Yoga Apologia

Toward a Heretical Yoga Philosophy

It has for some time struck me as curious that a tradition of defending or justifying one’s views regarding a particular thing is referred to as apologetics. In English, apology has two meanings, referring to both an expression of regret (and perhaps admission of guilt) and a set of arguments employed to defend or support a position or worldview. In the history of philosophy, apologetics is famously the tradition that defends, through philosophical argumentation, the existence of God. If we allow these two meanings of apology to mingle with one another, then one might be permitted the slightly absurd question: why must I apologize for making an apology? To whom, after all, am I apologizing, and what am I apologizing for? What conditions the need for an apology in the first place? Furthermore, how might a philosophical argument (an apology in the first sense) be a form of apology in the second sense? 

My forthcoming considerations may be seen as situated in a tradition of apologetics, if we understand something different by that word. Not arguments for the existence of God – at least not directly (or not yet); arguments, instead, for the existence of an object for yoga that is non-objective. This object that we might call yoga’s truth is an object that is prior to discourses of history, ontology, and epistemology; in an important sense, then, yoga’s object is a non-object because objects are contingent upon a field of representations within which they can derive a presence and a meaning.[note]That field of representations is prakṛti, and by “yoga” here we mean the classical meditative process by means of which puruṣa is said to be “isolated” from prakṛti. Gerald James Larson, in his landmark study of Classical Sāṃkhya, points out how puruṣa is the fact of consciousness in the world, a presence that makes possible the appearance of all objects. But puruṣa, as the goal of yoga and Sāṃkhya systems, is not itself an object, for all objects (physical, psychological, spiritual) are aspects or manifestations of prakṛti. Gerald James Larson. Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (1979).[/note] To entertain a non-object as one’s orientation of investigation will be constitutively dis-appointing because it resists the standards of how a thing is to be appointed. It heretically rejects the standards of acceptable discourse by anchoring itself to a non-discursive object that is, in the borderless fields of yogic experience, not an object at all. 

So I begin by way of an apology – an apology for my apology. If an apology in the first sense (as admitting error) could be considered to presume a structure of knowledge by which errors are understood and through which they make sense, then I am apologizing to a way of knowing that has become standardized and normalized. This normalized knowledge is the knowledge specific to an orthodox academy, to its tradition of objectivity that parades as the only form of knowledge it considers well-suited to that word. But I don’t offer this apology in the name of a kind of adolescent rejection of authority, rather I do so on the basis of the authority of yoga and the teachings that yoga philosophy sees as necessary to yogic attainment.[note]From the perspective of academic objectivity, the teachings of yoga are quaint historical artifacts whose claims about the nature of reality are, at best, suspect, because they are ultimately inconsistent with the assumptions of a materialist monism that characterizes that so-called objectivity. Therefore, to suggest that my “apology” is in the name of yoga’s authority is simply to say that I accept the position of yogic teachings vis-à-vis reality as correct (i.e. I accept that Vedānta’s ātman/brahman, Śaivism’s’s śiva-śakti, and Sāṃkhya-Yoga’s puruṣa designate actual meditational “objects” or non-discursive experiences that are capable of being better understood through philosophical inquiry and actualized through contemplative/meditative practice).[/note] Not the attainment of an object but the attainment or realization of a condition: that which conditions the appearance of all objects, which is not itself objective in the traditional sense. 

My apology in the second sense (of an argument that justifies the possibility of realizing such a condition) proceeds by an admission of error that is only an error from the perspective of a knowledge that hegemonically rules over the usual practices of scholarly or even philosophical engagement. This apology is then necessarily heretical because yoga is constitutively heretical.[note]Whether in its renunciant or householder expressions, yogic traditions over and over again reject conceptions of reality that foster alienation or separation from what yoga philosophy argues is the “true” essence of our identity – ātman/brahman, śiva-śakti, puruṣa, etc. It is in this sense that, from the perspective of taken-for-granted visions of everyday life, yoga is “heretical”.[/note] It, therefore, operates by way of dissent, by way of a deviation from those norms and habits of activity that currently frame an ultimately arbitrary image of the real, the appropriate, and the possible. Yoga[note]As the (non-)object to be (non-)attained, not the process or set of practices used to attain it.[/note] is one of many words that designate precisely that timeless moment where all such frames break down because these frames are little more than the problematic domestication and subsequent limitation of a truth that cannot be framed.

