Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 12 March 2022

section 1

When we think of what yoga can contribute to scientific research, and especially to research in the field of psychology, we can think of two entirely different types of research: psychological research about yoga and yoga-based research about psychology, or to say it even more succinctly, research about yoga and research in yoga. The first type of research, research about yoga, works within the limits of existing science, and distills from the Indian tradition only those theories and techniques that science can assess by its own well established research methods. Following this approach, one can look, for example, at the various schools and sub-cultures that together make up the Indian tradition as a source of practical techniques to produce positive psychological or physical change. One can then 'administer' such techniques to groups or individuals and test the result with the well-established research procedures of mainstream psychology. Similarly one can, on a slightly more theoretical level, try to extract from the Indian tradition theories that are explicitly or tacitly present within Indian texts and practices, reformulate them in a terminology that is understandable and meaningful to contemporary psychology, derive hypotheses from them, and test these again with existing research procedures, whether quantitative or qualitative (Sedlmeier, 2011). As a whole, this first approach is from a scientific standpoint non-problematic, and virtually all major research projects on meditation and yoga till date belong to this type (Murphy, 1997, Sedlmeier, forthcoming). There can be no doubt that such studies have their use and value, but they do not exhaust all what yoga has to offer to psychology. When we limit research on yoga and meditation to this first approach, we treat the psychological knowledge-base that the Indian tradition has created as a historically dead collection, without wondering how its ancient and modern protagonists actually arrived at their knowledge, and how their work could perhaps be taken further. In other words, we miss out on what might well be one of the most valuable contributions which the Indian tradition can make to science: its ability to tackle in an intellectually rigorous manner those aspects of life that are not primarily physical, that are not directly or fully available to the ordinary waking consciousness, and that can be accessed only by specialized "inner" methods of enquiry.

The Indian traditions claim that the inner realms they explored contain not only the dark subconscious corners associated with the Freudians, but also a wide range of more uplifting subtle worlds. Experience confirms that, following their methods, one can find in them not only the origin of much of our ordinary behaviour, and with that effective means for therapy, but also more subtle and intense forms of happiness, love, beauty, harmony, truth and meaning, different varieties of intuition, a deep sense of oneness with others and the world, a sense of one's "eternal" identity, and ultimately even the possibility of what feels like a direct contact with the Divine. It seems then very much worth the effort to explore the second option, that is to see whether yoga-based methods of enquiry, yoga-based "rigorous subjectivity" can be used to develop a powerful and effective science of the entire domain of inner states and processes.

In this chapter I will try to show how yoga-based techniques and inner gestures can be used to provide rigour and reliability to research on inner states and processes. The idea of doing so is not new. In the very first issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, for example, its editors argued that it should be possible to make use of the techniques developed in the various spiritual traditions to create more sophisticated forms of introspection.1 Strange enough, this suggestion has hardly been followed up upon, not even in JCS itself. While there is a considerable amount of research in which yoga and meditation, for example, are used to provide some form of physical or psychological comfort or well-being, there is hardly any research in which they are used directly to provide psychological insight. This is remarkable because in the culture of origin, yoga2 and meditation are not taken up only for the sake of peace and happiness, but also, and often primarily, for the sake of knowledge.

One of the things that stands in the way of taking yoga seriously as a method science can use to study consciousness and the subjective domain is that the very basic understanding of reality and knowledge that underlies science and yoga are quite different. But as I have tried to show in the Introduction's chapters on consciousness, these philosophical problems are by themselves not unsurmountable. As Sri Aurobindo has shown, it is quite well possible to develop a consciousness-centred understanding of reality that offers a solid foundation for yoga-based research in psychology and the human sciences, without getting in the way of the hard sciences.3

In the present text I will look from a more simple, pragmatic and operational perspective, at the question how yoga can help to make research in the subjective domain more reliable and effective. I hope to show that on this more down-to-earth level, the pursuits of knowledge in yoga and the hard sciences don't differ as much as one might think at first sight: there are many similarities in the basic processes by which both systems safeguard the reliability and integrity of their different types of knowledge, and the fundamental differences, which no doubt also exist, can actually be exploited to arrive at more comprehensive, profound and many-sided forms of psychological knowledge.

I will try to support this proposition here in six further steps. In section 2, I'll try to show to what extent subjective and objective studies can both be conducted with the same intellectual rectitude and rigour. In section 3, I will compare research in psychology to research in medicine and astronomy, in order to show what kind of research is actually missing in psychology, and where yoga could help. In section 4, I will indicate some of the problems encountered by subjective research, and in section 5, I will give a short outline of one of the clever and logically coherent ways by which the Indian tradition has managed to overcome them. In section 6 I will then discuss some common objections against the form of subjective research I've suggested, and finally, in section 7, I will say a few words on the different ways yoga-based knowledge can be shared.


1.     E.g. in the editorial introduction to the very first issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (1994, Vol. 1, No. 1, p.8)

2.     With yoga I do not mean the form of yoga most popular in the West, "hathayoga", nor the darshana (school of philosophy) of the same name, nor Patanjali's rajayoga. I'm using the word "yoga" here in its older and most general sense in which it means the entire group of spiritual paths developed in India to attain knowledge of the Self, liberation from ego, and transformation of one's nature. The Indian civilisation has produced a staggering variety of different paths and which path is most suitable for which individual is a rather complex issue. While each of these paths is likely to have something special to contribute, for the development of a new foundation for psychology, Sri Aurobindo's "Integral Yoga" stands out by the depth and integrality of its psychological understanding.