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On Yoga and Phenomenology

Heritage of the Yoga Philosophy and Transcendental Phenomenology:

 The Interlocution of  Knowledge and Wisdom across Two Traditions of Philosophy


Koshy Tharakan

Associate Professor

Department of Philosophy

 Goa University


Abstract  Comparative philosophy has been subjected to much criticism in the latter half of the last century, though some of these criticisms were appropriate and justified. However, in our present cultural milieu, where traditions and culture transcend their geographical boundaries, seeping through the global network of views and ideas, it seems to be a legitimate enterprise to understand one’s own traditions and culture through the critical lens of the ‘other culture’. It is such cross-cultural understanding that paved the way towards legitimizing “human rights” as a universal discourse. So also, the discourse on “environmental ethics” has gained acceptance in a similar manner across cultures and traditions.  The paper attempts at an understanding of  “Indian Philosophy” as a theoretical practice by exemplifying the notion of “sādhanā” in the Yoga system of Indian Philosophy through a reading of the notion of ‘phenomenological reduction’ as espoused in the transcendental phenomenology of Husserl. Thus, we reject the claim that philosophy as a pure rational activity was unique to the West as proclaimed in some Eurocentric readings. It is pertinent to recall here that the Sāᶩṅkhya philosophy, which the Yoga system accepts as an allied school of thought was atheistic in its origin and attempted to explain the universe in terms of an evolutionary theory—the “prakṛti pariṇāma vāda”.


Keywords  Sādhanā. Yoga. Phenomenological Reduction. Husserl. Comparative Philosophy


Today we possess all sorts of studies on Indian, Chinese, and other philosophies, studies that place these philosophies on the same level with Greek philosophy, considering them merely as different historical formulations of one and the same cultural idea. . . Before anything else, the attitude of these two kinds of “philosophers,” the overall orientation of their interests, is thoroughly different. . . Only with the Greeks, however, do we find a universal (“cosmological”) vital interest in the essentially new form of a purely “theoretical” attitude. (Husserl, 1965, 164)




Benjamin Franklin reports the unique advantage of the dual vision that bifocals offered to him during his visit of France:

I find [bifocals] more particularly convenient since my being in France, the glasses that serve me best at table to see what I eat not being the best to see the face of those on the other side of the table who speak to me; and when one’s ears are not well accustomed to the sounds of a language, a sight of the movements in the features of him that speaks helps to explain; so that I understand French better by the help of my spectacles. (Van Doren, 1968, 637)


The advantage of comparative philosophy consists precisely in enabling a vision of the other tradition. Contrary to Husserl’s claims that philosophy, as a pure “theoretical attitude”, is uniquely European as according to him the theoretical attitude began only with the Greeks, in many systems of Indian philosophy we encounter similar theoretical attitude[1].


The discourse on ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ is central to almost all systems of Indian Philosophy as it is with the wont of any school of Western philosophy. Thus, for all classical schools of philosophy in India, except the “Cārvāka” materialist school, the ultimate goal of philosophizing is the attainment of “Mokṣa” (liberation of the self/ freedom of the self from ignorance-bondage). The philosophy of Yoga as espoused by the sage Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtra is foremost in delineating the path to liberation, which it construes as “Kaivalya”- the state in which the individual self abides in itself, without any fluctuations towards the world of everyday reality. Though different schools of Indian Philosophy emphasize different paths to the attainment of Mokșa like Jñāna Mārga (path of knowledge), Bhakti Mārga (path of devotion) and Karma Mārga (path of action), underlying all these paths is Sādhanā— a “discipline” cultivated by intense reflection on self and consciousness. The best exemplification of Sādhanā is found in the Yoga philosophy of Patañjali. The paper argues that Sādhanā has striking similarity with and is the practical counterpart of the theoretical move aimed at “Reduction” in Husserlian phenomenology.


