Yoga: Science vs. the supernatural

I was catching up with an old friend the other day, who is an expat living in Bali, and she mentioned the dreadful effect the pandemic has had on on this, world´s leading spiritual & wellness tourist destination. Our conversation brought back a lot of fond memories of spending almost a year there myself. In hindsight, as a Westerner, it seems that I was living in a parallel universe next to the Balinese, on a daily basis.  I recall an incident where a storm had destroyed a part of the open-air spa, at the resort I was working for, whereby the next logical step was to speak to the construction manager…well to me and the other foreigners it was anyway. However, to the Balinese team, the first logical step was to call a priest and arrange a purifying ceremony, to chase away the evil spirits and demons, who apparently caused the mess. 

In the same tone, traditionally, it would be quite common in Bali, to be sent to a local village healer for a toothache (yes, more demons at play), or be given Jamu, a fresh turmeric root and ginger beverage, blended up with water, honey and lime juice, as a remedy for a wide range of illnesses. The latter I actually do love preparing, when coming down with a cold, but probably, as with any  remedy, not a definite cure for any major disease, nor would it be suitable for everyone.

A disclaimer for anyone planning on visiting Bali when the situation allows it: the island has many private modern dental & medical clinics, as well as all the other necessary infrastructure, so no worries there. 

In fact, for all of you who have been to Bali, you’ve probably noticed the numerous and breathtaking high-end resorts, extraordinary service, a plethora of yoga events,  world class restaurants, hairdressers, bars, pubs, cultural monuments & events, as well as amazing cuisine…made from local fruit, vegetables, fish and meats. In a nutshell, Bali has it all. 

The reason I mentioned this is because, one of the fundamental beliefs of the locals is that Bali is a fertile and prosperous  island, thanks to their devoted religious practices and rituals. Daily offerings to the Hindu deities, and ceremonies, come before work and money, as they believe, the former creates an abundance of the latter. And up until 2020, it may have seemed that way, or at least it would have been easier to believe that narrative. In fact, this may be the reason, the island has been attracting so many spiritual seekers over the years.

However, as we are approaching the last quarter of  2021, many Balinese families are practically starving, and turning to the local expat community for financial help, as there are no tourists, the hotels aren’t operational, nor the majority of other tourist services. According to my friend who is there now, the locals in general,  keep relying on  their religious rituals to pull them out of this crisis, instead of looking for more pragmatic solutions to earn a living, which could be as simple as selling eggs from the chickens they already own, or accepting work outside the tourism sector.

Ok, so this was a long-winded introduction to the topic of yoga, in terms of whether to incline towards the supernatural or should we only accept what is based on facts and scientific evidence. I am only sharing what I believe to be true, based on what I’ve experienced and studied so far, and what I feel may be helpful on your own journey of self-growth…

We have increasing scientific studies demonstrating  the health benefits  of a regular yoga practice, especially in terms of stress management. However,  reducing yoga to only a physical practice, and striping away its spiritual side, and Indian heritage, so that it appeals more  to a Western, result-oriented mindset, is not only disrespectful to the country of origin, but also oversimplifying its invaluable holistic role for our self-development. 

Throughout my own journey, I’ve come across both extremes; on the one hand,  teachers and practitioners who ONLY accept yoga as a physical practice, and have a rather Richard Dawkins attitude, in a sense that everything that isn’t scientifically proven, is basically quackery. On the other hand,  there are the esoteric claims about yoga being  a path to energetically heal, unblock chakras,  become enlightened (sometimes in only 30 days, with a money back guarantee..lol), become ¨love gods and goddesses”, etc.  

And where do I stand? If I am to be completely honest, in neither one of these extremes.  

For me yoga has become not just a profession, but a life-time commitment of practice & study, and I can see how much this field has evolved thanks to scientific research, especially over the last decade. Yoga is often recommended by health professionals, as an effective way to cope with anxiety, depression and stress.1

Here in Chile for example, yoga is listed as a complementary medicine practice and is gradually becoming an essential topic of integrative medicine. 2

Also, I couldn’t imagine teaching or doing yoga without the minimal understanding of how our bodies function, how our joints move, what happens to our muscles when they shorten or lengthen,  how the vagus nerve can be stimulated through yogic breathwork and help us relax, or how our bones continuously change, and so much more.

However if that’s all there is to yoga, and our existence on this planet, I would definitely say that it’s not.  I do believe, or choose to believe, in the subtle forces of our bodies and in nature, that cannot be explained by the limitations of modern science. At least not yet. And every dedicated practicioner will most likely have their own unique and very personal experience. 

Now, whether it’s useful to be overthinking about these subtleties and getting lost in a huge grey area, that is another story. 

