Interrogating Yoga’s Binaries through Ayurveda, Feminism, and Queer Theory (a draft of some ideas I hope to get lots of help with)



of five things and two things

I often find myself teaching the five vāyus of Ayurvedic theory. There’s prāṇa, the downward inhalatory and gustatory wind that ends at the solar plexus. Udāna, the upward exhalatory and vocal wind that exits through the mouth, nose, and, in esoteric thought, the crown of the head. Samāna, the centripetal wind that moves to the navel centre to digest. Vyāna, the centrifugal circulatory wind that moves out from the heart. And apāna, the wind that moves downward with urine, stool, and the waves of orgasm and birthing.

In every class, someone will raise their hand to ask how this five-part weather pattern interacts with one of the binary models that they’ve learned from Tantric discourse, which place their focus upon the vital energies prāṇa and apāna, seen respectively to rise and fall upon the breath, erotically moving towards a marriage of blissful union.

I begin my answer by being clear that I’ll be running with intuition, because I haven’t seen or heard any sources that directly address the comparison. I offer that while the ayurvedic view includes some metaphysical allusions – the “subtle” aspects of prāṇa and udāna are said to enter and leave through the crown of the head, for example – for the most part it is a naturalistic model evolved to flexibly describe ongoing material processes of equilibrium. The Tantric binaries, by contrast, always allude to a metaphysical teleology: the winds – conceived as experiential but also necessary to a particular task – define each other through an absolute contrast that allows them to accomplish an absolute goal. There is longing in their separation. They approach each other with sacramental purpose, vehicles for the merging of the Śiva-Śakti dyad. While the Ayurvedic vāyus describe more of a polymorphous system of swirling currents, the Tantric vāyus carry the story of how an essential binary tension of human life should be resolved.

Greater nuance and detail in a theoretical model makes for greater coherence with our phenomenological experience. Our interoceptive world rolls towards an endless horizon of pulses, contractions, swellings, stretches, and holdings-of. Five vāyus do a good job, but always suggest more than five: they proliferate with infinite variability, even within actions as simple as breathing and swallowing. They are more therapeutic in application than any dyad could be, and in their pre-scientific complexities pave the way for the discovery of systemic bio-functions: circulation, the oxygen-carbon dioxide dialogue, hormonal secretions, and the interconnectivity of fascia. (They also happen to be sexier, if we discover that eros is more about différance than opposites.) The central dyad of Tantrism is not medicinal in the sense of attending to homeodynamism. It is medicinal in the sense of wanting to eradicate the presumed “divided illnesses” of the human condition. More than that, it juxtaposes the human condition in a macro-binary with an absent alternative – the endless bliss of mokṣa.

In the material medicine most relevant for daily life there can never be just two things. The contrast of opposing qualia like “wet” and “dry” gain meaning not discretely but along a continuum that never excludes the middle. While the “application of the opposite” is a key therapeutic principle in Ayurveda, it’s never a single opposite that’s chosen, because just as there is not single medical subject – insofar as the patient is flowing with the variability of constitution – there is no medicinal object that is not a rich combination of contradictory qualia. Even such apparently opposite actions of inhalation and exhalation are only abstractly opposed: in reality, breath rolls, expands, releases and dissipates in a bulging and stretching three-dimensional sphere.

There are no on-off switches, nothing fully black or white, and there are no discretely opposite forces, either in nature or cognition. One thing begs a second thing, and then two things necessitate a third, which is the relationship between them. This third is unstable, giving rise to infinite variation. Throughout Indian philosophies, the five-part model is a metaphor for such variation: the five elements, the vāyus, the five parts of each of the three dhatus (vata, pitta, kapha), the five koshas, the five natural planets, the five Buddha families, the five sources of kamma in the Pali cannon. All five-part systems refer back to the body: its five-fingered hand, its four-limbs-plus-trunk (in traditionally ableist terms).