The term ‘Yoga’ has different connotation and its meaning differs in different kinds of Yoga (such as Rāja Yoga, Haṭha Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga).  Semantically, the word ‘Yoga’ is a derivative of the Sanskrit verbal root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’.  In its wider use, Yoga refers to the arithmetical operation of addition, planetary conjunction that brings certain consequences for the individual in astrology, and the syntactical formation of words in grammar. S. C. Banerji in his Studies in Origin and Development of Yoga mentions the different meanings of Yoga such as ‘skill in work’, ‘desireless action’, ‘acquisition of true knowledge’, ‘indifference to pleasure and pain’, addition in arithmetic and conjunction in astronomy (cited in Sarukkai, 2002, 466)[2]. Swami Prabhupada writes: “Yoga means the connecting link between the soul and the Supersoul, or the Supreme and the minute living creatures” (Prabhupada, 1972, 17). Veda-Vyāsa has written a commentary on Yoga-Bhāṣya to Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra and Vācaspati-Miśra has provided an explanation (‘vivaraṇa’) of the Yoga-Bhāṣya called Tattva-vaicārādi. In this work, Vācaspati-Miśra points out that when Vyāsa defines Yoga provisionally as ‘concentration’ (Samādhi), he uses the term Yoga in its etymological derivation from the stem ‘Yuj-a’ in the sense of ‘concentration’ and not ‘conjunction’(Woods, 1914, 5)[3]. Thus, we may take the connotation of ‘Yoga’ in the philosophy of Patañjali as ‘concentration’ rather than ‘union’. Such an understanding of Yoga as ‘concentration’ would lead us to recognize that ‘Sādhanā’ as underlying the Yogic practice is equivalent to the ‘phenomenological reduction’ in the Husserlian phenomenology on a theoretical plane. According to Husserl, the way we tarry in the life-world is from a ‘natural attitude’, an attitude that takes for granted the existence of phenomena we encounter in our everyday experience. In order to attend to the way in which these phenomena get constituted in our experience, we need to enter into a ‘phenomenological attitude’ from the ‘natural attitude’. For Husserl, phenomenological reduction is the gateway to such an attitude. Much like sādhanā, phenomenological reduction too is a practice that needs to be cultivated in order to move out of the ‘default’ attitude—the natural attitude—to enter into the phenomenological attitude.


Patañjali in Yoga Sūtra, First Book (Samādhi Pāda) second Sūtra states the distinguishing characteristic of Yoga as “the restriction of the fluctuations of mind-stuff”. Later in Sūtra I. 12 it is stated that the means of restriction of the fluctuations consist in ‘Practice’ (‘abhyāsa’) and ‘Passionlessness’ (‘vairāgya’). Vairāgya arrests the flow of mind-stuff towards objects whereas the practice of ‘discriminatory knowledge’ opens up ‘Viveka’ or ‘discrimination’. Only when these two are practiced together will the restriction be achieved.  Practice that is ‘abhyāsa’ is an effort (prayatna) with the goal of attaining permanence in the restricted state.  Such ‘discriminatory-practice’, that is abhyāsa coupled with vairāgya finally leads to “Kaivalya (Yoga Sūtra I. 16) wherein the “Self abides in himself” (Yoga Sūtra I. 3). The ‘discriminatory-practice’ (‘Sādhanā’) of Yoga may be read in terms of Husserl’s concept of ‘Phenomenological Reduction’ as enabling the transition from the ‘natural attitude’ to the phenomenological attitude—or in the case of Yoga as enabling to attain the state where the “Self abides in himself”.


