Science and Yoga

Jim Tarran

Article first published in Yoga Magazine September 2017


Yoga is variously described as ‘science’ and ‘art’. Over recent years there has been a real increase in scientific research into yoga-based subjects, perhaps as a reaction to it as a more subjective, fluid, more ‘art-like’ form, reflecting the desire to quantify it? Although both science and yoga are mediums to investigate truth, they are not the same thing although there are undeniable overlaps.

Evidence-based research can be hugely beneficial for widening the appeal of yoga: it can appeal to more pragmatic individuals and can even convince corporations, governments and educational institutions to offer funding for yoga, making it more widely available – this is, of course, a good thing.

So what research-based evidence is there for yoga’s efficacy?

And does it matter, from the point of view of a yoga practitioner, whether or not science validates its practices?

Before we address those questions, let’s just check in with what the term ‘yoga’ actually refers to.

The word first appears in the four Holy Books of India, The Vedas (c1200 – 1700 BCE). The three principal ways in which the word is used in the Vedic era are:

  • Connecting: that which connects something to something else

  • Attaining/achieving: any technique to achieve anything.

  • A vehicle

From these roots, usage of the word in certain yogic texts came to mean:

  • Any technique to achieve (or to reveal/realise) connection/interconnection/interdependence

  • The revelation itself

Again, within specific groups, meaning was further refined to be:

  • Goal

  • Path

  • Techniques or tools that might be used to navigate this path

  • Final resulting paradigm shift, thereby, realized

Yoga principally facilitates these goals through multifarious means (upāya) of causing the finite experience of ‘me-ness’ to disappear into the super-rich, infinite ’now’. This is achieved by challenging the pull of habit energy (samskara), which triggers a spontaneous jettison of that which is superficial to one’s core. View adjustment (jnana yoga), devotional practice/self-surrender (bhakti yoga), body movement (asana/modern postural yoga), the moderation of breathing patterns (pranayama) and techniques that challenge normal speech, thought and energy patterns (mantra/visualisation/meditation) all offer sufficient challenge to habit energy to usurp it, leaving a temporary opening onto ‘essence nature’, its sub strata.  

The dual benefit of highlighting the core and the disentanglement (vairāgya) of essence-identity from the ever-changing peripheral commonly results in the practitioner feeling:

  • less stressed

  • more available to be able to respond to one’s environment (friends, family, associates and the body/mind)

  • more energized

Anecdotal testimonies and scientific research a like reveal that various yoga practices can lead to improvements in: back problems, respiratory disorders, sleep problems, mental health issues (anxiety/depression), heart problems, chronic pain disorders, IBS and more.

There are obvious reasons why yoga ‘works’ for many of these complaints, for example: seated meditations and pranayama encourage still, quiet time and space, encouraging easy transition between flight or fight (sympathetic nervous system) and rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system); the overt stretching and toning of muscle groups and connective tissue chains that occurs in postural practice supports anatomical/postural, circulatory and lymph health.

But there is also a primary reason, which underscores all others. All these health benefits conjunct with the resolution of the essential problem which yoga seeks to remedy: the general malaise caused by the wrong view (avidyā) that we are a separate, autonomous particles/beings, who can exercise completely separately (from the rest of existence), free thought and free will.

 This misidentification, with what is not essentially ours, leaves us believing that we should have complete control over our emotions, bodies, minds and environment.

This has us taking thoughts, feelings, emotions and physical sensation very personally.

This personalising brings with it; denial, frustration, tension, doubt, fear, ignorance, violence and confusion, primary causes for many of the above psycho-physical problems.

The inherent tension of ‘me-ness’ is reflected in the nervous system because of the instability (anitya) and uncertainty (saṃśaya) that the ‘I-dentity’ has attached itself to. The nervous system conditions, in turn, all other systems. For example, there is an observable, direct correspondence, between the stress related to the fundamental me-cause and gripping in the psoas, diaphragm, adductors, abdominals and so on.

Observable within asana, pranayama and meditation, the breath/brain/body get taken hostage by this mis-identity and its entanglement in conditioned behaviour, and become, reactive and compulsive, so that spontaneous (Sahaja) flow is lost. This manifests as resistance in many asanas; in mediation it can reveal as a lack of lightness and flow in the seated position and a consequential dull practice (tamas); and in pranayama as resistance to deeper, more free breaths.

Hyper tension is ultimately an expression of the essential helpless position we occupy as someone identified with cause and effect chains. This kind of tension can cause, amongst other things, narrowing of arteries and increased strain on the heart, and researchers found that, “Yoga leads to a significantly greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (SBP) compared to various forms of pharmacotherapy… yoga leads to a significantly greater reduction in diastolic blood pressure (DBP) or night-time DBP compared to pharmacotherapy, no treatment or usual care”.[1]

Other studies have revealed that gut problems can be improved through practicing yoga and meditation: “pathophysiological as well as psychosocial components affect symptom severity of FBDs (functional bowel disorders)”. [2]

And research into back painshows that “outpatient yoga programs for patients with chronic low back pain (CLBP) lasting several months have been found to reduce pain, analgesic requirement and disability, and improve spinal mobility”. [3]

While research papers such as these are encouraging, and boost mainstream confidence in yoga as a viable therapeutic tool, it is also obvious that not all practices that come under the broad banner of ‘yoga’ will have equal results. The way you practice is at least as important as what you’re practising.

A reduction in hyper-tension is clearly behind these and other positive results but what if there was no research support for yoga practice? Need it effect someone who is clearly enjoying and ‘feels’ the benefit of their practice?

Yoga, like science is not looking to come up with presentations of the truth that are immutable, unchanging and cast in stone, but realizes that words are just metaphors for pointing at an experience. Like science, yoga comes up with working models, to resolve, what it sees, as the core problems and then seeks to improve on them and/or to refresh them or illuminate them from another angle.

Words will always be pointers to a reality that lies beyond themselves.

Solely using science to verify the efficacy of yoga can be problematic simply because it isn’t so much what you do but the way that you do it that defines it as yogic. To put it another way, it’s less about what you do and more about what it does for you that qualifies something as being yoga. This is why there are and have always been so many ways to practice.

Just practising triangle pose (trikoṇāsana) will have a variety of effects on a variety of different people, at different times. It is the immediate efficacy that is the important factor for the yogin.

Yoga therefore is not a ‘technology’, as some commentators would have us believe, where a + b always = c, but something that must be felt out (with a clear comprehension of the purpose of the practice) anew every time. Like dancing, playing music, losing yourself in a hug or merging into the fullness of nature on a country walk, yoga always requires the giving up of the habit-contrived, conditioned self to the richness of the unconditioned reality of now – unconditioned because it is an endlessly changing myriad of causal flux that is timeless and beginning-less, where the primary cause is lost in the infinite movements.

Further reading:

Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness
By Bruce Rosenblum, Lecturer Department of Physics Fred Kuttner
The Psoas Book
By Liz Koch

[1]Murugesan, R., Govindarajulu, N., Bera, T.K. Effect of selected yogic practices on the management of hypertension. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2000;44:207–210.
[2]Oliver Grundmann and Saunjoo L. Yoon
European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 2013-08-01, Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 296-307
[3]Williams, K.A., Petronis, J., Smith, D., Goodrich, D., Wu, J., Ravi, N. et al, Effect of Iyengar yoga therapy for chronic low back pain. Pain. 2005;115:107–117. Tekur, P., Chametcha, S., Nagendra, H.R., Raghuram, N. Effect of short-term intensive yoga program on pain, functional disability and spinal flexibility in chronic low back pain: a randomized control study. J Altern Complement Med. 2008;14:637–644.