Field of Science

Science and Yoga

I have started doing Yoga recently, to give me a bit of calming time during revision, and to get a work out which doesn't involve undue damage to my knees. This has brought about a distinct amount of light-hearted teasing from a Certain Special Someone, who as well as insisting that this means I'm turning into a middle-aged woman also asks me how I can cope with it not being 'scientific'. I'm meant to object to phrases like 'positive energy flows' and things.

Well I do object to them. A little. Our yoga instructor is a cheerful guy in about his thirties who said on the very first day that his science background was pretty much non-existent. Positive energy flows have been mentioned, as have muscles opening up and the mind drifting away etc.

But then I starting thinking about it. What he's saying is not strictly true, he knows that. It's not meant to be true. What it is is a model for how you're thinking and how your body is reacting. A model that fits within the thoughts and philosophies of yoga. There is no positive energy in my legs at any point, there's a lot of lactic acid at some points but that doesn't make any sense in the context of yoga. Like many parts of science, yoga takes the model that works best within the context of what it's doing and rolls with that.

I'm not claiming that yoga is scientific here. It isn't, it hasn't got the scientific method and evaluation behind it (it's more of a philosophy if it's anything, which means the aforementioned Certain Special Someone should have a little more respect for it :p ). But using chakras and energy points to describe what's happening is no worse than enzymologists using clunky atoms-as-large-balls models to work their models of catalysis.

[As an aside, enzymologists tend to be very realistic when it comes to thinking of science as a model. They know that there's very little chance of ever finding out exactly what's going on in the catalytic centre of an enzyme. They thought they were in with a chance, somewhere in the 70s, but then quantum entered biology and it all went a bit weird]

There is, however, a difference between 'working model' and 'bad science'. Claims that yoga does things like 'release toxins' or 'energise the DNA' or whatever are nonsense and bad science; Pseudo-scientific babble that could easily be described as downright lies. But being told to feel your breath being used to flow energy through you (or whatever, he's not yet gone that far but it's a nice phrase nevertheless) I would say isn't bad science. It's a way of describing a feeling, that allows you to grasp what you're trying to do. There's no scientific way of putting it. It's a model for a way of feeling, and it's the best model within the context of yoga.

Until you start taking it too seriously, obviously. But then, that's true for everything.


John Farrell said...

Fascinating. Years ago as an undergrad I had to learn Tai Chi as part of a martial arts program I was taking. I'm grateful to find that after all these years it comes back quickly now as I relearn it.

But my instructor never said anything about the chi area having any effect on my DNA.


Lab Rat said...

I have a friend doing Tai Chi at the moment. he's a physicist :)

DNA has not actually been mentioned yet. If it ever is, I think I'd just break down in giggles, which could be a bit fatal during the third warrior stance (where you're standing on one leg anyway)

Anonymous said...

The moment you stop treating it like a model and start trying to pass it off as truth is when the science dies. And philosophy means love of thinking, anyway, so I just take it as an excuse to have some fun :)