Science is slowly discovering both the diamonds and the dogmas of a yoga tradition that goes back at least 2500 years. There is a wealth of knowledge to discover about the health benefits of yoga. However, not every teaching tool that has evolved from the early yoga practices is equally useful, and the yoga (and Buddhist) practice has, throughout the ages, merged with religion and dogma. The practices in yoga are quite clear. The underlying mechanisms: not so much. Comprehensive explanations of how and why a practice works so well, are sometimes missing, sometimes flawed, or sometimes incomplete. I want to make makes science easy to understand and implement, and practices profound and deep through inspiring curiosity and knowledge about their workings. There is something science can bring to the yoga table that adds to the personal experience and intuitive wisdom yoga practice brings. Below, I will describe the three main tools science brings to the yoga table.
1. The empirical cycle. The first thing science brings to yoga is the empirical cycle: a cycle of steps each scientific topic goes through before a scientist arrives at his or her conclusion about a phenomenon in the world, such as, for example, the health benefits of a yoga practice. The cycle starts with inductive reasoning to form general theory about the mechanisms that make a yoga practice healthy. One can borrow from existing theories of biology, physiology, endocrinology, immunology, psychology, or neurology to reason through which mechanisms, or which combination of mechanisms, yoga helps us to be healthy human beings. For example, one could argue that yoga is mainly improving health because it improves our respiratory function, which reduces stress, blood pressure, and improves atlethic efficiency. Deductive reasoning is then used to derive hypotheses about specific effects that may underly the respiratory benefits of yoga, such as that it will improve breating efficiency and oxygen uptake in the blood. Experimental observation through objective measurement (such as measuring blood pressure, hormones, CO2 or oxygen levels, athletic performance, will then be able to test which of these hypotheses hold or are falsified, and how theory should be adjusted.
Let my start by mentioning the parallels between yoga (and buddhism) and science. Truth seeking, observation, and experimentation are as much part of yoga and buddhism as they are of science. The yoga world, however, is full of claims that, in my view, have not been properly put to the test in the empirical cycle. Certain yoga poses are, fore example, claimed to have specific male or female hormonal effects. Meditating on specific chakra’s (energy centres) supposedly enhances honesty, creativity, or confidence. Fast breathwork practices supposedly oxygenate the body. And standing on your head is to be avoided during pregnancy or in the menstrual cycle, because fluids are supposed to flow down not up. While I am fairly convinced of the overall health benefits of yoga, I am not so convinced of these specific effects.
First, because many of these claims have never been tested. And second, because an intuitively matched explanation, such as: ‘meditating on your throat chakra helps you to speak your truth’ does not make it true. Something that matches in the human mind can just as easily be just that: a man-made generated idea that just ‘feels’ right, or that simply was written down 500 years ago and never properly adjusted. The empirical cycle helps us to test things that intuitively ‘feel’ right, and separate intuitive sense from intuitive none-sense. Please let me make clear that I am not opposed to intuition or feeling in any way, or by any means an advocate for a world in which feeling and intuition are excluded. Some, and perhaps a lot of the intuitions of yoga will proof to be very valuable, and some will be falsified. In my opinion, this enriches the practice, just as the intuitions of yoga enrich science.
The second addition of science is objectivity. Objectivity is maintained under the assumption that scientists are also biased humans and thus never 100% objective. Taking human subjectivity into consideration, science has organized a system of criticism between researchers in the form of peer-reviews of each other's work. They have developed rigorous methods with measurements that are as objective as possible within the current boundaries of knowledge, clearly defined research methods that can be repeated and scrutinized by other researchers. They test on large samples of data, with and statistical testing to control for other variables, errors and randomness in data. There are experimental designs to test causality, in which there are control groups where nothing (as opposed to a specific yoga practice) is administered to a participant in the study. That way, we can be sure it is the yoga, and not something else that is causing the health effects. In these designs, researchers and research subjects are not aware of the studies’ hypotheses so they cannot possibly influence the results.
Again, let me first state the parallells between science and Yoga. Yoga and Buddhism operate from the idea that human observation is muddled by the senses. Psychological biases that emerged in science literature in the past 7p years where described 2500 years ago in yogic and Buddhist texts. The whole goal of Yoga and Buddhism is to transcend the conditioning of the biased, conditioned mind, if only by being fully aware of its limitations. In yoga and Buddhism, we try to overcome these limitations through meditation. In scientific study we try to overcome it in ways that have something else to add. I think both meditative objectivity and scientific objectivity are immensely important in the study of human health, but it is only from scientific objectivity that we can derive reasonable conclusions about why and how yoga truly improves our health.
