The Eros of Yoga

March 4th, 2011 by Dearbhla Kelly

Most people probably understand the words ‘eros’ and ‘erotic’ as relating to sex. But this is not exactly right. ‘Eros’ is an ancient Greek word which, although applicable to the area of romantic love is also intended to cover other types of sensual arousal. Eros is what draws us in. It could be the beauty of a pristine beach on a sunny day, the magnificence of a Rachmaninoff concerto, the exquisite richness of a chocolate truffle. Our senses are engaged and we are hooked.

So far it does sound like the attraction we feel for another in romantic love, but Plato gives us a much more nuanced account of eros in his ‘Symposium.’ On this view eros is indeed the physical attraction we feel for someone and, if given the chance to course its full trajectory, it becomes love of love itself, or love of the Good.  Here’s how the story goes…

At first we experience eros as attraction to one particular person and we are duly infatuated. Pretty soon we notice that there are lots of other good-looking people around, and that makes us happy. We follow our physical attractions and our experience of love is more or less skin deep.  After a while this gets old and we start to want more from the objects of our affection; we value character. As we mature and gain wisdom through life experience the traits we care about in a partner reflect our overall value set. So if we prize honesty; a strong work ethic; financial integrity; concern for the environment; humanitarianism; liberalism, and nurturing family ties (amongst other things), these are qualities that we’ll seek in a partner and we’ll be happiest with a partner who also prizes such values – the usual ups and downs and vagaries of relationships notwithstanding.

We want a partner with similar values because, as love draws us further along her path, we come to understand that the most important things in life are not material. They may be instantiated in physical form but they can never be wholly contained in any one physical object. For example beauty can’t be captured in any one instance, though we can point to many examples of the beautiful. Roses, sunsets, paintings, sculptures, pieces of music, may all be said to be beautiful, though no one of them fully explains beauty.  Why take beauty as important? Clearly our lives are enhanced by beauty and beautiful things make us happy, but as we’ve seen, mere physical beauty soon looses its appeal without something more substantive to illuminate it from within.

Plato wants us to understand that the mystery of Love is that it leads us from eros to love of LOVE itself. He uses the metaphor of a ladder leading to the Beautiful (that which is eternal, unchanging and beyond form). The first step on the ladder is one beautiful body, the next two beautiful bodies, above that all beautiful bodies, above that beautiful character traits, and so on until we arrive at the top and the nature of beauty itself. So we see that love carries us from erotic inclination to the realm of permanence and the formless ground of all form.

If this sounds familiar it may be because it sounds like the non-dualism of Shankaracharya, according to which Brahman is the ground of all being, that which gives rise to all form, but is beyond form, that which is permanent but can be experienced in temporary guise. Yoga pointedly refers us to the ground of being which is beyond the temporary here and now, beyond the vrittis (fluctuations) of the mind and beyond our emotions, feelings and sensations, so that we may experience our true nature – limitless, boundless, permanent. Although different schools of yoga emphasize different ways of getting there, they all agree that we attain union with the source by transcending our isolation, our here-and-now-ness, our sense of ourselves as separate, closed off, through the practice of yoga in its different forms.

This piece is not meant to be a survey of the many schools of yoga and how they characterize the way(s) to union. I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve such a grand task. But I will talk about some things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

It seems to me that asana (poses) and bhakti yoga (chanting, the practice of kirtan and puja worship) both represent the eros of yoga.  The senses are the way in. With asana practice, the body is the vehicle to work with the mind in order to be free of its tyranny; when we chant and sing kirtan the voice is the way to the heart, to the expanse of LOVE beyond.

Plato offers us a view where the physical is what initially draws us towards love, but Love itself is seen to underlie all physical instantiations of it. Love itself is drawing us from eros to pure love for Love’s sake. The 16thC bhakti poet Mirabai was an ardent Krishna devotee. Her songs are infused with eroticism and longing and convey the very personal relationship she felt with Krishna, the God-personifiation of love.  When we worship Krishna, we worship love itself to the extent that Krishna’s name is a stand-in for love and vice versa.


