Towards a yoga-based research methodology

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

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 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 that 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 what feels like one's eternal identity and 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 help psychology to develop into a more powerful and effective science of the entire domain of inner states and processes.

In the previous chapter we discussed the basic proceses yoga uses to make its knowledge of the inner domain of psychology more incisive, precise and reliable, and more specifically, how it uses the human mind as a kind of 'inner instrument of knowledge' (antaḥkaraṇa) in a manner that is not that different from the way the physical sciences use their physical instruments. In this chapter we'll see how the knowledge systems of yoga and psychology can collaborate to make use of such 'yoga based research': how yoga-based insights, techniques and inner gestures can be used to provide psychology with detailed and reliable knowledge on more subtle inner states and processes than those it presently knows how to access. 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 stand 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. By themselves these philosophical problems are not unsurmountable. As I have tried to show in the chapters where we discussed the philosophical foundations of psychology, Sri Aurobindo has worked out a consciousness-centred understanding of reality that offers a solid foundation for yoga-based research in psychology and the human sciences, without getting in conflict with anything the hard sciences have found. Adopting a new philosophical understanding of the basic nature of reality is however not easy; one has to climb out of the comfort of one's own well-established way of thinking, and this is something most people, understandably, resist. One form this resistance takes is by "othering" the new way of thinking. Within the mainstream scientific community this is done by taking the knowledge of the Indian knowledge systems as "what Indians think". In other words, it is taken as information about Indian culture instead of as universally valid knowledge about human nature. We'll come back later to this bracketing of other people's thought when we'll discuss ways to bring the two knowledge systems together.

But before we get to that I'd like to show that on down-to-earth pragmatic, procedural 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 and know-how.


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

2As may be clear, I do not mean with 'yoga' the physical postures of 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 a (re)union with the Divine, knowledge of the Self, liberation from ego, and transformation of one's nature.