Which is why it is slowly (and embarrassingly late) becoming clear to me that Ayurveda offers an implicit feminist and perhaps even queer critique of the binaries implicit and explicit in yoga’s many metaphysical arcs. As a therapeutic engagement that allows for fluid identity rather than a measured plan that tries to actualize a “higher” (yet absent) self, Ayurveda has evolved to describe the uniqueness of experience – framed as constitution – rather than to prescribe the soteriological outcomes of a dualistic conceit.


of yogic hard dualisms and gender

The implications for gender discourse here are as follows, I think. The hard-dualisms of spirit and flesh, actor and observer, awake and asleep, illuminated and deluded, pure and impure, and orthodox and heterodox that permeate the discourses of Raja, Hatha, and Tantra yogas can be seen as derivative of heteronormative gender constructs, made most explicit in the opposing currents of Śiva-Śakti. In contemplative discourse, these gendered binaries are described as internal tensions of the psyche-soma. But we also suffer to see and feel them externalized and socialized into gendered roles that delimit the meanings of bodies into greater and lesser. Nowhere is this most visible than in the land of yoga’s origin, where despite hundreds of thousands of goddess temples, it is still officially the worst place in the world to belong to the category of “woman”.

A critical concern of feminist and queer theory is the deconstruction of the binary of gender, exposing it as a violent act of naming laid over a spectrum of biosex characteristics and sexualities that are as variant as the vāyus, all for the exclusionary and colonizing purposes of patriarchy. This critique of gender can be intersectional with the critique of the hard dualisms central to the denigration of the body in general. As Judith Butler notes in the opening of Gender Trouble (1990):

In the philosophical tradition that begins with Plato and continues through Descartes, Husserl, and Sartre, the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy. The mind not only subjugates the body, but occasionally entertains the fantasy of fleeing its embodiment altogether. The cultural associations of mind with masculinity and body with femininity are well documented within the field of philosophy and feminism. As a result, any uncritical reproduction of the mind/body distinction ought to be rethought for the implicit gender hierarchy that the distinction has conventionally produced, maintained, and rationalized. (p.12)

When will yoga culture stop reproducing the mind/body, soul/matter, observer/actor, awakened/asleep, illumined/enfleshed, authorized/non-authorized distinctions not only uncritically, but as though they must forever be central to effective yoga practice? None of these distinctions survives the scrutiny of contemporary philosophies or sciences by which most of us actually live, and I would argue additionally that they continue to serve the gendered binaries of power that plague yoga community and pedagogy in content, practice, and form.

the politics of “I am not the body”

The binary content litters our root texts in various intensities, haunting and cluttering so many resounding virtues that I think our instinct is to bleach it. But it’s there, plain as day. Krishna tells Arjuna that he needn’t consider the ethics of slaughtering his clansmen because their bodies are meaningless in the light of their eternal souls. (Intrepreting this arc allegorically does nothing to alleviate its hard-dualism.) Patañjali’s argument drives towards the isolation of puruṣa (consciousness) from prakṛti (materiality). Yogi Svātmārāma describes sexual mudrā-s to be performed by the male yogin that require an “obedient woman”, who, he warns, is as hard to find as good milk (3.84, Akers translation). Her own practice is positioned as secondary to that of the yogin, which foregrounds the masculine-as-universal principle, as Beauvoir describes some four centuries later. And who can forget Śiva singing, in the ātmaṣaṭkam: nacha vyoma bhoomir na tejo na vāyu – “I’m not the vāyus, nor the elements.” One shorthand for his hymn is: “I am not female.” The other shorthand is: “I am not the body.” Here, the binary content is cleverly implicit. The “body” is not directly counterposed with “soul”, but if you are not the body, you  have no choice but to identify with the absent other, the soul, or whatever-you-call-it. To model Śiva’s ecstasy, you have to be really other than who you are and where you are, a command with which oppressed and excluded populations throughout history are intimate.

