Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 08 May 2021

section 2
Similarities between science and yoga

Science and traditional yoga as knowledge systems are much more similar than most people realise. To start with the most obvious, yoga and science are both considered difficult, and rightly so. They require not only the utmost sincerity, intellectual rectitude and effort of the individuals involved, but in all likelihood also some special talents which not everybody has. Besides this, they also involve a number of social support structures that consist of the same basic elements. It does happen, for example, that individuals take up science or yoga entirely on their own, but much more typically they do it in small groups, whether these are universities and laboratories, or gurukuls and ashramas. The idea is clearly that to have some chance of success, the often considerable efforts of the individual need to be supported by a surrounding that shares the same ideals and objectives. Both endeavours are furthermore supported by an extensive body of literature; there is a largely implicit common understanding on what within the specific discipline or school of yoga is accepted as 'true', what can legitimately be doubted, and what can be fruitfully explored; there are well-established techniques, procedures and 'best practices'; and finally, both in science and in yoga young (re)searchers are guided by a more or less complex network of peers and elders.

Another important area of similarity is that of the assessment of the quality of the work. Though yoga tends to be done in a very different atmosphere and assessment is not always as formalised as it is in the scientific setting, in principle, the same elements that help to assess the quality of research in the objective sciences are also used to help to assess the quality of work in the field of yoga. When we would use yoga as a subjective research methodology, we could, for example, assess the quality of the work in terms of:

  • the clarity, depth, detail, subtlety, and comprehensiveness of observations, descriptions and interpretations;
  • the transparency of the processes followed;
  • the freedom from known sources of error, inconsistencies and obfuscations;
  • the robustness of the results (was the outcome permanent or repeatable, or could it have been a freak phenomenon?);
  • the internal coherence;
  • the coherence with other findings or, when that is not there, a coherent explanation for the lack of it;
  • the originality, newness and/or usefulness of the findings.(3)

Both in science and in yoga, the quality of research is to quite an extent dependent on the quality of the instruments. The big difference is of course that in subjective research the most important instruments are the cognitive faculties of researcher. The demands on these are, however, basically the same as the qualities that can be expected from researchers in any field. They could be listed as:

  • clarity of thought and perception;
  • awareness of potential sources of error and distortion;
  • awareness of other limitations and willingness to deal with them;
  • depth and width of insight in this and related areas of enquiry;
  • the quality of other work done in the area concerned;
  • the quality of work done in other areas; (just like a physical instrument is considered more trust-worthy if it has proven to perform well in another experiment)
  • ability to help others go beyond their understanding in the area concerned.

The people who can assess the quality of the work, are again largely the same:

  • the guide overseeing the project;
  • peers and elders with expertise and skill in the relevant area;
  • users of the 'technology' that flows from the discoveries.

It may be noted that all these processes and safeguards contribute and yet are fallible: in spite of one's best efforts, sometimes poor work will be praised and sometimes good work will not be recognized. But this is true for all types of research (and for human endeavour in general). The important issue here is that the difficulties that the two types of research encounter in the areas mentioned so far, are not essentially different, neither in type, nor in degree.

There are no doubt also differences, some of them substantial. Modern scientific literature is, for example, not the same and cannot be approached in the same manner as ancient spiritual texts, and the typical 'job-description' of a research guide and a guru are not exactly identical. The main differences between the two, however, seem all to stem from the simple fact that the basic stuff of the hard sciences is matter, which can be studied 'objectively' by our outer senses with the help of mathematical modeling and physical instruments, while the basic stuff of research in yoga is consciousness, which has to be studied subjectively by our inner senses and a subtle, inner instrumentation. In the next sections, we will look at some of those differences in more detail and discuss the problems they produce and how they can be resolved.