Imagination can run wild in the realm of spiritual practiceI, especially if encouraged through the fluffiness of New age jargon. I’ve come to believe that spiritual fluff sells well, as it can seem very soothing when trying to escape a grim reality. More often than not, people get very confused, and can disassociate from themselves and their environment, by cultivating these magical beliefs, and not to mention, fall prey to spiritual predators, who can then easily take advantage of them. However, this is a whole blog topic on its own. 

Another dangerous aspect of this kind of magical thinking is that it’s easy to start thinking of yoga as a replacement for medical treatment, and a solution for everything. As I stated earlier, yoga is gaining more credibility in the role of complementary medicine, however this doesn’t mean that us teachers have the credentials to diagnose or heal anyone. 

Although it does not have to do with yoga directly, a couple of years ago a reiki therapist tried to convince me that I did not need a certain surgery, as apparently  her sessions were going to be enough to help me overcome a  health issue. Naturally, I ignored the lady’s advice, and underwent a cardiological procedure to heal a benign but annoying arrhythmia, which I had since childhood. It was the best investment I had ever made,  to improve the quality of my life, since my problem was at the physiological level, and there was no other permanent treatment option. And that is not to say that reiki does not have its place and value as a technique that promotes relaxation. However, it is not a medical treatment.

Another example of this, that often comes up in yoga is when teachers insist that their students turn raw-vegan overnight (or make any other radical change) as they swear by the healing benefits of their regimen, without realizing that every person is different. 

Even the effectiveness of Family Constellations and Progressive Constellations, i.e.  self-development methods dedicated to understanding the  dynamics in our family systems and other relationships, is often explained through what biologist Rupert Sheldrake calls, morphic resonance

However, whether morphic resonance, i.e. “a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems” 3 is real, and in the context of Progressive and Family Constellations, relates to information passed on to us transgenerationally, in itself, is not all that relevant. 

In fact , the  effectiveness of the methods can also be explained in terms of becoming aware of our biased perceptions, our ancestors’ sufferings, our deepest emotions, subconscious thoughts, and our family’s fundamental beliefs, as well as better connecting with what we want in life. And once we shift our own mindset and behaviour, naturally, the dynamics with the people we interact with, change as well. The method is definitely becoming widely used by psychologists, and has even been added as part of the psychology study curriculum at several universities. 

During my years of training to become a Progressive Constellations facilitator, just like in yoga, I came across very esoteric therapists as well as the more down-to-earth and pragmatic coaches. My own style is probably more inclined towards the latter, and  I feel that the method can be really helpful for gaining clarity, and working towards resolving personal and professional issues. I will write more about this method in my next article.

So if you feel perplexed by all the contradictions when it comes to your yoga practice I would recommend keeping it simple. Don’t worry about utopian goals, such as enlightenment, before cultivating a healthy body and mind. If the practice can help you become healthier, calmer, more focused, and nicer to yourself and others, it may be enough in this lifetime. 

And I admit,  the practice can get quite boring, dull, and repetitive at times – just sitting with your breath, observing your hand as you come into triangle pose, trying to live in moderation, and not allowing your imagination to pull you out of the here and now. That is the real challenge in daily practice. Not very glamorous, I must add. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to sit in meditation all day long. The practice is like daily hygiene that you do, and then get on with your other activities. However, it has to be done. Otherwise, as one of my principals teachers always used to remind us,  if we aren’t practicing, then the theory really doesn’t mean much.

As far as the subtle sensations you may feel in your meditation practice, a lot has to do with the fact that through mental focus we are able to distort our perception of the physical body. As we practice stillness, we can get the impression that we don’t feel the body, however as soon as we move the body, the sensations will be back. 

I am not saying that higher states of consciousness aren’t possible, but to the average beginner or recreational practitioner, excessive thinking about achieving these states may easily  lead them astray and give the ego more ambitious goals to chew on, and get distracted by – instead of actually practicing.

However, I do recommend you read one of the interpretations of the  Yoga Sutras, and other ancient literature on yoga, as there is a wealth of wisdom in these books, and so much valuable information on the human mind, that can help you to better understand its chatty and volatile nature. I am always amazed how despite the fact that we have greatly advanced technologically, human nature hasn’t changed much since the time this book was written, most likely about 4000 years ago.

In conclusion, I recommend you keep your practice steady and simple, read the ancient texts, and about the latest scientific studies, keep an open mind, and your feet on the ground. 

Resources:

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843960/

2 https://www.minsal.cl/hospital-de-achao-suma-medicina-complementaria-como-reiki-yoga-y-terapia-neural-para-otorgar-mejor-

3 https://www.sheldrake.org/research/morphic-resonanc

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