The psychic usefulness of “I am not the body” is something I am really interested in, and will explore elsewhere. When I do so I imagine I’ll be using the work of Drew Leder in The Absent Body (1990) which argues that the metaphysics of bodily negation actually has a phenomenological root, insofar as the flesh seems to “disappear” in two circumstances: through its unfindable perceptual horizons, and while the person is in the midst of optimal “flow”, as per Csikszentmihalyi (1990). I think the sentiment also has value as a pattern-disruptor, but which, when it stimulates its own patterns, has overplayed its use.

But politically, “I am not my body” is too apologetic for the anti-social dissociation that lurks beneath our current wealth-disparities, social cruelties, and eco-crises to stand unexamined. It will have different meanings to different speaking subjects, and these meanings will largely be measurements of privilege. I’ve never heard a starving person or a dying person or a person whose home has been washed away by rising river levels say “I am not my body”. “I am not my body” is an outrage to the victim of sexual violence. Further, “I am not my body” stands directly in the way of positive space initiatives, in which the bodies that have been excluded or made to feel lesser are reaching for self-redefinition through the very flesh that has been wounded, the flesh that bore the negation of their personhood. “I am not my body” does not magically equalize bodies by erasing them. Too many bodies labeled unequal have been erased already. Too many people live under bodily erasure for the metaphysics of erasure to persist.

of five things and two things, in meditation

On the practice side, let’s consider the process of meditating on a two-part versus a five-part model. I’ve been initiated into several Tantric meditations that involve the visualization of two rising and falling currents of varying colours, merging at various junctures along the central core of my torso. Each of these seemed to stimulate a psycho-perceptual feedback loop, in which the visualization exposed and heightened the sensations  it promised. The sensations were mainly local to the torso, and vertical in orientation. They made my legs disappear, as well as the earth beneath them. Then the sensations fed themselves back into the reification of the binary model.

I am no longer disarmed by the notion that all such techniques hinge on the momentum of auto-suggestion, but I am now more sensitive to the politics that the model not only implies, but eventually makes me feel: that I am either up or down, on the bottom or on top, progressing or regressing, awake or asleep. In all of this, where is the centre? Where are the soles of my feet? Where are the mundane sensations at the periphery of the flesh that actually remind me where I am and what I’m connected to?

I wonder: could it be that the internal dualism created by meditating within a binary system mirrors and supports the (prior) internalization of the gender binary? The little I understand so far from feminist and queer theory suggests (with great variations) that gender does not evolve from an internal essence given the variability of biosex experiences, but through the accumulation of culturally-driven auto-suggestions that encourage a social performativity that ultimately serves power. I don’t see how any practice along a vertical binary axis can really resist this. In fact, most discourse of “how one is doing” in meditation circles involves measuring one’s internal sensations against the binary ideal, which begs the question of how thin the line is that separates experience from performance. It is this line, as far I understand it, that queer theory is best equipped to examine. As Butler suggests: “Identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ (Gender Trouble, p. 25). The questions are: where do I become named, and by whom? How do I internalize that naming? What are the sensations of that naming? What would I name myself if I had access to a non-binary language?

This the crux: how does a given theoretical model of internal energetic flow make us feel about ourselves and others, and what our goals should be? How does it give us identity? Does it give us more than one choice? When I started to meditate on the five vāyus, I didn’t have the same auto-suggestive sense, because the internal movements I was beginning to watch were much more material, granulated, diffuse, and chaotic. I realized that the two-part visualizations are necessarily reductive: they must ignore the lateral and diagonal movements that permeate each rise and fall. Also, with five simultaneously pushing, pulling, tugging directions, it was much harder to discern patterns, and therefore harder to discern what the thing was, definitively. It was then impossible to presume what it should be. Learning naturopathic balance amongst five forces asks for improvised adjustments in situ, with no discernible rest in sight. The two-part model must work towards something you eventually attain. Between these two a question arises for me, echoing something I feel from Beauvoir’s work I’m sure: do I want to be something, or do I want to live?

queering inquiry: on the ground

Philosophy and practice evolve slowly. It’s on the formal/logistical side of things that we can do the most immediate work. Creating accessible, positive, co-operative and egalitarian spaces are an obvious start. We can also discourage the mansplaining rife in discussions of what is and isn’t yoga. We can really ask what the gendered language of kirtan promotes. We can obviously boycott clothing manufacturers that abuse the labour of women. And at the very least we can make it very uncomfortable for anyone like Cameron Shayne to claim that “there are no victims” of the power imbalances he refuses to acknowledge while benefiting from.