Innocence & Proximity

In order to do justice to the teachings of yoga, we require a sort of innocence.[note]By “innocence”, here I am pointing to something like Edmund Husserl’s concept of epoché, a methodological approach that “brackets out” those culturally-embedded ontological assumptions that would otherwise cloud an immediacy with contemplative experience. For example, when we sit down to meditate, we can surrender (“bracket out”) our active conceptions so as to more fully experience the unfolding flow of meditative sādhanā.[/note] This innocence is not one of naivety, but one of proximity. This innocence is a positive one, for it permits one to operate within a trajectory of experience that has been outlined and celebrated by the traditions of yoga. That is to say, yoga requires an intimacy, a comportment toward yoga’s teachings that coheres with one’s movements, one’s activities, indeed one’s very embodiment. To posit a distance from the teachings that is characteristic of the scholarly perspective, at least as it is actualized in the spirit of much academic study, entails a loss of this innocence or intimacy with the teachings of yoga. This guiding neutrality is not without precedent; we find it evident within the scientific attitude, which formulates and constructs its knowledge in the wake of a fidelity to the hypothesis; such hypotheses can then be revised in accordance with the unfolding experimentations that ensue from a “reaching toward” the horizon of a mutable hypothesis. Those things that now bear a truth-value within the traditions of science began with a hypothesis, and these hypotheses initiated as a reaching beyond the status quo, sometimes against the prevailing assumptions of the day – assumptions that lose their truth-value as new scientific truths are forged into existence. 

But let us be careful here regarding an analogy with science, for we must distinguish between the scientific attitude, which opens itself toward reality with innocence and humility, and scientism – an ideology common among some modern scientists, which projects the parameters of the possible prior to any scientific engagement. The latter stipulates the range of hypotheses that it deems permissible and pre-determines those projects of scientific activity that fit its picture of reality. Scientism is an expression of that structure of knowledge through the eyes of which we will error, for its materialist monism must exile the mystics and yogis who argue for a truth that cannot be expressed through materialist methods. The non-scientistic scientist, by contrast, does not impose parameters on what is revealed through her practices; she opens herself fully to the effulgent possibilities of reality.

The heretical impulse that characterizes a yogic disposition does not reject systems of knowledge, but instead, it does not allow any sedimented system of knowledge to reign over its truth. It, therefore, rejects specifically the authoritarian or even totalitarian tendencies of knowledge, which sober and constrain the creative potency of life. For us, then, knowledges are materials rather than coordinates. Knowledges, insofar as they circumscribe spaces within which we conceptually reside, are in the habit of repressing the remainders and minorities that escape their conceptions of the normal and natural. Yoga thus cannot be predicated on a system of knowledge, for by virtue of such a predication it is repressed.  Rather, for us, the opposite is the case: knowledge is predicated on yoga, which is also to say that, for the yoga philosopher, knowledge is appropriated by yoga and is harnessed in the service of its truth.

Yoga Philosophy vs. Philosophy of Yoga

Therefore, yoga philosophy and not a philosophy of yoga. The former operates from within the immanent unfolding of yogic sādhana, or practice, which is to say that it flattens the hierarchy typically imposed upon knowledge and experience – a hierarchy that in turn divides knowledge from experience. The latter, a philosophy of yoga, posits yoga as external to its philosophical structure, an object to be predicated through its methods, and, rather than permitting itself to be formed and in-formed by yoga, attempts to clasp it in its conceptual talons. A philosophy of yoga is a philosophy of something that has already become manifest, while yoga philosophy aligns itself with the source of manifestation or the manifesting power that we might call the creative intelligence of reality. A philosophy of yoga stands apart so as to objectify; yoga philosophy comes from yoga rather than deciding or determining it.

