Ana Laura Funes Maderey — Prāṇa-śakti, Luce Irigaray, and Breathing Autonomy

Inspired by her own approach to Eastern philosophies, Luce Irigaray calls for a way of thinking that does not forget to breathe and remembers  the air in which, thinking takes  breath. Irigaray describes her project as an endeavour to “render possible a philosophy, and more generally a culture, of two subjects” (Luce Irigaray. Key Writings, Preface, p. vii). In her recent book A New Culture of Energy. Beyond East and West (2021), she also suggests that we develop “a new culture of energy”, reminding us of the importance of cultivating the relation between “two sexuate individuals” without allowing energy of this relation to be destroyed by putting into the neuter the individual or the group. This reminder arises in the context of her own experience of yoga (op.cit., pp. 40-41),  partly as an invitation, particularly addressing  Western practitioners,  to critically reflect on the possible or impossible cultural linkages between their tradition and those corresponding to  yoga (p.11), “avoiding appropriation, assimilation, or seduction of the other to me” (p. 57).

My project – as a Western scholar of Indian philosophies and as a yoga practitioner – is an attempt to answer Luce Irigaray’s call by elaborating a philosophy of breath and energy, which emerges from the close reading of Sanskrit philosophical sources where the notion of prāṇaśakti is treated, taking into account Luce Irigaray’s work. My thesis is that the Sanskrit notion of prāṇaśakti (vital breathing energy) incorporates the awareness of the interconnection between internal breath, external air, autonomy, environment, and sexuate difference, which paves the way for humanity to rethink and build a healing bridge between singularity and community. 

Yoga philosophies aimed at the cultivation of such interconnection through a variety of techniques which intend to create links between the feminine and the masculine, life and consciousness, gross matter and subtle matter, mechanical activity and autonomous action. Yet, most of these techniques are too often understood in individualistic ways by contemporary practitioners. Furthermore, as Luce Irigaray has well noticed, the current practice of yoga seems to draw its inspiration a “little too much from what is most disturbing in the West: the cleverness of technique, domination of nature, and the forgetting of the fundamental character of the difference of the sexes” (Between East and West, p.10). 

One of the most important aspects of a philosophy of breathing especially in our times, according to Luce Irigaray, is the cultivation of an autonomous breath. It is not enough to cultivate the vital breath, or prāṇa, vertically towards a “conscious breathing” without making this consciousness a means of establishing a horizontal responsible connection with the other(s) in their difference(s). The “humanization of our breathing”, Irigaray writes,  must go beyond the acquisition of technologies of breathing which make our energy more efficient. It must contribute to the recognition of our bodies as mediating sites of a relational breath which can connect us, in a sensible way, with the breathing of the other. This sharing of breathes is not reached without effort. We must 1) remember our original co-breathing with the mother, and we must 2) overcome an embryonic stage, at the biological and cultural levels, thanks to the autonomy gained by our first personal breathing.  To remember this first acquisition of autonomy and our relation with the “tangible invisible” air which surrounded us can allow us to affirm ourselves  in spite of the cultural placenta in the neuter which suffocates us and makes us forget our vital breath and our own living identity, which is sexuate. This implies that we must overstep the stage of mere survival and of dependence at the level of breathing towards the flourishing of our humanity, something that cannot happen without taking charge of our lives and taking care of our souls. “The free breath of the soul must be available to us for breathing, for loving, for listening and speaking, and also for thinking in an autonomous way.” (A New Culture of Energy, p.20).

The notion of autonomy (svātantrya) is central to Śaiva philosophy, especially for the philosopher Abhinavagupta. In the tantric philosophy of Kaśmir Śaivism, autonomy is thought of in terms of power or potentiality (śakti) and it is represented in the feminine as the figure of the divine will or desire (icchā śakti). Śakti is the mother of the universe and it is through her power, that her consort Śīva, the pure consciousness, can experience himself. The emergence of otherness and difference in this system occurs through a gradual unfolding which entails cognitive and volitive active processes, temporal and spatial configurations, atomic sounds, and instantaneous gestures, all being imagined as the dance of a loving couple. The dance of Śiva and the forms that his Śakti or power manifests across space and time function as centres of contemplation through which one can find one’s own autonomy thanks to the commitment to a practice of cosmic sexuate self-awareness. The realization of this cosmic dance within oneself, in one’s own body, in one’s own breathing, goes beyond breathing techniques. It encompasses the awareness in one’s own experience and embodiment that everything in the entire cosmos is constituted by the vibrating flow of a sexuate energy that originally consists of an infinite dance of two – the eternal dual-one of Śiva and Śakti.

My project is an attempt to think and elucidate in what way the tantric philosophy, which views the vital breath as the natural potential of consciousness to manifest itself into a myriad of forms through the sexuate dance of “two”, can contribute to the construction of an intercultural path towards the “accomplishment of humanity” (A New Culture of Energy, p.79). The dynamism of prāṇaśakti within Śaiva Tantric philosophy can answer, I believe, Irigaray’s call for building a “new culture of energy” which corresponds to the construction of a “global culture” based on mutual respect and on the recognition of sexuate difference, a culture which ensures the connection between different individuals and different cultures through the cultivation of breath “without submitting one tradition to another” (A New Culture of Energy, p.79-80).