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December 19, 2010

Is Yoga an Art, a Science, or a Religion?

On John Friend’s website, you will find the following sentence describing the Anusara Yoga Teacher Traning manual: “The most clear and comprehensive book on the art and science of teaching yoga available.”

IS YOGA A SCIENCE?

Let us take a look at the meaning of the word science. Many people who argue that yoga is not a science use the word science in a rather reductionist and limited way.

In other words, they subscribe to “scientism,” the reductionist idea that science is only related to any of the branches of natural or physical sciences and does not in any way apply to “a particular branch of systematic knowledge,” such as yoga, for example. As we shall see, the dictionary does not define the word science in such a narrow way.

Here is the dictionary definition of the word science: /ˈsaɪəns/

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.

4. systematized knowledge in general.

5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

6. a particular branch of knowledge.

7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.

The communal and personal practice of yoga for the past 5-7000 years certainly applies to most of these definitions.

Definition number 2): yoga is definitely a “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.”

Indeed, this is what distinguishes yoga from being a mere religion, a

dogma, a belief system, because over thousands of years, yogis observed animals, themselves, and the natural world in order to gain knowledge about the body, the senses, the breath, the way certain movements effected their health and wellbeing.

In other words, hatha yogis are scientists. The sages of old said: if you practice this kind of exercise, you will be slimmer, you will be stronger, more flexible, and best of all, you will be able to sit for a long time without discomfort during meditation.

Moreover, the yogis observed and documented: If you eat this herb (brahmi), your concentration will improve, if you eat this herb (ashvaganda), you will gain strength and stamina.

They gained all this knowledge not through belief and superstition but through systematic observation of their physical bodies and the environment. Hence yogis were definitely scientists.

It was indeed through the scientific efforts of trial and error that they discovered that some foods were good for contemplation (brahmi) and others were not so good (garlic!)

Definition number 3): yoga is a “branch of natural or physical science” for basically the very same reasons as I outlined above.

Definition number 4): Yoga is part of “systematic knowledge in general.”

One of the things that struck me when I first started practicing yoga and meditation was how systematic it was. The same goes for Ayurveda. I studied Ayurveda at California College of Ayurveda with an engineer friend, and one of his main observations was how systematic, rational and logical ayurveda was!

When I started yoga in India, nobody told me to simply believe this or that. Instead I was presented with a body of very rational, systematic forms of knowledge. In addition, I was told: try this out in this and that way, and if you do, you will experience this and that. And indeed I did. And millions of others have had the same experience.

So yoga is very systematic, very scientific. No religious or New Age mumbo jumbo, only good Old Age wisdom and rationality.

Are you not convinced already? Do I need to continue? Well, let us just conclude by saying that yoga is also 5) “knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study. 6. a particular branch of knowledge. 7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.”

Anybody serious about their yoga practice knows quite well that yoga is all of those things.

IS YOGA AN ART?

Well, that’s easy. Just take a look at 92 year old Iyengar in one of his spectacular and artfully executed poses and you will realize that all yogis worthy of their yogi pants are artists.

Or take a look at John Friend or Sean Corn. Great artists of body and mind.

And if you practice meditation, you will quickly realize it is both a science and an art. Yogic meditation is a science because it was developed through repeated experimentation and observation, and an art because in order to do it deeply and blissfully, you must apply your own imagination and creativity.

Or just take a look at a Buddha statue. No greater art than that image, that pose of deep sensuous silence.

IS YOGA A FITNESS ROUTINE?

Well, that one is also easy. Just pick up a copy of Yoga Journal or take a class at any of your city’s many yoga studios and you will quickly learn that yoga is a great fitness program unlike any ever designed before or after.

IS YOGA A SPIRITUAL PATH?

Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a spiritual path. The fact is, you can hail from any religion and still practice yoga. No problem. Why? As I demonstrated initially, yoga is more a science and an art than a religion. Yoga is an empirical path of body-mind-spirit transformation. That simple.

I know that some people only practicing hatha yoga believe that the rest of yoga—the philosophy, the chakras, the meditation, the ayurvedic stuff—is all about religion. But that is not correct.

Many writers on yoga say that yoga comes from the Vedas. But is this correct? Yes and no.

We can divide the Vedas into two portions: the karmakáńda [ritualistic portions of the Vedas] and the jiṋánakáńda [philosophical portions].

The karmakanda teachings are the oldest portions of the Vedas and contain rituals and prayers to appease the Gods, requests for a good harvest, etc. These rituals are the yajinas, or sacrifices—including animal sacrifices—of the Vedic priests found in the four Vedas of ancient times.

The jinanakanda portion, or the philosophical writings of the Vedas, are those deeply yogic scriptures found in the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahmanas. These Vedic scriptures are more recent (700 BCE or so) and are a result of a blend between Yogic and Tantric practice and Vedic philosophy.

Hence, while the philosophy of yoga is expressed in these more recent or so-called Fifth Vedas, the practical knowledge, the science of yoga, belongs to the oral teachings of the yogis and the tantrics that originated thousands of years earlier.

The yogis applied the same rigorous trial and error experimentation to the practice and science of meditation as they did while developing the hatha yoga asanas.

Let me explain: Hatha yoga pranayama when practiced without a mantra has many health benefits.  A friend of mine recently cured a severe case of psoriasis (flaking, itching and inflammation of the skin) by practicing pranayama. No Western medical doctor, the so-called real scientists, had been able to help him. For him, this kind of pranayama became a body-mind exercise as it balanced his prana and manipura chakra and thus his digestive system and purified his blood.

The limitation with this type of pranayama, though, as with all hatha yoga, is that it does not bring you so easily into the deeper state of spiritual awakening and bliss, at least not in a systematic, meditative way. To do that, you need to practice raja yoga pranayama.

When you practice raja yoga pranayama with a mantra, your practice is more psycho-spiritual, because you ideate on becoming one with Spirit, you ideate on your breath while using a mantra and thus you go beyond the chatter of the mind. And slowly, with each deep breath, you start to experience the vast inner NOW of silence and being. You become the breath of Spirit itself as the kundalini, the inner breath of the spine, breathes you to a state of higher consciousness.

That is the practice of yoga as a spiritual path. At least that is one of the many ways in which yogis developed meditation techniques to let us embrace the inner union with Spirit, which is the goal of yoga. Indeed, one of the most popular definitions of yoga in India, the tantric definition, is “spiritual union.”

So, my friends, yoga is indeed all of the above: a science, an art, a fitness routine and a spiritual path. Or what do you think?

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