Sunday, July 22, 2012

Yoga is just as unscientific as astrology (and why this is not a bad thing)

I've never been a big believer in astrology. Actually, to be more precise, I've never really believed in astrology. But I do find some of its claims about the movements of the planets and how they affect individuals with different sun-signs to be very interesting. In particular, I derive some measure of consolation and solace right now from the fact that we are presently in a Mercury Retrograde, which means, among other things, that delays and miscommunications will be more prevalent than usual, and rather than get angry or resentful and try to fight it, it is better to go with the flow, relax a little, and see what these delays and miscommunications have to teach us about ourselves and life. I find this thought to be consoling, because right now in my own life, things are moving way more slowly than my ego would like them to. In particular, on the yoga front, I have had to abandon my recent plan to go to Angela Jamison's Ashtanga retreat in Ann Arbor next weekend, due to some other things in my life taking a little longer to fall into place. Ah... this is starting to look like a summer of abandonment and dis-attachment, at least as far as my yoga travel plans are concerned: First the (non)Mysore trip, and now this? But it's okay: I fully accept what the universe throws in my path (like I have a choice, right?), and will try to reflect and see what these (non)events have to teach me. 

And so, since it looks like I'll be staying put here in my corner of the upper midwest for at least a little bit longer, I may as well use this time to reflect a little more about things. Since we're talking about astrology, I'll start here. I've always seen myself as a very rational-minded person, and astrology has always struck me as being philosophically and scientifically suspect; in particular, the fact that astrological claims and predictions are not falsifiable has always struck me as good reason to see astrology as at best a pseudo-science, and therefore rationally suspect.

If you are not familiar with the notion of falsifiability, let me just give you a quick cliff-notes (or is it spark-notes? :-)) version of it, if you'll bear with my being rather pedantic here. In the 1930s, the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper came up with the notion of falsifiability in order to separate science from pseudo-science. The general idea is that a good scientific theory is a theory that can survive deliberate and genuine attempts to falsify or refute it. Take, for instance, Einstein's famous mass-energy equivalence formula, e=mc squared. This formula expresses a good scientific theory about the relationship between mass and energy, because it tells us very clearly the conditions under which it would be false: If you are able to find an instance anywhere in the universe in which e is not equal to mc squared, then you would have proven that this theory is false. In other words, a good scientific theory is a theory that "puts itself on the line" by making predictions that are precise, and which tell us clearly the conditions under which it would be false; hence "falsifiability". The general idea is that the more a theory puts itself on the line by making very precise predictions, the more scientifically credible it is, and vice versa.

Astrology runs afoul of this criterion of falsifiability, because virtually any astrological prediction about your life can be confirmed, depending on how liberally you are willing to interpret the astrologer's predictions. Popper himself, in fact, had rather harsh things to say about astrology:

"Astrology did not pass the test [of falsifiability]. Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence—so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavourable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophesies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophesies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. It is a typical soothsayer’s trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable." (Karl Popper, "Science, Pseudo-science, and Falsifiability")

Popper's views about science and falsifiability were one of the first philosophical views I studied when I took my first undergraduate philosophy class, and while I do not profess myself to be a Popperian or any kind of expert on his views, I think it is probably safe to say that for much of my twenties (yes, you are about to find out how old I am :-)), his views had a big influence on the way I viewed things in the world in general.    

But things started shifting in my twenty-ninth year. In January of that year, I stumbled into my first yoga class, a power yoga class (for more details, see this post). I really enjoyed that first class, and immediately began practicing at home by myself pretty much right after that first class. The reasons that attracted me to yoga were many and complex. For one thing, on a purely physical level, I could feel, even from the very beginning, that yoga was much more than just "working out"; the kind of intense body awareness needed in yoga practice reminded me very strongly of the martial arts practice that I used to do in my teens. On a psychological and emotional level, yoga also immediately allowed me to stand back from and see through the useless and unproductive stories that I was telling myself in my mind all the time (for more details, see this post. Actually, I still tell myself stories even now; but I like to think that I am at least more aware of this tendency now).

On a philosophical level, I was drawn to yoga because I sensed that yoga provided a worldview that is bigger and broader than the narrowly mechanistic worldview that characterizes so much of contemporary western medicine: While the effects of asana and pranayama practice on our bodies and minds can be explained by modern science and do not contradict it, yoga practice begins with a subjective, "first-person" view of the body, one that does not presuppose a straight-forward mechanistic cause-and-effect view of how our minds and bodies work. Because of this, I found yoga practice to be a much more compassionate and empowering way of relating to my mind and body than the narrowly mechanistic worldview of western medicine. At the same time, because many of the effects of asana and pranayama practice are explainable in medical scientific terms, I also adopted a rather naively scientific view of yoga; I regarded yoga as not being as rationally suspect as "new-agey" things like astrology. Being grounded in the physical body, yoga did not seem as "woo-ey" as things like astrology, whose predictions and claims could be interpreted any which way, and are therefore not falsifiable. As such, yoga is more scientifically credible. Or so I thought.