Ganashyma ko dekhata ja raha hun

Usiki jhalaka para khincha ja raha hun

I am fixed on love, I am lured to his flame

I keep watching love, I am drawn to his effulgence

Lutata hai vaha mai luta ja raha hun

Mitata hai vaha mai mita ja raha hun

He is plundering me, I am being robbed

He is erasing me, I am ceasing to be

Khabara kucha nahi hai kahan ja  raha hun

Bulata hai vaha mai chala ja raha hun

I have no idea where I am going

He is calling me and I am going

Pata premake sindhu ka pa raha hun

Ki eka bindu men hi baha ja raha hun

The only thing I know is that I am attaining the ocean of love, this isolated drop is being swept away

How sensuous this is. She could be writing of a lover, and she does think of Krishna as her lover. He is the cosmic Cassanova, the absolute epitome of love. But it’s the love that causes expansion and becomes love for all beings, not just for the lover.  It is beyond eros. Just as in Plato’s ladder of love, the move is from the particular to the general, from love of one being, to love for Being.

In the case of Plato and yoga ultimate reality is thought to be beyond form and there are different ways to get to experience that reality. In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra we are given 112 dharanas (techniques) for tasting the delicious nectar of the ultimate.  Although tantra uses everything, all of the senses, feelings, emotions, the world of sensory experience and the world of the mind, to get to ultimate reality, that reality is still consciousness. It is the consciousness of Shiva, or Bhairava and his consciousness permeates the entire universe. The whole world of experience is a manifestation of Bhairava stretching his consciousness for fun, because that is what he does.

Lorin Roche (Sanskrit scholar and meditation teacher) has rendered the VBT into exquisite English in a text called ‘The Radiance Sutras.’ Many of them read as erotic love poetry, some relating to love-making, many in the broader, Platonic sense of eros.

Sutra 49

Jagdhi pana krita-ullasa

Rasa ananda vijrimbhanat

Bhavayed bharita avastham

Maha ananda tatah bhavet

Eating dark chocolate,

A ripe apricot,

Your favorite treat –

Savor the expanding joy in your body.

Nature is offering herself to you.

How astonishing

To realize this world can taste so good.

When sipping some ambrosia,

Raise your glass,

Close your eyes,

Toast the universe –

The Sun and Moon and Earth

Danced together

To bring you this delight.

Receive this nectar on your tongue

As a kiss of the divine.

I’ll stop here to allow the beauty of Mirabai’s ecstatic love poetry and Lorin’s gorgeous translation of the VBT to soak in. Isn’t wild that this sensous, erotic, evocative language draws us in and lures to the Divine, to Love itself: boundless, formless, limitless, expansive, ever-present, luminescent?

Next up: asana as eros.

4 Responses to “The Eros of Yoga”

  1. julian walker says:

    you go girl! keep writing like this – it is magnificent, necessary, inspiring and penetrating (if you’ll excuse the obvious allusions.) 🙂

    viva eros!

  2. julian walker says:

    is that in poor taste? no offense – i LOVED the piece.

  3. Herb Roussel says:

    Ma chère Dearbhla,

    I did not have much time earlier in the week to explain the relevance of Psyche to Eros, je suis désolé. I only had knowledge of the Johnson book which is not open source.

    The story of Eros is a key archetypal myth in Jungian philosophy. It explains the aspects of feminine integration of the soul (Psyche) via Eros. The myth contains profound insights into human psychology. e.g. when Eros abandons his duties when infatuated with Psyche, the world becomes old and barren. Also, worship of aphrodite ceases. Thereby, beauty disappears from the world.

    I was able to find an accessible link that explains the integration process, the yoke (yoga), of Eros and Psyche.


    Some of the salient details are below:

    The gifts of Eros affect the emotional and thought processes of humanity, especially those of a seeker who has to learn how to open up and integrate these gifts in his psyche. From the lowest and most physical levels of consciousness to the most spiritual ones, Eros remains forever present,gradually transforming the inner fire into pure light. Eros operates in every living creature, and Greek poetry and philosophy describe how nature partakes of the gift of Eros. Hence we could say that Eros’ contribution to humanity is not only inherent in man’s psyche, but that it is also involved in the process that awakens the ego to its true nature, the beauty and unconditional love of the soul.

    …So, on one hand, Eros can simply mean carnal love and desire for material possessions, but on the other, it can also express the spiritual energy that attracts and leads the psyche towards the Center of Pure Being, where the beauty and love of the soul are revealed.

    …Esoterically, Eros is the leading force within a seeker that takes him away from a level of duality to a level of unity and wholeness. Furthermore, Eros is the key to transforming psychic vibratory rates. He does that by placing a seeker on his axial center, the neutral and timeless zone within his conscious self. This level of being brings about the integration of ego with soul. Hence, Eros is the god or essence that gives us the possibility of letting go of the past and living in the present moment, embracing spontaneously everything within and without our reach.

    Avec amour, (pardon the pun)

    M. Roussel

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Photos by Robert Sturman.