Meditations on breath and sexual difference
Praxis/Theory: Between East and West
By Arundhati Katju
How can Luce Irigaray help us think through the difference between Eastern and Western thought? In Between East and West Irigaray offers two focal, intertwined points of difference for reflection. The East, she says, has taught her how to breathe; but neither Eastern nor Western traditions have focused on sexual difference. This note describes an experiment in engaging with these two concepts central to Irigaray, but through yogic method rather than critique.
Between East and West locates itself squarely between two differing traditions, with Irigaray describing herself as belonging to both. But it is perhaps unique in critiquing Western thought from a completely external vantage point – whereas what we are used to seeing is the opposite. Irigaray puts sexual difference at the centre of human subjectivity, and contends that the basis of sexual difference is that difference between how men breathe and women breathe.
Breath for Irigaray is a way of standing outside of the “sociocultural placenta”, allowing one to be born anew with each breath, and perhaps to be born outside of the weight of genealogies. Unlike Western cultures where the “essential part of culture resides in words, in texts”, in the East the “body itself can become spirit through the cultivation of breathing”. But breathing for Irigaray “is not neuter”. Men and women breathe differently, and difference in breathing is constitutive of the difference between the sexes. “Man uses his energy in order to fabricate, to make, to create outside of himself… Woman, more spontaneously, keeps breath inside her.”
This sexual difference is marked also by the mutuality of desire. In desiring each other, men and women also desire the opposite kind of breath. A family is formed by man and woman in their desire for each other, and not through the procreation or presence of children. Irigaray evokes those Hindu gods who “create the universe with their lovers“. The “sexed subject” for Irigaray is at once female/male both as an outcome of sex/gender (nature/culture), but is also sexed through its (hetero?)sexual desire of the other. It is by realizing difference in the body and breath, and by cultivating this sexed self as both the subject and object of desire that men and women become subjects – not through social processes but as natural categories. It is unclear to me how Irigaray deals with homosexual desire in this framework. For her, the binary of male and female desire appears to be central.
Irigaray maintains that the consciousness of being a woman came to her through the practice of yoga, and yet what she finds missing in the practice taught to her by her own teachers is an account of sexual difference. She states that
…I was moved when I heard the Master T. Krishnamacharya affirm the importance of sexual difference as a dimension of the culture of yoga. That was and still is for me a precious teaching. I would have liked to ask him how to translate the differences of the sexes in practice. It is a question that I still wish to ask yoga teachers, both men and women… Are there practices for women and men in as much as they have a different body and spirit?
This exercise was an attempt to answer Irigaray’s question through yogic practice, rather than to engage the book through critique. It seemed to me that this would yield an Irigarayan engagement (not “reading”) with the text: treating East and West as a living text, ripe for reflection, but not only through reading and writing. I think she might approve:
To deconstruct, certainly, but that already represents a luxury for whoever has not built a world. And who or what supplied the energy for such a gesture?…Does not deconstruction, including through its recourse to innumerable linguistic ruses, remain trapped in a secular manner of know-how, and does it not imprison there reason itself…would it also not be too mental, too exclusively mental…
Instead, the yogic method would attempt to engage the text through body and breath. The text can be interrogated with rigor and reason, but these need not be confined only to words. Instead, this rigorous contemplation is possible through a bodily practice which carefully orchestrates a change in the balance of the gunas. This is a calibration creates the internal space for a knowledge that is first in the body and only later intellectualised and expressed in words.
The text is then a guidebook for practitioners, or a report of what was experienced in practice, but the crucial work happens in the practice itself. Rather than searching only for its moves or inner logic, or to locate the text within a universe of texts and philosophers, the goal is to find a way to absorb the teachings of the text in the body. The yogic method therefore takes materiality not just as an object of study, but as a mode of enquiry. The text is first made part of the body through a range of physical practices, including asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), nyasa (touch), and chanting. Once internalized, the text returns to the physical world not as text but through the lived experience of the practitioner. In this way, it allows the questions posed by the text to become manifest in the physical world.
The challenge to this method does not come only from the domination of the textual method within the global academy and Western philosophy. It is also opposed to a superficial, commercialised version of yoga that confuses liberation with a cosmetically ‘beautiful’ body or that sees yoga as esoteric exercise. But further, the rigorous inquiry of the yogic method also denies cultish devotion to a text, religion, ideology or guru.
I arrived at the sequence described below through a process of trial and error over four classes of 1-1½ hours that I conducted with both new and regular students. The attempt was to open and connect the muladhara (root) and anahata (heart) chakras to pose questions about breathing and sexual difference as a means of engaging East and West. As Irigaray notes, the potential of the body for divinity may be “achieved particularly through the passage of energy from certain chakras…to others: thus from chakras of sexual energy or elemental vitality to those of the heart, of the throat, of the head.”
