The Unscience of Yoga

In the Midst of Our Theories. 9

Science is just amazing. I don't have to explain or defend that statement, since it was written on a laptop and transmitted to you via the internet. Science made that sentence possible. The man who typed it would have died a handful of times were it not for the intervention of medicine made possible through methodical scientific inquiry. The discoveries of western science and technology fundamentally support the human world in 2014 and as such, they really require no defense.

In this western pocket of the human world where I'm typing, it is yoga that seems to need defending. At least, that's what I gather from the endless publication of scientific studies that purport to prove the viability of yoga as a treatment or therapy for this or that malady. Recent scientific research is supporting claims made by yoga practitioners about the usefulness of certain techniques in warding off depression, relieving various forms of physical pain, and managing or preventing other afflictions. If you're not up on this field of inquiry, here's a succinct overview by Sujit Chandratreya.

Now, don't get me wrong: I think this trend in research is vital. There is an undeniable need for the fruits of yoga to be spoken in the language of contemporary science if we're ever to arrive at a place where yoga practices can be considered a legitimate therapy, something to be prescribed by western doctors and even covered by health insurance. That's a bright future to work toward.

At the same time, I harbor some deep skepticism about science claiming the authoritative voice of yoga in our culture. Though many breakthroughs in yoga research have taken place in the last couple decades, when viewed in total they are hardly representative of the vast range of potential contained in the practice. So when we follow the admittedly seductive line of reasoning to define "real" or "effective" yoga by what science can tell us about it, we're also closing the door on a vast amount of theory and practice that may be just as legitimate.

A Study in Contrasts

When we practice science, we're creating a neutral space, sanitizing the equipment, and working with the most refined and isolated instance possible of our object of study. Insight via the scientific process comes from mechanizing the object of inquiry, making both the experiment and its results endlessly repeatable so as to assuage doubt about mistakes or confusion. And obviously, there is an entire world of insight to be gained from applying the scientific approach to analysis. But it's a world apart from the insights arising from yoga practice.

Ultimately, yoga may be more like pragmatic poetry than modern medicine.

Yoga is an inherently comprehensive pursuit. When we practice yoga, we embrace the mess. We're inviting our entire selves into the practice: our physical anatomy, our mental and emotional states, our energetic body, our deeply held philosophical convictions. It's not a stretch to say that when we practice yoga, we're also tuning into the body's intimate relationship with the space and context which surrounds it, making practice even broader than the confines of our own body and mind. Yoga is never a practice of reduction. In this way, it is the polar opposite of science.

Nowhere is this tension more effectively illustrated than in William Broad's book The Science of Yoga. At his best Broad is succinctly summarizing the findings of recent research to support certain benefits of yoga and to "debunk" others (his discussion of yoga's relationship to weight loss is particularly lucid). At his most reckless he's flippant and dismissive of teachers for claiming an authority he deems illegitimate, misreading 1,500-year-old yogic texts as though they're contemporary instruction manuals and then balking at their apparent insanity.

The most interesting part of Broad's Science is the outline of his agenda, revealed near the end, to skin yoga of its mysticism and make it a finely tuned part of the medical establishment. Broad's vision for yoga's future is something like this: you get an MRI to determine the shape and health of your bones, which determines what variations of which postures you should practice. The ideal yoga teacher would be something like a medical doctor who has integrated yoga postures and breathing techniques into his/her therapeutic toolkit. In Broad's vision of yoga, we know precisely what's wrong with us and we know exactly how and why certain techniques can help.

In my experience, however, yoga is very much about mystery. Every illness I've experienced as an adult has been treated or healed through the practice and yet I can't pinpoint the specific reasons why or how. While I experiment with certain sequences and techniques to affect specific conditions, I've also always approached yoga as a river of health that I wade into. Yoga, nature, and the deeper intelligence of my body seem to know how to interface without me excessively micromanaging the process. Significantly, I've been influenced by teachers who espouse the abundant benefits of daily practice regardless of health condition. This is a world apart from being prompted to practice only when pain is demanding we do so.

Embracing Complexity

Facts dissolve into uncertainty very quickly when you open up the doors of neutral space, when you allow isolated variables to return to the contexts and environments that actually define them. Complexity snowballs when you zoom out, and yoga practice embraces this, treating the complexity of the human organism as the raw material of the experiment. Ultimately, yoga may be more like pragmatic poetry than modern medicine. It is an individual discipline wherein the particulars of your identity, your beliefs, and your intentions play a major part in the scope and efficacy of your practice. There are entire systems of practice that are completely internal -- done with the focus of the mind -- yet are said to have concrete effects on the physical body. Many of yoga's methods are based on esoteric principles governing the evolution of matter from consciousness, articulated in an ancient philosophy called samkhya. And at the moment, samkhya is to science as a unicorn is to a zoo.

So, while it's fascinating to see where we can get laboratory science to agree with yogic theory, it's likely never going to be a complete picture. To enter the field of yoga through the expectations of proven science is to put up boundaries without exploring the territory, dramatically restricting the possibility of what we might find. Any scientist will tell you that real scientific innovation requires a fundamental openness to experimentation and even creativity in order to eventually arrive at a process that bears fruit. On this point, then, the disciplines agree.

The Xenophobic Undercurrent

Beneath the veneer of rationalism that appears to lead the push to "prove" yoga scientifically, I suspect there are also complex cultural fears at play. Even though I'm writing this in 2014, the invocation of traditions from outside the prism of Judeo-Christian perspective still ignites irrational panic among a surprisingly large portion of the United States. The mainstream marketplace is head over heels for yoga, but also apparently terrified of Hinduism. It is in these moments that we see how truly unscientific we can be.

If yoga really works, though, it works for you too -- whoever you are with whatever religious or atheistic convictions you possess. Last year Kulavadhuta Satpurananda, an esteemed tantric and buddhist teacher from Sikkim, visited Chicago and held a workshop at the studio where I teach. One of my good friends, a fellow yoga teacher who grew up Christian, attended and asked about personal practice. Satpurananda shared an amazing insight: when he teaches a student individually, he inquires about their religious background and instructs them to study the mystical tradition within their own religion. For my friend, he actually reconnected him with Christianity through the Gnostic Gospels.

It's not that Satpurananda considers the Gnostic Gospels the ultimate truth, but that because of the prominent place of the narrative of Christianity within the development of that particular individual, these texts would possess a singular potency that could be harnessed in his yoga practice. This strikes me as a particularly beautiful use of the unscience of yoga: an elegant embrace of the complexity of being human. Yoga is not to be feared, nor is it to be systematically deconstructed. As the ancient texts state over and over again, in many different ways, yoga is to be practiced.