The queering of yoga spaces is already happening. Positive space initiatives are popping up all over, making the rights and needs of excluded populations intersectional with the goals of yoga, while yoga makes the rights and needs of excluded energies palpable again. These spaces can be greatly supported, I believe, by the queering of yoga philosophies. It will take some effort to mine the details in language, but I also believe it will happen on its own, because modern postural yoga focuses upon the richness of embodied sensation. This richness and its pleasures cannot be limited to binaries – metaphysically, culturally, or in terms of gender. To the extent that modern postural yoga gives access to multiple expressions and directions of desire through bodies that are learning they are not what they were told they were, perhaps it is queer already.



Special thanks to Chris Frankovich and Bianca Raffety for the brief conversations that provoked these notes, and to Christi-an Slomka and her team at Kula Annex in Toronto for creating space for ideas like this. Bows to Beauvoir, Kristeva, Irigaray, Steinem, Friedan, Butler, and so many others.



  • Matthew!
    You are going for it with this one, but I gotta say, once again: awesome and thought-provoking!

    After an admittedly quick read as I prepare to head out to Toronto, some first thoughts:

    1. You write:
    “Even such apparently opposite actions of inhalation and exhalation are only abstractly opposed: in reality, breath rolls, expands, releases and dissipates in a bulging and stretching three-dimensional sphere….
    There are no on-off switches, nothing fully black or white, and there are no discretely opposite forces, either in nature or cognition. One thing begs a second thing, and then two things necessitate a third, which is the relationship between them.”

    And I thought here of the yin-yang polarity that sees the so-called opposites already present in each other, just as if you keep going east you end up in the west.

    One of my teachers pointed this out in a training in regard to the breath: inhalation feels both expansive and in the increasing tension a bit contractive; exhalation feels relaxing and as it nears it’s end, especially, some tension is felt as well. Just like the Yin-Yang symbol, nothing fully black or white….

    2. “I am not the body” is truly a double-edged sword and I look forward to your writings investigating its “psychic usefulness.” When the early buddhists contemplated such, I think it was an attempt at pretty radical identity politics. As the buddha argued for caste being culturally/politically constructed, so for gender. This movement towards seeing gender as constructed manifests later in the androgynous images of the maha-sattvas.

    “I am not the body” because there is no “I am” to be found in any of the ‘heaps’ (khandhas). Much different than “I am not the body” because the true “I am” is purusha/brahman etc….