According to Husserl all sciences except phenomenology remain in the natural attitude.  Their aim is to cognize the world comprehensively and reliably as it confronts us, from the natural standpoint.  The greatest impediment to cognition is that, in natural standpoint, the style of research will always be one-sided, as they take for granted the objects or phenomena that appear in our experience.  The phenomenological attitude on the other hand, sets aside all such prevailing habits of thinking.  It helps us to develop a method – the method of reduction by which we are able to ‘transcendentally purify’ the phenomena, that opens the proper direction of regard to every cognition.  The general positing, the characteristic of natural attitude, is a consciousness of the object as actually existing.  This natural attitude is not an accidental or particular act; rather it is a continuous attitude throughout the natural life. One might characterize it as the default attitude. The reduction opens up a true ontological realm of pure or absolute consciousness. Thus, from its epistemological starting point Phenomenology reaches to an ontological realm (Levinas, 1973, xiii).  The reduction operates at two levels, the objective sphere as well as the consciousness-sphere, simultaneously.  Both the object posited and the act of positing is subjected to reduction.  Thus, by phenomenological reduction (epoché/bracketing) the object is bracketed and the act is put out of action (Husserl, 1982, 60-61).  The whole world and its objects posited in the natural attitude cease to be valid for us. Then, phenomenological reduction is the operation necessary to make pure consciousness and subsequently the whole phenomenological region, accessible to us. The term ‘reduction’ characterizes the turn towards transcendental phenomenology.  It provides the conditions of the possibility of the empirical knowledge of being as well as the sense of being itself.


Husserl talks about three stages of reductions.  The first reduction or ‘phenomenological reduction’ effectuates the exclusion of the natural world and the corresponding sciences.  Thus, the first reduction is the gateway to the phenomenological regard or attitude. Thus, the turn towards the phenomenological attitude is called the phenomenological reduction.  The ‘eidetic reduction’ deals with material and formal essences that are transcendent.  In it, all references to the particulars are withheld and the essences are brought to light.  In an eidetic enquiry, the greatest handicap is that one is tempted to “psychologize the eidetic” and thereby ends up in Idealism.  In other words, Idealism is a result of the confusion of essences with the resulting consciousness of the essences.  Thus, eidetic reduction vindicates the eidetic as eidetic.  Husserl makes a distinction between the essence of something ‘immanent’ and essence of something ‘transcendent’.  That is between “essences of formations belonging to consciousness itself” and “essences of individual affairs transcendent to consciousness”.  The latter is constituted in the consciousness by virtue of sensuous appearances.  Now, Husserl reminds us that the eidetic reduction is confined to the eidetic of the transcendent (Husserl, 1982, 139-142).  The eidetic science, however, remains a positive science as it restrains the validity of the natural apperception of the world.  When we inactivate this by means of transcendental reduction we enter the realm of the transcendental phenomenology (Kockelmans, 1972). The third reduction is transcendental reduction.  It brackets all references to the transcendent as the intentional correlation of our acts.  Thus the world becomes a world-phenomenon.  This universal epoché transforms our attitude in the ‘life-world’.  Through this reduction we discover the correlation between the world and world-consciousness.  Transcendental reduction liberates one from the internal bond of the pre-givenness of the world to a realm of absolutely self-enclosed and absolutely self-sufficient domain of consciousness.  It reveals the transcendental subjectivity, which validates the world. 


The method of reduction in phenomenology should not be confused with Cartesian method of doubt.  Cartesian doubt is an abstention from an existential belief in order to attain certainty of knowledge.  Phenomenological reduction or epoché, on the other hand is the disclosure of a belief as a belief.  The one who practises epoché is already detached in principle from the belief.  The epoché then is a means to reinforce and confirm this detachment.  Thus the epoché is a peculiar mode of consciousness and contrary to Cartesian doubt, does not present itself as a negated belief.  As an act, it offers itself for noetic analysis, thereby uncovering the hidden intentional acts.  However, its noematic correlate is the experience of the belief in the world.  Hence the epoché does not negate the existence of the world, but retains it intentionally. As Stroker points out: 


This correlative structure of the reduced noema must be taken into consideration when one inquiries into the sense and achievement of the universal epoché.  If one overlooks this, one runs the danger of misinterpreting the epoché in such a way that one thinks of the phenomenological on-looker, who utilizes the epoché, as being exclusively turned to the subjective contents of experience and no longer interested in the being of the world at all.   But the epoché is not meant to lead me to the stream of my act-life because I want to take my leave of the world, as if it were something that could be separated from this stream; rather it leads me to this stream because the world, and all being, is contained in it intentionally. (Stroker, 1987, 75)


Thus transcendental reduction shows that all questions pertaining to being can only be raised within transcendental subjectivity.  It is in transcendental subjectivity that the justification of being is carried out.  What the transcendental reduction offers us is the realm of absolute consciousness or transcendental subjectivity.  Pure consciousness is the phenomenological residuum and is the theme for its investigations. Husserl reiterates that with ‘reduction’, “. . . we have not lost anything but rather have gained the whole of absolute being which, rightly understood, contains within itself, “constitutes” within itself, all worldly transcendencies” (Husserl, 1982, 113).


