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Caveat: The dharma that can be spoken is no dharma at all.

I’ve been thinking/reading a lot about dialectics lately, especially the relationship between Hegel’s idealist dialectic and the materialist dialectic of Marx and Engels. But I’ve also been doing a lot of yoga - this week, I did an intensive workshop from 6-8 every morning at Sattva School of Yoga, and I got to wondering what relationship - if any - lies between yoga, materialism, and the dialectic. When I first started doing yoga about three years ago, I was suspicious of the spiritual aspect of the practice. I’m not a religious person, and the materialist basis of Marxism tends more towards a critique of spirituality than its embrace. Not knowing anything about yoga, I was a little nervous about how much of the esoteric/spirital ideas and practices it would be necessary to engage with. (At Sattva, as it turns out, that aspect of yoga is there if you want to engage with it, and some of it does help to come to grips with the physical practice, but it’s not a requirement).

It turns out that yoga can be thought of as a fundamentally material practice. Sutra 1.2 of Patanjal’s Yoga Sutras is yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah, which translates roughly to “yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind”. By “yoga”, Patanjali was referring primarily to meditation, but this can also be understood as the basis for the physical practice of hatha yoga (asanas). The exertions and discipline of the physical body, both in terms of postures and of breathing (pranayama) exercise a discipline and stillness on the mind. While Patanjali’s philosophy is a dualist one – drawing a strict distinction between the physical, material world and the world of the spirit or mind – the practice of yoga treats the mind and the body as integrally related. Put another way, the mind and the body are in a dialectical relationship to each other. (This relationship is in the nature of an ignorance or a captivity which it is the end goal of yoga to transcend.)

In Dialectics of Nature (1883), Engels summed up the laws of dialectics as:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

Not only is the mind-body relationship in yoga a dialectical one - the interpenetration of opposites - but the laws of dialectics are present throughout the practice of yoga. Incremental quantitative changes of balance, posture, position, etc, transform eventually into qualitative changes in physical sensation and consciousness. The aspect of balance of opposites - sun/moon, inhale/exhale, left/right, up/down - which is often equated in an idealist fashion with the yin and yang of the Taoist tradition, can be understood both as the interpenetration of opposites, but also as the negation of the negation. Yoga is the synthesis of all these pairs of contradictions.

The question of mind is a tricky one. In yoga, as in Hegel, “mind” (atman) refers to the Universal and Eternal Self. Contrary to Hegel, however, Patanjali’s yoga is a dualist (dvaita) philosophy, given that in understands the world (prakriti) and the Self to be separate things. Like the vedanta philosophy, Hegel’s idealism is non-dualist (literally advaita), which means that for him World and Mind are one and the same. Like the mind of Hegel’s Phenomenology, however, yoga distinguishes between the mind (citta) that sees itself as individual and the mind that is not tied to material things. The liberation of the mind through yoga can perhaps be equated with the progression of mind from mere consciousness to Absolute Knowledge in Hegel. In this sense, then, the progression from citta to atman through yoga is absolutely a dialectical one, in exactly the same way that the movement from mind to Mind in Hegel illustrates his idealist dialectic.

For materialists, then, the problem with yoga’s idealism is the same as the problem with Hegel’s: the dialectic it appears reversed. Rather than a procession of the mind from captivity to liberation, yoga can be understood as a procession of the body which - conforming precisely to materialism - affects and conditions the mind. And in fact, this is precisely how yogis talk about the process. In hatha yoga, we start with the body, that is the material foundation, and it is the disciplining of the body that leads to changes in the mind. Yoga’s idealism is not as clear cut as it first seems, which makes it easier to enter into the practice from a materialist perspective.

On the subject of mind, I want to just say a little bit about the materialist theory of mind that seems to be prevalent in “consciousness” AI circles, the idea that increasing complexity must lead to consciousness. At first glance, this seems to subscribe to a properly materialist dialectics, in which quantitative changes (in computing power, for example) lead to qualitative changes (from unconsciousness to consciousness). The problem is, as Engels says in Dialectics of Nature, the laws of dialectics cannot be forced as a priori constraints on a given phenomenon, but must arise out of empirical experience. The quantitative changes, for example in increasingly sophisticated neural nets, do not necessarily lead to consciousness, because we do not yet understand the nature of the qualitative difference between unconsciousness and consciousness. It is fairly certain that the quantitative changes in neural nets will lead to something qualitatively different, but there’s no reason to think that this will be consciousness. Not only does this put the cart before the dialectical horse, but it also relies on a literal equivalence between computational and mental power which may only be metaphorical.

The most important thing, from a dialectical perspective, is the recognition that all things change over time. This is also a fundamental insight in yoga - not only does the body change, but consciousness changes, at least from our ephemeral perspective. Like Hegel’s Spirit the Universal Mind is eternal and unchanging. For materialists, there is much to be gained from setting the dialectic of yoga on its feet, as Marx did with the dialectic of Hegel.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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