Yoga’s resistance to being appropriated by knowledge does not mean that yoga has not been expressed through the knowledge systems of a particular culture or religion. Certainly, traditions of yoga are importantly found in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, and our encounter with yoga can not (and should not) be separated from a fruitful and sympathetic encounter with these traditions. But yoga is not reducible to any of these religious expressions any more than modern psychology is reducible to its German origins. Just as modern psychology is spoken through concepts, images, and metaphors that are in some important sense cultural, modern psychology as a technology and a practice is indifferent to culture. Modern psychology does not say: ‘I am for Germans.’ It embraces all those who seek to derive benefit from its methods. Similarly, yoga does not say: ‘I am for Buddhists’ or ‘I am for Hindus.’ It embraces all those who seek to derive insight from its truth. 

This of course does not mean that we have grounds to reject the cultural and historical origins of yogic knowledge, as some are wont to do and others are quick to critique within the contemporary discussions around ‘cultural appropriation.’ These cultural and historical images, texts, and literatures express, both directly and indirectly, the ephemeral quality of our own situatedness, and thus condition the possibility of an encounter with our own contingency – an encounter that is itself a relevant feature of the yogic process. The cultural and historical manifestations of yoga coalesce and circulate around the hub of yogic truth and are founded in its ever-present, non-objective nature. They are ever-evolving mandalas that invite the practitioner of yoga toward the bindu point[note]In Hindu metaphysics, the bindu is a symbol for the cosmos in its un-manifested state. It is thus a key feature of the yantra and maṇḍala, geometrical meditative devices that symbolize the evolution and involution of the cosmos. Khanna, Madhu. Yantra: The Tantric Symbol Of Cosmic Unity. New York: Thames and Hudson (1979).[/note] at their center. As characterized by language and the variability of human expression, these differences are gateways to a non-differentiated domain that is paradoxically the source of all difference, expression, and attainment.

Difference is therefore valuable, as it fosters an encounter with the emptiness of identity. The ideologically dominant worldview – even as it allows identities to shift and change – produces a homogeneity of perspective that regards identity as the “first principle.” Indeed, it privileges identity in itself. Gilles Deleuze critiques this in Difference and Repetition,[note]“That identity not be first, that it exist as a principle but as a second principle, as a principle become; that it revolve around the Different: such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.” Gilles Deleuze. Difference & Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press (1968: 41).[/note] pointing out that the approach to difference that privileges identity sees difference as the difference “between” identities. To alternatively argue for difference-in-itself is to point out that identity can never be essentialized, and conversely that the essence of things is not that of identity. Deleuze called this essence the “plane of immanence,” while we refer to it with those concepts popularized in yoga philosophy – Brahman, Śiva, puruṣa.[note]It is important to point out that these concepts have varying meanings and functions, depending on the tradition of study. However, for our purposes, these concepts are similar in that they point out something beyond the relative that cannot be fully articulated in relative terms.[/note] That which perennially persists after every attempt at an identity’s consolidation is the remainder that cannot be contained, and that which cannot be consolidated through modes of identification is precisely what we’re interested in. 

The Truth of History or the Truth of Yoga

In short, we are concerned with yogic truth: what it is and is not, how it arises, and where it resides. The problematic appropriation, then, from the perspective of yoga philosophy, is one that does so on the basis of a knowledge whose truth is not that of yoga’s. The postmodern condition characteristic of some modern academic study posits many truths that mirror the contingent expressions of appearances, identities, and cultural differences. Yoga philosophy does not deny these differences but rather enables us to see the singular truth on which these many cultural truths rely: the truth that there are many things that appear, that show themselves, and these things are true insofar as they appear.[note]Here, again, Sāṃkhya is a helpful ally, for one might suggest that prakṛti, as one of two ontological principles (alongside puruṣa), is the singular truth on which many appearances of truth rely. Puruṣa, as that principle which does not show itself, but which sees that which is shown, can only be considered a “non-truth” from the perspective of the truth of appearances. Similarly, Advaita Vedānta offers a useful conceptual architecture to illustrate this observation, with māyā being this truth of appearances, while ātman/brahman is yoga’s “non-object” that, from the perspective of the truth of appearances, is nothing at all.[/note] Michel Henry observed this to be the truth specific to history. “An event is historically true if it appeared in the world as a visible phenomenon – the fact that, being visible, it could be noticed by witnesses – is therefore the foundation of its objectivity.”[note]Michel Henry. I Am the Truth: Towards a Philosophy of Christianity. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press (2002: 3).[/note] What grounds the truth of history, then, what anchors its activity, is the horizon of visibility by means of which texts, art, and artifacts are seen, cataloged, and archived. The epistemologies of the visible reign over and circumscribe the events of life and siphon their qualia through the ontological categories of appearance. 

