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  • Inspiration and Expiration:Yoga Practice Through Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of the Body
  • James Morley


This essay offers an interpretation of the yoga practice of prāṇāyāma (breath control) that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. My approach to yoga will be less concerned with a comparison between Merleau-Ponty's thought and the texts of classical yoga than with the elucidation of the actual experience of breath control through the constructs provided by Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of the lived body. The academic discussion of yoga can answer certain pedagogical goals, but it can never finally be severed from doing yoga. Academic discourse that is centered entirely on the theoretical concepts of yoga philosophies must to some extent remain incomplete. Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras is itself a manual of practice. It is for this reason that I have chosen to take as the basis of my study the commentary of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar, rather than a more exclusively theoretical commentary. In so doing, I have approached yoga as an experience or phenomenon, and not only in the context of a series of academic debates.

While comparisons have been made between yoga and phenomenology, these studies have taken a different direction from the present study. Earlier comparative studies have been concerned with the thought of Merleau-Ponty's philosophical predecessor, Edmund Husserl, and the consonance between the transcendental aspects of his earlier thought and that of the more idealist schools of classical yoga.1 While I will not contest the validity of these comparisons, I wish to offer another perspective on the yoga-phenomenology comparison that is less idealistic or transcendental and more existential or concrete in orientation. Thus, I shall distinguish existential from transcendental phenomenology and then proceed to show how this other version of phenomenology can make a fruitful contribution toward providing a framework from within the Western philosophical tradition for understanding the practice of yoga, just as transcendental phenomenology has already provided a means for establishing a common conceptual ground.

Summary of Conceptual Concurrences between Classical Yoga Concepts and Transcendental Phenomenology

Phenomenology in general seeks to comprehend the perceived or lived world prior to metaphysical categorizations. This is made possible by a method of radical reflection [End Page 73] that is widely known as the "phenomenological reduction" or epochē, perhaps best explained as an absolute suspension of belief, doubt, or any kind of pre-supposition about the existence of the world and its objects. Earlier comparative studies of yoga and phenomenology have rightly stressed this particular aspect of phenomenology, first set out in Husserl's early transcendental approach, as convergent with yogic meditative practices. Certain aspects of the yoga literature show a consonance with the epochē of transcendental phenomenology; this is especially evident in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras where the Sanskrit term nirodaha can be shown to approach closely Husserl's epochē. Patañjali's classic summary of yoga, "chitta vritti nirodaha," roughly translates as "Yoga is the suspension (nirodaha) of the fluctuations (vritti) of thought (chitta)." Thus, nirodaha is a rigorous meditation technique the goal of which is a purified perception (purusa) untainted by mental conditioning or habits such as present passions, future desires, or past impressions (karma). Nirodaha is the route to attaining a pure consciousness (samādhi), which lies beyond the psychological mind (chitta) and envelopes the division between perceiver and perceived.2 As pure, self-evident knowledge, samādhi can only be occupied by the practitioner but never described, for to do so would be to turn the experience into an object and hence distort its meaning.

In a remarkably similar manner, Husserl distinguishes the "hidden 'I'" of transcendental subjectivity from the psychological ego that is still immersed within the subject-object bifurcation.3 Like Patañjali, he advocates a transformation of the mental structures that inhibit clear perception in order to develop a reflexive "witness consciousness" toward our own process of perceiving the world. Built into both theories is the ideal of a pure consciousness that remains as a residue of this methodological cleansing process: an a priori or pure subjectivity distinct from an external objective world.