Science vs. Spirituality: Opposites or Soulmates?

Via on Apr 1, 2011

via Yoga Modern

Until my first year of college, I had never given much thought to the relationship between science and spirituality. I, like many of you I would guess, had accepted the paradigm I had been given by my foremothers and forefathers without much skepticism—science and spirituality existed on opposite ends of a continuum, and if there was any relationship between them it was one of discord and disagreement. Science, I had been told, was devoted to logic and empiricism; while spirituality was rooted fundamentally in that esoteric thing we call faith.

This model—of science and spirituality as two distinct, opposing forces—reminds me of the yogic idea that we possess within our individual selves a microcosm of the universe’s dynamically opposing energies. The word Hatha in Sanskrit is often translated to mean sun and moon, and it is through the practice of Hatha Yoga that ancient sages believed one could cultivate union and balance between the two. The recognition of the need to maintain equilibrium between light and dark, masculine and feminine, activity and receptivity is certainly not unique to the discipline of yoga. It is a theme that we find in nearly all wisdom traditions; in the yin-yang symbol of Taoism, the anima and animus archetypes of Jungian psychology, and even the theory of matter and antimatter in modern cosmology.

Despite what seems so apparent to me now, I was not always comfortable with the coexistence of opposites— not in my body, nor in my intellectual outlook of the world. I actually dreaded the “hard” science courses I knew were required for my Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. I feared their emphasis on concrete answers and empiricism might cause me to lose touch with what little spiritual sentiment remained from the faith traditions I’d been raised with as a child. To my surprise, what I found was that my scientific courses actually inspired me to grow into the spiritual identity I’d been feeling so out of touch with in my life.

Surrounded by an intimidating group of pre-med majors in my first Biology course, I began the process of integrating facts about electrons, cellular organelles, and plant reproduction (Can you say, green porn?) into my pre-existing conception of the world.  As I studied the miraculous ways in which cells, bacteria, plants, and even sub-atomic molecules interact with one another, I was somewhat astonished to find etched within my science textbooks vivid descriptions of an underlying force that connects each and every sentient entity on this planet.

The word “force” seems almost an insult to the magnificence of the concept I wish to describe, but unfortunately I have not yet come across a word in the English language that conveys its essence. It  is the bond between friends, the passion between lovers, the curiosity of a young child, and I’ve come to believe that it may very well be the very substance of life itself. It is ever present in the mechanisms that govern the biological world, driving the miraculous interactions between the molecules of our DNA and the mutualistic relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizae. It is the delicate balance I become so vividly aware of as I inhale (Ha) and exhale (Tha) during my yoga practice. This force, I believe, is what many religions have personified with the names “God” or “Allah” or “Buddha”.  In yoga, we know it as Hatha.

It seems to me that discord only arises when we attempt to isolate and define this force, bestow a name to an inherently ephemeral concept. What religion calls God, science calls the universe; what yoga calls Hatha, science describes as the laws of physics. The realization I have finally come to after dabbling for several years now in rigorous world of scientific academia is that the entities we’re attempting to describe are often so dynamic that they elude concrete definition entirely.  Life is not something that can be fully expressed in words; in the end Hatha, God, quantum mechanics—whatever you choose to name it—must be experienced.

I’m now at ease dwelling in the worlds of both science and spirituality. To be honest, I’m not sure I even see the two as separate anymore. I’ve come to appreciate my body (and my mind for that matter) as a stage for the dance between life’s opposites, and on my yoga mat I am afforded an opportunity to marvel and bow to life’s exquisite contradictions. The spiritual identity that’s emerged is one of awe, wonder, and gratitude for this force we call Hatha… and by extension for all of Life.

About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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25 Responses to “Science vs. Spirituality: Opposites or Soulmates?”

  1. Please welcome Chelsea Roff to Elephant as a regular contributor.

    I love this piece, Chelsea. As you know, the relationship between science and religion is one of my favorite topics, and you've written masterfully about it here. Great illustrations, too.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Tobye Hillier yogi tobye says:

    Love it!

    Thanks Chelsea and welcome :)

  3. This is a brilliantly written article that illustrates the dichotomy of spirituality and science. What an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

  4. Linda Buzogany linda buzogany says:

    Welcome Chelsea. Really intelligent writing. It's a topic I'm quite into also. Have fun..
    Linda

    • Chelsea Roff Chelsea says:

      Thanks, Linda! It's interesting to share some of my own process in coming to understand the whole science/spirituality topic on such a public forum. I'm happy to hear that it interests others too.

