The Depth of a Vinnayasa Yoga Practice (herm/phenom essay)

As thorns ready to prick us or like rosebuds ready to bloom, all psychological experiences get stored in the body. These moments have been re-lived and released through my yoga practice during the last 20 years. Until now I have not found the words to express the integration of depth psychology with my breath and bodily movements. Perhaps that is because anything deeper than the surface still finds resistance in me, and even though psyche presents itself in my dreams it does not mean I feel completely comfortable with the unconscious. But with our discussion of the preconscious I find it easier to explore the experience of depth in the body.

To integrate depth psychology with yoga requires an explanation of potential consciousness as put forth by Henk Barendregt from the Brouwer Institute in The Netherlands. Potential consciousness contains suffering due to the fluctuating perceptions of phenomenon (Berndregt, 2008). In potential consciousness we have no control which Barendregt attributes to an idea in Buddhism called non-permanence. Non-permanence can be unbearable and even nauseating, he says. Along with non-permanence, another fundamental sense of potential consciousness is selflessness, meaning the ‘loss of self’. The fluctuating perceptions of phenomenon, the sense of having no control, and loss of self are features that lead to suffering. This suffering is hidden from consciousness by our thoughts and feelings of wanting something (attraction), wanting to get rid of something (aversion), or not wanting to lose what we already have (attachment). Berndregt’s model of the mind has significance for understanding the core of Eastern thinking that influences the Western practice of yoga, at the same time potential consciousness may only be a slightly nuanced difference from the preconscious.

The history of the preconscious in depth psychology was considered a

forestage of consciousness to Freud; in other words, the preconscious is a repository of memories…which reflects an oral basis of language acquisition…language or word memories are stored momentarily in the preconscious which act to structure our social life. Those memories sink into the unconscious and become word representations which fester and are subject to distortion and various modes of transformation where we lose control over them. (Casey, 2007)

The preconscious appears to be where the boundary between the unconscious and consciousness opens up thereby exposing the unconscious mind. The idea of word memories in the preconscious brings to my mind the ‘gibberish’ of the schizophrenic patient. To a Kleinian psychoanalyst, speech that ordinarily appears senseless can be interpreted and understood. In Elyn R. Saks autobiography “The Center Cannot Hold” (Saks, 2007) she successfully controlled her thoughts for many years through psychoanalysis. Ultimately, she turned to prescription drugs to help word memories sink back into the unconscious, which allowed her to control her suffering for longer periods of time. Crossing this loosened or permeable boundary appears to give access to the pre-conscious state for which additional resources, or buffers, are needed for the individual to maintain integrity.

For some, the idea of differentiation (or chaos) in the preconscious may indicate that neither the preconscious state nor potential consciousness should be sought, although Jung observed that “our functional character and process of individuation are based in preconscious life” (Casey, 2007). Jung said the preconscious contains information on how we would grow as psychological beings, which is a reflection of Jung’s internal orientation. Freud, on the other hand, said the preconscious contains the word forms that pre-structure social life, a reflection of Freud’s external orientation. Perhaps from the yogic perspective the preconscious contains the ‘pre-structure’ of how we live in our bodies just below awareness, or coming at it from a different angle, the postures evolve out of potential consciousness. Another way of expressing this is the preconscious reveals psychological experiences contained in the bodily structure.

An example might be the thoughts and feelings before doing an inverted pose which involves the primal fear of falling. This fear is something we are consciously aware of but the reasons why we fear are unconscious. We are hesitant, if not outright trembling, because there is a memory in the preconscious of our existential fallenness: “the vertical dimension of falling/rising…is the inner armature of our existential lives…how we deal with the fallenness of our condition and the fact that we are standing and walking beings has deep psychological significance” (Casey, 2007). It is our fear of falling that leads us to emphasize the strength of our structure when upside down in the inverted poses. Strength is not muscular in yoga, but rather strength is the alignment of bones. It is found in letting go of psychic armor through the release of muscular tensions. Standing postures such as Warrior emphasize grounding into the earth through the surfaces of the feet at the same time that we pull energy upwards through the legs to support the torso. Wobbling on one leg for a time in Vrkasana reflects our imbalance until such time that we have gained our steadiness in the pose. On a deep level we feel that we have overcome our existential fallenness.

