Five reasons Science does not prove Yoga works.

Via Chelsea Roff
on Aug 23, 2011
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Creative Commons License photo credit: Patrick Hoesly

The findings of modern brain science utterly enthrall most people. And today’s journalists have got quite adept at trumpeting scientific findings in ways that captivate and simultaneously mislead the masses. Search the word “yoga” and “neuroscience” on Google and you’ll find an amalgam of sexy-sounding articles—everything from “Researchers find God-spot in the brain” to “Yoga heals the brain from depression.” Sounds pretty fantastic

These are overly-simplistic and tragically misinformed headlines.

And unfortunately, yoga practitioners are some of the worst about falling prey to the antics of hype-loving journalists. As much as I love that there’s such an interest in science in our community, I have to say that most articles attempting to explain the findings of neuroscience to yogis irritate me to no end.

I think part of the problem is that when we run across a scientific finding that appears to confirm our existing view of the world, we are less likely to rationally assess the claims being made. And what we don’t realize is that those headlines have a set of unwieldy assumptions hidden behind the words.

So before you go re-posting that next ‘Science Proves ____ Works’ article, consider these five things all yogis should know about science:

1. There ain’t no spirit in science.

The very premise that neuroscience rests most of its claims upon is this: The mind is the brain. Simple as that. There’s no “vital energy” that gives you life, no Higher Self that’s reincarnated from body to body. You are, very simply, your flesh. Take a look at what Francis Crick, the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the DNA molecule, had to say about who (or what) “you” are:

“You—your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will—are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

According to neuroscience, if it can’t be measured… it doesn’t exist. And since “chakras,” “prana” and other esoteric-sounding concepts the ancients referred to in their texts on yoga don’t reveal themselves using the current tools of neuroscience, most researchers would deem them a bunch of hooey. So when “Science proves yoga works” (who is this Science guy anyway? I’m dying to meet him!)…. well, not exactly.

2. Yoga changes your brain. . . And so does brushing your teeth.

Oh, how I’ve come to LOATHE reading that ridiculously overused headline: “______ changes your brain.”

Yes, yoga changes your brain. But so does every single other thought, action or behavior you repeat over time. The brain is tremendously plastic; you create new neural pathways anytime you do something novel—and if you do it over and over again, you better believe those pathways will become deeper and change the structure of your brain over time. It’s called neuroplasticity.

But that bestows absolutely no credibility to yoga, meditation or any other spiritual practice. So what if meditating changes your brain? What’s it doing for your life?

3. Science doesn’t “prove” anything.

A single scientific experiment never—and I mean NEVER—definitively proves anything. That’s not how science works.

How come? Well, to start off with, one of the first things you’ll learn in a basic research methods class is that any scientific experiment will undoubtedly be convoluted with extraneous variables. Think of an extraneous variable like interference on a radio. When you try to tune into a particular signal, you don’t just hear the signal you’re interested in, but also extra static from other signals being broadcast on that channel. That static can very easily distort the findings of a scientific experiment.

Let’s take that idea to a real world example. Let’s say a scientist is interested in figuring out whether doing 30 minutes of yoga a day improves the mood of depressed individuals. The signal we’re trying to tune into here is the relationship between yoga and mood. The problem is that there’s all kinds of interference that can alter that signal.

For instance, let’s say at the end of the study the researcher does find a significant improvement in mood. How do we know that the improvement was due to the yoga and not to the instructor’s loving and compassionate presence? Or perhaps the improvement was due to the fact that our participants were no longer so socially isolated—because the yoga was done in a group setting? Those, my friends, are extraneous variables. And there’s LOTS of these in studies on yoga and meditation. I can tell you from experience, yoga is not an easy topic to study scientifically!

Here’s another bit of interference to consider:  The measuring devices scientists use don’t always give very precise measurements. One measure of mood psychologists use quite a bit is something called a self-report questionnaire—a survey that asks study participants to rate their feelings on numeric scales. The problem with self-report is that if I ask you to fill out a scale about how you’re feeling, your answers will be affected by what you think I want to hear as well as what you want to believe about yourself. This is something psychologists call ‘social desirability concerns.’ To put it simply: We’re rarely completely honest when a researcher asks us to share our feelings.

