Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 08 May 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 modalities(13), 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. <--- *** ADD HERE second example of ******* strenuous exercises and spiritual emergencies ******* --> 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).


(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.

(3) Newness is not normally associated with work in the field of yoga, where it is widely held that the ancients knew everything worth knowing, but if we look at the great yogis that history remembers then we see that they actually are remembered for the new elements they introduced. We will see in section 6.3 how 'newness' can be a factor even in research in yoga by relative beginners.

(4) The relation between objective and subjective knowledge is actually rather complex. One could well argue, for example, that within the hard sciences, mathematics is a form of systematized intuition, and as such essentially subjective, and that the main job of scientists is the making of mental models, which are like bridges between the inner subjective and the outer objective reality: They start "in the mind" and are as such subjective, but they become part of the objective reality when written down. An interesting analysis of the dubious nature of the subjective-objective distinction within psychological research can be found in the work of Max Velmans (2001). All I mean here with "objective" is that the perceived reality can in some manner be made sensible to our 'outer', physical senses.

(5) It is a fairly common experience that once the surface noise of one's mind stills, one becomes not only more aware of what happens deep inside oneself, but one can also begin to become more aware of what happens inside others. One discovers then that the physical world is not the only shared reality; feelings and thoughts belong to shared worlds of their own. It is as if people are only in their surface consciousness fully 'skin-encapsulated', while on these deeper layers they are quite closely connected.

(7) In psychiatry, not to 'own' your thoughts etc. is commonly considered a sign of serious pathology, and considering the population that psychiatrists typically deal with, this is understandable. A useful way to look at this apparent paradox, is to consider normalcy as an intermediate layer in which it is indeed healthy to identify with one's own thoughts. Some people cannot sustain this identification and fall out of this layer downwards due to some weakness, commonly a simple incapacity to deal with the pain it engenders. There are others who climb out of this layer upwards with the strength of their soul, but they rarely visit the psychiatrist. Things are not that simple of course and there are mixed cases, but from my personal experience I would say that they are relatively rare. A useful analysis of the differences between pathological and yogic deviance from normalcy can be found in Liester (1996).

(7) The difficulty is often formulated as avidya, seeing division, in stead of vidya, seeing oneness. This comes however to the same because when one identifies with one's small surface being, which is separated from everything else, one cannot help but see division around oneself, while when one identifies with the real inner Self, which is one with the Absolute and with everything else, then one cannot but see oneness wherever one looks, even where there is differentiation.

(9) The underlying psychological problem may well be that it is hard for people with a great intellectual capacity to accept that intellectual skill does not necessarily predispose to sensitivity and control over the more subtle layers of one's consciousness: these seem to be independent gifts.

(10) A student described this possibility of understanding others by understanding oneself very nicely. He wrote in his end-of-year evaluation that when he came to the 'Integral Psychology' class he wanted to learn why other people behaved the way they did. He soon realized that the classes were not going to give him this, as they were focusing on self-observation, but he decided to hang on, hoping that in due time the 'others' would still come in. Then as the weeks passed by, he realized that his own nature, which he had never questioned before, was actually far more mysterious and interesting than he had ever realized, so slowly his interest in others took the back seat. But, to his big surprise, near the end of the year, he caught himself smiling when he saw other people doing certain things, saying to himself, 'Hey, I've been there. I know why they do what they do!'

(11) Still, even Sri Aurobindo leaves a place for completely ineffable states and the related yogic trance of Samadhi. He writes in The Synthesis of Yoga (1917/1999, p. 526):

It is true that up to a point difficult to define or delimit almost all that Samadhi can give, can be acquired without recourse to Samadhi. But still there are certain heights of spiritual and psychic experience of which the direct as opposed to a reflecting experience can only be acquired deeply and in its fullness by means of the Yogic trance.

(12) 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 complexity 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).


Adams, W.A. (2000), Introspectionism Reconsidered. Presented at Toward a Science of Consciousness: Tucson 2000. Retrieved in March 2008 from:

Aurobindo, Sri (1917/1999), The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram).