But over the last couple of years, I have started to feel that this naively scientific view of yoga is inadequate; it does little justice to the actual felt experience of yoga practice, and may even be, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Why do I feel this way? Consider the notion of Nadi Shodana, or the cleansing of the channels of the subtle body. In Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, the second series is named Nadi Shodana, because consistent practice of this series is supposed to bring about the cleansing and purification of these subtle body channels, resulting in a more balanced and healthy nervous system, among other things. Because of its effects on the nervous system, Nadi Shodana is sometimes translated as "purification of the nervous system". To be sure, having a more balanced and healthy nervous system is a beneficial effect of the practice of Nadi Shodana, but it is not the essential objective of this practice. The objective of nadi shodana is to open up the central channel, or sushumna nadi, so that prana can flow freely through this channel, allowing for kundalini to rise from its state of slumber in the base of the spine and move up to the crown chakra. According to the Chandogya Upanishad, when this happens, one becomes immortal. If you consider this matter even a little, you will see how the narrowly mechanistic worldview of western medicine, which presupposes that the only things that exist are physical bodies and parts, cannot possibly do justice to what the real work of Nadi Shodana is. For one thing, although "nadi" is sometimes translated as "nerve", it is not a nerve, but a channel for the flow of consciousness/life-energy/prana. And since life-energy or prana is not a physical entity, it does not exist as far as western medicine is concerned. And if western medicine does not even have a place for prana, how can it possibly accommodate the notion of kundalini rising, let alone immortality? 

What I am trying to say is, quite simply, this: Yoga is not a science, if by "science" we mean a set of theories whose entities are physically detectable, and whose results can be precisely predicted and measured using precise instruments and calculations. There is, to my knowledge, no "Nadi-Shodana-meter" that can measure precisely how far along and to what extent a practitioner has purified the channels of her subtle body, and give her a reliable prediction of when (or if) the awakening of kundalini will happen for her in this lifetime. If you think this sounds ridiculous, this is because it is. Yoga is, in the final analysis, not a science, and to pretend that it is otherwise is at best to bark up the wrong tree, and at worse, an exercise in futility (or maybe barking up the wrong tree is an exercise in futility, in which case they are one and the same thing... aren't I clever? :-)).

So as much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I have to state the obvious conclusion here: In the final analysis, yoga is just as unscientific as astrology. Isn't this depressing?... Well, it may be, if you think that the only things that are worth anything in life are things that are "scientific" and whose results can be precisely predicted and measured. If so, it is still not too late to jump ship: Maybe you can switch to Pilates, or this thing they call Zumba.

But here's another thought: Is life itself an exact science? I'm guessing the answer is no. Because if it were, somebody somewhere would surely have come up with a precise "owner's manual" for how to live successfully and get the most "performance" out of life by now, just as we have owner's manuals for our cars that tell us how to get the most performance out of them. And if life is not an exact science, why should it depress us that yoga, which teaches us how to deal productively as embodied living beings on this earth, is not?         


  1. I agree with you and I personally feel that the more I practice, the more "woo-ee" it really becomes, not less. As this point, I just don't really try to analyze it either way, but just to practice. Also, I recently listened to a teaching from Centre of Gravity wherein M. Stone joked that people like to say Buddhist teachings are "very scientific" especially new practitioners, and that really they are not. I thought you might find that comparison interesting as well.

    So, maybe the "missed teaching" this summer is the teaching, right? Maybe it is somehow the very teaching you need. Kristen

    1. Yes, I really feel that the missed teaching is increasingly becoming the teaching in and of itself. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me that I need to spend more time working on the practice by myself. I think Buddhism is in a similar situation to yoga, in that although the effects of practice can be empirically/scientifically observed, the process by which it actually works is not actually scientific, at least not in a straightforwardly mechanistic way. Very interesting.

  2. It is not wise to waste your time researching on the science behind yoga. Yoga is nothing but a performance of flexibility of one's body like circus, aerobatics, break dance, wresting, marshal art so on and so forth. Yoga is neither for exercise nor for therapy of any kind. Beware of yoga not to endanger your health.