All yoga postures can lead to a feeling of exhilaration. I have ecstatic joy and the feeling of floating in my body. I have heard several NASA astronauts say this is their favorite feeling during space flight. But in potential consciousness (or the preconscious, if we suggest that they could mean the same thing) there resides the nausea-producing fear of losing myself with the words “I can’t” re-sounding in my mind. There seems to be no avoiding what is coming even as I understand it prepares me for psychological growth and physical strength. The phrase “I can’t” is the pre-conditioning that shapes my interactions with others as well. Dr. Casey’s hermeneutic perspective on the process of the preconscious is thankfully more positive in that he says,

The preconscious is characterized by four dimensions: 1) psychical, 2) bodily, 3) linguistic, and finally 4) understanding. Psychical includes tacit memories and understandings that are coming to the surface but are not there yet. A sense of how things are, as in Heidegger’s mood, or that which Merleau Ponty calls the “habit body” are psychical ways in which we are in touch with what is happening to us. We bring in the habit body preconsciously and adjust it in various ways. Or, linguistically in the way that words arise from somewhere, not from nowhere. Chomsky may be right that syntactical structures are unconscious but words do actually come from a virtual space that we can almost feel is there hovering before us. You know how that is when writing or speaking and the words are coalescing like a cloud? (Casey, 2007).

All of this leads us to a new sense of depth. Not the hidden depths but one which lies just beneath the surface, as Wittgenstein says ‘the depths are on the surface’. You do not have to go so deep as we have been told according to classical methods of interpretation but perhaps linger at the margins of the surface itself…the surface has its own depth just like the skin is not just epidermis, but a whole living organ. Body, skin, flesh are not the unconscious since they feel the world…and phenomenology takes a new turn to what I am calling preconscious depth, and to what Merleau Ponty called bodily depths. (Casey, 2007)

The depth of the bodily surface is attended to in our yoga practice, as evidenced by expressions such as “stretch the skin” (not by touching the skin, but as an intention that can actually result in movement) while maintaining awareness of what that might feel like from inside the body. Or, take the instruction to “create space where the bones meet.” Each of these instructions requires what the Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness requires the monitoring of word memories that are either 1) consciously minimized the moment one lays the mat on the floor and sets foot upon it, or 2) confronted when doing the difficult pose. I equate mindfulness to bracketing, not of the taken-for-granted factoid or standard belief that we should question, but of a clarifying intuition of the experience of the body.

The process of having an intention is invited, which I equate with ‘inward tending’ and which is in contrast to seeing-through, although seeing-through may also require some inversion of the self. I have struggled for years to understand James Hillman’s concept, mostly because there is no methodology for practicing it or at least not a methodology that I can grasp. Does it require extreme extroversion to see-through external phenomenon into their source? This source typically reveals the archetypes, and it is interesting to note that the yoga postures have archetypal names. In yoga we are encouraged to embody the quality of the archetype, for example, the lion (ness) of strength is not a lack of fear but the ability to proceed regardless of it and with gentleness. This was not a part of my cultural conditioning and it requires much effort, but these embodiments are part of our intention in yoga.

In the 90 minutes on the mat, we clarify our intuition of the body’s limitations while openings occur and consciousness develops. At the edge of our limitation we are intensely conscious. As yogis we do not wait for complex experiences in life to bring us to the knowledge that there is something we are resisting which needs our attention. We squeeze-push-pull-twist our bodies to release the tensions and afterwards experience feelings of floating in corpse pose. We are literally squeezing body consciousness until a wider consciousness appears. Ideally, the practice is passionate and without mental tension.

Yogis enter into a flow state during a vinyasa practice. With concentration on the breath in a rhythm of four counts per inhale and four counts per exhale, hands are placed over heart and the mind drops into the body. The distribution of weight is felt between the left hemisphere of the body and the right. Attention is given to the spatial location of body parts and their relative tension. The alignment of ribs, spine, knees, and shoulders are sensed. Psychic misalignments from emotional tension are perceived. As energy is brought to the heart and lungs, the mind gets a rest. Lifting the sternum upwards and pulling the lower ribs inwards leads to a release of the tension in the neck. The shoulders lower and, with that movement, pockets of worry drift away and pockets of bliss rise into consciousness as the diaphragm expands. A phenomenologist could find herself in a single pose for a long time, observing the nuances, but eventually the flow continues in the vinyasa practice. Vinyasa is called flow yoga because eventually every movement seems to arise spontaneously. The mind rides on the breath almost to the exclusion of anything else (a natural bracketing). It appears that we have become intentionality itself.

I never quite accepted the instruction to set an intention for the practice on any given day. My preference has been for a goal-less practice although I am not consistently able to practice that way. A common instruction that I received from the best of my teachers was to ‘stop thinking’. I interpret that now to mean ‘stop judging’ such that at the moment when the lungs and chest open, it appears that everything we have not dealt with consciously comes to a staging area which may very well be the preconscious. It is a loosening of the boundaries between conscious and unconscious minds. A reframing of judgment frees one, as Dr. Casey said, of the unshakeable conviction of truth. At this point the body’s own illumination is experienced and the knowledge of self, or who I am, arises instead of who I judge myself to be. This is preferable to setting a conscious intention.