Aurobindo, Sri (1950/1994), Savitri, A symbol and a legend (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust).

Braud, William (2008), 'Patañjali yoga and siddhis: Their relevance to parapsychological theory and research', in Handbook of Indian Psychology, ed. K. Ramakrishna Rao, Anand C. Paranjpe & Ajit K. Dalal (New-Delhi: Foundation Books).

Braud, William (2011), 'Integrating yoga epistemology and ontology into an expanded integral approach to research' in Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology, ed. Matthijs Cornelissen, Girishwar Misra and Suneet Varma (New-Delhi: Pearson).

Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs (2004), 'The evolution of consciousness in Sri Aurobindo's cosmo-psychology', in Ontology of Consciousness: Percipient Action, ed. Helmut Wautischer. Boston: The MIT Press (2008). The text of this chapter is available on the internet at

Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs (2006), 'What is knowledge? A reflection based on the work of Sri Aurobindo' available on the internet at A slightly shorter version has been included in Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology, eds. Matthijs Cornelissen, Girishwar Misra and Suneet Varma. New-Delhi: Pearson (2011).

Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs (2007), 'In Defence of Rigorous Subjectivity' in Transpersonal Psychology Review (BPS), Vol. 14 (1), 2007. The text is available on the internet at:

Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs, Misra, Girishwar & Varma, Suneet (2011), Foundations of Indian Psychology. (New-Delhi: Pearson).

Delanoy, Deborah L. (2005), 'Meta-analyses' in Parapsychology: Research on Exceptional Experiences, ed. Jane Henry. (New York, NY: Routledge).

Descartes, René (1641/1931), The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (New York, NY: Dover Publications).

Ferrer, J.N. (2002), Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality (New York: SUNY Press).

Forman, Robert K. C. (1998), 'What does mysticism have to teach us about consciousness?', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5 (2), pp. 185-201.

Forman, Robert K. C. (ed.) (1990), 'Introduction: Mysticism, constructivism and forgetting,' in The Problem of Pure Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 3-49.

Guzeldere, Guven (1995), 'Consciousness, what it is, how to study it, what to learn from its history', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (1), pp. 30-51.

Katz, Steven T. (1978), 'Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,' in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven T. Katz (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), pp. 62-63.

Liester, Mitchell B. (1996), 'Inner Voices: Distinguishing Transcendent and Pathological Characteristics' Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 28, pp. 1-30.

Mautner, Thomas. (ed.) (1997), Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, (London: Penguin Books).

Mohan, K. Krishna. (2001) 'Spirituality and Well-being: an overview' in Consciousness and Its Transformation, ed. Matthijs Cornelissen. (Pondicherry, SAICE), pp. 227-53.

Murphy, Michael. & Donovan, Steven. (1997), The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, (Sausalito, CA: Institute of Noetic Sciences).

Rao, K.R. (1998), 'Two Faces of Consciousness: A Look at Eastern and Western Perspectives', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5 (3), pp. 309–27.

Sedlmeier. Peter (2011), 'Indian Psychology and the Scientific Method' in Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology, ed. Matthijs Cornelissen, Girishwar Misra and Suneet Varma (New-Delhi: Pearson).

Skinner, Quentin. (ed.) (1985),'Introduction' in The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Titchener, E.B. (1898/1914), A Primer of Psychology, (NY: Macmillan).

Varela, Francisco J. & Shear, Jonathan. (1999), 'First-person Methodologies: What, Why, How' in The View From Within, First-person approaches to the study of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (2-3), pp. 1-14.

Velmans, Max. (2001), 'A Map of Consciousness Studies', in Consciousness and its Transformation, ed. Matthijs Cornelissen (Pondicherry: SAICE).

Viswanathan, B. (2008), Facets of Consciousness, Commemoration Volume, (Kanchipuram: Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya).

Walsh, R. & Shapiro, S. (2006) 'The Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue'. American Psychologist. Vol. 61 (3) pp. 227-239.

Wampold, Bruce E. (2001), The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Models, Methods and Findings, (Mahwah, NJ & London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)