Embracing Yoga Skepticism.

Via on Feb 6, 2012
Photo: Curious Expeditions

In my non-yoga related field of study, most scholars fall pretty neatly into one of two camps. They are either social scientists or they are interpretivists (some would say that critical approaches represent a third, but that’s an argument for another day). Early in my academic life, I spent some time on social scientific work, even getting to coauthor a few publications from that perspective. I pretty quickly decided that approach/world view just was not for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it has things to say; it does.  It wasn’t that I didn’t see the utility or logic in such an approach; I did. It just felt incomplete to me to study living beings totally at the level of science. I felt like I was missing something crucial that could only be fully examined through looking at the diversity of individual experience rather than the ascertaining the common patterns.  So, all that to say that I don’t usually self-identify as a scientist and am often most drawn to non-scientific research when it comes to understanding the human experience.

Now and then, however, my inner scientist pokes her head around the corner and says, “Um, excuse me, but do you have some proof of that?”  I have this experience sometimes when reading about yoga philosophy or mythology.  My inner scientist (or skeptic, you might say), does not much rebel at the idea of a universal connection or that we are all one.  Apparently, there is enough evidence for those to keep her quiet – or it’s a leap of faith she is willing to make.  The concept that breath is the root of everything in the body, that works for the skeptic.  After all, without breath there is no life, so it seems somehow perfectly reasonable to go there.

But, when I come up against stories of the sages, chants about a monkey god, teachings about prana, nadis, chakras and so on, the inner scientist runs right into the center of my brain and makes her presence known. So, as an example, at one point not that long ago, I read  Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life.  In one chapter, they begin with a description of Kundalini (consciousness) coiled as a snake at the base of the spine, reading to ascend to cosmic consciousness through  the sushumna nadi (central energy channel).  Yeah, um, what?  My skeptic started immediately getting antsy.  I think there may have been some pacing.  From there it headed into nadis and chakras and vayus and granthis and I think that my inner scientist may have begun holding her head and moaning slightly.  “Wait!  Where is the evidence?  How do you know there is a central channel with two channels wrapped around it?  Snake, what?  REALLY?  Chakras and granthis that cannot be seen?  Uh huh.”

It’s not that I can’t believe in something unseen (see me speaking of this part of self that I’m calling the inner scientist/skeptic?) but known though experience.  I think it’s that when I start thinking about the physical body and then combining that with talking about the metaphysical in ways that I have not really experienced, then somehow that part of what is “I” wants some evidence.  I want to see it or see that someone has.  I want to read some test results.  I guess I want proof.  Interesting from a humanist/interpretivist!

This inner dialogue is not a stopper for me in yoga studies.  Each time it occurs, I just have to find a spot from which I can think about these ideas and examine their utility for my being.  After all, as I tell my students, the accuracy of your memories is not important at all – what is important is what they are doing for/to you today.  I just need to find a way to be with this knowledge that doesn’t make my inner scientist squeamish.  And, I usually can.   When I think about the story of Hanuman as only a story that we can use to think about our own existence in the world, it’s fine.  When I embraced Buddhism as a philosophy built on experiential examination of being, it was all good and I became comfortable enough to say that I embrace Buddhist thought – in the understanding that Buddha said we shouldn’t accept this way of thinking about being as the absolute – we should always question and bring in what we have experienced.

So, this is part of my ongoing project in yoga.  Every time I feel the skeptic getting squirmy, I try to take a mental step back, figure out what her objection is, and see if I can turn the ideas around in my mind to make them, not totally comfortable or familiar (after all, some discomfort is required for learning), but at least not so uncomfortable that I close off to them.  Doing so allows me to explore things in ways that I might otherwise not be able.  And, perhaps it gives me more insight into how others view this interesting philosophy of yoga.  That’s a good thing, and it makes me appreciate my inner scientist.  Her skepticism is okay with me.

About Lorin Arnold

I'm a university professor, not-that-kind-of-doctor, family and gender communication scholar, spouse, vegan (not a real fur), and mother of six.  I'm a little goofy and a little serious, organized and kind of a mess. In my "spare" time, I teach yin and vinyasa yoga and write The VeganAsana - a blog about yoga and green eating/cooking.  I consider the blog, and my work with elephant journal my little effort to ponder yoga and veganism, and how they intersect, in a way that helps me develop understandings of self, provides information for others, and allows me to rock my creative smarty pants.

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11 Responses to “Embracing Yoga Skepticism.”

  1. Tony says:

    Very interesting perspective upon yoga that is not often addressed. As an individual who has primarily been educated and surrounded by scientists and engineers, I often find myself a little squeamish learning more about chakras and such as if it is pure fact. I think that I am generally able to approach it with the idea that perhaps these regions of the body stimulate certain nerves or release various chemicals that result in many of the qualitative effects associated with them.

  2. Lorin Arnold Lorin Arnold says:

    Thanks, Tony. That's an interesting, and very reasonable, way to approach it from a position that may resonate with students who are more scientifically inclined. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    Annie,
    Thank YOU so much for reading and commenting. Your words were a delight.

  4. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

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  5. Yogatchr says:

    Sometimes the expression of the philosophy by a teacher just gets too complicated and distracting for me and takes me away- out of my present moment experience in class. I'll occasionally find myself muttering "okay, blah blah blah" but then I try and challenge myself to come back to the present moment and embrace that with which I am comfortable. Great article.

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  7. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    Thank you for reading and passing along information.

  8. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    Thanks, Crystal. It would be pretty amusing to hear someone say that in a yoga class ;)

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