With the transcendental reduction, human beings as persons in association with fellow human beings living in a society are excluded as what remains after the reduction is the pure subjectivity—the transcendental ego. The pure subjectivity or ego is something necessarily present in all cogitationes; nevertheless, it is not a part or moment inherent in the mental processes themselves (Husserl, 1982, 132).   The pure or transcendental ego is transcendence within immanence.  It is the primal region of all being.  All other regions of being are rooted in and essentially relative to the region of transcendental (pure) consciousness.  The phenomenological reduction makes a radical ontological distinction: being as consciousness and being as something which becomes “manifested” in consciousness.


The phenomenological method operates in the acts of reflection.  Reflection is the ego’s living in its mental processes.  In other words, it is “. . . the name of the method of consciousness leading to the cognition of any consciousness whatever” (Husserl, 1982, 177).  In phenomenology, reflection itself becomes an object of study as by reflection, we also mean a group of mental processes that are essentially united.  Such a reflective analysis reveals the intentional structure of consciousness.  Intentionality is the essential peculiarity of consciousness.   “Intentionality is what characterizes consciousness in the pregnant sense and which, at the same time, justifies designating the whole stream of mental processes as the stream of consciousness and as the unity of one consciousness” (Husserl, 1982, 199).  Intentionality is the directedness of consciousness.  According to Husserl, consciousness, in almost all instances, is always directed to some object. In other words, consciousness is consciousness of something.  The phenomenological analysis of consciousness reveals the noesis-noema structure of experience.  Noesis is the objectifying act and noema is the intended object.  Noesis and noema correspond to the subject and object poles of experience respectively.  Every noesis has its corresponding noema.  However, the same object can be apprehended differently.  That is to say that the many intended objects may refer to the same object grasped in varying intending acts.  This implies that there is an underlying unity or identity of different ‘noemata’ of varying acts.  Without this unity we cannot support any claim to objectivity.  If we maintain the right attitude and obey the clear eidetic data without any prejudice, the same insight can be had for everyone. Thus, Husserl says:

. . . firm results are directly produced, and the same thing occurs for everyone having the same attitude; there accrue firm possibilities of communicating to others what one has himself seen, of testing descriptions, of making salient the unnoticed intrusions of empty verbal meanings, of making known and weeding out errors by measuring them again against intuition (Husserl, 1982, 212).


From the above discussion, we see that the phenomenological reduction that Husserl performed was free from any preconceived notions about the reality of the world and was aimed at opening up the domain of pure consciousness by a cultivated mode of reflection. In a similar tone, Patañjali states: “the knowledge of the Self arises as the result of constraint upon that which exists for its own sake” (Yoga Sūtra III. 35). Constraint or ‘Samyama’ is a technical term in yoga referring to ‘dhāraṇā’ (concentration), ‘dhyāna’ (meditation), and ‘samādhi’ (the final stage of meditation where the meditating consciousness loses its own form). Again, in Yoga Sūtra IV.22 it is mentioned that “the intellect (citi) which unites not [with objects] is conscious of its own thinking-substance when the [mind-stuff] takes the form of that [thinking substance by reflecting it].”