That this form of truth should strike many of us as the only form of truth worth talking about reflects a situation in which a contingent truth parades as a universal one; this contingent truth has conflated the range of possible truths with the one truth of appearances. If we seek yoga’s truth here, we will not find it. If we believe that more socio-historical knowledge about yoga will permit us access to yoga’s truth, we have lost the plot, for here we have mistaken yoga scholarship about its history with yoga philosophy. A truth that is couched in appearances is an infinitely contestable truth, for what appears, what is revealed, is seen by multiple subjects. Just as, depending on one’s subjective position in space one sees a specific version of a house or a landscape, similarly the qualities of one’s situatedness will determine the perspective one takes on what has appeared. And thus the truth that there are many incommensurable truths asserts itself, for there will always be many views of an object. 

History’s truth, according to Henry, is a truth of the world. “The ‘world’s truth’ is nothing other than this: a self-production of ‘outsideness’ as the horizon of visibility in and through which every thing can become visible and thus become a ‘phenomenon’ for us.”[note]Ibid, 17. [/note] This “outsideness” of the world is simply that which is manifest. The world is that which is manifest, which is another way of saying it is that which is in time. Time and the world are non-separate from one another, such that we might suggest that time is the world and the world is time. Time is what permits the coalescing of appearances; it is the backdrop of the world through which things are shown.

Time and the world are what is shown, what appears, what is made manifest, and this manifestation is always the exteriorizing of a particular image, a representation. But what is other than this world of time, if not timelessness? Time does not stand to timelessness as immanence to transcendence, at least not if we understand transcendence as “above” or “beyond” the world. The “transcendence” of timelessness (or what we’re now tentatively suggesting is expressive of yoga’s truth) stands to time as presence does to absence. Timelessness is presence, and as time coalesces in accordance with the images and representations particular to it, presence becomes veiled. We experience this evasiveness of the present each time we attempt to grasp the present as an object. Each time we do, presence slips away, because the grasping particular to subject-object relations manifests an image of what we then call the “present;” but insofar as presence is presented, it is absent. Presence cannot be made into an image, for an image is something seen, and what we are after here is not something seen but seeing itself; not something that has appeared, but appearing itself; not something that has been revealed, but revealing, indeed revelation itself

The exoteric expressions of yoga that are studied in the context of much academic scholarship can only approach yoga as an object because to be object-ive one requires an object that is to be object-ified. But when we make yoga into an object to be studied in the ways familiar to our academic culture, we limit its terrain to the truth of appearances. Since yoga is in various ways inviting us to realize and reside in that which is prior to the appearance of objects as their fundamental condition of possibility, we are in some sense, when looking for yoga in appearances, blind to the truth of yoga, which can only be properly considered through an embodied, practical engagement with its esoteric teachings. 

This produces a tension for the traditional scholar, for she is only permitted a home in the discourses of “outsideness” particular to the truth of the world. This tension is partly what constitutes the posture of the yoga scholar-practitioner – a posture that, in order to address yoga on its own terms, must do more than think – it must imbibe its non-object through practice. It must taste yoga and not simply settle for a discursive delineation of its properties. To be a scholar-practitioner, then, is precisely to straddle domains of the object and the non-object; surely, it must not neglect that which has already been revealed – the knowledge and history of yoga – but it must simultaneously seek the revealing power that is encountered as a priori through the yogic process.