Here’s a question to get the discussion going: Do you think we need scientific research on yoga (or other spiritual practice) to prove it’s worthwhile? If not, what do you think the value is in such research?

Read the the final two things all yogis should know about science in Part 2: When Brain Scans Deceive and Scientists Lie.



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.


13 Responses to “Five reasons Science does not prove Yoga works.”

  1. Great article, and innovative approach to this subject. Thanks, Chelsea.

    Bob W. Editor
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  2. James Hackney says:

    I am a scientist (PhD in kinesiology for University of Minnesota) who likes yoga. Now that you know where I'm coming from, I'd like to say that your blog is really clear and illuminating. You define a common problem about the interface of the science world and that of broader journalism. Science communicated by scientists is accurate, but understandable by rather few. Science communicated by jounalists is understandable by most, but the accuracy suffers.

    As a scientist who likes yoga, it will not matter to me what articles are published regarding the effectiveness of yoga for the treatment of various physical or behavioral disorders; I will keep practicing yoga and enjoying it. I think such scientific inquiry is worthwhile, but what makes it difficult is that yoga is probably thousands of different independent variables. Therefore, to say "Yoga helps symptoms of depression," does not define exactly what element practiced from exactly which element of yoga.

  3. chiaraghiron says:

    Hi Chelsea

    as a scientist, I completely agree with your comments on externsl variables affecting results, and would like to add that in complex settings like these, it is easy to design the experiments to taylor them to show what we want to see. Experiments should be designed to disprove an idea, and then if it cannot be disproven, then maybe the idea was correct.
    Having said that, I am one of the ones who is actually interested in the connection between science and yoga. But from a slightly different perspective. I would like to understand more how yoga works. Take savasana for example. Don't you get up feeling that a miracle has happened? As a scientist, I would like to understand better what happens to my body/mind that makes me feel restored so rapidly and completely, for example. Take the meridians, chakras and the subtle body. Is it really that subtle? Or perhaps science has not been looking for the right evidence? Take ayurveda and the genomic madness and personalised medicine, in oncology for example. Are they not so suspiciously similar that you might be tempted to think that it's the same stuff observed and interpreted by different cultures?
    I would like to explore more because I am sure there is more to it than meets the eye and the soul. And granted, it will be difficult. Because Western science is suspicious of what perceives like quackery, and controlled experiments are difficult to design…. 

  4. Thaddeus1 says:

    I want to sincerely thank you Chelsea for this very forthright and insightful article. In addition, I want to thank you for the second part, as well as for turning me onto a bunch of additional sources. I come from a background in philosophy where I had the good fortune to work very closely with scientists while doing my graduate work. It was a truly illuminating time and ultimately inspired my delving into the world of "Science Studies." It is always refreshing when actual scientists are willing to put their positions into perspective as opposed to allowing the media their sensationalized portrayals. Unfortunately, all too often, as you point out, scientists bow to the external pressures placed upon them, or even in some cases, choose to exploit these pressures for their own well-being and self promotion.

    Just by way of reflection, I must admit I find it interesting that you were concerned about posting this given that you lack a Ph.d. This just goes to show the power and influence that surrounds those in white coats even amongst those of us who know better. Because, the answer, of course, to the question "who do you think you are," is simply that I am an individual with the ability to think for myself and the strength of my observations and arguments stand on their own with or without the "necessary qualifications."

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Great article, Chelsea! In my opinion, I don't think we need half the Science that is out there. We put too much into placing things into boxes and mathematical equations versus using our own intuition. Like most things, Science can also distract us from what is 'real'.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

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

  8. I love the comment about how you hate articles that say "—– changes the brain". I never thought about it that way. but yeah, any repeated different activity is going to change the brain. Great point.

  9. Chelsea says:

    🙂 Thanks, James. That's been itchin' at me for months!!!

  10. chiara ghiron says:

    Hi Dearbhla

    I went to your site and read the excellent essay on karma and chemistry; I left a coment there but the post may be too old and you may not be checking it anymore, so I was wondering whether you could also provide the references on some of your statements?
    I would be very much interested in reading the original work, particularly the one related to "…Changing the rate and depth of the breath influences the release of peptides. Breathing rapidly and retaining the breath accelerate peptide diffusion throughout the cerebrospinal fluid, accelerating their pain-relieving effects…" – could you point me to the original research source?


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