The Science of Yoga
Yoga originates from a culture deeply steeped in belief, storytelling and truth-seeking. Evaluating yoga through scientific inquiry will inevitably put its faith based answers to the test.
Can we respect different traditions while simultaneously challenging them? Isn’t this the question of all wars?
William J. Broad sure gave it a shot. Eight Chapters of well thought-out and researched questions about Yoga and its ancient claims.
The Science of Yoga reminds us that two differing worlds will always intersect and we must stay open to this crossing. If yogis & scientists (arguably two communities bent on asking questions in a calm manner) can’t openly discuss ancient traditions in a modern world then, I ask – What hope do we have for our varied global community to find a reasonable way through this existence?
Broad is in-depth in his evaluation, so I am dividing it up into two parts. Part two here.
Consider this post the intro: “Why Science in Yoga?”
Once we’ve got that under our belts, I’ll give you the inside scoop on the physiology of yogic breathing (pranayama) & postures (asana) and their impact on Mood, Sex & Injuries. No small task. But being a physician, a yoga teacher and scaffold builder, I’m up for it.
“So, tell me about science”, you say.
Well, I’m honoured you should ask. Thank you.
- Science is NOT about being right.
- It is NOT about trials and studies.
- It is NOT about proof.
- It is NOT about the market value of a discovery.
Instead, these are the result of building dogma, defence and utility around a philosophy.
Case(s) in point: Biohacking. Yogis. Naturopaths. Medical Doctors. Science Writers. Story tellers. Pregnancy & End-of-Life decisions.
1. Quoting studies to prove your point does not make you a scientific researcher; it makes you a believer of using studies in your defence. That’s a-ok. Just know that it doesn’t make you a scientist.
2. Trusting feelings you cannot explain does not make you less of a scientific researcher; it makes you receptive to moving forward with an unknown variable. That’s a-ok. Just know that trusting something doesn’t equal truth.
*Spoiler: Truth is always relative. (Ha, always. Get it?)
Sitting in the discomfort of the unknown, there are moments when faith is easier than analysis or vice versa. Depending on safety levels, we generally choose to respond to an uncertain situation by trying to explain it through a focused investigation or a calming tenet. We are all seekers. It’s just the how that differs.
Science & Yoga coming together is the epicentre of a revolution. It’s time baby. Let’s put on some Gil Scott-Heron.
Coherent and comprehensive discussion about uncertainty is the beginning of science.
Science is a philosophy, it considers the nature of reality and existence.
Science is about NOT drawing conclusions, but reflecting on new and valid information.
- It welcomes well thought through expression, that can facilitate new questions.
It too often gets tarred and feathered with being righteous, unmoving and fact-based (or misconstrued as belief-based).
Science is made up of acute and critical thinking, paired with curiosity and possibility. Science is the opposite of close-minded. Science is the opposite of open-minded. Is that even possible?
Yes. Science hangs in the space between – where nothing is certain, and everything is questioned.
The foundations of science and yoga philosophy are distinctly different – and this may be where we need to first turn our attention. The differing paradigms do not need to fully accept each other, but to have intelligent dialogue they must be bilingual.
Temporarily suspending disbelief of the other’s position is the only way through.
“Western science tends to view the body as a fixed thing with unchanging components and functions. But yoga starts from a different premise. It sees it as a lump of clay. The body in this view is awaiting the application of skilled hands…. Realizing even a fraction of Yoga’s potential is going to require work – hard work. “
This hard work is a two way street.
First: Allowing analytical minds to pry into the mysticism & anatomy of the practice.
From a safety perspective, yogis must lay down their arms. We must accept that the role of directing a body in movement requires intelligent and empowering physical education.
Reducing the practice into its smallest pieces is how we uncover whether a given instruction is correct, or was extrapolated to be correct.
Otherwise we put our students at risk of severe or long term injuries, or worse (from my perspective) becoming followers, not seekers.
“‘Spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science’ ‘ … if science [finds] particular tenets of Buddhism to be false ‘then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims'” – Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, but found in this book.
I rather like Mr. Lama’s perspective, but firmly stand up for leaving space for the art of teaching. Some things can only be understood with abstract expression.
Broad beautifully sums up the limitations of science in yoga:
“What I know with certainty is that science cannot address, much less answer, many of the most interesting questions in life. It’s one finger of a hand, as a wise man once said. I treasure the scientific method for its insights and discoveries, as well as for the wealth of comforts and social advances it has given us. But I question the value of scientism – the belief that science has authority over all other interpretations of life, including the philosophic and spiritual, moral and humanistic.”
Second: Allowing the inexplicable experiences during practice to shake the analytical mind;
To lie in the discomfort that there are parts of existence that will never be discovered, because some questions are undefinable. The scientists must accept that mysticism is part of the human race. There is something hidden in the story that we cannot pin down, but inherently understand. There are situations in which it is healthier for all if stories prosper.
If we do not unclench our grip on scientism, we risk walking into our future with arrogant pride, which rarely fares well past one generation.
As much as I love the idea of promoting accurate dialogue about the yoga practice… I don’t like being put in boxes, I rarely take sides and I’d like to make that clear before launching into the science of yoga.
Next time, Yoga and its effects on Hormones, Neurotransmitters, VO2Max, Beauty Parlour Syndrome. There are so many gems to share.