The Truth of Life

To problematize the world is not to look beyond the world; it is not coupled with an attempt to leave the world behind for a picture of enlightenment, heaven, or nirvāṇa that aligns with a renunciant impulse to negate the world. To say yoga’s truth is not the truth of the world is not to say that it is against the world, but that it is indifferent to the world. Yoga’s truth is a truth of life, but not a life that has been domesticated by the biological narratives that define, describe and, resultantly, over-determine life. For biology is another predicate of the world’s truth, and yoga’s truth as life is the ever-present upsurge of creativity that only secondarily, in an act of self-reflexive positing, becomes an object useful to biology or any other discourse. 

The contemporary woke yogi may bristle at the claim that yoga’s truth is indifferent to the world, for she is likely only interested in yoga insofar as it can make a claim on the world and can transform it through yogic practice. For her, the world must be transformed toward greater unity, equality, wholeness, and she takes an interest in yoga to the degree that yoga offers a solution to the world’s problems. That yoga’s truth is indifferent to the world is not to say that yogis don’t care about the world’s appearances. Quite the contrary. But yoga does not bring wholeness to the world on the grounds of the world’s truth, through the parameters imposed by the world’s appearances. Care for the world arises through an intimacy with yoga’s truth, that of life – a life that is not considered ontologically prior to the world, but rather prior to ontology. This is what we mean by yoga’s truth as indifferent to the world; it arises despite the world’s ontologies. It is indifferent to the knowledges that are structured in accordance with the differentiated objects that furnish the world. 

To come from yoga, then, is not to give up on the world but rather to forge a proximity with life that paradoxically affirms those possibilities that have not yet appeared in and as the world. The indifference of yoga’s truth ensures the world’s transformation by inviting practitioners to play in an ambit of subtlety that secondarily produces new modes of appearance and new avenues of manifestation. It empowers and conditions the forging of new concepts, new objects, new images, rather than reorganizing the concepts, objects, and images that are currently considered exhaustive of the world. 

The Role of Yogic Concepts

But what of the many concepts through which yoga philosophy coheres itself? What of terms like puruṣa, prāṇa, samādhī – terms that incarnate yoga’s truth according to the frequency of the world’s appearances? Do we not find yoga here, amidst the meaning of these words? What is the relationship between yoga’s truth and its concepts, if, as we’ve discovered, concepts are things that have appeared and are thus of the world? Indeed, what is the role of yogic concepts for the yoga philosopher? Concepts, for the yoga philosopher, are appearings that frustrate and challenge the parade of appearances by refusing to be predicated on an isomorphic conception of truth.[note]An isomorphic approach to truth is a version of the correspondence theory of truth, which argues that a statement is true insofar as it corresponds to a “fact” of the world. See Marian David, “The Correspondence Theory of Truth”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, By contrast, French philosopher Alain Badiou argues for truth as the “truth-procedure”, an operation of thinking and experience that forges new dimensions of knowledge and as a result produces “new facts”. Truth, for Badiou, is an unfolding that coheres itself out of a fidelity to the “event” (these events, for Badiou can be political, artistic, scientific or amorous). See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, London: Continuum (2005). We might add to Badiou’s list of possible events the “yogic” event, which is an encounter with the creative upsurge of reality that precedes the coalescence into an object of manifestation, or appearance.[/note] They are therefore not subject to the representationalist impulse that requires a concept to clearly coincide with an object, that demands a signifier be the mirror reflection of a signified, that values a concept only insofar as its meaning can be subjugated by some knowledge’s principle of objectivity. 

Take kaivalya as an example. Kaivalya is often translated as “aloneness” and refers to the isolation of puruṣa from prakṛti in Sāṃkhya and classical yoga. Much ink has been spilt on the subject of kaivalya’s meaning. But to subject kaivalya to an investigation of its meaning is to entirely misunderstand its operation, which is to signify an experiential place in which meaning breaks down. Meaning is predicative; it requires a dualistic split between a subject and an object, such that an object’s meaning can be determined for a subject. Kaivalya, as the experience of puruṣa in itself, is exempt from the dualistic play of subjects and objects that, according to Sāṃkhya, is constitutive of prakṛti. Thus, kaivalya has no meaning, because it indicates precisely that mode in which all meaning has been suspended. To give it a meaning is, in other words, to subject it to the world’s truth and not allow it to speak of and from its own. 