  5. yogiclarebear says:

    Chelsea,

    Even though you used some difficult words I didn't understand (read: mycorrhizae), I feel like the overall gist is…KISS. Keep it simple silly…it is what it is (that force)!

  6. Brent Binder drbinder says:

    you would make an excellent chiropractor! HAHA!

    Much Love to you and this piece! I will reccomend it to the students in my BIO class!

  7. Zarathustra says:

    Bravissimo! Spectacular article! It really spoke to me for a few reasons. In my very short experience on this Earth, I have seen and lived through many things most people can't even imagine. From all this experience with so many wildly different ideas, emotions, and experiences, I have come to agree with Heraclitus on his hypothesis of the unity of opposites, an idea which states that opposites are actually the same thing. Although, I never perceived science and spirituality as opposites. In fact, I always considered spirituality to be a science. But to avoid a lengthy metaphor, I'll leave it at that.

    Thank you for this! Looking forward to hearing what else you've got to say!

    Also, your article has also helped me prepare for my Biology AP exam. This makes me happy.

  8. Lori Phillips says:

    I’m posting this to my Facebook page. I will be taking A&P I in the summer. Your take on this has me looking forward to it even more. God is in it!
    Namaste.

    • Chelsea Roff Chelsea says:

      Ah, you just made me smile so big, Lori! You'll love A&P. That was one of my favorite courses…. especially the sections on endocrinology and osteology (study of bones). Believe it or not, I think that class actually enhanced my yoga practice! lol. Best wishes to you, and thank you for sharing the piece with others you know.

  9. Science and Yoga
    Are soulmates.
    Both find
    Infinite wonder
    Awesome mystery
    And unanswerable questions
    Even in the simplest things
    We see all around us.

    How do the
    Molecules and atoms
    Protons, electrons, and quarks
    Of a rock
    Know how to be
    A rock?

    Science and Yoga
    Both inflame our awareness
    As much by marveling
    At what we don’t know
    As what we do.

    (from YogaDemystified.com)

    • Chelsea Roff Chelsea says:

      Science and Yoga
      Both inflame our awareness
      As much by marveling
      At what we don’t know
      As what we do.

      YES! Sink mindfully into the Mystery. Step with consciousness into the Unknown. That's where Life begins.

      Thank you, Bob, for just being you. Much love.

  10. From Facebook:

    Lauren Gullion Chelsea's awesome…look forward to reading her work!
    7 hours ago · Like

    Precariously Balanced the Force!
    6 hours ago · Like

    Lisa Nevar-Landsmann Thanks for this! Just yesterday my 5 1/2 year old asked me: "Mom, what do we believe in our house?" My husband and both received degrees in hard sciences, yet we have a statue of Buddha in our home. We don't attend any denomination of church, yet we were married in one. We teach our son about space travel, evolution and myriad other scientific topics, yet we also share with him that Buddha and Jesus had the same job: to share stories with others on how to be a truly good person. I guess we believe Science and Spirituality are soulmates in our house.
    3 hours ago · Like

  11. Great work, Chelsea! Look forward to reading more. Cheers!

  12. Satkirin Khalsa Dr Satkirin says:

    Thank you for this post Chelsea! In latin 'spirit' (spiritus) means 'breath'. Not all organisms inhale and exhale (don't need to point that out), and not all organisms even need oxygen to survive, but all organisms depend on one another for survival. The evolution of the species continues, and this includes humans. We have a long way to go before we understand 90% of science (and much of what we understand today is going to be proven wrong tomorrow!), and we have further to go before we can even define our experiences with pranayama, our breath. The breath of life in yoga is 'prana'. The breath of life in science is 'spirit. I too questioned the seemingly opposing views and perspectives of the scientific world and the spirit world. But they must be in union, for we would not be present without our spirit, our breath. There is a wonderful scientific study by Dr. Luciano Bernardi that correlates the rhythm of the breath ('spirit'- chanting and reciting the rosary etc.) and the synchronicity of our heart and respiratory rate. We depend on spirit. How we experience this is our own subjective 'spirituality'. :)

  13. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  14. [...] Science vs. Spirituality: Opposites or Soulmates? [...]

  15. Named to Top 10 Elephant Yoga Blogs of the Week.

    Congratulations.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  16. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    nice article! a subject close to my heart – nice to find you chelsea!

  17. [...] with words like “faith”, “higher power”, and “miraculous.” In conversation with more scientifically-minded folks, I notice myself describing the very same experience with words like “nature”, “force”, and [...]

  18. [...] I don’t believe in soulmates. [...]

  19. Just reposted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
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