But if necessary we might create the intention that when we find dasein caught up in time and its struggle, as soon as we are aware of it, we step back into the timelessness of Being. If intentionality means continuity between preconscious, unconscious, and consciousness, then perhaps flow is intentionality bordering on un-intentionality and vice versa. We become intentionality as we observe the struggle of our attractions and aversions and loosen our attachment to particular outcomes. We were reminded that all mental processes share in intentionality, which is “that structure of pure consciousness we trust is always there before us if only we have eyes to see…it designates a whole stream of mental processes, as both the stream of consciousness and as the unity of any one consciousness.” Dr. Casey said this trust of consciousness is Edmund Husserl in a nutshell.

Unity is the aim of yoga but whether or not ‘union’ is Being is another subject since “Heidegger would be very dubious about instances of being spiritual…because it confuses what is special about human beings” (Casey, 2007). The classical definition of yoga is stated as the union of HA (sun) and THA (moon) or male and female. Every pose has a ‘Ha’ and it has a ‘Tha’, or strength and surrender, and we are to find the deep stillness of the pose. I see this integration of consciousness as an existential way of exploring Being. It is similar to the transcendent function which may act as a bridge to Being at a some later stage of the process. Dr. Casey stated “the dasein has a preconscious awareness of Being, and it exists in such a way that it is always choosing its own future whether it wants to or not” because perhaps dasein is always longing for Being. This longing could be exercised through the transcendent function, or even as I am suggesting, the depth yoga practice.

The way we generally practice intention in yoga would benefit from a revision such as this.

Intentionality, according to Brentano, is just what the mind does all the time. It is nothing but intentional whether we are dreaming in reverie or doing math or painting. It is not to be confused with heavy handed intention, or having volition to do something. (Casey, 2007)

While engaging in yoga we have an intention that requires actively creating something. If, according to Husserl, we could instead discover the intention of the body versus creating one, it may be consciousness unfolding, just like the breath in that we do not intend to breath, yet we do. In order to flow, negative feelings and thoughts which have risen to the surface are dealt with because they are inhibiting our bodies from moving freely. As teachers, we are giving students a different way of “languaging” in order to lead them through their mental concepts to find the place where their resistance is coming from. Barendregt (2008) wrote that we keep ourselves preoccupied with feelings and thoughts so that we do not experience a deeper level of consciousness. Self-doubt, worry, fear, little self-hatreds as well as positive concepts such as feeling our own specialness, constitute fluctuating phenomenon in the preconscious that foreshadows or pre-structures how we live in our bodies. Feelings and thoughts are observable when they are surface deep. They can be cleared away through an exploration of the body as well as through psychoanalysis. The body becomes the vehicle of communication in contrast to linguistic reality. My friend, Paul, has cautioned me about the limitations of linguistic reality in his biopic history of the preconscious:

The risk in the paths of Barthes and Chomsky is the replacement of consciousness by structure, of language by jargon, of analysis by Lacan, of reason by logic (as in the case of Wittgenstein)…the years of Merleau-Ponty were marked by the attempt to replace an intellectual elite ruled by classical methodologies and chieftained by Sartre by another one which delved into the contradiction of sinking into the surface, exploring the already charted, providing meaning to the un-meaningful, desecrating the un-erotic and matching the products of first rate artistic expression with those of flimsy value. Unconscious dada erupted and grabbed down the consciousness of trespassing to the chasms. The preconscious was left, as usual, largely untouched, except for the more than meritorious attempts by Bruckner and Finkielkraut to return Merleau-Pointy’s original Fourier-fed roots to their genuine erotic love origins (le nouveau desordre amoureux). If clouds precede the rain, Merleau-Ponty is to feel utterly rewarded by the efforts of those above-mentioned gentlemen. (Paul, 2008, personal correspondence)

We owe a great deal to Merleau-Ponty for seeing mind and body as the corps propre, as a window to the world, and for doing away with the awkward, simplistic, primitive Judeo-Christian dualist distinction of mind and body. It is a fascinating link between the attempt to disclose the smoldering memories triggered by words, and the awareness in yoga that acts as a language for the expression of the self when a patient whose capacity for expression has been injured.

In the past I approached post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with trepidation when working with disaster victims, wart veterans, psychotics, or sexually abused women because of my inexperience of preconscious states. Transference and counter-transference is possible and even likely, but I remind myself that as a teacher my aim is to hold a neutral space and a coherent self in order for students to integrate their experiences. To be able to do this, a certain kind of comfortableness in preconscious states is necessary while remembering the softness and sensitivity that leads to healing.