I can do my practice and intuitively feel how it works, and I can make claims about how yoga smoothens my muscles and makes me feel strong and balanced, but that experience is simply biased. And although personal experience, even after 30 years of meditation and realizing my own biases, is valid and important, it does not teach us beyond reasonable doubt how and why yoga would induce these feelings of strength. It may very well be the music I am playing while I practice, or the fact that I do yoga in a park or in a nicely scented studio, that makes me feel flexible, strong, and balanced. Without scientific objectivity, we will never know the difference.
The third addition is the evolution of science, which is maintained by a constant updating of knowledge and methods. Scientists summarize separate studies in so called 'reviews' and 'meta-analyses' in which existing ideas are reviewed, challenged, and updated. Big shifts in the way 'science' views the world can happen due to these updates, and will depend on novel developments in the field. The scientific method has evolved over the past 2500 years, and is, to my knowledge, the most updated, rigorous, and reliable method to better understand the world around us. Below, I will briefly take you through the past 2500 years of evolution.
Western philosophy of science originates in the fourth century BC in ancient Greece, where Aristotle championed for observation as the key principle to true knowledge in one camp, and in the other, Plato argued that (inductive) reasoning was the only way to true knowledge. Any knowledge gained by observation, according to Plato, was muddled by the senses. Aristotle used the term 'first principles' to illustrate the idea that gathering knowledge was a process of gaining more information through experience and observation, building upon what is already known to be true. For Aristotle, observation was key, and for Plato, an ideal truth uncorrupted by the senses was key: all we needed to do was figure out the truth through logic. Between these two schools
of thought, in the following 2000 years, a method emerged that incorporated both logic and observation, and much more.
After the Romans used measurement and mathematics to expand the field of architecture and engineering, Islamic scholars seriously advanced the scientific method, adding techniques and philosophies learned from the Vedics in India. In the 9th century AC, Ibn-Sina laid down specific steps of the scientific process that are similar to the empirical cycle we know today. From rational thinking, we induce general theories about the natural world, from which we can than deduct specific hypotheses about events, which can be tested in experiments. Scientific objectivity also originates here: Ibn-Sina also saw scientists as fallible beings, who should be open to criticism. The importance of errors was later added to the scientific method by Al-Biruni, who understood that any experiment would contain random fluctuations, and thus the idea of repeated experimentation was born. The concept of error and replication of experiments is still one of the most important parts of the scientific process, and it is the only way to neutralize the noise in the data created by random fluctuations.
In the 17th century, Francis Bacon advanced the scientific method in a meaningful way by challenging Aristotle’s ideas that it is possible to derive ‘first principles’ through reasoning alone, because the universe and its truths are simply too complex for the human mind to ever comprehend. Bacon believed that research should be used to test the validity of real-world observations, and proposed that an experiment should be designed around two competing hypotheses. The researcher should aim to find evidence that would be in favour of one, and refute the other. In the 18th century, Christiaan Huygens proposed a method where the scientist proposes a hypothesis and then uses observation and empirical testing to estimate the probability that it is correct. Building on Bacon, Huygens developed the idea that scientists could approach the truth by constantly refining experiments and increasing the probability of their hypothesis being correct. Enter Isaac Newton. Known for his work on mathematics, gravity, light, and speed of sound. Not just a theorist, but also a brilliant experimenter. Huygens and Newton both agreed that science could not give definite answers, only a probability that something was correct, because humanity could not possibly understand or comprehend the complexities of the entire the universe.
The 19th and 20th century marked the period where the philosophy of science almost completely disentangled itself from theology. Karl Popper champions the idea of falsification: a hypothesis must be potentially disprovable for it to be regarded as scientific, which ruled out theological and metaphysical questions as scientific: questions that cannot be tested through experimentation are not falsifiable and therefore not scientific. Popper felt that instead of attempting to prove theories, scientists should instead try to falsify them, a belief still held by many scientists and fields. In the 1960’s Thomas Kuhn proposed the idea that instead of science being a cumulative process of knowledge creation, as Aristotle had once proposed, science advances through shifts in paradigms. Big inventions shift whole fields.
The modern scientific method was built upon the work of all of these great philosophers, and probably many unnamed wives, sisters, colleagues, and other women these men interacted with. Creativity is a social endeavour. No great idea is sparked in isolation, and no great method is created without the prior work of others. This is the evolution of a method that attempts to slowly, over time, arrive at a description and prediction of the world that is a bit more accurate every day, albeit will never arrive at a 100 percent certainty of truth. It is therefore that I value it so highly, and that I think that any practical tool that is intuitively immensely valuable, should be rigorously tested through the scientific method, so that we may better understand the underlying mechanisms of its workings.