  • Ha. Well I struggled with it for about 450 pages (and still needs a lot of editing to reason through). I think Butler is a good starting point, but you have to look at feminist theories of nondualism to fully flesh the argument(s) out. See Elizabeth Grosz’s mobius strip which I think overlays well onto Yoga. One unwieldy thing is the multiple overlappings of feminist theory and yoga, or potential intersections, that is. And I also think it requires a firm grasp on several aspects of feminism. For instance, I make the distinction in my dissertation between Yoga as gender performativity, and the pure performance of feminist social actions based out of Yoga. The case can be made that the performativity of Yoga unseats gender, and many other things.. In essence, neo-Vedanta maps well onto much of poststructuralism and deconstructionism, but I think the pony trick is to articulate it in ways which are not only meaningful, but that also speak to the work that has already been done, for instance in those fields and feminism. It’s endlessly fascinating and productive, only limited by the time one has to dedicate to exploring it. For instance, which aspects of feminism and queer theory? Things tend to get gummed up in lack of specificity and can limit further understanding. For instance, in this sentence, which seems so general that it is unclear what you are referring to exactly: “None of these distinctions survives the scrutiny of contemporary philosophies or sciences by which most of us actually live, and I would argue additionally that they continue to serve the gendered binaries of power that plague yoga community and pedagogy in content, practice, and form.” An important point of feminism is embodiment, getting back into the body (See Shiva Rea MA thesis) and so this is another way of counteracting the duality of gender. This argument about embodiment is very important. How we use the body to transcend itself. One entré point for these connections that is rather accessible, if not tentative, is Luce Irigaray’s Between East and West. Luce uses the breathe to discuss interrelationships, and it is examples such as this which I feel to be most fruitful. Only saying this honestly, because I have been struggling with this idea of feminism and Yoga and I think it needs to be as specific as possible. That’s my conclusion. For instance, in discussing sadhana, I had to determine what practice means for feminism. What is a feminist practice? My current research project/next book concerns feminism and Ayurveda, so I think this blog post is most certainly a productive line of inquiry, though I wouldn’t try to interrelate/overlap it with Yoga in the traditional context (loosely termed there), though the modern there would certainly be those aspects. See the book (2008) Modern and global Ayurveda: pluralism and paradigms. (Wujastyk and Smith). I have not read the whole book, but it forms the basis of some of the thinking I’m doing at the moment, and is definitely right up your alley. This section for me, feels very detailed and holds the meat of your exploration –“the internal movements I was beginning to watch were much more material, granulated, diffuse, and chaotic. ” The development of this point from your experience, and exploration of that in conjunction of what you know of Ayurveda, seems like it would be very fruitful. I was thinking of profiling 5 women, but perhaps you could be one of my guinea pigs. Pranams…

    • Thanks for bringing this critique to my attention, Diego. The granular deconstruction of the campaign is welcome. My initial response was to applaud the attack upon orientalism and iconic fetish, but I can see now that the campaign creates as many problems as it tries to address.

  • Matthew your words have engaged my ear and jump-started my brain, as usual.

    Like Amy I resonate when I read ”the internal movements I was beginning to watch were much more material, granulated, diffuse, and chaotic.” Because my perception of the breath in my pranayama practice has evolved over the years in just this way.

    Here how it has seemed to me, in musical images…

    For years I heard my breath as only three notes – inhalation, exhalation, and silence. Then I began to perceive more –a scale ascended and descended through the chakras, in a range of beautiful tones. Later, informed by Ayurveda, I didn’t hear notes in a scale, but a performing quintet of vayus, each with its own voice and melodic line.

    And now, which your words suggest, it’s as though I hear a forest, a soundscape of birds and bugs, streams and breezes. Also hunters and logging trucks.

    The attention and desire of my ear have turned over time, not toward the musical performer in the practice room, if you will, but toward the open window. I want to hear what’s going on outside its frame, to the sensual experience, stripped of concepts. To the extent I hear it that way, my experience of the breath is unbelievably and beautifully myriad.

    This mirrors a central theme of your essay, it seems to me.

    But I wouldn’t want to throw away dualities altogether. They’re necessary! The qualities of “this” and “not-this” inhere in existence, it seems to me (though I’m no philosopher). I think biologists would say that the mitochondrial wall, which divides a cell from its surroundings, is the sine-qua-non of life.

    This elemental difference – between “me” and “not-me” – is reflected in our perceptual ability to distinguish distinctions: light and dark, toward and away, one and two. Unfortunately it also can also manifest darkly in the abuse of women (and animals, and our planet).

    But to utterly reject dualities because they can lead to abuse seems misguided to me. Are you really suggesting this – that we use our higher nature to propel ourselves away from this aspect of life, which is so beautiful and essential?

  • I’d love to read an expanded discussion of this tantalizing statement:

    “I am no longer disarmed by the notion that all such techniques hinge on the momentum of auto-suggestion”

    I think about this as well. What if we embrace the power of auto-suggestion, rather than insist on magical powers?

  • i’m just at awe this world existed… i used queer theory for decolonisation and never thought to use it for my yoga practice. thank you for your work.

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