A depth psychological practice of yoga involves mental effort, there is no avoiding that. Mental effort is a form of meditation. Barendregt (2008) compares two forms of meditation in “Buddhist models of the mind and the common core thesis of mysticism” where one form is concentration and the other form is insight. Concentration is one-pointedness or focus whereas insight follows from sustained attention on the content of consciousness while a certain distance is kept. A depth psychological practice might be like imagining a therapist is present but in this case it is an inner therapist, a witness which is another part of your self that is trained to be objective. This is the inner teacher that we develop over time.

Surely the preconscious is experienced in the unwinding, uncurling, and unfurling of the body even if the flow state is outside of the preconscious. If we learn to use our structure correctly, working off of gravity instead of sinking into it, we can release sexual tension, the result being a freely flexing spine and positive, uplifting energies that transcend negativity. There is something called mulabanda, or root lock, which we practice during the postures to awaken lightness in the body. Through engaging the muscles of the pelvic floor, energy moves upwards in the body. Of course, this requires directed attention but eventually it becomes a spontaneous action. Dr. Casey said that spontaneous actions come from the preconscious like most acts of freedom…the preconscious is the staging area of free action is how he put it. This indicates that the flow state has a connection to the preconscious and the preconscious may be related to the parasympathetic nervous system, because ultimately we are tranquilizing the central nervous system in our practice and gaining awareness and control of the parasympathetic nervous system.

The reality of the divine is deep in the body, differentiating it from the vertical ascent into transcendence.  Only through phenomenology is ontology possible. The joy is in the depths. As a youthful yogini I used to be intent on leaving the awareness of this body behind, as if to be relieved of pain by negating the body. I realize now the homesickness I felt is simply the ache of my shallowness. It is not the desire for transcendence. Whereas I believed my yearning was for death or salvation in order to escape from suffering, now I realize it is a call to go deeper. The depth I fear and resist contains the ecstasy I desire. I am convinced that joy is in the depth of the body in spite of natural resistance to it. The surrender to the body is yet another secret of life. The consciousness of my body’s inner movement is my dance of freedom.

During intense periods of practice I am filled with experiences that are both subtle and profound. The growth I have experienced is dependent on the effort expended. During rhythmic breathing, concentration leads to the insight that the practice is cleansing the inside of my mind, like wiping a bowl clean after eating. We start with today’s resistance and pain at a time when all around us the world is crushing our soul and it becomes difficult to want to breathe slowly and feel life deeply. This encourages us to express the truth that unfolds in a yoga practice. Even though the structures of the mind may contain illusive, controlling, and repressive thoughts about the body, nevertheless, we wind up our bodies and then unwind the experiences stored there for a full, aware, conscious mind to accept, let go of, and integrate. In each sequence of poses we are aware of our bones, of our blood, of our breath, of our muscles as we try to experience something new and different. Pain is just an illusion. Yoga ultimately becomes the sensuousness which transforms us.

In summary I said potential consciousness, as explained by Barendregt, can be compared with the preconscious. This included the views of the preconscious by Freud, Jung and Dr. Casey’s view of the preconscious. I described how the practice of yoga includes the preconscious as well as potential consciousness, after which I discussed mindfulness during the physical practice of yoga. I compared experiences in the flow state of vinyasa yoga and discussed intention versus intentionality. This led to the aim of yoga as it relates to dasein and Being. At this point, a mere nod towards Merleau Ponty belies my grateful respect of him, and I returned to Barendregt to contrast forms of concentration and insight and the objectification of consciousness. I finished with descriptions from my personal yoga practice.

It is inconclusive whether potential consciousness is one and the same with the preconscious. The dreamy, shadowy, quasi-mystical state of the preconscious eludes thought, while potential consciousness is the precursor of thought. But if the preconscious is a staging area, then the result is that they are similar in nature. This is why I have no conclusion here.

In some way I instinctually feel the preconscious and potential consciousness are different structures of the mind. It may be that potential consciousness is concerned with thought and the preconscious is concerned with sensations. Perhaps potential consciousness has already been addressed adequately by Buddhism whereas the preconscious, mentioned by many philosophers and psychologists, warrants deeper study.

Barendregt, H. (2008).  Eds. M. van Atten, M. Bourdeau, P. Boldini, and G. Heinzmann. Buddhist models of the mind and the common core thesis on mysticism: Comparing mystical experiences of Brouwer and Goedel in terms of concentration and insight meditation.  In: Proceedings of the conference One Hundred Years of Intuitionism (1907-2007). Birkhauser, 131-145. Accessed online

Casey, E. (2007). Class lecture. Hermeneutic & Phenomenological Traditions.  Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpenteria, CA. 

Saks, E. R. (2007). The center cannot hold: my journey through madness. Hyperion. New York.

Paul, (2008). Personal correspondence.