What is the scientific method?
Scientific knowledge is based on an understanding gained through experimentation. Scientific experiments have to be objective, describable, and replicable. Before something is accepted as a scientific fact, experiments establishing it are usually carried out by many different people independent of each other and validated. If Yoga is to be considered as a science it must also follow the same pattern.
Which Yoga we are talking about?
The term yoga is used pretty loosely. Before we consider the question about Yoga we must first clarify which Yoga we are talking about. Broadly speaking the term Yoga refers to the following:
Raja Yoga (Eight Fold Path Of Yoga as described by Patanjali)
Bhakti Yoga (The path of devotion)
Jnana Yoga (The path of study)
Karma Yoga (The path of selfless action)
Since Raja Yoga is widely considered as the superset that encompasses all other forms of Yoga, this discussion pertains to Raja Yoga as laid down by Patanjali.
What is Yoga about?
Yoga is about consciousness. If we accept that Yoga is a science then we can say that Yoga is a science of consciousness.
Is Yoga a science?
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali can be viewed as a scientific treatise. It describes the method, the expected results, and clarifies all the technical terms used. What it describes can be done by anybody and validated. There is no need to rely on the authority of a sage or saint.
In sutra 1:21 Patanjali says “Success in yoga comes with great speed to those who are intensely sincere”. That is all. That is the only prerequisite to Yoga: Do it sincerely. No sage has to bless you, nor do you have to belong to any special class or caste. No secret chanting is involved. Anybody can do yoga and verify its results.
How can we have a science of consciousness?
Consciousness is an internal subjective phenomenon. Science is objective. Can there be a science of consciousness? This is one of the dilemmas faced in the scientific exploration of consciousness. It may also be one reason why modern science has lagged behind in this area and very little is known about consciousness. Luckily there has been progress in making the study of consciousness objective. Study of brain waves while people meditate is one way of understanding processes associated with meditation. In addition new brain imaging techniques and study of physiological changes in people who are doing meditation are also possible.
Patanjali and other sages have been very precise in describing different stages of meditation. Just as the Eskimos have 50 different terms of describing snow, the ancient yogis have a large number of terms describing different stages of deep meditation (or Samadhi). All this can now be tied to scientific study of brain waves and brain imaging studies. In addition people can independent of each other describe what they experience when they go into these steep stages of meditation.
Why does consciousness matter?
It is a sad fact that we know much more about Mars than we know about our own Consciousness. We have spent thousand fold more resources- time, money, and, energy, in knowing about and exploring Mars than the scientific exploration of our own consciousness.
Consciousness matters. Our very survival as a species may depend on it. A full understanding of consciousness leads to an insight into our fundamental interconnectedness with each other and the ecology around us. Humans are gaining extraordinary powers through advances in Science. Sadly these powers can be used to harm one another and destroy the planet. This is why we need the science of Consciousness to progress rapidly as this will give us the wisdom to use these powers wisely.
Why is scientific acceptance slow?
Till something is validated by experiment its considered as a Hypothesis. After it is validated its considered as a scientifically accepted fact. There are many aspects of meditation that have been scientifically explored and validated. But science has yet to accept all claims of Yoga as scientific facts. But outside the domain of science, yogis of various backgrounds have independent of each other (across centuries) verified many of the claims of yoga. Science has been slow in making progress as this is a field that is highly subjective and new methods have to be invented to objectify and understand what is happening inside the conscious experience.
Sadly one of the reasons for the relative slow progress has been reluctance of scientists to take up work that may seem “controversial”. While Yogis have been welcoming scientists to use them as experimental guinea pigs, scientists have been reluctant to take up the challenge. Here is Paramahamsa Yogananda in the Autobiography Of An Yogi written in 1940s:
“Those amazing truths that our descendants will discover are even now all around us, staring us in our eyes, so to speak, and yet we not see them. But it is not enough to say that we do the see them; we do not wish to see them- for as soon as an unexpected and unfamiliar fact appears, we try to fit it into the framework of the commonplace of accepted knowledge, and are very indignant that anyone should dare experiment further.”
What do we do in the meantime?
The good news is that the process of meditation has tremendous benefits on the mind-body system. A lot of this has been scientifically explored and validated. This application of yoga to medicine is a fast growing field (sometimes known as Yoga Therapy). There is no mumbo jumbo involved. Practicing yoga postures, doing breathing exercises, and doing meditation, all have been shown to be extremely beneficial in reducing stress and for various medical problems from cancer, to heart disease, to depression.
All scientific area including physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc., have vast areas where knowledge is incomplete and not scientifically verified. Yoga is no different. Some areas of the science of consciousness have been explored and scientifically and validated. More progress is pending. In the meantime there are many applications of the methods of yoga that have scientific validation and can be used by us for our benefit.
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Credits:This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah.