Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 04 November 2021

section 6

The present text has no other intention than to clarify some immediately practical aspects of the introduction of yoga as an aid to subjective research. Still, this story would not be complete without at least a few words about the philosophical premises on which subjective research in consciousness has to operate.

The two psychology-related 'techniques' from the Indian tradition that seem to have spread most widely within the global : are probably yoga-asanas and vipassana meditation. Their proliferation has certainly been helped by the fact that they can be introduced 'philosophy-free', and it is tempting to do the same with research in yoga. As we have seen, this can be done to a greater extent than one might think at first sight. It appears to me that to take up subjective research with the aid of yoga, it is essential to accept only two very basic assumptions about reality: (1) that consciousness exists in different modalities13, and (2) that we as humans can learn to modify at will the state of consciousness we are in. This is certainly not asked much, and even a little experience will for many be enough to continue one's explorations.

'Doing yoga' without philosophical support has, however, its dangers, even, or perhaps especially, within a research setting. A typical example of what can go wrong when ancient concepts and techniques are taken out of their original cultural and philosophical setting is the tendency to equate the Indian concepts of moksha and mukti with the American concept of 'self-realisation'. What were in their original context indices for a complete liberation from all traces of ego and ignorance, have turned into props for the ultimate individual self-aggrandizement. Subtle and not-so-subtle shifts and distortions of this type are probably inevitable when two civilizations mix, and one can only hope that in due time they will be sorted out, but they are symptoms of a serious problem. Without proper maps and knowledge of the terrain one can get easily stuck in quite unnecessary side-tracks and dead ends, or one can think that one has reached the summit while all one has seen is a distorted reflection of the peaks in the old mind's turbid waters. Concentrating too much or too exclusively on philosophy and ancient texts has, of course, its own drawbacks. The capacity to juggle effectively with powerful words and concepts can easily give the illusion one actually knows what one is talking about, and the Indian tradition is full of trenchant stories about small, unlettered girls who prove to be wiser than the self-righteous scholar. For a complete understanding one clearly needs both: conceptual clarity and direct experience. This is not only true for the individual but also for the field as whole. An open exchange between Sanskrit scholars, philosophers, psychologists and those who have focused their efforts on direct experience might well provide the most fruitful soil for collective progress. And yet, in the end even insight and experience are no panacea: yoga, however it is done, still involves serious risks. It deals after all, with the very foundations of who we are, and so it remains a bit like trying to remodel one's car while driving. Risk, however, should not withhold us from potentially fruitful endeavours.


In this text I've argued that the standard, objective study of yoga misses out on one of the most interesting aspects of yoga: the possibility of using it as a tool for rigorous research in the subjective domain. Contemporary Psychology is confronted with several serious problems that are inherent in its present exclusive reliance on objective research. I've tried to show that the basic set of checks and counterchecks that make up the essential core of science's unrelenting self-critical search for truth can be used equally well for subjective as for objective research, and that several of the most commonly heard objections against subjective research can be shown to rest on little more than unsustainable prejudices. This is of course not to deny that there are difficulties with subjective research: the basic stuff that subjective research has to deal with is not matter, but consciousness, and this has major consequences which should be taken seriously. For the study and mastery of matter, we have learnt to rely on the development of ever more sophisticated mathematical models and physical instruments. For the study and mastery of consciousness these are of little use and science has still to find the appropriate methods, as it is very clear that ordinary introspection cannot be relied upon. I've argued that the Indian tradition has found several radical ways of dealing with the difficulties inherent in the subjective realm, and I've indicated some salient aspects of two of these methods which together might help to create the 'rigorous subjectivity' that is needed for reliable research in the subjective domain: (1) the liberation of one's consciousness from the workings of the mind, and (2) a drastic purification and transformation of one's nature.

An important question is whether we have reached the stage where the inner and outer forms of research can be usefully integrated. It is possible that research in yoga may need to be pursued, at least initially, as a fairly independent, complementary quest for knowledge. Collectively we are very far behind with the development of a true science of the subjective domain, so we may have to give it time so that it may grow into an independent branch of science that is built on its own fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge, and that, perhaps most importantly, has its own, mentally coherent and methodologically rigorous methods to arrive at the type of valid and reliable knowledge it searches for. I have little doubt, however, that in the long run the two knowledge systems of subjective and objective research need to be integrated, as they deal with two sides of what is ultimately only one single reality. A full integration may, however, require a profound change in our understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. Till then, it may be wise to include in actual research projects separate elements of both — of standard objective mainstream research, and of the new subjective yoga-based research — so that individual guides and students can choose at what proportion of each they feel comfortable. This might mean that for a long time, at least some research will have to be undertaken in collaborative projects between academic and spiritual institutions so that one can make optimum use of existing expertise in both areas. One could, perhaps, compare this with a common feature of applied research in the hard sciences, where research projects are executed in a close cooperation between labs at universities and labs at industrial establishments.

In whatever direction research in yoga may evolve, our first task will be to create the necessary space in which purely subjective and yet rigorous research can begin to take place. Once one gets deeply into the nitty-gritty of subjective research, things become quickly rather complex, because they involve a wide range of types of consciousness and inner worlds that all follow their own laws, but right now it may be too early to deal with all this. We have first to remove the conceptual and emotional prejudices that stand in the way, and we have to put in their place the basic structures that are needed to make a serious attempt at inner research possible. In the end humanity needs both, objective as well as subjective research.


This paper is the outcome of two workshops on 'Yoga as Knowledge System', organized in Pondicherry by the Indian Psychology Institute ( and builds on a series of lectures presented at seminars related to Indian Psychology, several of which were sponsored by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. I'm indebted to the organizers and participants of these events, as well as to readers of earlier versions of this paper. Early versions of some parts of this paper were published in the Indian journal Psychological Studies and in the proceedings of the conference on Facets of Consciousness, Kanchipuram, March 2007 (Viswanathan, 2008).


13.  Some scholars seem to think that the Indian tradition has only one single concept of consciousness, which is intrinsically free of qualities and modes. This doesn't do justice to the compelxity of the tradition, however, and ignores universally accepted concepts like sachchidananda as the ultimate origin of all manifestation and the various purushas described in the Taitiriya Upanishad. For a more detailed discussion see Cornelissen (2004).


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