In Yoga Sūtra, the Second and the Third books, namely Sādhanā Pāda and Vibhūti Pāda explain the five external or indirect aids to yoga and the three direct or internal aids to yoga. Thus, we have been told that an aspirant for yogic knowledge must prepare himself/herself by these external aids, which include Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prāṇāyāma, and Prathyāhāra in order to embark upon the practices of Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi. Yama and Niyama preclude uncontrolled desires and emotions, whereas Asana and Prāṇāyāma eliminate disturbances arising from the physical body. The function of Pratyāhāra is the withdrawal of sense organs from the mind thus cutting it off from the external world and the sense impressions it produces on the mind. Puligandla (1970, 19-33) identifies this preparatory stage (Pratyāhāra) as the yogic counter part of the phenomenological reduction. However, we argue that it is not just ‘Pratyāhāra’, but the entire ‘Sādhanā’– the ‘discriminatory practice’ that should be construed as similar to the phenomenological reduction. In Husserlian phenomenology, ‘phenomenological reduction’ refers not only to the withdrawal of senses that cuts off the mind from the world, but to enter a new way of looking at the world in which objectivity is seen as constituted in the subjectivity itself.  This phenomenological seeing is attained through a disciplined reflection on consciousness which is like the ‘discriminatory-practice’ of yoga. Nevertheless, as Sinari (1965, 217-228) has pointed out the crucial difference between phenomenological reduction and yogic meditation consists in the fact that phenomenological transcendental reduction does not amount to total annulment of the reflective activity of consciousness, whereas the Yogic meditation precisely aims at such a state of transcendental subjectivity, where the subjectivity releases itself into a state beyond the conscious activity—the highest state of “Samādhi”. This is so, because unlike Husserlian phenomenology, the Yoga philosophy does not construe ‘intentionality’—the directedness of consciousness or the ‘aboutness’ of consciousness as an intrinsic feature of consciousness.


Our reading of phenomenological reduction in the light of yogic sādhanā helps us to recognize how despite Husserl’s own avowed claim that philosophy is distinctively a Western intellectual achievement, his own philosophy has striking parallels in the Eastern philosophical thought. Perhaps, such an understanding of Indian philosophy was not available during Husserl’s time—it required a gradual but continuous seeping of traditions and tendencies in our milieu of globalization of ideas to reject such ‘Eurocentric’ notions of philosophy as it had to await the availability of “cultural bifocals”.


Husserl E (1965) Philosophy and the crisis of European man. In: Lauer Q (ed) Phenomenology and the crisis of philosophy. Harper and Row, New York, pp. 149-192


Husserl E (1982) Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy. First book.  (Trans: Kersten F) Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague


Kockelmans JJ (1972) Phenomenologico-psychological and transcendental reductions in Husserl’s ‘crisis’. In: Tymieniecka AT (ed) The later Husserl and the idea of phenomenology. Analecta Husserliana, vol.2.  D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, pp. 78-89


Levinas E (1973) The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. (Trans: Orianne A) Northwestern University Press, Evanston

Prabhupada BS (1972) Krșna consciousness: the topmost yoga system. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Mumbai


Puligandla R (1970) Phenomenological reduction and yogic meditation. Philos East West 20 (1): 19-33.


Sarukkai S (2002) Inside/outside: Merleau-Ponty/yoga. Philos East West 52 (4): 459-478


Sinari R (1965) The method of phenomenological reduction and yoga. Philos East West 15 (3-4): 217-228.


Stroker E (1987) Husserlian foundations of science.The Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology and University Press of America, Washington D.C


Van Doren C (1938/1991) Benjamin Franklin. Penguin, New York


Woods JH (1914) The yoga system of Patanjali. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi

[1] According to Husserl, “theoretical” attitude is one which pursues “knowledge for its own sake”.

[2] Sarukkai in his article offers a phenomenological understanding of yoga from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body.

[3] All references to Yoga Sūtra that follows are from the translation of J.H.Woods.


On Yoga and Phenomenology
I find this article refreshing and appreciate this kind of work as enabling development of more and better ways of thinking about and understanding ideas from diverse traditions, and perhaps integrating them in ways that are helpful while at the same time paying due respect to historic context and the non Euorpean intellectual traditions that conceived of them.     I wonder if the phenomenology of William James or pragmatism of John Dewey would make for helpful comparison as well.