Pranayama: 6 breaths of ujjayi
6 breaths of nadishodhana
6 breaths of sheetli (inhale, tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, gently taking head back, exhale in sheetli)
Pranayama would be done with focus on the movement of the breath from the muladhara (root of the spine), through the anahata (at the sternum) to the sahasrara chakra (crown).
Standing poses: attention on the changing alignment of the spine/chakras as the spine moves through space.
6 forward bends
3 rounds of suryanamaskar. Here in particular note the changes in alignment, as the spine moves through vertical, arched, inverted and horizontal orientations with the floor. Transitions through these orientations can be noted.
6 nadishodhana focusing on the movement of the breath from the route to the top of the spine.
6 ujjayi, moving hands apart on inhale and close (but not touching) on exhale, hands at sternum level.
Seated: Child’s pose – both hands on the lower back – inhale sit up, tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, exhale down in sheetli.
Meditation: Seated/lying down, breathing in nadishodhana for some time.
- Where is sex located within the body?
- Can we take the breath there?
- What is the relationship between the breath and sex?
- How do we breathe as men, as women?
Leave time for discussion
What was missing from this sequence was a chant based upon the book. Chanting converts words to ether, but the speaker is, simultaneously, the first recipient of the chant. Thus chanting simultaneously conveys meaning both outwards and inwards. It is an articulation that at once makes words material and gives them a physical location within the body.
Unfortunately, setting a text to sound was beyond my skills. Additionally, chanting in English was counter-intuitive. Perhaps Sanskrit is coded as the language of revelation. But also, in Sanskrit unlike in English, words contain the seed of their meaning. Instead, I distributed the text and began the class with a short monologue on the book. But assuming the role of a teacher in this context is difficult.
The second difficulty comes from the nature of the material itself. Irigaray speaks of ‘sex’ both gender and as sexuality. We have been trained out of speaking, or even thinking of the body, particularly in a way that is at once both mystic and also firmly grounded in anatomy. It takes time, a shedding of inhibitions, but also an ability to adopt the role of teacher to speak of sex not in the abstract but in the reality of your own body and the persons before you. As Irigaray states
to teach is to transmit an experience…The corporeal and spiritual experience of woman is singular, and what she can teach to her daughter and son is not the same.
Differences between yogic method and critique
While it can be difficult to stay with a text, ultimately the act of writing is both a luxury and luxurious. By contrast to bring the mind to the body and the breath and keep the three together is sheer torture. It is of course possible that I speak only for myself. But if writing is memory, the body is experience. To do the work here is not just to “engage the text”, but to create the material conditions through which knowledge becomes part of the body.
It is also immediately clear that while the purpose of critique may be to uncover truth-knowledge, or power-knowledge, yogic inquiry must go further because it both emanates from and is located within the body. As a means of inquiry it must pose questions with a view to liberation.
It appeared to me as I read East and West that Irigaray comes from the same lineage of gurus as my own. She refers to the teachings of Sh. T. Krishnamacharya, and also to the work of Sh. TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s student and also the teacher of my own guru, Sh. Navtej Singh Johar. This close attention to breath is not found to similar extent in other traditions. This paper is, for the present, my last writing on this leg of my journey engaging the Western academy, and reading Irigaray brought me back home. In the course of my study of yoga with Navtej, I grappled with the turn, in some Western academic studies, to phenomenonaligize yoga practice. Instead, with Irigaray we find a rigourous engagement – and deep disagreements – with the practice, but on its own terms.
Of late, our own practice is moving towards holding separate classes for men on the understanding that their physiology is different, and that historically yoga was developed for the male body. Irigaray pushes us to ask whether sexual difference provides a rationale to teach men and women separately, and also to question what sexual difference means for yogic and academic inquiry.
 Luce Irigaray, Between East and West 5 (Stephen Pluháček trans., 2002).
 BEW at 7.
 BEW at 11.
 BEW at 85.
 BEW at 39.
 BEW at 66.
 BEW at 4-5
 “Is practicing without thinking even a part of the tradition of yoga? This tradition seems to me to possess a subtlety that demands, on the contrary, a real aptitude for sought. It is not a matter of thinking anyway one pleases. It is necessary to learn again to sink without centring on the subject, for example, to sink in a living and free manner, and attached, neither egological nor possessive.” BEW at 67.
 BEW, page 62.
 BEW, page 58 – 59.
 In fact this entire book seemed to me to be written in the yogic tradition, including beginning with a reminder that we must begin in the present moment, just as the Yoga Sutras, the classical exposition of yoga, begins with the word ‘atha’ – here, now, this. BEW at I.