Kaivalya could be called an empty signifier: it functions precisely by virtue of its voidness. An empty signifier arises from the need to name an object which is both impossible and necessary.[note]Ernesto Laclau. On Populist Reason. London: Verso (2007: 72).[/note] It is impossible because kaivalya only appears as something to be attained when one remains within the field of objective relations within which things can be attained. To attain something implies that the thing to be attained somehow resides outside oneself, whereas kaivalya designates a condition that has no outside of itself. It is at the same time necessary because kaivalya coheres the trajectory of yoga by directing the practitioner towards a truth that is exempt from the truth of the world.

Yoga’s concepts are surely not all empty in this way, but their content cannot always be encountered through the world’s epistemologies. They are materials through which the unfolding of yogic sādhana coheres itself, and since sādhana is procedural, these materials are not static and thus not conducive to a strictly hermeneutical, or interpretive, engagement. Yoga’s esoteric concepts are tools by means of which subtle dimensions of phenomenality are conjured. That is to say, yoga’s concepts attempt to speak the silent and envision the invisible. 

The yoga tradition, therefore, is not a thing to be merely discovered; it must also be enacted and performed. It is for this reason that we might refer to yoga philosophy as a performative metaphysics.

Conclusion: The Performative Metaphysics of Yoga

The failure of metaphysics so often cited by contemporary philosophers is the failure of a representationalist tradition, but yoga philosophy, as we’ve been exploring, is a performative tradition and not merely a representationalist one. Metaphysics fails when it tries to subjugate life to a static concept-picture, to an image that strives to ‘have the last word’ – indeed to be the very monarch of words. Substance, Absolute, Being, God – the representationalist metaphysician wants to have this word. The performative metaphysician, the yoga philosopher, wants to become the last word, to come from the last word – not a static word but a dynamic one, one that never rests in the finality of representation. 

We conclude by way of an invitation, an invitation to perform yoga philosophy. Perhaps such a thing has not yet been done in the contemporary moment, for by performing yoga philosophy we do not simply mean interpreting yogic concepts (although interpretation is not an unrelated task for our project). To perform yoga philosophy means to come from its truth and to be in turn made susceptible to that power by means of which concepts are made manifest. This truth visions us as continuous with a yoga tradition that has throughout its history composed new concepts like new paradigms of music, vibratory consolidations forged through yogic experience that transform the world’s truth and reshape its appearances. 

Finally, this yoga philosophy is altogether Vedic, for it recognizes the Veda as another name for yoga’s truth: Veda as the knowledge that is always already here, and in so being is infinitely effable.[note]Here, of course, I am suggesting a differentiation between “Veda” and “the Vedas.” The former, according to its meaning as “knowledge,” is the primordial, pre-articulated wisdom that is non-different from the fabric of reality itself. “The Vedas,” by contrast, are the scriptural texts most commonly associated with the word “Veda.” To say that our yoga philosophy recognizes the “Veda” is to say that we understand yoga’s truth as not discursively representable, because it pre-exists all discursive representations as their ultimate source. Veda is thus the Śabda-Brahman, the “cosmic word,” which emanates as those vedic revelations that were then organized and grouped into the physical Vedas that we read and study. See Guy L. Beck. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press (2009).[/note] It is capable of being described in words without ever surrendering itself to the last word. Yoga’s truth, far from being a final ending, is more like an infinitely-present beginning, a radically open potentiality capable of coalescing into perhaps anything at all. 

Maybe this is to say that we are always starting anew, always being born out of the life that is living us, and to suppose that this life could ever be finished speaking is, in an important sense, to not really be listening. Where do we surrender ourselves to this listening process, to this perennial beginning, then, if not in the laboratory of contemplative practice? On the meditation cushion, we momentarily empty ourselves of the chatter of existing knowledges. We cultivate an openness to a voice that speaks in whispers of subtlety – a voice that breathes in as the truth of yoga. 

The meditation cushion is thus a seat of heresy, for orthodoxy and dogma have no place here. With these limiting and domesticating forces bracketed out of our contemplative experiment, we need not apologize for surrendering ourselves to the flowing forth of life itself.