yoga or Bikram Yoga is Aristotelian in this sense. In Bikram yoga, the teacher never does the pose but instead gives you precise directions about what to do. These directions encourage the yogis to go into the pose not in an effort to look like the teacher, but in an effort to move from within to do what the directions require. Stretch stretch stretch we are asked to do in Balancing Stick. When I am in this pose, I am not trying to look a certain way, to imitate what I think the pose should look like, I’m trying to create space between my leg and my body to float over it and to stretch from my fingers to my toes.
On Sunday, I went to a workshop where I was thinking more about how to focus in order to maintain some of the standing poses that are particularly difficult to me. The yoga instructor said, don’t try to look good, try to do the precise things required of the pose. Now while that might sound like imitating, I think it is more about making judgments about what is the best way to put myself in the pose from within rather than to achieve a prescribed notion of what the pose looks like.
On the one account, you look to a model and try to act like it. On another account, you look to the model in order to learn how to become capable of the judgments and decisions that characterize the model. I’ve been working on an essay on Plato’s Protagoras that distinguishes between the kind of knowledge that allows one to imitate virtue–the knowledge that Protagoras, the great sophist who charges incredible sums, teaches–and the kind of knowledge that makes one virtuous, the art of measure. I think that account of a measure is closer to the kind of model that I think Aristotle encourages. The art of measure makes the person virtuous, just like the judgment that makes the virtuous person the model does in Aristotle.
I think yoga presented by words instead of a model of the poses allows the yogi to become the measure of how to do the practice. I think it makes the yoga more of a meditation than a mere imitation would do. The question that drives the practice then is not, do I look like the teacher, but instead am I moving my body according to what is asked of it. Of course, in Aristotle’s account of becoming the phronimos, and Plato’s of becoming the art of measure, what is asked is internally motivated, while in Bikram yoga, the script directs the movements. That’s an important difference, but I don’t think it detracts from the sense in which this yoga practice is a meditation on becoming that is not imitative.